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Friday, October 10, 2014

Too Hot to Handle: Authority and Cultural Assumptions

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Rachel Held Evans hosts an ongoing discussion of Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian

Tom: I’m not so much interested in rehashing the homosexuality aspect. That’s something I think both of us have dealt with elsewhere. But there’s an idea enunciated by Vines in his study of the Old Testament and reiterated by Held Evans in her discussion of his book that potentially applies more broadly; to things like the role of men and women in the church and the home and so on. That is this:
“... we can accept Scripture as authoritative and true without accepting the patriarchal assumptions of the culture from which the Bible emerged”.
Immanuel Can, is there a sense in which you would agree with Held Evans’ statement?

The Assumptions of the Patriarchy

Immanuel Can: Ha! That word “patriarchal” is trotted out all the time these days as a way of establishing as a starting point (usually without evidence) that “we” today are open-minded, but that various despised or antiquated “others” are benighted by an embarrassing and irrational bias against women — and thus that their view can be dismissed without further thought.

The trick Held Evans is (possibly unintentionally) trying to pull off there is what philosophers call “poisoning the well”: it’s when someone chooses to frame a question in such slanted language that anyone who answers is already condemned. I guess she wants us to think that if we share the view of the culture present at the time of scripture we are already “patriarchal” and thus not worth hearing.

With this debate, the conventional language is such a mess that we can hardly find a way to discuss it intelligibly. That’s the effect of a lot of propaganda, I’m afraid.

War of the Cultures

Tom: Well, it started as a gay issue and somehow got made into a women’s issue by the person hosting the discussion (which is, properly speaking, a monologue), but the underlying problem is the same. Both Held Evans and Vines start, as you say, from the unproven assumption that our present culture is equipped to stand in judgment over all previous cultures and as a consequence, over how we understand scripture.

Before we go further down that road, does culture ever become a legitimate consideration in interpreting scripture?

IC: I think so, yes. It becomes very useful, for example, when we frame our understanding of the Last Supper with the customs of Pesach (Passover), or contrast the Biblical descriptions of the culture Israel was to have in contradistinction to the customs of the wicked nations around them. (God Himself does some such contextualizing when He describes how the idolators carried on, and how futile their practices were in contrast to the value of relationship with the living God, in places like Isaiah 44:9-20).

But using our understanding of history or culture to illuminate scripture is, of course, quite a different thing from using it to dismiss scripture, is it not?

The Motive for New Interpretations

Tom: I think to assess the credibility of any fresh interpretation one needs to understand the motive behind it. Obviously in an ideal world motive and textual criticism would have nothing to do with one another, but inevitably they do. The adage “follow the money” is useful in assessing the credibility of any new political movement or alarmist agenda promoted by the media. Likewise, the answer to “Who wants this interpretation and why?” is usually an indicator of whether we’re likely to see serious scholarship or simply, as you say, convenient dismissal.

IC: Right. We aren’t about judging the motives of others, but we also can’t ignore that some folks have a stake in avoiding the truth; and we don’t have to be judgmental to say that, since they often openly declare they have that agenda from the get-go.

The difference between a person who is open to a fair discussion and one who is not is straightforward: an honest person ought to be able to tell you precisely under what conditions he or she would be prepared to change his or her mind on a topic. If there are no such conditions, then that person is not arguing in order to find truth, but only arguing in order to win what he or she wants. A principled person is always open to truth.

On this question, if someone shows me clearly from scripture that I am wrong in what I think now, then I assure you I will change my mind. I have done it in other situations, and would do it again. It’s no disgrace: it’s called learning. 

I am instinctively put off by Ms. Held Evans’ tone. But I have no antipathy to any of the enumerated practices that is anywhere near as important to me as the desire to obey God on the matter, so assuming she gives me scriptural reasons to do it, I absolutely would change. Goal number one is to obey God.

Tom: Absolutely. But I cannot think of a single situation in which obeying God is at the root of one of these historical or cultural reinterpretation exercises.

What Would Change Your Mind?

IC: I’d like to reverse the question to Ms. Held Evans et al. Under what conditions would they be prepared to believe that the “patriarchy” they perceive in the Old Testament was actually more correct than what they now approve, or that the practices described at Sodom and Gomorrah were actually wrong? And if there are absolutely NO conditions under which they would change their minds, then we are surely justified in asking ourselves how sincere they are in raising the issue.

After that, we’re not judging their motives: we’re then simply recognizing their self-declared attitude to truth, and their self-announced readiness of refusal to keep learning.

Interpretation and Obedience

Tom: You mentioned obedience to God as goal number one. I find it curious that every cultural reinterpretation currently being enthused about gives broader latitude for human sexuality or personal gratification of some sort or another than has been understood to be acceptable by the church throughout the last couple of millennia. I cannot think of a single instance in which culture is examined and the conclusion of scholarship is that Christians ought to show greater restraint and self-control, or restrict themselves in any way.

IC: The creeping threat of Victorianism is not much upon us.

According to Held Evans, though, it’s promiscuity, not the particular sexual practices in question that are the real problem. She quotes Matthew Vines saying, “While six [Biblical] references to same-sex behavior are negative, the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation”, which Held Evans herself interprets as implying that “these passages do not apply to gay, lesbian, or bisexual Christians in committed same-sex relationships”. So too much sex is the problem, according to Held Evans, or perhaps not-committed-enough sex is the problem. But as long as people are committed to what they do, no sexual practices are out, apparently. At least, she doesn’t bother to specify any that are.

And this raises a further question: what practices would Held Evans find sufficiently appalling to be straightforwardly evil, or are there any such practices, for her? It would be interesting to know. It would also be interesting to see on what basis she rules out any practices she does rule out, and see if her reasoning applies to those she is at pains to keep in.

Dealing With All of Scripture

Tom: In the end, though, any assertion that a traditional interpretation is to be dismissed as merely cultural has to stand up to the entirety of scripture. Proponents of a more flexible attitude toward what is acceptable Christian sexuality — be it in terms of promiscuity, remarriage, homosexuality or whatever — have more work to do than just explaining away the five or six most well-known passages on a subject.

I’m not normally an argument-from-silence person, but let me make an argument from deafening silence: if homosexual relationships, for instance, are acceptable for believers provided they are committed to each other, why are they entirely and utterly absent from the word of God, both in terms of specific teaching about them, which would surely have been helpful, and also in terms of even a single unequivocal example to which we can point as normative? It’s just not there.

You can argue that it’s not there because the Holy Spirit didn’t think his people needed that information, which sounds like rubbish to me. But I would argue there is teaching on the subject: the teaching is that these things are sinful.

What’s the Motivation?

IC: Yes, I think that’s pretty clear to any rational reader. But I suspect the whole debate is not about right and wrong at all.

In my experience so far, people who are defending these practices are not doing so out of a deep love for God, a reverence for all of scripture and desire for holy living. Their arguments never begin with such premises. They rather tend toward the “what can we get away with” side of things. Their focus is always on diminishing, not maximizing the teaching of scripture on the subject. Their concern seems to be completely with what is allowable outside of scripture, and not with what is in keeping with the whole spirit of scripture.

They also never mention what you mention: the glaring lack of positive statements or winning examples of alternative sexual behaviour in scripture and in the teaching of Christ or the apostles. Given the amount of teaching and imagery devoted to heterosexual relations in scripture, this oversight would seem quite surprising — unless it’s not an oversight at all.

The Culture From Which the Bible Emerged

Tom: I wanted to revisit the phrase “patriarchal assumptions of the culture from which the Bible emerged”. You spoke about the use of “patriarchal” as an uncontested pejorative that stacks the deck before the issue has even been discussed. But even the phrase “culture from which the Bible emerged” makes a false assumption. The Bible comes from multiple cultures, being written over a period of approximately 1,700 years. Think how vastly our own culture has changed in the last half century, and we’re talking about 34 times that.

What’s astonishing is that the same message comes from Moses and Paul, at opposite ends of that 1,700 year divide, despite vast cultural changes during that period.

But there’s something to be said for slanting the argument in your favour through your choice of words.

Who Defines the Terminology?

IC: There’s something quite sinister about the practice of mangling language, as the lobby for this issue has done. They have left us with a vocabulary that lacks the means for meaningful resistance.

Take the word “homosexual”, for example: it draws attention away from the particular acts and conditions that make the activity in question controversial, and frames the discussion as if it were about identity instead of behaviour. But whether this is a discussion about what one IS or what one DOES is an important part of the question that gets bypassed when we accept this term. The word is also misleading in a second way: it casts the “homo-” part as just a different version of “-sexual”, and hence to use the word is to assume that such practices are a variety of normal human sexuality; hence any discussion is over before it began.

To say “queer” is silly and rude, and it trivializes the issues. “Gay” is uninformative, as well as being misleadingly jolly. We’re trying to debate a serious issue here, not joke.

Tom: And it’s becoming increasingly evident that Christians who disagree with that practice or the other moral alterations and permissive redefinitions that have become so common are not going to be allowed to choose how we describe those who engage in these acts.

IC: Exactly. You can opt for a word like “sodomites”, but that has a couple of real disadvantages. As its critics point out, it is archaic. Secondly, it’s male, and so does not deal with the female issues or the variety of other things that go on under the LGBT banner. But thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the word is also highly pejorative, and is too easily interpreted as hate speech instead of an invitation to rational debate.

And this turns out to be very bad for those who wish to discuss the issues rationally — because if they are cast as unthinking haters rather than rational debaters, then they will lose a hearing automatically. Moreover, since hatred is rationally unsustainable and morally reprehensible, then if they truly are people of good will, they will be uncomfortable with pejorative language. Then the danger is that they will give up their position and simply yield to the opposition by default. But this is not good if rational, fair and two-sided debate has never been had — assuming, of course, that rational debate is what we’re after.

So we need to put this question to people like Held Evans: “What is the neutral language we can both adopt so that a) a win for your side is not presumed automatically, and b) you are not demonizing your critics?” In other words, “In what balanced language can we rationally debate the essential issues?”

It’s like the whole point of the new language of sexuality is to skew the table and prevent any equitable, unimpassioned debate. I think they’re simply uninterested in entertaining a meeting on any level playing field.

Bottom line?

People like Held Evans owe us two things: firstly, they owe us to say if and how they would be willing to change their minds; and then secondly, they ought to be able to tell us what language we can employ in order to have an intelligent, principled and equitable discussion with them.

For if their minds are already made up so completely that they’d never change them anyway, then what’s the point of the discussion?  And if we have no language that does not a) donate to them a victory they haven’t earned, or b) immediately constitute what they call hate speech, then there is simply no way to speak to them at all.


  1. "IC: Right. We aren’t about judging the motives of others, but we also can’t ignore that some folks have a stake in avoiding the truth; and we don’t have to be judgmental to say that, since they often openly declare they have that agenda from the get-go."

    Love your perceptive analysis, IC. But I think it's necessary to stress one additional point that is always glossed over or deliberately misrepresented. I am referring to the judgmental part. That part has been adopted as a significant strategy by the atheist/agnostic (at/ag) camp to turn the bible itself directly against the theist by a sleight of hand. They rely, of course, on the part (paraphrased, "don't judge so that you will not be judged"). Unfortunately, the ordinary person falls for this because they are not able to discern the correct interpretation and proper meaning and significance of this statement. They fail to notice that this statement must always be used in combination with another one to get the proper balance. That one is (paraphrased) "if you fail to remind your brother of his wrongdoing, he will die for his sin, but you will be held responsible for his blood." In other words, the believer, under threat of his own eternal life, is obligated to publicly pass judgment on what is obviously wrong and sinful and must make it known. Note that the misrepresentation by the at/ag side is to equate this value judgment with a judgment (a condemnation) made by God concerning the eternal disposition of your soul. This is a gross and deliberate misrepresentation, which works quite effectively in neutering the uninformed theist side. So, as far as I am concerned, I have absolutely no qualms about calling the at/ag camp out on their pervasive immorality and knowing full well that I am not substituting for God's judgment in making my necessary and obligatory value judgment.

  2. Great comment, Qman. I'm with you. You've added good value with that insight.

    And you're right: there's something dishonest about the people who love to quote "judge not" but never bother to mention that there are more than twice as many commandments in Scripture that call us TO judge as there are injunctions NOT to judge.

    Now, of course that doesn't mean the Bible's contradicting itself: a little investigation readily shows that there are particular things in mind in each case. We are not to judge other people as worthless, for example; but we are definitely told to judge by actions, judge by the fruit of deeds, judge ourselves, judge sin, judge disputes between brothers and sister, and so on.

    So "judging" isn't in itself necessarily any kind of sin or expression of pride or self-righteousness; in fact, it's an absolute requirement for all Godly people. It just depends on what one is judging.

    That would be my point in the exchange above: it's wrong to jump to conclusions about people's motives; but when they choose to declare their own motives, we don't need to jump to conclusions at all, right? They've told us. We can take their word for it.

  3. To add or perhaps complement the discussion regarding "patriarchal assumptions" I know, from listening to NT scholar from Trinity/Wycliffe at TST twenty years ago, that there is a view that the apostles were "limited" in the sense that they could by definition, only write from their cultural perspective. The lecturer, in speaking on the topic of Paul and his views/instructions on women, offered the view that either a: "Paul knew what was right, but caved under culture pressure, just as Peter had in his view towards Jews and Gentiles." or b. "Paul could go no farther in God's view of equality toward the sexes in the New Covenant then his cultural "baggage" would allow him. I was quite surprised to hear both views, coming from someone who I had assumed had a "high" view of inspiration and the authority of the NT.

    All of the debate, and continuing movement towards a more egalitarian position on sexuality (including homosexuality) only underscores in my mind the elephant in the room which rarely gets discussed: "What are your axioms regarding the interpretation of Scripture". Saying one believes in the authority of the Scriptures and a willingness to believe them really only matters in the framework of an interpretative system.

    I recommend reading the opening chapter of "Evangelical Hermeneutics" by Robert L. Thomas for a shocking survey of the current landscape on this important topic.