Same-Sex Activity and the “Yuck Factor”

Last week Thabiti Anyabwile, writing an article for the Gospel Coalition, called for Christians to reclaim their “gag reflex” when it came to same-sex activity. He was apparently oblivious as to how this claim favors heterosexual activity by drawing his lines the way he did. No mention was made of having the same reaction for the production of children out of wedlock or any of the other sinful things which heterosexuals can get up to. No, his line implicitly defines one form of sin as icky and another as not-icky. In fact, treating same-sex activity on its own, segregated from other sexual issues, isolates it from other sins and makes it seem somehow “worse” because of where we are drawing our lines. Sure, our kids might be shacking up, but at least they’re not doing something icky, right? This is not at all to say that Anyabwile wouldn’t stand up against heterosexual activity outside of marriage, of course, simply that the very frame of his argument turns one of these things into a “super-sin” and tends to normalize the other.

Now, it is certainly true that Leviticus 18:22 calls same-sex activity an “abomination,” and the Hebrew word here (toaybaw) means “moral disgust.” But this got me thinking about what else the Bible calls an abomination. It turns out that there are a lot of things that are “morally disgusting” to God in just the same way as same-sex activity which we don’t consider morally disgusting at all. Witchcraft, for instance, is equally as repugnant (Deut. 18:10-12). Most interesting to me is that economic injustice is said to be an “abomination,” or “morally disgusting” to God (Deut. 25:13-16; Prov. 11:1; 20:10). Do we feel that same “gag reflex” when banks and giant corporations lie and cheat their employees, exploit poverty-stricken third-world nations, and abuse their workers? The devious or crafty person is also morally disgusting to God (Prov. 3:32). Israel’s worship is an abomination when they have abused the poor and needy among them (Isa. 1:13). Are we equally outraged when the Church contributes to such oppression? Do we find our nostrils filled with revulsion when we see the Church worship while contributing to oppression?

What this seems to tell me is that the “moral disgust” which is referred to in Scripture is not the same as our internal “gag reflex.” There is no universal “yuck factor” regarding the oppression of the needy and poor, nor for deviousness or craftiness. Most of the abominations, such as idol worship, are learned. They are cultural, not innate, feelings. The native american cultures who performed same-sex activity on younger men as part of their initiation to the warrior class had no innate moral qualms about it; in fact, they saw it as injecting masculinity into the young men.

What is more, Jonathan Merritt has a great article in response to Anyabwile’s post, in which he points out that Jesus had no problem with hanging out with morally disgusting sinners. Zacchaeus, for example, practiced economic injustice by cheating people out of their money – which is an abomination to God, morally disgusting. Yet, Jesus did not remain at a distance to him until he got his life together, but went to him while he was yet morally disgusting and sat at table with him. Jesus is the greatest illustration how problematic the conservative approach to same-sex activity is. Do we imagine Jesus would respond to those who practice same-sex activity by holding His nose and saying, “Eww, that’s so icky?” Or do we imagine that He would be eating and drinking with them while they were yet in their sin?

It is a question that really answers itself.

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Re-Exploring Total Depravity (1)

I am an enthusiastic and robust fan of Augustinian Christianity, including its doctrine of the fall, but as with everything, we frequently seek justification of our position through the wrong passages because do not carefully consider their context.  One great example of this is Keith A. Mathison’s book Dispensationalism.

In chapter seven, he critiques the dispensationalist view of sin and the fall, and while his overall point was true, I cannot help but notice that dozens of his cited passages had nothing to do with a general sinfulness of man. I’m going to be re-exploring the passages typically used to defend the doctrine of total depravity in order to see what we’re left with, and how we are to understand those texts.

He writes that all men are born in sin, and provides only two passages to defend this statement, Psa. 51:5 and Psa. 58:3. Yet PSalm 51 is the account of David’s repentance for sleeping with Bathsheba and is a personal record that he, specifically, was born in sin (Psa. 51:5). Similarly, Psalm 58:3 states, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth.” Once again, this is speaking only of the “wicked,” not all of humanity. In contrast to these wicked who have been wicked from birth are the righteous, who will be vindicated (Psa. 58:10).

To bolster his claim that humanity’s heart is “utterly wicked” and blind to God, Mathison uses a number of erroneous passages. He begins with Genesis 6:5 and 8:21. In Gen. 6:5, God observes the sins of man and says that their hearts were turned to wickedness continually; but this is also not a universal statement, for Noah and his family was righteous (Gen. 6:8-9). God’s statement in 8:21 cannot mean any more than this, and again excepts Noah and his righteous line from the statement.

His next passage is Ecclesiastes 9:3, part of which states, “the hearts of the children of men are full of evil.” However, Ecclesiastes is a notoriously complicated book and the context again doesn’t match Mathison’s point. Once again there is a contrast between the “righteous” and the “wicked,” meaning that we cannot use this as a universal declaration. Solomon is discussing death in Eccl 9, and “the same event [death] happens to the righteous and the wicked.” In 9:3, Solomon defines death as “evil,” and then discusses the fate of the “children of death.” BUT, he goes on in 9:4, “he who is joined to the living has hope.” So the righteous and the wicked of 9:1-2 become the “one who has hope” and the “children of evil.” Solomon is not speaking universally.

Mathison’s next passage is Jeremiah 17:9, which states that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” This passage hardly bolsters the total depravity claims of Calvinism, which claims the heart is dead; the passage says only that it is desperately sick. The context of this comment, of course, is the particular sins of Israel, not a default position of every human heart; immediately following this claim Jeremiah tells us who Yahweh is speaking to. Those in Israel who “gets riches but not by justice,” (Jer. 17:11), and declares that “I have not desired the day of sickness” (Jer. 17:16). Like with Noah, Jeremiah is excluded from the category of those whose hearts are deceitful.

He then uses Mark 7:21-23, in which Jesus says, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts.” Again, Mathison is seeking to prove too much. In the first place, the passage says nothing about every thought and deed coming out of the heart is evil continually, but simply that the origin of all evil thoughts is the heart (just as would be the origin for all good thoughts). Moreover, the term “man” in the Scriptures most often refers to Jews, not universal humanity (the symbolic structure of the OT presenting Adam in the Garden as the proto-Israelite who is given dominion over Gentile “beasts of the earth”). The heart is also parallel to the Temple; thus, to say that evil thoughts and deeds come out of the “Temple of Israel” would make this a pointed critique against the corrupt priesthood that is leading the people astray (which makes better sense of the context anyway).

Mathison also goes to John 3:19, “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Now, the gospel of John is one of the most misunderstood books of the NT because John uses terms like “world” in very different senses than we do. For John, the “world” is Israel (van der Waal, Search the Scriptures). The same is true of the “people who dwell in darkness.” John has already defined the “light” as Jesus and the “darkness” as the “world,” which is Israel (John 1:5, 10-11). Thus, this is not a universal statement at all, but rather a comment that Jesus came to Israel and the people loved the darkness of the Old Covenant rather than the Light of the New, because Israel was corrupt.

He also uses Romans 8:7-8, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Like with “world” in John, so too the “flesh” for Paul. The “flesh” refers to the Old Covenant and Torah-keeping, The one “in the flesh” would be Israel after the rejection of Jesus and the New Covenant; that Israel is hyocritical and already condemned for breaking the law, Paul has been at pains to establish already (Rom. 2:17-23). Those in the flesh of the Old Covenant cannot please God now that Jesus has come.

Another passage Mathison employs is 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritual discerned.” Like the one “set on the flesh,” the “natural man” is Israel. This is clear from the context (1 Cor. 2:5-6, 8). Far from a universal statement, this is again dealing with Israel after rejecting Jesus and by extension His Spirit/Community of the Church.

He also uses Titus 1:15, “to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” Once again, Paul is describing Israel, not humanity broadly speaking. His main point in the context is for Titus to keep the Cretans from “devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth,” (Titus 1:14). Those who are defiled and unbelieving are Israel, who “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works,” (Titus 1:16).

 

Biblical Universalism?

Those who know me know that I can in no sense be fairly described as a fan of Charles Hodge. However, I have run across a remarkable passage in his Systematic Theology that I cannot agree with more. As usual, I am happy to be wrong.

Hodge wrote, commenting on Romans 5:18,

All the descendants of Adam, except those of whom it is expressly revealed that they cannot inherit the kingdom of God, are saved. … Not only, however, does the comparison, which the Apostle makes between Adam and Christ, lead to the conclusion that as all are condemned for the sin of the one, so all are saved by the righteousness of the other, those only excepted whom the Scriptures except; but the principle assumed throughout the the whole discussion teaches the same doctrine. That principle is that it is more congenial with the nature of God to bless than to curse, to save rather than to destroy. (Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 26)

In short, Hodge declared as a sweeping principle that, in the light of Jesus’ death, all men are to be said to be saved by the death of Christ, save only for those which Scripture excludes from this. It is clear that even Hodge never applied this universal principle consistently and that almost no one took much notice of it. Yet there it stands – the greatest 19th century Old Princeton Calvinists proclaimed that all men are saved except those excluded by Scripture as a broad principle of application. Such a statement invites us to view all men as saved until they publicly and finally exclude themselves.

Jesus Our Interpretation: A Hermeneutical Proposal

It is fairly common to hear people in the Church say that “truth isn’t an idea, truth is a person.” What they mean by this is that the Word of God is truth, and the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus. So in a way truth was personified, Incarnated in the Person of Jesus. This is quite true.

But it seems to me we need to take this down into the details. If Jesus is the truth, then Jesus is interpretation. Jesus is the key that allows us to read the Word of God properly. It is now well known that truth depends upon where you stand, truth is effected by where you happen to be standing. To say that Jesus is truth means that we have chosen to stand in a certain place, to hold certain beliefs and allow them to effect what we see around us.

So far we have not said much of what a few Reformed people have said. But there is more.

If Jesus is our interpretation, then we regularly distort the Scriptures. If Jesus is our interpretation, then His emphases in the gospels become primary tools for how we understand the rest of Scripture. But this isn’t what we do. As good students of systematic theology, we take all of the references on a topic and arrange them together in a logical sequence, giving each element equal weight. But if Jesus’s life becomes the hermeneutic by which we understand everything else, then our balance is suddenly seen as imbalance and Jesus’ biases become balanced. Because Jesus reveals to us the inner-most Godhead, His life provides us with a hermeneutic that allows us to reorient ourselves elsewhere in Scripture, provides us with the ability to weight our emphases properly.

Romans 1: Jews or Gentiles?

It is pretty standard evangelical fare to see Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3 as (roughly) what follows. Paul starts by talking about Gentiles and how corrupt and depraved they are. Any respectable Jew would then feel vindicated; at least I am not like those vile, troublesome Gentiles! But then in chapter two, Paul says that Israel is just as badly off, and in chapter three tells us that everybody stands equally condemned under the law. Which is, of course, why we need Jesus.

But is this really what Romans 1 (let alone Romans) is about?

I humbly suggest it is not.

Our starting point for understanding Romans 1 has to begin at the end of the chapter. Since our question revolves around the identity of the “men” and “they” which Paul uses throughout the chapter, we have to start with where Paul defines these terms.

though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Rom. 1:32)

That’s the ESV’s translation. The translation of my 1599 Geneva BIble says, “Which men, though they knew the Law of God, how that they which commit such things are worthy of death, yet not only do the same, but also favor them that do them.” The identity of “they” in the verse and in the chapter, depends upon who possesses the knowledge of the Law of God. The Geneve Bible, translated by the Reformers, sure seemed to think “they” were Jews. The Jews knew the Law, they were the keepers of the Law.  Unbelievers could “know” the Law in some general sorts of ways (and we know that the Pharaoh of Moses’ day, and even Plato, knew something about it), it was in a special way known only to Israel. We already know that the NT is an Israel-centric collection of documents, so it only makes sense to examine Romans in this light.

We have for so long read Romans in the light of “natural theology” and “natural law” and claims of universal general knowledge of God, that we now completely miss the point when we come to the passage, reading it only in mind of our own talking points and hearing back from the text only the echo of our own voices.

So let us re-examine this passage in the light of Israel and see how this reshapes our reading.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

This is one of the most frequently abused passages of Scripture in Reformed circles, who, thanks to men like Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen can barely see anything but intellectual suppression and presuppositional blindness. And however correct those views, this is not the place from which to derive them.

The “wrath of God” here is something that was being revealed in Paul’s present, in the first century. Later he will tell us that this wrath is going to come in a “day of wrath” (2:3). We have already seen how the “day of wrath” is the day of judgment against Israel, not a final judgment at the end of time. This day of wrath is one that will appear in A.D. 70 against Israel as the covenant people. This is vital for us to see, because this coming wrath is what shapes this whole chapter.

God’s wrath is being revealed against who? Men. Who are men in Scripture? Any good Jew of the era would have been able to tell us that in Scripture, “men” and “man” are references to Israel, who is symbolically a man while the Gentiles are symbolically beasts and animals. Thus, the “men” who “suppress the truth” are the rulers of Israel and all who are allied with them against Jesus and against the fledgling Church. No Jew would have believed for a second that an unbelieving Gentile had the truth to begin with; it was only Israel that was given the special revelation of God to know the truth. This reading is reinforced when Paul says that what they know about God is plain, because God went out of His way to show it to them. He revealed something about Himself to them, and not through the creation, as we will see.

The next verses are where we run into trouble. Normally, this passage is used to claim something like, even unbelievers know something about God, because just living in this world is enough for God to reveal Himself to them. Of course, this is true, but this is not Paul’s point. His point is that Israel suppresses the special knowledge of God, and has to work really hard at it in order to do so. Israel is without excuse because even the very rocks and animals cry out to testify about Him.

The next verse tells us that they “became” futile in their thinking. Well, the Gentiles were already futile in their thinking, long before Paul wrote these words. No, this passage is talking about a group of people who have “become” futile in their thinking. This futility of their thinking leads to a few interesting places. They dishonor and do not thank or praise God, and their foolish hearts are darkened. Now, this passage has to do with the Incarnation; it has to do with Jesus. Paul tells us that God has always revealed Himself to Israel through created things, animals and rocks and trees and so forth, so they are without excuse when they fail to see God come in the flesh. “Although they knew God, they did not honor Him.” Who did they not honor? Israel. Who did they not give thanks to? Who revealed the invisible attributes of God in the flesh? The God-man Jesus. Whose hearts are darkened? Israel’s hearts were darkened (2 Cor. 3). Who claimed to have the wisdom of God but who became fools? Israel. Who exchanged the glory of immortal God in the flesh for images of the creation? Who always went after graven images? Israel.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

Therefore, “because” they rejected Christ, God gave them up to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped the creature instead. All of this is exactly what we see Israel doing in the gospels and in Acts.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Paul here uses the metaphor of same sex activity to describe Israel’s desire to worship the creature instead of Jesus. Throughout the OT, the connection between marriage and worship was very close, and when Israel goes astray the prophets routinely describe this as a woman lusting after other men instead of Yahweh, her husband. Israel was God’s Bride, God’s wife. In Romans 1, Paul speaks of idolatry and in the next breath goes on to discuss same sex activity because the desire to worship the creature instead of the Creator is the desire to worship something the same, not something different. Israel is a creature, and wants to worship another creature, and Paul says that desire is like wanting to lay with a person of the same gender.

Paul then finishes his denunciation of ethnic Israel with one of his classic laundry lists.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Because Israel refused to acknowledge Jesus as Lord of all, God-in-the-Flesh, God has given them up to their desires. Jesus denounces the Pharisees for precisely this list of sins throughout all four of the gospels, and as we read the NT, we find more and more that Israel has left the true path, filled with all of these things.

Romans 1, in short, is about Israel.