Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An unsettling article: reading Dr. Mark Achtemeier

A good friend recently asked if I had read Dr. Mark Achtemeier’s two papers “And Grace Will Lead Me Home: Inclusion and Evangelical Conscience” and “Unsettling Questions.” My friend, a pastor, is beginning to lean toward the ordination of LGBT people and was influenced by Achtemeier’s papers. He wondered what I thought of the papers. Because I had already read “And Grace will Lead me Home,” and told him my thoughts on that paper I decided to read “Unsettling Questions,” a paper presented at the 2007 President’s Colloquium at Austin Theological Seminary.

I believe the arguments for LGBT ordination in this paper can be divided into three sections and I will address those in order. However Achtemeier’s main concern is that the Church be aware of the lack of pastoral care being shown to LGBT people. I will comment on that at the end of this critique.

The first argument deals with Genesis 1 & 2. Achtemeier writes:
Remember how God creates the world in six days, and declares all of it “very good.” But there is one aspect of the original creation that the Lord declares “not good”—do you remember what it is? Genesis 2:18, “Then the Lord God said, It is not good that the human being should be alone; I will make a helper corresponding to him.” (Italics mine)
Achtemeier goes on to explain how the desire for intimate communion is an innate part of humanity built in at creation. As he puts it, “This creation for nuptial fellowship is not a choice that can be simply unmade or undone. It is deeply inscribed in our nature as the good gift of our creator.”

But Achtemeier too quickly passes over the whole text of the scripture he has pointed the reader/listener to. Genesis1 embraces the creation of male and female as that which God calls good. God’s pronouncement of goodness over the original creation includes the coupling of Adam and Eve, a man and a woman.

So although it may be that there is an innate desire for nuptial fellowship, still that desire is meant to be toward the opposite gender. It should not be a surprise that the goodness of God’s creation is reversed in the fall. But God promises mercy at the very beginning of the fall and it meets each contradiction of God’s good creation caused by the fall.

Achtemeier’s next step is the usual insistence that those biblical texts that condemn homosexuality are not referring to those kinds of committed same gender relationships the modern and postmodern world knows. To speak to this I refer to an article, my good friend Dr. Tom Hobson recently wrote on the Presbyterian Outlook blog. Entitled “A progressive myth,” Hobson lists with many quotes the evidence for just such homosexual relationships in the ancient world. For instance:
During Roman times, Callicratidas makes a speech worthy of "Brokeback Mountain," where he pledges lifelong undying love for his male lover, and calls for their ashes to be mixed together after death:
“I pray that it for ever be my lot to sit opposite my dear one and hear close to me his sweet voice, to go out when he goes out and share every activity with him. But, if … illness should lay its hold on him, I shall ail with him when he is weak, and, when he puts out to sea through stormy waves, I shall sail with him. And, should a violent tyrant bind him in chains, I shall put the same fetters around myself. … Should I see bandits or foemen rushing upon him, I would arm myself even beyond my strength, and if he dies, I shall not bear to live. I shall give final instructions to those I love next best after him to pile up a common tomb for both of us, to unite my bones with his and not keep even our dumb ashes apart from each other” (Pseudo-Lucian, Erōtēs 46.4–10).
Beyond that, as I have stated in another post, “Lev 18: 22 and Lev 20:13 are set in the midst of texts that deal with sexual immorality within family relationships and also murderous idolatry that involve families.” And I added, “all of the sexual sins are exploitive simply in the sense that families, individuals and communities are brought to ruin.” Jesus is also addressing family issues when he refers back to Genesis and marriage between a man and a woman. (Matt 19: 3-6)

Third, Achtemeier, using Calvin’s reasoning about allowing interest from investments although the Bible forbids the use of usury refers to Calvin’s manner of interpreting scripture, stating:
Calvin argues that it is not enough to judge this matter simply ‘in accordance with a few passages of Scripture.’ Rather, Calvin believes that in order to arrive at an accurate understanding of the biblical commandments, we must go beyond a mere surface reading of the texts and consider instead the intention of the Lawgiver. Its not enough to focus simply on what the commandments say; to interpret the biblical commands faithfully we have to think about what God is trying to accomplish in giving them.(Italics the author’s)
Although, according to Achtemeier, the information about usury is in Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Advice he refers to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion when explaining biblical interpretation. And here, in the Institutes we find that Calvin is not throwing out the commonsense meaning of the word but instead is filling it with its full meaning and demand upon our lives.

Calvin writes:
… there is always more in the requirements and prohibitions of the law than is preserved in words. This, however, must be understood so as not to convert it into a kind of Lesbian code [The term is undoubtedly not to be understood as a reference to any kind of homosexuality but rather to some kind of extravagant code coming from the island of Lesbos.] and thus, by licentiously wrestling the Scriptures, make then assume any meaning that we please. By taking this excessive liberty with Scriptures, its authority is lowered with some, and all hope of understanding it abandoned by others. (Book II, chap viii, 8)
Calvin then goes on as Achtemeier has suggested explaining how to grasp God’s meaning of the text. But this does not mean that the full prohibition or demand of the text is dropped but instead enlarged or filled out. As Calvin explains using the first commandment:
The principle of the first commandment is, that God only is to be worshipped. The sum of the commandment, therefore is, that true piety, in other words the worship of the Deity, is acceptable, and impiety is an abomination to him. So in each of the commandments we must first look to the matter of which it treats , and then consider its end, until we discover what it properly is that the lawgiver declares to be pleasing or displeasing to him. Only we must reason from the precept to its contrary in this way: if it pleases God, its opposite displeases; if that displeases, its opposite pleases: if God commands this, he forbids the opposite; if he forbids that, he commands the opposite. (Book II, Chap viii, 8)
An even better example of Calvin’s interpretation method is his explanation of “Thou shalt not kill,” where he fills in with a positive, “we are to aid our neighbor's life by every means in our power.”(9) And perhaps this is as good a place as any to look at Achtemeier’s plea for pastoral ministry for the homosexual community.

He lists all of the prevailing problems. The long term committed relationships, the feelings of inferiority or discrimination experienced by those who are not eligible for ordination, the utter despair of not being able to put aside their orientation. And yes the church must deal with these feelings, and must minister through the love of Christ to the needs expressed by the gay community. “We are to aid our neighbor’s life by every means in our power” “We must not kill.”

And that is perhaps the hardest calling the Western Church is given today. Because in this case we must love but speak truth. We must encircle and show hospitality but speak truth. We must stand while stooping to wash the sinner’s still dirty feet, as Jude puts it, “on some have mercy with fear.” Achtemeier speaks referring to human experience, but God in the cross of Jesus Christ offers the church a transforming power that is greater than human experience. God offers a love, unbelievable in terms of human experience, that is deep, powerful, redemptive and transforming. That is the church’s message; it cannot be changed. That is the church’s ministry she cannot disengage.


Tom Coddington said...

Dear Viola, Thank you for your in depth comments. Yours is a voice that we need to hear. I hope that you might comment on the clip yesterday, Nov. 3 on Presbyweb. A four page document by Rev. Doug Hagler and Aric Clark, which they intend to distribute to every Presbytery, and is quite pro LGBT ordination.

Viola Larson said...

Thank you Tom,
I am praying and thinking about Eric and Doug's document. I don't believe that they have really said anything new, that hasn't been answered before. But I may do so later.

Viola Larson said...

I don't know if you saw it but Tom Hobson wrote an answer to Aric and Doug's paper. It is on CHURCHandWORLD (Presbyweb) today. Its very good.

martha said...

I have held onto Dr. Achtemeier's paper for a long while now, reading it several times. I just wrote him a note and came across your comments.
What moves me about this article is the movement of the author. I find that in itself remarkable, because most of us choose our sides early in life, and spend years digging ourselves into deep and fortified foxholes--be they physical, intellectual, spiritual. I was most surprised by this theologian's shift, because of all I studied in seminary about discernment through the Holy Spirit's guidance.