Sylvia Keesmaat On Theological Method And Homosexual Practice

James the Just

[Update 6/22/2011]: I’ve heard through some back channels that some thought I “fundamentally misread” the argument of Keesmaat’s paper. Because of this, I went back and re-read the paper. I remain satisfied with my original analysis, excepting one point, which is not really a correction , but rather a clarification. Below I stated as a conclusion of an argument: “This means that experience alone cannot be the criterion upon which theological decisions are founded.” The clarification is as follows: I did not mean to say that Keesmaat regards experience as the only source, literally, for doing theology. As my other quotations and comments in this post make clear, she obviously does have a place of scripture. What I was trying to get across with this comment, however, is that clearly experience (putatively of the Spirit) is the sole ultimate authority, in a manner parallel to the function of scripture in the Reformation formula of sola scriptura. My response to this quote hopefully made this clear, insofar as I was trying to show that for the early church (and even Jesus), scripture (and at least Jesus’ words) was the sole ultimate authority, not that experience was not a source, or that scripture was the only source. I hope this helps to clarify what I believe Keesmaat is saying.]

Whenever you write anything on theological authority, it is difficult to be brief; temperatures run high, diversity is extreme, and it is difficult to respond adequately to any complex position without going on at length. The same can be said for the issue of how to address homosexual practice from a Christian perspective. Obviously, both issues are related, but when both issues are addressed explicitly, the difficulty of remaining concise increases exponentially. However, this is what I intend to do in this post. I hope I succeed.

I want to respond briefly to the argument of Sylvia Keesmaat in her paper (pdf), “Welcoming in the Gentiles”, an essay which argues for the inclusion of practicing homosexuals who affirm their sexual activity. As I noted, one could very easily go on at length; Keesmaat’s paper is itself 20 pages long, and a “blow by blow” response could thus grow to unwieldy lengths. In order to forestall that possibility, I’m going to reply to a few select points in very limited manner, in order to show, hopefully, where I see the problems with the argument lie. First up:

While these various genres all find their place in the Bible, nonetheless this book comes to us overwhelmingly as a narrative. And as a narrative it has a kind of authority that is unique.

Biblical scholar Tom Wright describes this authority in terms of an unfinished drama. Act 1 is the creation of a good world. Act 2 is the distortion of that world by sin. Act 3 is the calling of Israel to be a blessing to this fallen world. Act 4 is the coming of Jesus, where sin is decisively dealt with. Act 5, scene 1, is the early church, where the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are grappled with and lived out in the lives of the first Christian communities. Further scenes unfold, from the apostolic era, through the patristic period, and so on to the present. Act 6 is the coming consummation, when Jesus will return and we will join him on the new earth at the resurrection of the dead.

On the one hand, we need to be faithful to the story that has preceded us. Such fidelity means that we do not abandon the story; rather, we live according to it as it has already unfolded, in faithfulness to the God revealed to us in scripture and in faithfulness to Jesus, who died and was raised. But, on the other hand, we need to be creative in our living of the story. It will not do to simply repeat what happened in previous acts. This means that we need to discern what such faithful living looks like here and now, in new cultural situations, and in the light of new workings of the Spirit. [31]

I’ve written in the past about the serious problems with calling the Bible as a whole a narrative, and thus I don’t need to repeat myself on this point here. However, I will make a comment about the reference to N.T. Wright. Wright is a theologian I respect deeply, and whose arguments about Paul and justification, and about the historical Jesus, have influenced me deeply. But, on the current matter, I think he is at his worst. Regardless of my view of Wright, however, in Keesmaat’s article itself there’s no argument for why Christians are obligated to understand scripture’s authority Wright’s way; essentially, its correctness is just stipulated. But that’s not a principled position or argument, it’s just a statement of preference. If Keesmaat wants to offer a doctrine of scripture (and its proper use) to be accepted by the wider church, it is my humble opinion that she will have to do better than just referring to Wright’s view as if that settles the issue. (For my own view on Wright’s doctrine of scripture, see John Frame’s review of Wright’s The Last Word)

And there’s an additional problem: the concept of “creative”, used in such a heuristic and vague manner, could be construed in various ways, and this, I believe, is the main problem with using such vague terms. Wright can use the categories and come to a conservative position on homosexual activity, while Keesmaat can use them and come to a progressive position. Thus, I humbly suggest, these categories are not really that helpful. They are rhetorical tools that can be used by either side to manipulate the emotions of those involved in the debate; not principles which can compel an ethical stance on something so important as sexuality. On to the next major point:

The individuals who came to Paul and Barnabas in Antioch as recorded in Acts 15:1 were on good, solid biblical ground in insisting on circumcision. So were those Pharisees who responded to Paul and Barnabas when they first arrived in Jerusalem, “It is necessary for [the Gentiles] to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses” [Acts 15:5]. They were right: there was nothing in scripture to suggest that Gentiles could become part of the community without keeping the law and without circumcision. This law had been laid down by Moses and had never been challenged anywhere in any biblical tradition, not even by Jesus. All the texts that speak of the Gentiles joining themselves to the house of Israel also envision that these Gentiles will keep Torah. There was no hint that this requirement would ever be overthrown; there is absolutely no biblical precedent for welcoming in Gentiles without being circumcised and following Torah. The Pharisees who opposed Paul had both scripture and tradition on their side. [36]

All I want to stress here is the gravity of what Keesmaat is saying. That is, Paul was simply wrong, despite his extensive argumentation in Galatians and Romans, in saying that the Old Testament proves the Gentiles could be included in the people of God in the New Covenant. Rather, the Pharisees were right. When Paul says that “…the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it…”, Keesmaat would have to reply “no, they don’t.” Of course, it is highly disputable, to say the least, that this is the case. The Christian church, starting with Jesus, has been arguing differently for most of its history, saying that it is the Jews who misread the scriptures, not our Lord. And I agree with them, though I am not going to get into why here. However, I will leave one question at this point: on what principled basis could someone who follows Jesus but affirms the Pharisees were right about the law rule out Marcionism as heresy? Third point:

In breaking scriptural law in order to eat with Cornelius, Peter established a relationship that then enabled him to testify on behalf of Cornelius to others [Fowl 1998, 117–18]. It is evident from the story that eating with Gentiles was the charge that Peter faced upon his return to Jerusalem [Acts 11:3]. [37]

I just have one brief question at this point: which scriptural law is Keesmaat referring to? Fourth point:

Considering contemporary evidence of the Spirit was, for Peter, of central importance in discerning what decision should be made. Luke Johnson describes Peter’s story as a narration of God’s work in the world: that is, it is the doing of theology. “Peter’s interpretive narrative of his experience places the issue on properly theological grounds. Can one recognize God’s work in the world? Yes, and once the recognition is made, the church’s decision should follow” [Johnson 1996, 102]. [37-38]

The problem with this understanding of what Peter is doing is that it runs into conflict with what Jesus and the apostles themselves commend to their churches: that is, that the spirits should be tested, that would-be apostles, prophets, and Messiahs should be tested, based on their conformity to (at least) Jesus’ words. This means that experience alone cannot be the criterion upon which theological decisions are founded. At the same time, the fact that experience is appealed to to support a decision does not imply anything about experience’s relative weight in comparison to other sources of theology. One can make a scriptural argument for a position, and support it by experience, without implying that the latter somehow is equal in authority to the former. This is at least logically possible, and this should be recognized when interpreting a text such as this one. Fifth up:

Only after the stories had been told of God’s work in the present did James appeal to a biblical text. Note, however, the unusual introduction he gives to the citation: “The words of the prophets agree with this” [Acts 15:15], not “this agrees with the prophets.”6 Scripture is seen to agree with the contemporary working of the Spirit, not the other way around. [38]

Keesmaat is straining at words here. It simply is not the case that James’ phrasing requires that experience is determining the function of scripture; James put things this way because experience had been discussed first (since it was experience, after all, which was forcing this discussion). And, regardless of what one thinks about Keesmaat’s argument here, they would also have to reckon with texts like these, which have more direct implications about the relation of the authority of Christ to that of scripture:

Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Luk 22:37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”

Luk 24:44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

And finally, continuing with Keesmaat:

James acknowledges that God is doing a new thing, and he reads scripture as if it confirms that new thing, as indeed it does. But let’s be clear here. There are many scriptural texts that could be used to make a case against admitting the Gentiles who do not follow Torah. Some texts speak not of welcoming Gentiles, but of defeating and crushing them. Others insist on the need for circumcision for those Gentiles who want to join the community of Israel.7 Conversely, there are no texts that support the position of welcoming the Gentiles without circumcision. So what did James do? He quoted a text that did not address the situation directly, but which could be made to fit the circumstances. James has made the remarkable move of allowing the Old Testament to be illuminated and interpreted by the narrative of God’s activity in the present [Johnson 1996, 105]. Moreover, this text still does not assert that circumcision is unnecessary for the Gentiles to be welcomed. That is an interpretive move that James must make himself. [39]

Keesmaat reasons in this way: (1) James quotes a biblical text to support his position, (2) but the text does not prove what he says, (3) so James must have been operating on the principle that his experience should determine the text’s meaning, rather than letting authorial intention do so. The problematic part of the argument here is (2). Keesmaat thinks that James’ argument doesn’t work, and from that argues for James’ hermeneutic, but has she established that James, or any of the people at the council, agreed with her evaluation of James?

And, indeed, there is good reason to doubt that James, or anyone in that council, believed that James was using the text in the way that Keesmaat suggests. Earlier in Acts, Luke obviously praises the Bereans for their testing of what Paul taught against the Scriptures; however, this directly contradicts the idea of letting experience override the authorial intention of the text. The Bereans are *praised* for not just believing the gospel and forcing the OT fit it, but for actually holding Paul’s gospel in question tentatively, until they could establish that it was indeed consistent with the Old Testament Scriptures.

This commending of the Bereans’ procedure as virtuous is in turn reflective of the attitude of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel after the resurrection. There, Jesus scolds Cleopas and his companion for being “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken”. That is, they failed to see something that the prophets did indeed teach, even though they did not yet have the experience of the risen Jesus to corroborate it (or to force it to mean something it does not, a la the Fowl/Johnson/Keesmaat hermeneutic). (This story probably itself alludes back to the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, where the climax of the parable is: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”)

And, indeed, this principle reflects the process for theological discernment that Moses laid down for the Israelites:

Deuteronomy 13:1-4 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him.

And the later prophets confirmed this method as the correct one:

Isaiah 8:18-20 Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.

This finally leads us to one of the most fundamental issues underlying the kind of hermeneutic that Stephen Fowl and Luke Timothy Johnson (and Keesmaat following them) are suggesting here: it suggests that, after all, the OT does not witness to the coming Messiah, or that if it does, it supports the kind of Messiah that the Jews who rejected Jesus desired. Jesus, after all is said and done, was more of a Marcionite than the orthodox church believed. The early Christians did not believe Jesus actually fulfilled the prophets, but rather that the prophets had to be creatively (i.e., in plain-speak, falsely) reinterpreted in order to conform to conclusions reached by other means. If this is correct, the church has a much more fundamental issue to deal with than homosexuality. It has to ask itself: was Marcion right all along? Is Jesus really the embodiment of the God of Israel?