Skip to comments."Biblical" Values for Gnostic "Families"
Posted on 05/31/2006 7:33:24 PM PDT by sionnsar
I happened to take a look at Susan Russells blog last night and found an excerpted article by the Rev. Dr. Jay E. Johnson whom she describes as an Episcopal priest and theologian. The article, Biblical Values for American Families, is itself slightly excerpted from a website called Clergy for Fairness a site opposed to the Federal Marriage Amendment. It originally appeared in The Progressive Christian Witness: A Ministry of Pacific School of Religion.
It is a striking article, notable both for the authors misapplication of the biblical models and for the absence of any concept of the fall (something all too common in revisionist thought). First, Johnson+ elevates the dubious post-fall marital models of the patriarchs over that of the pre-fall model of creation. Second, he uses the fact of Jesus and Pauls celibacy to argue against the biological component of marriage.
But the greatest problem with the Rev. Johnsons analysis, and the reason Ive decided to take a closer look, is his inherent assumption that biblical revelations and injunctions are subject to human correction. They are not as authoritative in determining moral absolutes as are contemporary, even personal, standards and attitudes. This is the assumption that lies behind the mother-goddess movement on the leftward fringe. The bible is seen as a wholly cultural product and as such wholly subject to cultural change. If twenty first century Americans think it offensive to address God as Father then we simply address him as Mother. If we dont like ancient sexual mores, we simply replace them with progressive sexual mores.
Lets take a closer look.
Modern families and biblical families share the word family in common, but not much more. So in order to find in Scripture the timeless values that can guide American family life, we need to look beyond the radical differences between the ancient world and our own. We need to read the Bible in a manner that is faithful to its spirit and honest about its content.
You might smell something increasingly familiar just under the surface of this first paragraph. It is the smell of neo-gnosticism: disregarding the particular in favor of the timeless; dismissing the actual in favor of the ideal, dismissing the flesh in favor of the spirit. There is in the New Testament especially a dichotomy between the two poles (spirit and flesh), but it is not an utter and irreconciled dichotomy. There are some timeless ideals enfleshed in the scriptural record of ancient families. The most important of these is the marriage of Adam and Eve, the one marriage Johnson+ never mentions.
It is important to recognize, for example, that the most common marriage pattern in the Bible is polygamy; it is not a union of one man and one woman.
One of the more common surprises to new believers and those reading the bible for the first time is that the great heroes of the faith are presented without the accompanying propaganda you might expect. Abraham, the father of the faithful, faithlessly passes his wife off as his sister to avoid being killed. His son, Isaac, does the same. Jacob is a liar and a swindler. David is a murderer and adulterer. All of these men had a heart for the Lord but sin and rebellion mark their lives. They are not models of perfected faithfulness, nor are they intended to be understood as such.
Thus, to say, the most common marriage pattern in the Bible is polygamy and use this fact as an argument against monogamous heterosexual marriage displays a distressing lack of biblical literacy. It is similar to arguing that Davids adultery with Bathsheba provides biblical warrant for promiscuity.
There are, in fact, only two perfect models or examples of faithful humanity in the bible: Adam and Eve before the rebellion and Jesus Christ. The order of marriage (monogamous and heterosexual) is central to the account of Adam and Eve and Jesus upholds their union as the model for faithful marriage in his teaching on divorce. Johnson+ conveniently fails to mention both of these key texts.
Even in the New Testament, married life as we understand it is not presented as the model. The most prominent models of Christian life in the New Testament, Jesus and Saint Paul, were not married, and neither had children. Paul explicitly ranked being married below being single.
First of all, Pauls marital status is unknown. He could have been a widower. We just dont know.
Second, it is beside the point. No one holding the orthodox position would deny that holy celibacy is a gift and a high calling. Jesus says:
Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some were eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it. (Matt 19:11-12)
But what if one cannot accept it? Paul, helpfully, indicates that if holy celibacy becomes too difficult, heterosexual, monogamous marriage is a must. Paul says:
Now to the unmarried and widows I say: it is good for them to stay unmarried as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Cor 7:8-9)
Johnson+ conveniently leaves 1st Corinthians 7:8-9 out of his analysis. Yes Paul elevated the single life; the celibate single life.
Otherwise, monogamous, heterosexual marriage was his rule and model as it was the rule and model of Christ. One wonders whether the Rev. Johnson has actually read Matthew 19:4-9; Ephesians 5:22-33; 1st Timothy 3:2?
Johnson goes on:
And when Jesus was asked about his own family, his reply was radical: Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother. (Matthew 12:48-50).
Whew, talk about ripping a passage out of context and using it as a pretext. Does Johnson+ really think that Jesus, the same Jesus who only three chapters later (Matthew 15: 3-5) berates the Pharisees for a tradition that ends up breaking the 5th commandment, is advocating the utter dissolution of familial ties? Apparently so:
On this basis, the early church developed a model of family that broke totally with ancient kinship patterns, monogamous or polygamous.
Really? Broke totally? As in completely? Again, I wonder whether Johnson+ has actually read the New Testament. Household obligations (or family codes), the duties of husband toward wife and wife toward husband and the duties of children toward their parents, are replete throughout the Pauline and Petrine epistles.
The family in the New Testament is religious and nonbiological; more than anything else, it is like what we might think of as the church family.
Certainly the eternal spiritual bond between brothers and sisters in Christ is more lasting than the temporal blood bond between husband and wife, father and son, but nowhere does the spiritual bond in any way negate the blood bond. In fact, throughout the epistles, you find codes for family relations side by side with codes for church relations. If the body of Christ, the church, was intended to negate or cancel out or replace the biological family then the New Testament family codes would be unnecessary.
Notice especially the implicit gnosticism in Johnsons suggestion: the religious and biological (the fleshly and the spiritual) cannot coexist.
Johnson goes on:
The Bible does not provide us with concrete examples that we can directly apply to marriage and family as we understand these relationships today.
First, as I note above, Jesus in Matthew 19:4-9 (and the parallel passages) quite clearly points to the marriage of Adam and Eve as the model or exemplar of marriage. It is the ideal.
Second, while concrete examples may be difficult for Johnson+ to find, concrete commands are not (see all the passages referenced above). Again, even a cursory skimming of the gospels and epistles should be quite enough to satisfy any reader that holy celibacy or heterosexual monogamous marriage is the New Testament norm.
But here is where we hit a core problem: Johnsons criticism completely ignores the concept of the fall. The reason perfect living examples of marriage are few and far between in the biblical text is because there are no living examples of perfect marriage after the fall. The pre-fall model of the relationship between Adam and Eve is the perfect model toward which New Testament commands and injunctions point. No other couple is elevated or intended to be elevated as an ideal.
It is his failure to understand the ramifications of the fall that dooms his analysis; that prevents him from understanding the contingent and imperfect nature of the other biblical families.
In fact, the examples of what some might refer to as biblical family values are deeply disturbing. Abrahams use of his slave, Hagar, to sire a child, and his subsequent banishment of Hagar and the child to the wilderness (Genesis 21:14) would be considered unspeakably callous by todays standards. Yet, according to the family values of his day, Abraham was acting completely within his rights. When Jacob steals his brother Esaus birthright, the Bible describes it not simply as an act of brotherly betrayal but as a necessary part of Gods will for Gods people (Genesis 27). Even more severe is Jephthahs sacrifice of his own daughter to fulfill the terms of a foolish vow (Judges 11:29-40) or Onan being put to death for refusing to impregnate his late brothers wife (Genesis 38:9).
The blind conflation and confusion of Gods permissive will and his purposive will in this paragraph aside, the assertion that the bible presents the family values of the patriarchs as ideal is manifestly absurd. As the text itself indicates,. Abrahams use of Hagar was as an act of faithlessness. He did not yet trust God enough to believe that the son of the promise could come through Sarah. God did command Abraham to send Hagar away, but not without the promise that he would provide for both mother and child. God blesses Jacob despite his deceitfulness not because of it (its called grace). The story of Jephthah is intended to warn against foolish oaths not elevate them. Moreover, many now believe that the story is one of dedication not sacrifice. Jepthah dedicated (not sacrificed) his daughter to the Lord (ie. prevented her from marriage thereby losing the profit associated with the bride price). This is far more in keeping with the uniform Old Testament abhorrence of human sacrifice. Onan, of course, sinned against both his brother, his brothers wife, and the Lord not through his failure to live up to patriarchal family values but by refusing to carry on his brothers name. Knowing that any child born of his brothers widow would be considered his nephew (not his son), he practiced a primitive form of birth control. It was the supreme act of selfishness.
Johnson+ goes on to detail some of the positive aspects of non-marital love: the love between Naomi and Ruth and the relationship between Jonathan and David, thankfully stopping short of suggesting that these were sexual in nature.
He then pens this remarkable sentiment:
Religious opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples frequently turns to the Bible for support. For example, one denomination has based its opposition to marriage equality on the biblical teaching that God designed marriage as a lifetime union of one man and one woman. But, as we have seen, this claim hardly reflects what the Bible actually says or the ancient cultures in which the Bible was written.
We have seen nothing of the sort. Rather, weve been treated to the Rev. Johnsons misuse of the biblical text to make a point wholly antithetical to the Word of God.
The structures of biblical families are rooted in cultural practices far removed from the values of Christians today.
Yes but this is so precisely because of the fall. Because of the fall, the New Testament family model points back, not to Abraham or Jacob or David, but to the first marriage established by God as part of his created order: Adam and Eve. Since the fall, God has mercifully advanced his Kingdom, reestablishing and restoring creation. Part of that process is the redemption and restoration of marriage.
Johnsons argument cuts against this redemptive activity by positing gnostic break between biology and marriage. Male and female are unimportant, love is all that matters:
Societal definitions of marriage and family have changed, and will continue to change, over the course of history. What the Bible presents as the abiding standard is not based on biology or specific forms of legal contract, but on the quality of love that is shared. That is why many Christians today believe that if same-sex relationships exhibit such spiritual values, they deserve the protection and recognition that marriage represents in our society.
Yes, societal definitions of marriage change. The idea that the sexual union of two men or two women might constitute a form of marriage is indeed as perverse as polygamy or polyamory when compared with the Edenic model. But Johnsons+ task is to strip all the biblical flesh away from marriage, presenting it as a wholly cultural and thus wholly transcendable institution. To do that and still call it biblical he must identify find the essence of marriage, a spirit that lies beyond male and female.
As we have seen, to get to this point Johnson has had to do perform some acrobatic isogesis: ignoring Adam and Eve, ignoring the fall, passing over specific New Testament codes and commands. In classic gnostic form, he has found it necessary to obliterate flesh, body, letter, blood to elevate his spirit.
All of this is characteristic of progressive Christianity. The criterion, the norma normans or the norm by which all other norms are normed, is the spirit of the age.
The bible, the church, tradition and reason must conform to this spirit or become its enemies. This is a telling glimpse into the neo-gnostic mind.
I've noticed a growing trend of calling all heresies "Gnostic." This is quite inaccurate, especially referring to the homosexual agenda.
We affirm the right to freedom of conscience in this matter: we recognize that the state may not require religious groups to officiate at, or bless, same-gender marriages. By the same token, a denial of civil recognition dishonors the religious convictions of those communities and clergy who do officiate at, and bless, same-gender marriages; the state may not favor the convictions of one religious group over another to deny individuals their fundamental right to marry and have those marriages recognized by civil law.I've never understood why some liberals attempt to make their arguments from a Biblical standpoint. The fact that they're willing to subvert the Word to further their idiotic agendas shows that they don't believe what it says or consider it sacred. And if that's the case why bother? Why don't they simply proclaim the Bible irrelevant and a hindrance to "progress"?
Ping to read later
Perhaps there is such a trend because the homosexual agenda (at least the "spiritual" part of it IS gnostic)
Are you familiar with gnosticism? It posits a core utter dichotomy between flesh and spirit, the first being evil or lesser, the second good or higher. This is precisely the approach of the ECUSAn left when it comes to sexuality. What you do with your body is unimportant because the "essence" or spirit of Christianity is a form of disembodied "love". classic gnostic stuff there. I've studied the gnostics pretty thoroughly. My association of this with gnosticism is correct.
Are there perhaps different schools of thought within Gnosticism? I was unaware of the type of which you wrote.
There was an ascetic and a libertine form of gnostic. The ascetic was far more common, but the libertine also popped up here and there. Some argue that Paul is dealing with a Christian form of libertine gnosticism in corinth, hence his emphasis on the importance of the body throughout the letter.
The ascetics proposed that since the flesh was evil, it is something to escape from and the desires of the flesh are to be destroyed by mortification.
The libertines proposed that the flesh is meaningless and thus what you do with the flesh is meaningless. If you want to have sex with your step-mother (1 Cor 5) that's fine, it really doesn't matter. The spirit matters. THe flesh is passing and meaningless. Thus everything is permissable (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23) and nothing is harmful.
In both cases the bodily resurrection makes no sense, because who really needs a body anyway?
That was also a recurring theme in Johnsons article. Biology is meaningless. Whereas in the scriptures, your biological body is the temple of the Lord (1 Cor 6:12-20)
Please understand, I am in no way condoning either libertine or Gnostic heresies; I am merely claiming that the current libertine theology is inconsistent with a Gnostic one. There are many falsehoods, but only Truth is Truth.
However, perhaps I am being too pedantic. I am trying to reach some clarity and precision on the definition of "Gnosticism", but I suppose that merely distinguishing between two falsehoods does not help to clarify the Truth.
"I think the great divide between religious peoples is between those who believe that the creation is the central story, and the point of it is that creation is good, versus those who see the fall as the central story. Is humanity essentially good? Or is humanity essentially depraved?"
While this is certainly bad theology (he brushes off The Fall and its implications), I don't think it can be considered Gnostic as he at least understands that the Creation was Good.
I think we may be going in circles. Of course there is more than gnosticism in the mix of heresies at the heart of ECUSA. But gnostic thought is one of them at the very root. The specific idea that "love" and "spirit" can be utterly distinguished from biological bodies is a gnostic idea. That such a distinction may be used as a rationalization for sexual liscenciousness is a gnostic application of that distinction. This is clear.
Does this make Gene Robinson et al textbook 2nd century Greek gnostics? No. As you point out. They have abandonded the utter anti-material philosophy of the early gnostics. Does this mean that the argument they make for seperating sex from spirit is less gnostic, no. It is an exact reproduction of a gnostic line of thought based on the very same gnostic principles. soul v. body, flesh v. spirit etc...
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