An Admitteldy One-Sided Conversation on Theological Liberalism

A liberal Catholic with a PhD from a liberal Catholic institution saw my article in Answers Magazine critiquing one of the more famous put-downs Richard Dawkins has made of Christians; he liked the article and wanted to dialogue with me. I acquiesced, but soon found that he liked my article’s arguments for their apparent utility without really grasping their biblical origins. When it comes down to it, he rejects the authority of Scripture in what I take to be a more dangerous way than Dawkins does—because he still honors it with his lips. Any time its authority is pressed on him, he worms out of the way.

This is not my experience with all Roman Catholics—and it is my experience with certain Protestants! We are all tempted to squirm when God contradicts us. The only thing I can say for my conservative Protestant tribe is that we make it an article of faith that it’s our squirming and not God’s word that is the problem.

I don’t want to ask my liberal Catholic interlocutor for permission to publish his email remarks to me. And I won’t post them without permission. So you get, if you really want to, to listen to just one side of our conversation. I apologize for this indulgence, but perhaps persevering readers will find something of use in the following.

Here we go:

Dear X,

1) The idea you propose, namely that the Bible is culturally constrained, is often presented to me by non-evangelicals (Christians and non-Christians alike) as if it is likely to be brand new to me, and as if it is a recent (and rock-solid) conclusion of historical-critical scholarship.

But this idea is not a conclusion of historical-critical scholarship at all; it’s a premise of it, a presupposition, an article of faith in their creed. The Bible is for them, at most, a record of different people’s experiences with the divine, no more normative than any other ancient text—especially when the opinion polls go against it.

2) I like talking methodology, I really do. I think it’s extremely important. But one of the things I do to make sure my methodology doesn’t float away on clouds of subjectivism into the warm bath of secular approbation (borrowing a phrase that’s been echoing in my head all day from this fantastic article) is try to apply it to actual Bible statements and see what happens. So Micah says, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” I can’t find anybody who complains about that particular imperative, anybody who proposes allegorical or metaphorical interpretations of it. And what’s more, I can’t find anybody who says, “That’s time-bound—Micah meant that for the culture of his day, but we know better.” And I say, by what standard may we judge that Micah 6:8 is normative as it stands, but Gen 1–11 isn’t? Why accept “blessed are the poor in spirit” but not “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery”? Why, indeed, accept what Paul clearly means to be a timeless statement—”All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith”—but then reject as culturally constrained what he says about homosexuality a few paragraphs earlier (“Paul didn’t know about stable, monogamous homosexual relationships”)?

Really, the question is easy to answer: people pick and choose which parts of the Bible to believe and which to reject because they accept an authoritative standard other than the Bible. The idea of cultural constraint is an ex post facto justification.

I’ve just been reading J.I. Packer’s first book “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, and he demonstrates with citation after citation that Christ and the apostles viewed the Old Testament as authoritative. I won’t pretend that there are no difficulties in figuring out how to apply the entire Bible, especially the Old Testament, to the life of the Christian. But if revelation is ongoing and evolving, then I need some other standard by which to judge which parts of it are still valid and which aren’t. I’d rather have to study Jesus and Paul’s statements about the law (Matt. 5:17; Gal. 5; etc.) to discern the Bible’s own unity than adopt a model in which they cannot and need not be reconciled.

Actually, conservative evangelicals have long recognized that the Bible is a divine revelation that is progressively unfolded through a story. Paul spoke of “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints,” and in his letter to the Ephesians he explains that this mystery was the way Christ would bring the Gentiles into one body with the Jews, namely the church. Conservatives are eager to recognize—indeed, it’s impossible to deny—that God used the personalities and experiences and even the literary proclivities of the biblical authors. What he did not do is tell Moses and Paul that homosexuality was against nature while silently adding “wrong for now, I mean—just wait till at least 1999 or so.”

Interestingly, I just saw that very Star Trek episode. I remember it well. I do not view the Bible, however, as having been dropped into civilization like the Klingon’s guns were dropped into that primitive culture. In 35 years in conservative Protestant circles I have a few times heard people talk about it that way (like as if “the paths of the seas” in Psalm 8 were a secret revelation of ocean currents, not discovered until centuries later—I abjure that approach).

Yes, Protestants split over scriptural interpretation. But don’t Catholics? How many different parties and sects are there within Catholicism? Do they all interpret the Bible or church tradition or the pope’s utterances the same way? It seems to me that having a magisterium has not saved them from division.

Also, I’ve read about Galileo’s story in a great little book by a guy at Johns Hopkins, Lawrence Principe, and I don’t accept the standard read of the story. I commend the book to you.

I really have trouble seeing the view of Scripture as culturally constrained as anything other than 1) a not-very-sophistic but rather pretty bald exercise in evading what God said and 2) a way to give our current culture hegemony over the Bible whenever the former says to the latter, “Shut up!”

Is God permitted to oppose the consensus view of science, of morality, of economics, of anything in contemporary Western society?

I also think you and I may have reached the sloganeering stage of the argument over biblical hermeneutics, so I’d like to see if we can focus on an individual scriptural text. And I’d like to zero in on one that deals with homosexuality, in particular, because the culture is definitely saying, “Shut up!” about that.

The Catholic tradition of which you’re a part has uniformly said homosexuality is wrong, and wrong intrinsically, for 2000 years. They based that judgment on Holy Scripture, as Protestants today do, and on natural law, as many Protestants actually do as well. (We, in turn, base natural law on Scripture, because without the Bible to tell us that the world is fallen, it is impossible to tell what is “natural,” i.e., created, and what is “unnatural,” i.e., fallen.)

No Christian tradition has ever said that sinners of any sort should be mercilessly mocked instead of offered help—because God doesn’t treat sinners that way in Scripture. I’m certainly glad God has not treated me and my sin this way.

But if the Bible is the culturally constrained record of past individuals’ experiences of the divine (is that a fair representation of your view? If not, please do correct me!), then it’s time we didn’t just treat homosexuals with grace but with complete acceptance. Acceptance of homosexual marriage seems like a perfect example of the kind of thing that we ought to recognize as new light from on high. And we’d better do it fast, before we have to pay any more price for our bigotry.

So, I ask, what did Paul mean when he wrote the following? “God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

I think I’m gathering that you personally oppose homosexual practice? But by what standard can we say that Paul is right if the culture, not the Bible, is our standard? I am not saying that we can interpret the Bible without regard for the cultural distance between us and the original writers and readers. But that distance is not always as great as people assume, because people are just as created, just as fallen, and just as in need of redemption as they were in Paul’s day. Illicit sex, gluttony, thievery, prevarication, and pride are pretty much the sins they were in the first century. Is “Humble yourselves before the mighty hand of God” culturally constrained? Is “Lie not one to another, seeing you have put off the old man with his deeds” culturally constrained? Is “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” culturally constrained? How about “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty”?

When you try to apply (what I take to be) your view to actual Bible statements, it simply doesn’t work. It looks like special pleading: find the stuff in the Bible you don’t like, and slap the label on it: “NO LONGER APPLICABLE DUE TO ANCIENT CULTURAL CONSTRAINTS.”

Interested in your thoughts. I kind of had to write with bluntness because of constraints of my own—not cultural ones but chronometric ones!

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 thought on “An Admitteldy One-Sided Conversation on Theological Liberalism”

  1. I enjoyed this, especially your comment on Micah, and the repetition of this concept at the end of the essay.

    On paths in the sea. I, like you, struggle with this passage being anything other than poetic (though I am otherwise a creationist). And yet… Matthew Fontaine Maury. He was right about the ocean currents at least!

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