J.I. Packer’s first book, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, published when he was 32 years old in 1958, provides a brilliantly simple analysis of the three major approaches to Christian religious authority that were then, as now, on offer. Briefly, they were….
1) Evangelicalism: Scripture is the final authority
2) Traditionalism: church tradition is the final authority
3) Subjectivism: autonomous human reason is the final authority
I take Packer’s evangelical viewpoint: though I value Christian tradition and will never cease being a subject who employs my reason, I am not autonomous but aim to build my Christianity on the authority of the Bible. I believe this is the only consistently biblical position, the one Jesus supported when he said several times to the Pharisees, “The Scriptures cannot be broken,” and even, “Have you not read…?”
Many debates over what Scripture means are intractable not because the Bible itself is impossibly ambiguous, but because lying just below the surface of discussion are two (or more) of Packer’s three approaches to authority. I am convinced that homosexuality is one of those debates.
Adverting to One’s Epistemology
So I appreciate it when theological disputants announce clearly their basis for religious authority, as a PC(USA) pastor in Virginia did some time ago, in a lecture (split into two videosa) to a gathering of his parishioners. His topic was homosexuality, but the title of his lecture was actually “The Presbyterian Understanding of Biblical Authority and Inspiration.”
He opened with a definite, though not explicit, affirmation of Packer’s third approach to biblical authority, autonomous human reason:
The Bible is both human and sacred…. Can we say, for instance, that Paul was truly inspired by God—the breath of God—when he said “I have been crucified with Christ….”? That sounds like sacred text to me. But then when he said things like “women should cover their heads and shouldn’t speak out in church”—couldn’t we agree that he was just speaking as a first-century man who had his own biases about stuff like that, and that’s not really something that should be…sacred for us? You may not agree with that, but that’s what I think. And there would be countless examples of that in the Bible.
“This sounds sacred to me, and this doesn’t.” And the rest of the pastor’s talk—the point of which is ultimately to argue for the inclusion of active, open homosexuals in the church—provides a helpful example of Packer’s “subjectivist” approach to authority in the Christian religion.
This is a popular-level lecture, and appropriately so. I will not hold its creator to academic levels of accuracy. But it is worth the analysis it’s about to receive because, numerically, most discussion of homosexuality in the church will be on the popular level. This lecture shows how the debate is already decided by which of Packer’s religious authorities one chooses, before any arguments ever get mounted.
The pastor’s first gambit, a standard move among subjectivists, is to claim that the Bible knows nothing of stable, monogamous homosexuality:
The Bible…does not speak to every need or anticipate every dilemma. We wish it did; it sure would be good if it did. We can look hard, we can dig, we can get our concordances and look every word that we can think of. But, darn it, there’s just going to be some things that there’s nothing in there about that. And one of them is a covenanted relationship between two people of the same sex who want to live in holy matrimony. [There’s] nothing about that in the Bible.
Of course, the Bible doesn’t speak directly to Internet porn either, something which the pastor condemns later in his lecture in no uncertain terms. But if the Bible doesn’t apply unless it gives us explicit prohibitions or commands—how do we know porn is wrong, or short-selling stocks, or speeding in a school zone?
And what does insisting on explicit (rather than working to apply general) biblical statements make us? It makes us, I’m afraid, like my five-year-old son at his most ornery and most literal. His mother says, “Didn’t I tell you to be nice to your sister?!” And he replies, “You never said I couldn’t hit her with a stick!” This PCUSA pastor seems to expect my wife to say, “Good point, son! Carry on.”
When Jesus (Mark 7:21) and Paul (Rom. 13:13) both condemn “immorality” in general, they do not have to spell out every act which counts as “immoral.” (You never said I couldn’t x, y, or XXX…) When they appeal repeatedly to the created order for sexual pre- and pro-scriptions, they are not required to restate the obvious and normative fact from the earliest biblical narrative that marriage is one man, one woman, for life.
But, in fact, Jesus very nearly does do this in Matthew 19. And he does thereby speak to homosexuality—and bestiality, and pedophilia, and pornography, and cohabitation, and remarriage after divorce, and all other forms of deviation from God’s sexual norms—when he says, “In the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8). By upholding the normative standard of faithful heterosexual monogamy, Jesus proscribes everything else.
He also makes discussions about sex a matter of biblical authority and interpretation:
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female…? (Matt 19:4)
Without denying that we are all subjects who must employ our reason, or that we are all part of interpretive communities or traditions, Jesus nonetheless makes a direct appeal to the text of Scripture. He holds his readers morally responsible for their ability to interpret biblical texts, and he expects them to come to the same conclusion—the one the Author intended. Subjectivism this is not.
The pastor’s second gambit is to use human reason to cut a disjunction between God and his word:
God is bigger than the Bible…. Even some of the early Reformers said that one could make an idol or a false god out of the Bible. So, in other words, the Bible is so very important to Christians. It always has been, and it always will be, but God is going to always be bigger than the Bible…. The Bible is awesome, but it is not my only source of inspiration, nor is it my only source of my knowledge of God…. May we all admit that there are other sources of inspiration for us, whether it be through nature….or from other authors, poets, musicians, writers, films that you’ve seen, etc.?
[Go to] the great summations like the Golden Rule, the Ten commandments, Micah 6[:9] when you have a hard subject like sexuality issues to figure out.
Again I’m reminded of boys arguing with parents, though five-year-olds are not sophisticated enough for this kind of reasoning. I’m thinking of a sixteen-year-old who has just gotten his license. His dad posts a list of family rules for car usage on the refrigerator, one of which is “You may never drive after dark.” His friends know this rule exists, and one day while they’re out driving after dark his friends say, “Didn’t your dad say you shouldn’t do this?” “No,” replies the boy. “That wasn’t my dad. That was just a list on the fridge.”
If the Bible is in any sense God’s Word, as it repeatedly claims (2 Timothy 3:16) then it carries his authority. And to deny that authority is not to let God out of a human box but to let humans out of a divine one. That’s the essence of sin: transgressing lines that were placed there for our good and God’s glory. Actually, this pastor is stuffing God in a box—the box of cultural and historical constraint. God is not permitted to speak to all times but is stuck vainly shouting to us over the great gulf fixed between what we now know and what benighted people used to think back before further inspiration got us on the right side of history.
Admittedly, there are complexities here. The New Testament says that the way the Old Testament applies to members of the church is different than the way it applied to ancient citizens of Israel. Pastors are supposed to help their sheep through the relationship between the different major parts of the Bible.
Instead he uses the word “inspiration” in the equivocal way they taught him to use it at Princeton Seminary: it doesn’t mean the authoritative “breath of God” to him, but rather something like, “a holy feeling.” You can get that feeling from the Bible, in this view, but you can also get it from Oprah or the mall. God speaks everywhere.
But what if two people are “inspired” differently? By what standard can we judge between the professing Christian man who is inspired to marry a male and the jilted Christian wife who feels inspired to insist that he should honor his vows to her?
Subjectivism makes us all our own ultimate standards; it makes us autonomous. We’ve got our “great summations,” but you can’t box God inside those texts either, right?
PCUSA Guidelines for Interpreting the Bible
Indeed, where exactly is God in the text of the Bible? This PCUSA pastor introduces some guidelines from the PCUSA on how to interpret Scripture (if I understood correctly, they come from this book or this one).
The Bible Is Not a Science Textbook
The guidelines include this wording:
The confessions establish limits within which they may be invoked as a guide, and outside of which one may no longer be operating within the Reformed tradition.
I was surprised by this. Did a fundamentalist sneak into the doctrinal councils of the PCUSA? Why all this boundary-making and frontier-guarding? Nope. This was the next sentence:
For example, we may not claim as confessional that the Bible is an inerrant account of technical information on matters of science.
This, of course, is another standard subjectivist argument. It has become a truism in American and Western culture: even if the Bible does contain valuable “spiritual” information, “It is not a science textbook.”
The pastor says,
So, there are things we’ve learned from science….that people from the Bible didn’t understand in many cases.
He mentions, in particular, that the earth is round. He could have mentioned the creation-evolution debate or the crossing of the Red Sea or the virgin birth. The idea is that those credulous ancient people just didn’t know what we know about natural selection, climate patterns, and zygotes, so, bless ‘em, we just can’t take miraculous things in the Bible literally.
An appeal to science may sound like the very opposite of subjectivism. But it still fits squarely in Packer’s third category, because science (in the sense in which this pastor uses that word) is still “autonomous human reason.” It is privileging human experience over divine interpretation of that experience.
No, first-century Jews didn’t have the kind of detailed scientific knowledge about reproduction that is available only through microscopes. But through repeated empirical testing they had figured out that virgin conceptions are rather rare. The text of Matthew assumes this knowledge. Joseph was “minded to put her away privily” precisely because he was not credulous. He was matter-of-fact; he knew, empirically, that he had not had intercourse with Mary; he knew, based on universal human experience with no deviations, that someone else must have. It took precisely that divine interpretation to explain why the scientific method failed in this one special case.
The Bible is not a science textbook, but ancient people were not necessarily as credulous as we make them out to be. And Scripture is capable of speaking truly to matters we now call “scientific.”
Human Reason Must Not Be Untethered from Scripture
The pastor then quotes again from the PCUSA guidelines on interpreting the Bible, and this I find especially interesting:
One cannot find confessional support for the claim that only human reason without reference to Scripture is a reliable spiritual guide.
Pay close attention to his follow-up comments on this one (or watch for yourself):
So that would be an example of using reason way beyond its intended use, to say “Well, it just doesn’t make sense, and I don’t care if it’s in the Bible; it doesn’t make sense, and I’m not paying any attention to it.”
Skip a tiny beat, then:
Now there might be some examples where that could be appropriate.
The pastor has added a pretty significant footnote to the PCUSA guidelines, the kind of footnote that qualifies an absolute “thou shalt not” by saying “except maybe sometimes”—the kind of footnote that actually amounts to, “Strike that; reverse it.”
The example he gives is polygamy:
[Polygamy is] something that doesn’t makes sense to us, and we probably aren’t going to pay any attention to it [in the Bible].
There’s that subjectivism again. And, again, he misses an opportunity to help sheep through an apparent Bible difficulty, despite the fact that he himself gives the answer to the problem in his follow-up comments. He notes that it’s hard enough for a couple to get along, let alone when you bring more people in. And that’s precisely the point the narratives (of Genesis, especially) make about polygamy: it never works out well for anyone. It only ever creates problems. It is not normative.
I agree with biblical scholar Robert Gagnon in thinking that it is awfully odd for mainline Protestant liberals to skip over polygamy on the slippery slope to affirming homosexual unions. When you give up sexual complementarity as an essential aspect of marriage, you also give up the only reason for limiting marriage to two people. I feel confident that this PCUSA pastor will get with the program soon and realize that the spirit (of the age) is speaking freshly about polygamy too. When what “makes sense to us” is our standard, what a difference five years makes. Subjectivism is the textbook example of a slippery slope.
The Slippery Slope
This pastor is well aware of the slippery slope argument:
Another thing that I’ve heard a lot is…what some people call the slippery slope. First of all, I think it is undoubtedly [true] that there have been moral standards that have been so lax in our society, that they have become acceptable, and that this is not a good thing…. I’m thinking of things like pornography on the Internet… It’s bad, it’s wrong, there’s nothing good that can come from it.
His answer to the slippery slope is that he doesn’t see any correlation between personal morality and one’s view of the Bible. There are wicked conservatives and wicked liberals (I will grant that much!); ergo, he says, it doesn’t matter whether you believe all of the Bible or just some of it.
Then the lecture ends.
If C.S. Lewis was right to warn us all not to criticize sins we’re not tempted by and books we don’t like to read, then I’m on shaky ground when critiquing liberal mainline Protestantism. I confess I simply cannot understand the appeal of a religion made of playdough. Why bother with the Bible at all if you’re just going to morph every time the culture demands it? If human reason, human experience, and CBS opinion polling trump the Bible every time except for Internet porn, why bother having a Christian religion?
It is largely accepted among watchers of American religion that mainline Protestantism is dying, and I’m not the only person who thinks that erosion of biblical authority is the main reason why. People would rather see the NFL pre-game show than go to church when the latter actually serves up less truth than the former.
Make no mistake, as Machen told us so long ago: this two-part video puts on display a non-Christian religion, a religion based on an authority wholly different from that of orthodox Christianity. That’s why the two female (apparent) conservatives in the audience, the ones who speak up meekly against homosexuality in the Q&A, can have no recourse. The pastor can’t suddenly give the Bible its proper due without changing religions.
Multiple authorities were at work undermining the Bible in that room. One of the church members, an engineer, appealed to the science of brain chemistry as his authority. He cited “Brain Sex,” a documentary film which (he said) proves that gender and sex are not the same thing.
And one of the church elders—an office charged by Paul with keeping the flock safe—appealed simply and directly to his subjectivist authority: his autonomous reason. He claimed Jesus for his side, appealing to the Great Commandments, but in the end he took it upon himself to define what love for God and neighbor means. This is how he explained his vote for inclusion of homosexual persons:
To me we are all children of God. God made all of us. I believe he made certain people gay, that this is not a choice…, that these people were made this way by God. And as children of God we need to love our neighbors as ourselves. Now the Bible says nothing about gay marriage. But for me as a Christian, when Jesus was asked, “What are the most commandments?” He could have said, “Well, all God’s words are all the same.” But he didn’t. He answered, “Love the Lord God with all your might and love your neighbor.” There were no caveats. I’m a Christian. I follow Jesus Christ first. That teaching got me to the position that I’m in now.
All true elders of Christ’s church should be able to answer this argument: I was born with adulterous desires. I never chose them. Was Jesus unloving to me when he condemned lust (Matt 5:27–30)? It’s as if followers of this religion, mainline Protestantism, have (as NT scholar Richard Hays has said) a doctrine of creation but none of fall or redemption.
Christianity Vs. Liberalism
In this era of world history, false religions are permitted to exist and even grow (and, in the case of mainline Protestantism, to shrink). The problem comes when those false religions claim to be Christianity. One of the most effective arguments against Christian opposition to homosexuality right now stems from that false labeling: Plenty of Christians have gotten on our pro-gay parade float, so the only reason you can have for holding out must be that you’re a hateful bigot.
But once you see mainline Protestant liberalism as a different religion entirely, one built on a totally different foundation from biblical orthodoxy, the picture becomes much clearer. There are few if any true Christians on that bandwagon, because Christians don’t belong on the broad road down which it’s careening.
It’s interesting to me that among my professing Christian Facebook friends who have given up their opposition to homosexuality—something they would have considered nonnegotiable a very few short years ago—every one of them has adopted other beliefs along with their newfound support for gay unions. If the Bible really said nothing about homosexuality, then you could expect that equally orthodox Christians might disagree over the issue, just as they disagree over the proper mode of baptism, the timing (or existence) of the rapture, or other second- or third-order doctrines. But all of the supporters of same sex marriage I know (among people who used to be professing evangelicals) have adopted a new view of the Bible at some point before or during their acceptance of homosexuality: the idea that the Bible ought to be subsumed to some other authority—science, human reason, or just whatever the cool kids say.
I did not single out this PCUSA pastor because he is an especially dangerous wolf who is about to devour Christ’s flock, but because he appears to be a standard-issue wolf, the kind to whom Princeton Seminary every year gives out hundreds of sheepskins, the kind who then go on to collect more by fleecing flocks in your town and mine.
You are a subject: you can never set aside your reason, and you shouldn’t. It should simply be submitted to your ultimate authority: God speaking through his word.
You have a tradition: you can never quite step out of it, and you (probably) shouldn’t. It should simply be submitted to your ultimate authority, God speaking through his word.
But as Robert Gagnon once said to a PCUSA church body after a public debate over homosexuality,
That’s what this discussion is about that you’re having in this church. You’re having a discussion about whether what Jesus thinks takes priority is to be given priority. You’re [in] a discussion about whether what Scripture as a whole…regards as essential is to be viewed as essential anymore in the church. And if you don’t think it is, then stop playing the game. Stop playing the game with Scripture. Stop making the pretense about the affirmation of Christ as Lord, because it isn’t really Jesus who is Lord. You’re lord. And you’ve used Jesus as a cipher into which you impute your own ideological meaning and make him say, like a marionette puppet, whatever you want him to say. But I suggest to you, that is not a good look for the church. And when the church does that it ceases in any meaningful way to be a representative of the body of Christ in the world. And there are warnings in Revelation 2–3 by the risen Christ to such churches. You do not want to go down that route. Thank you.