Saturday, November 17, 2012

Dr. Mark Achtemeier & God's plan B

This is a word to Dr. Mark Achtemeier, Presbyterian pastor and theologian. Be careful of the future path you are making for old friends. Your words may influence badly those whose morality knows no light at all. Yesterday, November 16, Hans Cornelder, of ChurchandWorld  linked to an interview CNN did with Franklin Graham; he noted that the comments were “enlightening.” When I looked there were several about a bloodbath.

 Achtemeier has at times, undoubtedly, been too badly chastised by those disappointed in his change of mind about LGBT ordination and same gender marriage. Generally attacking the person rather than his theology is not a good idea—it is not Christian unless the person is extremely unkind in his actions toward others. I heard Achtemeier speak at the Confessing Church Celebration—so many light years ago—the sermon was good; it was about the greed troubling so many Christians.  But he is now, seemingly, throwing old friends under the train. And he has, I believe, twisted Reformation history and Scripture in order to make that acceptable. 

The Covenant Network of Presbyterians has posted, on their site, Achtemeier’s sermon, “The plan-B God,” given at one of the Network’s regional conferences.   

While, being insistent that most of the people he ministered with in the renewal groups, who are against gay marriage, have such perspectives from a “compassion and a desire to help people who were struggling,” Achtemeier nonetheless sees those perspectives as influencing the culture to see Christianity as hateful and bigoted. He pleads with those in the denomination who agree with him, about same gender marriage and ordination, to not be silent, stating:
This is our present reality: While the PC (USA) keeps silence, other churches across the land loudly proclaim that their opposition to gay marriage is deeply rooted in the Gospel and the Scripture. And because of this, broad reaches of American culture have become convinced that the Christian Gospel is something hateful.”
Of course Achtemeier is right, “broad reaches of American culture have become convinced that the Christian Gospel is something hateful,” but he believes that Christians who hold that the Bible teaches that same gender sex is sin are the problem.  He sees the Covenant Network and other groups that uphold LGBT ordination and same gender marriage as the solution. Achtemeier insists that the Covenant Network and all the others must use the Bible and reformation teaching as the basis for allowing same gender marriage and LGBT ordination. He states:
 The vocation of groups like the Covenant Network will be critically important in the months and years ahead. It is not within our power to turn back the rising tide of cultural and historical forces that are sweeping our church into a period of decline. But we are confident that the day will come when God will purge the poisonous legacy of exclusion and hatefulness from our culture’s image of Christianity. Until that time it falls to you and me to keep the lights of a gracious witness burning in the midst of the surrounding darkness.
Achtemeier reminds his readers that the reformers insisted that all monks, priests and nuns be allowed to marry. Only he puts it a bit differently.  “When Martin Luther and John Calvin went back to the Bible to purify the life and witness of the Church, their conclusions included the strong conviction that it was unfaithful and cruel to impose vows of mandatory celibacy upon whole classes of people.” But it should be noted that it wasn’t about whole classes of people. It was about priests, monks and nuns. And it wasn’t a rule that all of them should get married, only those who wished to be married.

The truth is that the sexual sins troubling the Catholic Church and its monks and priests were both fornication and same gender sex.  Luther certainly wrote to correct fornication with the covenant of marriage but the problem of same gender sex was not corrected in that manner. [1]

The bigger problem has to do with Achtemeier’s title, “The Plan-B God.” It is Achtemeier understanding that for God, when plan A doesn’t work, plan B will be the alternative.  For instance when the temple and its priests, sacrifices and laws did not work God had a plan B. As Achtemeier puts it: “Note this carefully: “God’s redemption of the world through the cross of Christ is a “Plan-B” arrangement that stands dramatically apart from God’s ordinary “Plan-A” religious establishment of the Holy Temple and the Holy Priesthood in the Holy City of Jerusalem.”

So in the same way, Achtemeier sees same gender marriage as an alternative to the original plan A of marriage existing between one man and one woman. Achtemeier goes through several biblical accounts of what he believes are plan A becoming plan B, including the Hebrews becoming slaves in Egypt, but he forgets a very important Reformation teaching. That is the sovereign predetermined plans of God:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we would be blameless and holy before him. He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself according to the kind intention of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (Eph. 1:3-6)
To go further all that we see God doing in the Scripture is one straight line, not different plans. God doesn’t plan one thing and when that doesn’t work do something else. As Paul tells his reader’s the law is a school master that brings us to Christ. The rites of the temple pointed to Christ. The promises, God’s plans, were for both the Old Testament people who looked toward Christ and the New Testament people who were given Christ. Achtemeier, in his arguments, is not presenting reformation theology—but there are several other problems.

 Two other ways Achtemeier deals with Scripture. He suggests that the Genesis account that Jesus uses when speaking about divorce (Genesis 2-Matt. 19-3-6) does not constitute “Jesus’ own endorsement of heterosexual marriage as God’s exclusively authorized pattern for human life.” His proof is that Jesus did not marry. But once again the emphasis isn’t on a commandment to marry but rather a commandment to stay married because God has made them one flesh. It is totally illogical to insist that because people are allowed to be single, others should be allowed to marry same gender people.

The other problem is far greater since it rests on an assumption that not all Scripture is inspired. Achtemeier suggests that the prophet Malachi is correcting Ezra and Nehemiah. Both Ezra and Nehemiah raged against some of the returning exiles because they had married foreign women, after they returned to Judah, thus endangering the Jewish people to once again worship false gods. Marriage was after all a covenant between the two people and their deity. The men divorced their foreign wives. Achtemeier states that Malachi who lived reasonably close to their era was speaking to the divorces when he states:
Enter Malachi the prophet. Following on this great purification, Malachi brings a word from the Lord that first of all reiterates the command to marry within the tribe of Israel. But then in Malachi chapter 2 the prophet delivers a blistering condemnation of the decision to divorce the foreign wives and children.
[T]he Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant…
In the face of irregular marriages contracted in direct opposition to the divine command, God elects to bring blessing anyway. God rejects in the strongest terms the peoples’ pious attempts to force their marriages back into a normative Plan-A pattern.
So once again Achtemeier sees Plan A being routed by Plan B. 

But there is a better interpretation which makes better sense of the text. Elizabeth Achtemeier in her Interpretation commentary of Nahum-Malachi admits that the text is difficult but writes:
The charge is twofold: First, some in the community have broken the Sinai covenant with the Lord by turning to the idolatrous worship of their wives’ heathen gods (v.v. 10-12); second, some have broken their marriage covenant by divorcing their wives of many years (vv. 13-16).[2] 
Using the key word of “faithless” to pull this section together Elizabeth Achtemeier then writes: “It can therefore be assumed that the wives (vv. 13-16) have been divorced in order that the husbands may marry non-Israelite women (vv. 10-12).” This has nothing to do with Plan –B over Plan-A, but instead focuses on the covenant of marriage as it pertains to a man and woman and God. In fact, this text neatly nests in Genesis 2.

The gospel—the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is not hateful. Neither is that part of the gospel that declares “Go and sin no more.” Jesus picks up our fallen pieces and over a lifetime puts us back together. If the shed blood of Jesus must be drug through the dirt of other people’s speech we will be there with him, he with us—but it is necessary to keep proclaiming that Jesus died to save sinners (we are included) and call them to repentance.

[1]] Bernard Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West, (London: Arnold 1986) 137-138.
[2] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, James L. Mays, Series Editor(Louisville: John Knox Press 1986) 181.


Anonymous said...

I know this is a side issue - not the main point of your post, but I'm puzzled.

“Note this carefully: “God’s redemption of the world through the cross of Christ is a “Plan-B” arrangement that stands dramatically apart from God’s ordinary “Plan-A” religious establishment of the Holy Temple and the Holy Priesthood in the Holy City of Jerusalem.”


Am I reading this right? Is he actually suggesting that grace and atonement were essentially afterthoughts? What can he mean by Holy Priesthood in the Holy City of Jerusalem? I'm mystified because for Christ's coming to be a plan B, this must indicate a belief in the Aaronic priesthood as that plan A??? What I mean is Hebrews (among others) is quite clear in the Christian concept of the work of the Aaronic priest as incomplete at best.

Even for non-Christians - who do not agree that Jesus is the Messiah - what might one make of the messianic prophecies that occurred contemporaneously with the Aaronic priesthood? What would have been the point? Or when did that priesthood plan A fail? With the destruction of the temple? Or earlier?

Of possible arguments, this one strikes me as more troublesome than most.

Will Spotts
North East, MD

Viola Larson said...

Actually that was one of my thoughts-how could the cross be an after-thought? It was God's first thought before the foundation of the world. I know I have read a few, very few, dispensationalist who thought God's first try was with the temple and the priest but after that failed then he tried the cross--but never a reformed theologian.
And Achtemeier wiggles this idea around—sometimes the people simply don’t understand as when they went into Egypt not realizing they would become slaves-but then it’s not plan A against plan B. Achtemeier is simply twisting the scriptures to see if he can make them agree with same gender marriage.

David Cameron said...

Maybe when speaking of God's plan A and plan B Dr. Achtemeier was speaking of human perspectives of God's action in the world. Humanity perceives God working in one way (plan A) but frequently it turns out as things unfold that God is really working in a different way (plan B). The Bible is full of examples where God's people assume God works one way (the elder brother should get the blessing, the king should be perfect, the Messiah should be a military general) and God consistently surprises the religious elites who are so confident they have God all figured out.

Anonymous said...

David - That may have been the usage he was intending to convey. I honestly don't know - I was, as I said, puzzled.

I'm not sure it would support his argument that way. I'm also not sure his hearers heard it that way. But your suggestion does strike me as at least plausible.

Will Spotts

Viola Larson said...

I don't think this:
“God’s redemption of the world through the cross of Christ is a “Plan-B” arrangement that stands dramatically apart from God’s ordinary “Plan-A” can be interpreted any other way then both plans belonging to God.

But you have touched on a real problem that I should have also written about. Achtemeier turns his own argument around as he speaks/writes. He seems to move from his initial argument of God's two plans to several biblical accounts where people do misunderstand. It seems to me that he is fishing very hard to back his first argument up. This is generally what happens when we try to read our own ideas about what is good into the text.