The Old ‘Jesus Never Said’ Argument

I’ve lost count of how many times throughout the years that I’ve heard people mount a defense for gay marriage (or the non-sinfulness of homosexuality more generally) with the argument that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. It’s an argument from silence to be sure, but the force of it (if it has any) is that Jesus could have specifically condemned homosexuality just as he did murder or adultery or any other number of sins, but didn’t. And since Jesus didn’t condemn it then it doesn’t matter if another NT author did.

One stock response is to say that Jesus doesn’t condemn every individual sin and yet even those who argue for the non-sinfulness of homosexuality or gay marriage would agree that certain things Jesus never spoke of are sins. Take child molestation as an example. Not many in the pro-gay camp would argue that Jesus would green-light pedophilia simply because he didn’t call that particular sin out by name.

Another more common response is to look at what Jesus did say and argue from the general to the particular. Jesus never said the words (so far as we know), “homosexuality is sinful and gay marriage is a sinful union,” but he did say, “I have not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.” He did say that “until heaven and earth pass, not one jot or tittle will pass from the Law, until all is fulfilled.” So we would take Jesus’ general upholding of the Law and apply that to specific instances of law breaking.

But I’d take a different approach. I’d note that the person making the argument is already presupposing biblical authority. After all, they want to accept Jesus’ words as authoritative and since he didn’t specifically condemn homosexuality (in general) or gay marriage (in particular) then neither should we. But Jesus’ words are recorded in Scripture and Scripture was written by men other than Jesus. By taking Jesus’ words as authoritative you’re taking the recorder of his words as authorities.

And since the Gospel writers’ words were inspired (= breathed out) by the Holy Spirit just as the writers of the epistles’ words were, then we can’t possibly pit Paul against Jesus. Paul was no less inspired than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We can’t take the clear condemnations of homosexuality in Paul and disregard them because Jesus didn’t say them. At least we can’t do that and be consistent.

If one were to do that then I’d ask why they’re appealing to Jesus at all. If they want Jesus’ words to be authoritative then Scripture has to be authoritative, But if they don’t want Scripture to be the authority then they don’t want Jesus’ words either and might as well disregard them and say that they don’t really care about what Jesus did or did not actually say.

B”H

Ecosystem

I’m freshly back from a five-day trip to Atlanta, the first three of which were spent attending a conference called Capacity: Reimagine. The conference was for church and marketplace leaders with the intended goal of inspiring them to think of new and innovative ways to grow their businesses, churches, and the kingdom of God.

One of the presenters, Yu-kai Chou, spoke on gamification, which is essentially taking game elements and applying them in non-game contexts. His talk was fascinating but the bit I want to talk about here really has to do with an off-handed remark that he made. He said that Apple is so successful because they sell the vision, not the product. Their competitors are concerned with telling you the specs of their machines and relying on the fact that you’ll choose the better hardware or software. Apple on the other hand doesn’t concern itself with specs; they sell us on the possibilities of what we can become by using their products.

I thought that was an interesting point and he’s correct. He noted that the last two ad campaigns that Apple did really had nothing to with what they were actually selling (I forgot the ones he mentioned). But I began to think about another aspect of Apple’s success, namely its ecosystem. I was anti-Apple for years. But once I got in I was hooked and now I can’t get out, or at least I don’t want to. I didn’t buy into a vision though. I became frustrated with my Windows machines’ severely limited lifespans and decided to give Apple a try.

I liked the hardware. I liked the software. What’s more is that I liked how they worked together. Sure, I could have gotten an equally or better spec’ed™ Windows machine for less money but it wouldn’t have worked as well. But it wasn’t just the way that my MacBook Pro’s hardware and software worked together that impressed me. It was the way that my MacBook Pro worked with my iPad, and then eventually my iPhone, and then eventually my Apple Watch, and then eventually my Apple TV, and then eventually my Air Pods that kept me.

Apple’s ecosystem is amazing and it’s what keeps me purchasing and using the products. Having everything synced through my iCloud account is incredibly convenient. Being able to load movies in iTunes (or now the TV app) and stream them to any Apple TV in the house is incredibly convenient. Being able to use iMessage on my computer, tablet, or phone is incredibly convenient. The Apple ecosystem is one of convenience.

I’m not out here evangelizing for Apple. If Windows machines and Android phones/tablets work for you then by all means, work with what you got. I’m simply pointing out that there’s something much more substantial than a vision that sold me and kept/keeps me on Apple.

B”H

What is Context?

The other day I had a friendly disagreement with another believer over the interpretation of Romans 8:26 in which Paul said,

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (ESV).

Actually, our conversation began with reference to the gifts of the Spirit, particularly that of healing and then moved to speaking in tongues. I’ll spare you the details because neither is the point of this post. Romans 8:26 came into the discussion and my friend assured me that this couldn’t possibly have anything to do with us praying since it clearly says that the “Spirit himself” prays.

He claimed that this excludes us from being the ones who pray because it is an activity of the Spirit. I wanted to provide some context for why I disagree with this interpretation. I noted how in Galatians Paul speaks of the Spirit of God’s Son crying, “Abba! Father!” My friend said that he’d need to see this and that he didn’t think that’s what it said. Fair enough. Nobody has exhaustive knowledge of the entire Bible. So we looked at Galatians 4:4-7 and he was satisfied that it said what I claimed.

I then noted that when discussing the same thing (i.e., adoption) in Romans Paul has the believer, who has received the Spirit of adoption, crying, “Abba! Father!” We both agree that Paul is consistent and that he doesn’t contradict himself so my point was that the Spirit cries “Abba! Father” through the believer who has received adoption. Likewise, my contention is that the “groanings to deep for words” (or “inarticulate groanings”) is the Spirit praying through the believer.

He told me that it’s not what the text says and that I’m reading into it. He told me that the number one rule of hermeneutics was to deal with a text in its context and that when we have to leave the context then that means we can’t deal with it on its own. But that’s the point I want to discuss in this post. All of this was setup for me to say that context is much more than what my friend would have us think.

You see, he wanted to look at this singular verse. I wanted to look at this verse within the argument of the chapter and book but also within the context of Paul’s overall theology. I noted that Galatians was one of Paul’s earliest letters; Romans was one of his latest. I wasn’t leaving Romans to run to Galatians. I was reading Paul’s later theology in light of his earlier theology. My understanding of Galatians informs my understanding of Romans.

Context is more than the verse before and the verse after the particular verse we’re reading. Context is knowing the situation of the author and his audience. It’s following the flow of the argument being put forth before us. It’s having an overarching understanding of the author’s theology. As I said, my understanding of  Galatians informs my reading of Romans, no differently than my understanding of Deuteronomy informs my reading of 1 Corinthians 8:1–10:22 or my understanding of Leviticus informs my reading of Hebrews.

But the immediate context of Paul’s very argument in this section of his letter does, I believe, point to the Spirit groaning in our groans but I’ll write about that another time.

B”H

Basically Good

Repeatedly in the Scriptures we read that man is not good. Jesus said “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18 // Luke 18:19). Likewise, Paul, quoting Psalm 14:1–3 // 53:1–3, says that “no one does good.” Many more statements to the same effect could be added to these and yet somehow we find ourselves surprised or shocked when we hear the news of somebody doing something wicked.

We say things like, “I can’t believe it,” or “that’s crazy.” We ask, “what’s wrong with people?” or “how could they do that?” It seems to me that for some reason or another a good amount of people (and I’m talking about Christians here) believe that man is basically good and it surprises us when they do things that aren’t basically good.

Rather, we shouldn’t be shocked when people do wicked things. That’s what people outside of Christ do. And we shouldn’t ask what’s wrong with them. We already know. They’re dead in sin and acting according to their sinful inclinations. What should surprise us is the impulse to think of people as basically good in the first place. Why do we think this way when both Scripture and experience show us otherwise?

Something to ponder…

B”H

Keep It Real, But Not Too Real

I just read an article about a former worship leader and Hillsong songwriter becoming apostate. In it he asks all the tough questions (I’m being facetious) and claims that no one is talking about these issues. The lead singer of Skillet (John Cooper) responded to this article on Facebook (reproduced here) and said many insightful things in his response. But the one thing that stood out to me was this bit:

“My second thought is, why do people act like “being real” covers a multitude of sins? As if someone is courageous simply for sharing virally every thought or dark place. That’s not courageous. It’s cavalier. Have they considered the ramifications? As if they are the harbingers of truth, saying “I used to think one way and practice it and preach it, but now I’ve learned all the new truth and will start practicing and preaching it.” So the influencers become the voice for truth in whatever stage of life and whatever evolution takes place in their thinking.

How many times have we heard people justify being hurtful with the words, “I’m just being real” or “I’m just being honest.” Okay, maybe you are being real, but perhaps there’s a way to be real that’s seasoned with salt and takes into account the ramifications (as Cooper notes) of your words.

I’m the type of person who tries to the best of my ability to think before I speak. One reason for this is that I don’t like to repeat myself so I like to be clear the first time I say something. Another reason is that I try to be as diplomatic as possible. There’s almost always a way to make a point without being offensive. And yet another reason is that I don’t want to over-divulge and share more than should be shared. Everything isn’t for everyone.

As a minister there are conversations that I will have with other ministers that I wouldn’t have with someone outside the ministry. There are questions I’m wrestling with and need to find answers to first before I’d ever mention them to the congregation. Imagine if every minister shared every doubt that they had. How edifying would that be to the body at large? I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have doubts; I’m just saying that we don’t have to be vocal about every little thing we’re unsure about.

Or take a common question that we ask and get asked multiple times throughout the day, “How are you doing?” My answer to that question is going to be different depending on who’s asking it. If my wife asks then she’ll get the whole truth out of me because I can share that with her. If a close friend asks then they’ll get something close to that but there’s even limits I have to set with them as to how much of my interior life I share. If an acquaintance asks then they’ll get a stock “good, ok, or meh,” without much detail at all. And if it’s a complete stranger then they’ll get a “good,” as I keep it moving.

I could be “real” with everyone and just unburden myself and spew out all of my issues and problems without taking into account how that’s going to make anyone else feel. The casual acquaintance doesn’t really want to know what’s going on. They’re just being polite and making small talk. The stranger doesn’t want that information either. It’s just a standard greeting; no different from saying hello. But imagine how uncomfortable they’d be if I unloaded on them. I know how uncomfortable I’d be.

The point is that we have to take our audience into account when we say anything. As Cooper poignantly asks in his article, “Why be so eager to continue leading people when you clearly don’t know where you are headed?” In the words of Qohelet, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words” (Ecc 5:2–3).

B”H

Being Built Up

In 1 Corinthians 8:1 Paul tells the Corinthian knowledgable that their so-called knowledge “puffs up” while love “builds up” (οκοδομε). This, of course, is in reference to the eating of food offered to idols. Some of the Corinthians without this so-called knowledge are scandalized by this behavior and Paul’s point is that love for the weaker brother will not do anything to violate their conscience.

By the time we get to vs. 10 we see that if a weaker brother sees someone with this so-called knowledge eating idol food in an idol’s temple then they will be “encouraged” (οκοδομηθσεται) to do the same. This is the same verb used in vs 1 to say that love “builds up.” Paul continues in vs. 11 to say that by this “knowledge” the weaker person is destroyed. There’s an irony here in that the same knowledge that puffs up can also build up but it does so for the ruin of the one being built up. The building up that comes through love is for their strengthening.

There’s also something to be said about the differences in voice between the building up, encouraging, and destroying of vss. 1, 10, 11 but I’ll save that for another post.

B”H

In Appreciation of Larry Hurtado

I was saddened to hear the news of Larry Hurtado’s leukemia reactivating after having been in remission for 9 months. I pray his strength in the Lord as he explores whatever options for care that he has, but I wanted to take a moment to note my appreciation for him and his work.

It’s no secret that I’m a lover of books and that I have a decent sized personal library. But there was a time when my library consisted of a single KJV Bible, an NIV Bible, and a Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. This was what I had for the first 3.5–4 years of my salvation. And then in 2006 I purchased Brenton’s Septuagint, a New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, and Simon Gathercole’s The Preexistent Son.

Letham and Gathercole were both springboards into various streams of scholarship in trinitarian theology and early Christology. I had been studying these doctrines in Scripture, researching them on the internet, and debating them with detractors in chatrooms but I hadn’t really been exposed to academic books on these subjects. And then on July 21, 2006 I printed out an article from a website called For an Answer by L. W. Hurtado. This article was entitled “What Do We Mean by ‘First-Century Jewish Monotheism’?.”

I gleaned a lot from this article while having no idea who its author was. And then in my reading of Letham and Gathercole I saw the name Larry Hurtado referenced several times throughout their books. I looked at their bibliographies and then took to Amazon. I purchased Larry W. Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity and gave it a careful and slow reading. This book would change the way I thought about, argued in favor of, and defended early Christology.

I proceeded to spend years getting my hands on all of the Hurtado resources that I could find. I have a folder on several hard drives (in the even that any one of them crashes) filled with articles that he has written and most of the books that he has authored (save a few of his more recent volumes) and have read them all with great profit.

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On three separate occasions I have emailed Professor Hurtado and three times he graciously responded. The first time was a question concerning a claim about Matthew 28:19 not being original. At the time he was preparing for a 3 week lecture trip to Australia and Singapore and passed my question along to Paul Foster who replied promptly. The second time was a note of appreciation, which I will reproduce along with his response below. The final time was to run a few of my disagreements with James McGrath’s The Only True God by him and see if they held weight (he thought that they did). But I’ve said all this to say that even being as big a name in the field as he was, he always took the time to offer a response to a nobody like me.

And while I don’t find Hurtado’s arguments as substantial now as I once did I still have the greatest appreciation for his work and the paths it led me down. My library grew by leaps and bounds from reading his footnotes and bibliographies. My thinking about the importance of actual real life worship practices wouldn’t be what it is without him. I’d take a lot more issue with his work these days than I did in those days but I’d still argue that it’s necessary reading and has to be dealt with by anyone talking about early Christology and Christian origins.

I will be praying for him and his family as he deals with his health issues and I invite you to join me in doing so.

– – –

Below is my email in appreciation of Prof. Hurtado and his response. I’ll note that he responded to me on July 4, which is my birthday.

July 3, 2009, 1:59 PM

Hi Prof. Hurtado,

My name is Nick Norelli and I’ve emailed you a couple of times in the past to ask questions and you’ve always graciously responded; for that I am thankful.  I was writing now, not to ask any questions, but rather to express my appreciation for your work.

Having come to Christ in mid-2002 in a small Pentecostal church in New Jersey I wasn’t immediately exposed to works of scholarship.  I was of the ilk who thought that the best that Christianity had to offer could be found on the Trinity Broadcastng Network with the likes of Benny Hinn and T. D. Jakes.  It wasn’t until I really got interested in learning more about the doctrine of the Trinity that I was exposed to what I’d consider ‘real’ scholarship.  I noticed your works One God, One Lord and Lord Jesus Christ cited in the footnotes and bibliographies to the books I had been reading so I dutifully got a copy of LJC.  It was life changing in terms of the way I argued for a divine Christology and understood the New Testament.  It’s also the book that got me interested in Biblical studies as much as I was interested in theology.  And I also credit LJC with giving me an appreciation for historical inquiry into Christian origins.

Since then I’ve tried to get my hands on everything that you’ve written (articles and books) and I can’t tell you how encouraged I’ve been by your work.  I consider you the top scholar in the field, and I do so after having read the work of many of your peers.  I just wanted to write this note to let you know how appreciative I am for all that you’ve done for me without even knowing it.  May God continue to bless you and your work.

All the best,

Nick Norelli
https://rdtwot.wordpress.com

– – –

July 4, 2009, 7:41 AM

Dear Mr. Norelli,

I’m very grateful for your taking the effort to send me your  encouraging words.  It is very heartening for a scholar to be read at all, and for me especially so by readers beyond one’s circle of fellow academics.  It is even more encouraging that my works communicate clearly and effectively to you and others.

So, thank you again for your encouragement.  It is really appreciated.

Best wishes,
Larry Hurtado