March 24, 2017

May 16, 2012

Luke Timothy Johnson: An Honest Heretic

Luke Timothy Johnson used to be a hero of mine. One of the keys to my conversion was being convinced that the New Testament provided a reliable witness to the words and deeds of Jesus. Along with the brilliant work of NT Wright and others on the “historical Jesus”, Johnson’s scathing response to the Jesus Seminar proved a considerable help. Now that I thumb back through his work, The Real Jesus, I see the holes in his thinking that I missed way back then, his central refutation of the Jesus Seminar being grounded not in the New Testament but in the living experience of Jesus in the Church.

Since that time Luke Timothy Johnson has succumbed to the arguments of those who want to normalize homosexual behavior in the church. Unsurprisingly, he grounds his present position in 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.”

Despite his heretical turn, he remains an honest scholar, retaining his integrity in the effusive tide of scholarly frauds:

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. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order…more

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”...the relatively small set of same-sex unions gets singled out for moral condemnation, while the vast pandemic of sexual disorder goes ignored.”

Let me try it some other ways:

The relatively small set of ssu is vaunted at the expense of all traditional, affirmative teaching on Biblical marriage.

The relatively small set of ssu should be blessed because so many straights fall short of the traditional, affirmative teaching on Biblical marriage, even though said straight misbehavior is not blessed by the church.

The relatively small set of ssu also necessitates LGBT&c ordination to all orders of ministry.

The relatively small set of ssu justifies overt racism toward peoples/cultures which do not celebrate ssu.

The relatively small set of ssu condemn evangelism and other Biblical mission goals to be ignored.

The relatively small set of ssu is more important than unity among Christians in a parish, diocese, denomination, province or global communion.


‘spose I could also make an “experiential” case against ssu, because churches that dabble in them tend to wind up divided and declining.  Biblically speaking, the fruit of the Spirit withers and disappears where the relatively small set of ssu are preferred to the overall life of the church.

[1] Posted by Timothy Fountain on 5-16-2012 at 05:07 PM · [top]

Oh dear, oh dear. He used to be my hero, too—he was a former Benedictine who quit the order to marry a widow with six children, because he loved her and wanted to be a father, and then he fathered a child of his own. And only now has he discovered his true identity (“as God made him”)? I do not see how can be so sure this is the real Luke Timothy Johnson.

[2] Posted by A. S. Haley on 5-16-2012 at 05:18 PM · [top]

Sorry to comment twice in a row, but it just hit me how much his case for ssu rests on justification by works - “We behave just as well or better than straights, so we deserve our rituals.”

Same with ordination.  So many times I’ve had to hear old Mrs. X say “Pshaw” to all that Bible stuff: “Why, a gay priest can sing our lovely service better than anybody else.”

The LGBT&c movement in the church is heresy - not just ignorance of Scripture, or a well intentioned but misguided expression of love - but a willful assertion that our deeds and qualifications make us righteous before God.

[3] Posted by Timothy Fountain on 5-16-2012 at 05:25 PM · [top]

Curmudgeon at #2, very good point. 

African bishops made the same point back in 2003 about V G Robinson - he claims (now) to have always been homosexual in orientation, yet he was married to a woman for ten years, and during the marriage fathered two children.

[4] Posted by MichaelA on 5-16-2012 at 06:14 PM · [top]

Luke Timothy Johnson was never one of my heroes.  That designation is reserved for people like C.S. Lewis, John Stott, David Watson and Tom Wright.  Still. I have benefited from some of LTJ’s writings.  I recently referred to his The Creed for a sermon but I think I recall some statements he made in that book on the same sex issue that concerned.  I haven’t read much of his work since and haven’t paid attention to what he’s been doing but I truly am troubled by this development in his life.

[5] Posted by Ross Gill on 5-16-2012 at 07:59 PM · [top]

I don’t think he “came out” as a homosexual in the article.  I think he “outed” his daughter.  I know people who changed their mind upon finding that their child was “gay”.

I still think we should hate any sin, while we still love the sinner.

[6] Posted by hopefull on 5-16-2012 at 11:25 PM · [top]

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.

Could not this same argument be used for pedophilia or polyamory?

[7] Posted by Jill Woodliff on 5-17-2012 at 01:13 AM · [top]

Hi Hopeful,

I didn’t think he came out in this article, but it did seem to me that the “we” language in the quote above indicated that he himself was included among those who experience homosexual behavior to be good. But I can see that there is some ambiguity there. I’ll update the post to reflect that. Thank you.

[8] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 5-17-2012 at 05:04 AM · [top]

Notice that when you want to justify human behavior, you declare it to be part of God’s creation. Then, if you do not agree, you are against God.

[9] Posted by Pb on 5-17-2012 at 08:20 AM · [top]

I too enjoyed his earlier works.  And Jill, those who support ssu of any kind hate it when you speak of the “slippery slope” or that one’s embrace of immorality of any kind could or can lead in due to lead to the embracing of other forms of immorality that we considered unconscionable.  To do so, is an acceptance that their present self-rationalization is not consistent and will lead to further immorality and sin.

Before we can justify to others that our sin is not sin, we must lie and convince ourselves that such is so.  This is the real slippery slope and the one that is made more often than not unknowingly.  Once done though the slope is set and it is much harder to slow or stop the moral decline.  It is even harder to regain forward momentum.

But for those who are grafted into the True Vine and Truth revealed in Christ all things are possible.

[10] Posted by Creighton+ on 5-17-2012 at 08:28 AM · [top]

“I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture…”

Yep we do it all the time, but that don’t make it right.

Nuff said.

[11] Posted by Undergroundpewster on 5-17-2012 at 08:45 AM · [top]

John’s approach opens freedom for many living under many limits. It’s no longer what God says, but what is the collective experience of such sexual attractions as:
Those with a close relative
Your mother
Your father’s wife
Your sister
Your father’s daughter
Your mother’s daughter
Your son’s daughter
Your daughter’s daughter;
The daughter of your father’s wife
Your father’s sister
Your mother’s sister
Your father’s brother’s wife
Your daughter-in-law
Your brother’s wife
Relations with both a woman and her daughter or her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter
Taking your wife’s sister as a rival wife
Your neighbor’s wife
Sexual relations with an animal

I guess we should just rip Lev 18 out of the Bible. According to John, if they are good, go for it.

[12] Posted by Festivus on 5-17-2012 at 08:50 AM · [top]

Granted the OP is specifically about sexual relations, but why stop there?  If my experience tells me that lying or cheating or gossiping or whatever satisfies my needs and makes me feel good, why not just reject some of God’s other commands as well?  For that matter, if my experience tells me that there are other gods to whom I should pray (not instead of, but in addition to, you understand), let’s just ditch commandment number 1.

[13] Posted by Ann Castro on 5-17-2012 at 01:23 PM · [top]

“We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture…”

I wish I’d had this expression at my disposal with my Dad when I was a teenager, e.g., “I didn’t disobey your direct order, Dad; I stood in tension with it.”

[14] Posted by polycarp on 5-17-2012 at 03:12 PM · [top]

I don’t know anything about LTJ, but theological appeals to non-Revelatory revelation to override Revelation make me extremely wary.  A basic version of Hume’s argument against miracles claims that the evidentiary weight of experience (including the set of all scientific observations) establishes the laws of nature and overweighs all miraculous claims.  More sophisticated, probabilistic versions are less clear cut, but in general modern theists accept miracles because of other background beliefs in things like the existence of God, the wisdom of traditional morality, etc.  In other words, big world-view setting beliefs connect to and depend on many classes of reasons.  People are holistic, and this is rational.

Here’s the catch for heretics like LTJ.  If you think that the evidentiary weight of experience overrides a non-miraculous Scriptural claim, then the evidentiary weight of experience should provide even stronger pressure on miraculous Scriptural claims.  Very crudely, if you don’t believe in little miracles, it’s very difficult to believe in big ones.  Note that when Hume talks about evidence for scientific laws, he’s talking about very, very solid things like laboratory experiment and astronomical observation that provides confirmatory positive support and arguably the absence of disconfirming evidence (no one ever saw e=mc^3).  LTJ’s evidence is much, much, much weaker, presumably something along the lines of “some homosexuals observed homosexual behavior to be holy or at least not disobedient to God’s order.”  Without an empirical, non-circular definition of vice, corruption, obedience, etc, it’s not clear that his data is evidence for or against any moral hypothesis. 

But even if this “witness” is in fact evidence, it is extraordinarily weak on the Humean scale.  So his position is that extremely weak evidence outweighs non-miraculous Scriptural claims but does not outweigh miraculous Scriptural claims.  If that is the case, his background beliefs must provide super strong non-Scriptural reasons for belief in miraculous Scriptural claims.  Is he a mystic whose mystical experiences disclosed what Christian theology he holds minus prohibitions against homosexuality, i.e. the Bible and creeds minus a few verses?  Otherwise, he seems to have wandered into a no man’s land between theology and philosophy where he is open to devastating philosophical attack.

Heresy does not entail Nazism, but LTJ needs to have a good hard think about past collapses of his favored liberalism:

But then we discover in Spong’s theses that there is, after all, a non-negotiable principle, based upon the image of God in human beings. Admirable; but what does it mean in Spong’s theological world?... And where, for goodness’ sake, does he derive this belief about humans? It is neither scientific nor obvious.

It is, in fact, what we used to call a dogma of revealed religion. It is a painful example of the sheerly sentimental use of phraseology whose rationale depends upon a theology that is being overtly rejected. What can it be more than a rather unfairly freighted and emotive substitute for some kind of bland egalitarianism - bland because ungrounded and therefore desperately vulnerable to corruption, or defeat at the hands of a more robust ideology? It is impossible to think too often of the collapse of liberalism in 1930s Germany.
Rowan Williams, “No life, here - no joy, terror or tears”

[15] Posted by The Plantagenets on 5-17-2012 at 05:35 PM · [top]

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