Three Pillars of the Old Order: Part One – Scripture as Divine Revelation

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order – Part One

I frequently have conversations with friends who ask me: “why have you abandoned the old patristic / Greco-Roman synthesis?”

By “Greco-Roman synthesis”, depending on the conversation, they might mean Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or, for that matter, traditional forms of Calvinism or even Lutheranism.

In all cases they expect that I will launch into a laundry-list of complaints about the institutional problems or moral stances of contemporary churches. They are surprised when I instead answer: “theology.”

Then follows a few uncomfortable moments when they realize that I seriously think we need to question several central pillars of the Great Church synthesis, that is, of the central trajectory of Christian doctrinal elaboration since at least the 3rd/4th C, whether in its eastern or western forms.

Their first reaction is to think I’ve gone a bit crazy. To be fair, even three or four years ago, my reaction would have been similar.

But abandoning the classical synthesis is easier, simpler and maybe more plausible than you might think. Read More…


Paul, Romans, Pagans, and Gays

I’ve been writing a bit recently on a somewhat personal note about where the church stands (or where I would like it to stand) in its response to gay Christians who are asking for full inclusion and acceptance in the church. That was motivated in part by David and Maria’s outstanding reflections on their own experiences, and a desire to step a little outside of the pure theological realm and address the real people that I see around me every day. But today I want to get back to some more exegesis, breaking down further why I think the biblical arguments against homosexuality in the church are untenable.

st paul homosexuality romans

Hmmm, what would be the best way to demonstrate my scorn for those filthy pagan idolaters?

I haven’t done a thorough search to confirm this, but I’d wager that Romans 1:24-27 is easily the passage that is most frequently cited as a biblical warrant against permitting, or even embracing, open gay and lesbian relationships within the church. It’s a powerful source for several reasons. It’s not from the Old Testament, and so can’t be disregarded as a legal demand that should no longer hold sway within Christian communities. (I don’t love these kinds of dismissals of the Old Testament, but they are a reality in the thinking of many Christians.) It’s quite explicit in its language, and so difficult to ignore on account of vagueness. And finally, it’s a substantial part of Paul’s opening argument in Romans about the nature and quality of Christ’s gospel. Romans, and particularly its first few chapters, is inarguably one of the great theological bedrocks of Christian theology; its logic and rhetoric have been central to the articulation of the faith since its beginning. (It is, indeed, a theological tour de force.) So the attention paid to these verses is understandable, since if Paul condemns homosexual actions and orientations here, then surely such a rejection cannot be elided from the church’s teaching. Right?

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Homosexuality and the Bible

About the Author
David Wagschal

To get it right on homosexuality means that we need to get it right on a lot of other things.

I think the dark and deep fear that many Christians harbour about homosexuality is that, if we’ve got this wrong, maybe we’ve got a lot of other things wrong. If we have to challenge the churches’ traditional teaching on this point, does this mean that we have to challenge the whole, broader structure? If we concede an error on this point, do we have to concede an error on a lot else too?

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Leviticus, Gay Sex, and Christianity (II)

 A couple of weeks ago, I gave a thumbnail sketch of the literary and theological context of Leviticus’ condemnations of same-sex male intercourse, and promised to talk about how those things should be understood in the context of Christian theology. So today I’m going to talk a little more about the metaphysics behind Leviticus’ cultic structure, and what Christ and his gospel have to do with all of that.

The writers of Leviticus faced a theological conundrum. They needed a way to communicate with God so that they could be sure that their actions were in accordance with God’s directives. However, they also postulated a God who was so utterly different from the humans under his protection – in a way that transcends our understanding of nature and being – that sending and receiving information from him was rendered exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. God, for these writers, is different from humans, not in size or power, but in kind. Most importantly, God is holy, whereas humans, for the most part, are not.

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Leviticus, Gay Sex, and Christianity (I)

In my last post, I made a few observations about how important it is to comprehend the theological framework of biblical regulations. This time, I want to get into the weeds a little bit by discussing two verses of the Old Testament, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, that directly address sexual relations between two people of the same sex.

These passages are nestled in a portion of Leviticus generally known in biblical scholarship as the “Holiness Code,” which is concerned, as its name suggests, with rules designed to conform Israel to God’s own holiness. Holiness is important so that the land can be kept ritually and morally clean for God to dwell in, and so that Israel’s priestly representatives can continue to communicate with God. (The moniker “Holiness Code” is taken from Leviticus 19:2 and its demand, “You [Israel] will be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”)

This theological school is deeply concerned with creating precisely established categories. Its authors’ theological imagination is motivated by a natural, social, and political world in which boundaries are easy to understand and neatly delineated. The best of all possible worlds – the world that God has created and tries to sustain – is one where all things have a proper box that they fit into. This imperative is especially evident in a related text: the creation story of Genesis 1:1-2:4. As most readers will recall, each day of this narrative involves God taking some element that was previously undifferentiated and splitting it into categories. The ordered creation that we inhabit is the result of God creating very elemental distinctions: dividing darkness from light, waters from waters, water from dry land, day-time from night-time. Creation is about dividing the stuff of the universe into categorical spaces within which life is able to thrive. After the categories are established, God puts into them the creatures that are proper to each space; these creatures can only live and thrive if the proper boundaries that God has ordained are respected. If the borders that separate them begin to blur, creation itself is threatened.

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Homosexuality, the Bible, and Christianity (I)

In my first post in our new series on Christianity and homosexuality, I want to start with a little reflection on what we’re actually doing, or should be doing, when we read the Bible. It is necessary to understand what the Bible is, what it claims to be, and not only what information and guidance it is capable of giving us, but just as importantly, how it provides those things. I’ll get in a moment to how that affects the question of rules governing sexual behavior, but there are a couple of general principles that will guide all of my discussions on this topic.

First, the Bible as an entire collection is a uniform source for Christian theology; that is, all portions of it are foundational, first-order texts for Christian theological reflection and argument. Biblical texts are the raw material out of which Christians are required to construct any theological argument, because they represent the common fund of experience that Christians of different cultures, classes, and background may use to talk to each other. There is a reason that Bible and liturgy are the two most fundamental sources of Christian theology: they are the only two elements that all members of the Christian community experience in common.

That does not mean, however, that the Bible itself is theologically uniform. Indeed, critical portions of the Bible not only have different theological emphases, but actively contradict each other’s theology. Some, in fact, were expressly written in order to oppose the theological views of other biblical texts. (Leviticus/Numbers and Deuteronomy are prime instances of this latter phenomenon.) One of the reasons that the Bible, and particularly portions of the Pentateuch, can be so confusing for readers is that the viewpoints of particular texts so frequently clash with others that are not only part of the same canonical collection, but frequently positioned directly next to each within the very same book. (Genesis and Numbers, where multiple sources are interwoven throughout the books, provide excellent examples of the conceptual whiplash that this can create for a reader.)

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Law and Gospel: the key distinction. [How to Read Scripture, Part III]

Melanchthon, one of Luther’s principal disciples, once remarked that Luther’s most important discovery was the distinction between Law and Gospel.1 Luther himself thought that the mark of a real theologian was understanding – and explaining – the difference between the two.2

I agree.  If you understand this distinction, you pretty much understand everything – but especially how to read scripture.

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  1. R. Kolb, “Luther’s Hermeneutics of Distinctions” in R. Kolb et al., eds., Martin Luther’s Theology (Oxford 2014) p. 170. []
  2. Lectures on Galatians, ed. and trans. J. Pelikan et al. Luther’s Works (St. Louis 1963) vol. 26, p.115. []

Christ Did Not Die on the Cross to Give Us a Book. Really, He Didn’t. [How to Read Scripture, Part II]

Interpreting scripture is a lot easier than most people think.

Most people think of scripture as a vast, incredibly complex edifice that requires intricate study and unpacking. They believe that interpreting scripture is a long and arduous task of trying to discover the mysterious truth about God and the world contained within its pages. Supposedly, correct Christian doctrine is that teaching which is the most coherent and accurate distillation of scripture’s content. (In more recent times, it’s become all about the process of seeking this doctrine instead of the doctrine itself, but that makes little difference.)

This is a vision based on the idea that Christianity is, fundamentally, an exercise in gaining special knowledge or wisdom about the nature of God and humanity, and in following specific divine precepts. Since the source of this knowledge is considered to be scripture, Christianity must become a huge, complex exercise in exegesis.

In short, Christianity is understood as a religion of contemplating and studying divine revelation, and revelation is the bible.

This is a very common view. It’s very old, and very widespread.

And I think it’s very wrong. In fact, I think it’s obviously wrong.

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Was Christum treibet? Yup, it’s German, and Why You Need to Learn It [How to Read Scripture: Part I]

So here’s a classic Luther quote that tends to bother people a bit:

For it is the duty of a true apostle to preach of the Passion and Resurrection and work of Christ, and thus lay the foundation of faith, as He Himself says, in John 15, “You shall bear witness of me.” All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach Christ and inculcate [treiben] Him. That is the true test, by which to judge all books, when we see whether they inculcate [treiben] Christ or not, since all the Scriptures show us Christ (Rom. 3), and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ (1 Cor. 15). What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or Paul taught it; again, what preaches Christ would be apostolic, even though Judas, Annas, Pilate and Herod preached it.1

This is from his Preface to the Epistles of Saint James and Saint Jude (1545). He’s discussing why he doesn’t think James is truly apostolic.

The critical idea is that the Gospel makes scripture; not the other way around. There is one, and only one, key for interpreting scripture, and even for determining what scripture is: the Good News. And the Good News is something very specific: it is the promise of God’s totally free, unmerited gift of salvation, forgiveness and eternal life, given in Christ, with nothing required from us. Luther’s shorthand for this is simply “Christ.”

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  1. Trans. C.M. Jacobs, in Works of Martin Luther, vol. 6, Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1932, p. 478, altered; emphases mine. []

“My Father was a Perishing Aramean . . .”

President Obama’s recent declaration that he will be taking executive action on immigration comes on the heels of a summer that featured images of desperate children attempting to escape violence in Central America by streaming to the United States, and a fall that featured worries (mostly on the far-right) that ISIS might send Ebola-infected terrorists across the southern border to spread plague among an unsuspecting population. It is not yet fully clear what the President’s plan will look like (although here is a helpful chart of the likely scenario), and his proposed action on this issue does raise certain issues about the proper scope of executive authority (although those strike me as somewhat overblown, for reasons nicely laid out by Jacob Weisberg here). But the longstanding, ongoing scandal of the eleven million people in the United States who must perpetually live in the shadow of our society, while our governing system makes no effort whatsoever to develop creative policy solutions for their plight, demands some consideration of a Christian response to immigration in light of the imperatives of the gospel.

Christians must come to immigration with two sets of eyes. First, there’s the public policy problem: our immigration court system is severely underfunded and completely overwhelmed with cases, and existing legislation has inadvertently created a legal loophole that has led tens of thousands of desperate parents to send their unaccompanied children to strange lands far from their homes. Fueling this crisis are the failing domestic police systems of several Central American countries and a violent criminal class that forcibly recruits children who lack private or state protection into their rings. Second, there’s our response to these things as Christians, who as a community are pledged to offer succor to the poor and the persecuted. Since immigration is inherently a corporate issue – we have to decide as a whole society whether to admit outsiders into our nation – the public policy determination and Christian imperatives are more closely related for this issue than they might be with others.Read More…