Thursday, November 29, 2012

Answering the "Shellfish" Argument

I am continuing my response to common arguments against the Biblical teaching on human sexuality.

Claim: The O.T. also says it's sinful to eat shellfish, to wear clothes woven with different fabrics, and to eat pork.

This is easily both the worst and most common argument against Biblical sexuality that I hear. It is repeated ad nauseum by atheists, gay rights activists, internet memes, television shows, etc. The argument is so bad, and so easily refuted, that anyone with even a basic understanding of either the New Testament, or Christian theology, would not attempt to make such claims. The argument is that the book of Leviticus condemns homosexuality but also condemns eating shellfish and wearing certain types of clothing. If Christians were consistent, they would follow either all of these laws, or none of them. Therefore when Christians point out homosexuality as a sin but not eating shelfish, they are hypocrites who simply pick and choose what they follow in the Old Testament and what they don't.

This claim can be refuted on two fronts. First is the theological. Christian theologians have historically distinguished between three aspects of the Mosaic Law. There is the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law. The ceremonial law refers to various institutions and instructions that the Jews would follow regarding the priesthood, sacrificial system, and purity. These laws served two purposes. First, they separated Israel from the surrounding nations, demonstrating their unique status as a nation. Second, they serve as pictures for the coming messiah. Jesus fulfills both the priesthood and sacrificial system. These institutions are therefore no longer necessary. The civil laws are those laws which govern the nation of Israel. Israel was a theocracy, something which is not normative for nations today. Therefore it had specific laws which were used to govern the Jews which do not apply to contemporary societies. Again, this was fulfilled by Christ who came as the embodiment of Israel and fulfilled Israel's mission, and created a "spiritual Israel", the people of God scattered throughout the earth. The moral law is that which reflects God's own moral nature. These laws are immutable and are not historically determined. They are eternally valid. These are best summarized in the Ten Commandments. The sexual laws of the Old Covenant (not the required punishment which was an aspect of the laws of theocratic Israel)are part of this moral law. They are inherent in creation itself, and cannot be overturned.

This distinction was expounded upon especially by Thomas Aquinas (13th century) but has roots in Irenaeus (late 2nd century) who distinguished between the moral Law (specifically the Ten Commandments and) and the other aspects of Torah. It has been adopted by the Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic Traditions.

The second way in which this argument can be refuted is to looking at the New Testament texts which explain the distinction between the law which is eternally valid and that which is purely ceremonial. The book of Acts describes a vision that St. Peter has where he is told that the food restrictions of the Old Covenant law no longer apply.

"The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven." (Acts 10:9-16)

This story involves the passing away of the ceremonial laws as well as the inclusion of the gentiles within the covenant community. This is demonstrated as the story continues with Peter's meeting with the gentile Cornelius, and the Pauline mission to the gentiles later in the book. Thus those laws which were ceremonial (such as food restrictions) and distinguished Jews from gentiles (such as the civil laws) were abolished. They served their purpose and had been fulfilled in Christ. The books of Galatians and Hebrews expound upon this extensively.

So how do we know that the laws about homosexuality are part of the abiding moral law rather than the civil or ceremonial? Sexuality is an aspect of creation. God created male and female for one another, as Jesus himself affirms. Human sexuality is given a proper place in the Ten Commandments, wherein adultery, sex outside of its God-given context, is forbidden. The context of Leviticus 20, which forbids homosexuality, is an in-depth explanation of the commandment against adultery. It is in the same context as beastiality, and incest which are also opposed to God's moral law. Moreover, the commandment against homosexual practice is repeated in the New Testament (Romans 1), assuring its place as part of the moral law.

The shellfish argument is thus completely irrelevant and meaningless when it comes to the discussion of Biblical sexuality.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Response to Jason Stellman Part 2

On today's program I finished my response to Jason Stellman's interview. The conversation focused largely on the relationship between Patristic theology and Roman Catholicism. Listen to the program here.

Also, please consider donating if you have benefited from this blog, website, and podcast.

Sorry about the occasional chipmunk sound of Stellman's voice. I'm not sure why that happened in the recording.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Responding to Common Arguments for Homosexuality Part 1

With all of the good that has been accomplished by social media, one big downfall of the interconnectedness that we now share around the globe is the nature of intellectual discussions, how we talk with others about important cultural and political issues in contemporary society. Rather than thinking through one's own ideology and having in-depth discussions on such issues, our contemporary culture utilizes pictures, phrases, and articles which are passed around without any thought on facebook, tumblr, twitter, etc. The picture above is one such example. I use it because it is illustrative of the kind of arguments thrown around on the internet, seeking to overthrow Biblical morality.

I wanted to take some time to respond to these arguments, primarily because they are arguments against the Scriptural teaching on these issues. Whether or not gay marriage should be legalized, and whether it is beneficial or harmful to society is another issue which should be dealt with separately. Arguments like the ones above are probably the most common arguments against the Christian faith which I encounter in practical ministry. Perhaps this is because I live in Massachusetts, an environment that has been affected by the Gay rights movement more than other areas of the country; but I am sure that many of my readers have also encountered such arguments frequently. So I wanted to take some time to respond to the claims in this particular image, because they are so prevalent on the internet.

Claim: Jesus never uttered a word about same-sex relationships

First, it must be said that this presupposes an incorrect understanding of the Christian view of Biblical inspiration. Whether or not something appears in the "red letters" of Jesus is completely irrelevant. The church adopts a canon of 27 New Testament books. None of these books alone are sufficient for a thorough understanding of New Testament theology. The Gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the Catholic epistles interpret one another. They cannot be read in isolation. Because all of these books are normative for the church, it wouldn't matter if Jesus explicitly said anything regarding homosexuality if Paul was clear on the issue.

Jesus doesn't explicitly talk about a lot of things. He doesn't talk about rape, incest, bestiality, etc. The fact that Jesus is silent on these issues doesn't imply that Jesus was simply ok with all of these actions, but simply that it wasn't relevant to his current mission and context. Silence does not mean permission.

Also, one can identify Jesus' approach to homosexuality in a couple different texts, even though it is not explicitly being discussed. In Matthew 19 Jesus says,

"And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said,‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him,“Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery." (Matthew 19:3-9)

In discussing the issue of divorce, Jesus explicitly defines what marriage is. It is a creational institution which involves a man and a woman. They come together physically and become "one flesh." Jesus assumes that this creational pattern is normative. This is further demonstrated by Jesus' approval of the Levitical law.

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-20)

Jesus approves of the TORAH, even to the point of affirming the "least" of its commandments. This comprehensive approval of the Law would include the sexual prohibitions listed in Leviticus which includes homosexuality. Jesus did not specifically have to repeat this command, but affirmed it by affirming the entirety of the Law.

The Law has a hold on us, all of us. What it says about us is true. What it condemns is condemned by God. This includes homosexuality as well as any other sin, sexual or otherwise. There is forgiveness for all of these sins, freedom from the Law, through faith in Christ who freely grants us a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Will continue in part 2...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thoughts on the Visible/Invisible Church Distinction

In the pietistic tradition, the distinction between a visible and invisible church is highly emphasized. This doctrine made its way into the Waltherian school of Confessional Lutheranism; sometimes it is confessed that the church is purely invisible, though it has certain visible "signs" of its presence. There is some wisdom in separating true faith from external ecclesial structures, since faith is a matter of the heart, but ultimately I think this tradition misses the intimate connection between the physical and transcendental within Luther's thought. In reading an article titled "Luther's Double-Faceted Concept of the Church" by Vilmos Vajta (in the volume: Manns, Peter et. al. Luther's Ecumenical Significant: An Interconfessional Consultation. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.)I came across the following quote of Luther which explains the relationship between the visible and invisible rather well:

"Therefore, for the sake of better understanding and brevity, we shall call the two churches by two distinct names. The first, which is natural, basic, essential, and true, we shall call 'spiritual, inner Christendom.' The second, which is man-made and external, we shall call 'physical, external Christendom.' Not that we want to separate them from each other; rather, it is just as if I were talking about a person and called him 'spiritual' according to his soul, and 'physical' according to his body, or as the Apostle is accustomed, to speak of an 'internal' and 'external' person. So, too, the Christian assembly is a community united in one faith according to the soul, although according to the body, it cannot be assembled in one place since every group of people is assembled in its own place." (Luther's Works Volume 39, page 70)

For Luther, there is an essential connection between the two aspects of the church. It's not as if there are two separate churches, one visible and one invisible, but the church contains both a visible and invisible aspect. This is commensurate with Luther's sacramental theology which maintains the reality of the earthly and heavenly elements in vital connection to one another. Thus Luther's view of the church is not that of an ethereal Platonic reality as some allege, but is thoroughly incarnational. Not only is this more consistent with Luther's own theology, and that of the church catholic, but portrays the usage of ecclesia in the New Testament.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Response to Jason Stellman

On this week's program, I reviewed an interview with Jason Stellman. He is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, and a former minister in the PCA. Listen to the program here.

You can go to Called to Communion to listen to the full interview.

Also, I have added a donate button to the contact page of my website. I am looking for some contributions to pay for a copyeditor for my upcoming wipf & stock book.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Message to Lutherans: Stop Being So Reactionary

"I don't believe in progressive sanctification"

"There is no experience of the Holy Spirit"

"There is no such thing as 'living the gospel'"

"Prayer doesn't change God, but only changes the Christian"

These are some phrases I have heard from Lutheran Christians, and have heard with some regularity. The problem with such phrases (I could address each of these statements individually of course) is that they are purely reactionary.

Lutherans have a tendency to identify themselves in opposition to other Christian traditions. Yes, Lutheranism does have a unique approach to the Christian faith, one which I think is correct and Biblical. But there are problems when one's theology is formulated precisely as not being something.

For example, many of the generation who were heavily involved with the LCMS in the 1950s through the 1970s have a very clear reactive attitude toward Roman Catholicism. It is common for older LCMS members, for example, to oppose having a corpus on a crucifix because it is too "Roman Catholic." This is also claimed about such practices as private confession and absolution, and wearing chasubles.

The Lutheran tradition historically has used crucifixes, and has never opposed such things as vestments, and private confession. Yet a fear of Romanism has guided our people rather than Biblical, Confessional teaching.

In some contemporary Lutheran circles I have often seen the same kind of overreaction, not to Romanism, but to Pietism. Because of the unfortunate subjective "sanctification" focus to the neglect of the objectivity of the cross and God's declarative word of justification, some Lutherans have labelled any desire for holiness, and any preaching of the third use of the Law, as Pietistic.

I have been labeled by some Lutherans as a "Pietist" simply because I don't drink alcohol (with the obvious exception of consecrated communion wine). Somehow attempting to refrain from something which I fear could be a vice is "not Lutheran" and makes someone a legalist. It's as if we've decided that the fundamentalists don't drink, and Lutherans do. Therefore, if you don't you must be a fundamentalist.

I have heard some faithful Lutheran pastors preach the third use of the Law, only to be accused of being legalistic, and missing the gospel. That can't be Lutheran because the Presbyterian church down the street also preaches the third use of the Law!

As Lutherans, we are defined by our Confessions. It is unfortunate that oftentimes we define ourselves as "not being baptists" or "not being Calvinists" or "not being Romanists", rather than defining ourselves by our Confessional heritage. When this is done, we usually miss the rich theology of our Confessions, and consequently, the clear teachings of Scripture.

This is an encouragement to Lutherans to define ourselves by the Reformation tradition, not by whatever bad experiences we have had with some other Christian tradition.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Some Problems with Covenant Theology

If you have done any study of covenant theology, you are probably aware that the Hebrew term berith and the Greek term διαθηκη are translated as "covenant." In Reformed theology, covenant is the primary hermeneutical grid whereby all of Scripture is understood. Thus, the relationship between Adam and God is a covenant (though never stated with the possible exception of Hosea 6:7), the relationships with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are covenantal, as well as the New Covenant. It is even argued that the persons of the Holy Trinity have an eternal covenant among themselves (the covenant of redemption).

As a Lutheran, I have often been asked how we understand the concept of covenant. Is it an overriding theme of Scripture? It of course can't be denied that it is a concept used in Scripture. Yes, God makes covenants. I think that Meredith Kline's work in demonstrating to continuity between ancient Suzerainty/vassal treaties and the structure of the Mosaic covenant is helpful. But this leads me to an important question. Is covenant the overriding concept of Scripture, or is it God's way of interacting with people in a culture that had a prominent emphasis on covenants? Is God accommodating himself so as to interact within the current cultural milieu? I think the latter may be the case.

Look for example at how the New Testament speaks of covenant, using the term διαθηκη. There isn't a lot of talk about the New Covenant, at least not in those terms. Yes, we are people of the New Covenant in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah 31. Yet, the concept of covenant is not used within the same suzerainty/vassal context that it is in the Old Testament. Look at how the concept is used in Hebrews 9,

"Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." (Hebrews 9:15-22)

The theme of this text is not covenant in the Old Testament context, but a testament or will. Because of the context in which the term is placed, it really is better translated as testament than covenant. The argument he makes is not in relation to any type of suzerainty/vassal or royal grant Hittite treaty, but the concept of a will and testament. In a will, one assigns all that they have to certain people. This only takes effect once one dies. In this way, Jesus willed us to have his righteousness, life, and eternal inheritance. It is only through death that this will is enacted.

Notice also, what this testament is connected to in the New Testament:

"And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood." (Luke 22:20)

The Eucharist is the new covenant. It is through the sacrament that the gifts of Christ are given, where what he has left in his will for us is administered. It is here where the inheritance is given to those who partake in faith. This, I think, is where covenant theology gets it wrong. The New Testament doesn't have much information about the church as a covenant community, or about the sacraments as covenantal ratification, or any of the other language prominent within Reformed federal theology. In the New Testament, the new covenant isn't really a covenant at all (in the sense usually understood), but is a testament. And that testament is the Eucharist.

I was once much more positive about covenant theology than I am now. I do think that there are some valuable insights from many of these covenantal writers (Kline, Horton, Vos, etc.) but ultimately, I think that one theme of the Old Testament becomes the overriding theme of all of Scripture. The attempt, for example, to place Biblical inspiration in a covenantal context is far fetched and not exegetically tenable.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

This Week's Podcast: Why Limited Atonement is Wrong

I spend the entire program discussing limited atonement, primarily dealing with the books of 1 Timothy and 2 Peter. Here's the program.