Postmodern Denial of Biblical Sexual Morality
A New Testament professor (name and school left out) has said that Paul's rules regarding sexual morality, say, in Ephesians 5:3, would not have an impact on us today, because "Paul was speaking to his own culture, and not ours." Now, Ephesians 5:3 says, "But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints." Paul follows up on this injunction with a strong warning: "Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God," (vv. 4-5). Paul says the sexually immoral and impure, and the idolator will not inherit the kingdom of God. Paul could not be more clear, it seems.
To the contrary, says the postmodern interpreter of the Bible. Postmodern interpretations eschew the notion of the Scripture as being "truth-laden" and having an authority that transcends cultures, peoples, times, and places. Rather, it is historical biblical criticism which feeds into the relativising hermeneutic of postmodernism. Historical biblical criticism has its strengths and weaknesses, and it is often its weaknesses which are championed by skeptics, relativists, and so forth (what some refer to as 'liberal' theology, although, as a student of mine rightly asserst, 'liberal' in the true sense of the word means 'free,' not 'skeptical/relativist/unbelieving/modernist'). Historical biblical criticism seeks to read the Bible by treating the text as an ancient artifact to be studied, and where the information sought is the historical and socio-economic backgrounds, date, authorship, literary style, and genre of the literature in question. These are good practices. We need to know this information in order to have a clearer understanding of the Bible's message to us. However, the weakness occurs when historical biblical criticism is used to relativise the text as 'culturally bound,' leaving the Bible with very little authority for us who live two millennia after the NT was written.
If the NT professor really believes that Paul’s injunctions regarding how Christians are to live e.g. sexual morality are ‘culturally bound,’ then there are a number of problematic issues at hand. Either the professor is treating the Bible as if there were no God at all and that God has not spoken in Jesus Christ, or he is treating the Bible as God's Word in a limited sense according to a postmodern hermeneutic (say he's Trinitarian - a good place to start!). If the former, then he needs to understand that God exists, and that the Bible is historically reliable (this can be shown by establishing the date & authorship of a text, archaeological evidence, fulfilled prophecy by Jesus of Nazareth, and historical evidences for the resurrection of Jesus). In short, he needs to be given apologetic arguments. (In being given these arguments, he is to be respected and loved in all humility. The best way to do this is to have relationships with professors where they are treated with the deepest respect, love, and service. It will not do to treat professors as 'projects' in an apologetic enterprise).
If the professor does believe in the Triune God but also engages with the postmodern hermeneutic, then the issue lies in applying his own thoughts to his own words. What that means is, if he does believe in God and believes Jesus rose from the dead, but that ‘some’ parts of the Bible are culturally bound and therefore give us no voice as to our morality regarding sex (for example), then we must know what criteria there are for such distinctions.
It is important at this junction that we should readily admit that some things in the Bible are indeed culturally bound. 1 Corinthians 11 is the chapter on head coverings, for example. The majority of Christians (in the West, at least) do not see this as an imperatiive to be obeyed as transcultural. By contrast, the testimony of Scripture regarding sexual morality is completely thorough and covers the whole gamut of injunctions from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus makes clear that marriage is between a man and a woman, for example, and He roots this in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. In Matthew 19:4-5, Jesus answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’"?"
Regarding the postmodernism hermeneutic, we have a highly important point: if it is the case that what Paul said ‘back then’ is only good for the people bound to that time and culture, then so also are the words of the professor. They too, are only good for people bound to his own time and culture. What he is saying is, we have a voice – Paul’s. Paul’s voice says “Don’t do X.” Next, we have the professor, who says, “Paul’s words are meaningful only to Paul’s people.” And why are Paul’s words only meaningful to Paul’s people? Is it because that when human beings use words that those particular words are bound by culture and are therefore meaningless to new and upcoming cultures? If that is the case, then the professor's words are meaningless, too. It is like saying, “Words (and hence, imperative commands) only have meaning for the audience to whom they are given.” Well, if that’s the case, then so is that statement. It all becomes relative and meaningless. The professor assumes that his words carry weight as a transcultural, trans-temporal injunction for all people, at all times, everywhere. But on what grounds does he make such a grandiose claim?
If Paul’s words are bound by his culture, then the professor's words are bound by his culture, too. If that is the case, then the professor's words have no weight, carry no meaning, and cannot speak to anyone – not even to himself. He is uttering nonsense and absurdity. It is like saying “knowledge is impossible.”
One final thought: if the professor's hermeneutic is correct, then time itself is chopped up into little bits, as is history, and these little bits are disconnected and have no relationship with future estates of time, place, and culture. But time and history are on a continuum. When did the culture at Ephesus ‘end’? Did it end in 262 AD when the Goths destroyed the city? If so, then Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, with all its talk about God, Christ's atonement, sin, predestination, salvation, and Christian ethics is contingent upon the survival of Ephesus. But that is absurd. Texts can have meaning which transcend the culture in which and to which they were written. Else, the entire letter itself is meaningless to us, because it is directed to the churches at Ephesus! (There is a textual critical note, where some manuscripts do not have the word ‘Ephesus’ in the opening line, but the point stands). It reminds me of a college student some twenty years ago who said, "Paul's letter's aren't written to me. They're written to particular churches of the first century. They do not have any authority over me." And that is the main issue: that of authority. I suspect that when it comes to sexual morality, it is not philosophy that rules the day, but passion.
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