Reading with the Principle of Charity in the Republic of Language

charityReading is an activity which, common as it is, requires some reflection to be done well. This is especially the case when dealing with reading arguments in difficult or possibly indeterminate texts. While many technical principles can be developed in connection with various kinds of texts in different genres, some principles can be seen to apply across genres, especially since they concern the morality of reading texts.

Many of us haven’t stopped to consider reading as a moral act, but it is deeply so. Reading is a communicative act involving author(s), text(s), and reader(s). While I can’t delve deeply into it, one helpful image from (surprise, surprise) Vanhoozer is that of being a “citizen” of language. Language is our common realm, the kingdom, the republic within which we live and move and having our social being. As such, there are rights and responsibilities within it for both speakers and hearers, in order that we do justice to one another as fellow citizens. Once the image is in place, it’s fairly intuitive to begin filling it in.

In his recent work Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal (pp. xii-xiii), George Hunsinger draws our attention to the recent appeal to one such principle, the “principle of charity”, in reading texts in recent analytic philosophy. Hunsinger says there’s no single, definitive account of it, but he helpfully summarizes the main lines of it for us:

  • The principle of charity seeks to understand a point of view in its strongest form before subjecting it to criticism. A suspension of one’s own beliefs may be required in order to attain a sympathetic understanding.
  • One assumes for the moment that the ideas under consideration, regardless of how difficult they may seem, are both true and internally coherent. The emphasis falls on seeking to understand the texts as they stand rather than on picking out difficulties or contradictions.
  • If apparent contradictions are found, an active attempt is made to resolve them. Donald Davidson has suggested, for example, that the principle of charity means attempting to maximize sense and optimize agreement when it comes to doubts about the inner coherence or factual veracity of the viewpoint under consideration.
  • If it is possible to resolve apparent contradictions (or ambiguities) through a sympathetic interpretation, a presumption exists in favor of that interpretation. A presumption exists by the same token against any interpretation that resorts to the charge of inconsistency without attempting to resolve apparent contradictions.
  • Only if no successful interpretation can be found is one entitled to conclude that a viewpoint is inconsistent or false. Critique is always possible but only after an adequate effort has been made for an interpretation that does not call a viewpoint’s truth or coherence into question precipitously.,
  • The attempt to maximize intelligibility through the resolution of apparent contradictions is related to a corollary, which is called “the principle of humanity.” As Daniel Dennett explains, one should attribute to the person whose views one is considering “the propositional attitudes one supposes one would have oneself in those circumstances.”

That about sums up what I’ve seen of the principle, especially in analytic discussions. This is true both in philosophy and theology. I can recall a number of sections in Alvin Plantinga’s work where he’ll consider an opponent’s position in two or three possible forms, at times even strengthening their arguments, before going on to refute them nonetheless. This principle can also be seen Oliver Crisp’s habit–which has proved confusing to some–of considering and strengthening a number of positions he doesn’t actually hold.

For myself, I think there’s something deeply Christian and honest about the principle of charity. It’s a form of Christian virtue; an exercise in loving your neighbor as yourself within the republic of language. We would want others to extend to us the benefit of the doubt, strenuously work through our arguments, and imaginatively attempt to enter into our concerns and intuitions in order to come to understand why we’ve come to hold what we hold. This is an angle on what Matthew Lee Anderson has called “intellectual empathy.”

What’s more, considering arguments in this manner can help clarify the actual issues at stake in a given conversation. Doing your interlocutor the favor trying your best to make sense of their position means that when you do actually get around to arguing against it, it can only be that much stronger of an argument. Or, it may be that it’s only then you see the person actually has a solid point!

That said, a friend of mine has also argued it’s important that this principle be weighed or balanced against the principle of accuracy. In the picture above, there is a danger that in your attempt to actually be charitable, you end up inadvertently misrepresenting your opponent anyways. Due to your own unavoidable intuitions, it may be you end up saying, “Well, they couldn’t possibly mean that, because that doesn’t make sense,” when, in fact, that’s exactly the position they do hold. Sometimes the benefit of the doubt becomes dubious. And that is a case where, despite your charitable intentions, the truth is not actually served.

All the same, I know for myself, consciously striving to be charitable in my pursuit of accuracy curbs my natural tendency to read with my own blinders on. In other words, striving for charity slows me down enough to achieve accuracy. Of course, I struggle and fail–quite spectacularly, at times. Yet I would propose that principles of moral interpretation such as that of charity have become all the more pressing to adopt and practice as our internet age has pressed even more of our communication to be textually-mediated. We are constantly reading, interpreting, and engaging with the texts of other authors, other citizens of language like ourselves. If we fail to practice charity in interpretation, one of our most socially and morally formative practices, it can’t help but bleed out into other areas of our thought and life.

So then, to wrap up another post that’s gone far longer than I had intended, practice charity in all your reading. Beginning with this post.

Soli Deo Gloria

Uniting Body and Soul, Truth and Righteousness, with Ireneaus

apostolic preachingI recently had the pleasure of revisiting St. Ireneaus’ brilliant little work The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching for a course. It’s this magnificent little summary by Ireneaus of, well, the apostolic preaching through the Scriptures. It’s an account of redemptive-history, the work of God in salvation through Christ and the Spirit, to redeem his cosmos. Sort of like a less-polemical, little brother to his massive work Against Heresies. It’s really one of the classics of the patristic period and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In any case, I was struck by a passage in the introduction, where Ireneaus is commending the importance of having a unified approach towards truth and life. He roots it in the nature humanity as a compound of body and soul. Humans are necessarily composed of both; we are not just souls with bodies nor bodies with souls, but soul-and-body-wholes. As such, sin and impurity can come by way of both routes. We can defile ourselves in spirit as well as in the flesh.

This leads him to this brilliant little bit:

For godliness is obscured and dulled by the soiling and the staining of the flesh, and is broken and polluted and no more entire, if falsehood enter into the soul: but it will keep itself in its beauty and its measure, when truth is constant in the soul and purity in the flesh. For what profit is it to know the truth in words, and to pollute the flesh and perform the works of evil? Or what profit can purity of the flesh bring, if truth be not in the soul? For these rejoice with one another, and are united and allied to bring man face to face with God.

Irenaeus highlights two dangers we face in our walk with God. We can err in pursuing truth at the expense of righteous living or in pursuing righteous living at the expense of truth. The two cannot be separated.

The first seems particularly threatening to me as I begin my program at Trinity, diving headfirst into academic texts, lectures, and the bowels of the library. It’s easy to become impressed with a knowledge of the ins and outs of the history of theology, or be tickled by the latest, new idea about God, and become confused into thinking that’s actually a growth in holiness. But the reality is that you can add more books to your shelves and not an ounce more of moral character or depth in your actual communion with God.

And this is part of how you get that seemingly inexplicable moral failure that haunts so many pastors down the road. Some build up academic theological knowledge or practical ministry know-how in seminary while bracketing it off from a growth in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, gathering with the people of God, submitting yourself to the ministry of the preached Word, and so forth. That leads to a top-heavy, shiny theological structure without the foundational character that can support it. This is why Barth warned that prayer is the main attitude with which to undertake the study of theology.

The flipside of this is the sort of pursuit of righteousness that tends to downplay questions of doctrine and truth in favor of “just living like Jesus”, or “doing good.” Of course we want to live like Jesus and do good, but there is a way of pursuing it that cuts it free from their deepest logic and motive power—the reality of the gospel. Paul talks about this when he condemns those who have the “form of godliness while denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5).

Of course, this easily falls into soul-sucking moralism. One form devolves into a Pharisaic self-righteousness because this righteousness is cut off from the gospel of grace. Or maybe it turns into a hopelessness that eventually robs us of our moral energy because “doing good” has been cut off from the hope we have in Christ that all things will be put to rights. The extreme at the end of this road is not the failed pastor, but the social worker who retains Jesus as—at most—a cipher for their own best moral aspirations.

Here’s the irony: Both approaches turn Jesus into something less than a Lord. In the first, he’s treated as an object to be studied. In the second, he’s a model to be followed. But neither treats him as a person to known, or loved, or obeyed.

This is why only when the two are united—the pursuit of truth as well as the pursuit of holiness—are we led to the face of God. Only as we acknowledge Jesus’ Lordship over soul and body, truth and practice, do we encounter him as whole persons, given over in worship.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Jerusalem Council: More Law, Random Rules, or Something Else?

acts of JesusOne of the key interpretive puzzles in the book of Acts comes towards the end of chapter 15 with the famous decision of the Jerusalem Council on the inclusion of the Gentiles. Jesus’ commission to the disciples to be his witnesses to the gospel in the power of the Spirit in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and all the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), meant that eventually some Gentiles were going to hear the gospel. And, as we might expect given the power of God, many responded positively in faith and confessed Christ as Lord. This raised a number of questions: on what basis are they to be admitted into God’s people? Is the Mosaic law still binding on them? Must they become Jews (get circumcised, eat kosher, keep Torah), in order to be justified?

Resolving these questions takes up a great deal of the narrative of Acts. Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10-11, makes it clear that certain food laws don’t apply. As a part of the new stage of history brought on by Jesus’ life death, resurrection, and ascension, God seems to have abrogated or set aside key food laws and has cleansed the Gentiles like Cornelius who confess faith in Christ through the forgiveness of sins and by faith.

That’s not the end of the story, though. In Acts 15 we read that some Jews from Judea had come down to Antioch and began stirring up trouble in Paul’s church by teaching that Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved (v. 1). Obviously, Paul wasn’t having it, so they had it until they all decided to go up to Jerusalem to have the council of apostles and elders sort out the issue for them. In council, in the face of opposition, Peter stands up, gives a solid defense of justification by faith, not Torah-keeping (vv. 7-11), and eventually the council basically sides in his and Paul’s favor. The Gentiles are saved by grace as well as the Jews and so they shouldn’t be “troubled” by being made to keep the Law in detail, certainly not by being circumcised.

All the same, there is a caveat. James says:

“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write them to abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (vv. 19-20)

Okay. So no need for circumcision—the covenant isn’t restricted to Jews or strict Torah-keepers—but it still seems like some of the restrictions of the Law are in play. Now this doesn’t seem like this fits into the classic categories that Protestants typically use to think about the way the Old Testament Law does and doesn’t still apply to New Testament believers (moral, ceremonial, and civil). There seems to be a couple that are moral (sexual immorality, things polluted by idols) and a couple that are clearly ceremonial (strangled food and blood). And why those moral categories? Why is sexual immorality mentioned and not stealing or murder or something?

What gives?

Three Options

Alan J. Thompson, in his work The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, notes that there are a number of options put forward by scholars (pp. 184-187).

Some think that these restrictions are a sign of the Law’s continuing binding authority drawn from Leviticus 17-18 that govern the behavior of Gentile sojourners in Israel. But that wouldn’t cover the strangled animal issue and there are a bunch of laws elsewhere covering sojourners.

Others have suggested that requirements are kind of on the spot laws picked because they were particularly offensive to Jews. So, this isn’t a requirement of the Law, but more like pragmatic commands just to suit that time and those groups. So, salvation by grace, but don’t offend your Jewish neighbors. The problem with that, though, is that it “overlooks the general applicability of these requirements to all the Gentiles in 15:19 and 21:25” (185).  And the language used about them refers, not to preferences, but binding “decisions” made by the council.

The final view that Thompson notes and opts for is Ben Witherington’s which is that, essentially, these form a restriction on idol practice. Witherington observes that all four of the practices were all associated with pagan temple practices at the time. He notes that the language used of “Gentiles turning to God” in Acts 15:19 is similar to that of 1 Thessalonians 1, where Paul talks about turning from idols to God. Also, there’s a very strong link between food practice and idolatry in 1 Corinthians 8-10, especially where Paul says to “flee from idolatry” (10:4). Beyond that, this fits with the polemic against idolatry in Acts, Paul’s preaching, and early Christianity.

Thompson summarizes the twofold thrust of the council’s decision this way, then:

The Jerusalem Council therefore clarifies two issues involved in how Gentiles may be saved: (1) Gentiles do not have to become Jews; salvation for Jew and Gentile alike is by grace alone through faith in the Lord Jesus alone. (2) However, Gentiles cannot remain pagan idolaters either; they must turn from their pagan idolatrous past. (p. 187)

This option makes sense out of the general applicability of the commands, the fact that they’re not to be seen as just a pragmatic grouping of requests, and the fact that it shouldn’t be seen as a continuation of the OT covenant Law’s binding character on the Gentiles.

Moving Forward

What comes of this? Well, I’ve seen it argued that this text is a good example of the somewhat arbitrary approach to the OT law, or the moral commands of the New Testament. It’s then taken, in some cases, to be part of a case for seeing the New Testament’s commands about sexual immorality to be of the same category as the temporary and apparently pragmatic as the food laws. In which case, now that we’re in a different situation, we’re free to thoughtfully move past them as we have the food restrictions.

Of course, this is all too brief. Still, I think this way of viewing the Jerusalem council’s decision is quite helpful, though, in understanding the way that commands of both sorts—perennial moral commands grounded in the norms of creation and what seem to us to be temporary ceremonial ones—can be coherently grouped together under the broader, perennial concern about idolatry. And this is without falling into the view that we are still partially under the Old Covenant, or that there is no significant difference between the New Testament’s restrictions on sexual practice and food practice.

Insofar as eating food that’s been strangled or with blood in it is connected to idolatry, it is always wrong. On the flipside, given that there are a number of different lines of reasoning behind the prohibition against sexual immorality (porneia), just because it might not be connected to explicit idolatry as in Temple prostitution, that doesn’t mean it’s now okay. As we might expect, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

While there are a number of lessons we could draw here, once again are faced with the reality that we must be wary of constructing our moral and theological frameworks on the basis of single texts or narratives. We have the whole New Testament—narratives, epistles, and so forth—for a reason. While individual texts must be heard, studied, and paid attention to in their own right, this is a case where issues regarding the law, authority, sexuality, and so forth, must be judged in light of the broader canon given to us through the apostles and prophets. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Huckabee’s Heart-Change And Ours: Millennial Issues With Love, The Body, and Marriage

weddingA couple of weeks ago the SCOTUS handed down the Obergefell ruling that made gay marriage the law of the land and the universe was engulfed in a sea of rainbow-colored joy. Or anger. Or grief. Or ecstasy. Honestly, there were about as many reactions as there were colors in the dang rainbow. In any case, a swarm of articles on the subject have gone up, both by non-Christians and Christians of all persuasions. Articles full of arguments, historical narratives, questions, answers to questions, cartoons, and God knows what else.

And, honestly, I have tried to avoid them. Pretty much unsuccessfully, but there you have my vulnerable confession of how little I’ve wanted to have anything to do with the subject online. It’s a difficult enough issue to discuss in person, let alone online, especially when you want to be pastoral. What’s more, this is not a hobby-horse for me. In the last four years of ministry, I’ve explicitly taught on the subject twice, and only because the biblical text in question forced me to.

One of the most recent of these articles was by Tyler Huckabee–an Evangelical writer, blogger, and former editor of Relevant magazine–in which he wrote about his change of heart on same-sex marriage. It’s a personal narrative of sorts, with an articulation of his reasons thrown in, and a closing appeal at the end.

What I’d like to do in this piece is offer some incomplete analysis and commentary on his post.

Now, some of you might be asking, given that up until now I’ve kept my trap shut, why this? Why his piece? In a lot of ways, I think many millennials are resonating with this one in a particular way. It is representative of the reasoning and feelings of a many of the youngish, Evangelicals on the fence who might read the piece and say, “Ya, man, that’s kind of the deal for me too. Thanks for articulating it for me.” This is a niche that seems worth addressing. Also, we are in similar positions. Unlike guys like Gagnon and Brownson, or DeYoung and Vines, I haven’t written academic or a popular book on the subject. Neither has Huckabee. We’re both bloggers and ex-somethings. He’s the ex-editor of a major, Christian magazine and I’m a soon to be ex-college pastor of a not-so-major college group. Also, everybody says Huckabee is a sweet, reasonable guy, so I figure he’ll be a good conversation partner.

To start, you probably ought to read his article before this one, or what follows might not make sense.

Appreciation. First, there are a couple of things I appreciate about Huckabee’s article.

Obviously, he clearly thought about it slowly and maturely, and I can appreciate that writing it can’t have been easy given the church friends he’s had/has, or the way this might affect future publishing opportunities in the Evangelical world. It will certainly make other spheres of influence easier to navigate, particularly the much broader culture outside Evangelicalism, but there will certainly be some cost. Some might cynically say that the timing is suspicious, but I think that would be unfair. It’s clear he’s been chewing on it for a while.

The other thing I really appreciate is that he doesn’t just do the full “conversion to the light” narrative, and run to seeing traditional Christians holding a classic view of marriage as obviously bigoted, or motivated by some deep-seated animus. That’s something many who adopt an affirming stance only recently can’t seem to stop themselves from doing. And I hope, if Huckabee doesn’t change his mind back, that’s something that he’ll influence others to understand as well.

That said, I’ll try to give you what I take to be the heart of Huckabee’s argument, and offer up some assorted criticisms and questions in no particular order. To be clear, for me, the issue in this article is the affirmation of same-sex marriages or relationships as the church, not the State question, which is an interesting and important, but fundamentally distinct issue for another time.

The Main Argument. The heart of Huckabee’s argument, rooted in his reading of Genesis 2, is that the main aim of marriage is not procreation or the propagation of the human race–the relational God is more romantic than that—but rather to deal with the fact that it is not good for man to be alone. Of course, the procreative function is there, but for Huckabee, it is not primary, nor central, nor even necessary to the definition and reality of marriage as an institution or practice. No, Huckabee sees the issue of loneliness as the pressing one in Scripture, and our focus on procreation has misled us on this point. For this reason, we have unfortunately restricted those with same-sex attraction to the position of irredeemable loneliness solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. And Huckabee admits that he can’t do that anymore.

The rest of Huckabee’s arguments, or emotive stories about the way his textbook Bible college theology crumbled in the face of real people’s struggles, are aimed at shoring up that contention.

The first real comment worth making is that his entire argument for the acceptance of gay marriage is premised on the assumption that marriage and sex are the main or only viable relationships to deal with being “alone.” For Huckabee, close friendships, parental relationships, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, extended families, or even the community of God given to us in the church, are just not in view as part of God’s remedy for man being alone. And this is where I think Huckabee’s main argument shows some real inconsistency.

Huckabee rejects that the claim that the narrative of Genesis 1 and 2 gives us the normative standard for marriage as the man/woman pair. Adam and Eve’s obvious, bodily complementarity, highlighted linguistically in the Hebrew pairing “ish/ishah” in the outburst of Adam’s poetry “This at last is bone of my bones/ and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman / because she was taken out of Man” after having Eve plucked from his side (2:23), nor the earlier command in Genesis 1 to be “fruitful and multiply”(1:26-28), nor even the later indications of Torah and Tanakh that marriage and procreative possibility are linked (levirate marriage, Mal.2:15, etc), are relevant. None of these things point Huckabee absolutely to the idea that marriage and the uniting of two to become one flesh is only about a man and a woman. It’s only and primarily about “being alone” and finding someone to fix that problem.

If that’s the case, then why restrict the solution to the problem of “being alone” to the specific relationship of marriage with its spiritual and physical union, just because that’s specifically what happens to occur in the text? In other words, if all these other features of the narrative don’t figure in determinatively as a normative part of the solution to Adam’s “being alone,” why should the sexual union part of it figure in either? Why not just see it as a story of God giving one sexually-non-determinate person another sexually-non-determinate person to be friends with?

I actually think that’s a valid question, in general. Even a traditional reader might affirm the importance of sexual differentiation (all those other feature I just listed) and still note that Adam and Eve together form the basis and beginning of human community in general, which provides a basis for all those other relationships that give humans whole, meaningful lives that don’t have to be spent “alone”, even outside heterosexual marriage.

It is here that Huckabee, like so many of us, has bought into the cultural (and dare I say, “Evangelical youth group”) myth that marriage and sex is the only possible completion of our human experiences of love and wholeness. Ernst Becker pointed out that in the modern period, with the loss of belief in God, we’ve idolized the sexual and romantic Other so that it has become nearly impossible to imagine a full, whole, or even joyful-though-costly life without one. And this conceit I find to be entirely untrue on the basis of Scripture, reason, and not to mention, experience.

While Huckabee worries that the procreative view insults or diminishes those couples experiencing barrenness—which I’d argue it doesn’t—I am quite sure his view ends up diminishing and deeming as lesser the experiences of millions of single, celibate men and women in the Church, both gay and the vast majority who are straight, throughout history down into the present. I refuse to believe the contemporary narrative which sees them as “cursed” by God simply because they don’t have a romantic or sexual partner in this life, something they may even deeply desire. There’s more to be said here, but let’s pass to the next subject.

Scripture and the Meaning of the Body: One of the main themes that comes up is Huckabee’s handling of Scripture and the body. One of the bits that stood out most to me was his handling of the apostle Paul’s thought on the matter. Of course, that’s not a surprise. If you’re going to change your mind on sexuality and marriage, you’re going to have to reckon with Paul’s many statements on the issue.

Some of his responses are fairly common these days. He raised the often-mentioned and often-answered question of whether Paul “knew” about the kinds of gay relationships we’re talking about now, only to assert that we can’t know either way. I think Paul did, but even if he didn’t, it actually wouldn’t matter given the way Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is thoroughly rooted in his reading of Genesis 1-3. But, we can’t settle that out here.

This section was far more interesting to me:

Paul was a bit reserved about marriage to begin with: “To the unmarried and the widows,” he says in 1 Corinthians. “I say it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self control, they should marry.”

This is a rather dim view of sex, which isn’t all that surprising, considering Paul. He seemed hugely unbothered by anything that wasn’t strictly spiritual. I love him for this, but I can’t help but think he would scratch his head at a good deal of the fuss made about marriage in modern Christianity.

Having spent the last 9 months preaching through 1 Corinthians with my students, knee-deep in commentaries on the subject, I must admit I found the comment rather bizarre. What can Huckabee mean by Paul’s preoccupation with “strictly spiritual” matters? Surely not the idea that Paul didn’t care about both body and soul? That’s the point of the argument in 1 Corinthians 5-7. Read any commentary by Thiselton, Hays, or Wright. I mean, heck, in the chapter right before, Paul says to the Corinthians to honor God in your body (6:20). Why? Because resurrection means the body is for the Lord (6:13), to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit (6:19), which is why God bought it at a price (6:20). For Paul, you shouldn’t eat idol food because food can be a form of worship, and, indeed, even eating and drinking can be done to the glory of God (10:31). Everything is “strictly spiritual” for Paul.

This brings me to Huckabee’s criticism of Matt Anderson’s massive article on marriage, procreation, and same-sex marriage. As you might guess, central to Anderson’s point is that eros, the romantic love central to marriage, finds its fulfillment in procreation, as the child becomes an icon of the parents’ love. What I find interesting was that Huckabee criticized it as a “crude materialism” that reduces love to “flesh and function.”

That’s a rather odd criticism of Matt’s piece and there are a number of ways’ of responding to it. The one that’s relevant to us comes in view when we connect this criticism to his comments on Paul, as well as his earlier reading of Genesis 1 and 2. When we do this, Huckabee’s critique reveals a rather semi-Gnostic, anti-materialistic view of humanity as body and soul, flesh and spirit, and his failure to appreciate the way the Creator has written a moral and spiritual grammar into the body itself.

For those who chafe at that idea, remember, Christianity is something of a crassly materialistic faith to begin with. God makes dirt. Then he shapes and breathes life into a man out of the dirt. Then he makes a woman from the man. Then, God becomes a man born to a woman as a gendered Jew in the 1st Century. That’s all very materialistic. Again, our two sacraments involve or are analogues of the processes of flesh and function–dunking the body into the waters of death and resurrection, and consuming the broken body and shed blood of the covenant. It should come as no surprise, then, that marriage is an irreducibly physical reality where two become “one flesh” as a biologically and spiritually complementary pair. Here the physicality and the spirituality are two sides of the same coin. The spiritual meaning depends on the physical and vice versa.

In fact, it is precisely this meaning that is at the heart of one of other Pauline texts that Huckabee doesn’t deal with:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31-32)

As Paul reads Genesis 2, God takes uses the sign of marriage, specifically in its binary, male and female, complementary-flesh-uniting character to point to Jesus’ own love and union with his Bride. And here’s where we come to one of my points: even leaving procreation aside—which I don’t think you should for very long—you can’t alter the pair of man and woman in marriage without altering the grammar, the syntax, the meaning of marriage and it’s God-ordained purpose of pointing to Christ’s saving love for his Church through the “crudely materialistic” processes of “flesh and function.” Childbearing or not, marriage as a sign-post of the gospel is entirely dependent on the sexual grammar of male and female.

Incidentally, can we all agree that anybody with this depth-dimension to their view of physical union can’t have a “dim view” of sex? Instead, Paul gives us a complex view of sex with a double-movement. First, he de-idolizes our sexual desires and reminds us that they are not ultimate, nor devastating if unfulfilled. He is a contented celibate man, just as his single and celibate Lord Jesus was. He too has the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 7:40). Second, he points us to the unique, Christologically-charged meaning of the sexual act and the body that finds its expression in appreciating the glory of sexual difference in marriage. It is precisely such glorious tensions that I love him for.

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin, and Loving the Loves of Others. We’ve all heard that phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Nobody actually has a problem with this saying when it comes to something like, say, racism. I mean, think about it. Love the racist, hate the racism, right? Otherwise, what are your options? Love the racist and his racism? Hate the racist and the racism? No. Love the racist and hate his racism seems about the only option, unless you want to go into some other sort of pattern like “love the racist, feel mutely about his racism”, or “love the racist, understand his racism non-judgmentally and be open to a conversation about these things”? Obviously not.

Huckabee says that in this particular case it’s very difficult because the “sin” is part of their identity in such a way that it is categorically different, raising all sorts of problems. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But, I would quickly point out that the gospel is fundamentally about gifting us new identities in Christ. I would say, rather, that in the case of same-sex desires, too often we have accepted the modern mode of identity-construction via sexual desire, which, to my reckoning, is an entirely unbiblical assumption.

Pressing on, Huckabee writes:

But I know that faith, hope and love remain. And the greatest of these is love. And a love that must hold people’s identity at bay is an imperfect love—a love that refuses their own loves. If someone were to say they loved me but saw my own marriage as an affront to God, I would say that that person does not then really love me. I could not abide that sort of love in my life. I just could not.

Huckabee says here that he could not abide the sort of love that refuses to love his loves, to affirm his marriage. But does that really make sense? I know he’s been married for a year, and so he’s thinking in relation to his own marriage, but what if we thought about children? I’m not a parent, but I work with students, and if there’s one reality that I’m acquainted with well about them, it’s that they quite frequently love the wrong thing, person, or persons. Or, they love them in the wrong way. In fact, that’s at the heart of one of our most classic definitions of sin and idolatry: disordered love. In other words, at the heart of sin lies the fact that we often love the wrong things, or we love good things wrongly, with the wrong intensity, aim, or way.

Thirty years ago, German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote:

Can love ever be sinful? The entire tradition of Christian doctrine teaches that there is such a thing as inverted, perverted love. Human beings are created for love, as creatures of the God who is Love. And yet that divine appointment is corrupted whenever people turn away from God or love other things more than God.

So, take the mother who loves her children above God. That’s an idolatrous love. That’s a wrong love. Or let’s switch back to romantic loves. Maybe the young man who loves his girlfriend possessively and obsessively. Or the woman who loves the husband of another woman as she ought to love her own. Or, take the case of the disordered love of incest. I don’t mean to say incest and same-sex attraction are the same, but simply to bring up a case we still mostly recognize as wrong in our culture. Brother and sister are supposed to love each other, even passionately. But the problem is that we all sense that it’s not supposed to be in that particular way. Even love that has an appropriate object can be wrong if it’s the wrong sort of love for that object.

Each of these cases is of a love—a real, honest love—we are actually called to, out of love, not love and affirm in its entirety. No, at the proper time and context, if we love the person, we cannot love their loves because they are, in some way, destructive. They are another manifestation of the way that all of our loves have gone wrong this side of Eden.  (Note, I say “in its entirety”, because a man can show tender, thoughtfulness to another man, just as the couple involved in adultery can, excepting the act of involving the other in sin, be quite loving to the other.) But here’s the thing: love can, love does, in fact, at times, love must question our loves.

The fundamental question is, “What has God said about our loves in Scripture?” Remember, this is the God of love who created us, who we rejected for the sake of other, lesser loves, and who yet pursued us in love to redeem and bring us back to himself while we were yet sinners at the cost of his Son’s life (Romans 5:8). We must trust that his love moves him to reveal to us the proper patterns and parameters of marital love. And this is true even when it doesn’t feel like it, as any parent who has ever said no to one of the many destructive loves of their children knows. How much more, then, ought we acknowledge that the Infinitely Wise Creator God knows and loves perfectly, even in a way that our finite and fallen minds may find difficult at times? It is here that our generation has yet to truly struggle with the counter-intuitive love of God.

Have I Considered That I Could Be Wrong? Huckabee closes his confession with a final appeal. He tells us that he knows he could be wrong on this issue. Christians disagree here as they have in other places, and he thinks that God won’t condemn either those who affirm a traditional position or a progressive one in the end. But the question he asks is this: 

However, I do urge you to consider: If you are wrong, what is the cost in the here and now? A life condemning others for something they can’t change about themselves? A life judging love?

That’s the wager. It’s not one I’m willing to make.

I have to admit, I’d hate to be wrong here for that reason, if that’s really the gamble. But is it? First, I’ve already dealt with the “judging love” objection above, and to be clear, the relevant question is not my judgment about love, but God’s. But is it really only the traditionalist like me who has a scary wager to make?

Huckabee quotes 1 Corinthians 6:9, earlier, but he doesn’t manage to connect the dots here:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality…

Huckabee asks us to consider the consequences here and now. And those are real, though I think even there Huckabee fails to consider the consequences even here and now if he’s wrong. But still, what about then and there? Do we really want to play the “consider the stakes” game, then? Because the thing Huckabee’s argument doesn’t consider is that you might be telling someone to continue walking unrepentantly in one of the many sins that Scripture says constitutes a rejection of the grace of eternal life. What if God agrees with Paul, the apostle Jesus personally appointed by knocking him off his horse and calling him to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles?  Or the way the Church has been reading him for the last 2,000 years and not a minority of white, wealthy, post-Enlightenment Christians in North America and Europe at the beginning of the 21st Century? What if, right?

See, that is just not a wager I can make.

Wrapping It Up. To sum up, I haven’t actually made full-blown argument for natural or traditional marriage. Nor have I dealt with even half of Huckabee’s concerns, nor even my own. All the same, I think his piece reveals much about the problems we Millennials seem to have with issues concerning the meaning of the body, Scripture, and even the nature of God’s love. I pray that if you’re on the fence on these things—a position I can certainly understand—that this article and analysis help in some way.

Soli Deo Gloria

For those look for more resources, I’d recommend Kevin DeYoung’s book on the matter. Or, for a heavy academic work, Robert Gagnon’s. Or, if you want a more personal meditation, I’d highly recommend Wesley Hill’s thoughtful work. Finally, on the subject of sexual differentiation in marriage, Christopher Roberts’ book is fantastic.

Bavinck On Inequality: Culture or Sovereignty? Rousseau or Calvin?

Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait)In 1913 Herman Bavinck penned a little essay “On Inequality”, in which he directed his attention to the subject of social inequality, especially the tragic sort. The study begins by examining the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in the modern period, was the first person to really broach the question, and do so in such a way that his thought has reverberated throughout revolutions and societies ever since. After giving a sympathetic brief biography and exposition of his thought–especially his basic answer that the wicked development of human culture has corrupted natural human equity–in an arresting passage Bavinck unexpectedly turns his attention to set up a contrast between Rousseau and another intellectual titan of Geneva:

The name “citizen of Geneva,” as Rousseau liked to call himself after his second discourse, makes us think of another man who lived and worked in Geneva two centuries earlier: the powerful Reformed John Calvin. But what a tremendous contrast arises the moment these two names are mentioned together. Calvin, the classically formed humanist, a man distinguished in manners and appearance, with sharp mind and an iron will; over against Rousseau, the restless wanderer, who was often moody, whose thinking lacked logic, whose life was rudderless, who was a dreamer and a fanatic, and the first great romanticist of the eighteenth century! Both experienced a transformation in their lives, but with Calvin it consisted of turning away from the errors of the Roman Catholic Church and an embracing of the truth and the freedom of the gospel, which with Rousseau it was no more than a breaking with all culture and return to the instinctiveness of nature. Calvin had learned to see human nature as culpable and polluted in the light of Scripture, while Rousseau taught that nature, before it was contaminated by culture, was good and beautiful and without any corruption. Calvin sought the cause of all misery in sin, which was a personal act consisting of disobedience of God’s law. Rousseau blamed society and civilization, and he was moved to tears when he thought of his own goodness; no one had ever existed who was as good and compassionate as he! Calvin did not expect anything from nature but expected everything from God’s grace in Christ. In one word, Calvin cast man and all creatures in the dust before the overwhelming majesty of God. Rousseau, on the other hand, put man on the throne, himself first of all, at the expense of God’s holiness and justice.

–“On Inequality” in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (pp. 155-156)

Clearly Bavinck had his preferences. But aside from the excuse to pen a bit of stunning prose, why bring up Calvin? Well, to set up a bit of a paradoxical contrast in their approaches to the issue of inequality.

Calvin, according to Bavinck, was also concerned with inequality, but contrary to the social leveler, Rousseau, it was religious inequality that bothered him most. Why do some respond to the gospel and others turn away in their sin and folly? Calvin, Luther, and others, after examining Scripture and all the other options, could ultimately only acknowledge God’s sovereign good pleasure.

Beyond establishing the certainty of faith, Bavinck says that this insight into the sovereignty of God as the deepest cause of all things gave Calvin foundation from which to build a theology of multiplicity, difference, and yes, even inequality. Nature, culture, and human choice do play their roles, but underlying them all is the sovereign good pleasure of God which sustains nature, culture, and even human choice.

Of course, Bavinck knows this isn’t an immediately palatable thought; only “a strong generation can accept” it. Still, Bavinck thinks it offers a number of blessings. First, it teaches peaceable acceptance, submission, and contentment in times of struggle and hardship. Rousseau stirred up rebellion and resentment in their hearts by blaming society and culture, which set people up for the disappointment that inequality still exists on the other side of the Revolution.

Second, Calvin’s teaching on sovereignty assures believers that no matter how opaque or inscrutable his purposes may be, they are where they are by the will of their loving Father, who cares for them and has provided a gracious salvation in Christ, not blind fate or pitiless nature. These are the comforts of the martyrs, the imprisoned, the simple suffering children of God, which Rousseau’s gospel could never offer.

At this point, Bavinck points up a third and initially surprising contrast between the two philosophies, or rather the two thinkers. Rousseau might have indeed complained, stirred the populace with his fiery writings, and turned people against their monarchs, but at the end of the day, he walked away from them. He ended up retreating to reclusion “without moving a finger to reform society.” Calvin, on the other hand? Well, he got down to business. While some might see predestination and sovereignty as cutting the nerve of social reform, it actually funded it:

If we steadfastly believe that the will of God is the cause of all things, then our reverence for that same will, which has been revealed in Scripture as the rule for our lives, must compel us to promote its dominion everywhere and as far as our influence reaches. If you believe, with Rousseau, that society is the cause of all evil, then you have pronounced its death sentence; you have given man the right to execute people, and you have legitimized the Revolution. But if you believe with Calvin that the will of God, his will of good pleasure, is the cause of all things, then that same will becomes his revealed will and the moving force and rule for our living. The words “Your will be done” encompass and provide not only the strength to acquiesce but also strength to act. (158)

A bit later he goes on to substantiate his point further by pointing out the substantial reforms initiated in Geneva and the admirable commonwealth to be found there. Indeed, in Bavinck’s opinion, Rousseau was proud to be a Genevan largely because of the ripple effect of the Reforms initiated by Calvin’s very different theology of culture, nature, and inequality.

Now, at this point, some of us may question Bavinck’s presentation of Rousseau. I suspect some of us–especially us Americans–might not understand his hostility to the Revolution, or understand the horror with which many Europeans regarded it. Still, it’s a remarkable essay and a paradoxical argument worth considering. A strong appreciation for the sovereignty of God can both keep us from the anxiety that causes us to revile the good gifts of God by identifying them with the source of evil (culture), comfort us in the midst of its difficulties, as well as the moral energy to work for its good.

Soli Deo Gloria


When Was the Last Time You Talked Baseball With Your Enemies?

baseballI’m not a communications expert, but it’s a subject I think about a lot. I preach (almost) every week, blog here, tweet, Facebook, meet with students, and do all the regular sorts of communicating most humans do (because I am a human too). One of the dimensions of communication I’ve wrestled with most is how to talk to people you don’t agree with, maybe dislike or even consider an ideological enemy. It’s also one of the things we Christians seem to be particularly bad at in our internet age. I don’t need to describe this in detail. We’ve all see one too many Facebook updates blow up into a rehash of the Schisms and the Crusades to doubt that this is a problem.

While there are a number of reasons this should not be so, one of the important is Jesus’ command to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and pray for those with whom we are opposed. If we can’t do that with people with whom we share the household of God, how are we supposed to do that with those outside of it?

So, how can we love, honor, and treat with Christian dignity those with whom we disagree? How can we love someone all the while contending for a truth that is of significant moral and personal interest when they are forcibly set against you?

Sometimes I wonder if we hear this standard and are struck with this overwhelming challenge to love in its most difficult, highest form, come to the summit of the mountain, and stop because it seems all too impossible. But what if there was a simpler first step? What if we could begin with something as simple as small talk?

For instance, when was the last time you chatted baseball with your atheist cousin? Or Christopher Nolan films with your friend who watches Fox News (or MSNBC)? Or how about favorite Mexican foods with that blogger who always seems to pick the wrong opinion on every theological issue?

Phatic v. Emphatic Speech

I’m not just throwing out a bit of silly advice here. I mean this seriously. I’m not a communications expert, but one of the most interesting tidbits I picked up from Timothy Muehlhoff’s book I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love was the distinction between “phatic” and “emphatic” speech (pp. 45-46).

Muehlhoff draws on the work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who discovered the importance of “phatic” communication for healthy relationships. Most of the conversations we have about difficult issues are “emphatic.” But that’s not most of the conversations we have with friends and family. Phatic speech is all those small interactions talking about daily routines, shared interests–small talk, basically. Healthy relationships need a significant amount of conversations dealing with the weather, sports, the price of tires, favorite sandwiches and TV shows.

Think of it this way: every relationship we have has a sort of emotional temperature to it. If you only ever talk to someone in order to argue–engage in emphatic speech–the emotional temperature is always cranked up, so every conversation only gets more heated. Too many of those in a row and things are likely to blow. Phatic speech about shared interests, innocuous cultural items, and so forth, lowers the conversation temperature so that it is less like to reach that boiling point where you finally throw up your hands and say, “That’s it! I can’t talk to this person anymore!”

I have seen this in my own life. I have found myself in a number of conversations and even friendships with people on very different sides of the theological spectrum over the years. I’ve noticed that I always make more headway–or at least less damage–when it’s someone that I have managed to find common interests, jokes, and so forth. I’ve also noticed that when one of these relationships gets strained, I can usually look back at the last few weeks and realize that all of our interactions have been in the “emphatic” mode. In that sense, willingness to trade a joke or two on Twitter can go a long way in forwarding communication between opposed camps.

I think also of one discussion group that manages to be a decent space for discussion of difficult issues: Christ and Pop Culture’s Member’s Group. (For those who don’t know what that is, Christ and Pop Culture offers a paid membership and one of the many privileges is being part of a private Facebook group to chat about issues with writers and other members.) What’s funny about the group is that discussions range from Sufjan Stevens’ last album to the latest Evangelical cultural blow-up to RFRA and things manage to stay pretty loving. I mean, people disagree plenty, but there’s such an interesting mix of phatic and emphatic speech in the group that the conversational temperature says pretty healthy and constructive. That, and the fact that when things get heated, Alan Noble swoops in with a Kermit GIF to defuse the tension.

Remember They’re Human

Why is this sort of small talk so important? Well, on top of the emotional temperature, the mix of phatic and emphatic speech in our relationships reminds us of our shared, common humanity in concrete ways. It’s not just that your “enemy” is a Democrat, or a Fox News Watcher, or a Progressive, or a Calvinist, or whatever. They’re also the person who agrees that Batman is smart enough to beat Superman and both of you have kids who, for some reason, can’t manage to eat anything that’s not a peanut butter sandwich. This is not just the “marriage revisionist”, but someone else who was also suffering last Tuesday when the dry weather was killing your sinuses.

When you know this, it changes the character of the big, real issues that stand between you. It’s not that they go away or become any less important. It’s that it is harder to reduce the person to the issue on which you are ideologically divided. It’s harder to put them in an entire different category of humanity (or non-humanity), beyond the realm of possible persuasion and hope. This, I think, maybe a communication theory spin on remembering the basic theological realities of common grace and the Image of God. I’ve written about this before, but it’s one of the reasons Chesterton was so good at staying in healthy relationships with his foe/friends like Shaw–he knew they were more than their ideas.

So, do I think that talking baseball with my ideological opponents will heal all the wounds of the Church in an internet age? No. That sort of thing can only be accomplished by the Spirit of God, supernaturally working his Word into our souls. Still, it might be one small step towards following Paul’s admonition, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).

Sometimes the attempt to live peacably includes chatting with your opponent about Opening Day.

Soli Deo Gloria


Mere Fidelity: The Resurrection, Ethics, and Natural Law

Mere FidelityGiven that it’s the week after Easter, Alastair, Matt, and I decided to ask “What has the resurrection to do with how we think about ethics?” as well as the limits and possibilities of natural law reasoning. We consider (tangentially) this essay by James K.A. Smith, this fascinating story from Conor Friedersdorf, and this tome by Oliver O’Donovan. I think we cover a lot of important and relevant material here, so I hope you enjoy it.

Soli Deo Gloria