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Thursday, May 31, 2012

On the Doctrine of Tradition (Part 1)

This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.

As an evangelical Protestant I have been raised on the belief that what sets us apart from the other wings of the faith is our doctrine of Scripture. I no longer believe this to be true, except as a distinction between evangelical Protestants and liberal Protestants. At least on the basics (and perhaps more), however, we share the same doctrine of Scripture with the Catholics and the Orthodox; we agree completely that the Bible is the authoritative, true, reliable Word of God. What we do not share is a single doctrine of tradition. That's what sola Scriptura really is: not a statement about Scripture but a statement about tradition and its relationship to Scripture.

The evangelical doctrine of tradition is that there is a thick, bold, dark, sharp line between Scripture and everything else (i.e., the tradition of the church). Scripture in its entirety is God-breathed; tradition isn't. Scripture is entirely self-consistent and true; tradition isn't. As a result, evangelicals range from the near extreme of positive interest in tradition as a set of voices of some benefit but which may be easily dismissed if we don't like what they say to the far extreme of suspicion or even hostility toward tradition. (One could even look beyond the far extreme to heresies with evangelical roots such as the Mormons, who reject all orthodox tradition after the apostles, including the Council of Nicea, and replace it with their own tradition, the bulk of which is not framed as tradition but as more Scripture—the Book of Mormon.) There are, however, serious inconsistencies between the evangelical doctrine of tradition (which of course is never labeled as such) and evangelicals' practice. One is a fiercely loyal adherence to the content of the first four ecumenical councils (even if the creedal molds in which it is cast are suspect to some), which of course is tradition, not Scripture. Another is fiercely loyal adherence in some circles to Reformation and post-Reformation tradition—e.g., the Westminster Confession—which is merely a substitution of newer tradition for the older one and which looks in practice exactly like the Orthodox doctrine of tradition (see below) no matter how much its devotees protest that their tradition is subordinate to the Scriptures (technically the Orthodox do the same).

The Roman Catholic doctrine of tradition is that there is a line between Scripture and tradition (albeit not as bold and dark as the evangelicals' line)—the two are distinct. Nevertheless, both sides of the line are directly from God, entirely self-consistent, and entirely true and reliable. Neither has priority over the other. Further, Scripture and tradition are entirely in harmony with each other, so an interpretation of Scripture that violates the tradition is a misinterpretation of Scripture, and a refutation of tradition on Scriptural grounds is also a misinterpretation of Scripture. Consequently, although in theory the two streams (like a separate hot faucet and cold faucet in the same sink) are equal, in practice tradition dominates Scripture because (also in theory) for a tradition to become traditional it must have been rightly derived from the Scriptures in the first place. (Note how similar was the Pharisees' doctrine of tradition, which Jesus refuted—the written law and the oral, both supposedly having been received at Sinai by Moses, but in which the latter practically trumped the former.) What also must be noted about the Catholic doctrine of tradition, of course, is that while tradition is derived from the fathers and doctors of the church, it is defined by the Pope and/or church councils. (Historically—and perhaps today—the relationship between church councils and the Pope is complicated.)

The Orthodox doctrine of tradition is that while there probably is a line between Scripture and tradition, it is thin, faint, and fuzzy. Functionally the fathers are simply the New Testament Continued. Unlike the Catholics, who have a Pope to define what teaching makes it into the tradition and what does not (either because the teaching is wrong or because it is speculative and not certain enough to anthematize those who disagree), the Orthodox operate by a sort of consensus of reverence toward those who by corporate custom fall into the hallowed college of the holy fathers, especially viewed through the lens of the ecumenical councils. The totality (or at least generality) of the output of all of these fathers is regarded essentially as Scripture itself is regarded: as internally consistent, true, pure, and God-breathed, particularly about those matters that the Orthodox consider to be particularly important (e.g., Christology). To the Orthodox, the tradition is the tradition of the fathers’ right interpretation of Scripture, and so the idea that Scripture and genuine tradition would ever conflict is inconceivable. Thus, the Orthodox articulate, defend, and refute doctrine essentially the way evangelicals do, except that the former's "Bible" is much larger than the latter's. If there is one problem with this doctrine of tradition that jumps out to me as an evangelical, it is that if the biblical interpretation and theology of the fathers is that important, then why was it so important to those very fathers to define the biblical canon with precision? Clearly they believed that there was something truly unique about the biblical corpus, a uniqueness that is threatened if not lost altogether in the expansive Orthodox doctrine of tradition.

What is perhaps most interesting about the relationship of Scripture and tradition over the course of the church's life is that tradition became more important as heresy became more sophisticated. Early heretics in one way or another denied Scripture outright (most notably Marcion) or marginalized it in some other way (the Gnostics with their arcane interpretations and presumably the later Montanists with their obsession with charismatic prophecy). But later heretics fully accepted the concept of Scripture's truth—bald, uninterpreted Scripture was insufficient to arbitrate between Arius and Athanasius. So tradition—the words of the fathers, the piety and liturgy of the people, and the apostolic succession of the churches and their bishops—became increasingly important to point out the true biblical interpretations and syntheses from the false ones. Looking back, it is easy to see how the relative importance of Scripture itself declined and how that of the tradition of interpreting, synthesizing, and practicing the Scripture rose. One feature of the Protestant Reformation that was so radical was the Reformers' conviction that the mix of Scripture and tradition had gotten totally out of hand—by analogy, it was as if there was now so much air in the combustion chamber that there was no longer enough fuel there to cause an explosion. The Reformers' response, especially within the Radical Reformation, was to eliminate the "air" of tradition entirely and flood the engine with the "gas" of Scripture to set things right. Naturally, the Catholic Church reacted in an entirely predictable, opposite way. As it had for centuries against increasingly biblically loyal and sophisticated heretics, it relied on tradition to carry the day. What it failed to grasp (at first) was that now the tradition itself was directly under attack, not obliquely as in the past, and that the traditional interpretation and synthesis of Scripture had over centuries become so detached from the Scripture it claimed to interpret and synthesize that it could no longer hold up under critiques from Scriptural premises. By the time the Church regrouped, its knee-jerk reaction had excommunicated a third of Western Europe; the genie was out of the bottle and would not go back in.

In order for the three great wings of the faith—and perhaps the un-Orthodox churches of the East as well—to become visibly one, it is absolutely crucial to confess jointly one doctrine of tradition. In fact, it is so crucial that it may actually dwarf all other issues by comparison, which is no small thing given that the other issues include the Filioque, the papacy, and justification by faith alone among others. But an ecumenical doctrine of tradition may be the only door through which these other issues may be satisfactorily addressed. All communions need one, because each of our doctrines of tradition are flawed, perhaps more than I know. But by far the largest obstacles to an ecumenical doctrine of tradition are our traditions—that is, the traditions whose mutual incompatibility fractures the Great Tradition. To give a concrete example, it is highly unlikely that I can adopt a doctrine of tradition other than the evangelical one and keep my Baptist tradition intact, because any doctrine of tradition that makes tradition even a little bit more normative than it is for evangelicals will allow that tradition to nullify most of the features of my Baptist tradition (e.g., the insistence on believer's baptism). In effect, my tradition and thus my identity within the tradition cease to exist. The ecumenical doctrine of tradition, whatever it is, will entail painful sacrifice for everyone who embraces it—frankly, more sacrifice than I think any of us can bear.

But if we are to arrive at a new doctrine of tradition—at least one that I could find palatable at any rate—a few concepts that seem evident to me right now must influence the dogma. One is the acknowledgment that tradition doesn't always come into being the way we would like it to. (Of course, this implies that tradition "comes into being" at all as opposed to eternally existing, which may pose a serious problem for the Orthodox.) I always believed that in the annals of church history, people acted (worshiped, prayed, organized themselves, etc.) according to what they were being taught, what they confessed. And sometimes things do happen this way; for example, the radical liturgical (even architectural) changes of the Protestant Reformation followed directly from Reformation theological principles. But in the annals of church history just like in my humdrum experience today, it often goes the other way around: people act in particular ways and then a theological justification from Scripture for those actions arises ex post facto. (I find pneumatological responses to the experiences and worship of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements to be a telling modern example.) Sometimes this ex post facto theologizing works great, because the actions of the people are Spirit-led and on-target even if the people can't clearly articulate why—for example, how the ubiquity of prayers to Christ helped defeat Arianism. In situations like this, the actions of the church shine light on previously overlooked truths of Scripture. But other times ex post facto theologizing is a big mistake—that's how the doctrine of purgatory came into being, for instance, not to mention adoration of icons. In these situations, the actions of the church run counter to Scripture and carry the dogma of the church along with it. A proper doctrine of tradition must acknowledge the occasional fallibility of received tradition by insisting that true tradition always allows truth in Scripture to shine forth; it never obscures the truth of Scripture by merely pointing to other tradition. This is the evangelical contribution.

Secondly, a proper doctrine of tradition must take into account the role of heresy in clarifying the dogma of the church. The Scriptures contain all necessary truth for our salvation explicitly or implicitly. True tradition makes what is implicit in Scripture explicit (another way of saying "allowing truth in Scripture to shine forth" above). Heresy is usually what drives the church to do this. It usually takes a long time. By the early fifth century, the only doctrines that were really nailed down with precision were the Trinity, the two natures in Christ (and in the East this wasn't even finished), and the corpus of the New Testament. Other doctrines were taught of course, often accurately, beautifully, and powerfully. But they didn't require the corporate clarification that the former did, so mutually incompatible diversity on some doctrines and unquestioned assumptions in others (such as baptism?) continued to float around. A proper doctrine of tradition says that this is okay. It states that we have been given everything we need to know in the Bible, but it takes us a really long time to figure out just what we've been given. Thus, the faith is indeed "once for all delivered to the saints," but it takes a long time and many hands to unwrap the package. It also means that elements of the tradition in the "unquestioned assumption" category don't have to be considered part of the true tradition. If the fathers (for example) never had reason to question their agreement on how to view Doctrine X, then their agreement is not normative. It is not until after a question has been opened, usually by heretics but sometimes by the saints (such as Augustine's theory of double predestination?), and vigorously thrashed out that a normative agreement can be reached.

Finally, perhaps the stickiest methodological issue pertaining to a doctrine of tradition is, what are the authoritative sources of such dogma? Obviously the only authoritative source is the Triune God. But is the medium of the Holy Spirit's revelation the Church of Christ—i.e., the tradition held by the Orthodox and/or the Catholics? If so, is dogma derived this way fatally self-referential? It is even worse for evangelicals counting on the Spirit's revelation through the Word of Christ, the Bible, for does the Bible have the necessary material to construct a doctrine of what followed its completion? Perhaps it does, but this is a new investigation for me, so I really don't know.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

On Grace and the Sacraments

This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.

Is grace an attitude or a thing? That is, is it God's posture of unmerited favor towards sinners or is it a spiritual energy or substance that is transferred to them? And does the answer to this question deny or establish a sacramental theology?

In the Old Testament, no Hebrew word corresponds exactly to "grace" as such. We do have some material to go on however.

"The LORD is gracious [hannun] and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love [hesed]" (Ps. 145:8, NIV). (Hen is frequently the base of kharis [“grace”] in the LXX.) This is clearly grace as an attitude. But it is an attitude displayed in actions of grace as indicated by hesed, which denotes not only "faithful kindness" but the actions (hasidim) undertaken in a practical way to demonstrate and actualize that kindness. In this sense, grace is God's attitude toward his frequently wayward covenant-people and his sovereign actions toward his covenant-people that stem from that attitude.

The other Old Testament concept that may explain grace is blessing. To bless is to declare one's desire for another's well-being and success. That is clearly attitudinal. However, in Israelite thought a true blessing was more than a wish—it actually imbued the blessed one with the power to be successful. A true blessing even went so far as to be an actualization, a determination of destiny for the blessed, as in the case of Isaac's blessing of Jacob. Being almighty, this is the nature of all of God's blessings. God's blessing is an attitude and also an actualization; it is a promise. So blessing actually bundles three concepts: God's gracious attitude, expressed in a promise, actualized by an enduement of divine power and help. In fact, the concept of promise may be the linkage between attitude and thing; because of his attitude he promises, and because he promises he grants power to achieve it. Admittedly however, there is no link between beraka (“blessing”) and kharis or their cognates in the LXX.

In the New Testament there are clear evidences of grace as God's attitude of favor. For example, in its first appearance in the NT, kharis is something that Mary "found" with God (Luke 1:30). On the other hand, in the very next chapter the grace of God is "upon" the growing Jesus (Luke 2:40), the same kind of verbiage used of the Holy Spirit, who is unquestionably a "something" (actually a “Someone”) given to believers, not just God’s attitude (cf. Acts 6:3, 8).

This raises an interesting point. The objective aspect of salvation is the work accomplished in the atonement of the cross of Christ, by which we receive the grace of God as his attitude of unmerited favor (Rom. 3:24-25). The subjective aspect of salvation is the work of regeneration brought about in us by the Holy Spirit, whom we have received, and whom the author of Hebrews calls "the Spirit of grace" (Heb. 10:29; cf. Jas. 4:5-6). In the case of the former, God's grace is his giving of his Son; in the latter it is his gift of his Spirit. And both were given according to God's promise to the Israelite fathers through the prophets.

Therefore, if God's grace for salvation is both the attitude toward sinners made possible by the cross of Christ and the reality made actual by the Holy Spirit of power, it raises the question of "means of grace." In the case of the former—grace as attitude—"means" has scant meaning, and to the extent it is meaningful Christ crucified is the means of grace. As for the latter—grace as thing—Christ may again be considered the means of grace, because "grace" is the Holy Spirit himself given by the Father in Jesus' name (John 14:26). The church is not the means of grace; the church is the recipient of grace. And thus the sacraments of the church are also not means of grace by virtue of their enshrinement in the church.

But this still begs key questions. If the Holy Spirit is received at baptism, which the ancient church believed and which does have a certain degree of exegetical warrant, then baptism is indeed a means of grace. And if the Eucharist is the true body and blood of Christ (as was hinted in ancient times and then confessed in the Middle Ages), then as Christ is the means of grace-as-thing (which is the Holy Spirit) the bread and wine are means of grace also, because they are Christ himself. And finally, if the means of grace-as-thing is Christ, and the church is the body of Christ, then perhaps the church is indeed the means of grace in addition to being its recipient after all. So in a sense we arrive back where we started: a theology of the sacraments must be decided on grounds other than the right definition of grace and its relationship to the church; those questions leave room open however they are decided.

Monday, May 21, 2012

On Divine Impassibility and Christology

This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.

The concept shared by all sides in the ancient Christological debate, the concept that more than anything else made Christology such an intellectual crux, was the doctrine of God's impassibility, the belief that God could not suffer. This belief, which was practically taken for granted to be true by the church fathers, is nowhere stated outright in Scripture. There are Scriptural assertions of God's immutability, however, and these combined with reigning classical philosophical tenets about to on (“the thing that is,” i.e., Being itself) led the fathers to adopt uncritically the belief in the impassibility of ho ôn (“the One who is”).

(A note on impassibility and impassivity. Because God could not suffer, some [certainly the pagan philosophers who viewed God as impersonal] took the next logical step and maintained that God was impassive as well—that is, that he did not feel at all. Some Christian fathers agreed with this to a great extent and called biblical expressions of God's emotional state [e.g., wrath] to be sheerly anthropomorphic; others held back and allowed that God did feel, albeit not in a way that is essentially tied to suffering like humans do.)

The Christological problem is that God cannot suffer (the fathers believed) but Christ, who is homoousios (i.e., of the same essence) with the Father, somehow did. This is related to a soteriological problem: there had to be a genuine union of impassible divinity and passible humanity in Christ so that we passible humans could be saved from our passibility by union with him and thus become immortal.

It is fashionable today to dismiss God's impassibility as a patristic hang-up, because it is also fashionable to blame everything doctrinal one doesn't like on the Greeks. The massive awareness of suffering in the 20th century (at least to Westerners—it probably wasn't new to the rest of the world) made the idea of a suffering God attractive. And to top it all off God's impassibility as such has scant biblical warrant; in fact, texts like the book of Hosea appear to describe God's suffering forcefully. Jettisoning God's impassibility has a lot to commend it, and it neatly resolves the Christological problem by removing one horn of the dilemma.

But the soteriological problem remains and in fact becomes an eschatological problem. Because if God is by nature passible then so we always will be. That would imply that the absence of suffering in the new creation is not because of the new nature of the redeemed but because of an arrangement of circumstances to take away what might hurt us. So its glory would lie not in making humans stronger but in making the world weaker. While this might be akin to the pre-fall creation, it is not worthy of the new one, which is to be greater. It also reintroduces a Christological problem through the back door, not the problem of Christ's post-incarnational state but his post-resurrectional one: if impassibility is not an inherent quality in God to be partaken of by humanity in Christ, then how was the resurrected Christ unable to suffer even during his forty days with the disciples in this age before his ascension to the Father's side?

Squaring God's impassibility with the biblical witness becomes a bit easier if we are careful to define what suffering is. For humans at least—and apparently for animal life as well—suffering is both pain and weakness. This is true biologically anyway; when I break my arm I feel pain and that arm does not work. This is even true in small ways; when I bruise myself tissue gets inflamed and cells die, bringing a minor incapacity to that part of my body. But it appears that for God pain and weakness are not joined together. God absorbs blows that he genuinely feels and genuinely hurt but make him no less than he was before receiving them. The Holy Spirit may be "grieved" (Eph. 4:30), an emotional pain, but he is no less powerful or perfect as a result of that grief; it does not stop him or slow him down. And this is what must be retained in the doctrine of God's impassibility—not that God does not endure blows or experience pain but that God does not become any the less God, any the less infinitely perfect and infinitely dominant over his creation, as a result. It is God's power, not God's feelings, that must remain unaffected.

This may resolve the Christological dilemma. As God in the flesh, fully God and fully man, Christ truly suffered as both, but the single experience of suffering was not experienced singly by his two natures. In both natures he endured blows and in both natures he felt pain, but only in his human nature did that pain include weakness to the point of death, because only human nature, not divine, can be weak. Thus there can truly be a hypostatic union of natures (i.e., two natures united in the single individual who is the Son) in which the divine Lord of glory himself is truly the one crucified (1 Cor. 2:8), and he feels it and knows it as pain, but at the same time Christ's divine nature remains unweakened and God's impassibility, rightly understood, is unthreatened.

Admittedly, something inexplicable happens in Christ's resurrection. He possesses a "spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15:44), in which the impassibility of the divine nature has been fused to human nature in such a way as to render the latter impassible as well. Thus Christ could still have holes in his body but be even mightier physically than he was before he received them.

Perhaps I need to reconsider my earlier statement of the eschatological problem of making God passible. Because pain, not merely weakness, is absent from the new creation (Rev. 21:4). Perhaps the nature of the new creation is both the strengthening of humanity with the unmitigated power of God to banish weakness and the removal of those circumstances that cause pain (namely sin and all its concomitants, notably death).

Another thing that perhaps must be qualified is the nature of God's power. For a while I have maintained that God's almighty power is not intrinsic to his nature in and of itself but rather is inherent in his relationship to his creation. God has almighty power over everything because everything came into being by him; if nothing existed besides God then "powerful" is a vacuous descriptor of him because "power" implies "power over" something else. Therefore Christ could remain fully God and yet experience weakness as man because his relationship to the creation was altered in his incarnate life, having entered time and being united with the stuff of creation. This has been the root of my explanation of how Christ suffered, how Christ could not know certain things, how Christ could truly experience what we experience, how he could truly be an example for us to emulate, and how he could empty himself without making himself any the less God (an impossibility). But if God's impassibility even in the flesh means preserving his power (see above), then I need to distinguish more carefully what "power" means in this context. God's impassibility in Christ means not that Christ's "power over" creation is unaffected, because that had already been emptied and his miracles were exercised by the Holy Spirit through him. Rather it means (if this statement has any meaning) that his power to be who he is is unaffected, his integrity of nature is unaffected—his perfection, not his dominance. The strength that he retained in the incarnation was not his strength over creation but his strength to persist as God within the creation undiminished by the forces of creation even as his human flesh failed.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

How Jaroslav Pelikan Blew My Mind

Last month I finished a three-year (albeit stop-and-go) project: reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1971-89). Let me tell you the Top Ten incredibly cool things about this work.

1) It’s written by a guy named Jaroslav Pelikan. “Jaroslav” is pronounced YAHR-oh-slahv, and “Pelikan” is pronounced like the bird. That’s probably enough reason to read it right there.

2) Pelikan was a historian at Yale University for a really long time. His focus of study was historical theology. That’s the corner of the field of theology that looks at how ideas about God and his work of creation and redemption have been expressed and have developed in the church over the 1900 years since the apostles. He was a Lutheran who, at the end of an entire life studying the history of theology and doctrine, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. (There’s probably something to be learned from this.)

3) Pelikan also wrote a short book that I adore called Bach among the Theologians, which should be read just because of its title.

4) The historical span of The Christian Tradition extends from the death of the apostles to the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65. The names of the five volumes are (1) The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600); (2) The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700); (3) The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300); (4) Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700); (5) Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700).

5) All told, including indexes, bibliographies, and prefatory material, the five volumes together come in at 2,003 pages.

6) The first paragraph of the work proper (in a section entitled “Some Definitions”) says:
What the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God: this is Christian doctrine. Doctrine is not the only, not even the primary, activity of the church. The church worships God and serves mankind, it works for the transformation of this world and awaits the consummation of its hope in the next. “Faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”—love, and not faith, and certainly not doctrine. The church is always more than a school. . . . but the church cannot be less than a school. . . . The Christian church would not be the church as we know it without Christian doctrine.
7) The final paragraph of that section reads:
The theological presupposition of this history, a presupposition which is in turn based on upon a particular reading of history, is the variety of theologies and the unity of the gospel—the unity as well as the variety, and the unity within the variety. It is based on an acceptance of genuine novelty and change in Christian history and on an affirmation of true development and growth. “Credo unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam” [I believe in one holy catholic (universal) and apostolic church].
8) Between those paragraphs appears the deliciously quotable aphorism, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

9) This work is an education all by itself—so much so that I almost felt like I didn’t know what Christian theology was until I had read it. That’s not true, as it happens, but that feeling I had indicates how wide this work blew my mind open and expanded both what I knew and what I thought about what I knew.

10) In some places this work is surprisingly easy to read; in others it’s surprisingly hard. For me, reading through volume 1 was a pleasure (though I grant that it might be tough going for people unfamiliar with the terrain). I found myself re-reading sections and chapters to understand them most often in volumes 3 and 5. He is hardest to understand when he tries to summarize things that are almost unsummarizable. I recommend volume 1 to every interested reader. Later volumes should be attempted after reading the first, but they might be unreadable without theological training; I’m not sure.

Over these three years of reading this work (especially during the first) I occasionally wrote essays for myself about issues raised by the books where they had greatly stimulated my thinking. Over the next few posts I’m going to publish them here. I am scarcely going to edit them, because that would take work. Therefore, since I wrote these for myself, they may be quite difficult to understand at times with undefined technical terms and passing references to things. They tend to be speculative and usually end with an unanswered question. They probably won’t be of much value to anyone. But hey, what are blogs for? (Consider that Unanswered Question #1.)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Repost: Self-Interview about Same-Sex Marriage

Last year I wrote a three-part series on same-sex marriage. Since President Obama just announced his personal support for it and North Carolina approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman the day before, it seemed fitting to repost my earlier post in its entirety.

I hope you read it and consider it or at least jump to the questions most interesting to you—especially those of you who endorse same-sex marriage. I promise that there is not one nasty thing written about you in the whole post. What other blog makes that promise?

I sat down with myself recently and asked myself some questions about same-sex marriage.

Do you believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, and why or why not?

The heart of the Christian perspective on marriage generally is Matthew 19:3-9, which in turn is Jesus' meditation on Genesis 1:26-27; 2:18-25.  In this passage, Jesus is asked by Jewish legal scholars whether it is legit to divorce one's wife for any reason—their argument is that when Moses gave the legal stipulations for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 he didn't put conditions on them.  Jesus' reply is that Moses' law came later as a concession to "your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way."  Rather, God's plan in the beginning was that "a man . . . will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh," since indeed, the first woman was made from the rib removed from the first man's body, and their union in marriage is the reunion of the two halves of humanity into one whole, a reunion recapitulated in every marriage since.

This is all interesting and relevant stuff, but what's really interesting is Jesus' dictum, "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."  The key words here are, "What God has joined together."  When a marriage is made, God is the one who makes it; God "joins together."  Marriage is God's invention, God's definition, and God is the one who makes it happen.  The two spouses must be willing, in traditional settings the families must be supportive, the state typically gives its acknowledgment, and for religious people a member of the clergy facilitates the ceremony.  But neither the spouses nor the families nor the state nor the clergyperson make the marriage.  Mysteriously, God joins them together.

On the one hand, it is accurate to say that traditional Christian teaching forbids same-sex marriage because marriage is (or ought to be) an intrinsically sexual relationship, and homosexual activity (i.e., acting for gratification on same-sex attraction) is defined in the Bible as a sin.  But it is just as accurate to say that Christian teaching forbids same-sex marriage because there is no such thing as same-sex marriage.  If God is the one who defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman (see my analysis of biblical polygamy if you must), and if God is the one who makes marriages happen, even for those who don't know he exists, then no one else has the power to alter his definition or make marriages.  So even if two partners of the same sex love each other deeply and pledge their lives to each other, even if their families support it, even if the state legitimates it, and even if a clergyperson officiates it, it still isn't a marriage because God didn't make it.  Christians maintain that "same-sex marriage" is like "square circle," a self-contradiction, a logical impossibility.  Just because someone says there is such a thing doesn't mean there really is.  That doesn't mean that two people of the same sex are unable to love each other faithfully for the rest of their lives.  It just means that that life-long love isn't a marriage.

So I oppose legitimizing same-sex marriage not so much because such a thing shouldn't happen as because such a thing can't happen.  And my opposition is based on an assumption that since God created stuff, if people function in accordance with his definitions of stuff, then things will go better than if they don't.  It's like if I operate my car in accordance with the owner's manual then it will run better for longer than if I rewrite the manual the way I like it and expect that the car itself will reflect my wishes.  Legitimizing same-sex marriage is an attempted societal revision of natural law we didn't write and are unable to rewrite, and we put ourselves at unknown risks by pretending to.

Is there any argument against same-sex marriage that doesn't come from a religious source or worldview?

As a matter of fact, there are such arguments.  One is an argument from evolution.  If marriage was not instituted by God, then it evolved along with the human race.  A foundational principle of evolution is that new forms last and multiply when they equip organisms better for survival in a dangerous world with limited resources.  The existence of this social institution called marriage, then, as we have known it to this point, has assisted our survival as a species generally and of the bloodlines of those who have entered into it specifically.  It is possible that legitimizing same-sex marriage is a further evolution that will enhance our species' chances of survival.  It is also possible that this would be a harmful mutation that hurts our chances.  The only way to know will be many generations down the line when we can compare the strength of societies with the mutation and those without.  Of course, by that time it will be much too late to do anything about it if this evolution of marriage turns out to be the devolution of marriage.

An argument that follows similar lines is the observation that same-sex marriage has very rarely been known in the history of the world, including among societies (e.g., ancient Greece) that routinely engaged in homosexual activity.  So we're comparing the argument of those who favor legitimizing same-sex marriage today with the overwhelmingly larger number of those who oppose it or knew no such thing both today and in all human generations past.  Now, let me make something very clear: a principle is not wrong just because it's believed in by a minority, even a tiny minority.  A tiny minority might be the only group that has it right (in fact, Christianity itself has often been in this position).  However, this situation does suggest caution.  At the very least, to take an arrogant stance that those in favor of legitimizing same-sex marriage are enlightened and those who oppose it are cretins is to set oneself up as one of the far less than 1% wisest human beings who has ever lived.  That may be true, but it's quite a claim to back up.

Another argument has to do with the sociological benefits of marriage as we have known it.  Numerous studies document superior outcomes (in life expectancy, education, earning power, etc.) for children who were raised in the household of their married parents.  There is a strong case to be made that marriage is one of the greatest health- and wealth-generating things we know.  Some critics' opposition to same-sex marriage is founded on a belief that redefining marriage in that way will weaken it within society across the board, not extend its benefits to more people.

In places that have already allowed same-sex marriage, the world hasn't come to an end, so what's the big deal?

I think that anyone who believes that the effects of same-sex marriage for good or ill would appear within a few years of its legitimization is quite naive.

Let me illustrate it this way.  A massive earthquake on the ocean floor can trigger a tsunami that devastates a coastline hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  The cause of the destruction and its effect are widely separated in both distance and time; in fact, without global seismic observation and communication, we would never know that one was connected to the other.  Likewise, the most powerful, profound, and irreversible effects come from causes that are widely separated from them in time and even space.  For example, when production began in England and America during the Industrial Revolution, they didn't know that as a result our global temperature would increase faster than the natural rate and threaten our world itself.

In the same way, we just don't know what the results of same-sex marriage would be.  But it is safe to say that if we tinker with the fundamental social unit of human civilization, there will be enormous and profound consequences.  Few if any of us will be around to see those consequences, but it is also safe to say that if our descendants want to undo our decision, they won't be able to.

Who are you to tell someone who they can or can't marry?

I'm no one to tell anyone who they can or can't marry.  I can't force my beliefs on anyone, and I don't intend to try.  Because in fact, this very day anyone can consider themselves married to anyone they want.  If you are committed to your partner, and your partner is committed to you, and you pledge your lives to each other, even having someone to officiate a ceremony that says as much, and you consider yourselves married, no one can prevent you from doing that.  This is a free country, meaning that we recognize our inability to make anyone believe or not believe one thing or another.  So if you want to marry someone of the same sex, you can go right ahead.

But of course, this is not what proponents of same-sex marriage want.  It's not so much that they want for people to be able to marry others of the same sex; it's that they want such a marriage to be recognized by society at large both in general opinion and through the laws of the state.  This instinct is appropriate, because marriage is a public institution that is woven deeply into the life of every community.  A marriage not recognized widely as a marriage does lack a degree of integrity.  Nevertheless, since what proponents of same-sex marriage are looking for is recognition of these marriages by society at large, it is they who are trying to force their beliefs on other people.  I can't make someone who wants to pledge themselves in marriage to someone of the same sex not do so.  But some are trying to make me recognize a same-sex union as equivalent to an opposite-sex one as a member of a society organized around marriage in innumerable ways (tax law, for example).

So, I'm no one to tell someone who they can or can't marry.  But who is anyone to tell me what marriage I must or must not recognize?

How does disallowing same-sex marriage not violate the basic principle of equality under the law secured in our national and state constitutions?

Well, since I'm not a constitutional lawyer, I shouldn't get too deep into this, because I know enough to know that I don't really know what I'm talking about here.  But my basic answer, going back to the first question, is that every person in this country of requisite age may marry someone who is not a close relative.  It's just that "to marry" means by definition "to become joined in covenantal, sexual union with a member of the opposite sex."  As I said before, that's what marriage is.  Everyone has the right to do that.  To argue that some do not have their equal right to marry because they want to marry their same-sex partner is like arguing that some do not have their equal right to assembly because they want to assemble all alone.  It turns inside out the meaning of the words "assemble" and "marry."

But deep down, we already know this.  I just mentioned that we restrict marriage to people who are old enough and who aren't marrying a close relative.  We also restrict marriage to people who aren't currently married to someone else and who intend to marry a human being.  We place all these restrictions on marriage because we believe that anyone who enters into a marriage otherwise hasn't really entered it—it isn't real.  Until recently, marrying someone of the opposite sex was considered everywhere to be one of those requirements, but in any case, this way of restricting marriage to what is really marriage is not new.

Is keeping same-sex marriage illegal part of an agenda to make homosexual practice itself illegal or to discriminate against homosexuals?

Not for me.  Now, as I stated before, I do believe that homosexual practice is immoral.  And I also want to distinguish carefully between homosexual practice and homosexual desire.  A person may make choices that increase or decrease their amount of homosexual desire over the long term, but I recognize that they may not be able to do anything about the existence of homosexual desire within them.  That may truly be outside their control.  We can't be responsible for such desires.  But we are responsible for whether and how we act on our desires.  This is what I mean by homosexual practice, and I do believe that acting to gratify this desire is morally wrong.

But "morally wrong" does not necessarily mean "illegal."  It's grossly impractical and arguably itself wrong to make every wrong thing illegal.  I mean, when I lose my temper at someone when I'm driving, that's morally wrong.  Do we have the capacity or will within the court system to prosecute people for that consistently?  And how do we go about proving that someone has done something wrong within their thoughts, which only God can see clearly?

Even when it comes to physical actions, the law isn't always the best way of handling things.  Theologian David Wells described it this way.  There are some things that we generally agree are both wrong and dangerous to others.  This falls into the category of law.  Then there are other things that we generally agree are right and are good for the world.  These things we certainly don't want to prohibit.  But there's a gray area in between of things that we believe (perhaps not as widely) are wrong and potentially harmful, but these things are more situational, complicated, and/or private.  We don't think they should happen, at least not all the time or in every circumstance, but the law is too blunt an instrument to sort out what's right and what's not or impossible to be enforced fairly across the board.  This is the realm of virtue, where we hope that in place of people avoiding the wrong thing because it's against the law, they will avoid it because it offends their honor and their interior sense of what is right and wrong.

Every generation to some degree renegotiates what behaviors fall into each of these three categories.  In a prior era, homosexual practice fell into the realm of law.  Then it moved into the realm of virtue as sodomy laws ceased to be enforced.  Now some argue that it should move into the realm of what is altogether good.  I don't think it should go there.  But I don't think it should fall under law again either.  In other words, I don't think homosexual behavior should be criminalized.

Likewise, I don't think that homosexuals should be discriminated against in day-to-day life.  Otherwise, we would have to discriminate against everyone who does wrong but legal things, which means we would have to discriminate against all of ourselves, which means we would treat ourselves all the same, which means that we wouldn't be discriminating at all.

Do you think you will prevent same-sex marriage from becoming a legal and accepted part of American life?

Lately, no.  The fight has ebbed and flowed with each side trading the momentum and the upper hand.  We are still a significant distance from same-sex marriage being recognized in a widespread way in the United States.  But the trends are pointing in that direction.  I've observed a few things lately that don't really mean much of themselves but are indicators of our current trajectory.  (1) A Pew poll shows increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage since 1996 with fewer than 50% (though still a plurality) opposing it now.  (2) Apple's rejection of the Manhattan Declaration app (which I previously blogged about), labeling it "defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited or likely to expose the targeted group to harm or violence" and "objectionable and potentially harmful to others," and the almost total lack of media coverage of this story.  (3) The Obama administration's recent decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court.  (4) An unusually bold comment by a conservative-leaning pundit I highly respect, David Brooks, that, though he "worr[ies] about a president not defending a law that's on the books," nevertheless, "on the substance I certainly agree with his position.  I think he's moving toward the right position . . . maybe moving a little too slowly, and too slowly for the country, [for] which I think this is becoming a nonissue."

So why do you continue to speak against it?

Well, for one thing, it ain't over till the fat lady sings.  As I said, this controversy has gone back and forth, and I don't know what's going to happen next.  So what I write and say might still have a tiny influence.  There could also be game-changers that we haven't foreseen yet.  For instance, the huge turnout of blacks and Hispanics in California to elect President Obama in 2008 also contributed to the ballot initiative to amend the California Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman the same year.  Demographic changes because of immigration—especially if immigration reform is passed that allows many illegal immigrants to become citizens—could dramatically reshape the landscape on this issue.

But the main reason that I speak is that one job of a Christian, particularly a preacher, is to be a witness to truth.  God appointed the prophet Ezekiel to be like a watchman, someone who foresees impending danger and shouts a warning.  God made clear to Ezekiel that if someone chose not to heed Ezekiel's warning he was responsible for his own fate.  But if Ezekiel saw the danger and did not warn the people, then their death was Ezekiel's responsibility.  As it turned out, the people were destined not to heed Ezekiel's warning, but that did not make his prophecies useless.  When the disaster came, there was a witness that it had come as a result of rebellion against God's law, not just military failure or political mismanagement.  Perhaps someday we will be in a similar position, and the things that believers say now will ultimately point people to God and turn them to him.  That would be a great thing, even if it is very unpleasant getting there.

What will you do if same-sex marriage becomes legal and mainstream?

Well, I will continue to maintain the standards I always maintain for the marriages I perform, whatever the consequences happen to be.  I probably won't talk about it a whole lot, because there are other, bigger fish to fry, but I will maintain my position when it comes up.  I expect to continue to hold to it even if younger generations of Christians think I'm a judgmental stick in the mud.  If a government illegally restricts my freedom of religion on these grounds, I'll submit to being arrested.  But I also want to be open to being corrected from the Word of God if in fact I've confused what the Lord has said with what I think.

So, do you have any hope for your position?

I have hope in something even more powerful.  I have hope in the kingdom of God.  I have hope that Christ will return and take sovereign authority over the whole world and set it up the way he wants it.  I have hope that as I preach that message, people will believe and be saved on that great day.  And I have hope that nothing can stop that.  No one has ever lived in a community with perfect laws.  Though a community will thrive in part because of how perfect its laws are, the community of my primary citizenship does have perfect governance and cannot be overcome by any other.  I don't need to live in an ideal state to be happy, because in Christ I already live there, and I always will.  And I am confident that more and more people will by God's grace opt to live there too no matter what our earthly communities become.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Evangelism, Social Action, and a Guy Named Mansfield French

I have begun a Doctor of Ministry program (projected graduation date 2015) in a track called Revival and Reform: Renewing Congregational Life. It is a unique program that educates ministers in the history of revival and social reform in America so that those ministers will be equipped to prepare for, recognize, and cooperate with God’s sovereign work of renewal in their own ministries.

For the next three years I’m going to be working on a thesis-project, which will be a book-length summation of historical research with an eye toward practical application today. I’d like to share my thesis-project proposal with you in the odd event that you might know of resources that pertain to the study I’m doing. I say “odd event” because the topic of my research is a man who, to my knowledge, has has only been written about for commercial or scholarly publication once in about 130 years. The proposal follows; if you come across anything that pertains to it, please let me know. Thanks!

Background: the problem

For at least 100 years, white American Protestants (and perhaps other Christians—I do not know) have not known how to conduct vigorously both what we call evangelism and what we call social action. This is especially true if evangelism is rigorously defined according to a classic evangelical model of spiritual regeneration of individuals (even if masses of individuals are in view) and if social action is defined as systemic transformation of unjust social structures (even including intervention at a more narrowly focused leverage point).

Some (classic fundamentalists and many other politically conservative evangelicals) reject social action entirely or define it entirely in “values” terms that ignore systemic injustices (especially economic) against whole groups of people. Others (classic liberals) reject evangelism or redefine it radically to eliminate regeneration/conversion and/or pragmatically to equate it with recruitment to the church.

Still others, however (the Center-Right and -Left), want to do both evangelism and social action but don’t know how. For example, some start by believing in evangelism, then they become attracted to social action, and eventually they embrace the latter and ignore the former. Others engage in one and talk a good game about the other, but they never actually engage in it. Still others begin engagement but eventually withdraw back to the area that is more comfortable for them personally or according to their congregation, denomination, and/or tradition. In any case, these people have a sense that evangelism and social action are both important, but they do not know how to do both devotedly and well.

One thing that white American Protestants lack—and have for some time—is a set of models for the integration of evangelism and social action as defined above. We lack theological models for integration (at least within wide currency). But we also lack personal models—individuals who have not only gotten famous doing the one while praising the other but who have actually done both. Such models from other times and/or cultures could yield principles that we could put into practice in our time and culture.

Background: Mansfield French

Mansfield French was born into an Episcopalian family in Vermont in 1810. As a student and young teacher in 1828-29 he was caught up in a revival that passed through New England and experienced conversion. Soon after he migrated to central Ohio, where he was a sometime student at Kenyon College while launching a series of educational institutions as owner and principal teacher, eventually joined in educational work by his wife Austa. In 1845 a revival swept through Ohio that led French to join the Methodists and serve as a successful revivalistic circuit rider. In 1850 French was debilitated by a mental and physical breakdown and then returned to educational work as part of the group that founded Wilberforce College for former slaves and free blacks. His prior experience had revealed his knack for fundraising, and he eventually became Wilberforce’s full-time fundraiser based in New York City. There French, who had become increasingly compelled by the abolitionist cause, associated with men with the same view.

By late 1861 U.S. forces controlled two beachheads along the Confederate Atlantic coast at Fortress Monroe (on the Virginia Peninsula) and Port Royal Sound (in South Carolina). In New York, French heard tales of the plight of refugee slaves who had escaped to Union lines or had been abandoned by their fleeing masters. These refugees had no legal status and no control of their destinies. Through his friend Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, French got permission to travel south to observe the blacks’ condition and reported both to President Lincoln and to his friends in New York. A coalition of anti-slavery societies sent French and a large contingent of teachers and aid workers south to care for and teach the escaped slaves. French received a commission as chaplain in the U.S. Army and split his time between educational ministry and preaching in Beaufort and Charleston, S.C. and lobbying Lincoln and Congress for emancipation and help for the newly free blacks. French continued in this work with the Freedmen’s Bureau through 1868 before returning to New York to resume pastoral ministry on Long Island until his death in 1876.

Subject of study

(a) I am studying Mansfield French (1810-76), particularly his thinking and practice of ministry to former slaves, (b) because I want to know how evangelism and social action related to each other in his ministry, (c) so that I can provide pastors and churches—especially those that combine evangelical theology with giftedness in serving their neighbors—with an example they can imitate and/or be cautioned by in order to do evangelism and social action well.


For Mansfield French, evangelism and social action were mutually reinforcing. Social action opened the door for effective evangelism while efficacious evangelism was a necessary component of social change—a virtuous cycle.