An Evangelical Approach to Homosexuality - A Proposal

Saturday, December 26, 2009

There is a lot of talk among Evangelicals about whether homosexuality is "right" or not. There are people on both sides of the debate, each quoting their Bible. I don't know if this will ever really be resolved, but there is one thing that I think we all can agree on:

We as the church ought to demonstrate love and grace towards people who are gay.

At this point in the argument, however it is common for someone to say, "Yes, but there is a difference between accepting someone and condoning their behavior."

It is at this point that my proposal comes in. Let me begin with some very sobering facts: Statistically, homosexuals have a higher rate of drug abuse, mental illness, and suicide than the larger population. Alarmingly higher in fact. This is well known in the LGBT community, and the reason is quite clear: the rejection they experience - being kicked out of their homes, hiding who they are, being threatened and hated, and so on can easily make a person sick, depressed, broken, and even drive them to suicide. So when gays talk about the importance of being accepted, this is not just political, its something very very close to home for them. It is quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Because of that fact, I think it is rather clear where our priorities should be, and where the priorities of Jesus would be. In his time he was known for "fellowshiping with sinners". Religious folks saw how he welcomed sinners, and concluded that he must not be a prophet. And what did Jesus do? Did he defend his reputation? Did he make sure not to give people the wrong impression? No, he went out of his way to reach out to these people on the margins, often causing open confrontations between himself and the religious leaders of his day. That is our model. Jesus who cares waaaaay more abut loving people than he does with if that looks proper or not.

So based on that model of asking "what would Jesus do" taken together with the severity people in the gay community have of hearing more than anything "you are loved," I propose an indefinite moratorium on pronouncements of the morality or immorality of homosexuality. Let's put that on hold for something much more important.

Regardless of where we stand on the rightness or the wrongness of being gay, I think we should all realize that none of that matters much when people are dying. We need to change our priorities and focus on the critical issue of communicating love and acceptance to these people. Communicating it to a fault, communicating it so completely that we are "misunderstood" and get a "bad reputation," because that is exactly what Jesus did. I want to hear sermons only on how we should love and welcome gay people into our churches, and I want those sermons to be completely unbalanced.

We have spent so much time being "balanced" in the other direction, so much time worrying about "giving the wrong impression" that it is time to shift our lopsided boat the other way. Because as long as our priority is in looking moral rather than in showing compassion and grace to those on the outside, we simply do not have the priorities of Jesus. And when we do not reflect Christ, we are giving the wrong impression. So let's change that.

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God's Alien Justice (redux)

Friday, December 25, 2009

This is a redux of an earlier post. I added a lot more detail, and refined some of the arguments. So I thought I would re-post this rather than just editing the old one.

Romans 3:21-26 is a key text for proponents of penal substitution. I want to look here at a key term that Paul uses in this passage: the Greek word δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē) which can be translated as either "justice" or "righteousness".

Dikaiosynē is the same word the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the authors of the New Testament) uses to translate the Hebrew צְדָקָה (tsedaqah) in the Old Testament, which likewise can be rendered in English either as righteousness or justice. It stands to reason that Paul, being a Hebrew, has the conceptual idea of the Hebrew tsedaqah in mind when he speaks of dikaiosynē in Greek. In other words, his concept of justice/righteousness is based on a conception of justice based on the Bible rather than on a pagan Greek or Roman understanding. In Hebrew, the central word for “justice” is משׁפט (mishpat). Our term tsedaqah in contrast is almost always translated as “righteousness” in the OT. That’s because the connotation of tsedaqah is not justice in the sense of deciding, or in the sense of consequence, but in the sense of goodness. In the OT, tsedaqah justice is an idea rooted in the Character of God, like when we say that a king is “just,” and mean that he is good and fair. In the Old Testament, the concept of tsedaqah has to do with balancing things out again, making things right, in particular with caring for the poor and oppressed. Today, the word tsedaqah justice/righteousness is associated in Judaism with acts of charity, and many Jewish charities are often named “tsedaqah(modern Hebrew would transliterate this as tzedakah, whereas I’m using the SBL standard for biblical Hebrew here for my transliterations) So tsedaqah justice means restorative justice rather than retributive justice.

This understanding of restorative social justice was key to Martin Luther's breakthrough where he rediscovered the Gospel in Romans. Like everyone else at the time, he had been reading the Bible in Latin, which for several hundred years had been the only translation available. The word for justice in Latin here is iustitia which is the word our own “justice” derives from. In Latin, because of the focus on Roman law, the word iustitia had come to refer to a quid-pro-quo payback justice. So Luther, reading his Bible in Latin had assumed that the passage in Romans 3 was about retributive justice. Today when we read the word Justice often have a similar connotation because of how our society defines justice in this same Jack Bauer payback type of way. A big thing Luther did was to emphasize the importance of reading the Bible in its original languages, an idea he called ad fontes which is Latin for back to the sources. Getting back to the orginal Greek and Hebrew allowed Luther to figure out that the righteousness that Paul was speaking of was so different from the one from his own German-Roman legal based one that he called it an “alien righteousness” (iustitia aliena). It was an idea that turned his world on his head, and led him to re-discover grace. We also need to get back to source of the original terms: the Greek dikaiosynē standing for the Hebrew idea of tsedaqah justice.

With that background in mind, let’s take a look at the passage from Romans 3, keeping in mind the meaning of dikaiosynē as restorative making-things-right justice, and of the related verb dikaios as “making right” as in the idea of righting a wrong.

"But now a loving restoration (dikaiosynē) from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify . This loving restoration (dikaiosynē) from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are set right (dikaioō) freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his loving restoration (dikaiosynē) because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his loving restoration (dikaiosynē) at the present time, so as to be righteously loving (dikaios) and the one who lovingly sets right (dikaioō) those who have faith in Jesus (Rom 3:21-26).

Or how about this rendering:

"But now a goodness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify . This goodness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are made good freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his goodness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his goodness at the present time, so as to be good and the one who makes good those who have faith in Jesus.

In that context, the idea of Christ here “turning away wrath” is not because he is punished, but because he makes us (dikaios) good/righteous. Because Jesus “takes away sin by faith in his blood” we are made good. We are made right again. As a result, God’s wrath is “turned away” because the cause of that wrath was sin, and since sin has been removed, so has the cause of wrath.

In contrast, if the above is read (as it had been by Anselm and so many others in the Latin church who did not have access to the original Greek) as iustitia retributive justice, that one can easily read into the above text the idea of penal substitution. Like this:

But now a righteousness (dikaiosynē) from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness (dikaiosynē) from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified (dikaioō) freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice (dikaiosynē), because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice (dikaiosynē) at the present time, so as to be just (dikaios) and the one who justifies (dikaioō) those who have faith in Jesus”

This is how the NIV translates the passage. Did you notice that they switch terms? Check out the highlighted words: They begin by translating dikaiosynē as “righteousness” and then switch to translating it as “justice”. Even through the Greek word group dikaiosynē, dikaioō, dikaios is the same throughout (all coming form the root word dikē ), they translate the verb dikaioō as justify, and the adjective dikaios as just. This changes how this passage sounds to us. Now it reads as if we are made righteous by God’s demonstration of (retributive) justice which turns aside his wrath. But if we are really paying attention, that is not what is being said.

Really, its not so much a problem with a translation (I usually like the NIV), but much more about ur own concept of what justice is about. In America, with our politicians and TV shows always talking about “bringing someone to justice” in the sense of hurting them, we really need to re-think the alien justice found in the New Testament.

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Exegesis # 6 More Exegetical Fallacies

Saturday, December 12, 2009

In my last post I mentioned several exegetical fallacies. I wanted to add another big one to the list:

Too much of a good thing
This is a fallacy that is frequently made by professionals who have expertise in a certain field. Say for example a biologist who sees e v e r y t h i n g solely in biological terms. Or the psychologist who over psychologizes everything and everyone. If you have a big fancy hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Let me give some examples of how this applies to biblical criticism:

The search for the "historical Jesus" involves what is called "redaction criticism" meaning it tries to seperate the message a gospel writer is trying to convey, from what they imagine the original point of Jesus may have been, hidden somewhere in there between the lines. The problem is, as Albert Schweitzer famously said, historians in search of the historical Jesus have looked down that deep well and in the end only seen their own reflection staring back at them.

I ran across an example of this recently in a book by William Loader called Jesus and the Fundamentalism of his Day. I was intrigued because the book was supposed to be about how to read the Bible like Jesus did. Sounds awesome right? Except that Loader's method is redaction criticism, so he ends up taking his own perspective and finding it in the words of Jesus that he decides are historical, while declaring the parts that disagree with him to be the additions of the gospel writer which he can then ignore. That means that he practically admits that Mark and Paul give a real critique of the OT, but instead of wresting with that, because he does not like the Old Testament being criticized, he calls this a "betrayal of Scripture" and says to the Gospel of Mark (and I quote) "Shame!" (p 41). So Loader says shame on Scripture for criticizing older Scripture. Hmmm. He can critique the NT, even disregard it, but a writer of the NT cannot criticize the OT without that being a "betrayal." What's wrong with this picture?

Here's the thing: knowing about history and understanding the culture of Jesus and the NT is certainly a very valuable thing to do. I really like the work of several scholars who use the historical-critical method (some favorites are Albert Nolan and Joachim Jeremias). The problems is when you have too much of a good thing and end up chucking most of the NT (usually the parts you don't like).

Or take the example of Greek word studies. They can be really valuable and sometimes uncover things that get lost in translation. For example in Acts, Peter is on trial for healing a crippled man (Acts 4:9–12). Peter declares that the man has been healed in the name of Jesus, and then says, "there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved." The translation is right, but you'll miss that in Greek the word Peter uses for "healed" is the same one he uses for "saved". The Greek word sozo (σῴζω) can mean both healed and saved. Similarly, when Jesus say "your faith has healed you" to the woman with the issue of bleeding, and "your faith has saved you" to the woman who washed his feet with her tears the Greek here is word for word the same. Neat huh? That can lead to some important insights that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle.

The problem again with word studies is when you get too much a good thing. When folks for example base an entire doctrine on just one word, phrase, or sentence. That is just plain loony, and it happens all the time. People quote a single verse to back up a whole system of thought. And this is not just your average pew-warmer. Big time theologians do this all the time. When you consider that the NT is compiled from a bunch of manuscripts that are not all the same, this seems even crazier. If we are reading the whole point of someone then the variations are trivial, but if they hang on one word, what if that word is wrong? Even if it is not, think about if someone did that with something you wrote - taking some half sentence out of context and building a whole dogma around it in your name.

Want an example? Karl Barth goes on and on (as only Barth can) in his Church Dogmatics about the difference between agape and phileo love. Phileo love he says is bad because it expects something in return and is based on liking someone. Agape is totally unselfish. The thing is, in Greek there really is no clear distinction like that. Agape and phileo can be used as synonyms, and often are. John tells us that God phileos the Son. So either there is not that sharp of a distinction, or God likes Jesus (I sure like Jesus, so I can see why God would). Barth's argument is over the top and many have criticized it on those grounds, saying that it is healthy to like people and not to be only unselfish. Joy is a good thing, and heck even eros is a good thing. I don't just agape my wife, I eros her too, and one hopes Barth felt the same about his wife. It's an argument that makes no sense really and only stands because it claims to be based on a Scriptural word - a word that Barth in all likelihood understood incorrectly anyway. The thing is, you don't need to know Greek to recognize when someone is making a ridiculous argument, you just need to think a little. Knowing Greek is not a substitute for using your noggin.

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Exegesis # 5 - Fallacies

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

I'm reading through two books right now, Carson's Exegetical Fallacies, and Silva's Biblical Words and their Meaning. I'm not a big fan of Carson, but I have to say the list of fallacies he has mentioned so far is pretty good. I thought I'd share some of them here:

This is where one assumes that etymological root of a word determines its meaning. It can sometimes, but it also can be irrelevant. For example the word breakfast clearly comes from breaking a fast, but no one really thinks about that when they think of breakfast. So there could be a connotation with a word based on its literal meaning... or not at all.

This is a really big point actually, because the way to determine the meaning of a word is not to look at its original meaning, but to look at how it is used. That's how dictionaries are written today, and that is how one determines what a biblical word means - by looking at how it was used at the time. In cases where there is not a lot of stuff to compare it to (the Old Testament for example) one does have to use etymology, but this is always just a hypothesis.

Language Limits Thought
An example of this is the book Hebrew thought Compared with Greek. The idea here is that a language shapes how people think. I suppose it does somewhat, just as it does to be a certain race, or sex, or economic status. But people have an amazing ability to go beyond these limits, and the idea that one's thoughts would be so limited by their language is highly doubtful. Take for example Biblical Hebrew which has no future tense. Does that mean they had no concept of the future? Tell that to the prophets.

Terminus Technicus
This is where one assumes that a word used by Paul is used the same way by John, like a technical term. Another term for this fallacy might be "concordancing" where we look up all occurrences of a word and try to come up with what "the Bible says" that word means. People use words in different ways. Context, context, context.

Word Study Obsession
This is one cited by James Barr, and has to do with the penchant of scholars and pastors to go on and on with a word study, drawing out all the nuances of a word and all its implications for 20 pages. When Paul wrote those letters from prison, do you think he thought that much about every little word? Does anyone? What matters is the big picture of what their point is, the letter as a whole, the paragraph, the thought, and not spiraling off on the choice of one word.

As much as I think it is important to know Greek, it is way way more important to read the text as a whole in a readable translation in order to get inside the head of an author. The more I read in the original Greek, the more I find that my NIV is just fine. I know this is a point that ticks a lot of folks off, maybe because Greek is so hard to learn that it is upsetting to find out that it doesn't matter that much, but it just doesn't. Not compared to getting the larger thought of an author.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm all for Greek word studies. Sometimes they can turn up really important finds. But 9 times out of 10 they don't. It's all a matter of priorities, and a focus on words is not as important as a focus on thoughts.

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