You Cannot Be Right Because I Am Right

There is a reality that many Christians deny: the possibility that they could be wrong, to whatever degree, even concerning long-held traditional propositions. A Southern Baptist friend reminded me that the notion that only men should be pastors (or priests) is an ancient Christian tradition. Therefore, the contrary notion we call egalitarianism -- that women are equally gifted by the Holy Spirit to shepherd the flock of Christ's church -- is a revisionist position, revisionist because it breaks with a long-held (patriarchal) tradition.

But what about the subject of Baptism? An ancient and long-held tradition of our early Church fathers is that all infants of believers are to baptized (via sprinkling or pouring of water on the head of the infant) and that, even more importantly, baptism saves or regenerates the initiate. Why do our Southern Baptist friends et al. reject this ancient and long-held tradition, failing to view their own baptismal tradition as revisionist, yet refuse the same privilege when others reject an ancient and long-held tradition of our fathers? Is this not overt special pleading? Is not what is good for the goose also good for the gander?

I remember a Calvinist friend, upon the release of Dr. Ben Witherington's The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible, asking: "Why must we 'rethink' the theology of the Bible?" The question itself betrays the mantra, semper reformanda, always reforming. With Scripture as our primary source material, we are to always be scrutinizing what we believe against the standard given to us by God through God's people, and such will require "rethinking." Allow this brief example taken from the pages of American history regarding slave-holding.

We know from our own history that many professing, conservative, traditionalist Christians practiced and defended owning African slaves. Keeping these slaves obedient, as one's own property, derived from an interpretation of the following passage: "And that slave who knew his master's will and didn't prepare himself or do it will be severely beaten." (Luke 12:47 HCSB, emphases added) In the minds of these Christian slave-holders, owning African slaves as property, deeming them less than human, was an ancient and long-held tradition, and only godless liberals would challenge "the word of God" on this matter.

Civil Rights, then, would constitute revisionist thinking. So, too, would LGBTQ rights. So, too, would women's equal rights. These all constitute "revisionist" and "liberal" thinking. I never ceased to be amazed just how much assumption and presumption many maintain when thinking about long-held secondary and tertiary issues. Too many forget that perspective is king. For me, revisionist thinking regards changing the primary doctrines of the faith, and not secondary or tertiary beliefs. The position that affirms the monogamous relationships of LGBTQ people, for example, is not a primary issue of the Christian faith. Christianity does not hang or fall on the position of sexuality.

This does not indicate that sexuality is an irrelevant or insignificant issue. But the primary doctrines of our faith regard our monotheistic (and triune) God -- the nature of God, the attributes of God, the divine-human person of Jesus, His atoning death, burial, and resurrection, sin and salvation. An issue such as homosexuality, for example, maintains an ancient and long-held tradition that is, in nature, proscribed in or by practice for believers by our Church fathers. But one should never fear rethinking or re-examining the issue in order to gain further insight. But to suggest that an affirming view of homosexuality (and its cognates) is a revisionist view is, forgive me, a bit naïve. Let me explain.

When Reformer Martin Luther was questioning long-held traditions in the catholic church he could easily have been hailed a revisionist. He was, plainly taken, rethinking long-held theological and ecclesiological traditions. One could remark similarly of English Reformer William Tyndale. Bishops and Priests of the Church maintained a long-held tradition of the Bible as being too difficult for the average lay person to read and understand. Tyndale, convinced otherwise, sought to translate Scripture into the everyday language of the average reader. Are we to charge him as being a revisionist? Or does he receive a free pass?

I will bluntly tell you what use of the word "revisionist" indicates: it is a rhetorical term intended to intimidate the one contemplating a variant understanding on secondary and tertiary issues that are traditions long-held by conservative believers. Never mind that visionaries like Jan Hus, Martin Luther, and William Tyndale dared to rethink long-held traditions. On subjects like egalitarianism or homosexuality, an affirming position is revisionist at its core (and hence unorthodox, or heretical, depending upon the zealous character of the one laying the charge), and cannot possibly be right because the traditional understanding is presumed right. There is an irony here that I must emphasize.


VIEWING LIFE THROUGH A PARTICULAR LENS

Odd, I think, how many conservative evangelicals today reflect the same dogmatism as those against whom they complained nearly five centuries ago: the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope, the Bishops, and the like of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were fiercely dogmatic about their long-held traditions, so much so that many Protestants lost their lives for their "revisionist" views, and I am using that term in a facetious manner. Yet, true to form, those conservative Protestants then assumed the same sort of dogmatism regarding their own theological and ecclesiological traditions, and, though they cannot burn anyone at the stake today for opposing their traditions, they label their opponents with epithets of "revisionist," "liberal," "heterodox," "unorthodox" and "heretic."

Should people even care about these labels for holding to views that contradict conservative evangelicals on secondary and tertiary issues? Not at all. Perspective is king. Each person and every group of like-minded individuals interprets the scriptures through a particular lens. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien are right to insist: "We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience."1 We were taught by a long-held tradition that the Sodom-Gomorrah event was God's judgment on homosexuality. That is, until we learned that the men of these regions had wives, and children, and that there existed the Middle Eastern honor-shame practice of gang-raping men who entered a village and were deemed as a threat. This practice is still prevalent in some locales.

Upon this discovery, coupled with the commentary of God given to Ezekiel on the sins of those towns that warranted their judgment (Ezek. 16:49-50; cf. Jude 1:7 where the referred-to "gross immorality" or "going after strange flesh" could refer to gang-rape), we learned that the long-held tradition of God's alleged judgment on homosexuality was in error. Can we not, then, rethink or re-examine homosexuality, as is under scrutiny in the Bible, in particular the references of St Paul at Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, without being considered "revisionist" or heretical? We must always remember our near-inevitable tendency to read the scriptures "in our own when and where in a way that makes sense on our terms."2 That is not a proper way to interpret Scripture. Or, at the very least, that is not warrant for an unrelenting dogmatism on secondary and tertiary issues.

The sooner conservative evangelicals embrace the following reality the better off we will all be: "There is no purely objective biblical interpretation."3 There can be no caveat to this statement. No amount of appeal, no matter how great, to sola scriptura or to expository preaching can dethrone the king of perspective and the place of hermeneutics. Moreover, even if one claims that "all Bible reading is necessarily contextual,"4 we must also remember the truth communicated by Dr. Stanley Fish that even context retains "an already assumed interpretation."5 Furthermore, appealing to so-called facts do not settle disagreements, since "facts 'as they really are' will be reconstituted in still another shape."6 Dr. Fish helps us understand how so-called facts can be unhelpful:
Nowhere is this process [an appeal to facts] more conveniently on display than in literary criticism [a discipline included when considering the interpretation of the Bible], where everyone's claim is that his interpretation more perfectly accords with the facts, but where everyone's purpose is to persuade the rest of us to the version of the facts he espouses by persuading us to the interpretive principles in the light of which those facts will seem indisputable.7
This scenario is witnessed in Christian circles ad nauseum. Christian authors are all too eager to communicate to the masses "the biblical view" on homosexuality, women in ministry, parenting, suffering, the atonement, salvation, the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, marriage, male headship, etc. Each author informs the reader "what the Bible says" about his subject and, yet, so many authors disagree with each other regarding "what the Bible says" about those subjects.

Note, too, just how dogmatic these authors are concerning "what the Bible says" about their subject. Dr. Fish remarks: "Whenever a critic [or teacher or author] prefaces an assertion with a phrase like 'without doubt' or 'there can be no doubt,' you can be sure that you are within hailing distance of the interpretive principles which produce the facts that he presents as obvious."8 He is right. We cannot allow anyone to manipulate us into a position by appeals to mere tradition, by the use of rhetoric and dogmatism, or by use of manipulative methods of teaching that insist upon an "obvious" or "clear" meaning of the texts of Scripture. The mere fact that even conservative evangelicals disagree on significant issues informs us that there can be no such reality as a purely objective interpretation of Scripture. A person is deceived to think otherwise.

If a secondary or tertiary view you hold is not a received notion among conservative evangelicals, but said view is held by other Christian traditions, then do not be spiritually bullied into a conservative evangelical position merely because those in that camp may view you as a revisionist, a liberal, heterodox, unorthodox or heretical. Contrary to their own self-presumption, conservative evangelicals are not God, and they are not your judge. They have not been deemed by God as orthodox interpreters of Scripture. Their simple or basic motif presumes their own orthodoxy: "You cannot be right, if you disagree with me, because I am right." They will never admit that this statement predominates their thinking. But if you listen or read closely, this is exactly what they are insisting, even if they are unaware of this reality. Learn not what to think but how to think.

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1 E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 11.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 12.

4 Ibid.

5 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretative Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 340.

6 Ibid., 338-39.

7 Ibid., 339.

8 Ibid., 341.