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Archive for May, 2011

The Significance of Sexual Sin

Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 6:18 often strikes me as a mystifying exaltation of sexual sin above other sorts of moral failures [note: I do not find persuasive the suggestions of some scholars that this statement actually reflects a Corinthian slogan rather than Paul’s own viewpoint; we’re not off the hook that easily].  Why should deviance from God’s designs in sexuality be construed differently, or worse, than other flagrant violations of His will?  Didn’t Jesus warmly and without hesitation accept the most notorious usurpers of the accepted sexual norms of his day?  If all sin is ultimately against God, why would He be more offended or put off by what goes on in the bedroom than, say, on Wall Street or in the public school down the street?  Why should sex be singled out?

E. Michael Jones’ (a Catholic moral critic) provocative book, Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior, suggests one possible answer to me.  The book itself is a somewhat untidy, yet always memorable mishmash of (on the one hand) bold, unapologetic critique of the moral poverty of the intellectual elite of the modern West, and (on the other hand) of wildly unjustified exaggerations of the centrality of out-of-control sexual lust in the shaping of the social climate of the modern age.  Indeed, there is much to disagree with in what is argued in the book, as well as in the way it is argued.  By no means do I endorse the full sweep of Jones’ ultimately reductionistic ideology here.   Yet the overly shrill and alarmist tone of the author should not become an excuse to brush away the sizeable kernel of truth found within his nonconformist critique of the ethical underpinnings of modern secularization.

What is Jones’ argument?  Picking up where Paul Johnson left off in his controversial book Intellectuals—that is, with empirical documentation of the numbing regularity with which the most grievous sorts of sexual promiscuity have occurred in the lives of so many influential thinkers[1]—Jones proceeds to contend that behind most of the deep structures of secular unbelief in the West lay a simple, inconvenient explanation.  An astonishing pattern recurs again and again in the lives of the men and women who have contributed the most to the cognitive shape of modernity.  Having first given themselves over to habitual violation of God’s moral law (which is indelibly printed upon both creation and conscience) in their sexual practices, such people inevitably go on to devise philosophical systems of thought which seek to implicitly justify, in hindsight, the moral legitimacy of their preferred lifestyles.  Here is how Jones puts it:

“There are ultimately only two alternatives in the intellectual life: either one conforms desire to the truth or one conforms truth to desire.  These two positions represent opposite poles between which a continuum of almost infinite gradations exists…Sexual sins are corrupting, [but] the most insidious corruption brought about by sexual sin, however, is the corruption of the mind.  One moves all too easily from sexual sins, which are probably the most common to mankind, to intellectual sins, which are the most pernicious…

Put more generally, the idea can be formulated thus: the intellectual life is a function of the moral life of the thinker.  In order to apprehend truth, which is the goal of the intellectual life, one must live a moral life.  One can produce an intellectual product, but to the extent that one prescinds from living the moral life, that product will be more a function of internal desire—wish fulfillment, if you will—than external reality.  This is true of any intellectual field and any deeply held desire.  In the intellectual life, one either conforms desire to truth or truth to desire.  In the first instance, the importance of biography is negligible; in the second instance, it is all-important…

Lust is a common enough vice, especially in this age.  The crucial intellectual event occurs, however, when vices are transmuted into theories, when the ‘intellectual’ sets up shop in rebellion against the moral law and, therefore, in rebellion against the truth.  All the modern ‘isms’ follow as a direct result of this rebellion.  All of them entail rationalization.  All of them can be best understood in light of the moral disorder of their founders, proponents, and adherents.” (E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior, pp. 11-16)

I find it impossible to disregard this idea altogether.  My observation of how other people tend to process the interpretation of their own histories, my appraisal of the self-deceptive dynamics at work in my own experience of sexual selfishness, and my understanding of the Scriptures[2] all combine to testify to the accuracy of Jones’ contention.  I would demur from Jones’ conclusion that sexual sin lay behind all moral stupidity garbed in elaborately constructed philosophical systems, but I am convinced that this happens with surprising frequency in this present evil age.  Consider some strongly collaborating testimony to this unpopular theory from a primary source:

“I took it for granted that there was no meaning. This was partly due to the fact that I shared the common belief that the scientific picture of an abstraction from reality was a true picture of reality as a whole; partly also to other non-intellectual reasons. I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently, I assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.  Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don’t know because we don’t want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless… The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do. For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning – the Christian meaning, they insisted – of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.” (Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, pp. 312, 316)

So perhaps one sense in which sexual sin is more terrible (ala 1 Corinthians 6) is not that it constitutes a more heinous offense against God than, say, pride or gossip or selfishness do.  Rather, might it not be that sexual sin is singled out because it is more dangerous to those who choose to participate in it?  Jones has put forth a daring piece of argumentation, based on much indisputable evidence, for just such an interpretation.  What if sexual sin was especially liable to blind us from honest self-examination, and to harden us to the point that we are unable any longer to perceive and approve of the most beautiful moral goods in the universe?  What if it is in fact that case that only the pure in heart will see God?  Then it would seem that we can never be too hasty to listen to Paul’s recommendation: “Flee from sexual immorality, for every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.”  The danger in delaying from obedience here is more serious than we can ever possibly imagine.


[1] “Among the diverse vices that characterize the intellectuals studied by Johnson, brazen sexual promiscuity is the one recurring theme.” (James Spiegel, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief, p. 72)

[2] Compare Romans 1:18-32 and Ephesians 4:17-19, both of which locate intellectual folly in a prior departure from God rooted in unbelief and hardness of heart.  Romans 1:18-32, in particular, gives evidence that sexual sin is often the primary arena in which the sinful rationalizations of fallen humanity take place.  Here the emotional preference for our own autonomously constructed realities, independent of the sovereign sway of God’s rule, is prior to the social construction of what counts for human knowledge.  Moral darkness comes before the inability to discern what is good, true and beautiful in the moral realm.  The main problem with humanity is thus not our lack of intelligence, nor is it the insufficiency of the evidence God provides.  Rather, the most serious dilemma concerns the idolatrous disposition of our hearts.  We stand in grave need chiefly of redemption, not education.  As the renowned Harvard psychologist William James once pointed out, “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” (The Will To Believe, p. 23)  Jonathan Edwards, who James greatly admired for his insight into human emotions, once preached a sermon based on 2 Timothy 4:3 entitled “Men Are Exceedingly Prone to Bring Their Principles to Agree with Their Lusts.”

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“In self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being.  For the Eternal Word also gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary.  For when He was crucified He ‘did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness.’  From before the foundation of the world He surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience.  And as the Son glorifies the Father, so also the Father glorifies the Son…There is joy in the dance, but it does not exist for the sake of joy.  It does not even exist for the sake of good, or of love.  It is Love Himself, and Good Himself, and therefore happy.  It does not exist for us, but we for it.” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pp. 136-38)

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For the first post in this series, click here.

C. H. Dodd’s opening chapter in History and the Gospel bears the title “Christianity as an Historical Religion.”  He begins by briefly reviewing the rise of the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” which to this day continues unabated in New Testament scholarship (if nonetheless also severely modified in methodology and agenda).  Though he does not mention any of them by name, thinkers such as Reimarus, Strauss, Schweitzer, Wrede and Bultmann set a new course for the study of the Gospels in the post-Enlightenment era in Europe.  The goal of biblical interpretation was now understood to consist largely in the attempt to peel away the surface layers of the propaganda of the Gospels, and to uncover the kernel of real, objective history which lay hidden beneath the distorting faith of the earliest Christians.  Indeed, the cry of this courageous endeavor was “We want to know, not what somebody thought, but what happened.  Back to the facts!” (p. 13).  As Dodd goes on to note, the core ambitions which fueled the beginnings of this quest were as audacious as they were methodologically naïve:

 “Its assumption, avowed or implicit, was that this method would succeed in eliminating from the records a mass of intrusive material due to the faith and thought of the early Church (Gemeindetheologie).  When this was done, the residue would lie before us as a solid nucleus of bare fact, upon which we might put our own interpretation, without regard to the interpretation given by the early Church in the documents themselves.  Christianity might thus be reconstructed upon a basis of historical fact, scientifically assured.” (p. 11)

While it is not his intent to point out the varying strengths and weaknesses of this movement here, Dodd does fault the Jesus-questers for operating with a fundamentally deficient understanding of what “history” actually is, as well as how later human beings can come to know it.  More on this later, but suffice it to say that Dodd impressively anticipates here many of the important insights of chastened postmodern historians half a century later.

As one would expect, this early stage of the quest for the historical Jesus, with its addiction to logical positivism and its predictable proneness toward naturalistic explanations, gave rise to a theological movement of an extreme opposite tendency.  In the looming shadow of Schleiermacher, the proponents of this outlook emphasized only the religious intuitions of the earliest Christians, and ignored “what really happened” in history.  For them, doctrine was simply the (non-authoritative) record of the subjective, mystical experiences of those who followed Jesus.  Modern psychology (“Tell me how you feel“) kisses theology, and the two shall live in peace forevermore.  But Dodd knows that this will not do either.  To retreat from history is to rid ourselves of the possibility of special revelation, of a normative word from God, and the Gospels themselves persistently claim to record much more than the personal, experiential impressions of Jesus’ disciples:

“This is not the estimate of the events in question which is to be found in the Gospels as they stand.  They profess to report, not important historical events simply, but eschatological events, the climax and end of history, the revelation of the supra-historical.” (p. 13)

Therefore, all such approaches to the Gospels—whether the approach is that of scholars who will allow nothing but brute empirical evidence shorn of any reputed eyewitness testimony, or the approach of those who rule out a priori the crucial importance of what actually took place in time and space in the 1st century in dusty, Roman-ruled Palestine–are patently reductionistic and thus demonstrably inadequate.  To highlight either immanence (as when the evolutionary process of the historical development of humanity is equated with revelation, ala modern liberalism) or transcendence (as when history is no longer allowed to be the plane of God’s redemptive activity or revelatory communication, ala the irrationalism of extreme pietism) alone is insufficient.  Neither immanence nor transcendence can be isolated from the other without doing massive damage to the integrity of what is being claimed by the narrative of the Gospels.  As Dodd argues, 

“The older method of criticism, in its search for bare facts, set out to eliminate whatever in the Gospels might be attributed to the faith or experience of the Church.  In doing so, it deliberately neglected in them just those elements which in the eyes of their authors made them worth writing.  They did not write to gratify our curiosity about what happened, but to bear witness to the revelation of God.  To do full justice to the intention of an author is a necessary step towards understanding his work.

Nevertheless, when all these contentions are admitted, they do not dispense us from the duty of asking, and if possible answering, the historical question.  The Gospels are religious documents: granted.  But they are Christian documents, and it belongs to the specific character of Christianity that it is an historical religion.  Some religions can be indifferent to historical fact, and move entirely upon the plane of timeless truth.  Christianity cannot.  It rests upon the affirmation that a series of events happened, in which God revealed Himself in action, for the salvation of men.  The Gospels profess to tell us what happened.  They do not, it is true, set out to gratify a purely historical curiosity about past events, but they do set out to nurture faith upon the testimony to such events.  It remains, therefore, a question of acute interest to the Christian theologian, whether their testimony is in fact true.  No insistence upon the religious character of the Gospels, or the transcendent nature of the revelation which they contain, can make that question irrelevant.” (pp. 14-15)

Indeed, as Dodd rightfully marvels, “It is a remarkable fact that scarcely one of the Biblical writers is of the type of the pure mystic, rapt into another world and detached from temporal events.” (p. 30) 

What, then, actually constitutes history, and how does one come to know it with confidence? And how do the claims of the Gospels hold up when exposed to the searing light of historical inquiry?  To those questions we will turn next, guided again by Dodd’s expert analysis.

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A couple centuries before C. S. Lewis’s famous quote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world,” Jonathan Edwards had made the very same argument (for the existence of an afterlife), which has come to be known as the ‘Argument from Desire’:

“God has made man capable of exceeding great happiness, which doubtless did not in vain…To create man with a capacity that he never intended to fill, when he created, would have been to have created a large capacity when there was need but of a smaller; yea, it makes man less happy, to be capable of more happiness than he shall ever obtain…Now ’tis evident, then, man is made with a nature capable of great happiness; for he has created him with a nature capable of enjoying of God

Now God is the best good, and fountain of all felicity, and they that are capable of knowing much of him, and loving him much, must be capable of that which is a vast and unspeakable delight…

Seeing that reason does so undeniably evidence that saints shall, some time or other, enjoy so great glory, hence we learn that there is undoubtedly a future state after death, because we see they do not enjoy so great glory in this world.”

-Jonathan Edwards, “Nothing Upon Earth Can Represent the Glories of Heaven”

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Verily, it is a blessing and no blasphemy when I teach: Above all things standeth the heaven of chance, the heaven of innocence, the heaven of hazard, the heaven of sportiveness.

‘Sir Hazard’—his is the most ancient title of nobility in earth: him have I restored to all things, I have saved them from the slavery of ends.

This freedom and heavenly brightness I set over all things as an azure dome, when I taught that above them and in them there willeth no ‘eternal will.’

-Friederich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

(transl. A. Tille)

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This is one of the most astute and nuanced descriptions I’ve ever read of how Paul’s conceptual language about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit coheres with the later developments of (explicitly) Trinitarian formulations by the early fathers:

“It is obvious that Paul would not have held the doctrine of the Trinity as it came to be worked out in the fourth and fifth centuries AD.  It is important not to read back into his letters the later conceptions.  The ‘proof-texting’ approach to the Trinity has often been guilty of this…There can be no such naïve justification of the doctrine, a point repeated endlessly by biblical scholars in reaction against the domination of interpretation by dogma.  Yet the matter cannot rest there.  There must also be no naïve forgetting or rejection of the Trinity when interpreting Paul.  This is a naivete that is far more likely and more dangerous today…We are not looking for a deduction of the Trinity from Paul’s words.  Rather we are trying to discern whether there is the sort of continuity that the tradition affirmed in claiming that Paul’s letters and the whole Bible is most adequately understood in Trinitarian terms. 

The analogy of grammar is helpful here.  It is possible for someone to speak perfectly grammatically without ever consciously knowing any grammar.  Grammatical terms and systems are a late development in any language.  So it is conceivable that the ‘grammar’ of Paul’s talk of God might have been  correctly understood by later doctrine even if their terminology seems alien.  Paul spoke the language; they [the later fathers] both spoke it and analyzed it systematically.  It is even possible that the later analysis might be correct while including inappropriate methods of argument and proof.  So the right question to ask…is: does the ‘grammar’ of Paul’s ways of referring to God accord with the ‘grammar’ of the doctrine of the Trinity?…The way Paul was led by his gospel to refer to God does have in it what might be called the ‘deep structure’ of the Trinity.  His gospel exerted a pressure on his talk of God which he himself did not analyze but which is consonant with a differentiation and relationality in God.  The prevenience of the Father and Creator, the death and resurrection of Christ, the eventfulness and transforming power of the Spirit are all both inextricably involved with each other and yet to be distinguished.” (Frances Young and David F. Ford, Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians, pp. 255-57)

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In The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne winsomely present their refined, battle-tested vision for the ideal philosophy of ministry within the kingdom of God.  Given the notable amount of charged enthusiasm for this book that came out of certain theological circles upon its release, I was expecting The Trellis and the Vine to be a bit more groundbreaking than it turned out to be, or at least more edgy, distinctive and outside the box in its emphases.  While that is certainly not the case, Marshall and Payne do succeed in zeroing in on and persuasively defending the central aspect of all truly Christian ministry in a helpful way.  By reminding Christians to keep the main thing the main thing when it comes to the mission, makeup and agenda of the church, the authors have pulled off a work that is worth consulting.

The horticultural process of encouraging and shaping vine growth through a trellis, which features so prominently in the book’s title, is the image repeatedly employed by the authors to illustrate what biblically dynamic ministry ought to look like.  What do Marshall and Payne mean by this?  The trellis is the structure which holds in place and guides the growth of the living organism, the vine.  The trellis thus corresponds to such things as programs, events and the organizational or government structures in local churches and ministries.  The vine, of course, is equated with the community of Christians who are called to grow into conformity with the Son of God.  (more…)

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