Devoted to destruction: An early exercise in hermeneutical gymnastics and creative (dis)obedience

[An oldie but goodie that, in light of recent occurrences, is worthy of re-posting.]


The fall from favor of Saul, the first king of Israel, is a vivid illustration of the consequences of rebellion and a typical human attempt to rationalize disobedience into obedience. In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel instructs Saul on behalf of the Lord, “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (v. 3).

The instructions are clear. But Saul engages in one of the earliest recorded examples of hermeneutical gymnastics. “But Saul and the people spared Agag [king of Amalek] and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction” (v. 9).

When confronted by Samuel about his failure to obey the Lord’s command, Saul denies that he has been disobedient. He says, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal” (vv. 20-21).

Needless to say, neither Samuel nor the Lord is impressed with Saul’s creative interpretation of obedience. Even “the best of the things devoted to destruction” are still “devoted to destruction” and are, therefore, wholly unacceptable as a sacrifice to the Lord. What Saul and “the people” (upon whom he would apparently lay all blame for any deviation from the original plan while exonerating himself) would offer as a sacrifice is an utter abomination. That which is “devoted to destruction” is unholy and cannot be offered as a sacrifice to a holy God.

Whether it’s sheep and oxen under the Old Covenant or the living sacrifice of our very selves under the New Covenant, nothing unholy can be brought into the presence of God. That which is “devoted to destruction,” that is, the sin which enslaves us in rebellion and idolatry, must be utterly destroyed. To claim certain sinful inclinations are “gifts” to be celebrated within the worshiping community is a most abominable form of blasphemy, borne of a most arrogant presumption that rebellion against God can be rationalized into obedience by offenders who always seem to find clever ways of avoiding personal responsibility for their sinful actions.


Progressive, affirming, and welcoming . . . or just incompetent?


I am more and more convinced that “theologically liberal,” or “theologically progressive,” as seems to be the preferred designation of late, is synonymous with “theologically incompetent.” I have rarely encountered anyone who professes to be either “liberal” or “progressive” who is not utterly incapable of arguing substantive theological issues. On their favorite topic, homosexuality, such persons offer nothing in the way of a substantive response to arguments against same sex behavior based on the biblical doctrines of creation, the Fall, and sin. Instead, they resort to the tried and true tactic of hurling such invectives as “bigot” and “homophobe” at anyone who disagrees with their “progressive,” “affirming,” and “welcoming” views.

Typical of the sexual revisionist movement and its ecclesiastical enablers is a stubborn refusal to accept the fact that same sex behavior is sinful in any and every circumstance. Thus, neither the practitioners nor the enablers can read the Genesis account of the Fall as a narrative of their own experience. Adam and Eve, in eating from the forbidden tree, committed an act of rebellion against God. As a result, their nakedness, that is their sinful nature, was exposed and they fled in fear from the presence of God. When confronted with their rebelliousness and called to give an account, they quickly passed off responsibility to someone else, ultimately blaming God himself for their predicament.

This is a simple, yet profound, illustration of how sin has come between human beings and God. Yet, the apologists for sexual revisionism fail to see the parallel between the foolish actions of Adam and Eve and their own contemporary re-enactment of the same old story. The biblical narrative would be a tragedy were it not for the intervention of God himself through Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. That supreme expression of God’s grace makes possible the healing and transformation of every lost sinner, turning the tragedy into triumph, through repentance and faith. Unfortunately for many who are enslaved by the sin of homosexual activity, their story continues to run a tragic course because they have fallen prey to the false promises of those who proudly profess to be “progressive,” “affirming,” and “welcoming,” but are, in reality, just plain incompetent, unable to understand the simplest of theological truths, namely, that sin has a devastating effect on every human being and the road to forgiveness and healing begins when one recognizes that ugly fact in one’s own life.

Still Christian? David Gushee’s unsustainable illusion

My undergraduate and initial graduate studies were completed at Mercer University. Fortunately, I was there many years before the arrival of one David P. Gushee, now the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life. Mercer has produced some rather notable alumni, including the late former Attorney General Griffin Bell (who, in his capacity as Distinguished University Professor, gave one of the most undistinguished commencement addresses at my first graduation in 1987), Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy, and a considerable number of governors and senators from the state of Georgia.

GusheeFor all its prestige, Mercer’s faculty has usually lacked scholars of any high national profile. Gushee has broken that mold, gaining notoriety largely because of his highly publicized “evolution” on the issue of same sex “marriage” and homosexuality in general. He has long identified himself as an “evangelical” and initially held to traditional biblical teachings on sexual morality. In the last few years, however, his views have taken a decidedly revisionist turn, although he insisted he remained in the “evangelical” camp.

Now, in his latest column for Religion News Service, Gushee has announced he is giving up. He can no longer identify with “evangelicals” because of their uncompromising stand on biblical injunctions against same sex relationships. Hawking an upcoming book about his “journey” out of evangelicalism, Gushee says it is pointless to continue debating the issue with his recalcitrant former brethren.

At the “macro” level, I have also written a memoir: “Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism.” This book, out in August with Westminster John Knox Press, is both a spiritual autobiography and professional memoir. It tells about a confused young man wandering into a Southern Baptist church in the summer of 1978 and emerging four days later as a born-again Christian — and what happened to him in the 40 years after that.

What happened? A love affair with Jesus that for the great majority of 40 years was spent in Southern Baptist and evangelical contexts, until my own sense of moral and intellectual integrity forced me to take stands leading to my exit from those worlds.

Everybody’s story is different. Of course millions of American Christians remain quite happily situated in Southern Baptist and/or evangelical Christianity. I wish them only the best, and am done fighting with them.

But millions of others have made their exits, or had their exits made for them, and now wander in a kind of exile. I think that my story might connect with that of many others who find themselves post-all-of-that, perhaps helping chart a way forward.

I now believe that incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible, and the sources and methods of moral discernment, separate many of us from our former brethren — and that it is best to name these differences clearly and without acrimony, on the way out the door.

I also believe that attempting to keep the dialogue going is mainly fruitless. The differences are unbridgeable. They are articulated daily in endless social media loops.

Gushee is quite correct in saying it is fruitless for “evangelicals” and whatever he now calls himself to continue debating an issue for which there is no middle ground. Either you accept the objective biblical ethic that God created human beings in his image, male and female, and that monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is the only appropriate context for sexual relations or you reject it in favor of a subjective humanistic ethic rooted in emotionalism and a misguided understanding of “justice.” He is right, one might say, for the wrong reasons.

By titling his book Still Christian, Gushee clearly intends to assert that, despite having abandoned his own theological heritage, he wants to cling to an identity that, in his mind, remains in some sense Christian. Fellow Mercer almunus Erick Erickson points out that this is ultimately unsustainable. Gushee is not simply leaving “evangelicalism.” He is abandoning Christianity altogether and buying a ticket on a down bound train.

Gushee is actually leaving Christianity itself, despite trying to claim otherwise with a book titled Still Christian. In fact, I think Gushee will eventually be as honest about leaving the faith as he is about leaving evangelicalism. First, he accepted that homosexuality was a sin. Then he evolved on that position and tried to find common ground. Now he has decided there is no common ground and he is no longer an evangelical. The next step will be to formally acknowledge he is not a Christian. It may take time, but I have no doubt it will happen.

The reason it will happen is because to accept marriage is between more than one man and one woman and to embrace homosexuality, is to reject the teachings of Jesus himself and of his apostles. Gushee and those who hold his position are on the opposite side of 2000 years of Christendom. At some point I strongly believe they will give up the farce and decide instead of trying to convince people that 2000 years of orthodoxy is wrong and their novel interpretations of scripture are right, they’ll just declare themselves Episcopalian and call it a day.

After all, though Gushee is leaving evangelicalism, he is also leaving Anglicanism, Catholicism, Orthdoxy, and every other branch of Christianity. The few churches still claiming to be Christian while embracing homosexuality are all dying out. More than one study has concluded the last Episcopalian has already been born. Gushee’s breed of self-proclaimed Christian is becoming an endangered species headed toward extinction all while claiming to be at one with the zeitgeist.

Andrew Walker concurs.

Gushee will no doubt disagree with my framing of the situation, but whereas he thinks he’s leaving evangelicalism, I believe he is abandoning the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). He is abandoning the very words of Jesus who upholds the sexual binary in Matthew 19:4-6. Those are not words haphazardly written or thrown around intended to score cheap internet points. But Gushee’s own words bear witness to the claim that he views his affirmation of LGBT relationships as constitutive to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He views this issue as a dividing line in biblical interpretation, moral discernment, with the result that we — those who stand within two thousand years of teaching — are “former brethren.” I agree and reach the same conclusion as him, though with the opposite position.

Gushee is gambling with high stakes; unreasonably high stakes in my opinion. He’s asking the church — and by extension, the global church — to repent of two thousand years of biblical teaching. He’s asking us to journey with him accepting that the church’s entire witness, including the words of Jesus himself, have been misunderstood or wrong for the entirety of church history. He’s asking us to trust him on his journey and those like him — highly educated and predominantly Western social progressives — to speak univocally for the entire church.

This is the stark reality that evangelicalism must come to grips with. There is no “third way” possible. Everyone is going to have to pick a side. Sitting on the fence might be convenient for some people’s career, but the trajectory of where the West is headed will not countenance moderation when the canons of social justice require nothing short of celebrating LGBT orthodoxy.

We in the West are in a moment of status confessionis. At such a time, the church must confess what is essential to its foundations or else risk letting in false teachers that would lead the flock astray (Matthew 7:15-20; Mark 13:22-23). So the true church will hold fast to biblical teaching no matter what the cost, and institutions parading themselves around as churches will capitulate to the reigning zeitgeist and reveal themselves for what they are — churches with no lampstands (Rev. 2:1-7).

Rod Dreher commends Gushee for his honesty and clarity, but also emphasizes the impossibility of compromise on an issue to which the Scriptures speak so clearly.

If you really do believe, against clear Scriptural teaching and the unified witness of almost 2,000 years of the Christian church, that homosexuality and gay unions are blessed by God, then it is unjust to deny gays and lesbians full participation in church life (including marriage) without repentance — because what is there to repent of? If you’re especially broad-minded, you might sign on to an “agree to disagree” policy within the church, as a measure to protect unity until a clear majority within the church agrees with you. But you would do so with the expectation that eventually the entire church would unambiguously affirm the progressive policy. This makes sense, given your belief that this is a matter of human dignity and fundamental justice.

But if you affirm Scripture and tradition on the issue, then you must agree, finally, that this is an issue on which there cannot be compromise. Oh, you may have tried it for the sake of maintaining church unity (this is what the Anglicans have been writhing over for a long time), but that is no longer tenable. Your opponents within the church will no longer stand for it — and, if they are theologically and morally correct, they should not stand for it. There is no more middle ground: you have to decide. In truth, there never was any middle ground, and those who thought there was were deceiving themselves. If your side is correct, then it is time to quit playing games for the sake of a peace and unity that does not and cannot exist. As Andrew T. Walker says, the stakes are too high.

But if the other side is correct, then on what grounds should they tolerate unreasonable bigots like you (well, like us)?

The center is not holding because there is no longer a center on this issue, and in truth, never was.

Be grateful, at least, for the clarity David Gushee brings to the conflict. Which side are you on? You must decide. You do not and must not hate those who reach the opposite conclusion. But you must not pretend that we can share a church, unless one side is prepared to keep its views on the matter quiet, and stand down from contesting the issue within the church.

David Gushee has, indeed, done the whole church a favor by giving up on evangelicalism and bowing out of the debate over same sex relationships. Erickson, Walker, and Dreher are quite correct, however, in pointing out that Gushee has abandoned more than merely one particular expression of the Christian faith. His now apparently intractable views on same sex relationships place him outside not only the bounds of evangelicalism, but outside the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy altogether. Having chosen to go down such a path, he will not be able, when all is said and done, to sustain the illusion that he is Still Christian.

Horace Bushnell: A misguided herald sounding an uncertain trumpet

Naturalistic theology (often referred to as theological liberalism) did not appear as a challenge to orthodoxy overnight. Its precursors constituted the panoply of heresies repudiated by the Ancient Church and, as the preacher of Ecclesiastes long ago observed, there is nothing new under the sun. The rise of naturalistic theology first in Europe and then in America was, in large part, merely a repackaging of old lies in newer, more sophisticated, wrapping.

In his encyclopedic history of homiletics, The Company of Preachers (Kregel, 1998), David L. Larsen notes the rise of “New England theology” in the early nineteenth century and the negative influence it had on the preachers of the day. Like most expressions of naturalism, this was a theology of denial, not affirmation. New England theology denied the orthodox doctrines of sin, depravity, and imputation, paving the way for even more radical departures from the faith as the century progressed.

The person at the center of the transition from doctrinal purity to theological liberalism, was Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), a gifted preacher with a penchant for pushing the doctrinal envelope well beyond acceptable limits.

Bushnell has been called the father of liberalism, and indeed in moving beyond New England theology he lurched very close to Unitarianism. Certainly in God in Christ he lapsed into Unitarian thinking, espousing a modal view of the Trinity. In his Vicarious Sacrifice and Forgiveness and Law, Bushnell jettisoned transactual and propitiatory aspects of the atonement. In a reaction against revivalism, he opted for gradualism rather than conversion in his book Christian Nurture. Neither did he believe a child to be depraved. He believed the child was to grow up never knowing that he or she is other than a Christian.

Charles Hodge spoke of his views as “less than Christian.” For Bushnell the Bible was essentially figurative. In 1866 he indicated his leaning toward understanding the fall in Eden as a myth. Jesus was teacher rather than the crucified and suffering God. His were “orthodox memories, Unitarian hopes.” The old wine had not survived being transferred to new bottles. He scoffed at the idea of the Second Coming. He was very theological but he did not preach sound doctrine.

What Bushnell lacked in doctrinal substance, he made up for in homiletical style. This was not enough, however, to spare him criticism for going off the theological and exegetical reservation.

Yet Bushnell was a preacher’s preacher. There was a virility in his style and a fire inside him, but the common people were not drawn to his variety of naturalism. Early on, he gained a reputation as a public speaker of note, and his ability to title sermons is dramatic. Little wonder he was offered the presidency of the College of California (later the University of California at Berkeley), which he turned down.

Bushnell’s celebrated sermon on “Unconscious Influence” is based on John 20:8, “Then went in also that other disciple.” But for Bushnell this had nothing to do with the resurrection or Jesus Christ. He did not do exegesis, and even Brastow speaks of his interpretations as often “fanciful” and lacking “the support of recognized exegetical canons.”

[Larsen, p. 528]

In the end, Bushnell must be characterized, in Larsen’s words, “as a tragic figure in American pulpit annals” whose “influence upon successive generations has been unfortunate.” For all his intellect and homiletical ingenuity, he was a misguided herald sounding an uncertain trumpet.