Image Theology and Idolatry

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Being created in the image of God—

“So God created man in his own image [בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ], in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27 ESV)

—may sound quaint to postmodern ears, but it becomes terribly important in understanding the implications of idolatry, the worship of images other than God. Think of idolatry as a hierarchy of priorities. The First Commandment makes this point: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3) For example, how time or money each week do you spend in different activities? How does God stack up in this list of priorities?

The Second Commandment reinforces the point of the first one:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image [פֶ֣֙סֶל], or any likeness [תְּמוּנָ֡֔ה] of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exod 20:4-6)

The focus on “carved images” suggests pagan temple worship, as the Psalmist makes light of:

“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Ps 115:4-8)

The key verse here is the last one: “Those who make them become like them”. Image theology implies that we grow to become like the god that we worship, even if we worship idols. Our number one priority, which is a question of identity and attitude, is effectively our god. Idol worship threatens all that we are because over time we become like the god that we worship.

Is this statement hyperbole? Not all all. If we worship idols, they let us down. When our idols crash, we experience an existential crisis because we must completely reorganize our priorities, which is never easy.

Think about the priorities in the United States today. If your number one priority is work and you loose your job, what happens? Even a casual observer knows that anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and suicide are rampant in the United States.

The issue of suicide is indicative because suicide is currently at historically high levels. Two age groups stand out: young people under the age of thirty and older white men, a group not historically prone to suicide. Among young people, the typically reason for attempting suicide is a broken relationship (idolizing a person); among older men, the typical reason is a lost job (workaholism). Both problems suggest idols that have crashed.

For every suicide there are probably another five or ten people suffering miserably. If psychiatric problems, such as anxiety and depression, have a spiritual root (idolatry), then talk therapy and medication can only ease the pain; they cannot solve the problem.

To sum up, if we are created in the image of God and are commanded to love him and only him, God’s jealousy arises for our advantage. God’s jealousy is not vanity; it is part of his care for us. Love for God, as the prayer goes—

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5)

—actually serves to vaccinate us from some serious problems.

References

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Image Theology and Idolatry

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Wicks Honors the Image of God

Review of Robert Wicks, Touching the HolyRobert J. Wicks.[1] 2007. Touching the Holy: Ordinariness, Self-Esteem, and Friendship (Orig pub 1992). Notre Dame: Sorin Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One lesson that I learned in seminary revealed itself in a change in my Myers Briggs classification. Early in seminary I tested out as an ENTJ (extraverted, intuitive, thinking, judgmental), often referred to as the field-marshal. Later in seminary as I became more self-aware, my T became an F (feeling), often referred to as the counselor. While some people disputed my T to F transition, I realized that out of fear of failure I had been role-playing during my career as an economist, something that as an aspiring pastor was no longer necessary or appropriate.[2]What do you do when you discover yourself playing masquerades and it is not a game?

Introduction

In his book,Touching the Holy, Robert Wicks (16-17) writes:

“Due to our lack of complete trust in God’s revelation that we are made in the divine image and likeness, most of us get caught up in trying to be extraordinary…The Spirit of ordinariness invites each of us to follow the will of God by trying to find out what our inner motivations and talents are and then to express them without reserve or self-consciousness.”

Accepting our limits (or just being ourselves) and receiving God’s love, according to Wicks, are keys to deep spiritual discernment, because until we do we cannot move forward with God or with other people (18-32).

The Wilderness

After the people of Israel left Egypt, they entered the wilderness, learned to depend on God, and could not enter Canaan until they did. Speaking of the desert fathers, Wicks writes:

“The desert provided a place where it was difficult to hide from the most basic realities of ordinary Christian life.”(37)

He sees three threats to our own spiritual growth as being:

  1. Projecting our blame onto others;
  2. Being deaf to God’s presence; and
  3. Unconsciously yielding to secular values. (38)

The wilderness provides an environment fertile for spiritual growth because in the desert we are not surrounded by the usual idols (wealth, people, work, distractions) that we are attached to and we are forced to focus on the basics of life. (62) According to Wicks, clerical workers (priests, pastors, and the like) usually suffers burnout, a kind of self-imposed wilderness, after they have let go of their prayer life. (66)

Who is Robert Wicks?

Robert Wicks received his doctorate in Psychology from Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital, is Professor Emeritus at Loyola University Maryland, and has published over 50 books. His particular interest is secondary trauma and as a pastoral care worker has helped to serve care givers during a number of high-profile crises, such as the civil war in Rwanda and in Cambodia. In 1996, Pope John Paul II awarded him with a papal medal for his service to the Catholic Church.

Assessment

Robert Wicks’ Touching the Holyis written in six chapters, proceeded by an introduction and followed by notes:

  1. Embracing Ordinariness
  2. Lessons from the Desert
  3. What is my True Face?
  4. Friends
  5. A Simple Caring Presence(vii)

It is short (188 5”x7” pages) and accessible, a good read for a quiet day.

References

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2017. Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir.Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Keirsey, David. 1998. Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, and Intelligence. Del Mar, CA: Prometheus Nemesis Book Company.

Footnotes

[1]http://www.RobertJWicks.com.https://www.loyola.edu/academics/pastoral-counseling/faculty/robert-wicks.

[2]In my memoir, Called Along the Way(2017), my role playing took the form of dressing more formally than I had previously (“Dress for Success”,185-187) and, later, finding the need to shed the “Doctor Hiemstra” image (“Looking the Part”,312-314).

Wicks Honors the Image of God

Also see:

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Monday Monologues: God’s Ethical Image, June 4, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W. Hiemstra, www.StephenWHiemstra.net
Stephen W. Hiemstra, 2017

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I share a prayer for congruity and a reflection on God’s Ethical Image.

To listen, click on the link below.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

Monday Monologues: God’s Ethical Image, June 4, 2018 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

 

 

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Prayer for Congruity

Winter Trees by Sharron Beg
Winter Trees by Sharron Beg (www.threadpaintersart.blogspot.com)

Merciful father,

How long must I wait to see your face more clearly?

To feel your hand on my shoulder and know that I have served you well?

My soul longs to hear your voice over the chaos of life

and to sense your passion over creation.

Be especially present in this time and place.

Open hearts and minds in this dismal land.

Save us from the stupor of a life lived poorly and out of harmony with your will for us.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, grant me strength for the day;  grace for those I meet; and peace,

the peace that passes all understanding.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer for Congruity

Also see:

Tennant Highlights Five Gifts

Giving Thanks 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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The Ethical Image of God

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ethical image of God is a hot-button issue today because of the proclivity of many pastors and Christians to view God exclusively through the lens of love, as we read repeatedly through the writings of the Apostle John: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8). Matthew’s double love command is likewise frequently cited:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?  And he said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:36-40)

The Greek word for love (ἀγαπάω) is the same in both cases and means: “to have a warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love” (BDAG 38.1). Agape love provides little help in understanding God’s character because of the wide scope in Greek usage. More useful is focus on the word depend (κρέμαμαι) in Matthew 22:40, which means: “to cause to hang [like a hinge].” (BDAG 4395.1), because the law and the prophets hang on love, but they also inform love’s meaning. The law and the prophets inform Matthew’s use of the word, love.

Covenantal Love

In the Old Testament God interacts with his people primarily through the giving of covenants. After a second giving of the Ten Commandments, we find God revealing his character to Moses:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6)

The word translated “steadfast love” here (חֶ֥סֶד; hesed) means: “obligation to the community in relation to relatives, friends, guests, master & servants, &c.; unity, solidarity, loyalty” (HOLL). The context makes it clear that the type of love in view here is not a generic agape love, but a more specific covenantal love focused on keeping one’s promises. We honor God and our neighbor by treating them with respect and keeping our word, especially when it hurts. This is a heart-felt relationship, but it is more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling. 

The fact that love is not the first characteristic of God, mercy is, reinforces the idea that love requires an interpretation beyond the warm and fuzzy agape love that so many cherish. When we say that Jesus died for our sins, we experience his love by means of (or through the instrument of) his mercy. The point that mercy is more primal than love is also reinforced in Jesus’ Beatitudes: mercy is listed; love is not (Matt 5:3-11). When we experience God’s love through his mercy, covenant keeping love, not warm and fuzzy agape love, is in focus.

The Hermeneutics of the New Covenant in Christ

This interpretation of love in Matthew makes particular sense because Matthew views the new covenant in Christ in terms of five commandments. The first commandment is to honor the law and the prophets (Matt 5:18-20). The second has to do with stepping out in faith (Matt 14:2829). The third instructs the disciples not to obsess about spiritual experiences (Matt 17:9). The fourth instructs then disciples not to pic nits with the law (Matt 19:16-21). The five commandment is the double love commandment already mentioned (Matt 22:36-40). 

If this set of commandments seems obscure, what we see is Matthew struggling to interpret the new covenant in Christ in an Old Testament framework of specific rules. By contrast, the Apostle John sees the new covenant in terms of the person of Jesus, which is hermetically harder and leads to competing visions of the person of Christ. Whose Jesus are you going to accept? 

Matthew’s double love commandment gives us a better idea of how to interpret the person of Christ because it “hangs” on our understanding of the Old Testament. It also pre-empts attempts to adopt a licentious interpretation of God’s love inconsistent with Old Testament teaching.

References

BDAG – Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition.  Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago Press. Revised and edited by Frederick William Danker based on the Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und für frühchristlichen Literatur, sixth edition, ed. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, with Viktor Reichmann and on previous English Editions by W.F.Arndt, F.W.Gingrich, and F.W.Danker. This edition is an electronic version of the print edition published by the University of Chicago Press.

HOLL – A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Based upon the Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, edited by W.L. Holladay. Copyright © 1997 by Brill Academic Publishers.

The Ethical Image of God

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 2

Fortson and Grams, Unchanging WitnessDonald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The key theological challenge of our age is the lost sense of the transcendence of God. If God’s transcendence is no longer a lived reality, then Jesus was not raised from the dead (1 Cor 15:14) and he becomes a great teacher whose views on the authority of scripture (Matt 5:17-19) are downgraded to the status of nice to know, not a commandment. The moral teaching of the church is thereby easily waived off in favor the double-love commandment—love God; love neighbor (Matt 22:36-40)—and the first half of the commandment is held lightly. Soon, questions like—who are you to tell me who to love—make it clear that power politics, not scripture, has the last word in the church. Reading this line of reasoning backwards, the attack on orthodox faith (and its motivation) becomes transparent.

In part one of this review, I summarized arguments in Unchanging Witness by Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams. In this second part, I will delve more deeply into their arguments.

Introduction

Fortson and Grams make it clear that questions about sexuality have influenced both biblical teaching and church practice throughout history. They write:

“…Jews saw the issue [of homosexuality] straightforwardly. Jews and Christians consistently taught that homosexuality acts were sinful, and they supported their views with the Scriptures. Both the Old and New Testaments, Judaism and early church, taught a consistent view on sexuality in general and on homosexuality in particular, clearly differing from the surrounding cultures. Debate over this matter in recent times is not due to fresh illumination of biblical texts that our predecessors misread; rather, it stems from our culture’s unwillingness to accept what the text clearly says.” (191)

Why Does the Book of the Law Highlight Sex?

For my part, I have always assumed that the clarity of scripture on the sexual behavior arose from the Hebrew experience of slavery in Egypt. Is it accidental, for example, that the very first Hebrew slave, Joseph, experienced sexual abuse? We read:

“So he [Potiphar—Joseph’s master] left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, lie with me.” (Gen 39:6-7 ESV)

Was Joseph a stand-in for a generation of sexually abused, former Egyptian slaves? The Genesis account chronicles all manner of sexual perversion, raising the possibility that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis to help the former Egyptian slaves overcome their own experience of abuse. Most likely they accepted Moses’ sexual ethic that differed radically from surrounding Canaanite cultures because they knew that accepting perverse sexual relations gave a green light to the rich and powerful in their abuse of those that were less fortunate. Former slaves apparently wanted normal family relations—marriage of one man and one woman—because it was something denied them for four hundred years.

The Sexual Ethic

Most commentators on the primacy of monogamous marriage (one partner in marriage) in the Book of Genesis cite two passages:

 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

 “And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, 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. Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen 2:22-24)

Fortson and Grams then point out that the ideas about marriage presented in these two passages are then repeated in Genesis 5:1-1:

“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” 

This repetition implies emphasis and the context is interesting because it almost immediately follows the account of Lamech, who murders out of revenge and is reported to be the first polygamist (Gen 4:34-35). In other words, Moses is reminding us that monogamous marriage is the standard and polygamists are known to be sketchy individuals.

Other sexual relationships that are prohibited later in Leviticus 18, including incest and homosexuality, need not have been be specifically itemized (although many are) because they deviate from the sexual ethic given in the creation accounts. The fact that the homosexual act is explicitly mentioned, prohibited, and treated as a capital offense for both participants (Lev 18:22) implies emphasis. The context placing it between a prohibition of child sacrifice (Lev 18:21) and of bestiality (Lev 18:23) underscores the unambiguous attitude towards homosexuality.

In Leviticus 18:25 these acts will make “the land became unclean, so that I [God] punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev 18:25), a clear allusion to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by God himself (not Abraham and his private army) in Genesis 18. The example of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction has historically motivated cities to take a dim view of homosexual practices within their jurisdictions (69).

Early Church and Reformation Understanding of Scripture

These are starkly clear references. Fortson and Grams cite voluminous (three chapters, pages 27 to 91) early church reference and references all the way to the reformation that underscore how the church understood scriptural prohibitions of homosexual behavior in all of its manifestations. For example, Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John who was later martyred, wrote:

“Knowing, therefore, that ‘God is not mocked,’[1] we ought to live in a manner that is worthy of his commandment and glory… For it is a good thing to be cut off from the sinful desires of the world, because every ‘sinful desire wages war against the spirit,’ and ‘neither fornicators nor male prostitutes nor homosexuals will inherit the kingdom of God,’ nor those who do perverse things. Therefore we must keep away from all these things.” (31)

If homosexuality were unknown to the early church, as some homosexual advocates  have argued, then why would there be a need even to comment on it?

Likewise, the sin list in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) repeats the prohibition of “homosexual perversion” (82) in question 87, a reference now translated as “unchaste person” in the official, PCUSA translation  (PCUSA, 2016).

Assessment

Please refer to part one of this review for a general overview of the book and a discussion of my personal connections with this issue.

Fortson and Grams provide an important resource to the church and academy on the history of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. This book is of special interest to those new to the debate about the role of homosexuality in the church and those who take scripture as the sole authority for answering questions of faith and Christian living. Fortson and Grams focus on truth-telling. In this context love means accepting people as they are, but caring enough to help them to move beyond their fallen state (John 8).[2]

References

Campbell, W. P. 2010. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry: A Christlike Response to Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review)

Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA). 2016. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part 1 of the Book of Confessions. Louisville: Office of the General Assembly.

Polycarp. 1989. “Letter to the Philippians,” pages 125-126 in The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translation J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. Michael Holmes (orig pub 1891) Grand Rapids: Baker.

Footnotes

[1] Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Gal 6:7)

[2]Campbell (2010) sees Jesus’ attitude towards the woman caught in adultery as our template for ministry (John 8).

Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 2

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Monday Monologue, Interpretation 2.0, May 28, 2018 (Podcast)

Stephen W. Hiemstra, www.StephenWHiemstra.net
Stephen W. Hiemstra, 2017

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I share a prayer for rest and a followup reflection on biblical interpretation.

To listen, click on the link below.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

Monday Monologue, Interpretation 2.0, May 28, 2018 (Podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Prayer for Rest

Doldrums, Sand Dune in Ocean City, MarylandLord of the Sabbath,

Teach me to rest.

Disconnect me from the Internet; take away my phone; transport  me go off the grid.

That I might rest with you.

That I might be truly present with others.

That I might once again cherish my time not working.

Calm my nerves; cleanse me of fear; let me not care what others think.

That I might recognize the man in the mirror.

That I might care for my kids and my parents

That I might be your servant without reservation.

Forgive my absence in mind and body; grant me your presence; fill my empty heart with your Holy Spirit

Breath life into these bones.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer for Rest

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Interpreting the Bible 2.0

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith“Then the LORD God said, 

it is not good that the man should be alone; 

I will make him a helper (‎עֵ֖זֶר) fit for him.” 

(Gen 2:18 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

 In earlier reflections, I noted how important hermeneutics is to understanding scripture, distinguishing Christian groups, and sorting out controversies in the church. In this reflection I will give an example of how to interpret scripture focusing on just one verse, Genesis 2:18, cited above. In this verse, God talks about creating Eve and refers to her as Adam’s helper.

A Patriarchal Read?

Historically, Genesis 2:18 has been used to justify male dominance in the marriage relationship. This view has then been supported by pointing out that Adam named Eve, another sign of dominance, and in Genesis 3:6 Eve yields to Satan’s temptation, a sign taken as weakness on her part. 

An alternative interpretation notes that Adam and Eve are created together as a pair: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) Later, in marriage Adam is to give up his father’s household to live with Eve (Gen 2:24), which was not the typical custom among other people groups in the Ancient Near East. Further, if one reads the temptation narrative closely, Adam is standing next to Eve when she get tempted. If he is truly “the man of the house”, then why does he stand there mute while his wife is talking to a snake? Is the snake addressing the boss?

Key to this patriarchal interpretation is the word translated as helper (‎עֵ֖זֶר). While helper can sometimes mean a slave, more typically it refers to a higher status person or even God himself: “Behold, God is my helper (‎עֹזֵ֣ר); the Lord is the upholder of my life.” (Ps 54:4) Webb (2001, 128) writes:

“…a survey of the Hebrew world for ‘helper’ (ezer) should caution against using the word itself to support either position. When including both the noun and verb forms, there are about 128 occurrences int he Old Testament. The majority of uses (72%) are of superior-status individuals helping these of a lesser status. Yet, there are a number of examples where the ‘helper’ is either of equal status (18%) or of lower status (10%) than the one being helped…Only contextual factors beyond the word should be used to establish [status].”

Here we find that the original author, Moses, is unclear as to the intent of the passage. Readers of the passage are likewise divided. However, in scripture we find a clear statement by the Apostle Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) While some commentators will debate Paul’s commitment to equality, his comments on family relations in Ephesians 6:1-9 completely undermined the patriarchal system of his time, when the father’s rights over women, children, and slaves were absolute. The early church functioned as a defacto family group (hence, terms like brother and sister used throughout the New Testament to refer to fellow believers) in which equality among the members was a dominant virtue.⁠1

The patriarchal position is harder to argue from scripture than male and female equality, especially in today’s cultural context. Mexican Christians will sometimes joke about two types of husbands: those that are happy and those who think that they are the boss!

Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve?

After many years of Evangelicals saying that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, gay commentators began turning this argument around, albeit tongue in cheek.⁠2 If the Great Commandment (love neighbor, love God; Matt 22:36-40) is true and should be our ethical and interpretative guide as Christians as advocated, for example, by Jack Rogers (2009, 65) , then sometimes the perfect helper for Adam is truly Steve, not Eve. If Adam loves Steve, who is to say it is not so? After all, God had just introduced him to all the living creatures and birds of the air, looking presumably for a helper for Adam (Gen 2:18-20).

Why might we find this interpretation unconvincing?

Two prominent reasons suggest that this is a speculative reading. 

First, the author of the passage, Moses, uses these verses (Gen 2:18-20) as a foil to introduce Eve and Adam is happy with God’s new creation: “Then the man said, “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.” (Gen 2:23) The immediate context of the passage rules out any substitutes for Eve.

Second, if any confusion existed on how to interpret Genesis 2:18, then Leviticus 18:22 explicitly and unequivocally forbids homosexual relationships.⁠3 Because Moses wrote both Genesis and Leviticus, one would need to argue that Moses somehow disagreed with himself or changed his mind about the Genesis 2:18 passage, which seems unlikely. Looking to the New Testament for further guidance, the Apostle Paul refers to homosexuality and lesbianism both as a curse for having rejected God and his self-identification in creation (Rom 1:19-28). In this context love means accepting people as they are, but caring enough to help them to move beyond their fallen state as we see Jesus doing with the woman caught in adultery (John 8).

Why Bother Talking About Hermeneutics?

The point of these examples is to encourage Christians to take scriptural interpretation seriously. Weak or unusual interpretations typically either take scripture out of context or focus exclusively on a reader context. Considering also the author’s intent and the wider scriptural context generally provide a more balanced reading than  talking exclusively about “what scripture means to me” as a reader. 

References

Fortson, S. Donald and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic.(Review)

Hellerman, Joseph H. . 2001. The Ancient Church as Family. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (Review)

Rogers, Jack. 2009. Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.(Review)

Webb, William J. 2001. Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Downers Grove: IVP Press.(Review)

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1 This is an important finding, in part, because the prevailing interest among many writers today is to allege that the patrilineal kinship group model is used rhetorically to promote hierarchy at the expense of socially disadvantaged groups. Hellerman (2001, 221) disagrees writing:

“those who had the most to gain from the image of the church as a family were the poor, the hungry, the enslaved, the imprisoned, the orphans, and the widows. For brother-sister terminology in antiquity had nothing to with hierarchy, power, and privilege, but everything to do with equality, solidarity, and generalized reciprocity.” (221)

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_and_Steve.

3 Fortson and Grams (2016, 251-258) discuss this issue of intent in Leviticus as interpreted in the New Testament at great length.

Interpreting the Bible 2.0

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 1

Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In 2010 as a seminary student, a pastor formerly associated with my home church wrote a book on his personal ministry to people trapped in a homosexual lifestyle and wanting out. He is a longtime friend and, because his publisher wanted reviewers, I volunteered to write a review. When I later inquired as to whether to publish this review in our presbytery newsletter, I got an icy response. Now eight years later, my friend’s church has long since left the denomination and my home church is in the final stages of leaving. The church’s attitude about homosexuality remains the most important theological question facing our generation and, yet, most Christians, myself included, flinch at bringing up the topic.[1]

In their book, Unchanging Witness, Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams write:

“…our chief concern is with those who identify themselves as Christians. Many contemporary discussions of homosexuality are based on broad assertion lacking substantial grounding in the texts of the Christian tradition. Our book is intended as a resource for those who hold the historical Christian position on homosexuality. What we offer is the combined perspective of a New Testament scholar and a church historian…”(xi).

Rollin is a personal friend and former New Testament (NT) professor of mine who remains on the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC with a lifelong commitment to reading ancient texts carefully.[2]Dr. Fortson is a professor of church history at the Reformed Theological Seminary, also in Charlotte.[3]

The task of reading church texts carefully is probably easier today than at any point in the past two thousand years. Ancient texts from libraries and churches around the world are now available online to virtually anyone who looks. However, in spite of technological advances and the scholarly horsepower to understand them, ironically biblical illiteracy plagues the church and careful scholarship does not always inform church preaching, teaching, and decisions.

Crisis of Authority

The real crisis, Fortson and Grams argue, is whether the church continues to view the Bible as authoritative. (168, 366) Why? They write:

“Our overview of texts has revealed that the Fathers, Reformers, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox church are unanimous in their condemnation of homoerotic behavior among those who profess Christ as Lord.”(376)

And each of these church groups base their position of homosexuality on the authority of scripture. In particular, their sexual ethic, drawn from both Old and New Testament texts, is summed up succinctly: “The place for sex was understood to be within marriage between a man and a woman.”(189) No other sexual activity, including heterosexual and homosexual sex, was permitted for the Christian, in spite of alternative cultural contexts, desires, and motives. The detailed documentation of this unusual unity of opinion among Jews and Christians in Fortson and Grams book is lengthy (385 pages) and repetitious because little disagreement existed (or exists) among orthodox believers.

In the Reformation, Protestant groups broke away from the Catholic Church over the authority of scripture arguing that the Bible was the sole of authority over matters of faith and salvation. In arguing from cultural experience and mores, liberal Protestant groups have ironically separated themselves from their own reformed tradition and reopened behaviors in the church that first led to the reformation. As Fortson and Grams observe, immoral behavior among clergy, including homosexuality, and the influence of humanism figured prominently in the decision of the Protestant churches to break away. (77-86)

Did God Really Say…

A key argument among homosexual advocates is that biblical authors and early church writers were unaware of consensual homosexual relationships as we see today and, as a consequence, biblical prohibitions against homosexuality were limited in scope to particular concerns, like pederastry (sex between an older man and a boy). Thus, consensual homosexual relationships were not in view, hence not proscribed. For example, Fortson and Grams (18) cite John McNeill (1993, xx) who writes:

“…You [traditional Catholic writers] continue to claim that a loving homosexual act is condemned in Scripture, when competent scholars are nearly unanimous in admitting that nowhere in Scripture is there a clear condemnation of sexual acts between two gay men or lesbians who love each other.” 

Implicit in these arguments is that the Bible did not limit sex to one man and one woman in the context of marriage, which would render such arguments moot by forbidding all other sexual relations. Homosexual advocates therefore start by denying the existence of a Christian sexual ethic and then move on to limit the scope of biblical passages mentioning homosexuality, recognizing that most pastors and Christians will not be able to follow the historical arguments or exegete the Greek and Hebrew on their own. This is the context—reviewing original historical documents and scripture—where Fortson and Grams’ analysis proves most beneficial.

Importance of the Debate

The silence of most Christians on the question of homosexuality comes at a cost. Since ancient times, a homosexual lifestyle has been known to shorten the lifespan of those who practice it. The CDC reports that AIDS has claimed over half a million lives in recent years[4]and AIDS is only one of the diseases (think hepatitis, social diseases …) transmitted by homosexual sex.[5]Homosexuality also raises the probability of suicide dramatically.

This problem has touched me personally. The pastor who recruited me in graduate school into youth ministry later contracted AIDS and died. If he had kept his marriage vows, he would probably still be with us. The idea that someone in the church recruited him into this lifestyle or inferred that yielding to his desires was okay robbed us of a much-loved pastor.

Assessment

Part one of this review gives an overview of Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams’ Unchanging Witness. Part two will examine their arguments in more depth.

Fortson and Grams provide an important resource to the church and academy on the history of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. This book is of special interest to those new to the debate about the role of homosexuality in the church and those who take scripture as the sole authority for answering questions of faith and Christian living. Fortson and Grams focus on truth-telling. In this context love means accepting people as they are, but caring enough to help them to move beyond their fallen state (John 8).[6]

References

Campbell, W. P. 2010. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry: A Christlike Response to Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review)

Gagnon, Robert A. J.  2001.  The Bible and Homosexual Practice:  Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon Press. (Review, part 1)

McNeill, John. 1993. The Church and the Homosexual, 4th ed. Boston: Beacon.

Footnotes

[1]I bought my copy of Unchanging Witnessin 2016 when it was published. It is timely to review it now two years later because of the travails of my home church with this issue and my research needs in writing.

[2]http://www.GordonConwell.edu/online/Faculty.cfm. https://BibleAndMission.blogspot.com.

[3]https://www.rts.edu/seminary/faculty/bio.aspx?id=91. @sdfortson

[4]http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/basics/ataglance.html.

[5]Gagnon (2001, 473) provides a long list of serious health problems associated with homosexual practice.

[6] Campbell (2010) sees Jesus’ attitude towards the woman caught in adultery as our template for ministry (John 8).

Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 1

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

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