Questions of sexuality are really questions about authority

Mon, 20/02/2017 - 16:15 -- James Oakley
Luke Timothy Johnson

I'm bookmarking this here for my own future reference.

There's an important article by New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson entitled Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture & Experience. It is published by Commonweal Magazine, which says about itself: "Commonweal’s mission is to provide a forum for civil, reasoned debate on the interaction of faith with contemporary politics and culture."

The fact that the article is published by a magazine and website that I had not heard of until I came across this article of his, does not mean that L T Johnson is somebody obscure whose writings carry little weight. At the time of writing, his Wikipedia entry gives no fewer than 34 published works, most of book length, from 1973 to 2015. He is highly regarded, and the New Testament is his area of expertise.

In Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture & Experience, Johnson is aiming to argue for "the full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion". He says:

"For me this is no theoretical or academic position, but rather a passionate conviction. It is one many of us have come to through personal struggle, and for some, real suffering."

That is not what makes this article so significant - plenty of people argue that case. What is significant is the grounds he gives for saying what he does.

"The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself."

Or again, here:

"I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good."

In other words, he says that if you look at what Scripture commands, it forbids same-sex unions. He wishes to say that same-sex unions can be (note: not necessarily are) holy and good. He has little patience with those who try to say that the Bible says that same-sex unions can be holy and good, because it does not. The only way to make the case for this is to appeal "to another authority".

"And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us."

He then wants to be careful. He specifically says that this is not a mandate for each individual Christian to appeal to their individual experience as a warrant to do whatever they wish, with no responsibility. What he's appealing to is the collective experience of human beings who testify that the way to accept yourself as the person God made you is to accept the sexual orientation he's given you. Johnson wouldn't say that this is something immutable and fixed: God re-creates, so could refashion someone's sexual orientation, but collective experience is still that this is to be accepted.

He draws an analogy with the quest to abolish slavery, and then says this:

"We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position, yet place our trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through written texts."

He doesn't want to sound as if he has a low view of Scripture. Instead, he wants to make the case that allowing experience to take precedence over Scripture is something found in Scripture itself - he's simply reading the Bible how it asks to be read. He finds this in two ways:

Firstly, Scripture reveals God to be ever-creating, so that fresh human experiences can also reveal God's purposes:

"… such an appeal goes to the deepest truth revealed by Scripture itself—namely, that God does create the world anew at every moment, does call into being that which is not, and does raise the dead to new and greater forms of life."

Second, Scripture asks us to go beyond the letter of any text, and to listen to the Spirit:

"… we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture."

Now, it is not my purpose here to fully critique or respond to this article. If I were to do so, I would look at a doctrine of the fall, how God is creating a new humanity out of fallen humanity; we need some way to discern whether contemporary experience is discovering fallen or redeemed humanity. I would also look at whether we can distinguish in a hard way between the words of Scripture and the actions of the Living God, given that Scripture claims to give us the key to interpret God's great acts.

We might also note, in passing, the inherent contradiction in this position. He doesn't wish to have a low view of Scripture. So he appeals to Scripture when he's looking for grounds … for a low view of Scripture. Which means he does have a low view of Scripture after all, he just has such because Scripture tells him to (which, actually, makes no sense if Scripture doesn't have the final word). His view is, thus, unstable.

I simply want to note one thing in bookmarking his article. Here is someone wishing to argue for same-sex unions, and for the full inclusion of those in such unions within the life of the Christian church. He knows his New Testament, and he says that trying to argue that the Bible permits such unions is to twist the text and make the Bible say something it doesn't. It is not just theological conservatives who would say that the Bible does not permit same-sex marriage. Here is a scholar who argues the opposite way, and he also has the honesty to say this.

That means that the debates about human sexuality raging within parts of the Church of England are not really debates about sexuality at all. They are debates about Scripture. The Bible says that sexual activity properly belongs only within marriage, and marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman. The question is: Will we allow the Bible to be our authority, or will we appeal to alternative authorities?

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