What Are We Fighting About?, Part III--Evangelicals, the Bible, and Clarity

Phyllis Tickle (who passed away in September--God rest her soul) wrote a book called The Great Emergence about the future of Protestantism.  I have problems with significant parts of her thesis in that book, but she does a good job of framing the basic Protestant project.  In its most elementary form, the Protestant Reformation was a challenge to the authority of the Papacy, and by extension the ordained priesthood, to define and articulate the Christian faith and the structure of the Christian church.  We don't need these institutional mediators, said the Protestant Reformers, because we can figure out what the Christian faith is about and how to organize the church by consulting directly with the Bible.  Said another way, the Protestant Reformation replaced a person (or people) who serves as a clearly defined leader and spokesperson (and is thus exclusive and controlled) with a book which is in principle accessible to everyone.

Implicit within this move is the assumption that the Biblical text contains within it, in an accessible way, the answers to the key questions that Christians would ask about their faith.  In other words, more than anything else, for the Protestant project to work the Biblical text must be clear.  Because if the Biblical text is not clear, then the Bible cannot really provide the answers to the questions people have, and the Protestant project collapses into confusion and impotency.  The need for the Bible to be clear, I think, explains in large part the proliferation of Protestant churches and sects.  If you and I disagree about the meaning of a particular text, it is essential that both of us agree that the "right answer" is, in principle, clearly accessible.  Thus, our disagreement has to be based on me being right and you being wrong about this clearly accessible meaning, leaving us no option but to go to our respective corners and split off.  What we can't do is conclude that the answer is ambiguous or uncertain, because that would undermine the Protestant system, much more so than splitting off into two antagonistic sects.

It is in to this mix comes Matthew Vines's book God and the Gay Christian, a book that I have talked about before.  Vines was raised in an evangelical Christian household, and his book is directed primarily at evangelical Christians.  It's overall message seems to me to be "hey, evangelicals, you can be LGBT affirming without giving up any of your core theological commitments; let me show you how."  He then proceeds, in a well-written and easy to understand manner, to lay out why the passages in the Bible that seem to (or, at least have been used to) support a firm rejection of LGBT sexuality don't actually say that, or at least don't say that in an un-nuanced way.  If you accept his arguments and analysis, Vines would say, then there is no real impediment for evangelicals to embrace committed, monogamous LGBT relationships.

I should say that all of Vines's specific arguments about specific texts seem correct to me, or at least plausible.  But I think Vines's hope that he can foster evangelicals who are just like our current, garden-variety evangelicals, except LGBT affirming, strikes me as naive.  The problem is that once you walk down the road that Vines wants you to walk, you can no longer read the Bible in the way that evangelicals want to read it, and in fact need to read it in order for the Protestant project to be coherent.

Let's take the most direct of the so-called "clobber passages" on LGBT issues, Leviticus 18:22--"You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination."  The "plain language" of this rule given to the Israelites would seem to be a blanket ban on male-male sexual conduct, and indeed that is how it has been traditionally interpreted.  Vines argues, however, that this passage needs to be understood in the context of the religious practices of Israel's neighbors at the time, which included ritualized male-male sexual conduct.  Moreover, the word translated into English as "abomination" should not be understood in terms of a moral judgment, but instead in terms of ritual uncleanliness.  Seen in this light, Leviticus 18:22 and the rest of the otherwise disparate prohibitions in Leviticus 18 can be summarized as "do not follow the religious practices of your neighbors, but instead follow only the practices specific to the religion of Israel."  As such, it has only limited applicability to two committed Christians of the same sex who are seeking to live in a permanent union.

The problem that this sort of reading creates is that the meaning of the passage is accessible to a modern reader only insofar as he or she has access to the full historical background of the Ancient Near East.  If Leviticus said "here is a list of all the things the Canaanites do; don't do any of them," then Vines's reading would be problem-free.  But it doesn't say that, and instead presents a series of context-less prohibitions.  Only scholarly research can supply the necessary context, and so you can't understand the passage unless you have that additional support.

If you need a Ph.D. in Biblical Archeology or the history of the Ancient Near East in order to figure out what the Bible means, or at least you need to rely on such people in order to figure it out, Biblical interpretation is no longer directly accessible to regular people.  In what are traditionally called the "high churches" (i.e. Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans), this isn't a problem, as those churches always took the position that the Bible was a complex book presenting difficult interpretative problems.  Modern Biblical historical scholarship is thus more of the same grist for the mill that has been seen as being there from the beginning.  Moreover, those churches have a culture of looking to institutional knowledge and scholarship to answer Biblical interpretation problems, so relying on experts and scholars is not weird or out of character.

But the Protestant Reformation was supposed to sweep all of those institutional intermediaries out of the way, in favor of direct access to the Biblical text.  If only academic experts can figure out what a particular text means, then a guild of scholars takes on the exact same intermediary function as the medieval Catholic hierarchy.  Ultimately, if Vines's way of reading the Bible is right, then the Bible is not really clear enough to support the Protestant project, and the whole edifice collapses.

Thus, when evangelical Protestants insist that "the Bible is clear about gay issues," they are not simply being obtuse.  They are protecting the core Protestant commitment that the Bible is basically clear about everything.  If the Bible is not clear--about gay issues, or about anything else of importance--then they have a very fundamental problem with their theology.  They have to flatten out the interpretative project in order to make sola scriptura remain coherent, and as such they cannot allow themselves to meaningfully grapple with Vines's arguments.

I should put all of my cards on the table and say that I think the Protestant sola scriptura project was fatally flawed and ill-conceived from the start, which is why I am not a evangelical Protestant.  As a result, I think that the LGBT issue does not so much cause a problem with evangelical Protestantism as much as it exposes a problem that was always there in at least nascent form.  The LGBT question is basically a different facet of the same core problem that drives the Creationist issue, or the gender role issue, or a host of other issues in the evangelical world.  Still, the LGBT question puts the matter in sharp relief--if "you shall not lie with a male as with a woman" cannot be taken at face value, then nothing the Bible says can be taken at face value.

This means that the LGBT issue is actually far more central to evangelical Protestants than it is to other churches taking an anti-LGBT position.  A Catholic Church, or an Anglican Communion, or even an Orthodox Church, that embraces LGBT relationships could look more or less the same as the current versions.  An evangelical movement that embraces LGBT relationships is something fundamentally different from the current version, to the point that it is not really "evangelical Protestantism" in any meaningful way.  Indeed, circling back to Tickle's book, she argues that evangelical Protestantism should and will become something very different as it frees itself of the ironclad insistence that the Bible is clear enough to provide all of the answers to our questions (and this "something new" she labels as "the Emergent Church").  We can see this "something new" in the string of evangelical and former evangelical leaders--Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Tony Jones, etc.--have have moved away from both strictly literalist readings of Scripture and opposition to LGBT rights.  There is a correlation between these two movements.

But the flip side of this is that people who are committed to the basic evangelical project are forced to take a hardline position on LGBT issues, in order to defend the evangelical reading of Scripture.  Vines's path, whether he is aware of it or not, opens up a door that leads to a very different kind of Christianity than the one currently operating in the evangelical world.  Evangelical Christians are almost forced to die on the hill defending their position on LGBT issues, so as to protect the coherence of how they read the Bible.

All of this is not to say that Vines's book is bad or that I think he is wrong about anything he says.  It's just that I think his arguments have more significance than perhaps he acknowledges.


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