300 Unchanging Witness

       One of the most widely quoted rules in Church History was set forth in the fifth century by St. Vincent of Lerins, who said questions regarding biblical interpretation and doctrinal standing should be settled by deciding:  “Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnia”—what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.  Universality!  Antiquity!  Consent!  Various heretics, various schismatic sects, may tout their brilliance or novel insights, but the Church must follow what her Sacred Tradition declares.  “We shall follow universality,” Vincent said, “if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in nowise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors” (A Commonitory, II, 6).  

Certainly indifference to history and disrespect for tradition mark our era.  Students in America’s high schools and universities frequently learn less about the nation’s past than about how they’re anointed to rectify its wrongs in pursuit of social justice.  NFL players show contempt for the nation’s flag in their effort to demonstrate indignation with racial injustice.  And in most, if not all, Christian churches there has been, for many decades, a general contempt for traditions of any sort, be they musical, doctrinal, or ethical.  The “unchanging witness” of 20 centuries merits little attention or emulation.  But if we think clearly, as C.S. Lewis insisted, we must “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can only be done by reading old books.”  Thus Brent Strawn, in The Old Testament Is Dying:  A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids:  BakerAcademic, c. 2017), warns us that one of the most important sources for Christian belief is being seriously neglected by most Christians.  Strawn is a professor at Emery University who did his undergraduate work at Point Loma Nazarene University, generously thanking three of his teachers (and friends of mine) for their exemplary instruction—Reuben Welch, Robert Smith, and Frank Carver.  

Strawn begins by noting that, when speaking in various churches, not even the older folks knew much about the Old Testament.  Just as languages, such as Kiowa or Minoan, can actually die and disappear when they’re no longer spoken, so too (Strawn fears) the Old Testament is no longer “spoken” in modern churches and is dying.  His use of this “linguistic analogy” is  one of book’s strengths.  There are today a few Kiowa-speakers, but it’s no longer a living language.  So too there are multitudes of scholars who can read Hebrew and study the Old Testament, but if it does not enter into a community’s life it becomes essentially dead.  And if the Old Testament is not a living presence in the Christian community something truly essential will be lost.  As the great theologian Karl Barth insisted, the “‘language of Canaan’ is absolutely necessary if one wishes to speak precisely about—or better, to confess—the essence of the Christian faith” (#588).  The demise of  “the language of Canaan” has been supplanted, Strawn says, by three rival discourses—“the so-called New Atheism, Marcionites Old and New, and what I am calling, for lack of a better term, the New Plastic Gospels of the ‘happiologists’” (#601).  

To help us understand the seriousness of the situation, we’re given copious evidence in a lengthy chapter regarding the lack of OT knowledge in the American populace and in the sermons, hymnody, and lectionary of the churches.  A careful Pew study in 2010 actually found that:  “‘Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons’” score higher than “‘evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teaching, history and leading figures of major world religions’” (#687).  More specifically, barely half of the populace knows that “the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments” and less than half can identify the four Gospels.  Analyses of sermons preached in American churches reveal a distressing absence of biblical content, and the hymns (and especially “praise choruses”) have recently replaced biblical messages with experiential expressions, cheapening the worship services by eliminating crucial aspects of Christian doctrine.  In churches using lectionaries, which require the reading of several biblical texts in each service, the Old Testament has been deemphasized.    

To demonstrate why these data should concern all of us, Strawn expands upon his analogy between languages and Scripture.  Throughout history languages have grown and died.  In certain instances abbreviated or seriously altered “pidgins” develop, wherein  something of the original language persists.  Pidgins, however, can easily slide into “Creoles” which are in fact new languages.  With regularity languages pass away, following a period of repidginization “when a generation of speakers stops communicating its language on a regular basis to its children” (#1516).  Youngsters identifying with another culture generally resist learning or using the out-dated language spoken by their ancestors.  The language dies, and “when a language dies, a great deal is thus lost—and on more than one level.  Languages are repositories of life:  ‘They . . . contain our history’” (#1556).  The Scriptures, and the theological formulations rooted in them, are the language of the Church.  When we stop speaking scripturally we lose our history—and, in time, the substance of our faith.  If her language dies, the Church too will perish.

Consequently, there are alarming “signs of morbidity” crying out for our attention.  The “New Atheism” is one of those signs.  Reading Richard Dawkins, a biologist who ventures into theological terrain, it becomes quite clear that he is “no Bible scholar,” to put it mildly.  Point by point Strawn shows how Dawkins misrepresents (at times ludicrously) biblical passages he cites.  Inasmuch as his atheism rests upon a repudiation of Christianity, he focuses on snippets of scripture he dislikes and frequently rejects what he fails to understand!  In interesting ways Dawkins joins the “Marcionites Old and New,” duplicating the approach of a second century heretic, Marcion, in his effort to eliminate the Old Testament (with its lawgiving, wrathful God).  Marcion also deleted significant sections of the New Testament from the Christian canon, endeavoring to distill a pure gospel of love.  He was pidginizing the language of the Church!  Interestingly enough, the acclaimed German Church historian and devotee of Protestant Liberalism, Adolf von Harnack, openly sided with Marcion!  

Finally, the “New Plastic Gospels:  The Happiologists” provide yet another indicator of “morbidity” in the Church.  Listening to them—preachers of the “prosperity gospel” such as Norman Vincent Peale and Joel Osteen or authors such as Bruce Wilkinson in The Prayer of Jabez— is rather like hearing “babblers in the nursery, not Shakespeare and not Einstein” (#2606).  In terms of his linguistic analogy, Strawn argues the happiologists speak a “brand-new creole” dialect so different from traditional Christianity as to constitute a new faith.  Overflowing with optimism, the happiologists ignore some of life’s stubborn realities, including sickness and death.  Sadly, as C.R. McDonnell says, ‘“The time when a dying believer needs his faith the most is when he is told that he has it the least. . . .  Perhaps the most inhuman fact revealed about the Faith movement is this:  when its members die, they die alone’” (#2995).  The very existence of this “Faith movement” bodes ill for the Unchanging Faith of the Christian Tradition.  

To help rectify the situation, Strawn provides “recommended treatment” as he closes his treatise.  He finds the answer by showing how Hebrew—the only “dead” language that has been successfully revived—now thrives in the nation of Israel.  Much hard scholarly work was needed for this to occur and the people themselves have had to support it.  So too Christians must rededicate themselves to learning and speaking Scriptures as a second language!  As to how to do this, carefully studying Deuteronomy provides important clues—we need to routinely read the Old Testament and incorporate it into sermons, lectionaries and hymns, fully aware that it is for many folks truly a “second language.”  

The Old Testment Is Dying nicely blends deep scholarship with easily-read presentation and merits much attention.    

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In Unchanging Witness:  The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville:  B&H Academic, c. 2016), S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams treat the issue of homosexuality as a slice of  the significant “crisis of authority regarding the place of Scripture and the church’s witness in theology and ethics” (#284).  Just as abortion is about more than abortion, so too same-sex activity is about more than sexuality.  To the authors, “the challenge of the pro-homosexuality advocates in parts of Western Christianity extends beyond their view of homosexuality.  These advocates not only challenge the orthodox teaching of the church through the centuries; they also challenge scriptural authority, the Bible’s teaching on human sinfulness, the work of Christ on the cross, and the transformative power at work in believers’ lives through Christ and the Holy Spirit.  In a word, these advocates challenge the essence of the gospel” (#7714).  Champions of homosexual “rights” and “same-sex marriage” inevitably ignore or repudiate traditional condemnations of their views.  “This book is our call back to reality.  We issue that call by saying what God has said in his Word by presenting what the church has affirmed throughout its history” #298).  In short:  “Both the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of Christian tradition have uniformly taught the same thing:  homosexual practice is sinful” (#341).  

To tackle their task, Fortson and Grams first chart the historical development of the gay rights movement, rooted in the revolutionary ferment of the 1960s.  Gay activists early determined to infiltrate institutions—especially the media, schools, and liberal religious denominations.  Traditionalists who opposed them were intimidated and labeled intolerant bigots.   Sympathetic scholars such as John McNeill in The Church and the Homosexual provided tendentious treatises justifying a “new” understanding of Scripture and Tradition.  Thus,  McNeill declared, the “sin of Sodom” was actually inhospitality, not sodomy!  A Yale historian, John Boswell, often “called the patron saint of gay Christians,” published Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality in 1980, asserting:  “‘The early Christian church does not appear to have opposed homosexual behavior per se’” (#673).  To refute such blatant untruths is the purpose of Unchanging Witness.  Massive, carefully cited evidence from the Church Fathers, providing ancient guidelines for ethical living, includes an unswerving condemnation of sexual sin.  “Early Christians condemned all practices that involved members of the same gender participating in sexual acts with one another.  This included pederasty, male dominance/rape, effeminacy, lesbianism, male homosexuality, transsexuality, prostitution, temple prostitution, orgies, and homosexual ‘marriages’” (#742).  Contra McNeill, “The sin of Sodom, clearly identified as homosexual practice, was often cited as a sin against nature and one upon which God has poured and will pour out his wrath” (#917).  

Throughout the Middle Ages this condemnation persisted, and (contra Boswell) sodomy was frequently ranked as the most heinous sexual sin, frequently “paired with bestiality as an ‘irrational’ sin” (#1089) requiring the most severe forms of penance.  Hildegard of Bingen, one of the great Medieval mystics, spoke for her era, saying:  ‘“A man who sins with another man as if with a woman sins bitterly against God and against the union with which God united male and female.  Hence both in God’s sight are polluted, black and wanton, horrible and harmful to God and humanity, and guilty of death; for they go against their Creator and His creature, which is in them’” #1346).  Little regarding such condemnation changed during the Renaissance and Reformation, wherein the “unspeakable sin” received censure and punishment in both Catholic and Protestant realms.  

In the 20th century, however, the “unchanging witness” of the Church wavered as homosexual activists and their allies sought to justify their lifestyle.  Without equivocation the Catholic Church, following popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, upheld its traditional position, inviting thereby “vicious” attacks by “Western cultural elites” (#2008).  So too, both globally and in the U.S., Orthodox churches have remained true to Tradition.  Many Evangelical denominations, (including the Missouri Synod Lutherans, Southern Baptists, the Presbyterian Church in America and the Church of the Nazarene) have remained equally firm.  “Most striking in evangelical statements concerning homosexual practice is the unequivocal commitment to Scripture as the final word on the subject.  Specific biblical texts are cited in most of the statements.  An underlying assertion of evangelicals is that the Old and New Testaments comprehensively and consistently condemn homosexual practice as sinful before God” (#3041).  

But more liberal (“mainline”) churches have readily embraced the gay-rights agenda.  Though their “official” statements may retain traditional views, in practice the clergy with the United Church of Christ and Episcopal Church have openly supported homosexual behavior.  Portentously, in 1989 Episcopal Bishop John S. Spong “ordained an openly gay man living with a partner” (#3192), and in 2003 Episcopalian “Gene Robinson, who left his wife and children to live with a homosexual lover, was elected as a bishop in New Hampshire” (#3227).   Liberals (almost always clergy imposing their opinions on a much more conservative laity) orchestrated similar changes within the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA), the American Baptists, and the United Methodists.  Inevitably, they appeal to “a fictitious Jesus, the welcoming and affirming prophet who would never turn away anyone or call people to repentance and self-denial” (#3472).  “By denying God’s decrees in one way or another, several entire denominations have baptized themselves not into Christ but into Western culture” (#7619).  Thereby, to cite the great theologian Wofhart Pannenburg:  “‘If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexuality activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical grounds but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture.  A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’” (#3487).  

After assessing the historical and contemporary record, Fortson and Grams carefully and at considerable length examine all Scriptural passages relevant to the issue.  Unfortunately, imaginative interpretations, “unsupported by academic research, are touted by scholars writing in favor of homosexuality” (#705).  Contrary to the alluring claim that Scripture sets forth a simple, situational “ethic of love,” both Old and New Testaments clearly undergird the Church’s historical condemnation of homosexual activity.  Only inexcusable ignorance of the biblical texts or fallacious (special pleading) reasoning explains how modern “exegetes” in seminaries and churches justify same-sex sodomy!  Jesus did indeed promote a “love ethic,” but it was an ethic deeply rooted in the Mosaic Law and the Prophets!  Any “love” that circumvents the Commandments fails to qualify as Christ-like love.  “Neither can Paul’s ethics be reduced to a principle of love” (#3632), for he demonstrably looked to the Old Testament for guidance in prescribing Christian conduct.  Nothing could be clearer than the message of St. Jude in his first-century Epistle, reminding his readers that:  “Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (v. 7).  

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Geoffrey Kirk was an Anglican priest who entered the Roman Catholic Church a decade ago following his unsuccessful effort to resist the ordination in women in the Church of England.  Concerned that there was little serious scholarship available, he seeks to provide an in-depth biblical and historical analysis in Without Precedent:  Scripture, Tradition, and the Ordination of Women (Eugene, OR:  Wipe & Stock, c. 2016), setting forth his reasons for preserving a male-only priesthood—which is not to say he opposes women-in-ministry so long as they do not seek ordination.  He does so, fundamentally, because he believes such is the will of Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church.  Christianity is, after all, “a religion centered upon a God who became a man (worse still, a ‘Father’ who sent his ‘Son’)—and one whose every sacred text and whole history was mired in perennial patriarchy” (p. 7).  To make such a faith compatible with “Christian feminism” involves such linguistic contortions and historical revisions as “to require the elimination of every last vestige of Christian doctrine.  Incarnation, Atonement, Final Judgement, Hell and Heaven:  all must go” (p. 8).   Indeed, carefully attending to much that’s taught in today’s churches, “the governing myth is now, not of Fall and Redemption, but of self-awareness and personal fulfillment.  The existential question posed by the old story was:  ‘How shall I be saved?’  The leading question under the new dispensation is:  ‘How can I be happy’” (p. 46).  

Inasmuch as (according to Judith Lorber) “‘the long term goal of feminism must be no less than the eradication of gender as an organizing principle of post-industrial society’” (p. 27), it cannot be easily reconciled with the ancient Judaeo-Christian mindset evident in Jesus.  That He embraced that worldview stands evident when he chose his disciples, for:  “In choosing twelve males to figure the reconstituted twelve tribes, descended from the twelve sons of Israel, Jesus was consciously employing—and reinforcing—the patriarchal language of a world-view very far from that of modern feminism” (p. 43).  Neither Jesus nor anyone else in the New Testament world seemed concerned with what is today called “gender inclusivity.”  To do so “would have meant reversing the cultural norms both of the culture which gave Jesus birth and the society into which the church was born.  How could Christians have embraced it, if they had no specific dominical authority for it—no word from the Lord?” (p. 47).  

Rather than looking to the Word of the Lord Jesus for guidance, modern feminism stands rooted in the revolutionary ideology of the Enlightenment, with its optimism regarding the transformation of human nature through societal change.  “Since the end of the seventeenth century liberal Christians have been engaged in a self-destructive program of assimilating the content of the scriptures to the insights of the Enlightenment.  The presuppositions of a post-Christian—often anti-Christian—culture have been imposed upon authors who were ignorant of them, and whose own presuppositions were radically different” (p. 64).  Thus we find feminists railing against St. Paul as a misogamist for maintaining the traditional Jewish restriction of liturgical activity, in both temple and synagogue, to males.  To Kirk “there is something tragic in the notion of accusing Paul for not campaigning for the ‘rights of man and of the citizen.’  It is not merely an anachronism, it is an insult,” for he “was aiming not at social justice, but sanctity” (p. 58).  Then we find a certain “Junia” mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Romans suddenly elevated to apostolic authority by evangelical feminists!   And Mary Magdalene now appears as an apostle, a forerunner of the “apostola Apostolorum”!  

Kirk shows how nothing in the texts, nor Christian tradition, justifies such assertions, but feminists following Harvard’s Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza exercise their “imagination” when writing history, pretending to find historical examples of duly ordained, female clergy.  Never let demonstrable facts interfere with the story you’re determined to tell!  And this new story, replete with assurances that female deacons and presbyters were ordained in the early centuries, has gained currency in many denominations.  Doing so, Kirk insists, aligns them with a variety of heretical, gnostic-rooted, movements but runs counter to the Scripture and Tradition basic to Christianity.  Whatever case for the ordination of women you choose to make, it cannot be justified by Scripture and Tradition!