Monthly Archives: July 2013

Calvin on Law and Gospel: A Way Out of the Impasse?

There is a debate raging across the conservative Reformed world right now – a debate that is by no means new – over the nature of the Mosaic Covenant (i.e., the Law). On the one extreme is the position that claims the Mosaic Covenant was merely a legal covenant, perhaps a republication of the covenant of works grounded in creation. According to this position, the Law (i.e., Mosaic Covenant) is a completely different sort of covenant than is the covenant made with Abraham, the covenant of grace. If the latter offered unconditional promises, the former simply functioned to teach Israel its sin, thus ultimately driving Israel to Christ.

On the other extreme is the position that claims that all the major covenants in scripture were really simply one covenant. The Mosaic Covenant was as gracious as the Abrahamic Covenant. It is simply a different administration of the same covenant of grace. (Advocates of this position sometimes claim that the Noahic Covenant is also simply an administration of the covenant of grace.) According to this position, the promises of blessing for obedience and the threats of curse for disobedience found within the Law are no different from those disciplinary warnings always present within the covenant of grace.

Of course many, if not most, of the thoughtful participants in the debate hold a more nuanced position than either of these summaries suggest. But these are at least the parameters of the discussion.

The more I read Calvin, the more I have found that he provides a helpful way of breaking through the seeming impasse between these two views. By far the best book I have come across on Calvin’s view of the law is I. John Hesselink’s Calvin’s Concept of the Law. Hesselink notes that Calvin speaks of the relationship between law and gospel in three different ways.

First, he speaks of the law and the gospel as simply referring to the Old and New Testaments. In this sense, he emphasizes, the substance of the two is the same. Both are ultimately about Christ. “For ‘the covenant made with all the fathers is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same.'” (Hesselink, 157)

Second, he speaks of the law and the gospel as two different administrations of this one covenant of grace. “The distinction between the old and new covenants is largely a difference in the mode in which this one covenant was administered.” (Hesselink, 157)

These two senses are often emphasized by the second group above, the group that wants to emphasize the unity and continuity within the covenants. And as Hesselink points out, this is also the perspective most prominent in the Institutes. But then he goes on:

What is not always recognized – particularly by the critics of Calvin’s view of law and gospel – is that there is not only a difference of form between the law and the gospel (or the two covenants) but also an antithesis between them in so far as the law in a narrower sense is opposed to the gospel. A case in point is Galatians 3:19, where Paul sets the law given to Moses in opposition to the promise given to Abraham. In such cases Calvin does not hesitate to speak of the accusing, killing function of the law and its threats and curse. This aspect of the law in its narrower sense is taken up in Chapter 7 of Book II of the Institutes and is discussed even more fully in Calvin’s exegetical writings on the Pauline Epistles and related texts. Here Calvin does not differ significantly from Luther, except in emphasis and direction. Calvin often points out, for example, that when Paul and other biblical writers refer to the law in this narrow sense, that is, as opposed to the gospel, it is separated from the promises of grace and is considered only from the standpoint of its ‘peculiar office, power and end.'” (Hesselink 157-158)

The law, in other words, can be considered broadly or narrowly. Broadly it is simply an administration of the covenant of grace, set within the gospel promises to Abraham and defined by innumerable sacrifices that pointed the people to Christ. Narrowly it presented the people with a mere works principle: obey my law and you will be blessed; disobey and you will be punished.

Of course, while Calvin admitted that Paul usually uses the word law in the narrower sense (hence the use I have been defending in my last two articles here and here), Calvin himself usually used it in a broader sense (which is why some of my critics erroneously thought I was misrepresenting Calvin). However, some proponents of the continuity view described above have claimed that Calvin believed Paul only spoke of the law in the narrow sense when he was interacting with the way it was used by those who rejected Christ. But this is not the case at all. As Hesselink puts it,

Calvin recognizes fully the negative function of the law. Moreover, he acknowledges that this is a proper function of the law in so far as the ministry of Moses is opposed to the ministry of Christ and the gospel. This is, of course, not the complete picture; only one aspect or part of the law is dealt with when the law is so portrayed. On the other hand, the origin of this concept of the law is not to be traced to a mere misunderstanding or misuse of the law; nor can these strong words of Paul be dismissed simply as a polemic against an abuse of the law.

There are many, many places in Calvin to which I could point to illustrate this approach (just as there are many, many places in which Calvin emphasizes the relation of law and gospel as being one of continuity). Here let me simply offer a couple of them.

In his commentary on Romans 10:5 Calvin writes,

The law has a twofold meaning; it sometimes includes the whole of what has been taught by Moses, and sometimes that part only which was peculiar to his ministration, which consisted of precepts, rewards, and punishments… But as evangelic promises are only found scattered in the writings of Moses, and these also somewhat obscure, and as the precepts and rewards, allotted to the observers of the law, frequently occur, it rightly appertained to Moses as his own and peculiar office, to teach what is the real righteousness of works, and then to show what remuneration awaits the observance of it, and what punishment awaits those who come short of it. For this reason Moses is by John compared with Christ, when it is said, ‘That the law was given by Moses, but that grace and truth came by Christ’ (John 1:17). And whenever the word law is thus strictly taken, Moses is by implication opposed to Christ.

In his commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:6 Calvin writes,

The Apostle says that the law was but for a time, and required to be abolished, but that the gospel, on the other hand, remains forever. There are various reasons why the ministry of Moses is pronounced transient, for it was necessary that the shadows should vanish at the coming of Christ, and that statement – The law and the prophets were until John (Matthew 9:13) applies to more than the mere shadows. For it intimates that Christ has put an end to the ministry of Moses, which was peculiar to him, and is distinguished from the gospel. Finally, the Lord declares by Jeremiah that the weakness of the Old Testament arose from this, that it was not engraven on men’s hearts (Jeremiah 31:32-33). For my part, I understand that abolition of the law, of which mention is here made, as referring to the whole of the Old Testament, in so far as it is opposed to the gospel, so that it corresponds with the statement – The law and the prophets were until John. For the context requires this. For Paul is not reasoning here as to mere ceremonies, but shows how much more powerfully the Spirit of God exercises his power in the gospel than of old under the law.

For Calvin, then, understood in its broader covenantal context the Mosaic covenant is part of the covenant of grace. Taken more narrowly, however, it is a covenant of law, opposed to the gospel. Paul usually refers to the law in its narrow sense, while a passage like Psalm 119 focuses on the law in its broader sense.

If Calvin is right, perhaps the problem driving the debate in Reformed circles today is that each side is grasping on to half of the truth and fighting for it as if it were the whole truth. Calvin clearly doesn’t solve all of the hard questions about the meaning and use of the law in Christian theology (I, for one, have several important disagreements with him), but on this point his general framework seems very helpful. The question is, does Calvin’s dual understanding of the Law in broad/narrow terms provide a way out of the impasse?

Why People Don’t Like It When We Talk About the Law the Way the New Testament Does

Almost inevitably when I write or speak about the law I experience the same curious response from at least someone. How can you say Christians are not under the law? How can you say that the law has been made obsolete, or abolished, because of the enactment of a better covenant? How can you say that the law is a burden that believers should not be required to bear? How can you say that when it comes to the Christian life the New Testament points its readers not to the law, but to putting on Jesus, the new man, and conforming to his image? Doesn’t all of this fly in the face of the third use of the law, of our confessions and catechisms, and of the weight our tradition has always placed on the Ten Commandments?

What is striking about this response, of course, is that all of the language my hearer or reader finds most objectionable (including the language identified above) is drawn directly from Scripture. Indeed, I determined some years ago to work as hard as I could to make sure that my preaching and ethics conforms as closely as possible not simply to the theological truths taught in Scripture, but to the language and emphasis of Scripture. And what I discovered when I did this is that the New Testament, including especially the writings of Paul, John, and Hebrews, almost uniformly talk about the law in a different way than is typical for Reformed Christians. Some of my readers and hearers find my language about the law baffling, therefore, because they don’t realize I’m not talking about the moral law.

When Reformed Christians speak of “the law” short hand, they usually mean the  moral law. When Paul, on the other hand, uses the phrase “the law” short hand, he usually means the Mosaic Covenant or the Mosaic Law in general. When Christians talk about the law they usually emphasize its binding force on Christians. When Paul talks about the law he usually emphasizes the fact that it is no longer binding on Christians because they have died to it.

The fact is, it is anachronistic to read into Paul or other scriptural writings the threefold distinction between the moral, ceremonial, and judicial law. This threefold distinction is helpful theologically, but we need to recognize that it was developed by later theologians like Thomas Aquinas as a systematic category (not an exegetical category) to explain how it can be that Christians are no longer “under the law”, and yet that we are still called to obey the eternal moral principles to which it testifies. This does not, as the vast majority of biblical scholars recognize, give us the right to read this distinction into the texts of scripture. There is no evidence that Paul had a distinction between the ceremonial and moral law in his mind when he wrote his letters.

Yet we Reformed Christians read our systematic theological distinctions into the text all the time. Let me give an example.

In Ephesians 2:14-16 Paul writes of Jesus:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

In my most recent article, this is precisely the emphasis I was trying to get at. The New Testament does not call Christians to follow the law, but to follow the new man, Jesus. In Ephesians this is particularly important because Paul’s point is that the law functioned to underline enmity or hostility between Israel and the nations. If Israel obeyed the law, it would be distinct from the nations and would be blessed with military and economic power over them. If Israel disobeyed the law, it would become like the nations, and eventually be conquered and exploited by them. For faithful Israelites, then, the law was vital to preserve their identity as God’s people against the temptations of a world under the domination of Satan. The law was like a massive fortress that segregated the people of God from the world. (Interestingly, the same pastor whom I heard proclaim from the pulpit that the Christian life can be summed up in terms of law-keeping claimed when preaching on this passage that the gospel is not about racial reconciliation. Yes, there is a connection.)

For Christians, as Paul makes clear, the situation has changed. In order that the gospel might go out to all nations, Christ in his body abolished the law. In his resurrection from the dead he became the new man, the new humanity, fit for the kingdom of God. Those who seek reconciliation from God no longer need to bind themselves to the law that underlined such hostility, but now must hold fast to Christ, conforming themselves to his image. In short, missions, evangelism, and the international unity of the church are all grounded in the assumption that the foundation of the church is Jesus, not the law. The Law came through Moses, as John says, but grace and truth come through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). If Christians are to communicate to the world the grace and truth of the gospel, rather than the law that kills and divides, they need to conform their lives and communities to the beloved Son whom God sent into the world because he loved it so much (John 3:16). We need to get out of our fortress and take up our cross.

Yet Reformed believers often miss this point because they assume that when Paul refers to the “law of commandments and ordinances” he simply means the “ceremonial law.” But there is zero evidence in the text to support this assumption, and it goes against everything that we know about how Paul ordinarily uses the term law (For example, Reformed believers are usually adamant that in Galatians Paul is not limiting the word law to the ceremonial law, as Roman Catholics often claim). To be sure, Paul is not saying that Jesus abolished God’s moral law. He is not talking about the moral law at all. He is talking about the Mosaic Law, or the Mosaic Covenant. That covenant or law can be and has been abolished, without the moral law changing one iota.

Similarly, when in Romans 6:14 Paul says to Christians that “you are not under law but under grace” he is making a covenantal statement directly in line with the prophecy of Jeremiah 31. You are no longer under the Mosaic Covenant, the covenant of Sinai, he is saying; you are now under the new covenant of grace.

None of this, then, has any bearing on whether or not Christians ought to obey God’s moral law. We always ought to do so, which is why Paul says that those who love their neighbors will not kill, steal, commit adultery, etc. But that’s not the issue here. The issue is whether or not believers remain bound to the law as a covenant. The Ten Commandments are in play not because most (though not all!) of what they include happens to be part of the moral law, but because in scripture the Ten Commandments serve as short hand, or as representative, of the Mosaic Covenant as a whole. The Ten Commandments are the “words of the covenant” that has been made obsolete (Exodus 34:28; Hebrews 8).

Emphasizing the Ten Commandments too much not only leads Christians to think of the Christian life through a legal paradigm, rather than through the paradigm of conformity to Jesus (a major problem in itself, insofar as it communicates that the Christian life is about judgment rather than grace), but it can also give the impression that believers are bound by the Mosaic Law in general. That many are under this impression is evidenced by arguments Christians have over theonomy, Christendom, the sabbath, tithing, or the Torah’s prohibitions of things like tattoos.

John Calvin would not have agreed with everything I write here, but he certainly agreed that when Paul uses the word ‘law’ he refers to its legal force as a binding covenant that kills. Calvin distinguished between the “narrow” law, which he identified with Sinai and with the works principle of “do this and you shall live,” and the “broad” law, which he identified with the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace. The former, he suggested, is the ordinary use of Paul, while the latter is the ordinary use of the Old Testament in places like Psalm 119. Calvin also distinguished (sharply in practice; less so in rhetoric) between the moral law and the Ten Commandments, as evidenced by his rejection of the principle that Christians are bound to view one day in seven as a holy sabbath day. But I’ll take up Calvin’s views of the law in a future post.

The Christian Life Is About Following Jesus, Not the Law: Does Reformed Ethics Get This?

In the era that Christians describe as that of the Old Testament, faithful Jews came to know God in two primary ways. First, they meditated on the great works that God had done for the Hebrew people throughout their history, including most obviously the Exodus. As Psalm 111:2 exclaims, for example,

Great are the works of the LORD! Studied by all who delight in them.

Second, faithful Jews studied the law of God, with all of its precepts regarding worship and political life, mercy, justice and the demands of piety. As Psalm 119:97 declares, a psalm focused almost entirely on the law,

O how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.

After the coming of Jesus Christians still meditate on God’s works and on the law, of course, but for us knowing God takes somewhat of a different focus. For we know God not primarily through the law, or through what he did for the Hebrew people, but through the one who fulfilled both the law and the prophets, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ works are now our works, and define who we are. And we do not follow the old written code that kills, but the Spirit of Christ, who gives life (Romans 7:6; Cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6).

Unfortunately, the catechisms of the Reformation sometimes obscure this point because of their emphasis on the Ten Commandments as the primary teaching tool for righteous living according to God’s moral law. But the New Testament comes at the matter from a slightly different direction. Sit down and read your New Testament cover to cover and you will notice a consistent redirecting of Christians from the law to the one who fulfilled and satisfied it, not just with reference to justification and the forgiveness of sins, but with reference to sanctification and good works. To put it simply, the typical approach of Christian scripture when describing the Christian life is not to call believers to obey the law, but to urge them to “put on the new man,” to conform to the image of Christ by following him.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is the classic example of this approach, of course. After showing that believers are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14), Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… But put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:8, 14).

A more subtle, and therefore less appreciated, example of this approach is the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. There, after declaring that he constantly offers prayers of thanksgiving for the faith, hope, and love that he sees in the Colossian church, he declares that he also prays that they might grow in the knowledge of God by “walking in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10). How are they to imitate Jesus in this way? By being “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9).

The million dollar question, of course, is how Christians are to attain this knowledge of God’s will, this wisdom and understanding. And so often Christians instinctively assume that the source is simply the law. As I recently heard one Presbyterian pastor put it, the Christian life can be summed up in one word: law-keeping.

But this is misguided, and it is certainly not the point of Colossians 1. As Paul points out only a few sentences later, in Colossians 2:3, it is Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The Christian life consists in putting on the “new man” and so being “renewed in knowledge after the image of our creator” (3:10), who, of course, is Jesus (1:15-20). That’s why Christians are to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (3:1), rather than those things that are on earth, including the law with all its shadows.

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (2:16-17)

The great theme of Colossians is that because in Jesus “all things exist” (1:17), Christians are to find their identity and way of life in him and nowhere else. “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (2:6). That’s why Paul emphasizes the meaning of his ministry in just these words: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28).

We grow in the knowledge of God’s will, walking in a manner worthy of the Lord, in short, by focusing on Jesus.

It is the failure to emphasize this following of Jesus as the form and model of the Christian life, I worry, that is the greatest weakness of standard Reformed ethics. Look at a typical syllabus for a Reformed Christian ethics course, or a typical Reformed catechism, and the emphasis will fall almost entirely on the Ten Commandments. To be sure, Reformed theology has always been clear that we observe only the moral law as it is found in the Old Testament, not the law in general. And there is no contradiction between the moral law that is found in the Ten Commandments and the way of Jesus. All scripture is profitable for correction and instruction (2 Timothy 3:16), including the Old Testament law. There is a third use of the law. But that doesn’t give us the right to ignore the model and approach laid out for us in the New Testament, as if the fulfillment of the shadow in Christ meant that the shadow was somehow clearer than Christ himself (which is how many Reformed teachers seem to think, at least in practice).

Focusing too much on the Ten Commandments, or on other parts of the Old Testament law, has its costs. It was designed as a tutor or guardian for children, as Paul says in Galatians 3, and it is therefore insufficient for we who are “no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:26). The law described the way of God’s righteousness in shadows, emphasizing outward rules, prohibitions, and practices, all the while tolerating a significant degree of immaturity and “hardness of heart” (Matthew 19:8). But in Jesus we have the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), the one who embodied perfect love, justice, mercy, and truth. Because he alone has already taken the path we are called to follow, as the firstborn of many brothers, we can be confident that it is only when we take up our cross and follow him, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we too fulfill the law.

No, the Christian life cannot be summed up in terms of law-keeping. We are called Christians because our life is summed up, as the early Christians described it, as “the way” of Jesus Christ.

Christianity and the Free Market

In recent decades Christian theologians and ethicists have raised a host of objections against capitalism. From Gustavo Gutierrez’s Marxist-influenced liberation theology to John Milbank’s neoplatonic Christian socialism, the academic tendency is to blame the free market for the curses of individualism, greed, materialism, commercialism, and exploitation. Christianity is the religion that proclaims good news to the poor and woe to the rich, Gutierrez reminds us. And while the great theologians of the past wrestled with the implications of Christian teaching for just lending, fair prices, appropriate wages, and distributive justice, Milbank and others point out, today Christians too often simply resign themselves to the ruthlessness and impersonality of the market.

There is some truth to these claims, of course. Many Christians, especially American Christians, do seem to think that a laissez-faire government approach to economics, absolute property rights, and freedom of contract is pretty much all that Christianity has to say about political economy. And there certainly is a need for much greater self-criticism among Christians about our own infatuation with materialism, security, and the American dream. But if conservative Christians tend to err in the direction of selling out Christian theology in subservience to (classical) liberal economic and political theory, the theologians on the left are often guilty of erring in the opposite direction, ignoring economic reality in the name of theological purity.

The reality, of course, is that for all of the problems associated with free market capitalism, this economic system has lifted more people out of poverty – giving them at least the opportunity for a fuller human flourishing – than has any system of political redistribution or religious charity in the history of the world.

A few statistics about economic development help to tell the story. For most of history the vast majority of human beings have lived their lives at or below a very bare subsistence standard of living. In the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day, for instance, this was true of some 60% of the population. Over the many centuries of history up to the 19th, average economic growth ranged between 0.05% and 0.15%, while average life expectancy rarely exceeded 36 years. In 1820 average incomes in the world in contemporary U.S. dollars were about $1,050 (in Europe they were less than twice that, at $1,950).

Today, of course, virtually no one in the West experiences genuine poverty and average annual growth rates top 1.5%. General life expectancy hovers around 80 years and average income in the United States is around $43,200. More people may have escaped poverty in the last generation in India and China alone, due to those countries only half-hearted embrace of free market principles, than in the entirety of human history preceding.

What is the reason for such prosperity in the past two hundred years? In simple terms the answer is simply economic growth. As late as the 17th Century the idea that wealth can be expanded, that property and money are fundamentally productive, and that the earth has the capacity of supporting an ever increasing population at an ever rising standard of living was alien to the assumptions of theologians and men of the world alike. Material wealth was viewed as a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain was inevitably another person’s loss. The power, honor, prestige and citizenship of the few, philosophers from Aristotle to those of the antebellum American South assumed, depends on the labor of the many.

Free market capitalism changed the game entirely, unleashing the forces of productivity and trade by means of the division of labor, supply and demand, and competitive markets. New technology, largely spurred by economic forces, maximized the production and movement of goods and services to levels earlier generations would have consigned to fantasy or the miraculous. Longer lives, better education, and improved health have both resulted from and contributed to this progress. They have made possible political and cultural systems built on representation, equality, and freedom, all of which redirect their beneficiaries back into the system of economic growth and prosperity.

One would expect that the basic realities represented by this bare sketch of the data would temper the criticisms Christian theologians so often launch at free market capitalism. It is all fine and good to say that property is a post-fall institution, that human beings were made to have all things in common, and that economics based on self-interest or greed represent the way of the world rather than that of Christ. But if Christians are serious about walking in genuine love toward our neighbors, surely we can only do so by recognizing that the world is fallen, that we cannot yet live as we one day will in the kingdom of God, and that people should be motivated for their own sakes, if not for the sake of others, to live productive and responsible lives. To put it another way, if we are serious not simply about symbolically helping the poor, but about actually helping the poor, the success of the free market in the modern world, unimaginable only a few centuries ago, must bear some normative weight.

That does not mean we should abandon all Christian and moral reasoning about economics, which was the result of much of the laissez-faire economic thinking during the 1800s. The social teaching of the Catholic church since the late 19th Century is an excellent model here. The Catholic tradition embraces basic free market principles expressive of the values of human dignity and prosperity, while at the same time calling for the moderation of the free market via laws that protect the poor and the weak and uphold basic principles of justice and solidarity.

There is a way forward here, a path to consensus that would help to mitigate the political-economic polarization among thoughtful Christians, if not of American society generally. The left stresses its concern for the poor while the right stresses the liberty necessary for prosperity. But if the two actually go hand in hand, then so much of our political and economic conflict is off the mark. The free market may not always function perfectly, and it needs to be regulated and supplemented with basic social welfare, but it is nevertheless necessary and must be protected, both from corruption and from state manipulation, if the poor are to be helped. The question is, will we figure this out before it is too late?

What do Christians think marriage is really about?

Amid all the controversy over sex and marriage in the modern era, it is easy for conservatives and Christians to imagine that the church has always had it right, that if we could only get to a past era of godliness and morality, following the light of the Christian tradition, or the example of the saints in Scripture, all would be well. Skeptics have no trouble pointing to the flaws in this view. So many of the heroes of Scripture – Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and many more – were polygamists. The Torah seems to have tolerated polygamy in the same way that it tolerated divorce.

And what of the Christian tradition? Consider the views of the greatest early church father Augustine:

Conjugal intercourse for the sake of procreation carries no fault; intercourse for the sake of satisfying lust, provided that it takes place with a spouse, carries a forgivable fault (venialis culpa) because of marital fidelity; but adultery or fornication carries a mortal fault. Therefore, abstention from all intercourse is better even than marital intercourse that takes place for the sake of procreation.

So writes Augustine in his treatise The Good of Marriage, which he wrote around 410. For Augustine there is a hierarchy of virtues and vices when it comes to human sexuality.

  1. Perfect Virtue – celibacy
  2. No Fault – sex within marriage for the purpose of procreation
  3. Venial Fault – sex within marriage for the purpose of satisfying sexual desire
  4. Mortal Fault – sex outside of marriage

As bizarre as it may seem to most Protestants today, this view of marriage was not out of the ordinary in Augustine’s day, particularly for an intellectual or a philosopher. Sexual desire was viewed by Platonists and Stoics alike as a form of enslavement to the passions of the body, which rational human beings seek to transcend. The early church widely identified the passion of sexual desire with original sin, or concupiscence. Augustine speaks for that tradition when he insists that sex is only fully virtuous when the sexual partners view themselves first and foremost as parents rather than as passionate lovers, sex being a problematic means to a laudable end. Augustine stresses with absolute clarity that sex for the purpose of satisfying sexual desire is not permitted per se. It is simply forgivable.

In fact, Augustine’s view of sexuality powerfully shaped the medieval church (its influence is still obvious, if diminished, even in John Calvin) and to a significant extent that of the Roman Catholic Church to this day. The path of perfect virtue, for Rome, and the path that all priests must take, is that of celibacy. Married partners who engage in sex without being open to the possibility of procreation fall into sin – hence the ban on artificial birth control.

Augustine’s view of polygamy in the Old Testament makes his understanding of marriage seem all the more bizarre. For while Augustine believed celibacy is the way of perfect godliness after the incarnation of Christ, he insists that in Old Testament times procreation was an obligation of such importance that polygamy itself was legitimate, so long as it was engaged in for the purpose of procreation. Why? Because all of God’s promises of salvation for his people, and of blessing for the human race, were tied up in the propagation of a godly seed.

Among the ancient fathers, of course, it was permissible to take another woman, with the permission of one’s wife, and to produce children that were shared in common, the husband providing the seed and the intercourse, the wife providing the right and authorization. Whether this is also permitted in our own day I would not be so rash as to say. For today there is not the same need of procreation that there was in the past. In those days it was even permissible for husbands who could have children to take other wives in order to produce more numerous progeny, which is something that is certainly not allowed today.

One of the consequences of the church’s classic obsession with procreation as the only perfect justification of sex has been that it didn’t seem difficult at all to demonstrate why homosexuality is sinful. Sexual desire itself was suspect. How much more sexual desire entirely removed from its one legitimate purpose?

Since at least the Victorian era, however, the West has embraced romantic love as the perfect form and expression of sexuality, with procreation falling to the side as a possible – though by no means necessary, and often inconvenient or feared – byproduct. The result, as we all know, is that sexual fulfillment has become its own virtue, more important than marriage (hence adultery, no-fault divorce, fornication, and cohabitation) or potential obligations to the human beings who receive life from it (hence abortion-on-demand).

Catholics will point out that Protestants themselves have exacerbated these trends through their over-eagerness to distance themselves from classic Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. It is probably more accurate to say that Protestants fell into a form of biblicism that led them to abandon natural law, reason, and careful reflection on why what the Bible says about sex and marriage is true. For liberal Protestants this meant that the collapse of biblical authority opened the floodgates to the modern infatuation with sexual autonomy. For conservative Protestants it has led to a stand for traditional marriage that is more tenacious and rigid than ever before – but all too often lacking in the thoughtfulness and wisdom that would make it persuasive to outsiders. God says marriage is between a man and a woman. We shouldn’t question why. Just obey.

Scripture, of course, offers the sort of reflective guidance that could have spared the early and medieval church from its troubling denigration of sexuality, which owed more to Greek philosophy than to the teachings of Jesus or Paul. It also offers sufficient guidance to spare the modern liberal church from the increasingly accepted alternative – affirmation of whatever sexual relationships seem mutual and loving.

Jesus and Paul both pointed their hearers not to the bare, isolated commands of Scripture, removed from their context (a tactic too often followed by all three groups identified above), but to the norms of creation as revealed in Genesis 1-2. Thus Jesus overturns Deuteronomy’s permissive approach to divorce by declaring that Moses permitted this “because of your hardness of heart,” but “in the beginning it was not so”:

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? (Matthew 19:4-5; Cf. 19:1-12)

Paul likewise characterizes marriage as something more than simply a means for procreation by appealing to the same text in Genesis. Marriage, he says, is a mysterious (sacramental!) representation of the complementary love between Jesus and his church, expressed in the complementarity of the male-female sexual bond.

‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32; Cf. 5:22-33)

What is striking about both of these prominent examples is that they emphasize the unconditional, comprehensive, and complementary nature of marriage without reducing the purpose of that unconditionality, comprehensiveness, or complementarity, to procreation. God made them male and female in the beginning because “it is not good for man to be alone,” and a woman serves as a breathtakingly satisfying partner in part because even as she is so similar (unlike the animals), she is also so happily different! Moderns detect here the misogyny and exploitation of women that has characterized millennia gone by, but the text is clear that the woman was created to be an equal helper (the Hebrew word for ‘helper’ is often used in Scripture to describe God), and that both the desire for domination and coercive rule represent the curse of the fall:

To the woman he said … Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)

To be sure, procreation is one of the two important tasks given to human beings, created in the image of God as male and female. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth …” But the other important task, to be equally fulfilled by male and female working together, is to “subdue it [the earth] and have dominion.” (Genesis 1:28) Needless to say, this is not exactly the picture of the late Victorian nuclear family with its separation of spheres, though we do see such a potential separation in the proclamation of the curse due to sin (Genesis 3:16-19).

The point here is not to debate gender roles or the expression they have taken at various points in American history. The point, rather, is to demonstrate that the story of marriage to which both Jesus and Paul point Christians is a story that affirms the comprehensive, unconditional, complementary sexual bond not simply for the purpose of procreation, but for the purposes of solidarity in work and cooperation in life, as well, presumably, as companionship.

What this tells us is not that the non-procreative purposes ought to be used to leverage a view of marriage that abandons its foundation in gender difference. What it tells us, rather, is that gender difference, unconditional love, and comprehensive commitment serve fundamental purposes far beyond simply the biology of procreation. The most lofty of these reasons is that the unique bond of male and female, expressed in sex, life, and work, beautifully portrays the love between God and his people, between Christ and the church. Even more mundane, if less distinctly Christian, is that this bond is central to human flourishing, or to the good life, both of individuals and of society. If marriage is, as Aristotle says, the first human institution, it is because it brings men and women together in wholehearted solidarity and mutual support in all the endeavors and trials of life, bonding them through the mutual satisfaction of sexual desire as well as the procreation and loving nurture of children.

That’s not to say there aren’t other social bonds that can’t be equally deep (i.e., same-gender friendship) or even more important (i.e., the church). It does suggest that marriage is something worth defending.

What Can the Church Learn From Gay Christians?

Amid all the political, legal, cultural and theological controversy over same-sex marriage, it is easy for both ‘sides’ in the debate to assume that they fully understand the nefarious motivations and character of their opponents. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s dismissal of those who advocated and enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as being motivated by mere animus towards gay and lesbian couples surely represents one of the lowest moments in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. But however irrelevant it should have been to the case before the Court, conservatives, including conservative Christians, have often enough written off all gay rights advocates, not to mention gays and lesbians themselves, as little more than unmitigated evil.

These sorts of assumptions fall apart when men and women committed to homosexuality as a way of life argue vehemently against same-sex marriage on the basis that human sexual preferences and activities should not require such bourgeois or ‘Christian’ affirmation, or that marriage should, in fact, be an institution geared towards the procreation and raising of children. They are equally undone when Christians, such as the authors of What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, indicate their support for civil unions, or when libertarians, who view homosexuality as morally inappropriate, nevertheless believe that the state has no business restricting civil marriage to heterosexual couples.

Needless to say, these debates are a lot more complicated than the media, or Justice Anthony Kennedy, would have us believe.

But the issue of homosexuality is more complicated in another sense as well. Most people assume that virtually all gay and lesbian people affirm homosexuality as a way of life, but this is hardly the case. Martin Hallett, a homosexual Christian who leads a ministry to gays and lesbians in the United Kingdom, writes, “There are probably nearly as many Christians with homosexual feelings who do not believe that homosexual sex is right for Christians as there are those who are advocating its acceptance.”

One such Christian is Wesley Hill, a New Testament scholar and professor at Trinity School for Ministry. I just finished reading Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. It’s short, simple, and substantially anecdotal (though also quite theological), but it has to be one of the most helpful books I’ve read this year. Any Christian who wants to be humbled and challenged in her sanctification should read this book. Anyone who wants to know what it means to be a Christian who has never known anything other than a homosexual orientation, and yet who yearns faithfully to follow Christ and therefore abstain from homosexual practice, must read this book.

Hill notes that he wrote the book (while a graduate student) because after years of searching he came to realize that no one was writing about homosexuality in a way that actually comes to grips with the experience and pain of homosexual Christians. As he puts it,

My story is very different from other stories told by people wearing the same designation – ‘homosexual Christian’ – that I wear. Many in the church – more so in the mainline denominations than the evangelical ones, though that could soon change – tell stories of ‘homosexual holiness.’ The authors of these narratives profess a deep faith in Christ and claim a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit precisely in and through their homosexual practice. According to these Christians, their homosexuality is an expression of holiness, a symbol and conduit of God’s grace in their lives. My own story, by contrast, is a story of feeling spiritually hindered rather than helped by my homosexuality. Another way to say it would be to observe that my story testifies to the truth of the position the Christian church has held with almost total unanimity throughout the centuries – namely, that homosexuality was not God’s original creative intention for humanity, that it is, on the contrary, a tragic sign of human nature and relationships being fractured by sin, and therefore that homosexual practice goes against God’s express will for all human beings, especially those who trust in Christ.

Thus far conservative Christians will track with Hill all the way. But what he goes on to say next, and the way he goes on to flesh it out in the rest of the book, is no happy-go-lucky story of transformation. On the contrary, Hill notes, he has never experienced a decisive change of his sexual orientation. He has never felt sexually attracted to women, and he has always struggled with his desires for a sexual relationship with men. His story has been one of loneliness, pain, and suffering. His path has been that of celibacy. His hope has been that he is forgiven, and that his wait for complete transformation will one day be realized in the resurrection of the dead.

But what of his life as a gay Christian in the meantime? Hill is careful to use the words ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ as adjectives, not as nouns. His identity, he insists, is as a Christian, albeit one who struggles with homosexual desires. Yet Hill emotionally but carefully describes the very real agony and loneliness of his walk with Christ. Human beings were made to experience love, fellowship, and sexual union with other human beings, he reminds us. And although it is ultimately God who satisfies us in Christ Jesus, in the present age the ache remains, our bodies groaning for their redemption. Why? Hill describes how one of his professors put it, with reference to a hypothetical counseling session for a lesbian:

God is the one who created humans to want and need relationships, to crave human companionship, to want to be desired by other humans. God doesn’t want anyone to try to redirect their desire for community to himself. God is spirit. Instead, I think God wants people to experience his love through their experience of human community – specifically, the church. God created us as physical-spiritual beings with deep longings for intimacy with other physical-spiritual beings. We’re not meant to replace these longings with anything. We’re meant to sanctify them….

The problem with your lesbian desires is not that you’re desperately craving human love … The problem is that your good desire for human love is bent, broken.

For many Christians the most intense, intimate way in which they experience this sort of communion with another person is through marriage. But what of our brothers and sisters who have no such option? This is not merely the case of those who are homosexual in their desires, but for those who long to be married but for whatever reason cannot be. It is also the case for those who are married, but whose marriage has fallen apart due to conflict, apathy, or infidelity. In every one of these cases the only appropriate Christian response is that of celibacy, of taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus.

Far too often, I fear, Christians portray marriage as if it were the epitome of human existence. This is, of course, a modern phenomena, rooted in our culture’s infatuation with romantic love and sexuality. Go back a couple hundred years and you will find that marriage was more about social responsibilities and commitments, the procreation and raising of children, than about romantic love. Love was supposed to be a part of the equation, of course, and it has always been an obligation for all Christian spouses.

But as early as the 19th Century, during the Victorian era, Americans came to conceive of human sexual love as the transcendent human experience, the most satisfying thing for which one can live. Here indeed, as astute cultural observers were aware at the time, the glory of God and fellowship with Christ were already being shoved aside from the prominent place they had long held within Christendom. Romantic love and a satisfied sexuality became the great idol of modernity, and as such, it gradually changed the way most people thought about marriage. Here, not in the 1960s, are the roots of the modern conception of marriage, according to which same-sex marriage makes sense.

Has the church exacerbated this form of idolatry? Far more, I suspect, than we realize. In the New Testament, as Hill points out, the most important place for love and fellowship is not marriage, but the church. Paul wished that all would be as he were, a celibate Christian devoted to the kingdom of God, and he acknowledged that marriage would be appropriate for most people only as a concession (1 Corinthians 7). But the Christian who is married is to live as if he were not (1 Corinthians 7), and the most important identity and sense of belonging for the Christian is to be the body of Christ. Paul’s most eloquent words about love (1 Corinthians 13) therefore appear in his discussion about the church, not in the context of marriage. As Hill puts it, again quoting a friend:

[E]ven when agape love is discussed in the marital context of Ephesians 5, it is sacrificial love that is the model for marital love – not the other way around. Marriage is a venue for expressing love, which in its purest form exists, first and foremost, outside of it. The greatest joys and experiences God has for us are not found in marriage, for if they were, surely God would not do away with marriage in heaven.

Perhaps, then, gay Christians like Wesley Hill actually have something important to teach us. Indeed, I found this book to be powerfully humbling. It is so easy for most of us to get caught up in our families, our marriages, and our vocations, mistaking the American dream for the service of Christ. Yet people like Wesley Hill remind us that this is, in fact, not the most important thing. They also make it eminently clear that the way of Christ is the way of suffering and self-denial, no matter how often we try to turn it into something else.

If no part of the body has the right to say to another, “I have no need of you,” surely this means that we need to take the witness of these fellow Christian pilgrims, whose cross is so much more difficult to bear than is our own, much more seriously. Yet how often are we simply obsessed with our own lives, leaving those who depend on the body of Christ simply to keep their heads above the water, essentially to fend for themselves? If gay Christians serve to show us our own idolatry, it remains the case that our brothers and sisters who struggle with homosexuality cannot persevere unless we come alongside them and share their burdens. We need to be for them who we are – the body of Christ.

As Jesus said, “whatever you do for the least of these my brothers, you do it for me.”

Celebrating the Fourth of July: Revolution in Egypt

It’s the Fourth of July, and millions of Americans will spend the day at picnics, parties, and parades, all to be capped off with impressive displays of fireworks around the country. Most of them probably don’t know all that much about what happened on this date 237 years ago, but they do know that our colonial forefathers not only declared their independence, but successfully overthrew their British rulers in the most successful revolution in world history.

Despite the many problems America has experienced over the years, and the daunting legal, economic, social, and political crises we face today, the experiment has succeeded beyond any of the founding fathers’ wildest dreams.

Americans often use their liberty for destructive and immoral ends; but few of us would trade that liberty because it also allows us to worship as our conscience dictates, to build and provide for our families, and to pursue meaningful vocations and careers.

Americans often turn equality into a perniciously destructive force, overthrowing the very distinctions that make human life together possible; but few of us would trade that equality because it is the foundation for our basic dignity and security, the ideal that assures us that no one is going to enslave us, confiscate our property, or prevent us from saying whatever it is that we feel the need to say.

Americans have managed democracy and self-government in shockingly short-sighted, foolish, and misguided ways; but few of us would trade liberal democracy for a king or for the rule of experts. We are, when it is all said and done, doing surprisingly well. Most of us would rather live in this time and place than in any other, and a good portion of those who argue otherwise don’t really mean it.

This country is freer, safer, stronger, and more prosperous than any country in the history of the world, and by no means should we take that for granted.

If you’re in doubt about that, read this morning’s news. While we look back to our successful revolution more than two centuries ago, Egyptians – whose nation is the bellwether for the entire Arab world – wake up to find their revolution of last year – which resulted in the first democratically elected government in Egypt’s history – toppled in counter-revolution. The Arab Spring, which filled western democrats and Muslim Islamists alike with such hope, continues to slide into chaos. We are assured by the Egyptian military that there will be fair elections and democracy will be maintained. But who will be able to govern? And who will be able to solve the economic and social problems that President Morsi’s government was not able to solve? What leader can possibly maintain democratic legitimacy if his power is grounded in the military overthrow of the previous democratically elected leader?

Americans love to get excited about revolution and democracy. It’s in our blood. The explicitly stated foreign policy of the last two administrations has been to export democracy and freedom around the world. Whenever we see a foreign people overthrow tyranny, our heart goes out to them. But it is easy for us to forget that far more often than not, revolution and rebellion ends in failure, chaos, or worse. For every American Revolution there is the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, both of which culminated in mass murder, totalitarianism, and international conflict. Even as I write, revolution and internal conflict rips apart countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, in all of which America has a hand. What’s more, much as we Americans would not trade our liberty and equality, the citizens of those countries would give much for a modicum of order and security. Look further around the globe and you will find the vast majority of men, women, and children living without political voice, religious liberty, or freedom of movement and association at best, while experiencing massive inequality, economic hopelessness, poverty, and war at worst.

It turns out then, that for all of our problems, and for all of the ‘culture wars’ that divide us as Americans, to live in a country that was birthed in revolution, that is free, equal, safe, powerful, and prosperous – and all at the same time – is a rare privilege indeed.

Happy Independence Day.

Do Men Necessarily Lust? Christianity Today’s Response to Jessica Rey

Jessica Rey’s “Evolution of the Swimsuit” video has been making its rounds on the Internet over the past couple weeks. It is an interesting video, worth watching if you have the time and are a woman, a husband, a father of daughters, or otherwise interested in the subject. I’m loath to write more on the modesty issue at this point (see here and here), but a piece of data Rey summarized – and the way she used it – caught my attention. Towards the end of the video, describing a neurological study of the male brain (the participants were Princeton University students), Rey states the following:

Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tools, such as screw drivers and hammers, lit up. Some men showed zero brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

Rey’s argument was that since science shows that men respond to a woman in a bikini by viewing her as an object, women should not wear bikinis. The point, she argued, is not that the female body is problematic, but that a woman should dress in a way that graces her body with dignity and honor.

The latter point is, of course, true. And what follows is not a defense of the bikini, let alone a suggestion that women should wear bikinis. That question is a distraction from the real issues.

Two things bothered me about Rey’s presentation. First, I worry about the assumption that a woman’s dignity somehow depends on how she is viewed by a sexually charged male college student. Somehow I doubt that your average Princeton male would view women any less differently if they all suddenly started wearing one-piece swimsuits to the beach. As Christianity Today blogger Caryn Rivadeneira puts it,

Those who are “worried” about the male reaction to the female form need to remember that men will still find women in conservative, one-piece, adorable Jessica Rey swimsuits sexy, while not every woman in a bikini will be a turn-on. There’s no hard-and-fast-rule for how we guard our beach bods from the male gaze. And I’m not sure there should be.

As I’ve said before, one person will always find a “more modest” approach than the next. There’s a whole spectrum of opinions and positions out there, and imagining that we can find a place from which to be dogmatic merely introduces the ugly specter of legalism. This promotes just the sort of self-righteous moralism that inevitably obscures the gospel and alienates the kind of outsiders to whom we should be most sympathetic and who most desperately need our love and respect as they are.

More importantly, however, I found highly problematic Rey’s assumption that men are mere machines, unable to control the response of their brains to scantily clad women. Just as a woman is not a mere object, so a man is not a mere machine. The response of the brain to a particular image is not innate, but shaped by a person’s culture, context, and character. In an excellent set of responses to Rey’s video on Christianity Today’s her.meneutics blog, Sharon Hodde Miller writes of the study Rey cites,

These findings are significant, but they also beg an important question: Why do men perceive women’s bodies this way? Scientific findings show that the brain is essentially plastic. It can be shaped and formed and changed by our environments. This means that not all neurological responses are hardwired. Some are conditioned.

In the case of women’s bodies, it’s very possible that men have been conditioned by culture to have a Pavlovian response. Just as dogs grew conditioned to be stimulated by the ring of a bell, our culture has trained men to respond in certain ways to the sight of a female body. This conditioning becomes most apparent in comparison with non-Western cultures, where modesty standards differ….

Undoubtedly, Rey brought attention to important data. When men associate the female body with objects, not just theoretically but neurologically, we can be sure that our culture is sick. However, additional neurological research points to a societal dysfunction that runs far deeper than bikinis. When men associate the imago dei in women with an inanimate tool, then a more comprehensive restoration is in order, one that promotes theological correction, cultural healing, and renewed vision. To this end, we need to dig a bit deeper.

This is exactly right. I worry very much that in our obsession with what other people wear and what other people do, many Christians are entirely missing the fact that a gospel-centered, Christ-centered life is rooted in the virtues of the heart. Out of the heart come lust and sexual immorality, Jesus taught us, and it is the heart that must be changed.

Rey’s study certainly shows us that Christians should be counter-cultural. But the appropriate way to be counter-cultural is not to insist on a set of abstract, outward rules and regulations to which Christians conform, making them “different” from the world in a variety of arbitrary ways (let alone to shift men’s burdens to women, enforcing arbitrary restrictions on their dress that inevitably communicate their denigration rather than affirmation). The appropriate way to be counter-cultural is to conform, as a body of believers, to a new humanity (Jesus), characterized by new virtues (such as love, patience, self-control). Our starting point cannot be that since males lust after women as a matter of scientific fact, women must buck up and cover up or they are guilty of “causing” their male counterparts to sin. Our starting point, rather, must be that all human beings are created bodily in the image of God, and that in place of the temptation to lust after and use one another as objects, we need to learn to delight in and respect one another as embodied persons.

That’s why the New Testament does not give us a dress code, no matter how hard some conservatives try to find one in its pages. You’d be better off searching the rabbinic code of the Pharisees. The New Testament, in contrast, calls us not to attract attention to outward appearance with all sorts of adornment and apparel, but to focus on doing the sort of good works that reflect the virtues to which we are called (i.e., modesty) (1 Timothy 2:9-10). That’s why Paul, rather than commanding people to cover up and avoid interaction, writes,

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5)

What’s at stake in all of this is the gospel. Pluralism and secularization, with all the sins that come attached to them, are hitting the church like a tsunami right now. Conservative Christians are clinging to the instincts and intuitions they know best, seeking to justify them from Scripture, yet without necessarily letting Scripture shape their attitudes and practices. The danger of a new wave of inward-looking legalism is very real.

The only solution is to remember that the whole point of the Christian life is to conform to the image of Jesus, putting on the virtues of this new man and turning in service and self-sacrifice to our neighbors. Our actions and practices should prompt others to ask us for a reason for the hope that is within us. But when the world sees our fearful, defensive churches, will they see Pharisees, or will they see the Savior who was associated with prostitutes and sinners?

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