I was so encouraged to get this message for a pastor friend of mine recently. He recently reached out with such an open heart and mind, that I wanted to share his questions and my responses. He actually asked a couple other questions as well, and I’ll be mentioning one of those later. I know he’s probably not the only one who’s asking, so that’s why I made it a post. His statements were framed in grace and understanding. I edited for brevity.
How big of a role does experience play in your journey, vs hermeneutics and solid biblical data? Now, just to clarify, I have not been keeping up with your blog, so I’m not implying you don’t have hard hermeneutical data (in fact, it seems that you do have at least some), I’m just asking, from your view, is your journey mostly founded on experience or hermeneutics? I also don’t want to bash experience, as we all have those mystical experiences in Christianity, separate from our intellectually religious pursuits. But I ask because anyone can say they had an experience or a feeling or an impulse, but most critics will care more about the data (scientifically modern people as Adventists tend to be these days).
The short answer is “yes!” I wouldn’t ever have come to the view I did if scripture didn’t allow for theology that affirms LGBT sexuality and gender with a solid, conservative hermeneutic. I don’t think experience would ever have been enough for me in the absence of good biblical “data,” as you say. I was utterly unwilling to go against scripture in favor of my experience. I’m also not sure I would have asked the question as seriously as I did without experience of the reality of non-affirming theology.
I used the hermentutics (the way of interpreting scripture) taught to me at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. I applied the approaches I was taught to test affirming theology, test non-affirming theology, and examine the text for myself. Non-affirming theology fails the test. Affirming theology makes all of scripture make sense, not only the texts applied to LGBTQ people, but the major themes and promises of scripture as well.
In looking at the texts that are usually seen as prohibitions (Gen 19:1-5, Lev 18:22; 20:12, Rom 1:24-27, 1 Cor 6:9-10, 1 Tim 1:9-10), if you focus on the author’s intent it’s not hard to see what they authors themselves had in mind. Applying these texts in ways that are out of harmony with the author’s intent is not sound hermenutics. That’s what non-affirming theology does.
Non-affirming theology also relies on the argument from absence. This argument says that since there are no same-sex relationships or alternate gender identities in scripture they are sinful now. But just because something didn’t happen then doesn’t mean it’s prohibited now.
These are the basic arguments that non-affirming theology are built on, and I don’t believe them to be hermeneuticly sound. In fact, according to what I was taught in my conservative seminary, they are not sound principles.
When I think about the way I thought before this theological shift, my biggest regret is that I relied too much on my social context, a type of experience. Everyone around me seemed in agreement that same-sex relationships are wrong and scripture was clear. Even those who weren’t didn’t speak publicly about their disagreement.
My conclusions at the time did not come from hermeneutics. I never had studied it carefully and prayerfully, because my social context was uniform in this belief. I didn’t realize this until later, but the signs were all there.
Unfortunately, my social context came from an organization that doesn’t base its theology on hermeneutics, at least not in this instance. It has never once in its history made a serious biblical inquiry on the topic, neither have most non-affirming theological organizations. Non-affirming theology has been assumed and scholars have worked to support it.
This is clear from the fact that each time they gather in the Adventist denomination to discuss theology as related to LGBTQ people they begin by saying they already agree on non-affirming theology. You cannot be a professor at the Adventist seminary or a scholar at the Biblical Research Institute if you dissent from the accepted position.
So how can you accept a position as scriptural without ever undertaking to study it with integrity and objectivity? Not based on hermenutics and scripture.
So my shift towards affirming theology is a shift towards greater integrity in my interpretation of scripture. It’s away from a purely experiential perspective towards one that relies on sound hermeneutics.
My ability to move forward on this issue also came from my Adventism and the values of progressive revelation, justice, and reliance on scripture rather than creeds or tradition. In order to move forward, we need only reconnect with these core Adventist values. We need to again think of ourselves as a movement and not an organization.
I could see how someone could read this particular post on hermeneutics and think I’m not using a conservative hermenutic.
I add a caveat. When our theology seems to be causing harm, or when a minority group claims it is harming them, we should be willing to re-examine our theology.
I’m not advocating changing theology to match what we think is compassionate. I’m advocating a humble approach and a willingness to seriously re-examine scripture with integrity and an open heart and mind.
Scripture itself teaches us that we should pay attention to the fruits of our theology and care about the lives of others (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 7:12, 16, 23:4; Luke 6:31, 11:46). Scripture also makes promises about the results of following Jesus (Matthew 7:9-11; Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 4:7).
Good theology produces good fruit.
In that sense, I’m not sure hermeneutics and experience are ever supposed to be divided. One is the study of inspired words, the other is the study of God’s creation. If we understand correctly, they will be in complete harmony.
I don’t see the authors of scripture burying themselves in the text and failing to look at the world around them, and neither should we.
Neither do I see them using scripture to make excuses for doing whatever they want, and neither should we.
The Bible is not a closed book, and our understanding never arrives at perfection. We need to be more humble and keep searching, praying, and learning until we get it right.