Food for thought

Alan Jacobs recently posted a little thought experiment: take a hypothetical Christian institution that has moved from a traditional Christian sexual ethic to a more liberal one. Assume that God hasn’t actually changed his mind about this stuff:

So as we try to evaluate this imaginary Christian organization, we can see what has happened in one of three ways:

1) At one point, the organization held views about sexuality that were largely determined by its social environment, but it has now reconsidered those views in light of the Gospel and has come to a more authentically Christian understanding of the matter.

2) At one point, the organization held authentically Christian views about sexuality, but has succumbed to public pressure and fear of being scorned or condemned and now holds views that are determined by its social environment.

3) The organization has always held the views about sexuality that were socially dominant, bending its understanding of Scripture to suit the times; it just changed when (or soon after) the main stream of society changed.

Note that there is no way to read this story as one of consistent faithfulness to a Gospel message that works against the grain of a dominant culture.

He goes on to ask Christians who have made this sort of shift to consider how they would prevent themselves from lapsing again into the sort of unfaithfulness that they have evidently pulled themselves out of.

While this particular example is about sex, the thought experiment could be expanded to include any sort of hot-button doctrine. If you’re going to say that there are either significant problems with the traditional sources of Christian doctrine (i.e. scripture and apostolic tradition) or significant problems with our hermeneutic methods, it seems reasonable to ask what your epistemological model would be for demarcating authentic Christian teaching from falsehood.

I don’t mean to pose this in a mean-spirited fashion. I’m genuinely curious about how more liberal Christians navigate this thicket.

(h/t Rod Dreher)

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About Josh W

A Catholic; an occasional writer.
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3 Responses to Food for thought

  1. I want to know all Gods thoughts; all the rest are just details.

    Albert Einstein

  2. wgosline says:

    This is an excellent question. In the little church down the road from mine that I used to attend, the pastors have been consistently gay for the last ten years or so. I’m not a huge theologian by any means, but it seems to me that interpretation of the Scriptures (which, from what I understand, includes selections themselves garnered under the auspices of a current political climate) is somewhat like the interpretation of the US Constitution. The backbone of a faith system whose true meaning has and will be constantly fought over.

  3. jubilare says:

    Personally, I navigate this thicket in this way: I take a long look at scripture, trying to take in both what it says, and the style in which its various books are written. I’m not a theologian, so I probably make a lot of mistakes, but the overall impression I get is as follows.

    God consistently meets His people where they are, and leads them forward. He asks them to set themselves apart, and he begins slowly teaching them His ways, pulling them towards Himself until some are ready for the coming of the Christ. Then Jesus shifts directions a bit, taking the Law and teaching His disciples to understand the nature of the God behind it. The Law is revealed as a tool, with a purpose behind it, not and end in itself. Then, after the death, resurrection and ascension of the Christ, the Holy Spirit is given to mankind, a further guide for the time that is to come.

    In short, though God does not change, we do, and the Bible seems to say, in my opinion, that God meets us where we are. (quick disclaimer. I do not believe that humanity, as a whole, moves from worse to better, but that the lessons we learn change from age to age. Some things we do better than our ancestors, while they did other things better than us…)

    Case in point. If I take everything the Bible says about the place of women in society as everlasting… I would hate it, and probably God, or else despise myself for being female. Am I less human than men? Disposable? Is it right for me to be enslaved? …but if I look at the Bible from a more historical perspective, I begin to see that God was not leaving humanity where they were, but leading them forward. The state of women among the Israelites, and among the surrounding tribes, was wretched. God began to lay down laws for their protection. The process of how women are treated and how they are perceived in scripture is not shown as a static thing, but as a process, bringing them up from objects, to being to daughters of God. In the same vein, God did not abolish slavery in the Bible, but began to teach His people that their slaves were also their brothers. It’s amazing! It is like slowly introducing someone to light so that they are not blinded when you lead them out into the day.

    It makes sense to me that God had no intention of our simply stopping this process when we stopped adding to scripture. The key, I think (and this is where I agree that the above thought-exercise is useful) is trying to understand what is, and isn’t in line with the progress of scripture. It’s easy, too easy, to jump on board with trends, assuming that they are in line with God’s teaching. There are areas where I am quite sure I am right to go against current trends. There are areas where I think current trends are actually, at least for the moment, in line with the will of God, though the trends themselves are not my guides. Then there are areas where I am really not sure… and I try to cover those with prayer and to keep an open mind.

    Anyway, there’s one perspective. 🙂

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