Monday, October 26, 2009

Dr. Timothy Wengert and a biblical argument for the ELCA

Dr. Timothy Wengert of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia has made a valiant effort at a biblical argument in favor of the ELCA's action. You can read his reflections here.

At first glance, Dr. Wengert has a powerful argument. He deals with the relevant texts, in a fashion, and he consistently focuses on the heart of Jesus' message, namely the commands to love God and love neighbor. He asserts time and again that the decision of the ELCA Assembly is in fact a decision rooted in Scripture. I encourage you to carefully read his reflections (they are long but very readable) before going on as I want to take a detailed look at his arguments.

Okay, you're back? Good.

First, let's look at what Dr. Wengert gets right. He says -- and he is absolutely correct -- that "the calls for justice toward gays and lesbians in committed relationships and the recitation of examples of healthy same-gender relations, as important as these are to some folk, finally do not in themselves constitute a complete standard for changing church policy, since even calls for justice must for Christians be grounded in and normed by sound interpretations of Scripture as God’s Word for us." This is true. Our desire for justice must be rooted in scripture. Our norms about what conduct is and is not acceptable in the body of Christ must be rooted in scripture. Now we have to ask the question, does he make a convincing scriptural case for this change in policy?

Dr. Wengert acknowledges that his scriptural argument is "an argument from the law." But he argues in a particular fashion. Lutherans have long had specific ways of dealing with the law. How does Dr. Wengert use the law?

The second thing Dr. Wengert gets correct is that "Christians are free by faith to serve the neighbor." Because we are justified by grace alone through faith in Jesus, we are set free to serve others without doing so to try to get right with God. In other words, because God has done everything needful at the cross, we are now truly free to care for the neighbor not out of selfish motives but following the example of Jesus, out of selfless love for the other.

Now Wengert begins a little sleight of hand. He directs us back to Jesus' two great commandments, first to love God and second to love the neighbor. Picking up on Jesus' comment, "On these [two commandments] hang all the law and the prophets," he changes direction. Now comes the crux of Wengert's argument. He says, "The debate over sexuality in the ELCA in some ways “hangs” on these words of Jesus. The ELCA with its decisions at the churchwide assembly is now stating that in this passage Jesus gave us a key to understand the Scriptures, that is, a lens through which we may interpret every other command in Scripture. Every command in Scripture must be focused by this question: “How does following this commandment enhance love for God and neighbor?” By asking this question of every other scriptural command, one remains truly faithful to Scripture."

Notice that Wengert's argument here has two serious problems.

First, he focuses not on the redemptive work of Jesus' death and resurrection. Nor does he focus (as Scripture does) on the person of Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Instead, Wengert chooses these two commands as the critical lens through which we must view all of scripture. No more vicarious atonement (meaning you are saved by Jesus' death on the cross). No more victorious Christ rising from the tomb, setting his followers free from bondage to death and hell. Instead, we have simply a command to love, that helps us interpret every other "have to" command in the Bible. What Wengert has done, in classic Lutheran theology, is move from the first and second uses of the law, to adopt a "third use." We'll come back to this later.

The second problem Wengert has here is just as basic as the first. He assumes that we know what love is apart from the witness of the Bible. If we just love one another, he says, we will know how to follow the commandments. But what is love, apart from Jesus? The Bible defines love this way: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4:10). Not even the Bible can define love apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus!

What about this "third use" that Wengert adopts? What does that mean? If you've read the previous post on the left and right hand work of God, this will be easier. Luther and those who follow his sense of what the Bible teaches talk about different "uses" of the law. The first use of the law corresponds to what we described earlier as the "left hand" of God. The law, used in this "first" way, helps us to organize an orderly society, provides guidelines for social and civil structures, and provides punishment for those who violate that civil order. Speed limits, court systems, and laws against shoplifting and murder are examples of this first use of the law.

The second use of the law goes along with the "right hand" work of God, the work by which God brings us to faith in Jesus Christ. The law convicts us of our sin, making us see that we fall short of the glory of God, that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. The law kills me in my sinfulness and at the cross of Jesus, God brings me to new life. (See Paul's argument in Romans 7.) This use of the law condemns me, makes me face my own sinfulness and drives me to the cross for forgiveness.

What about the third use of the law?

Lutheran theologians have been debating for almost 500 years whether there really is a "third use." Luther never really settled the debate, but most Lutherans who follow Martin Luther's teachings strictly say that the two uses are enough. It was Luther's close friend Philip Melanchthon who seemed keen on a third use of the law -- that once a person is saved, the law becomes a guide to Christian behavior. (Those who follow Luther but not so much Melanchthon make the claim that even after I am redeemed, my "good works" are either trying to live in good order with others, aka first use, or else they are part of my repentance in response to conviction of sin, aka second use.)

Why is this important in this context? Wengert's whole argument is a "third use" argument. He sees the law not as a "left hand" work of God to build an orderly society, nor as a tool God uses to show me my sin and drive me to the cross of Jesus. Instead Wengert's whole argument hinges on the idea that Christians use the law as a guideline to know how to be good to one another. Wengert cannot talk about the second use of the law because he knows that if he does, he will have to acknowledge that the Bible condemns homosexuality along with every other sin we commit, and his argument in favor of the ELCA's changes would fall apart.

So maybe you've been waiting for that shoe to drop, wondering how Wengert will deal with those texts we've been discussing, the texts that specifically mention homosexuality.

To sum it up, Wengert's argument is, "those texts don't apply." By quoting Martin Luther out of context, from a disagreement with his former colleague Karlstadt, Wengert makes it seem like Luther dismissed certain sins. Without a lengthy history lesson, suffice it to say that Luther did not say anything about certain biblical sins not applying to us anymore. Rather, he said that the structure of Jewish life (the Sabbath requirements, and the complex system of tithes among other things) was not to be applied wholesale to Christians. Note that this argument deals with the Old Testament texts mentioning homosexuality, but does nothing to remove the New Testament proscriptions of homosexual activity.

But Wengert soldiers on, echoing Mel White's arguments that the New Testament texts do not apply to homosexual activity within a committed relationship in our day, but only to certain abusive or idolatrous relationships. His foundation for rejecting Paul's argument in Romans 1 is shaky at best. But if he is simply arguing for a "third use" of the law -- how can we as Christians be good now that we're saved -- perhaps that is all he needs. His words about context and Jesus' two great commandments divert attention from the fact that this is a third use argument. But under the second use of the law, we indeed -- all of us -- stand condemned for our sins, including homosexual activity.

In the end, Wengert's arguments are a vain attempt to make a Lutheran biblical argument for declaring homosexual activity within a committed relationship as a non-sin. He ends up making a very impressive argument but at the cost of negating the death and resurrection of Christ, compromising a Lutheran understanding of the law, and leaving us to define love however we think it should best be defined.

The cost of buying his argument is just too high.


  1. Jeff,
    I've never heard the "right hand left hand" description of God so I will not comment on that specifically. However, it is important to review Jesus' responses to similiar incidents. Two quickly come to mind: 1) The money changers (theives) in the temple; and 2) the adultress that was to be stoned. The key response is, "go and sin no more".
    If I understand your "left hand" concept, that I'd also add that homosexuality violates the Godly directive of procreation and of the family role in raising children. (Bit of a scientific anamoly there also.)
    And lastly, from my recall of morals verses ethics from the Truth Project, it appears that the ELCA is making a moral argument instead of an ethical one. Far better to err on the side of a set biblical standard than an intrepretation of a concept that accounts for cultural change.
    I'm with you on this one!

  2. I'm trying to hang with you here, PJ. I want wisdom and insight to back up what I believe. I have to say I'm having a hard time following, my brain must be littler then I thought.
    Don't you think that sometimes, people try to hard to read into the bible just so they can justify there personal opinion? When really God wasn't trying to make scripture complicated but we make it complicated. Without knowing Hebrew and Greek, any translation I read, reads the same to me that homosexual relations is wrong. Em I being niave to approach scripture this way?
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom, I do grasp some! :) And I will continue to read....just wanted to comment to let you know you have people out here reading. I look forward to the forums.