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.


The truth about Islam: Two important articles


In the aftermath of the latest tragedy perpetrated by Islamic terrorists in London, two important articles have been published, providing the kind of clarity which Western politicians seem unwilling or unable to grasp.

The first, by my old philosophy professor Jerry Walls, addresses the very real theological issue at the heart of the ongoing global conflict.

Many of the cultural conflicts, not only in America, but throughout the world, hinge not only on the issue of whether God exists, but also whether or not He has revealed objective moral truth that we are obligated to follow. Again, either way it goes, many people are wrong about something that is very important, and in which they are deeply and emotionally invested. That is why the moral and religious convictions of the owners of a modest little pizza shop in Indiana, or a county clerk in Kentucky can be flashpoints of national controversy.

The same sort of unyielding logical impossibilities are at the heart of the larger global conflict. Start with this fact. The central belief of Christian faith is that Jesus is Lord, that he is the very Son of God, and God’s highest, definitive revelation. What gave rise to such a remarkable doctrine? Well, to put it simply, the whole life of Jesus, including his remarkable claims about himself, and the miracles he is reported to have done. But the ultimate reason is the extraordinary claim that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, a claim that is rooted in impressive historical evidence.

Now the resurrection is the big explosion that gave shape to the core doctrines that are distinctive to Christianity. The belief that Jesus was raised from the dead grounds the claim that his death on the cross was not simply an act of martyrdom or a tragedy, but rather, that he died to atone for our sins. The belief that he was raised shows he was not a mere mortal, but rather divine, and this led to the belief that he is the very incarnate Son of God. And the belief that He is divine, but distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit, led to the doctrine of Trinity.

In short, who Jesus is, and whether or not He was raised from the dead has enormous implications for what is true about God. Now consider these logical alternatives and how they divide believers in the great theistic religions.

Either Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, or he did not.

Either Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, or he was not.

Either Jesus is the Son of God, or He is not.

Either Jesus is God’s final definitive revelation, or He is not.

Either God exists eternally in Three Persons, or He does not.

In each of these cases, one of these mutually exclusive alternatives is true, but both cannot be. Christians, of course, affirm the first of these alternatives in each case, whereas Jews and Muslims affirm the second alternative. (Indeed, Muslims do not believe that Jesus died on the cross at all).

Islam, Walls says, is unique among non-Christian faiths because so many of its tenets are specifically aimed at refuting what Christianity believes about Jesus.

And here it is important to recognize that Islam is in a sense anti-Christian in its very nature in a way that other world religions are not. This is because it was founded centuries after Christianity, and its very emergence was premised on explicit rejection of core Christian doctrines in favor of a different account of the nature and will of God and the way of salvation.

It is equally important to be clear what Islam is rejecting in its affirmation of an alternative faith. The Christian faith is indelibly marked by a distinctively beautiful account of a God whose essential nature is holy love. The nature of God as love is intriguingly revealed in the Trinity, as an eternal dance of joyous, mutual loving and giving among the Three Persons. And that love was communicated to us in definitive fashion in the incarnation and death of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity. It is that very love that Christians are called to re-create in their love for one another. Jesus summed it up as follows: “As the Father loved me, so have I loved you….Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:9. 12).

Christians believe that among the dying words of the Son of God were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Whereas Muslims deny that Jesus died on the cross, Christians discern in the death of Christ on the cross the heart that moves Almighty Power. It is an inescapable reality that either Muslims or Christians are profoundly and tragically wrong in their beliefs about God’s definitive revelation.

And that is the hard rock that is firmly lodged at the heart of global conflict.

The second article, posted this morning at Archbishop Cranmer by British cleric Gavin Ashenden, addresses the uncomfortable truth about Islam which political and religious leaders in England (and, one might add, throughout the West) refuse to accept.

How is it possible that we can continue to keep up this pretence of patronising, intolerant duplicity where we pretend we know Islam better than those who live and practise it?

Why won’t Andy Burnham, the Dean of Westminster and the Prime Minster tell us the truth?

The answer is probably that if they did, they would be required to face a problem to which there is either no solution, or one that tests what is politically possible to the utmost limits.

The question they should really ask is the more interesting one which relates to those Muslims in Western society who have not turned to violence.

Why have so many Muslims who live amongst us not turned to violent Jihad? The answer may be that they simply don’t want to, or are not very observant Muslims, or at least not as observant and pious as those who do turn to violence.

Or it may be that they are kind and generous people who see much good in the first half of the Koran where Mohammed says generous things about Jews, Muslims and Christians being cousinly ‘People of the Book’.

Perhaps they prefer to commit a lesser sin against the principle of abrogation, which requires them to preference the violent and inhospitable passages mainly near the end of the Koran over the benign ones near the front.

It may also have something to do with expediency. When Muslims are a small minority of a population they accommodate themselves quietly and pragmatically to their host environment. To do anything else would be to risk their expulsion. But when their numbers reach a kind of critical mass, expulsion becomes unfeasible. The pragmatic accommodationism begins to give way to the ambitions that the Koran dictates all good Muslims should have, to pursue the conversion of their host society, by persuasion or by terror:

“I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them” (8:12).

If our politicians and religious leaders were to find the courage and integrity to do their primary duty by us and tell the truth about Islam, Islamists, Muslims, Jihad and accommodation, what would follow?

That is the very debate we have to have now in public.

Ashenden’s solutions are not for the faint of heart, but neither is this present conflict–a hard truth which those in positions of authority need to grasp forthwith.

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.