Bad Religion – The Confusion of Law and Gospel edition

Our news cycle is so compressed these days. And that might be part of the problem, because real theological thinking takes some time. It is hard work primarily because as Dr. Haidt would say: we are elephants with a rider. What he means by that is that our intuitive systems (what the classic writers would call the passions) are the elephant. Presented with some happening, we intuitively make a decision to learn toward it (this is good!) or away from it (the is bad!). The intuitive systems have a rider, namely reason. What the rider normally does is justify the elephant’s lean and probably encourage a harder charge. Dr. Haidt would hold that the rider has some ability to push the other way but quite limited. It is nice to see academic writing getting to where Luther was 500 years ago – i.e. ‘Reason is a whore’. What little theological reasoning we can do is because the Spirit lives within us. It sure isn’t natural. Maybe by Confucius’ 80 years of formation we can do the will of heaven without effort.

Why I bring this up is that I’m convinced that the basic problem underlying so much of our modern problem is bad theology. Most of what goes by the title of theology is little more than the rider justifying the elephant’s lean. A good job for a lawyer or PR-person, but not for a theologian.

I saw one real clear example starting with Andrew Sullivan (for those not familiar a Gay Roman Catholic British Tory) who wrote the Newsweek annual Easter takedown of the church. (Ok, if I’m being more fair his article doesn’t deserve the cover title – Forget the Church Follow Jesus – but lets be honest. Would Newsweek (or Time or the New York Times) ever publish something with a headline – Forget the Heretics, Follow the Body of Christ. Didn’t think so.) But that article isn’t what I want to bring up. Mr. Sullivan, especially on grace, is a capable theologian. But he is a good example of the elephant and the rider when it gets close to himself. He is gay. I think even he would say that is a defining trait. So he links to things like this. The person recommending is Dan Savage who is also gay and a widely read advice columnist. The elephant is picking up steam. The comments on that last link are instructive although they are not for innocent eyes. Eventually you get to this and this. What you have is a 21 year old gay male with the brains to attend Harvard, a Christian upbringing and the honesty to recognize a conflict and try to address it.

I’m not sure how Mr. Vines financed it, but the student took a couple of years off of school to answer his conflict. It is a perfect example of two things: 1) the elephant is in complete control. The student is gay and Christian. He must reconcile these things. But the intuition has already ruled. These thing must be completely ok together. (“And for some reason, a lot of people have a big problem with anyone who believes in God and is gay.”) The two years of research and reasoning were not for attempting to be a good theologian and placing himself under the Word of God, but they were two years for the rider to construct arguments for the way the intuition was already leaning. 2) Bad theology is driving the debates in the country.

You name the argument there is bad theology at the root: Health care, sexuality/marriage, and even economic regulation. Our collective elephants are leaning one direction and our riders are pushing further that way constructing bad arguments as it goes.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I understood the intuitive lean of the collective elephant in the direction of homosexuality. I get the liberty and caring arguments for gay marriage. My elephant says, “hey, gay marriage makes perfect sense.” My rider could even chime in with St. Paul, “in Christ there is no make or female.” The problem is that is very bad theology. First, what St. Paul describes in Gal 3:28 is an eschatological reality. When the kingdom comes in its fullness there is neither jew nor greek, slave nor free, male nor female. As Jesus says elsewhere, in the Kingdom we will not marry or be given in marriage (Mark 12:25). There are parts of that eschatological reality that have been grasped, but even those are often tenuous in this world. We think that slavery has been done away with, but just start with a google search for human trafficking or modern slavery. For theology to approach truth, it must start out describing reality. Paul’s statement is a reality as far as the gospel, as far as our relationship with Christ depends on nothing that we bring. The Gospel is pure grace. But we live in an overlapping of the ages. The Kingdom has been inaugurated, but this world is still passing away. The law still has a place in this world.

Mr. Vines attempts to address this when he discusses Lev 18:22 and the OT in general. In what I take as his core summary statement, Mr. Vines dismisses the law.

But after the Council of Jerusalem’s ruling, even those central parts of Israelite identity and culture no longer applied to Christians. Although it’s a common argument today, there is no reason to think that these two verses from the Old Law in Leviticus would somehow have remained applicable to Christians even when other, much more central parts of the Law did not.

He will acknowledge that, “the Old Law does contain some rules that Christians have continued to observe – the Ten Commandments, for example.” But not that any of the prohibitions against homosexual activity have anything to do with the Ten Commandments. What he holds is that, “Christ’s death on the cross liberated Christians from what Paul called the “yoke of slavery.” We are not subject to the Old Law.” It is right here that Mr. Vines has confused law and gospel or that he has not understood both have a continuing roll in our existence. Mr. Vines has taken the freedom of the Gospel as the excuse to go and sin as we please (Rom 6:1). He is right that we are free from the law in regards to our salvation and maybe more importantly our identity. We find our identity in Christ. Christ found his identity in doing the will of His Father. His Father, who we are instructed to call our Father, revealed his general will in the commandments. They no longer have their sting – death has been defeated, but they still remain to instruct and guide. Until the final revelation of the Kingdom, the law has a place, and even there I would speculate that since they are the Word of God they will not pass away but just be a true dead letter as we will be a new creation without the sinful nature.

What I would point Mr. Vines toward is how Jesus interprets the commandment on adultery in the sermon on the mount, Matt 5:27-32 and also pay attention to all discussions on divorce especially Matt 19:1-12. Yes, Romans 1 is important, but that is not the heart of Christian sexual teaching. The heart of Christian sexual teaching is that anything outside of the one-flesh bond of marriage between one man and one woman is a breaking of the commandment against adultery. Is this a tough teaching? Hell yes. That is probably why Jesus goes hyperbolic with the cutting off of hands and gouging out of eyes. He’s serious. The law is serious stuff. There is probably no better place than sexual morality for today’s culture to feel the hopelessness of the law and hopefully the sweetness of the gospel. Our intuitions, our elephants are charging toward sexual openness because we desperately want love. We want to feel that connectedness. We want to find our identities in relationship. But as our divorce statistics and rate of marriage counseling might tell us, this is not the primary identity. The relationship between Christ and the church, the bridegroom and the bride, is not the primary identity. Christ’s first identity is loyal son. Our first identity is as a child of God. Within that identity God has purpose for us. It might include a call to marriage. It might not. There are eunuchs for the kingdom. (Matt 19:12) To a great many, God might leave this as a free choice. To others, not. If we attempt to satisfy our identity and purpose through sin, it can’t but come to naught. But even when we’ve made a complete wreck of things, Christ forgives, God welcomes home.

Again, is that a very tough teaching? Yes. Would I expect lots of failure trying to keep it? Yep. Probably about the same amount of trouble as unmarried, good looking, rich, 21 year old straight guys have being chaste. Probably about as tough as a rich man finding his primary identity in Christ and not in his own work and possessions. (Mark 10:17-31) Probably about as tough as a learned man admitting that he is a fool. (1 Cor 1:20) Probably about as tough as being told to pick up the cross. (Matt 16:24) “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed…therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Pet 4:12-13, 19) Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom. (Matt 5:3). That is the entry door. Good theology starts in recognizing our own poverty of spirit, in letting The Spirit be the rider and form our Elephant.

Comments are closed.