Author Archives: Matthew J. Tuininga
The Westminster shorter catechism famously begins with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” Its answer is pithy and to the point: “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” My parents taught me this truth when they told me that I could do whatever I wanted in life, just so long as I did it for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:13).
This concern for the glory of God lay at the heart of the Reformation. To be sure, the Roman church did not deny the principle of Soli Deo Gloria in any explicit sense. But its teachings often undermined the principle in practice by shifting Christians’ attention away from the sovereign grace of God given in Christ toward all manner of human efforts at securing or mediating salvation.
For example, the church encouraged believers to pray to saints rather than directly to God in time of need. It called them to seek salvation through acts of penitence, pilgrimage, or patronage, or through participation in the sacraments of the church, rather than by trusting in the cross of Christ. And it insisted that sinners could prepare themselves to receive God’s grace and had to cooperate with that grace if it were to be effective in their lives. On top of all that, the Roman church claimed for the papacy and the church hierarchy a glory that should have been reserved for Christ himself.
The net effect of all of this was to rob God of the sole credit and glory for salvation. It was to distract human beings from the God on whom we depend for every good thing.
To be sure, the reformers recognized that Jesus shares his glory with believers by inviting us into the Trinitarian communion of love (John 17:22-24). Indeed, they affirmed, the whole creation will be brought into the liberty and glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). And those whom God justifies and sanctifies, he also glorifies (Romans 8:30).
Still, they insisted that because all of this is God’s work, from start to finish, they insisted that all the glory for it ultimately belongs to God, from start to finish. As the Apostle Paul memorably concluded, “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:35-36).
We live in a time when men and women believe their ultimate duty is to be true to themselves above all as they seek happiness and fulfillment in life. Indeed, a body no less august than the Supreme Court of the United States has declared a person’s right to determine ultimate meaning for him or herself a most basic and inalienable human right. Never has God’s claim to glory been more suspect in the eyes of his own creatures.
And yet, the more we trumpet our own inviolable dignity and glory as human beings, the more we struggle to explain where that dignity and glory comes from in the first place, or why it even matters. Though science gives us greater and greater knowledge of the glory of creation, we neither glorify God nor give him thanks (Romans 1:21). We continue to exchange the glory of the immortal God for idols of our own making.
Still, as has always been the case, our sin merely serves to advance God’s glory as our judge and as our savior (Romans 3:7; 10:22-23). And it does so in mind-boggling fashion. As Jesus taught his confused disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds… And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:23-24, 32).
God’s character is most clearly revealed – and his glory must be most clearly proclaimed by the church – in the willingness of his son to set his glory aside in order to become a suffering servant on our behalf, even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:9-11). In the final analysis, the glory of God redounds to our benefit and then back to him, as Paul reminded the Corinthians, “so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15).
This article originally appeared in The Forum, the faculty publication of Calvin Theological Seminary, as part of an issue devoted to the five solas of the Reformation. The articles on the other solas are written by Jeff Weima, John Cooper, Karin Maag, and Lyle Bierma, and can be found here.
It just so happens that as Congress considers dismantling Medicaid as we know it – as well as an end to the law that requires health insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions – I am preparing to explore the theme of “Good News for the Poor” with my seminary ethics class. One of the things I do with my students is to walk through the New Testament to show them just how continuously and emphatically Christ and the apostles call Christians to take responsibility for the poor. Care for the poor is so central to the kingdom and its justice that it became the basis for an entire office of the church: the diaconate.
I also point my students to the history of theological reflection on poverty in the Christian tradition. In particular, we discuss the general Christian consensus that God gave the earth and its resources to human beings in common and that property rights are always subject to the rights of all human beings to the basic resources necessary for life.
Thus the church father Ambrose argued that the possessions of the church belong to the poor. Thomas Aquinas argued that it is not theft when a starving person takes what she needs from a rich person because every person has a right to have her basic needs met. And John Calvin argued that those who do not share with the poor when they are in need are guilty of theft – and potentially of murder. Basic provisions are not owed to the poor as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice. Indeed, Calvin regularly stated that the poor have a “right” to such resources.
That’s why Calvin took the work of Geneva’s General Hospital so seriously. He believed it was the responsibility of government to provide funds for poor relief and medical care, and that it was the responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate.
I’ve written a fair bit on Calvin’s views of poor relief, here on my blog (including on Calvin’s view of the distinct responsibility of government with respect to the poor), for the Gospel Coalition, and for the Calvin Theological Journal.
I realize that Christians differ on just how it is that government should most effectively secure justice for the poor – whether with respect to poverty in general or health care in particular. Neither the church nor its clergy have any authority – let alone expertise – to dictate health care policy to the state. But where I think Christians ought not disagree is that we owe the poor their rights – to basic sustenance and to basic health care – as a matter of justice.
That’s why, for instance, the catechisms of the Reformation (Heidelberg, Westminster) declare that the commandments You shall not murder and You shall not steal require us to care for the needs of the poor. To put it in classic theological terms, it is a requirement of the moral law of God. It is part of the natural law written on our hearts as image-bearers. We are, scripture teaches us, our brothers’ keepers.
If we believe that failing to secure the poor their rights constitutes theft – or even murder – then it goes without saying that it is well within the responsibility of government to protect the poor from such injustice. Indeed, if government can be best evaluated based on how well it protects the poor from injustice – as Calvin thought – than how proposed health laws will affect the poor should be the primary concern of legislators and citizens alike.
Whatever conclusions we come to with respect to particular policy approaches (and we should be humble here), we should be agreed that health care for the poor is not merely a matter of charity. It is a matter of justice. Our representatives should know that this is where the Christian tradition stands.
The gospel always leads to righteousness. Grace always leads to life. Having been reconciled to God by Jesus’ death, we are enabled to practice love, justice, mercy and peace through the indestructible power of his life.
Grace that fails to produce such righteousness is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It rests on the illusion that grace involves endless affirmation and endless forgiveness. It conflates salvation with justification, the gospel with the forgiveness of sins. It seems loving to us, but it expresses the easy kind of love that costs us nothing. It proclaims the comfort of the gospel but robs it of its power to give life.
Christians often counter the danger of cheap grace by emphasizing that, having been saved through Christ, we are now called to demonstrate our gratitude to God by obeying his law. Yet emphasizing a return to the law merely distorts our understanding of the Christian life. It tempts us to view our practice of righteousness merely as a response to the gospel, rather than as the working of the gospel itself in our lives. It turns the practice of righteousness into a burden, an endless debt of gratitude that we can never possibly repay.
Just as dangerous, emphasizing a return to the law inevitably leads us to associate Christian discipleship with judgment and fear rather than with liberty and life. Confusing the call to righteousness with the demands of the law, we once again come face to face with its pronouncement of death. We become ashamed of our inevitable failures before one another. We bristle against those who would seek to keep us accountable. We resist the rigor of discipleship because we fear that it will rob us of the peace of God’s grace.
In these ways we lose sight of power of grace. We forget that by walking in the power of the Spirit, as hard and difficult as it is, we are walking the path of “life to the full” (John 10:10). We forget that while the way of sin and injustice is the way of slavery and death – even now, even during this life – the way of the Spirit is the way of liberty and life – even now, even this side of Christ’s return.
In short, we lose sight of just how much we are missing when we ignore the gospel’s active power to change and heal us, and so cease spurring one another to pursue the fullness of life in Christ with every fiber of our being.
The apostle Paul felt a tremendous burden to communicate this truth about the life-giving power of the gospel. Christ has not merely justified us by saving us from the wrath of God, he insisted. Rather, he has given us the gift of righteousness in order that we might “reign in life” (Romans 5:17). God raised Jesus from the dead in order that “we too may live a new life,” even now, even this side of the resurrection (6:4).
“Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” (6:15) That is the temptation of cheap grace. It is the call always to affirm a person, regardless of how miserable she might be in her way of life. It is a curtailed gospel, a gospel robbed of the power to grant life. It is well-intentioned, to be sure. It balks at calling a person to walk the hard path of discipleship because it fears that such a call will be heard as one of judgment and death.
And yet, Paul shows us, what calls us to the hard path of discipleship is not the law, but grace. It is not death, but life. After all, no benefit accrues to a person who continues to live in slavery to sin and its desires. “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” (6:21) Or as he puts it later, “The mind governed by the flesh is death” (8:6).
What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is not merely that God affirms them, regardless of their sin. What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is that God empowers them toward life in the Spirit. They need to know that the church will bear their burden with them as they walk this path.
There are far too many people in the church who “have a form of godliness but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). There are far too many who through their teaching “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4). We need to recover our confidence in the gospel’s truth that “if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness” (8:6, 9-10).
To be sure, we welcome all who confess their sins in a spirit of repentance, no matter what the sin. We celebrate the power of forgiveness even when it has already been granted seventy-times-seven (Matthew 18). We never give up on anyone.
But we remain the body of those who confess that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). At its core, our faith is in one whose life was so powerful that not even death could contain it. The good news is not only that we have been forgiven. It is that we are being changed.
And so, as sinful we remain, as much as we have to confess our sins and repent again every week, even every day, we do so in a spirit of hope. As much as the Christian life is inevitably a life of suffering and self-denial, we take up our cross and follow our Lord because his is the way of life. As Paul put it,
“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, … the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs … if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (8:14-17).
Announcing My Forthcoming Book: Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church (Cambridge University Press)
I’m excited to announce that my book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms, will final be released next month. You can pre-order it at amazon.com, though it may currently be less expensive if you purchase directly through Cambridge University Press. The book is part of Cambridge’s series of titles on Law and Christianity, edited by John Witte, Jr.
I’m grateful for the following endorsements from scholars who I greatly admire:
Nicholas Wolterstorff – Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, Yale University:
It’s a superb piece of work, an important contribution and lucidly written. My guess is that this will become the gold standard in the field. Tuininga’s line of interpretation will be much discussed.
Barbara Pitkin – Religious Studies Senior Lecturer, Stanford University, and President of the Calvin Studies Society:
This is an outstanding piece of intellectual-historical scholarship. It will appeal to historians of medieval and early modern political thought regardless of their personal faith or political commitments.
Michael Horton – J. G. Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California:
Lionized as a founder of modern liberalism and demonized as ‘the tyrant of Geneva,’ Calvin has been used more than understood. Placing the reformer in his own context, Tuininga exegetes primary sources while challenging anachronistic stereotypes. In the process, we meet a complex figure who offers important and relevant insights for Christian political reflection, even in – perhaps ironically, especially in – a secular age very different from his own.
David Little – Berkley Center of Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University, Washington, DC:
Tuininga’s account of Calvin’s thought is original, lucid, well-informed, and timely. It is based on a firm grasp of the primary materials, a comprehensive familiarity with the relevant scholarship, and a challenging interpretation of Calvin’s political theology with important contemporary relevance.
Elsie McKee – Archibald Alexander Professor of Reformation Studies and the History of Worship, Princeton Theological Seminary:
Tuininga’s thoughtful and cogent examination of Calvin’s two kingdom doctrine turns on one of the perceptive distinctions which make the reformer’s thought such a complex yet coherent expression of Biblical commitment joined with practical intelligence. Tuininga appropriately points to the often neglected eschatological dimension of Calvin’s thought to ground the way the reformer clearly distinguishes ecclesiastical and civil while also clearly affirming that Christ is Lord of both – ruling each in specific and distinct ways. The study focuses on the development of the teaching in its historical and religious context, providing a well-organized exposition of the interplay of scriptural exegesis with Calvin’s affirmation of the gift of natural law in the human realm. Tuininga then draws some very timely conclusions about the resources Calvin’s theology can offer for faithful Christian engagement in the modern pluralist world.
John L. Thompson – Professor of Historical Theology and Gaylen and Susan Byker Professor of Reformed Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary:
Tuininga’s book is exemplary and informative not only for its rich display of Calvin’s own thought but also for its serious engagement with the most important political theologians of our own day. His painstaking examination of Calvin exposes many longstanding generalizations and replaces them with a Calvin who is at once more nuanced, more contextualized, and even more compatible with political liberalism than usually supposed — a Calvin who displays remarkable currency for us today, especially when we see the poignancy and depth of Calvin’s concern for refugees and the poor.
David VanDrunen – Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, Westminster Seminary California:
Tuininga provides a clear and thorough account of John Calvin’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, a topic much in need of such a study. The author’s careful reading of Calvin’s texts and thoughtful consideration of his context makes this a landmark work amidst the ample literature on the Genevan Reformer’s political thought. As much as this book contributes to our understanding of Calvin as a historical figure, however, its most important contribution may be its argument that Calvin’s two-kingdoms doctrine provides theological reason for contemporary Christians to support liberal democracy, at a time when many inside and outside the church question its viability. Christians who wish to think deeply about their political identity and responsibilities will find this a richly rewarding work.
And, finally, here is a brief description of the book:
In Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Matthew J. Tuininga explores a little appreciated dimension of John Calvin’s political thought, his two kingdoms theology, as a model for constructive Christian participation in liberal society. Widely misunderstood as a proto-political culture warrior, due in part to his often misinterpreted role in controversies over predestination and the heretic Servetus, Calvin articulated a thoughtful approach to public life rooted in his understanding of the gospel and its teaching concerning the kingdom of God. He staked his ministry in Geneva on his commitment to keeping the church distinct from the state, abandoning simplistic approaches that placed one above the other, while rejecting the temptations of sectarianism or separatism. This revealing analysis of Calvin’s vision offers timely guidance for Christians seeking a mode of faithful, respectful public engagement in democratic, pluralistic communities today.
If I might say it myself, this book would make a perfect Valentine’s Day gift for that special person near and dear to your heart. It might not seem like the most romantic gift, but I assure you, it is. We are living in the era of Donald Trump, after all.
Not persuaded? Here is the scintillating Table of Contents:
- Two Swords, Two Powers, or Two Kingdoms: Spiritual and Political Authority in Early Modern Europe
- Calvin, Geneva, and the French Reformed Churches
- The Kingdom of Christ
- Two Kingdoms
- Christ’s Spiritual Government
- Christ’s Political Government: Early Formulations
- Covenant and Law
- The Magistrate’s Care of Religion
- Law, Democracy, and Resistance to Tyranny
- Conclusion: Calvin’s Two Kingdoms and Liberal Democracy
I began wrestling with this question last week Sunday when I read about two Christian families from Syria who, after fourteen years of working to attain permission to come to America, were told upon arriving at the airport that they either needed to leave the country or lose their visas. As CNN reported that morning:
Two brothers, their wives and children left war-torn Syria with 16 suitcases and crossed the border into Lebanon. They were finally on their way to the United States after working for almost 15 years to join their family members stateside.
But after a flight from Beirut to Doha, Qatar, and then to Philadelphia on Saturday, the two families were told to get on a flight back to Doha. It was because President Donald Trump had just signed an executive order denying citizens from seven countries, including Syria, entry into the United States.
One can imagine what these families – their last name is Asali – were going through. The years of painstaking work on applications and all manner of procedural requirements. The emotional stress. The financial cost. The lack of understanding (they spoke limited English and had no access to a lawyer or to their family members in Pennsylvania). The fear of what returning to Syria – where hundreds of thousands have died during the past few years, and where their ethnic group is one of the most persecuted – might mean. They already had a home purchased for them and fully furnished in America.
I wrestled with how the church should respond to Trump’s travel ban that morning. In the services I led I reminded the worshipers of the trauma families like these are experiencing. And I prayed for them. I prayed for all those who were suffering from the president’s sweeping travel ban.
But I didn’t write anything publicly because I wasn’t sure how to approach the issue in a way that wouldn’t seem politicized. Christians are already deeply divided about immigration and about what our government has to do to protect us from terrorism. And it is, in fact, a primary responsibility of government to protect us from terrorism by controlling who is permitted to enter the United States. So we need to be very careful here. No pastor has the right to dictate immigration policy, let alone national security policy, from the pulpit.
That said (and I would not say this in a church service), the sheer arbitrariness and irrationality of President Trump’s travel ban is quite well established. For one thing, even its staunchest defenders do not defend its execution. But we can go beyond that. Not a single properly vetted refugee has carried out a terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. As the Atlantic observes:
Over the last four decades, 20 out of 3.25 million refugees welcomed to the United States have been convicted of attempting or committing terrorism on U.S. soil, and only three Americans have been killed in attacks committed by refugees—all by Cuban refugees in the 1970s…
Here’s another fascinating statistic. As the libertarian Cato Institute points out, “Foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.”
The reality is that most of the terrorist attacks America has endured since 2001 have been committed by American citizens or permanent residents. True, some of these were foreign born. But to quote the Atlantic again, “Between 1975 and 2015, the ‘annual chance of being murdered by somebody other than a foreign-born terrorist was 252.9 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist.'”
There is good reason, then, why the courts might not find that President Trump’s travel ban bears rational scrutiny – as it must, in order to be constitutional. We shall see where it all ends up, but I am thankful that, because of what the courts and other government officials have done, the Asalis have returned to the United States to stay.
In the meantime, what should the church do? Let’s be clear. I don’t think we should bring the politics or policy of the travel ban into our services. We need to be very careful here. We need to pay President Trump, his officials, and our courts the respect and deference we owe them, as the New Testament commands.
But that doesn’t mean our churches should stand by silently as human lives are thrown into chaos by the fallout. It doesn’t mean we should cease praying and advocating for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the refugee. The vast majority of those affected by the ban are peaceful people who want to come to the United States for freedom, security, and prosperity just like our own ancestors did. And a good number of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of them are already part of our churches. We are responsible for them. We need to remember Paul’s admonition that if one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. Only by bearing one another’s burdens can we fulfill the law of Christ.
When I was a boy growing up in the mountains of northern British Columbia our small Christian Reformed congregation sponsored a refugee family who had been forced to flee the horror of genocide in Cambodia. I remember one young boy, Naroon was his name, who became my friend. We were about five years old. His family attended my church. The body of Christ became a ministry of salvation for them in a way that I will never forget.
At the very least, then, every church must make one thing clear. We stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants. We respect our government’s right to determine when and how they come into this country, but we pray and advocate for the acceptance of as many refugees as is safe and feasible. Then, once they are here, we welcome them with open arms. We care for their material and spiritual needs. We help them find jobs, homes, and playmates for their children. We seek reconciliation and unity with them as brothers and sisters with whom we desire to be one body in Christ.
If we are afraid to do these things as churches and as Christians because they offend our political sensibilities then we had better take a deep breath and reconsider our politics. We have to ask ourselves, where does our primary loyalty lie? Jesus, for his part, has told us that he will take our treatment of refugees personally (Mathew 25).
To stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants is not to politicize the church. It is to fulfill the exhortation of Christ in Matthew 25:45, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do it for me.”
God is a God of justice. When people try to worship him while continuing to practice injustice, he utterly rejects their worship. This is the consistent truth communicated in scripture from its beginning to its end. That’s one reason why the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship emphasized the decisive importance of justice for Christian worship in its recent symposium. And rightly so. We cannot seek the kingdom of God without also seeking its justice/righteousness.
And yet, as the speakers at the symposium reminded us, worship is not enough. This morning this truth struck me afresh in a new place: Psalm 50.
Psalm 50 is situated in an interesting place, coming right before King David’s famous confession of sin in Psalm 51. Israel’s greatest king had committed a series of acts that we would associate with the most corrupt and tyrannical of kings. He had used his power to steal (seduce? rape?) the wife of one of his best officers, and then he had that officer murdered and the whole affair covered up.
Psalm 50 reminds us that when people act religiously while practicing injustice the result is merely their own condemnation. God is a “God of justice” who “will not be silent.” He gathers those consecrated to him by covenant, “that he may judge his people.”
The psalm pictures God coming down from the heavens and arraigning his people in court. Yet God’s first words are surprising: “I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings which are ever before me.” Surprisingly, God has no problem with his people’s worship. They are doing all the right things on the outside. They are acting piously, by all appearances putting God first in their lives and observing the first table of the law.
But then the other shoe drops:
What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips? You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you. When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers. You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit. You sit and testify against your brother and slander your own mother’s son. When you did these things and I kept silent, you thought I was exactly like you. But I now arraign you and set my accusations before you (Psalm 50:16-21).
These words served as a perfect accusation of King David. He recognized in his own way that he was guilty as charged. But I wonder how many of us have come to grips with the ways in which our own churches fall into the same sorts of hypocrisy. Far too often we preach and sing the grace of justification by faith alone through the cross of Christ one day of the week while downplaying its implications for the rest of our lives. We celebrate the first and second marks of the church – preaching and the sacraments – while ignoring the third, gospel-driven discipline.
Sure, we usually do this selectively. Liberals and progressives, conservatives and traditionalists each have their own favorite sins that they like to denounce, while ignoring those that seem to painful to confront. In the meantime, adultery and complicity in oppression are far too prevalent among us, as we live our comfortable, non-confrontational lives. We are so used to slander and deceit – or even practicing it ourselves – that we stand by as it crashes like a wave through the highest places of the land. We would rather be secure in our salvation, and possess power in the land, than be known as those who stand and suffer with the God of justice.
Psalm 50 reminds us that this form of religion will not stand. God is not like us, as we like we to imagine, and he will not be silent. Christ came to save us from our sins but he also came to defeat the principalities and powers (Colossians 2:15). He preached the kingdom of God, but he also proclaimed its justice/righteousness. We must continue to repent of our own complicity in injustice/unrighteousness, but not simply to go on living and speaking in the ways we did before. Rather, as individuals and churches we must continually be working out the full expression of our salvation, for justice and righteousness, in fear and in trembling, as the Spirit of God works in us, both to will and to do (Philippians 2:12-13).
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).
A few weeks ago Nicholas Wolterstorff made big news when he delivered a speech at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in favor of same-sex marriage. The speech has evoked mixed reviews. Those who desire to see the church affirm monogamous same-sex sexual relationships are ecstatic to have a philosopher of Wolterstorff’s stature on their side (however cautiously he may have presented his case), while those committed to the biblical conception of marriage as being between a man and a woman are discouraged and, admittedly, somewhat surprised at how little Wolterstoff engaged scholarly exegesis with respect to the relevant texts, not to mention the broader scriptural context of what the Bible says about homosexuality.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that Nick is a friend and mentor to me. I respect him deeply and have learned a tremendous amount from his work on love and justice. I meet regularly with him for coffee and conversation and I have discussed this presentation with him in a charitable and constructive manner. In that sense I am reluctant to write this piece, but I do so out of a sense of obligation as the professor of moral theology at Calvin Seminary, appointed by the Christian Reformed Church to offer some measure of theological leadership on moral matters, and because Nick himself has welcomed just this sort of response to his work. All that said, whatever you do, do not read this as an attack on Nicholas Wolterstoff. Read it as an affectionate, yet deeply concerned, response from one of Nick’s own admiring students. There has been no breach of friendship or respect between us, and if anything, this discussion gives us an opportunity to serve the church through respectful, substantive dialogue.
Let me say first of all that I largely agree with the way Wolterstorff framed the issue. That is to say, I think he raises the right questions. 1) Is homosexual practice really a violation of the biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself? If so, how and why? 2) If homosexual practice is not a violation of the love command, do we oppose it simply because scripture opposes it? In other words, is this merely an issue of biblical authority, with no why or wherefore to it other than the arbitrary will of God? 3) If we answer yes to these questions, then shouldn’t we revisit scripture’s teaching on homosexuality, understanding it in its proper context, to see if we have interpreted it properly?
In addition to these questions let me stress that I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s argument that we cannot simply fall into proof-texting on this issue. Those who seek to affirm homosexual relationships do so not because they fail to see where scripture seems to fall on the issue, but because they no longer understand its logic or rationale. And that leads them, like Wolterstorff, to wonder whether there might not be some other way to read the texts in question, one which may give rise to an interpretation different from our initial reading, and one whose logic and rationale makes more sense to us. In short, the question is not, What do the texts say when taken out of context?, but, What do the texts say when understood in light of the broader context of scripture and of the gospel?
So for that reason I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s insistence that we respect context. Context. Context. Context.
Hence my disappointment with Wolterstorff’s presentation. He does not, in fact, look at the issue of homosexuality, or scripture’s discussion of it, in its full biblical context. Indeed, Wolterstofff did not even mention foundational scriptural passages on sexuality and marriage such as Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 6, or Ephesians 5. Rather, he focused on the seven texts where scripture explicitly mentions homosexuality. And even there, he does not actually interpret those passages in light of their broader context.
For instance, with respect to the all important passage of Romans 1, Wolterstorff zeroed in narrowly on what Paul says about homosexuality in verses 24-27. He entirely ignored the context of those verses, in verses 18-23. And, as I will argue, that makes all the difference in the world.
Wolterstorff presented Paul’s logic in Romans 1 as if Paul was trying to show how evil people are who experience homosexual passions. He then argued that since we know that not all people who experience these passions are evil, Paul must not have been talking about the sort of people who are committed to monogamous homosexual relationships.
But that is to miss Paul’s point entirely, because it is to take it out of context. In a sense, Wolterstoff is guilty of just the sort of proof-texting against which he warned us at the beginning of his presentation. What Paul is actually doing in Romans 1 is showing us how people suppress the truth of God revealed in creation, exchanging that truth for the lie of idolatry. Hence they worship the creature rather than the creator. They are guilty of turning the order of things on their head, and so living a lie.
The result, Paul argues, is that “God gave them over” to sexual impurity (1:24). “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (1:25). And the shameful sexual passions to which he “gave them over” (1:26) are the “due penalty for their error.” Why are they the “due penalty”? Paul is telling us that there is a logical correspondence between the practice of homosexuality (the practice in which “men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another”) and the practice of idolatry. In each case a natural or created good is “exchanged” for something objectively disordered.
The West is jettisoning the Christian understanding of human sexuality at an alarming speed. It is doing so, to a significant extent, without any meaningful understanding of how Christianity shaped western sexuality in the first place. Many seem to think that by freeing ourselves from the burden of Christian teaching we will finally be able to enjoy our sexuality without hindrance, as if this is what human beings were doing before prudish Christians came on the scene and ruined everything.
For this reason, Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is an illuminating read. Harper wants the West to better understand our inheritance. He wants us to appreciate what sexuality looked like in the Roman world, and how revolutionary Christianity’s impact was on western sexuality, for good and for ill. Harper is not a Christian, as far as I can tell. He writes as a historian who wants to get the story right….
Romans did not wrestle with the morality of sex outside of marriage or sexual activity between persons of the same sex. Rather, they wrestled with what was honorable for a free-born man or a free-born woman. It was acceptable for a free-born man to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and boys (under certain conditions), so long as these things were done in moderation. But a free-born man must act as a man. It was shameful for him to play the passive role in sex.
The restrictions on a free woman, on the other hand, were much tighter. A woman’s modesty (i.e., sexual honor) was a fragile thing. “The sexual life course of free women was dominated by the imperatives of marriage. In a society that was never freed from the relentless grip of a high-mortality regime, the burden of reproduction weighed heavily on the female population” (39-40). Women were expected to marry at a very young age and to produce children for their husbands and for society. To commit adultery was to violate a respectable woman and so to sin against her husband. To do so was without excuse, because any man was free to have sex with slaves and prostitutes at will.
Underlying this double standard was the lucrative and omnipresent Roman sex trade, which itself was inseparable from the Roman system of slavery. The masses of slaves, prostitutes and other dishonorable persons had no claim to honor, and thus no entitlement to sexual morality. Slaves, especially girls and women, were “subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse” (26). They were utterly without social or legal protection. “The ubiquity of slaves meant pervasive sexual availability… Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures” (27). Prostitutes “stalked the streets. Taverns, inns, and baths were notorious dens of venal sex. Brothels ‘were visible everywhere’” (47).
When Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire during the first century it did so as a persecuted minority known for its distinctive sexual ethic. Harper argues, in fact, that it was their views of sex more than anything else that distinguished Christians in the ancient world. For Christians sex lay at the heart of what it meant to be a free person destined for communion with God. And Christians called all people, whatever their status or gender, to lives of sexual purity.
Harper refutes the notion that Christian teaching on sexuality was simply the product of Greco-Roman conservatism or even of Judaism. The Apostle Paul, he shows, developed a fresh sexual ethos and a new sexual vocabulary to go with it. The threat to human beings was not shame or dishonor, first and foremost. It was sin. In the Corinthian church Paul was faced with a libertinism that owed much to the Roman sense that sex outside of marriage, including sex with prostitutes, was simply a matter for moderation. In response, Paul called Christians to flee porneia just as they would flee idolatry. He turned the body – indeed, all human bodies – “into a consecrated space, a point of mediation between the individual and the divine” (92). Porneia, for Paul, encompassed all sex except that between a man and a woman in marriage, and it bound men and women, free and slaves, with equal rigor.
Paul closely associated sexual immorality with idolatry. “[S]exual fidelity was the corollary of monotheism, while the worship of many gods was, in every way, promiscuous.” Same-sex practice was a “particularly egregious violation of the natural order” (94). Harper observes that “any hermeneutic roundabout that tries to sanitize or soften Paul’s words is liable to obscure the inflection point around which attitudes toward same-sex erotics would be forever altered” (95). Paul’s originality, he maintains, lies in the fact that he did not reject homosexual behavior because of a logic of status, age, hierarchy, exploitation, penetration, or active and passive roles, but for the simple reason that it is not between a male and a female as intended from creation. For Paul, it is a simple question of gender difference. Natural sex, for Christians, following Paul, “came to mean, exclusively, the one configuration of body parts that has generative potential” (145).
Read the rest of this review at Reformation 21.