Homosexuality Then and Now, in Theological Narrative Perspective

A lot of progressive Christians argue that the historical context of the New Testament restricts the scope of the so-called “clobber texts” about homosexuality. Jesus and the Apostles, they say, had no concept of the modern development of a loving, consensual, monogamous homosexual relationship. Therefore in places like Romans 1 where they seemed to condemn gay or lesbian practices, the condemnations were really only limited to the exploitative and/or idolatrous practices of the day, not all homosexuality. We can all agree that prostitution, pedophilia, and cultic sex are wrong, and those are basically the only kinds of homosexual practices the New Testament actually forbids.

My experiment here is to grant their argument and run with it. Let’s say that the progressives are right, that Paul and Jesus knew nothing of the kind of homosexual relationships which occur today. Let’s grant that their condemnation of homosexual practices was contingent on their historical context. In that case, our question for today can be framed as follows: in our present historical context, are the kinds of homosexuality practiced associated with something idolatrous or destructive? I think the answer to this question is still, “Yes,” so that even if the biblical condemnations of homosexuality were context-specific, applying biblical reasoning to our own historical context indicts today’s forms of homosexuality as well.

How do I arrive at this point? I place homosexuality then (Bible times) and now in narrative perspective. Where does homosexuality fit into the wider theological narrative of God, man, Israel, Christ, the Church, and the world? For all my disagreements with him, I think Andrew Perriman gets the logic of Romans 1 more or less right, so I will build from a foundation roughly corresponding to his his narrative account.

Why did Paul speak so strongly against homosexuality in Romans 1? In context, the kinds of homosexuality practiced in Greek and Roman civilization was part of the deterioration of Gentile civilization produced by idolatry. Since as early as Babel, the Gentiles had exchanged the glory of the immortal God for other gods, images of wood and stone. They served the creation rather than the Creator. By taking the Creator out of the picture in exchange for created gods, they paved the way for disorienting the use of all created things, human bodies included. They used their bodies in shameful ways to satisfy their shameful gods in open rebellion against the true Creator God. All of this became particularly acute in the Romans world as the height of pre-Christian, Gentile civilization. The Roman committment to false gods led to decadence and gross abuse of human bodies, which had been made to serve the true God. Thus they received in themselves the due penalty for their error, and God’s wrath was a-comin’.

The situation since then has changed. The pre-Christian Gentile world, the world of the pagan Roman Empire, has been destroyed. It was replaced by Christendom, a world order in which the nations confessed Christ as Lord (however imperfect and problematic this order turned out to be). The Church did its best to construct fitting new culture, new worldview, and new intellectual concepts for this order from reflection on Scripture and Christian tradition, and these came to dominate Christendom. So for a thousand years Christendom remained and the nations remained mostly submissive (at least nominally) to Christian thought and ethics.

But all this began to change around the time of the Enlightenment. The causes of the change are mostly unimportant here. What matters is that there was a new wave of rebellion. The old world rebellion began with worshipping false gods and idols, but the new rebellion was based on worship of man. It produced humanism, materialism, atheism, naturalism, and rationalism. Man no longer felt the need to serve a god, whether a true or false one. Rather, man decided he was able to accomplish all things by himself and be all things to himself. This has had to take a decidedly neo-Gnostic slant. The old pagans saw creation and nature as run by gods, Christendom saw them as the work of the one God, and modern humanism sees them either as shackles of givnenness to be broken or as raw material to be reshaped in man’s preferred image.

The transition from old Christendom worldview to the new humanistic one has been slow, but it has come, like the old pagan system, to express itself in sexual deviance. The Sexual Revolution neatly and naturally followed the rebellious, humanistic spirit of the age to assert human capacity and freedom over and against divine authority. The idea is that humanity is grown-up now: we don’t need old rules supposedly from God to tell us how to handle sexual ethics. We’re now all set to do whatever we please. This led to acceptance of contraception, divorce, sexual activity before marriage, and at this present stage the entire LGBT movement. The modern world’s neo-Gnosticism can be seen here, as well: the natural reproductive order was created before our wills, but for humanity to be all in all we must assert our wills over and against this basic physical component to human existence. Biological sex is unchosen, gifted from God, and if we are to escape God’s dominion we must be able to reconstruct and redefine gender and sex without reference to the realities of the body, or to reshape the body around our conceptions of gender and sex.


I think this narrative makes sense of what has been happening in modern history. The first rebellion put Gentiles under the dominion of false gods, and it led to the degredation of the body in idolatrous rites and decadent sexual arrangements. This new, post-Christendom rebellion puts mankind in the West under no one but himself, and thus leads to the attempt to self-transcend and redefine the body for our own ends and impulses. The old order acknowledged the givenness of reality but refused to honor God for it, and so honored false gods. The new order, in its own attempt to escape God, denies the givenness of reality and seeks to give humanity unlimited power over all things, our own bodies included. It is easy to see how the LGBT movement fits into this narrative.

If the narrative offered above is at all, the progressive argument that biblical prohibitions against homosexuality were only about the context-specific forms of homosexuality which plagued the ancient world does nothing to exonerate homosexuality today. On the contrary, a look at our context reveals how modern homosexuality can also be condemned in a context-specific way, as part of the modern rebellion of humanism, which contrasts with the rebellion condemned in Romans 1 of literal idolatry. Then and now, homosexuality is part of a larger human rebellion against the true God. And this (I think) suggests a deeper link between homosexuality and sin, so that homosexual practices would be likely only to emerge on notable scales in contexts of rebellion. But that would be another post.

Homosexuality Then and Now, in Theological Narrative Perspective

The Nicene Nerdcast: Holy Communion vs. White Supremacy

With this post I officially begin my blog’s companion podcast, The Nicene Nerdcast. I don’t have much in the way of introduction to give you, so here’s the first installment. This is the result of some of my ponderings on race and the Church in recent days.

Download this episode

The Nicene Nerdcast: Holy Communion vs. White Supremacy

Chesterton on Progress

Lately I’ve been on a reading binge of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. I have too much to say on the treasures I’ve found in them to possibly remember to blog about it all. That’s a shame. On the bright side, there’s still lots of good stuff to mention.

One of my favorite paragraphs I’ve come across (maybe, it’s hard to narrow down favorites from such writers) is one in which Chesterton discusses the notion of progress, specifically in relation to the modern world. Everyone likes to talk about progress, though the fever was undoubtedly higher in his day. We still have progressives in politics (of many kinds: economic progressives, cultural progressives, environmental progressives, etc.), and we probably have far more now in theology. In fact, these so-called “progressive” theologians are my chief targets here, whereas Chesterton was more concerned with a political temperament. But much of what he had to say is relevant to either.

A chief characteristic of progressive Christianity is questioning. They like to ask questions regarding what the Bible says about homosexuality, what the Bible says about gender, what the Bible says about salvation, and of course just how seriously we need to take what the Bible says at all. The framing assumption is that we must ask these questions afresh because the classical answers are, we now see, in some way broken, obsolete, or unrealistic. For many of these issues, a sufficient Chestertonian response might be that the classical answers have not been tried and found wanting; they have been found difficult and left untried. But I disgress. My point here isn’t about whether the progressive’s questioning process will lead us to better answers than the traditional ones or not. My point, or rather Chesterton’s, is that you can’t really call yourself “progressive” in such a state of uncertainty. If you are stuck in questioning phase, you can’t genuinely say whether you’ve been making progress towards anything or not, since you don’t know where you’re going. And in Chesterton’s day, it didn’t matter how efficiently and skillfully you could run the the government. If you don’t know where you’re running it to, you can’t say that “progress” is underway. I’ll let Chesterton himself elaborate and leave it at that. The quote is from his excellent, excellent book What’s Wrong with the World:

As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress—that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible—at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

Chesterton on Progress

Three Kinds of Bibliology

You really can’t study Karl Barth in evangelical circles without hearing some (often quite strong) objections to his bibliology. This, of course, is perfectly understandable, as inerrancy makes for an important discussion. Nonetheless, I often think Barth is overly criticized on this point, and in large part my reason for this involves my understanding that, whatever Barth’s views on the nature of inspiration and revelation, he took Scripture extremely seriously and worked hard to conform his thinking to it. In contrast to more liberal or skeptical theologians, Barth declared, “Once and for all, theology has…its position beneath that of the biblical scriptures…[T]he biblical witnesses are better informed than are the theologians. For this reason theology must agree to let them look over its shoulder and correct its notebooks.”1

Reflecting on this led me to think that we would do best to understand bibliology as having three distinct aspects, which have different levels of importance and practical impact. I think it may be helpful, when assessing and debating views on Scripture, to have these distinctions in mind. My proposed bibliological distinctions are as follows:

Confessional Bibliology
By confessional bibliology, I mean the descriptions which people are willing to employ regarding Scripture, i.e. what people confess about the Bible. Confessional bibliology is the sphere in which we simply use individual words to say what we believe about Scripture, something primarily visible in confessional documents. A “high” confessional bibliology may use terms like “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” and “verbally inspired.” A “low” confessional bibliology may shy away from such terms, except perhaps “infallibility,” in favor of less specific language such as “authoritative” or “inspired.”
Technical Bibliology
By technical bibliology, I mean the precise way in which people explain their views on what Scripture is and how it was inspired. Most “views of inspiration” would be included under this heading, such as verbal plenary, dynamic, existential, etc. On this level we describe what “God-breathed” means, how God used men in writing Scripture, what the role is of the Holy Spirit, and even broader questions such as divine providence and the nature of God’s revelation.
Practical Bibliology
By practical bibliology, I mean the way we actually use Scripture. How do we handle it? Do we treat it with submission and reverence, or do we twist it for our own ends? This includes certain questions of hermeneutics, the relation to tradition, and how we can be self-conscious and self-critical about the presuppositions and worldview we bring to the Bible. A high practical bibliology robustly allows Scripture and its inner logic to change our thinking and doctrine. A low practical bibliology makes the Bible into a servant of our preexisting convictions and outside norms.

So, a few thoughts on these categories. First, having a “high” bibliology in one of these areas does not guarantee a correspondingly high bibliology in all of them. One might have a high confessional bibliology, for example, willing to call Scripture “entirely without error,” while essentially taking this away by fine print details with a low technical bibliology. On the other hand, it is easy enough for someone to have a low practical bibliology, treating Scripture like a prop for their own ideas and agendas, even though they have the highest of confessional and technical bibliologies (e.g. independent fundamentalists who act like the whole point of the Bible is anti-communism, anti-feminism, and anti-rock music). Sometimes we might even see conflict between the priorities of these types of bibliology. For instance, often conservative apologists will twist a text in an impossible way (exercising a low practical bibliology) in order to defend it from a charge of error (to defend a high confessional bibliology). It would be better in these cases to proclaim a lack of knowledge and let the text speak for itself.

And then there are people like Barth. Barth had a mixed confessional bibliology, calling Scripture the “Word of God” while nonetheless insisting that this identification is indirect. In a sense, you might say Barth had a medium-high confessional bibliology and a very difficult to rank technical bibliology. But where he shines is in his practical bibliology. Despite all of the qualifications Barth made about the humanity of Scripture, its role as witness to revelation rather than actual revelation, and his indirect identification of it with God’s Word, he submitted to it. He sought to understand the prophets and the apostles as best as he could, to see Christ in the pages of their writings, and to submit his thinking and living to Christ at every point. One may disagree with much of his exegesis, but one cannot deny that he read Scripture with reverence and an eye to knowing and obeying the Word of God who is Jesus.

This framework, I suggest, offers a way to be more precise and more charitable when enaging with people who view Scripture differently than we do. Likewise, it lets us see how people may be understood as faithful to the Bible even when they don’t necessarily believe in the same kind of inspiration, or confess quite the same adject ives, that we do. And if anyone has any comments or suggestions about these categories, I’m interested to hear them.

Three Kinds of Bibliology

A Riddle of Love and Election

Something occurred to me last night when I was reading Herman Bavinck on the infra/supralapsarian debate in classical Calvinism. (‘Twas a pretty good read, by the way. Bavinck is probably the best that classical, federal Reformed theology has to offer.) A strange dilemma seems to appear in the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional, individual election. Specifically, the relation between love and election is confusing.

Generally speaking, in classical Calvinism it’s said that God loves all, but God has a special love for the elect. Not all agree, of course, with some denying God’s love for the reprobate and (I imagine, since if you can think it someone else has already?) some affirming God’s equal love for all people. But my question is directed to the majority report.

So, does election precede special love or does special love precede election?

If election precedes special love, then we’re left with the question of God’s differentiation between the elect and reprobate. If, logically prior to election, God’s love for all is equal, then why do limits develop on His mercy to the people who He makes to be the elect alone? It’s also a worthwhile question what the character is of this supraeclectic love. Prior to God’s election, is this “love” to be understood as having a saving character or less than a saving character? This affects how the decree of election is understood.

On the other hand, if special love precedes election, and by definition election is God’s choosing, then God chooses the elect because He already favored them. But in that case, then God did not choose who He especially loved to begin with. So why did He love them especially if He had not yet chosen them?

Basically, if special love precedes election then God’s differentiating love seems unchosen and intrinsic to God’s relation to men, and it seems weird and arbitrary that God would naturally love some people more than others without choosing specifically to do so. But if election precedes special love, then it is unclear why or how God would give mercy to some and reject some whom He all loves equally.

Anyone have a suggestion how this is to be resolved in a classical Calvinist framework?

A Riddle of Love and Election

Caleb’s Rules of Theological Debate

The title says it all. Here they are in no particular order with no particular rhyme or reason (all of tweetable length).

  1. No matter what the topic, there is a Christian way of thinking. When we forget this, or more commonly never learn it to begin with, we mess up politics, theology, and so many other things.
  2. Listen to your neighbor’s argument as you would have your neighbor listen to yours.
  3. In all debate and discussion, give your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Before attacking any argument or view, try sincerely to defend it to yourself.
  5. The mind of Christ is not divided. We must always be ready to learn from each other.
  6. Attack positions and arguments as needed, but not the people who use them.
  7. Except to ask a question, don’t respond to an argument you do not fully understand.
  8. If a statement can be interpreted non-heretically: innocent until proven guilty.
  9. Use the label “heresy” sparingly, and avoid it whenever possible.
  10. Even heretics can have great insights: don’t assume everything they say is bad.
  11. Even the best teachers are fallible: don’t assume everything they say is okay.
  12. Just because something’s not heretical doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.
  13. Just because someone believes something heretical doesn’t mean they are damned.
  14. Experience and education affect your perspective on evidence…
  15. …But experience and education do not magically alter the soundness of an argument.
  16. Just because you haven’t heard of a view doesn’t mean it’s crazy.
  17. Just because a view seems obvious doesn’t mean it’s right.
  18. Analogies, including in Scripture, can’t be stretched beyond their relevant intent.
  19. The apparent “plain meaning” of a Bible verse is not always the right one…
  20. …But the opposite of the “plain meaning” of Scripture is even less likely.
  21. Someone is not wrong just because they quote someone you dislike.
  22. Godliness and good theology don’t always correlate. Devotion outperforms doctrine.
  23. Every doctrinal position affects other doctrinal positions more than you think.
  24. Inconsistency is not heresy, and heresy is not inconsistency.
  25. Just something looks inconsistent to you doesn’t mean it actually is inconsistent.
  26. Many charges of inconsistency come from a small rational imagination.
  27. Generally, you can’t rule out theological positions on some a priori basis.
  28. Sarcasm is only worth using if it makes an important point in the argument.
  29. If I have all the arguments and all the truth, but do not have love, I have nothing.
  30. Charging your debate opponents with improper motives is bad form and bad love.
  31. Treat debate opponents like Jesus. He might be more on their side than you think.
  32. No doctrine should still make sense if you subtract Jesus.
  33. Avoid as much as possible saying “God couldn’t/wouldn’t do X.”
  34. Not everything that looks like a slippery slope is one.
  35. Never debate in such a way that you couldn’t go off together for ice cream later.
  36. If you form opinions about your interlocutor during a debate, keep them to yourself.
  37. Don’t change the subject with questions hanging.
Caleb’s Rules of Theological Debate

Final Reflections on the Election

I’m done ranting against a Donald Trump vote. I’ve made my voice clear about that, and if anyone can find a way to vote for Trump without violating their conscience, it’s between you and God. Instead, here are a few other reflections on the election today.

  • I believe the election this year plays a critical role in God’s judgment upon our nation. In Scripture where God’s dealings with the nations are most clearly explained, there is a regular pattern of moral decay, violence, then wicked rulers, and divine judgment through foreign powers. This happened to Israel, Judah, Egypt, Edom, the Roman Empire, and many other nations as recorded in the prophets. In more recent history, it seems to have also happened to 20th century Germany.  Now it seems it is our turn, handed over (by our own hands!) to wicked rulers that they might lead us into military devastation. Whoever wins this election, it will mean that God has let us take ourselves into ruin. In most cases, God’s judgments seem to arise organically out of the nation’s sins, and this is most evident in this election, when we will literally be choosing for ourselves which person God will use to desolate our country. If Clinton wins, our history of foreign intervention and hawkishness will likely reach a climax against Russia, and if Trump wins, well, he could spark a conflict with almost anyone else. It will not end well, and it pains me to see how many people on both sides of the aisle are embracing this coming execution with welcoming arms. (I’m also not the only one to think this right now.) We must now pray that God will have at least some mercy on us, and that whatever military destruction comes of this Presidency is not too horrendously deep.
  • Whoever wins the election, social conservatism is in for a really hard time. If Hillary Clinton wins this election, we are almost guaranteed freer abortion laws and a Supreme Court hostile to any attempts any states might make to regulate the practice. While she may or may not actively pursue the displacement of religious liberty by supposed transgender rights, she will certainly always pick the latter when she does get involved. This Babylon Bee post is probably spot on, really.

    On the other hand, if Donald Trump wins, it is impossible to guess what he will actually do about these issues, but it seems doubtful given their relative (lack of) prominence in his campaign that he will avoid them. More importantly, social conservatism will lose all of its moral credibility. If social conservatives claim that abortion, family, and religious liberty are fundamentally moral issues, but elect a man who has no character and awful moral status at all, whose sexual conduct among other things opposes everything social conservatives believe, then people will certainly stop taking social conservatism seriously and see it as fundamentally hypocritical. As well, the Republican establishment is funded by big business donors for whom social conservatism is a liability now. People are less likely to do business with you if you oppose abortion and LGBTQ rights now, so many of these donors are becoming less and less okay with socially conservative positions. This means there is more reason than ever for the Republican Party to stop trying on social issues, and since Trump has proved they can get a pretty strong (in terms of polls) nominee who only gives lip service to these issues, we may well find that the GOP gives up all interest in working on important social issues (you know, even more than they already have). Thus while social conservatives will still have their issues checked on the GOP box, they will no longer have any active support in either party.

  • All of this will pass away. One day Trump, Clinton, and (if Christ delays that long, which could easily happen) even the United States will only be a footnote in history. Nothing that is happening in the ballot booths today is ultimate. The election and its political consequences are primarily temporary and pertain only to this age, not the age to come. As Christians, we are members first and foremost of the age to come. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God before we are citizens of the United States. In 10,000 years, we will still be citizens of Christ’s Kingdom but we will rarely think back to our citizenship here. Our first duty is to Christ, with all civic duties being second. So we should not worry. We should not stress. If anything in this election concerns us, it should be the way it affects Christian life and witness. Our wrath need not be focused on Trump or Clinton: God’s wrath will take care of them unless they repent. But we should direct our focus and fightings against the spiritual forces at work right now, dividing the Church and inspiring partisan hate, blindness, delusion, and judgments. We should fight the forces which drive people to act the way they do, the power of sin that made Trump and Clinton our major choices in the election. In these areas the Gospel has power, in these areas souls are in danger from greed, pride, deceit, and dissension, and in these areas there will be eternal consequences. But our country? All things shall end, including it. If God has chosen to put the American kingdom down this year (which I believe is true no matter who wins), we must still focus on the Kingdom that endures.
Final Reflections on the Election