Review: Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President

Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer PresidentAbraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen C. Guelzo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing less than a tour-de-force. I’m tempted to say that only a religious person—particularly a Christian—could understand this almost certainly unbelieving politician and thinker. Guelzo finds a theme in Lincoln’s theology that he, successfully in my opinion, traces throughout his life, namely a predestinarianism shorn of belief in God’s personal goodness to Lincoln himself. This fatalistic theology guided Lincoln into making the most difficult decisions of the war. This is the key insight from the book, in my judgment:

Lincoln’s own peculiar providentialism, his Calvinized deism, in fact played a controlling role in the outcome of the Civil War. In the most general sense, his appeal to the mysteries of providence in the fall of 1862 gave him permission to ignore the manifest signs on all hands that the Union was playing the war to no better than a draw, and that any resort to emancipation was folly. But in the most specific instance, providence was what allowed him to overrule the moral limitations of liberalism. To do liberalism’s greatest deed—the emancipation of the slaves—Lincoln had to step outside liberalism and surrender himself to the direction of an overruling divine providence whose conclusions he had by no means prejudged. (447)

What does Guelzo mean? He explains a little more early on in the book:

[Lincoln] would come at the end … to see that liberalism could never achieve its highest goal of liberation and mobility without appealing to a set of ethical, even theological, principles that seemed wholly beyond the expectations and allowances of liberalism itself. While he would hold organized religion at arm’s length, he would come to see liberalism’s preoccupation with rights needing to be confined within some public framework of virtue, a framework he would find in a mystical rehabilitation of his ancestral Calvinism and an understanding of the operations of divine providence. (20-21)

Liberalism, as Stanley Fish never tires of observing (and I never tire of observing him observe), has no transcendent norms to appeal to. (And here I’m not taking a potshot at Democrats; Guelzo and Fish and I mean here “classical liberalism,” the kind which encompasses nearly all significant American politicians on any side of any aisle.) Liberalism is supposed to maintain procedural neutrality among competing visions of the good. But what that means in the end is that might often makes right. And in 1861, as Lincoln took the helm of a divided nation, mighty interests on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line preferred that the slaves not be freed. Lincoln himself saw clearly that praise and blame could not be apportioned neatly to North and South, respectively. It took an appeal to the Declaration of Independence’s Creator—who created all men equal—to free the slaves. Serious voices in 1860 argued that the Declaration was not law, but thankfully it remained a moral polestar.

I have never dug this deep into Lincoln before, encountering him mainly through his most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, both of which Guelzo analyzes with great insight—and in both of which he easily finds Lincoln’s predestinarian deism. One thing that really impressed me was how accidental Lincoln’s role as sage and Great Emancipator really was. I mean that as no slight against him; when the time came, he worked with great skill and dedication. But the time was long in coming. He wasn’t born with a desire to free the slaves. The conviction came on him slowly, and even very close to the last he was considering various political deals which fell short of full, lasting emancipation. If the war hadn’t been so fierce, the slaves may have remained in bondage. But Southern victories forced Lincoln’s hand. It was fascinating to watch what I, too, see as the hand behind that hand in freeing America’s oppressed legions.

I was also surprised to be taught a fact that I should have known: it was not at all obvious to anyone at the close of the Civil War what the future of the nation would be. We view Lincoln’s acts through a prism of national success and even national unity under multiple trials, especially two world wars. But the prospect that legal challenges to emancipation would negate all the blood spilled in the Civil War was all to real as Lincoln lay in a deathbed “fate” chose for him. It speaks to his wisdom that I moved from South Carolina to Washington last year with no trouble.

It was also fascinating to me to hear Guelzo’s expert summations of previous Lincoln biographies, going back to the very first. Americans have long molded their view of Lincoln to their liking. No doubt Guelzo has done this in some way, too. But it does appear to take the passing of many decades before party loyalties and political issues fade enough to give historians a fair crack at someone like Lincoln. I’m late to the praise and should have read this years ago, but Guelzo has written a triumph.

Review: A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir

A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological MemoirA Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir by Thomas C. Oden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What strongly conservative Christian doesn’t thrill to hear a conversion story from theological liberalism—and from an elite academic within that crowd, no less? Thomas Oden, who studied under H. Richard Niebuhr at Yale, most definitely rejects the liberalism he so ardently pursued during his formative educational years, up till age 40. Oden, a constitutionally nice man, reserves the most (the only?) intense criticisms in his autobiography for theological and other liberals (and, in this case, a few evangelical enablers):

The evangelicals had been promised a seat at the table [at the World Council of Churches meeting] in Canberra, but then were ignored and represented only by the evangelical house pets of Genevan ecumenism.

Ouch. The gentle Oden is not against a tiny bit of name-calling when the situation warrants:

The New Age movement of the late 1960s was for me exhilarating. It came as swiftly as it disappeared. The Green Revolution and the heyday of the Human Potential movement moved at top speed. Everyone was talking about peak experiencing and self-actualization. The air was fueled by the revolutionary passions of the sixties, Vietnam, situational ethics, the new morality, sexual experimentation and anti-parent spleen.

But I’ve begun this little review with two exceptions in order to highlight the rule. Mostly, Oden is straightforward and, I come back to that word, gentle.

His chapter on his move from that liberal world to a theologically conservative one gives honor where it’s due, is appropriately self-deprecating, and it straightforwardly critiques theological liberalism. It was the best part of the book—though the entire thing was surely readable and interesting. The pith of his story is that a Jewish scholar who’d gone through his own liberal, Marxist, Freudian rumpsringa as a youth, challenged 40-year-old Oden around 1970: “You don’t know your own tradition well enough to reject it until you read the fathers.” He did, and the “consensual Christian tradition” he discovered there changed his theology, his life, and his heart. I rejoice.

But I’m puzzled.

Alex Stroshine’s review on Goodreads is quite good, but I want to quote it (and use a portion in a way he likely didn’t intend) to explain my puzzlement:

I see a lot of merit to the classic Christian consensus and Oden has ably demonstrated how the churches emerging out of the Reformation are in line with this consensus despite assertions to the contrary by some. But I wish I could find some greater clarification on theological specifics and Oden’s methodology for dealing with them. Oden is a supporter of women’s ordination (as am I!) and while there is solid evidence that women DID have leadership roles (Phoebe was the first exegete of the Epistle to the Romans and there is evidence of female deacons) how does classic Christianity deal with disputes such as women’s ordination? Also, while the conciliar process seeks orthodoxy through agreement by both laity and clergy, what happens when the LAITY (unlike the liberal clergy that plague the mainline) err, as in the laity’s excessive veneration of the Virgin Mary?

Indeed. It’s a good thing that Oden recovered the fathers, and given the popularity of the Ancient Christian Commentary Series (and its publication by an evangelical house after others passed it up) evangelicals appear to have been as excited than anyone that Oden did the following:

I began searching for a more reliable grounding for the study of sacred texts. That grounding came only when I recognized the reasonableness of the ancient consensual Christian tradition. It had a more reliable critical method based on historic consensus, which implies centuries of human experience. It had remained surprisingly stable while passing through innumerable cultures for two millennia.

This is characteristic Oden. Throughout the book he asserts, with little apparent concern over the Sic et Non among the fathers, that there is a consensual Christian tradition. He reminds me of a Catholic priest I heard many years ago at Furman University. Weaving the fingers of his two hands together over and over, he kept asserting, as if his hand motions could make it so, that “scripture and tradition cohere.”

And I’m puzzled how such a smart man as Oden could perpetuate such a notion. He does, helpfully, point to “Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great” as the fathers “most consensually remembered, who most accurately gave expression to the faith that was already well understood by the apostles and celebrated by the worshiping community under the guidance of the written Word.” But even that phrase—”most accurately gave expression”—begs the question. Who says? Oden does acknowledge that the fathers didn’t always agree:

Whenever I came upon those points where it seemed that the apostolic consensus had lost its way or broken up irretrievably, I discovered that by looking more deeply into the most consensual interpreters of the sacred text, the truth proved itself to be self-correcting under the guidance of the Spirit. That premise, that the Holy Spirit sustained the right memory of the truth revealed in history, was to me counterintuitive at every step. Yet the constant course correction of the community was the most remarkable aspect of the history of ecumenical consent.

Personally, whenever I’ve dipped into the Ancient Christian Commentary Series, I find some stimulating stuff, yes, but also odd stuff. It’s a mix. Some of what I read is unbelievably fresh, and a lot of it causes headscratching. Here’s what I saw on the comments on Genesis 4, for example:

  • Ephrem the Syrian makes up several details that aren’t in the text of Scripture: he says God sent fire from heaven to consume Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s; he says, too, that Cain didn’t give of the best of his grain and fruit.
  • Origen offers an interpretation people still generally take today, that Cain’s sin began before the offering.
  • Chrysostom makes an insightful point linking God’s curse of the serpent in Genesis 3 and His curse of Cain in Genesis 4.
  • Chrysostom says there was no sexual intercourse before the fall (!).

I just don’t see any good reason to invest special authority in these men. Some of their opinions are well-founded, and surely some of the fathers are astoundingly brilliant. Augustine is a world-historical figure for good reason. I also believe that C.S. Lewis is right when he suggests that modern readers should let the breeze of another century blow through their minds on a regular basis. But that point from Chrysostom is greatly significant: if God didn’t create sex; if even monogamous heterosexual unions are a result of the fall, then we’re in a mess. Where’s our consensus? Is Chrysostom right or wrong, and how do we know?

If Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism are both heirs of a largely healthy Christian tradition, and I think we are, there’s only one way to find out for sure which groups (and which subgroups) are more faithful heirs—go to the Bible. And that’s what this biography lacked. I read it mostly on long flights, so I may have zoned out, but I recall almost no Bible quotations, and certainly no careful discussions of biblical teaching. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and Oden’s partly justified excitement about the tradition manages to obscure rather than cohere with Scripture.

At key points, I was practically begging for Bible:

When some in these groups wanted to leave these [hyper-liberal mainline] denominations, I tried to provide plausible reasons for why they would do better to stay and fight for their reform. To flee a church is not to discipline it. Discipline is fostered by patient trust, corrective love and the willingness to live with incremental change insofar as conscience allows. An exit strategy is tempting but self-defeating, since it forgets about the faithful generations who have given sacrificially to build those churches. It would be a dishonor to them to abandon the church to those with aberrant faith.

God has some things to say about this in Scripture. “Strengthen what remains,” yes. But also “Mark them which cause division and strifes among you contrary to the doctrine which we have preached.” The job of a theologian should first be to find a way to faithfully use the Bible to answer our questions. If the tradition helps, that’s wonderful. If it muddies the waters or positively contradicts the Bible, then the Bible must remain our norming norm. That’s what sola scriptura means.

I first heard of Oden in the 1990s when he was a signatory of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents. Oden’s book amply demonstrates that there are things to be learned from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but I’m with R.C. Sproul and the Reformers in seeing a fundamental disjunction between formal Catholic (and Orthodox) teaching and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Oden does define what a Christian is:

I have discovered that I belong to a vast family of orthodox Christian believers of all times and places, which includes historic Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Christian family is far wider, broader and deeper than most of us have commonly thought of it as being. Those who can recite the Apostles’ Creed with full integrity of conviction and live out Christian moral norms, as well as worship in spirit and truth, are all part of a classic consensual family of faith.

Both belief and practice are included in his definition, and biblically speaking I think that’s good. My own evangelical tradition isn’t free of people whose orthodoxy and orthopraxy are questionable (sometimes my own is!). But after hundreds of conversations with Roman Catholics over the years, some of them in places around the world; and after a number of visits to Catholic churches and Catholic blogs and magazines (the stimulating First Things preeminent among them), I’m puzzled. There’s a lot of disagreement there. No, formal Catholic doctrine does not teach pure Pelagianism, but they do a pretty terrible job of informing the laity of that fact, as I’m sure many Catholics will agree. What does that fact say?

In order for Oden to see evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics as part of a “vast family,” he has to be skilled in (gently) papering over deep differences. My going hypothesis after reading this biography is that this papering has been his modus operandi in his academic work and professional life for decades.

Introduction to the Old Testament for Bibles International

I wrote the following introduction to the Old Testament for Bibles International; it is being translated and placed into Bibles all around the world. Come back tomorrow for the intro to the New Testament.

The Bible tells one story, because God has one plan for all of history (Isa. 46:9–10; Gal. 4:4–6). The 39 books of the Old Testament begin the story but stop just short of the climax.

The Story

The first five books (Genesis–Deuteronomy) set the foundation for the story. God creates the world and declares it “very good.” And He sets apart two special beings who are made in His own image: Adam and his wife Eve. They have abilities no animals share, and they are to use those skills to complete a special task from God: they are to have dominion over God’s world as His representatives.

Very little time passes before Adam and Eve fall and sin enters God’s perfect creation. All creation falls under “slavery to corruption” (Rom. 8:21). But God promises that “the seed of the woman” will one day come and crush the head of the serpent who tempted Eve (Gen. 3:15).

Many years later, God chooses one man, Abraham, to be the father of that seed. God promises that Abraham will become a great nation and receive a special land. And God will bless all families on the earth through him.

But Abraham’s family, the nation of Israel, falls into sin too. They are not the solution to the fall; they are part of the problem (Joshua–Esther).

God, however, refuses to break His promises to Abraham. He swears to Israel’s most godly king, David, that someone from his line will sit on the throne of Israel forever (1 Sam. 7). This king will one day crush the serpent’s head and reverse the effects of the fall!

Wisdom

Wisdom books (Job–Song of Songs) tell believers how to live consistently with God’s big plan. Proverbs tells us where to start: by fearing the Lord. Ecclesiastes and Job demonstrate that that wise living is complex and difficult in a fallen world. The Psalms lead the believer to trust and delight in God.

The New Covenant and The Future

Prophetic books like Isaiah tell of that day when God will restore creation—and man in it—to the way He meant it to be (Isa 11). And even before that day, God tells of a New Covenant He will make which will start fixing the fall where it has done the most damage, in people’s hearts (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). The prophets also give us precious truth about the Suffering Servant who will bear the sins of many. Who is this Servant? The answer—and the climax of the Bible’s story—comes in the New Testament.

Introduction to the Bible for Bibles International

I wrote the following introduction for Bibles International; it is being translated and placed at the beginning of Bibles all around the world. Come back tomorrow and the next day for intros to the Old Testament and New Testament.

The Bible tells one story.

Just one.

It’s a long one, and sometimes a complicated one. But it’s just one story.

The Bible is the story of what God is doing to glorify Himself by redeeming His fallen creation. That includes four major things to remember:

  1. Creation: God created the world and man to rule it.
  2. Fall: God’s world fell into sin with Adam.
  3. Redemption: God is redeeming (or restoring) this world.
  4. Glory: God is doing all of this for His own glory.

Many important things are left out of this little summary of the Bible’s one story. For example, Jesus Christ does not appear by name, even though He stands at the center of God’s plan to redeem the world. It’s important to add, too, that everything God does for His own glory is also done for the good of His people. And there are good reasons for thinking that the kingdom—God’s rule of the world—is also a major theme of the Bible. God is trying to re-establish His full rule over the world (1 Cor 15:24–28).

But a summary has to be short if it expects to be memorable. Every summary will leave something out, because it can’t be as long as the Bible! And a summary is important, because with such a long book we need something that will help us understand how all the smaller stories in Scripture—Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Paul—fit into the one big story.

Let’s look at the first three elements of our summary of Scripture. These three are all pointing toward the last one.

1. Creation

God’s creation was originally “very good” (Gen 1). He created Adam and Eve, the first humans, in His image, and He blessed them with the ability to multiply and to subdue the earth (Gen 1:26–28). But those blessings were also tasks: their job was to “image” God to all of creation by ruling God’s world like God would.

2. Fall

They failed (Gen 3). They believed the lies of the serpent, and they plunged both themselves and the world they cared for into what the Bible calls “slavery to corruption” (Rom 8:21). Instead of submitting to God’s rule, all people are now born in rebellion. Even animals suffer and die—and kill. The creation is still “very good,” but it groans, waiting to be redeemed, waiting to be restored to the way God meant it to be.

3. Redemption

The creation didn’t have to wait long for that redemption to start. God promised Adam and Eve that the “seed of the woman” would one day crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). In the middle of the saddest day in world history God brought good news: he was going to fix what Adam broke.

Years later, God chose one idol-worshiper, Abraham, to be His tool for that fix. The promised seed would come through him, God promised. Abraham’s family would be big, and they would get a land of their own (Gen 12, 15, 17).

Abraham’s family became the nation of Israel, the one family with whom God had a special covenant. They were meant to do what Adam failed to do: to image God to everyone else (Ex 19:5–6). God (through the prophet Moses) gave them laws to show them what it meant to be holy like Him (Ex 20). He instructed them to sacrifice animals in order to teach them how seriously their sin offended His great holiness (Lev).

But the story of God’s chosen people Israel became one of continual sin. Adam’s sin had infected them too deeply, and they never loved and obeyed God as they should. Their prophets, their priests, and even their kings failed them. They needed something more.

God promised that more was coming. He told one of their best kings, David, that someone from his line would sit on Israel’s throne forever (2 Sam 7). And he told one of their most important prophets, Jeremiah, that He was going to start writing His laws on people’s hearts so they would not continue their cycle of terrible sin (Jer 31).

The Old Testament ends on a question mark: how will God do all these things? How will the story end?

The New Testament

The New Testament opens with an answer and an exclamation point: Jesus Christ is God’s answer! Where all Israel’s leaders and all mankind have failed, Jesus succeeded. He, God in flesh, lived a perfect life. He died for the sins of the world and rose from the dead to start a new era in world history (Rom 4:25).

He then sent His Spirit to instruct and comfort His followers as they established a new institution outside Israel, the church (John 16:1–15, Acts 2). This was the way Jesus chose to spread His rule over Jew and Gentile alike, through local gatherings of believers who come to fellowship, pray, eat the Lord’s Supper, and learn scriptural doctrine (Acts 2:42). The New Testament explains and applies Christ’s work to God’s people. It reveals the Creation-Fall-Redemption story you’ve just been reading about.

God has never set aside His command for mankind to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over it. But because so many people fail to worship the God who gave us those tasks, believers have a new task (Matt. 28:18–20). We must spread the message of Christ’s forgiveness to those who do not believe. We must teach everyone to repent and do whatever Jesus has commanded.

The Future

The church and the rest of creation can look forward to the day when Jesus will completely rule the world and death will be no more. These “last days” began, in fact, when Christ conquered death through His resurrection (Heb 1:2; 1 Cor. 15:26, 55–58). God’s grace will restore nature to the way He originally designed it to be. Arctic foxes won’t steal and eat goose hatchlings. Lions will nestle together with lambs (Isa. 11:6). Jesus will renew and restore the whole earth, judge all the wicked, and bring His people to live under His wise rule in His city—the New Jerusalem—for all eternity (Rev 21). People will fill the earth and subdue it as God first planned.

At the end of this age Christ will hand all rule to the Father, and God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28). That’s where Creation, Fall, and Redemption all point: to God’s glory. Your great goal in life, by God’s grace, ought to be the same: to point to the glory of God.

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!