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For some of us it is the proverbial Yogi Berra “Déjà vu all over again” moment.  As the Christian Reformed Church approaches the COVID-delayed discussion on the Human Sexuality Report (HSR) this coming June at Synod, those of us with slight or significant reservations about the report are hearing an old familiar accusation: “You have no respect for the authority of Scripture.”

A colleague involved with the report recently said at a public event that those in disagreement with the HSR seem to have “little interest” in discussing the Bible, that they seem to “not care” about the Bible, and that although they may still try to claim the Reformation position of sola scriptura, they obviously don’t really mean it.  Meanwhile on Facebook a ministry colleague recently posted that in these matters the very future of the CRCNA is at stake but that the real issue finally has nothing to do with human sexuality so much as whether we believe that the Bible is “authoritative, clear, and sufficient.”  (This colleague and I had a subsequent exchange that I think was fruitful for both of us, and some of what follows are reflections this sparked in me.)

By way of a few caveats let me say that there can be no doubting there are issues that involve the central authority of Scripture.  It is shooting fish in a barrel to come up with a list of beliefs and doctrines that clearly stem from the Bible alone such that disagreeing with such matters would require a repudiation of Scripture by way of doubting whether the Bible really gets it right a lot of the time.  I am not denying for a moment that boundaries exist and that in terms of the Bible, some ideas all but require putting a lot of daylight between a given notion and the teachings of Scripture in ways that toss out biblical authority. 

Let me also stipulate that it is possible that some or all of the issues addressed in the HSR rise to this level.  It goes without saying that I would not be writing this blog were it not for the fact that many are already saying this (as reflected in the comments by two colleagues summarized above).  A key question with which to wrestle, therefore, is whether or not that is the case, and I have no delusions that I can definitively answer that question at this moment in time.  Neither would I for one moment even hint at the idea that those who may have contrary or somewhat different ideas on these issues from my own thoughts are themselves not taking the Bible seriously and with due respect for its authority.

But this is a generous extension of trust that is not being proffered in the other direction, at least not by some.*   But here is where the “déjà vu all over again” part comes in for me.  Many of us have been here before.  In the mid-1980s when I concluded that women could serve in all the offices of the church, many assured me I was violating Scripture and thereby demonstrating my lack of respect for Scriptural authority.  Endorse women in office today and tomorrow you doubt the divinity of Christ.

Over the years this has also happened to me and to others in the area of faith and science.  A decade ago when Calvin Seminary had a Templeton grant to develop and curate resources in the area of faith and science, not a few people noticed we provided materials that supported an old earth view and theistic evolution.   Those who embrace a Young Earth Creationist standpoint that includes a belief of an earth of not more than 6,000-10,000 years of age started sending us emails and letters.  And the leitmotif of all of them was the same: you are no longer respecting the clear teachings of the Bible and demonstrate thereby that you have abandoned the authority of Scripture.  Endorse an ancient earth today and tomorrow you will deny Christ’s resurrection.

Of course it is possible to arrive at positions supporting women in church office or theistic evolution in a manner that does backhand Scripture on these matters.  And I am sure there are some advocating for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the church that do the same: forget what the Bible says, we will do what we believe is right in our hearts.

One can find an example of almost anything out there in the wider church.  But that by no means signals that this approach is the only way to arrive at positions some find disagreeable or are certain cannot possibly be the true teaching of the Bible.  People with equal ardor for the Bible and its authority can and do arrive at opposing positions sometimes.

Naturally some claim that the issues in the HSR are different than these other matters I have raised.  This is not the same as women in church office or how old the universe is or what the Bible has to say about either of those matters.  That’s probably true.  Any given issue involves different aspects of hermeneutics as well as both how certain texts are interpreted and how those same texts get applied to the actual practice of the church.  Issues involved in the HSR are different than women in office, and women in church office in turn is a different kettle of biblical fish than discerning what the Bible does or does not say about the age of the universe or the manner of its creation.  Fair enough.

But what is similar across all of these is the method of impugning the character and spirit of opponents through recourse to the old accusation, “You think that way because you disrespect the clear authority of the Bible.”  But it’s not true and so is not “fair enough” to allege.  As I wrote recently in The Reformed Journal, the CRCNA did not arrive at a new position on divorce and remarriage in 1980 by disrespecting the authority of Scripture.  What the Bible said clearly and consistently and compellingly on such matters was dealt with very seriously.  The precise application of all that pastorally and in a broken world led to some new ideas but not because the Bible was tossed onto the dustbin of history.

Accusing someone of abandoning the authority of the Bible strikes me as a grave accusation in a confessional tradition like the CRCNA.  I plead with my sisters and brothers in Christ: do not lodge that accusation lightly.

*= Let me say that I also do not care for the ungenerous accusation that those in support of the HSR are failing to love others as Christ said we must.  That is also an unfair accusation too often made in the abstract.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

7 Comments

  • Steve Van't Hof says:

    Thanks for this, Scott

  • Patricia Cavanaugh says:

    Words needed and well-said. Accusations that the Holy Spirit is not working in our church have been leveled at people who hold a different point of view.

  • Shar karsten says:

    Thank you!

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Scott,
    I appreciate what you wrote. I find it fascinating that some people equate their interpretation of the Bible as what the “Bible says.” I seem to remember learning at Calvin (now University) College that the Scriptures are infallible, but our interpretations of it are not. This seems to fit with our unofficial creed as Reformed churches, “Reformed according to the Word of God, and always reforming.” I have people in the church I serve who are adamant that we must be open and affirming, and I have people in the church who are adamant that we must remain within the traditional interpretation of the church. I find that both take the Bible very seriously. Some who are convinced that the church must be open and affirming have taken on the daunting task of reading Jim Brownson’s book on the issue (evidence if anyone needs it that some take the Bible very seriously, even if they disagree with his conclusions). I must admit that others who believe the church must be open and affirming have not done that same work, but they trust that many have. I wonder if that trust takes place with many of the folk with these contentious issues in the church. Is it okay for our members to trust the leaders they have good relationships with? Part of me wants to say, ‘Yes, of course,” but then I see that this has lead to vaccine denial and unthinking positions held with an ardor that disturbs me.
    One last thing … my experience with those who “take the Bible seriously,” is a hermeneutic of literalism, particularly with issues that don’t affect them directly and a mix of other interpretive glasses with issues that do affect them directly. I suppose this is a human condition, because I see this practice “on both sides of the aisle.” But I have always wondered how someone can “take the Bible seriously,” find from Leviticus that homosexual actions are sinful, but not follow through to advocate for the punishment-the death penalty. I know, the sword belongs to the State, but why do I not see the Church rise up to call for the death penalty for gay folk? Many advocate for the end of abortion because of their interpretation of Scripture. Why do the “take the Bible seriously” folk not rally behind the Westboro Baptist folk? I know … that’s going too far, and we can’t actually be associated with those folk who take the Bible THAT seriously, but it makes me wonder. I don’t say this to impugn anyone. It’s just that “take the Bible seriously” is such a relative term. We must work to take it seriously but to live and die by it feels rather unproductive-or at least to pronounce life or death on others with such certainty because of a contrary interpretation feels unproductive.
    All of this talk makes me think of the former president and what we were told so often, “Don’t take him literally, but take him seriously.” Is this what we really mean when one side or the other condemns the “opponent” for not taking the Bible seriously?

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    Scott,

    As someone who has been caught up in the same crosswinds for years, I too have always hoped that we could respect each other, even when taking different positions on what the Bible has to say on the many issues regarding homosexuality. Yet mutual respect would mean that committed Christians disagree, that these issues demand ongoing discussion, and that measures to ban those in committed, homosexual relationships from communion with their fellow Christians are premature and harmful at this stage in the debate. If one wants to ban someone from communion, then one must be certain, and to be certain, one cannot grant other competing positions on the issue.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    Reminds me of Henry Stob teaching us that good thinking means making careful distinctions.

  • Andrew Beunk says:

    Scott,
    Some years ago Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson made a provocative claim that this debate is really about appealing to “another authority.” Here’s what he wrote:

    “I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy—that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.

    I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us.” (https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-0)

    In my opinion John Cooper compellingly argued that in the WICO debates we were not elevating human experience to the same authority as the Bible (though some claimed it was). Not so for the SSM debate. In this debate the authority of human experience and “science” is revising the plain reading of Scripture. And it seems to me this lies at the heart of the debate.

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