Friday, July 29, 2016

Answering Vines: Part 2

So it took me a little over a year to get around to this. Just to refresh your memory, Matthew Vines, an advocate of Christian homosexuality, wrote an article titled “40 Questions for Christians Who Oppose Marriage Equality.” I decided to write some responses to Vines’s questions, and you can read the first half of those responses here. Again, I’m not answering every single question; just the ones that particularly interested me.
“Do you believe that the Bible explicitly teaches that all gay Christians must be single and celibate for life?”
I believe that the Bible explicitly condemns the practice of homosexuality. The Bible doesn’t operate with the category of “gay Christian,” so obviously it wouldn’t explicitly teach that “gay Christians must be single and celibate for life.” But if the Bible explicitly condemns the practice of homosexuality (as it does), then it clearly follows that Christians who feel same-sex attraction must refrain from acting on those feelings.

This is not difficult logic. But Vines is trying to get a lot of mileage out of that word “explictly.” And you can excuse a lot of terrible things by claiming that the Bible doesn’t explicitly forbid them.
“If not, do you feel comfortable affirming something that is not explicitly affirmed in the Bible?”
Yes, absolutely. And we do this all the time.
“Do you believe that the moral distinction between lust and love matters for LGBT people’s romantic relationships? Do you think that loving same-sex relationships should be assessed in the same way as the same-sex behavior Paul explicitly describes as lustful in Romans 1?”
My short answer (to the second question) is yes. But I’m mainly including these two questions for future reference. Because I’d like everyone to take note of the fact that, at this point, Vines wants us to understand that he’s advocating loving same-sex behavior, which in his mind is entirely different than the purely lustful same-sex behavior described in Romans 1.
“Do you believe that Paul’s use of the terms ‘shameful’ and ‘unnatural’ in Romans 1:26-27 means that all same-sex relationships are sinful?”
Yes. (This question is only asked in order to set up the next one.)
“Would you say the same about Paul’s description of long hair in men as ‘shameful’ and against ‘nature’ in 1 Corinthians 11:14, or would you say he was describing cultural norms of his time?”
I don’t think that Paul was describing cultural norms of his time in that passage either. So I do affirm that long hair on men (as well as short hair on women) is contrary to nature, but that doesn’t make those things morally equivalent to homosexuality. Homosexual practice is regularly and severely condemned in ways that unnatural hair-length is not.

Lying and murder are not morally equivalent, despite the fact that they’re both sins. Similarly, homosexual practice and unnatural hair-lengths are not morally equivalent, despite the fact that they’re both contrary to nature.

But the most interesting part about this question is how Vines has now completely changed his argument. Remember how just a couple of questions ago, he wanted us to think that Romans 1 was condemning only a purely-lustful sort of same-sex behavior (as opposed to loving same-sex behavior)? Well, now he wants us to believe that Romans 1 was simply describing cultural norms of Paul’s day and age. But those two lines of argument don’t fit together. Which is it?
“Do you believe that the capacity for procreation is essential to marriage? If so, what does that mean for infertile heterosexual couples?”
I believe that godly offspring is one of very reasons God established marriage in the first place (Mal. 2:14–15). So anybody who gets married I think ought to be doing so with plans of having and raising children.

Of course, there are married couples who are infertile. But that doesn’t make their marriage pointless. For one thing, infertile couples can adopt. And those adopted children will be better off having a mom and a dad who are married to each other. Yet even if an infertile couple chooses not to adopt, that still doesn’t make their marriage pointless. The intimacy, companionship, and commitment of their marriage is still a valid representation of Christ and the church.

But if two dudes try to emulate this same marital intimacy, then they’re participating in something that the Bible plainly forbids (which in all honesty is really the center of this whole debate).
“How much time have you spent engaging with the writings of LGBT-affirming Christians like Justin Lee, James Brownson, and Rachel Murr?”
Basically none, which is entirely irrelevant. Nobody has to read all the scholars on one side of a debate before they’re allowed to express their own informed position. That’s just silly.

I’ve listened to/watched a couple of debates and presentations that Vines himself has done, and my assumption is that he would present his strongest material in those settings. And yet none of it has persuaded me. To be frank, life’s just too short to spend hours reading authors that are going to make the same feeble arguments that Vines is making, only with scholarly verbosity. I’m happy to leave that sort of thing to the likes of Robert Gagnon.
“What relationship recognition rights short of marriage do you support for same-sex couples?”
The exact same relationship recognition rights short of marriage that I support for heterosexual couples, which is none. Why would the government have any interest at all in relationships short of marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual?
“Do you know who Tyler Clementi, Leelah Alcorn, and Blake Brockington are, and did your church offer any kind of prayer for them when their deaths made national news?”
Obviously, all three of those deaths were tragic, but the concerns of a local church aren’t determined by what’s in the headlines, especially not when such tragedies are being politicized to promote an LGBT agenda.
“Have you vocally objected when church leaders and other Christians have compared same-sex relationships to things like bestiality, incest, and pedophilia?”
No, I haven’t. But what’s interesting to me is that all three of those perversions that Vines just mentioned (bestiality, incest, and pedophilia) have been gaining more acceptance lately, using many of the same arguments by which homosexuality gained acceptance. So why is Vines so hateful toward those who feel such attractions?

But I have another thought at this point. If you were to try and argue against homosexuality by appealing to Leviticus, Vines’s standard response would be to say that the Old Testament law isn’t binding on Christians. So my question is, how would Vines argue biblically against things like bestiality and incest? Remember, the Old Testament law is off limits, and also recall that, according to Vines, we shouldn’t feel comfortable condemning anything that the Bible doesn’t explicitly forbid.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Election (The Political Kind)

Below is a recent Twitter exchange I had with some friends of mine. This post is primarily for the purpose of giving us a place to talk more extensively via comments. We just can’t seem to stop talking about election. Back in the day it was the theological kind. Now it’s the political kind.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Friday, July 15, 2016

Hairdo Hermeneutics

A guy named Luke Geraty wrote a piece a while back on the issue of hair length in 1 Corinthians 11. I came across it recently and felt that it would be a good foil to use in putting down some thoughts on the issue. It’s a good example of the standard way in which modern Christians interpret the passage.

But the first thing I want to establish here at the front end is that while everything the Bible says is important, there are some things that are of first importance and other things that are not even close to that. So let it be heard loud and clear that I think the hair-length question belongs in that second category.

I do take a view on the issue, and it’s a view that I think is reasonably defensible exegetically. But I’m open to the possibility that I’ve misunderstood Paul, and I don’t for a minute assume that anyone with a non-traditional hair length is a pagan or a second-class Christian. It just isn’t that kind of issue to me. The topic mainly interests me for the hermeneutics that are involved. Not everything deserves a crusade, and so I tend to scratch my head at organizations that characterize themselves entirely by a particular view on questions of this sort.

With that said, and hopefully heard, here is the passage under consideration:
[3] But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. [4] Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, [5] but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. [6] For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. [7] For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. [8] For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. [9] Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. [10] That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. [11] Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; [12] for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. [13] Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? [14] Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, [15] but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. [16] If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor. 11:3–16)
Alright, now here are some things Geraty said.
Geraty: “The apostle is discussing the issue of head coverings . . . It has nothing to do with Paul teaching that women were required to have long hair. . . . Again, to make this passage about hair length is to miss the entire point of the text. Garland makes this clear when he writes, ‘That he specifically mentions hair in these verses does not mean that hair has been the topic throughout this section . . . It is brought up only as a final illustration as to why women should have a cover but men should not.’ (1 Corinthians, 530)”
This is an extremely common tactic in exegetical debates: appealing to the main point of a passage as a way of minimizing a secondary point of the passage. It’s as though Geraty and Garland think that if the passage is primarily about head coverings, then we’re somehow taking it “out of context” if we look for it to teach us about anything else. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the passage is primarily concerned with head coverings, but in the course of making God-breathed statements about head coverings, Paul makes God-breathed statements about other things as well. And one of those other things is hair-length.
Geraty: “The apostle is discussing the issue of head coverings and is actually stating that even though the women in the ancient world had longer hair, which was their glory, they needed a head covering. That is the point.
But that doesn’t seem to be the point at all. Isn’t it interesting that I’ve slowly and carefully read this passage multiple times and didn’t take it to mean anything like Geraty’s summary? This leads me to a general observation: In exegetical debates like these, I think we need to be honest about who has the advantage of the most straight-forward reading. And we should feel no hesitation in conceding that advantage to our opponents sometimes, because the most straight-forward reading of a passage is not always the best.

So when it comes to those who argue, based on 1 Corinthians 11, that men should have short hair and women should have long hair, I think it’s fair to say that they have the most straight-forward reading of the passage. Again, that doesn’t mean they’re right. They may still be wrong. But I certainly don’t think it’s fair to characterize their interpretation as fanciful eisegesis.

Be that as it may, let’s examine the specifics of what Geraty just said. First, he emphasizes that the passage is simply about “women in the ancient world” (i.e. not women in our modern world) and how long hair was simply “their glory” (i.e. not modern women’s glory). But what reasons does the passage itself give us for thinking that Paul was simply referring to a cultural custom of that day? Are there any at all? I’m not denying that sometimes our interpretation of a passage needs to be tempered by cultural considerations, but I think we need to at least try to have a sound exegetical basis for it.

Second, Geraty says Paul’s point is that even though the women had long hair, they still needed a head covering. But that doesn’t seem to square with the text either, particularly verse 15: “For her hair is given to her for a covering.” A woman’s long hair is a natural covering that God has given her. So what need is there for an artificial one?

In all fairness, there are plenty of things about this passage that are perplexing to me as well. For example, I don’t understand how verse 15 squares with verse 6: “If a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short.” But if what I just said about verse 15 is right, then the logic of verse 6 doesn’t add up to me. If a woman won’t wear a head covering, why must she then cut her hair short? I digress.

Garety eventually quotes a lengthy passage from Craig Blomberg.
Blomberg: “Careful attention to the nature of Paul’s argumentation in this passage supports these consensus views. When he speaks explicitly of length of hair, he grounds his arguments in what is proper (v. 13), normal practice (vv. 14–15) and contemporary custom (v. 16). None of these verses, as we have seen in the discussion of original meaning, implies a timeless, transcultural mandate . . .”
(1) One thing that we need to keep straight as we interpret and apply this passage is when it’s talking about head coverings vs. when it’s talking about hair-length. Blomberg seems to conflate the two ideas. He makes points about hair-length by appealing to verses that are talking about head coverings. In verse 13, Paul doesn’t even mention hair length. He’s talking about head coverings there.

(2) In verses 14–15, what version is Blomberg reading? By what scholarly sorcery does he take something that Paul says nature teaches, and turn it into a simple cultural norm? If there is one word in this entire passage that keeps me from buying into the idea that Paul’s hair-length standards were simply cultural, it’s the word nature in verse 14. Nature is what teaches us that “if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory.” Not culture. Nature.

(3) Verse 16 is admittedly tough to pin down: “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” I’m not sure what this “practice” is intended to refer to. It could be referring to the practice of artificial head covering. Or it could be referring to the inclination to contentiousness. I don’t think it’s likely that Paul’s referring to hair length here, since he’s already grounded hair length in nature (vv. 14–15). And keep in mind that Blomberg is presenting verse 16 as an example of when Paul “speaks explicitly of length of hair,” despite the fact that the verse says nothing about hair length.
Blomberg: “When Paul does ground his commands in the order and purpose of creation (vv. 8–9), he does so to support his statements that husbands are the image and glory of God and that wives are the glory of their husbands (v. 7).
Yea, but after verse 9 is verse 10, where Paul says that for those very same creation-order reasons, a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head. And as an additional reason for this, he throws in “because of the angels” at the end of verse 10. Now that’s certainly an obscure reference that I would love for Paul to have elaborated on. But to say the very least, if Paul grounds the practice of head covering by an appeal to some aspect of the spiritual realm, that doesn’t immediately make me think “cultural custom.”

But again, these verses have more to do with head coverings than with hair length per se.
Blomberg: “When in a particular culture, appropriate honor to God and husband cannot be maintained without certain head coverings, such coverings must be used. When covered or uncovered heads and long or short hair imply nothing about one’s religious commitment or marital faithfulness, worrying about the appearance of one’s physical head in these ways becomes unnecessary.”
That’s great practical wisdom as long as it’s true that Paul’s hair-length standards were simply the cultural custom of that day. But I don’t think that’s been adequately demonstrated. Now back to Geraty.
Geraty: “Here are questions I have for those who suggest that Christian women are biblically required to have long hair:”
I’d just like to point out that we’re talking just as much about expectations for men as for women.
Geraty: “Just how long is long enough? Must it be to the middle of the back? Or must it never ever be cut? What is the appropriate length, and how is that determined? What Scriptures give that length?”
Questions like these are an attempt to make the issue seem more complicated than it actually is. But the problems with this sort of tactic are manifold.

(1) The original audience of 1 Corinthians could just as easily have asked Paul the exact same fastidious questions (even if this were all just a cultural custom). My guess is that they probably never did ask Paul such questions. Why? Because figuring out what’s long hair as opposed to short hair is not rocket science. Not then and not now.

(2) I imagine that people who argue for traditional hair-lengths are often characterized as pharisaical. But nothing is more like a Pharisee than to become preoccupied with the minutia of law-keeping. This is the kind of mindset that would lead some Jews to start wondering whether or not they were allowed to pee on the Sabbath day. I’m not really interested in wranglings of that sort.

(3) By the way, does Geraty ask these kinds of a questions when it comes to other biblical requirements? Flee fornication! “Well, what exactly is fornication? Just how chaste is chaste enough?” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is just a debate tactic for this particular occasion.

(4) For the first 75% of Geraty’s post, he was expressing his disapproval of the view that men should have short hair and women should have long hair. But in order to even disapprove of that view, you have to have an idea in your mind of what it means to have short or long hair.

And of course Geraty already has such an idea in his mind. Because he’s a normal human being. My guess is that if Geraty witnessed a robbery, and the police needed to know if the suspect’s hair was short or long, he would be able to tell them without any difficulty. This is ordinary human language we’re using. There’s no need for a precise number of inches to be prescribed. A variety of lengths can fall under the category of long, and a variety of lengths can fall under the category of short.
Geraty: “The Bible can also be read in a way that would require women to never wear gold because both Paul and Peter state that women should not wear gold (1 Tim. 2:9; cf. 1 Pet. 3:3). . . . Who gets to decide which cultural standards still matter?”
Well, I think that’s just a simple misunderstanding of those verses. Peter and Paul both say that a woman should not adorn herself with such things: gold, pearls, braided hair, etc. But what does adorn mean? Peter says that the woman’s adorning should not include clothing: “Do not let your adorning be . . . the clothing you wear” (1 Pet. 3:3). Of course, that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t wear clothes. So adorning is not the same as simply wearing.

A woman’s adorning is whatever she puts forth as the most valuable things about her as a person. It’s the things she most desires for others to see about her. So both Peter and Paul are telling women not to let their adorning be material things like their jewelry and such, but immaterial character qualities like good deeds, modesty, self-control, the hidden person of the heart, a gentle and quiet spirit, etc.

So bringing this back to the issue at hand: There are good exegetical reasons for rejecting the idea that women shouldn’t wear gold, but are there good exegetical reasons for rejecting the idea that men should have short hair and women should have long hair? That’s what Geraty still needs to demonstrate.
Geraty: “I have also observed that many of these same people who state that women with short hair are disobeying Scripture rarely wear head coverings (hats?) during public worship gatherings. Why? Because that was “cultural” and women in America aren’t required to wear a head covering anymore. Hmmm. Sounds like selective biblical interpretation to me!”
Here I’ll just reiterate something I said earlier. Even though head coverings and hair length are closely tied together in this passage, they’re not the same issue. It seems to me that there’s plenty of room for taking the position that Paul’s statements about hair-length are transcultural, while his statements about artificial head coverings are not:

(1) Paul never says that artificial head coverings are something that nature teaches, but he does say that about hair length (v. 14).

(2) Paul says that a woman’s long hair is a natural covering (v. 15), which would seem to remove the need for an artificial one.

(3) Paul may be referring to artificial head coverings in verse 16, when he says “we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.”

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Writing with the Ear

A lot of English style guides encourage shortening your writing whenever possible. “Don’t use ten words to say something you could have said in four,” etc.

I think it’s true that we need to avoid being unnecessarily verbose. But at the same time, the meaning of what we say is not limited to the individual denotations of the words that we use. Meaning is also contained in the way that we communicate something. C.S. Lewis said, “Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.”

Sometimes you need to use more words in order to achieve a particular tenor or rhythm. So cutting out “unnecessary” words might achieve brevity, but then your writing won’t sound the same way, and that’s something you should also care about. By shortening, you might be sacrificing tone, personality, or passion, all of which contribute to the overall effect that your writing will have on readers. Which is another way of saying they contribute to the meaning of what you’re saying.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Book Brief: Pensees

Pascal's PenséesPascal's Pensées by Blaise Pascal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Really good. I like the brief and scattered nature of the material. It’s a reminder that you can say a lot with a little. And not every thought has to be fully-baked in order for it to be useful. Pascal was abundantly insightful about so many things.

View all my reviews


“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

“All great amusements are dangerous to the Christian life; but among all those which the world has invented there is none more to be feared than the theatre.”

“The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put in first.”

“Those honour Nature well, who teach that she can speak on everything, even on theology.”

“For it is far better to know something about everything than to know all about one thing.”

“Do you wish people to believe good of you? Don’t speak.”

“When we read too fast or too slowly, we understand nothing.”

“I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.”

“How comes it that a cripple does not offend us, but that a fool does? Because a cripple recognises that we walk straight, whereas a fool declares that it is we who are silly; if it were not so, we should feel pity and not anger. Epictetus asks still more strongly: ‘Why are we not angry if we are told that we have a headache, and why are we angry if we are told that we reason badly, or choose wrongly?’ The reason is that we are quite certain that we have not a headache, or are not lame, but we are not so sure that we make a true choice. So having assurance only because we see with our whole sight, it puts us into suspense and surprise when another with his whole sight sees the opposite, and still more so when a thousand others deride our choice. For we must prefer our own lights to those of so many others, and that is bold and difficult. There is never this contradiction in the feelings towards a cripple.”

“These two sources of truth, reason and the senses, besides being both wanting in sincerity, deceive each other in turn. The senses mislead the reason with false appearances, and receive from reason in their turn the same trickery which they apply to her; reason has her revenge. The passions of the soul trouble the senses, and make false impressions upon them. They rival each other in falsehood and deception.”

“When we see the same effect always recur, we infer a natural necessity in it, as that there will be a to-morrow, etc. But nature often deceives us, and does not subject herself to her own rules.”

“I set it down as a fact that if all men knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world.”

“How useless is painting, which attracts admiration by the resemblance of things, the originals of which we do not admire!”

“I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

“He who does not see the vanity of the world is himself very vain.”

“We do not rest satisfied with the present. We anticipate the future as too slow in coming, as if in order to hasten its course; or we recall the past, to stop its too rapid flight. So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours, and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more, and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists. For the present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us; and if it be delightful to us, we regret to see it pass away. We try to sustain it by the future, and think of arranging matters which are not in our power, for a time which we have no certainty of reaching. Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means; the future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.”

“There is no good in this life but in the hope of another.”

“The last proceeding of reason is to recognise that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it.”

“If we submit everything to reason, our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element. If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.”

“M. de Roannez said: ‘Reasons come to me afterwards, but at first a thing pleases or shocks me without my knowing the reason, and yet it shocks me for that reason which I only discover afterwards.’ But I believe, not that it shocked him for the reasons which were found afterwards, but that these reasons were only found because it shocks him.”

“We can only think of Plato and Aristotle in grand academic robes. They were honest men, like others, laughing with their friends, and when they diverted themselves with writing their Laws and the Politics, they did it as an amusement. That part of their life was the least philosophic and the least serious; the most philosophic was to live simply and quietly.”

“The strength of a man’s virtue must not be measured by his efforts, but by his ordinary life.”

“Contradiction is a bad sign of truth; several things which are certain are contradicted; several things which are false pass without contradiction. Contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the want of contradiction a sign of truth.”

“But what will you say is good? Chastity? I say no; for the world would come to an end. Marriage? No; continence is better. Not to kill? No; for lawlessness would be horrible, and the wicked would kill all the good. To kill? No; for that destroys nature. We possess truth and goodness only in part, and mingled with falsehood and evil.”

“During sleep we believe that we are awake as firmly as we do when we are awake.”

“Not only do we know God by Jesus Christ alone, but we know ourselves only by Jesus Christ.”

“It is not only impossible but useless to know God without Jesus Christ.”

“But we say that it must be believed for such and such a reason, which are feeble arguments, as reason may be bent to everything.”

“We understand nothing of the works of God, if we do not take as a principle that He has willed to blind some, and enlighten others.”

“I believe only the histories, whose witnesses got themselves killed.”

“To examine the prophecies, we must understand them. For if we believe they have only one meaning, it is certain that the Messiah has not come; but if they have two meanings, it is certain that He has come in Jesus Christ.”

“Two errors: 1. To take everything literally. 2. To take everything spiritually.”

“It is glorious to see with the eyes of faith the history of Herod and of Cæsar.”

“How fine it is to see, with the eyes of faith, Darius and Cyrus, Alexander, the Romans, Pompey and Herod working, without knowing it, for the glory of the Gospel!”

“Miracles prove the power which God has over hearts, by that which He exercises over bodies.”

“There is a pleasure in being in a ship beaten about by a storm, when we are sure that it will not founder. The persecutions which harass the Church are of this nature.”