Albert Mohler Responds to Mary Zeiss Stange on Gays and Luther

I earlier posted the comments of Mary Zeiss Strange on Luther and homosexuality. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, responds in the Christian Post. I think that he does a good job of laying out the theological arguments that need to be addressed. I will lay out his argument and offer a brief response.

First, he rejects the argument that we can discount Paul's statements on homosexuality on the basis of a modern understanding of human sexuality:

The Apostle Paul's statements in the Bible are either divinely inspired or not. This is and will remain the crucial issue in the issue of Christianity and controversies over homosexuality. The Bible's statements are clear and they are uniformly condemnatory of all same-sex sexual acts – period. Those who want to push for the normalization of homosexuality and the recognition of same-sex relationships within the church have to find some way around those passages and they must convince enough fellow church members to accept their arguments.

The specific move Professor Stange makes is not new, nor is it honest. Proponents of homosexuality try to argue that we now possess knowledge of sexuality that renders the biblical teachings obsolete. In other words, Paul was writing with the only knowledge of homosexuality available to him at that time. We now know better?

When Professor Stange acknowledges that the concept of "sexual orientation" is a modern invention, she acknowledges the massive shift in modern sexual morality. But do we really know anything new about the essential morality of homosexual acts? We do not.

The concept of sexual orientation is indeed a modern invention, if by orientation we refer to the entire complex of psychological, emotional, relational, social, and physiological factors that are involved in an individual's sexual development. We have learned a great deal in recent decades on these issues, but nothing we have learned changes the basic morality of same-sex acts. We may understand to a greater extent what might be involved in an individual's sexual profile and attractions, but this does not change the morality of homosexuality.

I agree with Mohrer that there is little doubt that Paul rejected the homosexuality known to his time, but I think that Mohrer is a bit too glib in arguing that while we know more about the psychology of sexuality, we have not learned much about its morality. The problem with Mohrer's argument is that it assumes too much about what Paul was rejecting. Did Paul ever associate homosexuality in the context of a committed long term relationship? Are the (unspoken) moral problems he associated with homosexuality present in such relationships?

From what I understand, Paul was largely speaking of either cultic sexual practices of a competing religion or promiscuous (and often coercive) homosexual relationship known to the Greek world. Seems to me that the morality of these relationships are quite different than that of a committed long term relationship. Indeed, I would be curious to hear what Mohrer views as the moral wrong of such a relationship.

Second, Mohrer relies on Luther for a view that does not allow us to vary from the pronouncements in the New Testament:

What would Luther do? Asking this kind of question invites trouble. The question might be a fun exercise for a graduate seminar, but it cannot be answered in any helpful way, other than to go back to what Luther did.

Luther stood upon the authority of every single word of the Bible. As he repeatedly made clear, no word of the Bible could be dismissed – every word carries the full authority of God Himself. Luther put his life on the line for the sole authority of the Bible and this became the formal principle of the Reformation itself – sola Scriptura.

Luther specifically affirmed the Bible's teachings on homosexuality and he never rejected or denied the full authority of any text of Scripture. It is intellectual dishonesty of the highest degree to suggest that Luther would change his position on homosexuality if only he could be instructed about the modern concepts of sexual orientation and sexual lifestyles.

This is the real Luther:

"Is it not certain that he who does not or will not believe one article correctly (after he has been taught and admonished) does not believe any sincerely and with the right faith? And whoever is so bold that he ventures to accuse God of fraud and deception in a single word and does so willfully again and again after he has been warned and instructed once or twice will likewise certainly venture to accuse God of fraud and deception in all of His words. Therefore it is true, absolutely and without exception, that everything is believed or nothing is believed. The Holy Spirit does not suffer Himself to be separated and divided so that He should teach and cause to be believed one doctrine rightly and another falsely."

Luther argued that anyone who would deny the authority of one biblical text will deny others as well. In his own words, "everything is believed or nothing is believed." Those churches and denominations considering the homosexuality question should ponder that statement carefully.

I am no expert on Luther, so I won't opine on whether Mohrer is correctly summarizing Luther's views on the authority of scripture. I do, however, think that the concept that "everything is believed or nothing is believed" overstates how we, in fact, both should read the Bible and do read the Bible. The New Testament is quite clear on divorce, yet most Protestant denominations accept that divorce can be acceptable. The Bible was read for centuries as compatible with slavery. Nonetheless, Christians rejected these passages of the Bible as inconsistent with Jesus's larger message of love. Scripture, must be read in light of bothe reason and experience.

To this end, I think the best rejoinder to Mohrer comes from Luke Timothy Johnson (what a great name for a New Testament Scholar!):

Our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. During the 1850s, arguments raged over the morality of slave-holding, and the exegesis of Scripture played a key role in those debates. The exegetical battles were one-sided: all abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments, which gave every indication that slaveholding was a legitimate, indeed God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised a fundamental objection. So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong?

The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience-through personal testimony and direct personal contact, through fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, of course, through a great Civil War in which ghastly numbers of people gave their lives so that slaves could be seen not as property but as persons. As persons, they could be treated by the same law of love that governed relations among all Christians, and could therefore eventually also realize full civil rights within society. And once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.

Read Luke Timothy Johnson here.

Read all of Mohrer's essay here.


bls said…
I've been reading "Mere Christianity" in which Lewis writes this:

"There is one bit of advice given to us by the ancient heathen Greeks, and by the Jews in the Old Testament, and by the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages, which the modern economic system has completely disobeyed. All these people told us not to lend money at interest: and lending money at interest-what we call investment-is the basis of our whole system. Now it may not absolutely follow that we are wrong. Some people say that when Moses and Aristotle and the Christians agreed in forbidding interest (or "usury" as they called it), they could not foresee the joint stock company, and were only dunking of the private moneylender, and that, therefore, we need not bother about what they aid. That is a question I cannot decide on. I am not an economist and I simply do not know whether the investment system is responsible for the state we are in or not This is where we want the Christian economist But I should not have been honest if I had not told you that three great civilisations had agreed (or so it seems at first sight) in condemning the very thing on which we have based our whole life. "

So, along with the examples you give, the argument about "believing every word of the Bible" is just so not what's going on.
Chuck Blanchard said…
Thanks bls! the bibical ban on usery was viewed as part of the moral code well past the Middle Ages. It is a very good example of how experience and reason must come into play in deciding which parts of the Bible are commands from God (as opposed to the cultural norms of first century Palestine).
bls said…
Sorry, there were a lot of errors in that passage I didn't see!

That one particular sentence should read "....and were only thinking of the private moneylender, and that, therefore, we need not bother about what they said."

And some punctuation mistakes, too! Oh, la, la! Sorry again.

If this whole episode teaches us anything, perhaps it's that we need to go deeper in our readings of Scripture, and get to the bottom of the real issues? It could really be that there are some major theological issues involved - just not the ones everybody's arguing about.

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