Six views of what it means to be “orthodox”

Have you ever been called a heretic? Have you ever had someone say that your faith is “unorthodox”? Have you ever wondered what it meant to be “orthodox”? No, I don’t mean Greek Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox. I am talking about orthodoxy which carries the meaning of “straight or right teaching and worship.”

The answer is not easy. For some people, ”orthodoxy” is a shallow word meaning that you agree with them. For others, it means you agree with their particular denomination or local church confession. For many, it is a meaningless heavy handed designation that should no longer be used.

What does it mean to be orthodox in your beliefs?

There are really six primary views that I find represented in the church today. I am going to try to explain these views using both established and original terminology.

1. aOrthodoxy. Belief that there is no such thing as orthodoxy as a set of “right beliefs” or, at the very least, Christianity should not be defined by our beliefs except in a very minimalistic way. This view of orthodoxy takes a very pessimistic view of the Church’s need and ability to define truth, believing that orthopraxy (“right practice”) is the only thing that should be in focus. This pessimistic approach is influenced by the belief that defining the “boundaries” of Christianity according to beliefs has brought nothing but shame and unnecessary divisiveness to Christianity. This is illustrated most in the bloodshed of the inquisition, Crusades, and wars among Christians. To be labeled “orthodox” or “unorthodox” to the aOrthodox is an arrogant power play that is oppressive to the cause of Christ. Orthodoxy, therefore, is a contextualized subjective “moving target” that cannot be defined.

Primary Adherents:

Progressive Protestants (formerly known as Emerging Christianity)

Strengths:

  • Sees the importance of orthopraxy.
  • Understands the difficulty of defining Christian orthodoxy.

Weaknesses:

  • Christianity loses any distinction.
  • Follows a self-defeating premise by establishing a new minimalistic orthodoxy of its own.
  • Unjustifiably follows a “guilt by association” premise. Just because others killed in the name of orthodoxy does not mean that those who seek to define orthodoxy will do the same. In fact, most have not.

2. Scriptural Orthodoxy. This is the belief that Scripture alone sets the bounds of orthodoxy without any aid from the historic body of Christ. This should not be mistaken for sola Scriptura—the belief that the Scripture is our final and only infallible authority in matters of faith and practice—but as a radical rejection of any other sources of authority such as the church, tradition, natural revelation, etc. It is often referred to as solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura. Here, there would not be any authority derived from the body of Christ, historic or contemporary, as an interpretive community that either fallibly or infallibly has the ability to define orthodoxy. Adherents would often be found saying, “No creed but the Bible.”

Primary Adherents:

Fundamentalist Protestants

Strengths:

  • Understands that the Bible is the only infallible source.
  • Causes people to go back to the source (ad fontes).

Weaknesses:

  • Discounts the historic Church as a Spirit illuminated interpreter of the Scriptures that must be respected as a voice (albeit fallible) of God.
  • Creates their own orthodoxy based upon their subjective interpretation. This way there will be many orthodoxies.
  • Often results in cults who deny essential elements of Christian theology that have been held throughout church history.
  • Fails to see that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.

3. Paleo-Orthodoxy. This is the belief that the Christian faith can be found in the consensual beliefs of the church. This is a form of “consensual orthodoxy” (consensus fidelium). This search for consensus follows the dictum of Saint Vincent of L’rins: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus, “that which was believed everywhere, always.” Normally, according to Thomas Oden, who coined the term “paleo-orthodoxy,” this consensual faith can be found in the first five centuries of the Christian church (Requiem: a Lament in Three Movements), before the “speculative scholasticism” of western Catholicism. The idea of theological progression is normally thought by strict adherents of Paleo-Orthodoxy as a post-enlightenment influenced methodology that should not be followed.

Primary Adherents:

Eastern Orthodoxy and some Evangelicals

Strengths:

  • Looks to the early historic body of Christ for orthodoxy.
  • Understands that God’s providential concern for the Church would have established the most important truths early.

Weaknesses:

  • Can elevate the authority of the early church above that of Scripture.
  • Hard to find justifiable reasons to believe that theology cannot develop or mature beyond the first five or six centuries.

4. Dynamic Orthodoxy. This view of orthodoxy would be highly influenced by a dialectical approach to theological development, believing that orthodoxy is not in any sense static, but dynamically changing as new discoveries are being made. Early views of orthodoxy might be completely overshadowed by new discoveries. This approach has characterized the more liberal theologians, especially in the early twentieth century. Theology, according to dynamic orthodoxy, can change radically in an antithetical way once new discoveries are made through the advancements of human knowledge.

Primary Adherents:

Liberal Christianity

Strengths:

  • Open to change and advancement.

Weaknesses:

  • Too open to change and advancement.
  • Christianity loses any roots.
  • Often values the credibility of human progress above the credibility of Scripture.

5. Developmental Orthodoxy. This view of orthodoxy is unique to Roman Catholicism, therefore, it must be understood according to the Catholic view of authority. Developmental Orthodoxy sees the fullness of Christian orthodoxy contained in the one deposit of faith given by Christ to the apostles. These Apostles handed this deposit over in two forms of tradition, written and spoken. The written tradition is found in the Scriptures, the spoken is primarily contained in the early church. This tradition is interpreted by the infallible magisterial authorities in the Roman Catholic church. Orthodoxy itself is defined progressively by this authority as situations develop throughout time. According to this theory, it is not as if orthodoxy develops ex nihilo, but only as the situations make necessary. Once orthodoxy has been defined, then Christians are responsible to believe it, even if it was previously obscure or non-existent (e.g. acceptance of the Apocrypha, assumption of Mary, rejection of birth control).

Primary Adherents:

Roman Catholics

Strengths:

  • Can be more definitive about a definition of orthodoxy.
  • Ability to contextualize orthodoxy.
  • Sees value in church history.

Weaknesses:

  • No regulation for abuse in the Magisterium.
  • No justification for an authoritative system of infallibility beyond pragmatism.
  • Elements of newly established orthodoxy that cannot be found in church history is hard to justify.
  • Does not take a consensual approach to orthodoxy which, in the end, positions most members of the Christian faith, living and dead, as unorthodox according to their current definition.

6. Progressive Orthodoxy. This is the belief that the ultimate authority for the Christian faith is found only in the Scriptures (sola Scriptura) and that orthodoxy is a progressive development of the Church’s understanding of the Scriptures. Like paleo-orthodoxy, progressive orthodoxy seeks the consensus of the Church throughout time for the core essential theological issues, finding most of these in the early church expressed in the ecumenical councils. But it also believes that our understanding of these issues can and may mature and reform both through articulation and added perspective. This “maturing” does not amount to any essential change, but only progressive development as theological issues are brought to the table of church history through controversy and exegetical discovery. In other words, once orthodoxy has been established, its antithetical opposite cannot be entertained. Orthodoxy can only be advanced.

Adherents:

Most Evangelicals, Protestant Reformers, some emergers.

Here is the chart that illustrates this view:

progressivetruth

Weaknesses:

  • Often hard to define what is the difference is between maturity and change.
  • Who defines when a doctrine has “matured”?

Strengths:

  • It is anchored in the Bible while having a great respect for tradition.
  • Leaves the door open for the Holy Spirit to mature the church’s understanding.
  • Seeks first to define orthodoxy in a consensual way.
  • Leaves room to distinguish between essential elements of orthodoxy and non-essential.

Of the options given above, in my opinion the two that are the most credible are Paleo-Orthodoxy and Progressive Orthodoxy. Both are rooted in the ultimate authority of Scripture and both have a high view of God’s providential care throughout Church history. I appreciate the consensual approach which I think must be present to some degree if one is to have a proper defense of the history of the Church.

In the end, however, I do lean in the direction of the Progressive Orthodox view. I believe that all the essential doctrines of Christianity were established in the early Church, but that their maturation came throughout church history. Some, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, matured earlier than others. Because of this, we find that these enjoy a greater Christian consensus. I put a higher priority on these. Yet I also believe that we need to take seriously others which matured later, even if they do not enjoy the same consensus (i.e. sola fide, substitutionary atonement, imputed sin, etc.—which I believe existed in seed form in the early church, but did not develop more fully until later controversies.)

Where do you all stand?

(HT Parchment and Pen)

What is Theology?

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series We're All Theologians

We're All TheologiansA couple of years ago, I had the good fortune of speaking to some Bible college students who were interested in attending seminary. Upon my arrival , I was given a tour of the campus. During the tour, I noticed this inscription on a set of office doors: “Department of Religion.” When it came time to address the students that evening, I mentioned the inscription I had seen, and I asked whether the department had always been called by that name. An older faculty member replied that years ago the department had been called the “‘Department of Theology.” No one could tell me why the department name had been changed.

“Religion” or “theology ” – what difference does it make? In the academic world, the study of religion has traditionally come under the broader context of either sociology or anthropology, because religion has to do with the worship practices of human beings in particular environments. Theology, by contrast, is the study of God. There is a big difference between studying human apprehensions of religion and studying the nature and character of God himself. The first is purely natural in its orientation. The second is supernatural, dealing with what lies above and beyond the things of this world.

After explaining this in my speech to the students, I added that a true Christian college or university is committed to the premise that the ultimate truth is the truth of God, and that he is the foundation and source of all other truth. Everything we learn – economics, philosophy, biology, mathematics – has to be understood in light of the overarching reality of the character of God. That is why, in the Middle Ages theology was called “the queen of the sciences” and philosophy “her handmaiden.” Today the queen has been deposed from her throne and, in many cases, driven into exile, and a supplanter now reigns. We have replaced theology with religion.

THEOLOGY DEFINED

In this part of the series, we are concerned with theology, specifically with systematic theology, which is an orderly, coherent study of the principal doctrines of the Christian faith. In this part, I will give a brief introduction to the science of systematic theology and some basic definitions.

The word theology shares a suffix, -ology, with the names of many disciplines and sciences, such as biology, physiology, and anthropology. The suffix comes from the Greek word logos, which we find in the opening of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Greek word logos means “word” or “idea,” or, as one philosopher translated it, “logic” (it is also the term from which we get the English word logic). So when we study biology, we are looking at the word or logic of life. Anthropology is the word or logic about humans, anthropos being the Greek word for man. The primary part of the word theology comes from the Greek theos, which means “god,” so theology is the word or logic of God himself.

Theology is a very broad term. It refers not only to God but to all that God has revealed to us in sacred Scripture. Included in the discipline of theology is the study of Christ, which we call “Christology.” It also includes the study of the Holy Spirit, which we call “pneumatology,” the study of sin, which is called “hamartiology,” and the study of future things, which we call “eschatology.” These are subdivisions of theology. Theologians also speak of “theology proper,” which has specific reference to the study of God himself.

Many are comfortable with the word theology but cringe when they hear the qualifying term systematic. This is because we live in a time of widespread aversion to certain kinds of systems. We respect inanimate systems – computer systems, fire alarm systems, and electrical circuitry systems – because we understand their importance for society. However, when it comes to systems of thought or to understanding life and the world in a coherent manner, people are uncomfortable. Part of the reason for that has to do with one of the most influential philosophies to emerge in Western history – existentialism.

THE INFLUENCE OF PHILOSOPHY

Existentialism is a philosophy of existence. It presupposes that there is no such thing as essential truth; rather, there is distinctive existence – not essence, but existence. By definition, existentialism abhors a generic system of reality. It is an anti-system that holds to truths but not to truth and to purposes but not to purpose. Existentialists do not believe that reality can be understood in an orderly fashion because they see the world as ultimately chaotic and without meaning or purpose. One simply confronts life as it happens; there is no overarching viewpoint to make sense of it all, because ultimately life does not make sense.

Existentialism has had a tremendous impact in Western culture along with its offspring, relativism and pluralism. The relativist says, “There is no absolute truth except the absolute truth that there is absolutely no absolute truth. All truth is relative. What is true for one may be false for another.” There is no effort to bring opposing views into harmony (something a system would seek to do) because, according to relativists, there is no possibility of a systematic understanding of truth.

Such philosophy has also had a strong impact on theology, even in the seminaries. Systematic theology is rapidly becoming a forgotten discipline, not only because of the impact of existential thought and of relativism and pluralism, but also because some people misunderstand systematic theology as an attempt to force the Bible into a philosophical system. Some have attempted to force the Bible into a philosophical system, as was the case with Rene Descartes and his rationalism and with John Locke and his empiricism. Those who make such attempts do not hear the Word of God or seek to understand it on its own terms; rather, they seek to bring a preconceived system to bear on the Scriptures.

In Greek mythology, a bandit named Procrustes attacked people and cut off their legs to fit them into the dimensions of an iron bed rather than simply enlarging the bed. Attempts to force Scripture into a preconceived system of thought are similarly misguided, and the result has been an aversion to systematic theology. However, systematic theology does not attempt to force Scripture into a philosophy or system, but instead it seeks to draw out the teachings of Scripture and understand them in an orderly, topical way.

ASSUMPTIONS OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY

Systematic theology is based on certain assumptions. The first assumption is that God has revealed himself not only in nature but also through the writings of the prophets and the Apostles, and that the Bible is the Word of God. It is theology par excellence. It is the full logos of the theos.

The second assumption is that when God reveals himself, he does so according to his own character and nature. Scripture tells us that God created an orderly cosmos. He is not the author of confusion because he is never confused. He thinks clearly and speaks in an intelligible way that is meant to be understood.

A third assumption is that God’s revelation in Scripture manifests those qualities. There is a unity to the Word of God despite the diversity of its authors. The Word of God was written over many centuries by many authors, and it covers a variety of topics, but within that diversity is unity. All the information found in Scripture – future things, the atonement, the incarnation, the judgment of God, the mercy of God, the wrath of God – have their unity in God himself, so that when God speaks and reveals himself, there is a unity in that content, a coherence.

God’s revelation is also consistent. It has been said that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but if that were true, we would have to say that God has a small mind, because in his being and character, he is utterly consistent. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).

These assumptions guide the systematic theologian as he goes about his task of considering the whole scope of Scripture and inquiring how it all fits together. At many seminaries, the systematic theology department is separate from the New Testament department and the Old Testament department. This is because the systematic theologian has a different focus than the Old Testament professor and the New Testament professor. Biblical scholars focus on how God has revealed himself at various points over time, while the systematician takes that information, puts it all together, and shows how it fits into a meaningful whole. This is a daunting task, to be sure, and I am convinced that no one has ever done it perfectly.

As I engage in systematic theology, I never cease to be amazed by the specific, intricate coherence of the scope of divine revelation. Systematic theologians understand that each point in theology addresses every other point. When God speaks, every detail he utters has an impact on every other detail. That is why our ongoing task is to see how all the pieces fit together into an organic, meaningful, and consistent whole. That is what we will be doing in this series.

 

Same-sex “marriage”: Challenges and responses

America is entangled in the most heated battle of the culture wars to date. Many consider it a Waterloo. State supreme courts and city governments, senators and congressmen, community leaders, celebrities, and even clergy all have mounted a powerful offensive in support of gay “marriage.” What follows is a point-by-point reply to those who are demanding this revision of civilization.

Same-Sex Marriage and Civil Rights

“We’re being denied the same rights as heterosexuals. This is unconstitutional discrimination.”

There are two complaints here. First, homosexuals don’t have the same legal liberties heterosexuals have. Second, homosexual couples don’t have the same legal benefits as married couples.

The first charge is simply false. Any homosexual can marry in any state of the Union and receive every one of the privileges and benefits of state-sanctioned matrimony. He just cannot marry someone of the same sex. These are rights and restrictions all citizens share equally.

I realize that for homosexuals this is a profoundly unsatisfying response, but it is a legitimate one, nonetheless.

Let me illustrate. Smith and Jones both qualify to vote in America where they are citizens. Neither is allowed to vote in France. Jones, however, has no interest in U. S. politics; he’s partial to European concerns. Would Jones have a case if he complained, “Smith gets to vote [in California], but I don’t get to vote [in France]. That’s unequal protection under the law. He has a right I don’t have.” No, both have the same rights and the same restrictions. There is no legal inequality, only an inequality of desire, but that is not the state’s concern.

The marriage licensing law applies to each citizen in the same way; everyone is treated exactly alike. Homosexuals want the right to do something no one, straight or gay, has the right to do: wed someone of the same sex. Denying them that right is not a violation of the equal protection clause.

The second complaint is more substantial. It’s true that homosexual couples do not have the same legal benefits as married heterosexuals regarding taxation, family leave, health care, hospital visitation, inheritance, etc. However, no other non-marital relationships between individuals – non-gay brothers, a pair of spinsters, college roommates, fraternity brothers – share those benefits, either. Why should they?

If homosexual couples face “unequal protection” in this area, so does every other pair of unmarried citizens who have deep, loving commitments to each other. Why should gays get preferential treatment just because they are sexually involved?

The government gives special benefits to marriages and not to others for good reason. It’s not because they involve long-term, loving, committed relationships. Many others qualify there. It’s because they involve children. Inheritance rights flow naturally to progeny. Tax relief for families eases the financial burden children make on paychecks. Insurance policies reflect the unique relationship between a wage earner and his or her dependents (if Mom stays home to care for kids, she – and they – are still covered).

These circumstances, inherent to families, simply are not intrinsic to other relationships, as a rule, including homosexual ones. There is no obligation for government to give every human coupling the same entitlements simply to “stabilize” the relationship. The unique benefits of marriage fit its unique purpose. Marriage is not meant to be a shortcut to group insurance rates or tax relief. It’s meant to build families.

Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council sums the issue up nicely:

“Gay citizens” already have the same right to marry as anyone else – subject to the same restrictions. No one may marry a close blood relative, a child, a person who is already married, or a person of the same sex. However much those restrictions may disappoint the incestuous, pedophiles, polygamists, and homosexuals, the issue is not discrimination. It is the nature of marriage itself.

“They said the same thing about interracial marriage.”

This challenge has great rhetorical force, but it is a silly objection.

Consider two men, one rich and one poor, seeking to withdraw money from their bank. The rich man is denied because his account is empty. However, on closer inspection, a clerk discovers an error, corrects it, and releases the cash. Next in line, the poor man is denied for the same reason: insufficient funds. “That’s the same thing you said about the last guy,” he snaps. “Yes,” the clerk replies. “We made a mistake with his account, but not with yours. You’re broke.”

In the same way, it simply is not relevant that the same objection has been used to deny both interracial and homosexual marriage. It’s only relevant if the circumstances are the same, regardless of the objection. They are not.

Same-sex marriage and interracial marriage have nothing in common. There is no difference between a black and a white human being because skin color is morally trivial. There is an enormous difference, however, between a man and a woman. Ethnicity has no bearing on marriage. Sex is fundamental to marriage.

This approach won’t work to justify polygamous or incestuous unions (”In the past people wouldn’t allow interracial marriages, either.”). It is equally ineffectual here. The objection may be the same, but the circumstances are entirely different.

“We shouldn’t be denied the freedom to love who we want.”

Columnist Ellen Goodman writes, “The state is on shaky ground when it tries to criminalize sexual relations of the consensual living arrangements of adults.” In San Francisco, a giddy newly “married” lesbian celebrates, “Now we’re not second-class citizens; now we can have a loving relationship like every other married couple we know.” Another opines, “Anybody who is in love and wants to spend the rest of their life together should be able to do it.”

These remarks reflect a common misconception: Same-sex marriage will secure new liberties for homosexuals that have eluded them thus far. This will not happen because no personal liberty is being denied them. Gay couples can already do everything married people do – express love, set up housekeeping, share home ownership, have sex, raise children, commingle property, receive inheritance, and spend the rest of their lives together. It’s not criminal to do any of these things.

Homosexuals can even have a wedding. Yes, it’s done all the time. Entire cottage industries have sprung up from Hollywood to the Big Apple serving the needs – from wedding cakes to honeymoons – of same-sex lovers looking to tie the knot.

Gay marriage grants no new freedom, and denying marriage licenses to homosexuals does not restrict any liberty. Nothing stops anyone – of any age, race, gender, class, or sexual preference – from making lifelong loving commitments to each other, pledging their troth until death do them part. They may lack certain entitlements, but not freedoms.

Denying marriage doesn’t restrict anyone. It merely withholds social approval from a lifestyle and set of behaviors that homosexuals have complete freedom to pursue without it. A marriage license doesn’t give liberty; it gives respect.

And respect is precisely what homosexual activists long for, as one newly licensed lesbian spouse makes clear: “It was a moving experience after a truly lifelong commitment, to have a government entity say, ‘Your relationship is valid and important in the eyes of the law.’” Another admits, “This is about other people recognizing what we have already recognized with each other for a long time.” And another: “I didn’t start out feeling this way, but that piece of paper, it’s just so important I can’t even put it into words. It’s so important to have society support you…It’s about society saying you’re recognized as a couple.”

Ironically, heterosexuals have been living together for years enjoying every liberty of matrimony without the “piece of paper.” Suddenly that meaningless piece of paper means everything to homosexuals. Why? Not because it confers liberty, but because it confers legitimacy. Note this telling passage from Time magazine’s “Will Gay Marriage be Legal?”

Ultimately, of course, the battle for gay marriage has always been about more than winning the second-driver discount at the Avis counter. In fact, the individual who has done most to push same-sex marriage – a brilliant 43-year-old lawyer-activist named Evan Wolfson – doesn’t even have a boyfriend. He and the others who brought the marriage lawsuits of the past decade want nothing less than full social equality, total validation – not just the right to inherit a mother-in-law’s Cadillac. As Andrew Sullivan, the (also persistently single) intellectual force behind gay marriage, has written, “Including homosexuals within marriage would be a means of conferring the highest form of social approval imaginable.”

Same-sex marriage is not about civil rights. It’s about validation and social respect. It is a radical attempt at civil engineering using government muscle to strong-arm the people into accommodating a lifestyle many find deeply offensive, contrary to nature, socially destructive, and morally repugnant. Columnist Jeff Jacoby summed it up this way in The Boston Globe:

The marriage radicals…have not been deprived of the right to marry – only of the right to insist that a single-sex union is a “marriage.” They cloak their demands in the language of civil rights because it sounds so much better than the truth: They don’t want to accept or reject marriage on the same terms that it is available to everyone else. They want it on entirely new terms. They want it to be given a meaning it has never before had, and they prefer that it be done undemocratically – by judicial fiat, for example, or by mayors flouting the law. Whatever else that may be, it isn’t civil rights.

The Meaning of Marriage

The controversy about same-sex marriage churns principally around the definition of marriage. Activists deny the traditional view, that marriage is about children. Instead, marriage is an ever changing, socially-constructed institution constantly being redefined by society. There is no essential connection with children. Rather, at the core of the enterprise are two people in love.

“Marriage is about love.”

Understandably, love is a predominant theme in discussions about marriage. “As long as people love each other,” one person asserted, “it shouldn’t matter whether they are the same sex. What’s important in marriage is love.”

Initially, this seems hard to deny. In our culture, love is often the immediate motivation for marriage. On reflection, though, it’s clear that love and marriage don’t always go together. In fact, they seldom do.

If marriage were about love, then billions of people in the history of the world who thought they were married were not. Most marriages have been arranged. Love may percolate later, but only as a result of marriage, not the reason for it.

Further, if love were the sine qua non of marriage, no “for better or for worse” promises would be needed at the altar. Vows aren’t meant to sustain love; they are meant to sustain the union when love wanes. A pledge keeps a family intact not for love, but for the sake of children.

The state doesn’t care if the bride and groom love each other. There are no questions about a couple’s affections when granting a license. No proof of passion is required. Why? Because marriage isn’t about love.

Yes, love may be the reason some people get married, but it isn’t the reason for marriage. It may be a constituent of marriage, but it isn’t the purpose of marriage. Something else is.

“Marriage is constantly being redefined.”

The definition of marriage has not been in flux in the way people suggest. In fact, marriage itself has not been redefined at all. Because there have been variations on the theme does not mean there has been no theme. From the dawn of civilization marriage has always been between men and women.

There have been changes. Historically some have been denied marriage (e. g. , the young, the genetically aberrant, and interracial couples). Others were allowed to marry more than once, either consecutively (divorce and remarriage), or concurrently (polygamy). Spousal rights have altered and traditions have evolved. But marriage has still been marriage. And spouses have always been male and female.

To say something has changed is to say some core thing has remained the same. When an old curtain is changed into a work smock, or an irresponsible bachelor becomes a conscientious dad, something stays the same, the cloth and the man, in these two cases.

In the midst of these obvious changes in marriage, what feature remains the same? What is the essential core that makes marriage distinct from any other relationship? In spite of the variations, spouses have always been male and female. Why? What is unique about this human pairing?

“Not all marriages have children.”

Initially it is easy to resist any suggestion that “marriage” and “family” are essentially connected with “offspring.” Clearly, not all families have children. Some marriages are barren, by choice or by design.

This proves nothing, though. Books are written by authors to be read, even if large ones are used as doorstops or discarded ones help ignite campfires. The fact that many lie unread and covered with dust, or piled atop coffee tables for decorative effect doesn’t mean they were not destined for higher purpose.

In the same way, the natural tie of marriage to procreation is not nullified because in some individual cases children are not intended or even possible. Marriage still is what it is even if its essential purpose is never actualized. The exceptions prove the rule, they don’t nullify it. Marriage is intrinsically about and for children.

Ironically, heterosexuals and homosexuals alike confirmed this while lining up to wed at city halls on Valentines day. “After seven years and the birth of a baby,” the L.A. Times reported, “Robert Manzo and Anna Parker decided to make their union official for 9-month-old Kyle, who they believe should have the legal protection that a marriage gives to a family.”

More than 300 miles away, Kathy Palmer-Lohan stood in line in San Francisco with her partner, Laura, who was seven months pregnant. “We’re having kids,” Palmer-Lohan said, “and [marriage] gives some formality to the relationship and the family structure.

“Marriage is a social construction we can redefine as we please.”

What is marriage? There are only two possible kinds of answers to this question: Either marriage and family have a fixed, natural purpose (a natural “teleology”) or they do not. If not, marriage is some kind of social construction, an invention of culture like knickers or bow ties, fashions that change with the times. Marriages defined by convention can be anything culture defines them to be. No particular detail is essential.

It is not possible, however, that marriage is a social construction. Here’s why:

Columnist Dennis Prager has observed, “Every higher civilization has defined marriage as an institution joining members of the opposite sex.” I agree with Prager’s position on marriage, though I take exception with one of his words.

I don’t think marriage has been defined by cultures. Rather, I think it has been described by them. The difference in terms is significant. If marriage is defined by culture, then it is merely a construction that culture is free to change when it desires. The definition may have been stable for millennia, yet it is still a convention and therefore subject to alteration. This is, in fact, the argument of those in favor of gay marriage.

The truth is, it is not culture that constructs marriages or the families that marriages begin. Rather, it is the other way around: Marriage and family construct culture. As the building blocks of civilization, families are logically prior to society as the parts are prior to the whole. Bricks aren’t the result of the building because the building is made up of bricks. You must have the first before you can get the second.

Societies are large groups of families. Since families are constituent of culture, cultures cannot define them. They merely observe their parts, as it were, and acknowledge what they have discovered. Society then enacts laws not to create marriage and families according to arbitrary convention, but to protect that which already exists, being essential to the whole.

Why has civilization always characterized families as a union of men and women? Because men and women are the natural source of the children that allow civilized culture to persist. This is the only understanding that makes sense of the definition, structure, legitimacy, identity, and government entitlements of marriage. This alone answers our question, “What is marriage?”

Marriage begins a family. Families are the building blocks of cultures. Families – and therefore marriages – are logically prior to culture.

If the definition of marriage is established by nature, then we have no liberty to redefine it. In fact, marriage itself wouldn’t change at all even if we did. Philosopher Francis Beckwith has wryly observed, “Just because you can eat an ashtray doesn’t make it food.” Linguistic tricks can’t change what nature has already determined something to be. Neither ashtrays nor same-sex marriage provide the nourishment intended by food or families, respectively.

The fact that same-sex couples can legally adopt changes nothing. This, too, subverts the purpose of marriage by robbing families (and children) of a vital ingredient: mothers and fathers. By licensing same-sex marriage, society declares by law that two men or two women are equally suited to raise a child, that mothers and fathers contribute nothing unique to healthy child-rearing. This is self-evidently false. Moms and dads are not interchangeable.

Marriage begins a family. The purpose of family is to produce the next generation. Therefore, family is designed by nature for children. This description alone is consistent with our deepest intuitions, which is why every culture since the birth of time has recognized this. No other characterization fits what societies have been doing for millennia.

Families may fail to produce children, either by choice or by accident, but they are about children, nonetheless. That’s why marriages have always been between men and women; they are the only ones, in the natural state, who have kids.

Government has no interest in affirming any other kind of relationship. It privileges and sustains marriage in order to protect the future of civilization.

Same-sex marriage is radically revisionist. It severs family from its roots, eviscerates marriage of any normative content, and robs children of a mother and a father. This must not happen.

Homosexuality is broadly tolerated in this country. Gays are allowed to pursue their “lifestyles” without reprisal, even to the point of forming committed, monogamous unions. They may not be universally respected or admired, but they have the liberty to live as they choose. This is all they have the right to demand.

Q&A: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Questions & Answers

Muslims and Christians both worship one God, and many would argue that they are the same God. Are they?

Muslims and Christians: How to Get Along?

They both believe in one personal and transcendent God who has sent his prophets into the world. They both believe in sacred writings that record the prophetic revelations. They both believe that Jesus was a prophet who was sinless and born of a virgin. And they both worship with these beliefs firmly in place. We are speaking of Muslims and Christians, whose members comprise the two largest monotheistic religions in the world.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have become fascinated with the beliefs and practices of Islam, which is the fastest growing religion in the world, with approximately 1.3 billion adherents. Increasingly, Muslims are immigrating to the West. In various American cities, it is not uncommon to find mosques — many of them newly built — and to see women in the traditional Muslim dress mingling with American women dressed quite differently.

In light of this, many Westerners wonder what do Muslims believe and why. They also question the relationship between Islam and Christianity. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but merely in different ways? Should Christians seek to present their beliefs to Muslims in the hope that the Muslim might forsake Islam and embrace Christianity? Or is this simply a waste of time at best or rude at worst?

Many instruct us to be “tolerant” and to refrain from “proselytizing” anyone. In the name of tolerance, some people say that Christians and Muslims should coexist without trying to convert (or otherwise challenge) each other because “Christians and Muslims worship the same God.” This, many believe, should be good enough for Muslims and Christians. Many also believe this arrangement is good enough for the God they both worship as well. If both religions worship the same God, why should they worry about each other’s spiritual state?

Religion, God and Truth

If indeed Muslims and Christians worship the same God, there would be little need for disagreement, dialogue, and debate between them. If I am satisfied to shop at one grocery store and you are satisfied to shop at another store, why should I try to convince you to shop at my store or vice versa? Do not both stores provide the food we need, even if each sells different brands? The analogy is tidy, but does it really fit? Deeper questions need to be raised if we are to settle the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. First, what are the essential teachings of Christianity and Islam? Second,what does each religion teach about worshipping its God? Third, what does each religion teach about the other religion? That is, do the core teachings of Islam and Christianity assure their adherents that members of the other religion are fine as they are because both religions “worship the same God”?

In When Religion Becomes Evil (Harper. San Francisco, 2002), Charles Kimball argues that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God. Kimball rightly observes that truth claims are foundational for religion. But he claims that believers err when they hold their religious beliefs in a “rigid” or “absolute” manner. So, he argues, when some Christians criticize the Islamic view of God (Allah) as deficient, they reveal their ignorance and bigotry. Kimball asserts that “there is simply no ambiguity here. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are talking about the same deity” (p. 50). This is because the Qur’an affirms that Allah inspired the Hebrew prophets and Jesus. Moreover, the Arabic word “Allah” means “God.” Are Professor Kimball and so many others who echo similar themes correct? In search of a reasonable answer, we will briefly consider the three questions from the last paragraph.

Christianity and Islam: The Claims, the Logic, and the Differences

First, what are the teachings that each religion takes to be absolutely true? Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably. Islam denies that God is a Trinity — that one God eternally exists as three co-eternal and equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).1 Islam also rejects that God became a man in Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18).2 These doctrines are cornerstones of Christianity. But God cannot be both a Trinity (Christian) and not a Trinity (Islam). This is matter of simple logic; it has nothing to do with religious intolerance or being “rigid.”

For Christianity, humans are corrupted by an inherited sinful nature that cannot be overcome by any human means (Ephesians 2:1-10). But Islam denies that human have a deeply sinful human nature, claiming that we sin because we are merely weak and ignorant.3 Christianity teaches that salvation is secured only through faith in the achievements of Jesus Christ — his life, death, and resurrection (John 3:16-18). Islam, however, implores its followers to obey the laws of the Qur’an in the hopes that they will be found worthy of paradise.4 Since these two views contradict each other, both views cannot be true.

Second, how does each religion say worship should be offered to God? Muslims deem worship of the Trinity to be polytheistic and thus blasphemous. Worship of Jesus — whom they deem only human — is anathema. Yet these beliefs are essential for Christian worship. One must worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Worship requires assent to the truth of God (the Trinity), belief in the gospel, trust in Jesus Christ, and submission to God’s will. While Muslims emphasize submission to Allah (“Islam” means submission), they do not submit to the God revealed in the Bible. This exposes another irreconcilable difference between Islam and Christianity.

Third, what does each religion make of the other one? Muslims and Christians have historically tried to convert each other, since they both view adherents of other religions to be misguided. Islam seeks converts worldwide because it believes Allah is supreme over all and must be so recognized. Christians are commanded to take the gospel into all the nations and to baptize converts into the name of the triune God of the Bible (Matthew 28:18-20).

Neither Christianity nor Islam can logically endorse the other religion’s distinctive claims and practices without denying its own.

Much more needs to be discussed concerning Muslim and Christian relations in a religiously pluralistic world. However, we must conclude that despite their common monotheism, Islam and Christianity have very different views of God, worship, and mission. Therefore, it is unreasonable to claim that they worship the same God. Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably.

FOOTNOTES
  1. See The Qur’an, Surah 112:1-4, which denies that God “begat” a son. Surah 4:171 commands Muslims to not say “three” with respect to God; see also Surah 5:73. However, the Qur’an claims that the Christian doctrine of Trinity affirms that it is comprised of the Father, the Son, and Mary (Surah 5:116). The Bible, however, never attributes deity to Mary. For more on how the Qur’an understands Jesus and the Trinity, see Chawkat Moucarry,The Prophet and the Messiah: An Arab Christian’s Perspective on Islam and Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 184-195. []
  2. See The Qur’an, Surah 5:115-18 where Jesus is reported to have denied his own deity; see also Surah 9:30-31. []
  3. See Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (Vancouver, BC: Regent University Press, 1997), 89-90. []
  4. See the Qur’an, Surah 36:54; see also Surah 82:19. []

Federal judge strikes down Prop 8

Federal Judge Vaughn R. Walker wrote in his decision on the California proposition defining marriage as one man and one woman:

Plaintiffs challenge Proposition 8 under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the judge wrote. “Each challenge is independently meritorious, as Proposition 8 both unconstitutionally burdens the exercise of the fundamental right to marry and creates an irrational classification on the basis of sexual orientation.

Regarding the second challenge, it’s important to note that Prop 8 makes no classification on the basis of sexual orientation. The definition is one man and one woman. No homosexual person is banned from marrying within this definition of marriage shared by everybody, and there is no test for sexual orientation.

Instead, Prop 8 makes a very rational classification on the basis of a relevant characteristic—that is, the gender of the participants. Men and women are different, and there’s no getting around this. This fact has biological, emotional, psychological, and more ramifications when it comes to families and the creation and rearing of children. The fact is that both male and female are essential to marriage.

Second, I find the first challenge to be disingenuous. Defining marriage as one man and one woman does not “unconstitutionally burden the fundamental right to marry” any more than defining it as only two people “burdens” it, or defining out close relations burdens it, or an age requirement burdens it, or any of our other laws limiting who can marry whom burden it.

In other words, even after the judge’s decision, we still have a limiting definition of marriage. Therefore, it’s disingenuous to strike Prop 8 down based on the idea that it’s burdening the right to marry if the judge is going to retain the other limitations.

The only consistent options for the judge would be to either strike down all of the qualifications for marriage or let the people debate the issue and establish the definition, as they did with Prop 8, and apply the definition equally to everyone. The question is not one of equal rights (since the judge did not rule every definition unconstitutional), but of whether or not the particular defining characteristic we’re talking about is relevant to the institution of marriage (race is not relevant to marriage since skin color has nothing to do with any aspect of what marriage entails, but gender is relevant). Because defining marriage is not an issue of equal rights, it’s not the place of the judge to decide by fiat, but for the people to debate.

Instead, the judge merely arbitrarily drew the lines of definition for the people without offering any justification for why he drew the lines there and not somewhere else. The reason he offered (that it’s unconstitutional to limit marriage) is simply false. And he must know this, or he would have struck down every part of our current, limiting definition.

(HT Stand to Reason)

(See Greg’s “Same-Sex Marriage Challenges and Responses” for more on this subject.)