“The Bible Tells Me So,” So What’s With Pete Enns and Progressive Christians Anyway?

On the religious blogging site, Patheos, questions arise about progressivism quite often. A fellow poster there asked if it might not be a good idea to bring some questions he had about the epistemology (underlying truth claims or rationale for belief) of postconservative and progressive Christian thought. We have both read a number of progressive authors and I have agreed to start a discussion here on an excellent intro to progressive thought, Peter Enns’ book, “The Bible Tells Me So.”

For Christians brought up thinking a certain way about the Bible, postconservative and progressive attitudes toward Holy Writ may seem disturbing or a weakening of the basis for Christian belief. Typical of progressive thought, Enns begins chapter one by questioning those presuppositions typical of evangelicalism:

“Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual—follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force.

If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to ‘defend the Bible’ against these anti-God attacks. Problem solved.

That is until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag—fine as long as its kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.

What I discovered, and what I want to pass a long to you, in this book, is that this view of the Bible does not come from the Bible but from an anxiety over protecting the Bible and so regulating the faith of those who read it.” (Chapter 1, pp. 3-4)

So without further ado, I open the discussion up to anyone who has read Enns and wishes to join the discussion of his views. Hopefully we can have a fruitful discussion. Thank you.

 

 

Is Evangelicalism a White Nationalist Movement?

I am appropriating a post by Fred Clark that he posted on Patheos’s Slacktivist blog just after last year’s election of Donald Trump, who’s only qualifications for POTUS were that he was White and wealthy.

Original post here:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2016/11/09/white-evangelicalism-is-white-nationalism/#disqus_thread

While I know a good many wonderful conservative evangelicals who would not dream of calling themselves “racist,” having grown up in the evangelical environment I have seen my fair share of racism, usually disguised as a concern for “law and order” or the belief that non-whites are somehow lazier than Whites. Due to a certain degree of cognitive dissonance, White evangelicals are very resistant to any suggestion that racism, both implicit and explicit, has played a part in the development of conservative evangelicalism. This is due in large part to both ignorance of the history of evangelicalism/fundamentalism in America, and the acceptance of the evangelical revisionism of American history as a true account.

The degree to which individuals share in the racism behind the evangelical movement, of course varies with individuals and their awareness of said racism. I, for example, as an evangelical, fell into many of the standard reductionist views of Blacks and poor people that my conservative evangelical friends and fellow parishioners held. I, like other evangelicals, was almost totally ignorant of anything other than a White world view.

America is rapidly changing, and it is not a White America that we are seeing arising out of it’s racist past. For many Whites this is deeply troubling, for a chapter of American history where Whites controlled everything is coming to a close. In the future there will not be a White America, period. It is this realization that has fed the xenophobic election of Mr. Trump, a last ditch effort to shore up a crumbling edifice of isolationism, nativism and White privilege.

As Fred Clark has stated: “White evangelicalism yesterday performed the purpose for which it was designed: It elected a white nationalist as president. This was not a failure, but a success. This was not a side effect or an accident or a collateral consequence. This was not the end of white evangelicalism, but the culmination of its purpose, its origin, its intent. White evangelicalism is white nationalism. This is what it is, and always has been, for.”

Mr. Clark then goes on to argue convincingly, that when overt racism within the fundamentalist and evangelical camp became too obvious prior to Jerry Fallwell’s Moral Majority (and Bob Jones University I might add) in the 1970’s, a change of focus became necessary for evangelicals to claim the moral higher ground, as building on a history of resistance to civil rights became increasingly difficult to sell to America. Hence, anti-abortion became the new crusade and litmus test for true evangelicalism:

“But then came calamity — the Civil Rights Movement turned America upside-down and exposed the disgraceful evil of segregationist white evangelicalism for all to see…White evangelicalism was laid bare as white nationalism in all its ugly glory. It’s claims of moral authority and moral superiority were proved to be a sham. White evangelicalism lost all credible claim to the moral high ground, and that dealt a heavy blow to its political agenda of white nationalism.”

I would add, the election of a Catholic President, JFK, in the 1960’s had cut off access to the Oval Office by evangelicals, a privilege they had enjoyed for decades. Something had to be done. Evangelical influence in Politics was slipping.

As Mr. Clark puts it, “The only thing to do, then, was to change the subject. And so, with stunning abruptness, white evangelicals adopted a second, and suddenly non-negotiable defining doctrine: anti-abortionism.

“This was new and alien. White evangelicals had mostly applauded Roe v. Wade, regarding anti-abortion views as a peculiarly Catholic mistake. The prevailing attitude among white evangelicals, on the rare occasions they thought about it at all, was similar to the prevailing attitude in Judaism — that a developing fetus has great value and moral significance as a potential person, but that this value and significance did not equal the full personhood of infants or adults”

“That belief — the majority opinion among white evangelicals as recently as the mid-1970s — was soon to become anathema. After Nixon’s failed presidency failed to reverse the losses for white nationalism, white evangelicals pulled a 180 and embraced anti-abortionism as their path to regaining moral legitimacy. This would be their ticket to reclaiming the pretense of the moral high ground while still continuing to promote a political agenda of white nationalism.
It’s simple, really: Redefine abortion as baby-killing and you redefine everyone who supports it as a baby-killer. And you’re always guaranteed to hold the moral high-ground compared to a bunch of baby-killers, even if you’re a white nationalist. Who’s worse? Segregationists? Or baby-killers? The baby-killers, obviously. They kill babies. It’s murder.”

“No white evangelical born before 1970 grew up believing this. No white evangelical born after 1980 grew up not believing this.”

“So now white evangelicals were no longer in the morally indefensible position of explicitly defending segregation and white nationalist politics. Now they were able to regard and portray themselves as moral champions battling against Satanic baby-killers, just as earlier generations of segregationist, pro-slavery, white-nationalist white evangelicals regarded and portrayed themselves as moral champions battling against those who disrespected “the Bible.”

Clark continues: “…white evangelicals again voted for white nationalism. They supported a candidate who explicitly and unambiguously made white nationalism the centerpiece and driving passion of his campaign. The fig-leaf for this support was abortion. And once again we are asked to believe — after centuries defending slavery, segregation and Jim Crow — that it was only about abortion, and that the 100-percent correlation between this anti-abortion politics and white nationalist politics is just an unfortunate and unforeseen coincidence.”

Unfortunately, many good, loving people were duped by the shell game performed by the Republican Party. In the remote chance that Trump would appoint a SCOTUS that would turn Roe v Wade around, a Faustian bargain was made that ignored the poor, refugees, women, minorities, the LGBTQ community and rights for the disabled and other disenfranchised individuals. America will remember this deal with the devil for decades to come. It does not bode well for evangelicals.

 

Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Kevin’s Door: Kevin DeYoung and Gay Exclusion in the Kingdom of God

Kevin DeYoung of Gospel Coalition fame has recently published a small book entitled, “What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?” Russell Moore, current head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, states on the back cover of DeYoung’s book “Every Christian should read this book.”

After reading DeYoung’s book I cannot say I share Moore’s enthusiasm. Although the book does give one a simplistic overview of the Conservative stance on same sex relations and exclusion of sexually active Gays from inclusion in the Kingdom of God, it is disappointedly lacking in sound Biblical exegesis.

DeYoung criticizes Progressives (Liberals) for building their arguments on silence (Jesus does not directly address it), yet, like Preston Sprinkle in his recent book, “A People to be Loved,” bases a great deal of his argument on the assumption that egalitarian same sex relations had to have been known to Paul and Jesus therefore Jesus did not have to mention homosexuality directly in his condemnation of pornea (fornication). Likewise, Paul must have known about egalitarian same sex as well, therefore his condemnation must have included all types of SS sexual behavior. This assumption is based itself to a large degree on silence.

Starting off, DeYoung bases his argument on the Levitical Holiness Code of the Old Testament: Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman.” Two Greek words are used in the Septuagint translation: arsenos and koiten. Paul combines the two separate words to coin a new phrase used in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy literally meaning bedders of men.

First off, DeYoung, in tying Paul closely to Levitical Law, reflects a general trend among conservative Christians of creating a hybrid of Mosaic Law and Gospel Grace. Despite Paul’s general rejection of The Law in favor of the inward working of the Holy Spirit, conservatives like DeYoung seem honor bound to cherry pick favorite verses from the Pentateuch to point out the sins of others.

Did Paul, in addressing the church at Rome, have all same sex relations in mind, as DeYoung declares, or was he addressing a unique situation? Curiously absent from both DeYoung’s and Sprinkle’s assessment of Romans 1 is the inclusion of verses 29-37. In these verses Paul further clarifies the character of the of the men and women who “committed shameless acts” (v.27) and were therefore “worthy of death” (v. 32) and anchors the entire passage into a unique period of Roman history.

The omission, I am sure, is intentional, as it weakens both Preston’s and DeYoung’s argument considerably. Verses 29-37:
“They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (ESV)

Likewise, the switch to the vocative that Paul uses beginning in Romans chapter 2 is not discussed, which is odd as the whole context of chapter 1 hinges on Paul’s condemnation of those who pride themselves on not sharing in the Roman licentiousness. Something conservatives should take note of: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Some scholars see Romans 1:18-32 as evidence of an early Jewish polemic against Gentiles rather than Paul’s own thoughts. (1)

Paul’s description reveals a justifiable, deep revulsion of what we know of Roman sexual practices. His extreme indictment would seem out of place leveled against today’s Gay Christians or those in the LGBTQ community trying to live loving, committed lives in a society that has been historically hostile towards them. If Paul was indeed including loving committed SS relations, as DeYoung states, then we have a problem with perjury, or bearing false witness.

Likewise, in a few other passages, Paul includes SS activity placed among a list of other sins, but there is no indication that he has now switched gears to talk about committed “Gay” relations. Indeed, the severity of some of the sins, slave sellers, liars, murderers, etc., indicates he still has the same individuals in mind as described in Romans 1.

What the Religious Right, Preston Sprinkle and Kevin DeYoung have attempted to do is take a unique circumstance out of its historical context and make a universal application that transcends time and place. Did Paul have a personal aversion to committed SS relations? Since we have no written record from him addressing that, we simply do not know. What I have seen time and time again is the Right basing their assessment of homosexual behavior on the belief that Paul’s description in Romans 1:29-37 accurately describes Gays today. Hence the references to “abomination” by luminaries of the Right like Falwell and Robertson, and hate groups such as Westboro Baptist and their “God Hates Fags” signs.

Like DeYoung, in “A People to be Loved,” Preston Sprinkle has presented Evangelicals with a roadmap to continue to discriminate against the LGBTQ community, yet feel better about themselves in the process. Discrimination without guilt, stone throwing but with softer words of condemnation. Sprinkle covers no new ground in this book, which was disappointing.

While repeatedly admitting the church’s failure to be loving towards Gays, Sprinkle fails to admit the underlying presuppositions about Scripture that plague Neo-Fundamentalists and bog them down in 19th century attitudes about the relationships of God and man. His is not a Cruciform theology, but one bound to an inerrant, infallible Bible. The unspoken and taken for granted assumption is that God has spoken definitively, once and for all time, through Scripture, how mankind is to structure itself socially. What traditional marriage proponents, like Sprinkle have given us is first century marital codes filtered through Western 19th century Victorian standards of propriety.

I hope to address in a future post the underlying hermeneutical problems of fundamentalism and it’s odd blending of a wrathful God and a loving God. The failure to consistently interpret the God of the OT through the lens of Christ continually hamstrings conservatives from worshipping a truly “Christlike God.” (2) rather than the Gospel being “good news” it ends up being an alternate legal system replacing the Law of the OT.

(1) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2013/10/romans-126-27-a-clobber-passage-that-should-lose-its-wallop/
(2) See Bradley Jersak, “A More Christlike God, a More Beautiful Gospel,” and Gregory A. Boyd, “Crucifixion of the Warrior God.”

The Nashville Statement and Patriarchy

The recent Nashville Statement (1) on human sexuality is the latest attempt by the Religious Right to position male-female complementarianism, patriarchy and gender stereotypes as the Biblical norm for today, based largely on the ancient cultural norm in which male dominance and female subservience was the norm. One of the main problems with the belief that the Bible paints a clear picture of “one man, one woman,” is…that it does not. The truth is conservatives must carefully pick and choose their verses to support their thesis, conveniently overlooking the much more numerous passages that portray the ugly side of patriarchy and submission.

Contrary to most evangelical thinking, while the NT gives us excellent advice on loving our enemies and our neighbors as ourselves, the Bible, as a whole is a mixed bag on the issue of “Biblical Marriage.” With Biblical marriages involving polygamy, concubines, maid servants, spoils of war, sisters-in-laws, rape victims, etc., conservatives must do a lot of cherry picking to come up with a definitive view of marriage.

So, the basic quandary behind the Religious Right’s rejection of non binary human relationships and identity is the question of whether or not the “Biblical” model of sexual relationships is culturally informed and outdated, or whether strictly male-female complimentarianism and male headship (2) should be the cultural norm for moderns. As evident from the Nashville Statement, most evangelicals believe the latter, although headship is not specifically mentioned here. The traditionalist stance presented in the Nashville Statement is based, in large, on a specific biblical hermeneutic that is literal and believes the Bible is without error. But pushing for a literal, inerrant understanding of the texts poses problems for the definition of Biblical marriage. If one would follow the various examples of marriage in the Bible religiously and consistently, Christian marriage would differ little from that of Islamic fundamentalism. What conservative evangelicals have done to soften the hard edges of this fact is to couch male dominance in the language of “complimentarianism.” In other words, men and women have separate but equal clearly defined roles. We have heard “separate, but equal” used before and it never truly means “equal.”

This is not to say that all evangelicals hold to a strict male headship relationship of human sexuality and gender role. The minority model I grew up with was “mutual submission,” which is more egalitarian and follows a much more Christlike attitude of serving one another. It also follows the broad outline of Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5.

Behind the language of the Nashville Statement, is a history of a cultural shift from evangelicalism to fundamentalism within the Southern Baptist denomination. As David Gushee points out, fundamentalists within the denomination waged a fierce battle for control of the Southern Baptist convention between 1979 and 1993. What resulted was a decisive string of victories within the SBC that put fundamentalists firmly in control. In, turn, these men made sure that women and moderates were forced out of teaching positions within Baptist colleges as well as diminishing the role of women within the denomination. (3) Prior to 1979, Christian fundamentalism’s primary hand-wringing involved the Civil Rights movement and resistance to Black equality and the “mixing of the races.” But as Gushee puts it, “by the late 1970s, a different strategy was developed on the conservative side, focusing especially on traditionalist Christian discomfort with the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion…This proved a more appealing agenda for conservative Christian consumption than directly attacking progress in racial integration and black empowerment.” (4)

The shift from outright racism (which is still very much alive among fundamentalists) to “family values,” i.e., anti- feminism, anti-Gay, anti-abortion, is very much based on a traditional male headship model, as presented in scripture. One would wonder why evangelical and fundamentalist men would be so upset by Gay marriage, but the answer is simple: non binary individuals fall outside the control of male headship. They don’t fit into a patriarchal scheme of human sexuality. Which begs the question, in an egalitarian society, where an individual’s self worth and purpose is not based on their genitalia, exactly what value does male headship bring to the table? If divorce rates among evangelicals are any indication, the answer is, none, as the rate of failed marriages mirrors that of society as a whole.

The tragedy of the Nashville Statement is that it closes the door to dialogue about human sexuality, and attempts to rigidly compartmentalize gender stereotypes, ignoring the realities of gender and sexuality. It also closes the door to further understanding and reform amongst evangelicals. The door too has been shut on careful consideration of the Biblical passages themselves, preferring a inerrant, literal hermeneutic that does not take into consideration a great many things: culturally bound materials, story as opposed to historical facts, and a general inability to differentiate Kingdom principals from cultural mores. It has sadly become all too apparent that fundamentalists favor law over Grace, continuing over a century of vigorously defending indefensible attitudes towards race, women, violence and sexual minorities. This needs to stop.

1. https://www.scribd.com/mobile/document/357531494/The-Nashville-Statement
2. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complementarianism
3. David P. Gushee, “Still Christian, Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism,” see chapter 3.
4. Ibid., p. 32.

Defining Evangelicalism: Fences or Faithfullness

I am currently reading Roger E. Olson’s ‘Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology.’(1) It is an excellent book, tying together the various postconservatives evangelical theologians and showing how they differ from conservative evangelicals. Having grown up in a Pentecostal evangelical church I was always aware that there was a certain uneasy alliance between the dominant Calvinism and “fringe” groups like Pentecostals and other Arminian denominations. The tension between the majority evangelicals and minority voices within it have been at odds for a long time. Which brings me to Olson’s book.

Olson identifies a number of beliefs that postconservatives find problematic with the conservative wing of evangelicalism. They find the basic epistemology of conservatism lacking, that is, the reliance on inerrant original documents and the reduction of revelation to propositional truths, tending “to place too much emphasis and value on facts; authentic Christianity is too often equated with correct grasp of information. That is, conservative evangelicals, in varying degrees and with some exceptions, underscore and highlight the ‘propositional’ nature of revelation and the ‘cognitive’ aspects of Christian discipleship. When attempting to determine whether a person or group is Christian, they often turn to examination of doctrinal beliefs.”(2)

While many conservatives such as Millard Erickson agree that the gospel message must be contemporized to meet new generations, the general consensus among them is that any new understanding of what are viewed as ‘timeless biblical truths’ leads to pluralism and relativism.(3) For D. A. Carson his major problem with the budding Emerging Church movement is that he sees it as placing ‘experience’ above biblical revelation: “Truth itself, ‘rightly understood,’ may correct experience, but not the other way around.”(4) Typical, however, of conservatives, the “truth” of biblical doctrine is as traditionally interpreted by conservatives. By ‘experience’ conservatives are basically talking about a distrust of claims of personal ‘relationships to Christ,’ especially if they don’t line up with traditional truth claims. This is one reason the work of the Holy Spirit seems to take a back seat to the propositional nature of Scripture amongst hardline conservatives.

One characteristic of conservatives listed by Olson stuck out recently for me as being especially true of conservatives: that of ‘fence building.’ As I have briefly shown above, biblical ‘truths,’ as defined by conservatives, becomes the yardstick for determining authentic Christianity. Where did the interpretation and codification of these truths come from?, the fundamentalism of the Old Princeton School of Theology. Contemporary conservatives still appeal to the Enlightenment epistemology of foundational truth claims. Without getting into the problems of both modernism, which conservatives are influenced by, and postmodernism, which postconservatives are influenced by, I find that the inevitable result of attempting to build a universal system of absolute truths is that the creators of such a system become too attached to their system, in a sense becoming prisoners to their own status quo. Once a ‘truth’ is declared ‘absolute,’ questioning of it becomes heresy. Walls go up to delineate Orthodoxy, to keep the faithful in and the unfaithful out.

Besides keeping people out, a lack of humility and understanding of our human limitations, as well as a loathing to question assumed universal truths creates a situation where reform becomes very difficult. As Olson puts it in ‘Reformed and Always Reforming:’ “The essence of conservatism in theology is a determined—if often implicit and unacknowledged—adherence to tradition. It is the establishment of a magisterium, whether formal or informal, that exercises prior restraint over the critical and constructive tasks of theology. Very few evangelical theologians admit that they recognize or follow such a magisterium and most deny it. But their conservatism shows in their tendency to slam down any and every new proposal for revisioning Christian doctrine by appeal to what has always been believed by Christians generally or by what evangelicals have traditionally believed.”(5)

This was made very clear recently when Eugene Peterson, in an interview, initially supported Gay marriage.(6) As a result of the subsequent firestorm and the threat of his ‘The Message Bible’ and devotional books being pulled from Christian bookstore shelves, he recanted his statement.(7) This seems to be the all-to-common conservative reaction to any attempt to reassess conservative understandings of church teaching; panic mode sets in, the wagons are drawn in a circle and the offending party is essentially burned at the stake. Lifetime friends sever relations, speaking engagements and book deals cancelled and teaching positions ended. As the Christian ethicist David Gushee recently remarked: “Eugene Peterson discovered painfully that the evangelical establishment will immediately seek to destroy anyone who breaks with their understanding of orthodoxy on LGBTQ issues. Nothing he did before mattered. Nothing else he believes mattered. The guns were turned on him, posthaste, in a choreography of rejection as public and painful as possible. This has happened so many times before that the real wonder of events last week was that Rev. Peterson somehow did not anticipate that it would happen to him.”(8)

This conservative knee-jerk reaction is not a sign of a healthy church. It stifles what Derek Flood calls ‘faithful questioning’ of Scripture.(9) Olson, in rebutting the 1989 Evangelical Affirmations conference that attempted to establish adherence to a basic doctrinal structure, says: “This way of identifying who is an evangelical theologian and what justifies calling a theology evangelical is problematic in that it closes the door to reform of the doctrinal structure and adds an extrabiblical content to the canon of divine revelation…How is continuing reform of evangelical faith and life possible if being evangelical requires firm adherence to a humanly devised cognitive structure of doctrinal content? That is, if being evangelical necessarily includes being orthodox, how can orthodoxy itself be reformed by evangelicals?”(10)

Olson and other postconservative evangelicals have not given up hopes of having meaningful dialogue with conservatives over their differences, but like David Gushee, I have my doubts. Partly because postconservatives are, in large, barely distinguishable from progressive Christians, who are viewed as ‘liberals’ by most conservatives. Although being labeled a ‘fundamentalist’ is a badge few conservatives would apply to themselves, the theology espoused is virtually the same.

 

1. https://www.amazon.com/Reformed-Always-Reforming-Postconservative-Evangelical/dp/0801031699/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1500771317&sr=8-1&keywords=reformed+and+always+reforming
2. Roger E. Olson, ‘Reformed and Always Reforming,’ p. 67.
3. Ibid., pp. 70-71.
4. D. A. Carson, ‘Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church,’ p. 219.
5. Olson, p. 17.
6. http://religionnews.com/2017/07/12/best-selling-author-eugene-peterson-changes-his-mind-on-gay-marriage/
7. http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/july/eugene-peterson-actually-does-not-support-gay-marriage.html
8. http://religionnews.com/2017/07/17/lgbtq-equality-evangelical-rejection/
9. https://www.amazon.com/Disarming-Scripture-Cherry-Picking-Violence-Loving-Conservatives/dp/0692307265
10. Olson, p. 39.