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In graduate school, I got a chance to see correspondence between two 19th century lions of American Presbyterian theology: Charles Hodge and James Henley Thornwell.

James Henley Thornwell

This correspondence between two close friends and theological allies was anguished because the country—and their beloved Presbyterian denomination—were in the throes of division. The rights of states to do as they pleased within the Union were at stake, according to Southerners, but the matter of what they wanted to do as they pleased about—enslaving people of African descent—was woven through the fight.

It looks to us now like a moral issue that one side got right and the other got wrong. But here’s the thing: from his home in the North, Charles Hodge, using traditional Reformed exegesis informed by classic Reformed hermeneutics, could not escape the conclusion that Thornwell and his allies were right: the Bible did not mandate the abolition of slavery where it already existed. 

The Presbyterians were the last major denomination to split over divisions between North and South. And they split not over slavery, but over the question of whether the Bible supported the South’s rebellion against a duly elected government. And the two denominations, once split, did not reunite until 1983. We Reformed folk have proven, time and time again, that we would rather be right than together. 

The Tyranny of the Wrong Question

But that’s not the problem I’m writing about today. I’m here to write about a longstanding Reformed tradition highlighted in that correspondence: the tradition of coming up with the right answers to exactly the wrong questions. Sometimes cruelly wrong questions.

Historians have now thoroughly documented the unspeakable horrors of the American chattel slave system. Its cruelties were legion, and they were all too often based on assumptions that Africans were in effect children in every way—though of course even the cruelest enslaver probably never beat his own children until deep scars remained for the rest of their lives, or even until they died. The cruelties of the slave system were obvious: the physical enslavement, the breaking up of families, the rape, the constant presence of violence coupled with the threat of even more. The list goes on and on.

But these two Reformed theological stalwarts wrote to each other as if none of that mattered. The question before them, they insisted, was a narrow one. And by the standards of how we in our tradition have been taught to read the Bible, they were probably right. 

We’ve long since come to believe that human beings enslaving other human beings is a terrible sin. But the process for our seeing that was set in motion not by Reformed theologians, but by the Union Army—not because they were on a moral crusade, but because they had a war to win. Yet we all now see it: Human beings should not own one another. 

Some Reformed conservatives now fight tirelessly against human trafficking. But that wasn’t the case in 1861. The Bible hasn’t changed in that time; we just finally came around. It wasn’t because the answers to our questions changed. It was that, with our culture presenting us with a different way of seeing the matter, we finally—finally—changed the questions.

We should be grateful for that—grateful to the broader culture. We might still be asking our narrow questions of the Bible about slavery otherwise—and coming up with our cruelly narrow, correct answers.

Tight and Right

We in the Reformed tradition do tend to get the answers right, by our standards, to the questions we ask. That’s one of our things. But so often we get the questions so, so wrong. And so often, we act like that doesn’t matter. Like good lawyers (see: John Calvin) in a courtroom and scholastics (see: same) writing a thesis, we ask tight questions that help us to come up with easy answers, and toss aside whether our tight questions may be, by their very tightness, cruel.

There was decades-long division in the Christian Reformed Church over the question of whether adopted children could be baptized. (Will Katerberg wrote a great history of the controversy in The Banner.) The question was first raised in 1910. In 1930 it was decided that adopted children could be baptized. It was not until 1982 that Synod declared that no distinction between adoption and birth should be recognized. To many on the conservative side, it seemed riskier to offer baptism too broadly, to make too many assumptions about how broadly this tangible sign of God’s love could faithfully be spread. Never mind the cruelty of making distinctions within families as to who should receive this tangible sign of God’s love and who shouldn’t. It was safer to make adopted children go through the process of official conversion and baptism as adults. Safer for leaders, anyway.

Now, of course, conservative Christians, including many in the Christian Reformed Church, are at the forefront of the international adoption movement, and those who believe in infant baptism joyfully bring adopted children to the font. But the Bible didn’t change in the last century; only the questions that we asked of it did. We started asking different questions because we got comfortable in the broader culture seeing families with different skin colors and DNA, and that led to our coming around and changing the questions we asked.

But how could we get the questions so cruelly wrong, for so damnably long? 

And why do we just carry on now, acting as though that terrible history of getting the questions wrong is simply a sin of the past, not a tendency we need to be aware of today?

Once More, Without Feeling?

Now we sit with the matter of same-sex marriage—of same-sex. . .sex. Conservatives can’t live with the dissent, or even the possibility of dissent, on this question. They turn to the Bible and ask the sort of narrowly constructed questions that the Reformed tradition has specialized in: does the Bible condemn same-sex sex? Is there such a thing as gay marriage in the Bible? There are certainly verses to reach for to come to answer these narrow questions with quick, clear answers. But just as Hodge and Thornwell made no distinctions between what they read about in the Bible and their own context, today’s conservatives are ready with easy equivalencies, and thus all too quick, all too easy answers.

But what if our history of asking the wrong questions needs to be part of the discussion? Where is the sort of self-awareness that is such a crucial part of our life before God? What if we just keep making the same sorts of mistakes, not just personally in our behavior but corporately in our interpretation of Scripture? The track record is there, in plain sight.

How might we approach the question of LGBTQ inclusion differently if we started with the crucial self-awareness that, in our tradition, we have all too often asked questions that turn out to be not just wrong, but cruelly wrong? Not just narrow, but cruelly narrow? What if we bring a real, historically rooted understanding that we have required more than just careful exegesis, but developments in the broader culture, to see our cruelty?

David Bratt

David Bratt is a literary agent and founding partner of BBH Literary, an agency dedicated to helping authors in the world of faith and scholarship find larger audiences for their work. He graduated from Calvin College and earned a Ph.D. in American religious history from Yale University. He is a member of Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

25 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Excellent.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Let my clarify. While Tillich’s Correlation theory suggests that our questions are what lead us to God’s revelation, Barth’s answer is that God is the one who gets to ask the questions of us. It’s God’s questions we fundamentally have to answer, and those questions come to us through the threefold Word (Christ, Scripture, preaching). But while I hope Barth is right, that still leaves the hermeneutical / experiential problem: which of our questions are God’s questions. Which is why I think your post is excellent.

  • Robert Otte says:

    Thank you for your perspective. Many years ago, I wrote the overture that got the policy of baptizing adopted children changed. I also wrote a Banner article about it.

  • James VANDEN BOSCH says:

    Excellent essay, David. Your list can be expanded, but the main point is the same.

    Thanks.

  • June says:

    What if. Yes. God have mercy. Thanks for this.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    It would be interesting to approach our history of division through this lens. Ordination of women? Interpretations of creation? The 19th century split of RCA/CRA? etc. It would be an interesting new starting point for our conversations … what is the right question(s)?
    Thanks

  • Dan Hawkins says:

    Thanks for flipping the viewpoint. My congregation is one of many that has committed to living together even if we have arrived at different answers. Questioning the question gives me hope for more fruitful (and non-threatening) conversations about those differences.

    Hat tip also to Mr. Meeter for pointing to the source of the big questions!

  • Joel DeMoor says:

    “And Jonah stalked
    to his shaded seat
    and waited for God
    to come around
    to his way of thinking.
    And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs
    in their comfortable houses
    to come around
    to his way of loving.”
    —Thomas Carlisle “You Jonah”

  • Tom says:

    This is excellent and provides good insight into how we should approach difficult issues.

    One little poke-back, though, to a couple of sentences, because it’s typical of many essays in this blog:
    + “Conservatives can’t live with the dissent, or even the possibility of dissent, on this question.”
    + “today’s conservatives are ready with easy equivalencies, and thus all too quick, all too easy answers.”

    As one who generally falls on the conservative side of the aisle, I would appreciate some acknowledgement that there are progressives (or whatever you want to call yourselves) who, like some conservatives, do not easily tolerate dissent and who are very quick with the all too easy answers. And, on both sides, these are the ones who do most of the yelling.

    Meanwhile — the majority of conservative-leaning people that I know, while they believe (based on what they read in the scriptures) that an LGBT lifestyle is not aligned with how God designed us to live, have gay family members, friends, children of friends, etc., and treat them with love and respect just as they treat everyone else in their lives. They do this while also acknowledging that we all have a few planks in our own eyes.

    Being quick to judge, certain that we’re correct, and generally obnoxious is a human trait, not a specifically conservative trait.

  • J C S says:

    Thank you Tom, well written & said.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    I wonder if I may nose in with a few observations:

    • Despite hoping for and calling for better questions, the author does not offer what exactly the better question is in the concluding application. Such a proposal would have been helpful.

    • The “but slavery” argument is neither novel nor unanswered.

    • The examples offered in the lead up to the sexuality application are categorically different considerations than the latter. Neither of the lead-in examples involve actual moral proscriptions or prescriptions. While Scripture speaks much descriptively on slavery, it does not speak prescriptively about the institution, and of course we know it does speak proscriptively about stealing/kidnapping people (which historically was handily ignored). So, in breaking with historical arguments/precedents, there was no defying of moral pro- or prescriptions. The same can be said for the adoption/baptism question. You will not find a Scripture that withholds baptism from adopted children of believers. Both of those questions, then, are categorically different than questions of violation of stated moral standards.

    • Tom has commented on several statements in the essay from his perspective, and I would add the following: To say repeatedly that conservatives have “quick”, “ready”, or “easy” answers is (perhaps unintentionally) pejoratively misleading and dishonest. Such descriptors imply hasty, even superficial or thoughtless conclusions. Such descriptors are not commensurate with the care, concern, love, and depth with which the church (and specifically in this application those who support the historical position) has approached and wrangled with this matter. The author believes that “conservatives’” can tolerate no dissent on homosexual sex/marriage, but if his idea of tolerating other peoples’ ideas is to describe them in pejorative and misleading terms so that they can be knocked over or burned like a strawman, then I’m not sure how that approach is superior.

    • The author does not posit a limiting principle on this proposed approach. The author is somewhat coy, though also fairly transparent that he thinks different/better questions would lead us away from honoring certain moral standards about human sexuality as historically understood by the church. I wonder: just what other moral standards or doctrinal beliefs might we discard with this approach? What things are there in Scripture that dig deeply into my most sacred/personal/meaningful thoughts, desires, and identity that I might be free to walk away from due to asking a larger/different question, perhaps about my (personally defined) well-being or sense of self?

    • A commenter notes in a poem about Jonah that God is waiting for a host of Jonahs to come around to his way of loving, which is true enough in general, and indicative of our not-yet-perfected condition. But in this context it is interesting to note that God’s way of loving Nineveh was to send Jonah to preach against their wickedness, leading to repentance. Where repentance is substituted with affirmation, that we might feel better about ourselves, we can be assured that we are not loving as God does. Beyond that, we read and see repeatedly that God chastens those whom he loves, so we do well to also love like that when necessary. Jonah’s biggest problem was a disdain for others and a lack of love that didn’t desire to see the repentance he knew would be pleasing and acceptable to God. For the dear pastor to insinuate that conservatives are Jonahs, missing the mark of God’s love, is also off the mark in that those supporting the historical understanding of the Bible regarding sexuality absolutely long for all persons to repent of our sexual sin. Sure, there are crude and careless persons holding Jonah’s view who make their sin plain. But no honest person can observe CRC Synod 2022 and conclude that the majority will illustrated a desire for anything other than for God’s grace and mercy to be shown to all through the repentance and forgiveness of sin.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Hi, Eric: Let me try an observation on your third observation here. The other day I interviewed Esau McCaulley who at one point observed that today a lot of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and look back on his work fondly even though some of these same people currently reject Black Lives Matter, throw the “woke” label around at anything they don’t like, upbraid people for any hint of CRT. What they cannot see, McCaulley claimed, is that their rejection of these things now comes from the same place–and often uses the same rationale–as why people rejected MLK when he was alive and why he was labeled a communist and worse by Christian people. Similarly it is easy now to say as you did here that David’s analogies of slavery or baptism of adopted children is different from the LGBTQ+ issues he raises because those other issues clearly have no supporting Bible texts (whereas, I assume you are saying, the current sexual issues do). Thing is: people back then were VERY sure the Bible was on their side, and the lack of a specific text targeting adopted children was no obstacle to claiming the Bible was on the side of their theology and they had texts to which they would have pointed you to claim this. The “This is clearly different” line of thought just ain’t true. Support women-in-office in the church and you CLEARLY are tossing the Bible overboard. Support anything other than Young Earth Creationism and you are ignoring the clear witness and authority of Scripture. I have had these judgments lobbed at me about both of those issues. Ordain women today, believe in theistic evolution today and tomorrow you deny the Virgin Birth and the resurrection. The fact that WE cannot now see how anyone could have used the Bible to support chattel slavery in the U.S. or a ban on baptizing adopted children in the CRC has almost nothing to do with the fact that back then, the Bible was the clarion reason people took the stance they did on those issues. That we now judge that to be wrong doesn’t change this nor does it remove the possibility that the same thing is to some degree going on now, which I think was perhaps a main point David was making.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        Hi Scott, thanks for engaging. You do misunderstand my point. I did not in fact say “those other issues clearly have no supporting Bible texts.” I was making a category argument regarding what types of Biblical arguments were made and what types of Biblical language was potential applicable. I am quite aware that people made arguments for each of these issues from the Bible. But you will not find parallel language that they were able to employ as a category of moral prescription or moral proscription. The arguments by their very nature were more “preponderance of evidence” sort of arguments. Yes, for many years many were quite sure in them, but I would maintain that they were different sorts of arguments, even if they ultimately appealed to the same source. Thanks again for engaging.

        • Scott Hoezee says:

          We may be splitting hairs, not that theologians ever do that (!). I suspect however that the folks back in the day might have argued that whatever texts and such they mustered re: baptizing adopted children were themselves prescriptive and proscriptive texts even if we today don’t buy that. The fact that you think right now that certain texts are morally prescriptive and proscriptive in precisely the ways you might want to apply them to specific situations to which they may or may not actually speak does not make that designation once-for-all definitive. 50 years from now when looking back, people may wonder how we regarded certain texts as prescriptive and proscriptive for the contexts to which we applied them in 2023. I cannot know that this will happen, of course, but my only point is that things can look quite different in the moment as they did also for people whose biblically moral arguments years ago now look cruel and wounding and finally unconvincing to us.

          • Eric Van Dyken says:

            I believe you correct in that, and share a conviction that we always ought to know and examine what we believe and why we believe it, all the while recognizing that our best efforts will be marred by our sinful nature. As the song prays, may God grant us wisdom, grant us courage…for the facing of this hour…for the living of these days…lest we miss [His] kingdom’s goal…serving [Him] whom we adore.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        Hi again, Scott. Apropos of your comment only and not of this blog post, I would offer that McCaulley would do well not to categorically assume he knows why people reject certain things. I personally reject Black Lives Matter because it is a demonstrably ungodly and wicked organization. Each rejection should be taken on its own merits and not universally castigated or dismissed based on faulty (though convenient) historical comparisons.

        • Scott Hoezee says:

          I should have made more clear that Esau made this observation not generally but based on conversations with people. And again in the sauce for the goose category: “demonstrably ungodly and wicked” is pretty much exactly what some Christians made of Dr. King. If you doubt that, I have a letter dated 10 April 1968 from a Grand Rapids Christian school principal explaining to parents why the school refused to be closed on the day of King’s funeral. The reason? Because, the principle said, King was “a false prophet . . . who openly violated the laws of the land and who could never have been a saved child of God.” Or there was the CRC man from Zeeland, MI, who wrote to CTS President John Kromminga to protest the Seminary’s having honored Dr. King on the day of his funeral, claiming: “the social gospel preached by Dr. King is not the true gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. King’s new social order was more communist than Christian” and that King was “the Arch Apostle of civil disobedience . . . rioting and insurrection followed wherever he went” and so Calvin Seminary and its President needed to stop “fraternizing with the enemy.” For most people BLM is more of a symbol and a movement than a specific organization but though this may not apply to you, to a lot of people who reject BLM today in the same language people once used for King in CRC circles, that doesn’t matter.

          • Eric Van Dyken says:

            Clearly McCaulley is engaged in a rhetorical tactic in an attempt to delegitimize criticisms of ideologies or organizations he finds admirable, that is what I criticize. Do you claim that BLM is not ungodly and wicked? The similarity to MLK criticism is of no note unless one wants to use the benighted status of MLK to wash away the legitimate criticism of BLM. I would describe the KKK as ungodly and wicked as well. Of what import is it that some people spoke harshly of MLK with those same terms? Guilt by association (of argument) is as logically fallacious in this realm as it is in others. Criticisms of BLM should rise or fall on their own merits.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    I’ll add one more observation, namely that the author is wrong to assert that “conservatives” simply turn to scripture with “narrowly constructed questions.” Here the author fails to acknowledge that the church (including those typically called conservatives) has indeed asked many broader questions that bear on this topic, often specifically as it considers this topic. Questions such as:

    • What does love of God look like?
    • What does love of neighbor look like?
    • How do we understand ourselves as created beings?
    • How do we understand the nature and role of welcome and hospitality?
    • How do we come to know God’s will? How do we balance Special and General Revelation?
    • What does it mean to flourish?
    • Why did God create man and woman and what is the nature and purpose of marriage?
    • What is the nature of God’s kingdom?
    • How do we understand the fruit of repentance?
    • What is new birth? How do know what is the old man to be put to death and the new man to be brought to life?

    These questions and more have been wrestled with for millennia and are bigger and different framing questions that all bear on and interplay with questions of sexual morals. To be sure, some of these questions are directly and indirectly addressed in the HSR itself.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    That you wrote a thought-provoking essay is obvious from the comments, David. Thank you for your thoughts and thank you to those who contributed to a necessary and helpful discussion of those thoughts.
    Harvey Kiekover

  • Susan says:

    Great essay and great conversation. Thank you Reformed Journal for providing this forum that we all can read and learn from. I also thought the essay on the attitudes toward MLK was excellent.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    Paul says “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). We need to realize that we are not the original audience of the biblical text. According to William Webb, “what we must live out in our modern culture is not the isolated words of the text but the redemptive spirit that the text reflects as read against its original culture. In applying the text to our era, we do not want to stay static with the text. Rather we need to move on, beyond the text, and take the redemptive dimension of those words further to a more redemptive level.” If we don’t do this, we will continue treating women, slaves, foreigners, etc. badly using the letter of the text.

  • RZ says:

    Excellent article and very stimulating dialogue!
    At the risk of offending our sola scriptura tradition, I would add one more question we might be getting wrong because we seldom ask it. What does God intend for scripture to reveal to us and even if it is everything, how can we be do sure we do not sinfully distort it (descriptively, proscriptively or prescriptively)?
    History illustrates that we get it wrong as often as right.

  • Douglas Porter says:

    It seems to me that the main question we have been asking is: ”Does gay marriage/sex meet the moral standards presented in the Bible?” This definitely needs to be addressed. However, the more fundamental question that we should focus on is: “What do we make of gay marriage/sex in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that declares that God offers grace, mercy and renewal of life to all who will receive it.” Much of our deliberation and discussion seems to result in a reduction of the power and beauty of the Gospel.

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