Monday, November 17, 2014

Why I'm resistant

Why do Christians treat the argument for blessing same-sex unions so harshly? Why do we - by "we" I mean what are usually termed conservative Christians - why are we so resistant to a discussion on this issue? Particularly when we are, not very, but at least more open to the egalitarian discussion, various social justice issues, millennial disagreements, classical versus more process theism, and so on. Why is this issue different?

One, it is new. Almost every possible interpretation, view, and heresy has been raised and shouted about at some point in the church's history. The blessing of homosexual relationships is not there in the church until a couple hundred years ago. It wasn't even a heresy! Not even an incorrect reading. People doing allegorical readings and historical-grammatical readings, Arians and modalists and Pelagians and Arminians and Calvinists, none of them saw this as a issue that needed discussion. Why has it only come up now?

Two, it is timely. Yes, the natural response is that the church has been blinded by a homophobic, or at least heterophilic, understanding of the Christian ethic. And this is possible. But is it not also possible that the church has been seeing clearly on this issue, and now faces a confusion of clear teaching? Neither is a priori true; and if one is theoretically possible, the other must be as well (working in both directions).

When we look at a culture which every sane observer has to admit has gone absolutely loco in its sexual ethic, and at the same time as the culture goes off the rails the church starts to read the Bible's teaching on sexual ethics slightly differently...the timeliness is suspicious.

Three, it is multi-pronged. Egalitarians read a different meaning in a couple of texts, and on that basis they interpret many other texts differently. In an even more profound way, to alter the traditional Christian understanding of homosexual relationships, the reader must read not two or three texts differently, but almost the entire narrative of the Bible. Right from Genesis to Leviticus to Matthew to Corinthians to Romans to Revelation. Two or three new interpretations are not combining to shed new light on our understanding: a dozen or more new interpretations are breathing fire on our understanding. These interpretations may be correct and the fire may be needed. The fact remains that it is a whole nexus of new teaching, not one or two changes.

Four, some of its friends are shifty. Not all, and probably not even most. But some of the people agitating for this change seem to have little interest in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. And the beginning of the issue within the church came from pressure and writing from people with more interest in reshaping the church than reforming it in line with scripture.

Five, it raises methodological (hermeneutic) issues. Every theological dispute does, in a way. One of the streams of thought which has flowed into the river of same-sex marriage is a concern with the state of sexual ethics at the time the apostles (particularly Paul) were writing. If Paul is addressing specific understandings or formulations of homosexual behaviour, then the application to us now is greatly weakened or obviated. This approach puts the New Testament in a box and labels it "Greco-Roman context", so that a shove from the New Testament - against homosexual acts as consonant with the progressive sanctification of a Christian - is transmuted into a shove against part of the social box the documents were written in.

Six, the fruit is (at the very least) mixed. Advocates of blessing same-sex relationships often talk about the "fruit" of traditional teaching producing the poisoned fruit of shame, exclusion, suicide, homelessness, and so on. The relationship between Christian teaching and the dislocation of gay individuals is beyond my understanding and this blog; I will simply note that there appears to be a case to answer for the orthodox church.

But there are other kinds of fruit to consider. The drive to reconsider orthodox teaching on homosexuality has a distinct overlap with redefinition of scripture's function and authority in the church. Moving out from under scripture as the first and final (though not only) guide for the church seems to often lead to changing your mind on same-sex marriage, as well as the reverse process.

This is a conclusion to this meaningless list of reasons.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Surprise! It was the church...

(The context, here, is that I am involved in a multidenominational evangelistic youth camp.)

So I was involved in a conversation about leader growth and how we accept/reject leaders for camp. A great many wise things were said. And during the conversation I mentioned I was uncomfortable doing presbuteros-y things as a camp director. I feel weird asking leaders about their spiritual health, their ability to model Christ to kids, because I am a camp director rather than their elder or pastor. And someone else said that camp directors are not pastors and I was quite right to feel odd about it.

But I do have pastoral responsibilities. I do have spiritual authority over leaders while on camp (and, to some degree, before and after it). How can I not? I decide (with co-directors) who is qualified to be a leader, what it means to be a leader, what behaviour will make us send a leader home. I cannot do any of these things without feeling and being in some way responsible for my leaders' wellbeing (spiritually, mentally, emotionally).

Essentially a camp director will by necessity be a little bit like a pastor or elder. We can't help it. So I was thinking about what would make me more comfortable with that. And I realised it would be best if roles that included pastoral duties...were performed by pastors.

I want stuff to be run by churches. I don't want to gather up four dozen leaders from a dozen churches to run this camp. I want churches to run their own camps, within their own demesne.

The interesting thing is that my denomination has been trying to get its own youth camps off the ground, and leaders such as myself have been apathetic because multidenominational parachurch organisations already do that camping stuff. They do it bigger, slicker, and better organised.

But I'm now starting to realise the pastoral benefits of church camps which are smaller, rougher, and not always as smoothly administrated. If you think why is this person trying to exercise spiritual authority over me the answer is because that is part of them serving in this church. There are so many things which I can't follow up on with my leaders. I don't have the time, the energy, the authority, or the long-term consistent involvement in their life to disciple them properly.

I've been feeling increasingly weird about parachurch organisations. Surprise! What I wanted was the local church all along.

Monday, June 30, 2014

What does it mean for God to be angry?

So I read a book called God is Impassible and Impassioned by Rob Lister. It's an excellent analysis of the debate over God's passibility for people who just don't have the time or mental energy to read the vast literature. In the second half Lister does a good job of developing the implications of God being impasible and emotive.

But he also takes Weinandy (slightly) to task for talking about impassibility strictly as God not experiencing anything analogous to human feelings, when in fact the doctrine is more about God's emotions always being voluntary rather than forced upon him by the world. In a footnote Lister says that God is responsive to the world, but never passive - his reactions, emotional and otherwise, are always chosen rather than evoked. It is worth noting, as Lister does, that Weinandy seems to have walked his definition back slightly - but I haven't yet read up on that.

As someone who (tentatively) endorses impassibility in the strict sense that Weinandy originally advanced, I want to talk a bit about what it means to have emotion.

Scripture often talks about God being wrathful - usually at Israel. What does this mean? If we narrow the scope to purely righteous anger at sin and evil, we are dealing with an emotion which humans occasionally experience and which it would not be heretical to ascribe to God. So far so good. What does it mean for God to be righteously angry?

We experience anger as a certain sensation. It is mental and physical but we do not reduce it to constitutive elements. It is provoked from us. None of these traits can be true of God. If his emotions are voluntary, then he does not experience sensations of anger - he either draws them upon himself or expresses them without "feeling" them. He does not have a body - he is spirit. He does have a mind, which seems in some respects like ours - order, logic, law of noncontradiction - but we see this only in how he talks to us, and how his actions match up with his words.

What I am saying is that God's righteous anger is something we see in his condescending actions towards us. We do not see God in himself, except as Jesus makes him known. And of course Jesus has emotions - he has taken on human nature. What I am saying is that God's energies, his extension of his power into the world, express righteous anger. But this does very little to establish that God chooses to be angry.

The anthropopathic language, in both Testaments, is clearly right and true. I would not hesitate to say in a sermon, "God is angry in this passage". By that I mean God is expressing anger, that anger is the pure and holy response to the situation; but I do not mean that God is wracked with fury. Because I do not have any special access to the face of God. God reveals how he chooses to relate to us, and we trust that his self-disclosure is founded upon truth. I emphasise we trust because we have no ability to probe God's immanent character apart from his self-disclosure.

And if God chooses to be angry, does he also choose to not be angry at evil? Is the atonement God's way of showing that he has flipped an internal switch in his relationship to his elect?

I am not arguing that an impassibilist has to hold to Weinandy's original strict definition. I am saying that if you want to talk about voluntary emotion in God, a la Lister, you have to maintain a very deep disjunction between divine emotion and human emotion on every level and attribute. The easiest way to do this, it seems to me, is to say God's energies - the economic trinity - expresses emotion to us. This self-disclosure is founded upon something true to God's nature ("the economic trinity is the immanent trinity, and Rahner is its prophet") but we don't understand the "something true" in God because we don't know God. We only know him as revealed through Jesus, and Jesus reveals God as united to human nature. The person we see when we look at Jesus is Jesus. Through him we see the Father, as every child is in some way the image of their parent, but we are first and foremost seeing Jesus. Not the Father or Spirit.

To conclude: God relates with anger. I don't think he is angry.