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Dictionary of Scripture & Ethics: Neither Scriptural nor Ethical

Preparing for my annual survey of commentaries and biblical reference works for Preaching Magazine (see last year’s installment) which will be out soon I needed to assess Baker Academic’s Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics (2011), edited by Joel Green. It is a large reference work so I decided the best way to get a feel for it would be to dip into articles on some hot topic issues. I was surprised by what I found particularly on the issue of homosexuality.

The entry, “Homosexuality,” by Jeffrey S. Siker concluded essentially by saying the Church is divided over the issue of whether or not homosexual activity is sinful. The weight of the historic affirmation of the church through the centuries seems to have been missed. The closing sentences of the entry states:

The Bible serves as a key touchstone for this conversation within the church, though its interpretation, relevance, and application in relation to homosexuality remain points of significant contention, especially as interpreters seek to correlate and integrate the biblical witness with other sources of authority- tradition, reason, and experience.

Since Paul may have only known of negative or abusive “forms of homoerotic activity,” Siker argues, we cannot be certain his condemnation of homosexuality fits all expressions of it. “Like most Jews of his day, he [Paul] seems to presume heterosexual expression as the norm, though his own preference is for celibacy (1 Cor. 7:7).” Paul’s apostolic teaching to the church is reduced to first century Jewish presumption and personal preference!

The central issue here, as Siker notes, is the role and authority of Scripture. This entry elevates “tradition, reason, and experience” as “other sources of authority” on the par with Scripture allowing us to overturn the plain statements of Scripture.  In fact, however, it is primarily reason and experience that are in play here. If tradition had, in fact, been given more weight the conclusion would have to be different. Thus, both Scripture and tradition are demoted.

Sadly the entry, “Marriage and Divorce,” by Allen Verhey goes even further. Verhey states:

We need not regard divorce as good or homosexual acts as good in order to acknowledge fidelity and mutuality between divorced and homosexual persons as good.  If we allow divorce in a world such as this for the sake of protecting marriage and marriage partners, and remarriage after divorce, then perhaps we should also consider blessing homosexual unions for the sake of nurturing fidelity and mutuality and protecting the homosexual partners. (emphasis added)

If we would respond that the Church cannot bless homosexual unions because the Church’s Head forbids it in His Word, Verhey, in keeping with the previous entry states:

Scripture is not a timeless code for marriage and divorce, but in Christian community it is somehow the rule of our individual lives and of our common life.  We set the stories of our lives, including the stories of our singleness and of our marriages, alongside the story of Scripture to be judged, challenged, formed, re-formed, and sanctified.  Fidelity to this text and to its story does not require (or permit) us to read Mark (or any other particular text) like a timeless moral code.  We do not live in Mark’s community (or in Matthew’s or Paul’s), but we do live in memory of Jesus, and we test our lives and our readings for fidelity.  Fidelity requires creativity.  And creativity licenses the formation of rules and judgments concerning divorce that need not be identical to Matthew’s concession or Paul’s, but that respect both the vows of marriage and the partners of a marriage, safeguard both the delight and vulnerability of sexuality, protect vulnerable partners, and honor God’s creative and redemptive intentions. (emphasis added)

Somehow?! Really, “somehow”? If we are left saying Scripture is “somehow the rule of our individual lives and of our common life,” then it is not the rule for our lives. According to this entry we are free to reset the boundaries in ways entirely different from what is seen in Scripture and still call that consistent with the Scriptures.

That this book has gone forth from an evangelical publisher and is likely to be seen as a standard reference work on scripture and ethics is both sad and alarming. I can only characterize the position of these entries as capitulation, and capitulation on one of the key ethical issues of our day. They obviously do not find their ethical position in Scripture but argue for ways to avoid the clear meaning of the text of Scripture by elevating human reason and experience (and arguably not the best of either of those). Here these authors fail to stand; I wish they could have done other.

One Comment

  1. This story reminds me of the simple and timeless story of the child caught with his hand in cookie jar.. Was he stealing or was he to be understood as a hungry child doing what a hungry child would do.. We can always find ways to justify our actions if we try hard enough.. but black is black and white is white and only the guilty prefer the grey.. Too many people including some very prominent scholars are justifying homosexuality and abortions because they are things that man / woman do in the norm.. Without conscience, without the approval of God.. just because they feel it necessary or okay.. We cannot live life on what we “feel” we have to obey the Word of God.. just as we (simply put) have to obey a red light.. stop.. it is a red light.. you can’t argue that away and justify it because you “feel” like it.. The same goes for the rules and commandments of the Bible..

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