A lesson we need to keep on learning and an argument from silence with the power to convict

[Fill in the blank] are people, treat them as such!

It’s a lesson we (human beings, poor broken and ‘fallen’ as we are) need to keep on learning. Three things have reminded me of this recently.

First encouraging students to discover this message in composing essays on Ruth or on Jonah, and leading a group in a local ‘village’1 to study the same beautiful little books.

Second Hannah’s Blog-On Still Believing and a Little Narnia posted a beautiful quote from Dorothy L. Sayers (from her brilliant article “The Human-Not-Quite-Human.”

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man-there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them! ”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them, and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.2

[See aside below.]

The other was an equally, but quite differently, brilliant combination of research from several disciplines reported in “How To Get Kids To Pay Attention“. The gist of which is so simple, be like the Maya, and not like ‘Modern” Westerners, and treat children like real people, and they will learn to pay attention, and so learn much better.

So, two recent posts in the electronic world remind that women are people, and that children are people, and two little stories from the ancient world remind that foreigners are people. Revolutionary!

[Aside: Dorothy Sayers’ argument is a really neat example of the untruth of the claim that arguments from silence always lack force. That Jesus’ words and actions, remembered by four different (often quite different) streams of tradition3 and recorded in dozens of pages each, NEVER not once patronise a woman because of her gender – however we read them not matter how we twist them! It is an argument from silence with the power to convict.]

  1. In NZ a ‘village’ is a retirement settlement, usually a mix of houses and apartments with a medical ward for those needing more assistance. []
  2.  Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” in On the Contrary: Essays by Men and Women, ed. Martha Rainbolt and Janet Fleetwood (SUNY Press, 1983), 13. []
  3. Plus, if Mark Goodacre and others are quite mistaken, a fifth Q. []

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

In these glorious Antipodes a storm has blown up in the conventional and the social media — not the series of sub-tropical storms that have been wreaking havoc with our homes and power poles, but a storm of opprobrium. It concerns (as you might expect)1 a rugby player. This rugby player expressed a theological opinion concerning the eternal destiny of some other people. Since rugby players are quasi-divine, naturally, his opinion on this matter is of huge importance….

Many of my Christian friends are (rightly) concerned about issues of tolerance and the possible suppression of religious views that dissent from the majority opinion (especially when those dissenting views are our own). In this respect several decades of liberalism have made us unprepared for such a resurgence of the Spanish Inquisition. But then no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

I am more interested in the theological question, is Israel Folau correct that gays are going to hell?

On what grounds might we say this with theological authority? If sin alone is the grounds then we are all doomed, if unrepented sin, I suspect likewise… Or is there a scale of sins with some (mine and your’s perhaps?) being venial and others (on whose unacceptability to God we agree) being mortal – ah, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  1. You might expect this since rugby players here play the quasi-divine role that billionaires and film stars play in the USA, or royalty in some more conservative places. []

The Gender of YHWH and a carnival

Portrait of God as a bald-headed old guy with a beard.

Doug Chaplin has done a typically thorough and careful job of the October Biblical Studies Carnival.

Among other interesting material he notes, and often in a few well-chosen words reviews, was a post by Mark Zvi Brettler at TheTorah.com on ‘The Gender of God‘. As you might expect, I would have put things differently, and weighted the arguments differently, but then the post would have been less interesting. (For me at least, as it is careful scholars with whom I disagree a little from whom I often learn the most!) Brettler is far more careful than most writers on this topic to note and respect the distinction between the historico-critical and theological meanings of his texts. Strangely, though he is the Jew I would be the one to put greater weight on reading in the light of the tradition of interpretation which it seems o me he ends up downplaying. (Perhaps because he was conscious of writing as an ‘academic’.)1

  1. It that’s correct, it raises sharply again the question of whether, and why not if the response is negative, confessional theological work is academic. Are Marxist readings of history not academic? And what should a historian who is a convinced Marxist do with his Marxism when writing history? []

Contraception and Theology of Marriage

 

I have several times in different forums expressed sadness that ‘our’ (which varies somewhat in its content depending on my context when making the claim, but usually implies NZ Baptists or more widely Evangelicals in NZ) theology of sex and marriage does not cohere well with our pastoral practice. In this post I am focusing on one such area, contraception.

Contraception

At the end of the last century Al Mohler, writing in a reevaluation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae three decades after its publication, made this point in typically forceful style:

Most evangelical Protestants greeted the advent of modern birth control technologies with applause and relief. Lacking any substantial theology of marriage, sex, or the family, evangelicals welcomed the development of “The Pill” much as the world celebrated the discovery of penicillin-as one more milestone in the inevitable march of human progress and the conquest of nature.
R. Albert Mohler untitled in “Contraception: a symposium” First Things, 1998

Has this changed substantially in the first two decades of the 21st C?

Having asked this question in a number of places and received only louder and louder affirmations of the splendours of the imperial sartorial equipment, I would really like to be pointed to something better than the threadbare old trousers that her Imperial Highness only permits her husband to wear in private!

I am not aware of any readily available teaching by/for NZ Baptists that suggests limits on their use of contraceptive technologies. Mohler’s article made a strong distinction between contraceptive technologies that could have abortifacient effects and those which did not. I am sure that (insofar as they are aware of this issue) most NZ Baptists would share Mohler’s concern. Looking around at the number of children in the families in churches I visit it seems clear that (as is apparently true according to census data) family sizes are often higher than the current societal norm (with three and even four children being not uncommon) however families with more than five children are almost as rare in church as outside.1

Thus the pastoral practice seems to be that contraception as a means of ‘family planning’ is quite acceptable in our churches, and that the only firm restrictions on the methods used are those put in place by the medical establishment.

Marriage

Christian theological understandings of marriage have (at least since Augustine) presented the conception, birthing, and raising of children as (at the very least, one of) the ‘goods’ (in the sense of the good things that are inherent in the institution)  of marriage. For Augustine it was indeed the first good.

However, procreation cannot be a necessary condition of marriage. Infertile couples remain married even when their hopes of bearing children seem (possible miracles apart) dashed. Our approval (even if nuanced as Mohler suggests) of birth control measures makes this even more clear. Yet an ‘openness’ (whatever that is understood to mean and to me the phrase seems vague) to procreation by the bearing and raising of children has been understood to be a necessary part of marriage.

Inconclusion

This is an inconclusion not an ‘in conclusion’ because I have not clarified for myself these questions.

The bearing and raising (both and each) of children is a great ‘good’ of marriage and beyond that is part of what marriage is about. Yet, some remain childless and know that they will. Must such couples adopt? Or does anyone’s definition of marriage exclude the possibility of childless marriage. This seems to me an impossible and arrogant claim. For the childless couples I know simply are married.

Given the social2 and economic context in which NZ marriages are lived, birth control seems sensible. It is allowed, and by default (through the witness of average family size) encouraged, in our churches.

Procreation is a good, but not a necessary, feature of marriage.

Little of this is clear, or worked out in theologically consistent and biblical ways. None of it is much taught in churches. We do however in many ways devalue or exclude singleness. Even widows (those once, but tragically no longer, married, because death has intervened)3 find their position in church is somehow ‘less’ (less easy, less clear, even less esteemed).

So, finally, I return to the question I started with: Do 21st C Evangelicals in New Zealand have a clear and widely accepted theology of sex and marriage that coheres with our pastoral practice? My answer is: No, we do not. Yet each time I pose the question I am told forcefully (though so far without any referencing of such theological teaching) that we do, it is ‘understood’ by 90% of us!

Can anyone point me to a nice clear simple expression of this ‘understood’ biblical theology?

  1. In writing this I am thinking of the few such families that I know. They are exceptional, in every sense! []
  2. E.g. an assumption of nuclear family households, combined with geographical mobility. []
  3. I plan to write about divorce in another post. []

Gay marriage, thinking through the case for toleration

Preamble

Among conservatives toleration has become a dangerous word. Spotting the excesses to which the ethos of toleration leads contemporary society they see the need to reject such ideals. They are, at the very least partly, right. Yet when some of my more conservative friends apply this suspicion of toleration to the question of gay marriage and the church, as an overwhelming majority of delegates to the 2015 NZ Baptist Assembly (Gathering/Hui) seemed to do, I wonder at their rightness.

I am not here arguing for (or against) the claim that churches should marry gay couples – I am not qualified to make the case in either direction, though I have studied some of the arguments for both. I want, however, to discuss the toleration within the Christian community (I’d say “church” but as a Baptist the institutional church is local, and the “church universal” is too ill-defined to be useful). The question I want to begin to address, and to which I would love to hear your responses, is simply: Is homosexual activity so clearly a sin (as defined by our understanding of Scripture) that we must judge anyone who implicitly condones such activity by approving of a gay marriage (whether conducting it, blessing it, or allowing their premises to be used for such) as being in rebellion against God.

Body of the argument

There are issues (e.g. slavery or remarriage of divorced people) on which we have debated, and reached a fairly clear position. In both these examples the biblical hermeneutics involved in our decision are not simple or straightforward. In the first case the Bible does not condemn slavery, and indeed it offers rules and advice to mitigate its conditions, while (at least in Philemon) accepting it as a social and legal reality. However, higher and more central biblical convictions overshadow this. In the case of divorce the biblical case is even less clear. On the one hand, we have Jesus’ statement: “…whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” (Mat 19:9)1 On the other it seems to me we merely have the claim that circumstances today are so different from those of the first century that we can fulfil the spirit of Jesus’ teaching whilst breaking its letter!

In the case of homosexual activity (and therefore marriage) we have no such agreement. Whilst in Evangelical, Baptist and other church traditions that recognise the central authority of Scripture in governing our practice the very large majority of people, pastors and churches hold to the straightforward reading of those Bible texts that list such activity as sinful, there are still a small but not negligible number who choose to apply a less straightforward hermeneutic (with examples similar to each of the other issues mentioned above).

However, the church ought not to be a democracy. We should together listen for the guidance and conviction of the Holy Spirit. At present there is by no means unity in that conviction.

In these circumstances the case for tolerance (by each “side” of the other, until such conviction becomes more closely “common” or such comonality of conviction is evidently impossible) has recently been made in two related but different ways.2

A group of British Baptist theologians and leaders put out a statement: “The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality3 In it they argue, on the grounds of traditional and definitive Baptist ecclesiology and practice, for continued engagement with and listening to each other by both sides as we continue to wait upon the Spirit of God for clarification. In particular they “believe that any such attempt [to impose uniformity in the absence of agreement] would be faithless and born of fear, a denial of our shared Baptist confession of how God calls us to live together.”

Meanwhile one of the authors of the new Zondervan book Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church4 Steve R. Holmes (who is also a signatory to the Baptist statement) has argued a similar case from the grounds of “sola fide” that if salvation is on the basis of faith alone we cannot exclude from Christian fellowship those who disagree with us on this particular moral issue.5

This argument depends on the hermeneutical issues on this issue being reasonably undecided at this time. I realise that my friends on one or both sides of the question may deny that this condition is met. Sheer numbers suggest that the claim is true but I may need to address it directly in a future post.

  1. This can perhaps be softened by recognising the part played by the phrase “for any cause” cf. the Pharisees initial question in v.3 in contemporary rabbinic debate, but this would merely allow divorce for unchastity or desertion, not the sort of “no fault divorce” common in the West today. []
  2. I will mention them in reverse order, in part because that is how I came across them. []
  3. Beth Allison-Glenny et al., “The Courage to Be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality,” The Courage to Be Baptist, accessed December 8, 2016, http://www.somethingtodeclare.org.uk/statement.html. []
  4. Preston M Sprinkle et al., Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, 2016. []
  5.  Stephen R. Holmes, “An Evangelical Approach to Sexual Ethics,” Shored Fragments, accessed December 8, 2016, http://steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=7644. []