Thursday, October 30, 2003

A fair shake for Gagnon 

The biblical-exegesis work of Dr. Robert Gagnon demands careful attention by the Theological Task Force. Gagnon’s work is simply the most insurmountable barrier for any exegete attempting to propose a novel meaning for the homosexuality texts. So if the Theological Task Force (TTF) is truly as serious about being biblical as it appears to be, they cannot sidestep Gagnon.

As I read reports of the last TTF meeting’s discussion of a paper by Gagnon, it appears that task force members rankled a little over three aspects of Gagnon’s article:

1) His polemic style. Gagnon’s article that they read was a background paper full of arguments to retain G-6.0106b (“fidelity and chastity”) in the Constitution. He was out to make a case rather than just do theology.

2) His alleged “proof-texting,” which in some cases was meant to be a derogatory description, as if Gagnon had yanked texts out of context (which he doesn't do), and in other cases was merely descriptive, meaning that he dealt with the meaning of specific texts rather than sweeping themes.

3) His use of “natural theology,” as if that were his only argument, when really it seems only ancillary to his exegetical work on the biblical passages.

The TTF discussion mainly seemed to isolate its focus on the STYLE rather than the SUBSTANCE of Gagnon’s work, trivializing it in the process. It didn’t seem that the TTF did any thorough analysis of his thesis and the exhaustive scope of his scholarly work. Instead, they talked about their impressions of his approach—a thoroughly modern yet not very productive way to go about theological business.

That would be a sly tactic to employ, if one were opposed to Gagnon's conclusions and found Gagnon's actual arguments too difficult to surmount, and if one were particularly cagey. One could try to get Gagnon discussed on superficial grounds and then dismissed or ignored because people just didn't find him warm and fuzzy to read. What a masterful tactic to blunt the effect Gagnon's forceful and convincing arguments would have had, had they been actually discussed! Don't deal with him; just breeze AROUND him while people are distracted.

Whether that seemingly happened by intent or was just an odd quirk of this meeting, Gagnon apparently was NOT given the serious attention that his scholarship deserves. Perhaps that is yet to come at the next meeting. If so, good. But if the TTF were to proceed from this point thinking they had dealt with him adequately and set him aside, it would be a travesty.

The TTF needs to sink their teeth into the substance of what Gagnon says, rising above any pique over HOW he might go about saying it. There is no other work out there of equal stature on the subject of what the Bible actually says about homosexuality. The TTF’s desire to be biblical by all rights ought to take the course of their investigation deep into Gagnon territory, like it or not. In fact, why not invite Gagnon to address the TTF and answer questions?

This will be a grand opportunity for the rest of us to witness the integrity of the TTF. Will they let apparent minor annoyance with the window dressing of Gagnon’s style jettison scholarship they MUST deal with thoroughly? I certainly hope not, for that would not speak well of their process or bode well for their outcome.

We’ll see.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Watch those Methodists 

In a Washington State case in the Methodist Church not unlike the Baltimore Presbytery case of the Rev. Donald Stroud, the United Methodist court system has shown some backbone, unlike the Presbyterians in Stroud's case. Two regional levels of investigating committees chose to ignore the United Methodist Book of Discipline's clear language that prohibits self-avowed, practicing homosexuals from serving as ministers. But the highest Methodist court, the Judicial Council (akin to our GA PJC), reversed the lower-courts' rulings. The sexually active lesbian minister now serving in Ellensburg, Washington, will likely face trial for disobeying the Book of Discipline she had pledged to follow.

Of particular interest is the language of the Judicial Council's ruling: It is straightforward. What a joy it would be to read more of such clear, unambiguous language in some of our Presbyterian cases! The Judicial Council took aim at investigative committee leaders who had ignored the Book of Discipline, saying that if any were "unwilling to uphold the Discipline for reasons of conscience or otherwise, such members must step aside."

Amen! Preach it, brother Methodists!

Is anybody on the Baltimore Presbytery PJC or the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic Administrative Review Committee listening to the Methodist Judicial Council?

Monday, October 27, 2003

Tripping over scandals 

Is it any surprise that there's an uproar about Presbyterians sharing the Good News with Jewish folk in Philadelphia? Hasn't the Gospel always been a skandalon, a stumbling block? Paul wrote, "We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23).

Stephen was stoned for preaching Jesus to the Jews. Paul was beaten, arrested, and run out of town. There's nothing new about people being tripped up by the message of the grace of Jesus Christ, nothing new about Jews being scandalized by the audacity of it all, nothing new about secular commentators thinking it's foolishness! What do they know?

How wonderful for the PC(USA) to be in the news because we love people enough to tell them about Jesus! May more and more people trip, stumble, and fall madly in love with their Savior, Jesus Christ!

Friday, October 24, 2003

Things we need to know 

The Theological Task Force coverage continues with an informative new article by Leslie Scanlon. I urge everyone to read it.

In any marriage, if one partner has a number of growing and enlightening experiences while the other partner remains static or stagnates, the bond is jeopardized. Well, our partner, The Theological Task Force, is hard at work educating themselves on the matter of disharmony. They're going to emerge from this experience different people with larger minds and broader understandings. Their eventual report will reflect--if not be dependent upon--the knowledge gained and "Ah ha!" moments they've had in the Task Force.

If we, the rest of the church, don't work to keep up with our partner, we'll be like the stagnant spouse who's left behind when an active and inquisitive spouse "finds him- or herself." Not equally informed, we'll likely fail to grasp what the Task Force proposes, and that would be a tragic waste. So while they work, we need to struggle to keep up.

Fortunately for us, Scanlon and the other journalists are providing accurate, well-presented lessons for the most part. I might add two observations over terms in Scanlon's article, however:

1) When the New School proponents talked about "experimental religion," they meant what we'd mean by the phrase "experiential religion." Words have changed in the ensuing years. The New Schoolers did not mean some wild, experimental kind of quest to try anything to figure out what religion might be. They meant that the heart of our faith was our experience of it, as Scanlon explains, not only the theological content of it, although they held to what would now be considered a very evangelical theology.

2) Another word that has different meaning now is "manners." Scanlon noted that Frances Taylor Gench "pointed out the document also calls for the 'reformation of manners,' adding, 'I think that's worth reclaiming' in the church today." Indeed better manners all around would aid our union today, as Gench quipped, but that isn't exactly what the original Constitution meant. Where we read "manners," we should probably substitute the current word "practice."

Chapter XI, Section V of the 1789 Constitution gives the Assembly the power of "recommending and attempting reformation of manners." In other words, General Assemblies can try to change the practices of the church. This understanding of "manners" is made even clearer in the Section VII of the introduction, where it reads: "...the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners" (found intact still in G-1.0307). This "manners" has more to do with our manner of behavior--our practice--than with Miss Manners.

So I guess we need to know how word meanings change, too.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Tuffpup News Coverage 

I hope everyone appreciates the excellent coverage we’re getting of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (TTFPUP). The Task Force met last week, and it was covered by John Filiatreau of the Presbyterian News Service, Jack Adams of The Layman, and Leslie Scanlon of Presbyterian Outlook. I, too, took in part of the set of meetings.

Filiatreau reports with a wry wink and encyclopedic recall. His stories on the sexuality discussion and church history are well worth absorbing.

Scanlon finds an interesting angle and reports it with accuracy and interest. She filed well-composed stories on the theology of sexuality, decision making, and where TTFPUP is headed.

Adams adds a little more vinegar and attitude to his thought-provoking journalism. He penned four stories about decision making, sex issues, schism and reunion, and the wrap-up session.

If you read the news stories as a set, you’ll get a complete and varied view of what transpired in Dallas last week, as the Task Force members further educated themselves on key issues in denominational life.

The horse’s mouth 

Journalist Jack Adams’s The Layman Online article on the sexuality discussion at the Theological Task Force meeting last week provides an interesting study on perception. Following its publication, two of the task force members, Mark Achtemeier and Jack Haberer, wrote letters to The Layman Online to clear up possible misperceptions that could arise from the article.

Haberer wrote on October 20, conveying regret that his choice of words expressed “a compliment [about theologian Robert Gagnon] in what can be taken as a criticism.” Adams had apparently reported the sound bite accurately, but Haberer’s chosen words out of context could well leave the impression that he didn’t care for Gagnon’s work, when just the opposite is the case.

In Achtemeier’s letter, posted October 21, he politely and methodically sought to correct the gist of what Adams reported. Again, the Achtemeier words Adams reported were nearly correct. But with the quotations out of context and presented as they were, the article left an impression on the reader that Achtemeier most certainly had not intended when he spoke. Mark carefully and convincingly gives the background, context, and intention of his remarks, leaving a very different impression than the article provided.

But then in an article posted October 22, Adams characterized Haberer and Achtemeier as having “second thoughts about their candor” after reading his report. He said they realized there were “statements they made that they believed could be construed in ways they did not want them to be construed.”

From Adams’s account alone, one might get the sense that Haberer and Achtemeier were scrambling to repair the effects of something akin to accidental candor, maybe that they regretted honestly saying what they really think instead of cloaking their beliefs in weasel words. Yet in reading the Haberer and Achtemeier letters, one finds just the opposite: a great deal of openness and believability, leading the reader to think, “Of course. Now I can see what they meant!”

There’s an analogy about perception that I think is applicable. In Scripture interpretation, we struggle to determine what the original writer actually intended. We don’t just run with our notions of what we surmise the text might mean, and especially not with what might be to our benefit for it to mean. Those serious about Scripture want to establish as best they can what the writer intended to communicate to us, and that's what they preach or write.

Wouldn’t Bible exegetes be delighted to have Paul write them and say, “When I wrote ‘By grace you have been saved through faith…’ what I really meant was ———”? Even the most brilliant reading of a passage’s meaning by an excellent exegete would benefit from a corrective word straight from the horse’s mouth!

Thus, it seems odd to me that if a person quoted in a news story takes pains likewise to set the record straight, it sometimes gets looked upon with suspicion. It’s as if a priori the reporter must have set down the person’s words and meaning correctly, and thus the one quoted and now doing the explaining could only be trying to squirm out of a jam, rather than correcting an error or establishing the truth of the matter. But after all, who could know better not only the words that were said but also the intent of the communication than the one who spoke?

We Presbyterians are well served in this exchange of articles and explanations. We have thoughtful accounts of the TTFPUP meeting from three journalists, and on top of that, we have further elaborations by two of the participants. Those with ears to hear will pretty well know not only what was said at the Task Force meetings, but even better, what was meant.

Friday, October 17, 2003

A false dichotomy 

This week the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church met near Dallas, and they finally began the long-awaited sex talk about the Bible and homosexual practice. Writer Leslie Scanlon writes a good account of the discussion in the Presbyterian Outlook.

But in that story of the discussion lies a false dichotomy, a common logical error. Basically, task force members were positing an “either-or” situation, when other logical possibilities exist.

Scanlon says the Theological Task Force asked, “Is homosexuality genetic, determined at birth, something presumably God-given and God-created? Or is it a matter of choice — something that can change, and be repented of?” That’s a pair of possibilities, but are there only two: God-created and therefore immutable and good, or perversely chosen by the person and therefore sinful but subject to change? No!

There are at least two more logical possibilities about homosexual inclinations: (1) that homosexuality is largely genetic but a product of the Fall (and not Creation), or (2) that homosexuality instead arises from a constellation of factors—genetic, environmental, and chosen—that play out differently in each person.

If homosexuality provides evidence of the Fall rather than Creation, God can’t be tagged with responsibility for it or nicked for cruelly creating something and then banning its use. Nor can it be considered necessarily good. And if a complex set of factors may determine homosexual orientation, then individuals cannot wash their hands of all responsibility for their practice.

But origin aside, an individual never loses moral agency for what he or she does with whatever perversity arises within and opposes God. We are not senseless beasts wholly determined by our animal inclinations, after all. What one decides to DO with homosexual longings is not unlike what one must decide to do with such other inclinations as self-destruction or violence, fornication or adultery. When we desire something God calls wrong, we must with God’s help fight it at all cost for all time.

To flee immorality is the bottom-line task we’re given as Christians, regardless of the origin of the desire.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

More doxies 

I was having so much fun with the coined words in the previous posting that I just couldn’t make myself quit. So, besides orthodoxy – straight-up glorification of God – here are some more coined cousins:

Pandox: This is a belief system that praises an untold number of theologies. Sample sentence: The Unitarian Universalists give theologians extra credit for pandox beliefs.

Omnidox: The idea that all belief systems are equally worthy of praise. Sample sentence: Dirk Ficca’s “What’s the big deal about Jesus?” speech a couple of years ago expressed mindlessly omnidox sentiments.

Minidox: The idea that one can’t work up much praise for God. Sample sentence: We live in a minidox culture.

Autodox: The belief system of those who worship at the alter of self. Sample sentence: The false idea that I really have a right to fulfill whatever urge I happen to have is autodox to the max.

Deuterodox: The state of having second thoughts about God. Sample sentence: When faced with the problem of evil, deuterodox belief systems tend to crop up.

Okay. I’ll quit cold turkey. Tomorrow.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Give it to God straight 

The word "orthodox" is one of my favorites. It means literally "straight praise" or "straight opinion," just as "orthodontia" means literally "straight teeth." Orthodox faith is not something cornered by the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity; it is the customarily accepted, most ancient and traditional form of our faith. It is "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3). "Heterodoxy" is just the opposite: another belief outside the bounds of Christianity, heresy.

May the church struggle mightily to be orthodox!

But we're having trouble remaining orthodox in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Thus, I'd like to offer a few other coined terms that might be helpful in the discussion:

Quasidox: The state of belief where only some of the necessary foundations are present and too much is left up for grabs. Sample sentence: The Covenant Network's quasidox positions do not stand up to rigorous theological examination.

Demidox: A belief system that can muster only faint praise for God. Sample sentence: I would consider so-called progressive theology only demidox at best and heterodox at worst.

Semidox: Theology that is no more than half right. Sample sentence: The semidox theology of the Three Sisters correctly understands that we need to act in love, but completely vacates the biblical richness of love, leaving only a weak and sentimental permissiveness in its place.

Crookedox: Theology that is anything but orthodox; theology that comes from the Evil One, who twists all truth to his own evil purposes. Sample sentence: The denial of the lordship of Jesus Christ or an unwillingness to kneel in submission to the Lord Jesus Christ is crookedoxy. (Thanks to Herbert Schlossberg for coining the term.)

I labor to help bring about a denomination that is thoroughly orthodox, that flat out glorifies God in a way that is straight from God's revelation of himself to us in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Schism lite? 

There is quite a bit of talk from one quarter these days about "gracious separation" or "negotiated separation." It was one raucous strand of a dozen or so at the Presbyterian Coalition Gathering this week in Portland, Oregon. But whether it is gracious or fractious, negotiated or winner take all, separation is a form of schism, a rending of the fabric of one part of the Church that God has joined together.

About marriage, Jesus said, "Therefore what GOD has joined together, let no one separate" (Mt. 16:6). God does the marrying; we're the participants in what God does. It is HIS union of our lives, not our thing that we can do or undo on a whim.

About the church, the Holy Spirit said through Paul: "God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as HE chose" (1 Cor. 12:18). The Church Universal and the little church on the corner of First and A Streets are GOD's doing, not our little undertakings that we can reconfigure if we so desire out of pique, weariness, or personal convenience.

In discussions of gracious separation, I have heard: "The denomination can be de-merged. We do it all the time in the world of corporate affairs." Well, if church bodies were our thing, we could treat them like any other voluntary association or business corporation. But they are God's doing, God's thing.

I've heard, "I have put my resources into renewal, and what has it gotten me?" Again, if church bodies were our thing, we could ponder splitting off for our own personal benefit. But they are God's doing, God's thing.

Fracturing the friendships and bonds of congregation after congregation, presbytery after presbytery, institution after institution is division. It may be conceived to be schism lite, with an intended minimum of rancor or selfishness, but there is no such thing. It would be schism, plain and simple, ripping apart the very body God put together.

We who believe in Providence surely don't think WE chose our church, do we?

What God has joined together, only God can separate. And he will. At Judgment.

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