I always scratch my head when the inerrantists try to prove the inerrancy of the Old Testament based on Jesus’ treatment of it. It’s true that Jesus made cosmic statements about coming to fulfill the law and the prophets and not removing a single jot or tittle (Hebrew writing marks) from the law. But I have not found a single instance in which Jesus defended a specific “because God said so” law for its own sake. Apparently, he just didn’t get fired up about honoring the details of the sacrificial cult delineated in Torah, which supposedly had to be performed in a very meticulous way in order to please God. What fired Jesus up was when the law was being used to hurt people, so he consistently shot down any interpretation of the law that caused harm and exploited anything in the law that could be used to promote mercy. Jesus was never “agenda-less” in his appropriation of scripture; he brought an agenda to scripture and argued points with it beyond the original scope of meaning in the texts he used. He didn’t simply accept the authority of Hebrew scripture and tell other people to obey all of it equally and uncritically; he interpreted and appropriated the Hebrew scriptures in a very particular way to advocate for people who were being stepped on. It’s just dishonest to act as if Jesus wasn’t making a very particular interpretation and prioritization of Old Testament teachings that renders them unequal in their validity, even if he claims to be standing up for every jot and tittle as a necessary polemical gesture in his debate with the religious hierarchy.
I recognize that conservative evangelicals have legitimate reasons for being squeamish about the “humanistic” benevolence that I attribute to God. The only way that obedience has teeth is if it’s more than enlightened self-interest. If I’m just doing what God tells me to do for the sake of my benefit, then it isn’t costly enough (see the outcry against Victoria Osteen). I’m only really obeying God if I obey him when what he’s asking me to do makes no sense to me. I get that. But the “because I said so” God that conservative evangelicals worship has a dubious history of being exploited by conquistadors, slave-masters, wife-beaters, and others who have used God’s arbitrariness to justify their own power and their harmful oppression of others.
But then when I read the New Testament, it seems that almost all of Jesus’ conflicts with the religious authorities who eventually crucified him were over the “because God said so” laws. Jesus wipes out the kosher laws by declaring all foods clean in Mark 7:19. When Jesus gets attacked for dishonoring God by doing work on the Sabbath, he says scandalously, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). When Jesus gets criticized for associating with unclean people, he quotes Hosea’s declaration that God “desire[s] mercy not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13), which suggests that the point of any sacrifice God commands is ultimately to instill us with mercy towards other people. Jesus contends that the “weightier matters of the law” are not whether you “tithe mint, dill, and cumin,” i.e. following the details of God’s supposed idiosyncratic tastes spelled out in the law, but whether you serve the needs of “justice, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23), which is the ultimate end-goal of the entire system of clean and unclean.
Kajieme Powell, a 25 year-old mentally disabled man, was killed by St. Louis police days after the murder of Michael Brown. No charges were brought against the police officers who shot him multiple times. Michael Brown was profiled and executed as he walked in the street. A grand jury decision is expected in early November in which white men compose the majority of grand jury panelists. No one will be surprised if Officer Darren Wilson is never charged with Michael’s murder. And, no one will be surprised if the police officers who murdered Vonderrit Myers and Kajieme Powell are never charged with their murders. Killing black men in America remains a closely held prerogative of white supremacy.
When Rev. Sproul says that “wherever you find God’s people, you will find persecution to some degree,” he may be right, if we take “to some degree” to its absolute extreme. The authentic and heart-rending oppression of Christians under ISIS renders unworthy of the name whatever “suffering” those cruising around the Caribbean may claim. It’s not just that the optics here are abysmal; donning persecution drag, on a cruise ship or otherwise, takes the spotlight off those who need help. It is hard to imagine that the resources spent to explore the theme of enduring persecution couldn’t be redirected to actually help those who are enduring persecution.
Hermeneutics are at best, irrelevant, and at worst an evasive, lawyerly attempt to escape the self-evident meaning of the Bible, which is an anthology of clear commandments given for all of history (and mostly regarding sex).
This is the slipperiest bit in Gobry’s hagfish of an essay. It’s also where his strategy of insinuation backfires most dramatically. The central thrust of Gobry’s article is that Christian ethics cannot change because Christian ethics are unchanging, yet here he tries to contend with the accusation that Christian ethics, in fact, have changed — sometimes in very large ways.
Gobry concedes that such changes have occurred, but doesn’t offer any explanation for those changes other than the “false premise” argument he attributes to those urban progressive outsiders — that Christians were “bullied” by the “prevailing social conditions” into finding ways “to lawyer their way out of” what they had previously regarded as clear biblical mandates. This “lawyering,” to be clear, involves a betrayal of bedrock principles — an illegitimate seeking after technicalities and loopholes. This explanation of past change is presented as part of what he intends to be a defiant stand against any such future caving in to bullying by the prevailing winds of culture.
And that’s where Gobry seems to lose track of his game of insinuation. His call to defy such bullying and to resist a repetition of such shameful cultural accommodation requires that he affirm and confirm the explanation he attributes to those outsiders. The argument he accuses them of making becomes his own argument, and he winds up suggesting that “Christians today” shamefully “find ways to lawyer their way out of … verses in the Bible … that allow slavery.”
I don’t think this is where Gobry wanted to end up, yet this is where he arrives — telling us that “Christians won’t back down on gay marriage” the way they once allowed outsiders to bully them into backing down on slavery.
Gobry paints himself into that corner because he is unable to acknowledge the centuries-long argument within Christianity over the morality of slavery. To acknowledge that would be to accept that in a massive debate between scripture-citing traditionalists and “progressive” innovators, the innovators were right. And it would involve accepting a fatal blow of Gobry’s thesis — the fact that those innovators were not all outsiders bullying Christianity into cultural conformity, but that this argument also occurred among Christians on Christian terms. The fact that his defiant traditionalism was opposed by other Christians who argued for a better way of interpreting the Bible and a better way of understanding Christian ethics.
And those better ways, by the way, were as utterly out-of-step with “the prevailing social conditions” as they were with the religious traditionalism championed by Gobry.
If we start to think that identifying the problem means we are “therefore absolved” of it, and “therefore incapable of harm,” then the next thing you know we’ll be putting down our buckets, imagining there’s no need to keep bailing.
And then we’ll drown.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!