Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dr. Mark Achtemeier: "The Hidden Error in 'Biblical' Arguments Against Gay Marriage"

In a Church History class I am teaching for the St. Benedict School for Ministry, we just finished studying about the second-century St. Irenaeus and his defense of the Gospel.   I always try to demonstrate why the figures we study in Church History matter; and a shining example came up today when Christopher Johnson, of the Midwest Conservative Journal, pointed his readers to an article in the Huffington Post by Presbyterian theologian, Dr. Mark Achtemeier, entitled "The Hidden Error in 'Biblical' Arguments Against Gay Marriage."  The article is Dr. Achtemeier's attempt to air his views and to score some points with a favorable audience (Huffington Post readers) as well as to promote his latest book, The Bible's Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical's Change of Heart.

In his article, Dr. Achtemeier cites Irenaeus as one who helped him find a methodology for getting past the way traditional Christians have used the Bible to condemn homosexual behavior.  Here is what Dr. Achtemeier has to say:
In the early 2000s, I was working hard to keep lesbian and gay persons out of the ministry of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). I did this in part because I thought the biblical case against gay relationships was straightforward.  The standard arguments cited eight fragmentary quotes scattered throughout the Bible.  I thought that was enough to settle the matter.
I was wrong.  As I recount in my recent book, my settled convictions were shaken when I started to see how the results of those traditional condemnations produced blatant contradictions with the Bible's teaching about the fruits of righteousness and the nature of God.  These contradictions convinced me that something about the exclusionary teaching didn't add up.  What I couldn't understand was how this traditional teaching could be mistaken when it was grounded in quotes from the Bible.

I found help with this puzzle in the teaching of a second-century church leader, named Irenaeus of Lyons.  Irenaeus in his day was struggling to keep his flock from being led astray by false teachers who were proclaiming their own fabricated versions of "Christianity."  These counterfeit faiths bore little resemblance to anything that Jesus and his disciples had taught, but in spite of that the false teachers were still able to back up most of what they said with Scripture quotes.  This was very confusing to Irenaeus' flock, and I discovered that these second-century Christians were asking the same question I was: How could a teaching be mistaken or unfaithful when its proponents could back it up with quotes from the Bible?

Irenaeus explains how this can happen.  Imagine, he says, that a skilled artist has created a mosaic picture made out of colored stones.  All these multicolored fragments together form a beautiful portrait of a king.  But now suppose that another artist comes along and disassembles the original mosaic, sorting all the stones into little colored piles.  This second artist re-assembles the stones into a new mosaic, and he travels around showing off the picture, saying "Behold the King."  Only this time, in place of the original portrait, the new arrangement of stones forms a crudely-drawn picture of a dog.  Every single stone in that new mosaic comes from the original portrait. But that does not make it a true picture of the King!

This, says Irenaeus, is what the false teachers have done with Scripture.  Like the individual stones making up a mosaic, they have taken individual quotes from all over the Bible.  But the quotes have been pulled out of their original contexts and rearranged in such a way that they no longer form a true picture of the Bible's message.  Individual scripture quotes can lose their connection to the "true portrait" of God's love in Christ that is the Bible's overarching focus.

I myself had learned to support the categorical condemnation of same-sex relationships by appealing to scattered fragments of Scripture.  But Irenaeus helped me understand that being able to cite Bible passages in support of a particular teaching is no guarantee that the teaching is either true or faithful. Where does that leave us?  (Read the rest here.)
The problem with Dr. Achtemeier quoting Irenaeus to say that the Bible’s “big picture” is something other than the sum of its parts when it comes to homosexuality is that Ireneaeus, in his work, “Against the Heresies,” condemns the libertine practices of the Gnostics, including homosexual practice, by quoting the very same passages from the Apostle Paul that are still cited by orthodox Christians today.  Now read Irenaeus, in his own words, and notice the way in which he quotes Scripture:
[The apostle], foreseeing the wicked speeches of unbelievers, has particularized the works which he terms carnal; and he explains himself, lest any room for doubt be left to those who do dishonestly pervert his meaning, thus saying in the Epistle to the Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are adulteries, fornications, uncleanness, luxuriousness, idolatries, witchcrafts, hatreds, contentions, jealousies, wraths, emulations, animosities, irritable speeches, dissensions, heresies, envyings, drunkenness, carousings, and such like; of which I warn you, as also I have warned you, that they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”  Thus does he point out to his hearers in a more explicit manner what it is [he means when he declares], “Flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”  For they who do these things, since they do indeed walk after the flesh, have not the power of living unto God.

[...]

As, again, the same apostle testifies, saying to the Corinthians, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not err,” he says: “neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,* nor thieves, nor covetous, nor revilers, nor rapacious persons, shall inherit the kingdom of God.  And these ye indeed have been; but ye have been washed, but ye have been sanctified, but ye have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.”  He shows in the clearest manner through what things it is that man goes to destruction, if he has continued to live after the flesh; and then, on the other hand, [he points out] through what things he is saved.  Now he says that the things which save are the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of our God.

* For those who are unfamiliar, "abusers of themselves with mankind" is one of the ways the ancient Greeks referred to those who committed homosexual acts.
So, actually, if we look at Irenaeus’ own application of these “time-tested principles of biblical interpretation” it shows: (1) that Irenaeus quoted Scripture to condemn immorality in precisely the same way that traditional Christians do today; (2) that he used the same Scriptures from Paul to say that homosexual behavior is among a whole list of acts that are wrong, and (3) that Dr. Achtemeier is twisting both the Scriptures and Church History with regard to Irenaeus in order to support same-sex marriage.

Irenaeus wrote his best-known surviving work, Againtst the Heresies, primarily to combat the challenge of the Gnostics to orthodox Christianity.  In that work (to which Achtemeier alludes in the quotation from his article) Irenaeus accuses the Gnostics of taking isolated passages of Scripture out of their original context in order to fabricate false doctrines that are not supported by Scripture as a whole.  There is a great deal of difference between this Gnostic misuse of Scripture and the simple practice of ordinary Christians in assembling a list of Bible verses that address a particular subject or question.  

But the central premise of Dr. Achtemeier's argument comes when, he says:  "Fortunately, the church across the centuries has developed guidelines for interpreting Scripture that help keep our use of particular passages in touch with the true portrait of God's love in Christ."  Where does one find "the true portrait of God's love in Christ" if not in Scripture?

When we look at Scripture—for instance, when Jesus deals with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11)—we see that Jesus stands against the hypocritical Pharisees' attempt to stone the woman.  He demonstrates the love of God; but he does not overthrow the Mosaic law against adultery or condone the woman's sin.  In fact, he tells her, "go, and from now on sin no more.”  Calling sin what it really is and admonishing those who are engaged in it to sin no more is often the most loving thing we can do.

Whenever we start painting a portrait of Christ that is the product of our own sense of "fairness, love, kindness, compassion, etc." rather than the actual biblical portrait of Jesus, who is loving as well as completely holy and righteous, then we run into the danger of idolatry—forming an image of God according to our own needs, ideas, and purposes. 

Sadly, Dr. Achtemeier's "portrait of God's love in Christ" is merely the subjective creation of contemporary culture and liberal Christianity—an unbiblical image of Christ (derived from an extra-biblical gnosis) precisely like the one created by the ancient Gnostics to serve their libertine purposes so long ago.  In selling this portrait, Dr. Achtemeier is not being faithful to the biblical principles articulated by Irenaeus, but rather using the method of the very enemies of Christianity against whom Irenaeus wrote.
  

3 comments:

revrhino said...

Well said!

underground pewster said...

Ironic that he would choose Irenaeus for his defense when I suspect that if he were alive today Irenaeus would penning his next composition, "Against Achtemeier".

Robert S. Munday said...

Pewster, How right you are! The feisty Ireneaus would probably show up in the audience the next time Dr. Achtemeier was speaking someplace to have it out with him face-to-face. And so would John the Apostle, Athanasius, Nicholas of Myra (who punched the heretic Arius in the nose at the Council of Nicaea) and numerous other ancient saints who knew how to be valiant for truth in a way we seem to have forgotten.