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When A Theologian Goes Rogue: David Bentley Hart’s Universalism

David Bentley Hart is one those theological minds that I have hesitated to dive into deeply.

It is not as though he is not erudite (which he is), nor that he is not polemical in the most insightful way (which he also is). It is because he is so well knowledgeable and so marvelously incisive that I think it almost impossible to explain the penetrating power of his intellect to the average evangelical lay person. Why waste all of the effort? Let the academics have at him, and leave the rest of us mere mortals alone. But alas, Hart’s latest book is extremely difficult to ignore. So this is fair warning that this blog post will sound quite dense and geeky. Here we go….

An Eastern Orthodox theologian, currently teaching at Notre Dame, after having picked up a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Virginia, along the way, David Bentley Hart is probably best known for his devastating critique of the New Atheism, of Dawkins, Harris, Bennett, and Hitchens, in his Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies

David Bentley Hart. Astute critic of the New Atheism, who has now tasted the confusing allure of universalism, and amazingly finds it satisfying.

Long time Veracity readers will know that I greatly benefit from the pithy, enjoyable, and learned blogs posts by Reformed charismatic pastor, Andrew Wilson, of Kings Church of London, England, at the Think blog. Just about anything Andrew writes about, I try to read. He is that good. Andrew got his blogging start working his way through Hart’s Atheist Delusions back in 2011, which offers an excellent summary of the high points of Hart’s argument (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, plus a follow up essay, #10). Andrew’s blogs are a good place to start to get a taste of what David Bentley Hart is like.

But while Hart has served as a masterful champion of demolishing the New Atheism, in service to the greater Christian tradition, Hart has also applied his rhetorical, polemical skills against fellow Christian thinkers he finds to be petty and annoying. He can be over the top in some respects, but his criticisms deserve thoughtful responses. For example, he dismisses the greater classic evangelical Reformed tradition, embodied most broadly by the folks at The Gospel Coalition, as hopelessly fundamentalist, who are most likely guilty as “moral cretins.” That is a bit harsh, but for some on the far side of hyper-Reformed thinking, Hart may not be too far off.

Hart’s bristling does not end there. I am convinced that David Bentley Hart utterly despises N.T. Wright. While Wright, a British Anglican, who is perhaps the most well known New Testament scholar living today, may have captivated an entire generation of millennials, in seminaries, over the past twenty years, Hart will have none of Wright’s “idiosyncratic” style of New Testament translation methodology. Along with other critics, Hart believes that N.T. Wright’s enthusiastic embrace of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” has led Wright down the path of injecting a false dichotomy into Paul’s doctrine of justification, a core doctrine in New Testament thought. Sample just this biting, scathing sentence from Hart’s rejoinder to an earlier critique by Wright, regarding one another’s work in doing New Testament Bible translation:

Regarding, for example, [Wright’s] insistence on rendering “dikaiosyne” by the cumber­some phrase “covenant righteousness” (a special hobby-horse of Wright’s, which he takes out for a gallop around the paddock whenever he can), I would be only one among legions in pointing out that this arbitrarily isolates a single dimension of a term [within] a far larger range of possible meaning in the text.

Wright’s translation of the New Testament could hardly be any more different from D. B. Hart’s version of the same (which is why the committee approach to how the English Standard Version, the New International Version, and the Christian Standard Bible were able to produce such excellent work, inviting millions of Christians to feast on their presentations of God’s Word, is far superior than any translation done by a solitary scholar…. but I digress).

Nevertheless, it is Hart’s latest volume That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universalism that has caused the greatest amount of controversy. Here, Hart has moved away from the very center of Christian tradition, causing shockwaves among today’s theological intelligentsia.

Hart’s thesis here is built on the speculative work of the 4th century Cappadocian, early church father, Gregory of Nyssa, who advocated for a type of Christian universalism, that the doctrine of hell actually serves a more redemptive purpose, suggesting that, in the end, all humans will be saved. Unlike popular forms of universalism, that blithely claim that all humans bypass hell, Hart channels Gregory of Nyssa to say that, yes, there is indeed a hell, but its purpose is more like that of purgatory, a process after death whereby all sin is to be purged from every human, thereby ultimately resulting in everyone’s final reconciliation with God.

Now, before anyone gets too suspicious about Gregory of Nyssa, it should be noted that Gregory of Nyssa was mostly known for other teachings, that most Christians take for granted today. For example, among the early church fathers, Gregory of Nyssa was singularly outspoken in his belief that Christianity and the practice of slavery were incompatible with one another, in an age when slavery was an established norm in Greco-Roman society. Gregory of Nyssa was also one of the greatest champions of the doctrine of the Trinity. But when it came to universalism, Gregory of Nyssa speculated on certain ideas that later writers, such as David Bentley Hart, have taken and run with.

Contrary to a type of “hopeful universalism” of the 20th century Swiss theological, Karl Barth, that maintains that God’s ultimate purpose of saving “everyone” be held out as a theological possibility, with a number of caveats, David Bentley Hart takes a bolder approach. As St. Louis University theologian, and historical scholar of universalism, Michael McClymond, put it, Hart’s latest work casts aside the tentativeness of a “hopeful universalism” in favor of assertiveness. To think that God “might” save everyone in the end, as a type of optimism, while at the same time soberly recognizing an utterly just and final punishment of a hell, that can not be ignored, is something too weak for Hart to counsel.

Alas, defenders of Hart believe that Hart continues to be greatly misunderstood. Yet McGill University’s Douglas Farrow believes he understands Hart all too well, laying out his concerns in the pages of First Things, a (mostly) Roman Catholic think-tank journal:

David Bentley Hart, familiar to readers of these pages as an intellectual pugilist who floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, has entered the ring for the Big Fight. Armed with his recent translation of the New Testament, he is ready to prove that no one suffers eternal damnation. Almost the entire Western tradition, backed by much of the East, is in the other corner. In his corner are fellow followers of Origen, the evangelical universalists, and a motley crew of sparring partners from the gyms where he has trained. As he approaches the ring, he strikes a Luther-like pose. Of course he wants nothing whatever to do with Luther, or any other product of the Augustinian stable. But he will stand where he must stand; he can do no other. The Church has backed the wrong man. She is about to be taught a lesson.

The man in question is Augustine, the bête noire of universalists everywhere. He wears the black trunks. Hart is in the white trunks, standing in for Gregory of Nyssa, the man the Church ought to have backed and didn’t…..

Other theologians have taken notice, and have weighed in. Peter Leithart, a featured blogger at First Things, wrote a partial review of That All Shall Be Saved, that Hart considered to be at least faithful to critiquing what Hart actually wrote. Nevertheless, Hart still found Leithart’s critique to be wholly lacking. Leithart, in return, offers a rejoinder to Hart’s response. Fellow Eastern Orthodox theologian, John Mark Reynolds, wishes to disown Hart from Eastern Orthodoxy. Others, acknowledging the puzzling depth of Hart’s thought, like Nicholas Frankovich, at the National Review, watches the sparks fly. Quirky-evangelical contrarian and blogger, Andrew Perriman, is intrigued by Hart’s argument, though not entirely convinced. The debate goes on. If you like spirited dialogue among academic theologians, it does not get any more exciting than this.

Pastor Andrew Wilson, mentioned above, who has greatly appreciated Hart’s previous works, regrettably describes Hart’s latest book as “Trump with a thesaurus.

It is as though David Bentley Hart completely slept through the controversy a few years ago, surrounding former megachurch pastor Rob Bell, when he wrote Love Wins. In Love Wins, Bell hinted at but never came out and explicitly endorsed universalism, as much as Hart does in That All Shall Be Saved. But Bell pretty much had to quit his megachurch pastor job in Michigan, to take up his surfboard in Southern California, and occasionally traveling across country for various book tours. Preaching universalism in an evangelical church can not pay the bills, for any pastor. Evangelical pastors who flirt too much with universalism should consider a new career. Hart admits that he is not a pastor, which makes me wonder how in the world anyone could ever preach his message, in any evangelical church, and survive past a single sermon!

The once brilliant theologian Hart has now gone rogue, reframing a theological argument that got the early church father Origen, for all practical purposes, branded as a heretic, at least regarding his views on the doctrine of hell. The conscious eternal torment view, embraced by a majority of Christians (though not all), through Christian history, is to be rejected by Hart, as being ultimately “unChristian.” Apparently, according to Hart, this great majority of Christian believers, across the centuries, never got the memo.

Furthermore, though viewed by many as suspect, in a less obtrusive manner, the conditional immortality, or annihilationalist, approach to hell, as offered by thinkers like John R.W. Stott and Edward Fudge, is left off the table as a viable alternative to either the traditional conscious eternal torment view, or a universalist view, for Hart. No, David Bentley Hart will have none of that. Hart has planted his flag firmly in this universalist camp. Hart is now placed in the column marked “beware.” A theologian of David Bentley Hart’s stature and intellectual talents can not be ignored. But his thesis in That All Shall Be Saved makes him highly suspect, a good example of what NOT to do, when doing theology.

What is most disturbing about Hart’s thesis is that he pretty much accepts the New Atheist complaint about the Old Testament at face value. For the New Atheist, the God of the Old Testament is capricious, unjust, and vindictive, and therefore, not morally worthy of being God. This is not an aberrant view, but rather an all-too-common criticism among learned, skeptical readers of the Bible today. A quick glance at shows just how pervasive this New Atheist complaint has reached into our culture.

Consider the great flood of Noah. As much of traditional interpretation indicates, Genesis would have us to think that the vast majority of humans perished in that catastrophic event, a sign indicating that God takes judgment against human rebellion quite seriously. Ah, but observers will point out, this would presumably include small children, and mothers, pregnant with child, who were among those who drowned in the rising sea of God’s judgment. To critics, this would be genocide, with divinely sanctioned abortion built-in.

Other Christian thinkers offer nuanced responses, to this interpretive quandary, looking at the story of Noah within a broader Scriptural context (for example, consider this brilliant alternative, more theologically modest and centrist perspective, advocated by Eastern Orthodox theologian, Father Stephen De Young). But it would appear that in Hart’s estimation, the matter is more black and white. Hart rejects the historicity of the Noah story, but he does so on a basis that concedes this New Atheist critique of Christianity: An Old Testament God who inflicts such vindictive violence must be a caricature of the one true God (if there is a such a God). If God does not save everyone, then God can save no one.

But the New Atheist secularizes Hart’s argument, agreeing with Hart, and concluding that, yes, God can save no one, as such a God can not be ultimately trusted. Dawkins, Hitchens, and others, can easily respond: Why even bother with universalism? Just get rid of the whole concept of hell altogether, and the whole notion of final judgment, and be done with the whole problem…. while you are it, save yourself the trouble and deny the existence of God.

David Bentley Hart has touched a nerve, and his thesis deserves a thoughtful response. Yet Hart’s critics rightly pin him into a corner. Hart’s fellow Eastern Orthodox theological colleagues are not impressed by Hart’s theological innovations. Sure, I would love to think that in the end, even the most hardened sinner will embrace Jesus as their Savior. But to embrace such a view, as Hart has done so wholeheartedly, is sadly merely wishful thinking.

Even Douglas Farrow concludes his review of Hart thus, “Hart makes clear in conclusion that if Christianity requires belief in eternal punishment, then Christianity is false. Which prompts from this reporter an unhappy observation. If he really believes that, then the New Atheists, to whom he gave a thorough thrashing in earlier books, should demand a rematch. This time they might well win, and that by default.



Does Free Speech Still Matter?

As I wrote about a few weeks ago, there is a growing crisis whereby free speech is being curtailed on college campuses across the United States. The crisis invariably impacts the freedom of religious expression, at all levels of society. Without freedom of speech, the whole of modern democracy is at risk. But strangely, the majority of Americans want to get rid of it.

Within the past five years or so, a number of secular, college campuses began to restrict Christian campus organizations from being able to require their leaders to subscribe to their own statements of faith. That is like requiring the chess club to open up their leadership standards to accept new leaders who hate chess.

But there is some good news. A number of college campuses are bucking the anti-free-speech trend. A recent survey by RealClear Education, of various experts on free speech, indicates that there still are a number of colleges and universities that value free speech, viewpoint diversity, and open inquiry.

The University of Chicago and Purdue top the list, but I was glad to see that the College of William and Mary, where I work, also made it on the list (alphabetically, it is at the bottom). I am proud to work at an institution that still values free speech, where healthy and respectful dialogue can still take place. Read the full report here.

What is a Christian Conscience?

How well do you sleep at night?

Thinking about the nature of having a Christian conscience has often kept me up at night. What about you?

I wrote a post a few months ago about the subject of conscience, when it came to troublesome questions about baptism. I got some rather puzzled questions from readers, about that post, so I thought I would address some of those questions in the following review of a book that I highly recommend.

Southern Baptist leader, Al Mohler, says that there are three different orders of theological controversies in churches today. First order controversies, such as different views on the divinity of Jesus, have to deal with essential doctrines of the faith, where Christians should break fellowship with those who disregard such fundamental doctrine(s).  Second order controversies deal with certain established practices or beliefs of a local church, that are not essential in nature, but rather do strike at the heart of how a church operates on a normative basis; such as the composition of elders, certain approaches to baptism, etc. Third order controversies deal with nevertheless important matters, but that are non-essential in character, that do not necessarily impede the normal operations of a church, such as different views on the age of the earth, the timing of the Rapture, or whether or not a Christian should only buy fair trade coffee.

There are times where some Christians are unable to agree on certain non-essential matters of faith, that nevertheless are important to them. One believer adheres to a particular belief, that when practiced, interferes with the conscience of another believer, who holds to quite a different belief. In those matters of conscience, how do believers learn to respect and love one another, in a local church?

Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, by Andy Naselli & J.D. Crowley, is a great book that I am currently reading, to work through difficult questions, like the “proper” understanding of baptism.

Do You Struggle With Issues of Conscience? Then Read This Book

Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, by Andrew Naselli and J.D. Crowley, is a very helpful book, to better understand what it means to have a Christian conscience, calibrated by the Word of God. I am not familiar with co-author J.D. Crowley, but I have greatly benefited from the work of Andrew Naselli, a professor of New Testament and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, formerly pastored by the well known pastor/teacher John Piper.

The topic of conscience is directly related to that of “disputable matters,” the adiaphora (your Greek word for the day), that we find in Romans 14:1 (NIV): “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.”

No one likes to think of their faith being “weak,” but the idea suggests that the one who is pretty indifferent to a non-essential matter of faith should defer to the one for whom the matter means a great deal. For example, in the early church of the New Testament era, the idea of eating food sacrificed to idols was a very grave matter. It was such a big deal that the great first council of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15), required that all Gentile converts to the Christian faith should refrain from eating meat that was sacrificed to idols (See Acts 15:20, in particular). This solution regarding eating such food kept the peace between the Jewish and Gentile parties in the church.

The context for this prohibition, of food sacrificed to idols, was initially about participating in a pagan worship ritual, whereby such food was prepared in a pagan temple kitchen. This would be the context that the Apostle Paul has in 1 Corinthians 10. Paul taught that believers should refrain from eating such food, if the food was used as part of a sacrificial, worship ritual. However, if an unbeliever, hosting the dinner, offers such food, without mentioning any pagan ritual belief, then Paul encourages the Christian to lay any personal scruples aside, and joyfully receive the food offered to them. Paul does not go into any particular limits to this, but the general principle, that we should be as generous as possible with our unbelieving neighbors, is in view here. But might there be other contexts whereby eating such food would be permissible?

The Apostle Paul apparently thought so, according to 1 Corinthians 8. Nevertheless, Paul sets out a principle, that has a caution embedded with it. While it is difficult to ascertain what every context might fit into the “permissible” category, Paul does declare that pagan idols are really no gods at all. Therefore, outside of an actual pagan ritual, there is no harm done by eating such food.

Nevertheless, some might be bothered by eating such food, whereas others might think rather indifferently about it. This gets at the heart as to why the Apostle Paul, in writing to the Romans, sought to untangled this knot regarding matters of conscience:

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God (Romans 14:5-6 NIV).

As biblical scholar D. A. Carson notes, cultural matters are typically at the forefront of matters of conscience. Several generations ago, many evangelical Christians saw no need to judge one another regarding the matter of tobacco smoking. The health implications of smoking were not well known. However, today, I know of very few evangelical Christians who regard tobacco smoking as a “disputable matter.” Tobacco smoking is just plain wrong, for many people today, including the vast majority of evangelical Christians. We are called to take care of our body, the temple of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, smoking tobacco violates the principle invoked by this command. I would tend to agree. But is this still yet merely a cultural matter, where the principle of conscience applies?

That is a good question.

The authors of Conscience contend that a Christian conscience must be informed by Scripture, trained to reflect that which brings glory to God. In other words, a conscience can be badly misguided, or through unrepentant sin, a conscience can become seared, thereby disregarding the teachings of God’s Word. In other words, the conscience of a Christian must be properly calibrated, being educated by the truth of Scripture.

They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (1 Timothy 3:9 ESV).

This does not mean that a Christian can read the Bible any way they want, and then say that they hold a particular view or behavior to be morally acceptable, and then pull out the “conscience card.” Appealing to so-called “conscience” is not an acceptable reason for disregarding Scriptural norms. We severely risk the judgment of God when we make an excuse for license. Likewise, one should not impose a purely cultural standard on others, treating it is a Scriptural norm, when no such norm exists within the Bible. Such persons on both sides of this approach to conscience need to be able to adequately defend their view from a cogent and thorough understanding of Scripture.

So, when matters of conscience are raised, it is crucial that believers come together to study the Scriptures, and seek a common understanding of what they teach the believer. Believers should not condemn others, where there exists genuine Scriptural freedom. But neither should believers ignore the commands of God, set forth in Scripture, that would cause them to disobey God, if they were to disregard their conscience.

Dealing With An Overly Sensitive Conscience

Andrew Naselli illustrates the embarrassing absurdity of an overly sensitive conscience, by relaying an anecdote regarding the famous 20th century British preacher, Martyn-Lloyd Jones. When the good doctor was a young, 24 years old, long before he became a seasoned, mature pastor, he shared some convictions in 1924, that the well-regarded preacher most probably regretted years later:

  • I cannot possibly understand a man who wears silk stockings or even gaudily coloured socks; rings, wrist-watches, spats, shoes instead of boots, or who carries a cane in his hand.
  • The modern method of installing a bath in each house is not only a tragedy but it has been a real curse to humanity. . . . If I had to spend a life-time with a companion who had one bath a day or with one who had one bath a year, I should unhesitatingly choose the latter, because a man’s soul is more important than his skin. 
  • When I enter a house and find that they have a wireless apparatus [a radio] I know at once that there is something wrong. . . . Your five-valve sets may do wonders, they may enable you to hear the voice of America, but believe me, they will never transmit the only Voice that is worth listening to.

What??!! Christians listening to the radio, in order to hear God’s Word being taught? What a horror!!!

Methinks that the fastidious, young, future preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, would be quite a bit scandalized by young pastors today, who put Bible verse tattoos on their body!

Nevertheless, the authors of Conscience contend, that if a Christian is bothered by an overly sensitive conscience, then disobeying one’s conscience, in this situation, is still sin, even if what is done is technically not morally or theologically wrong. This highlights what the Apostle Paul calls a “weak conscience.” An overly sensitive conscience can condemn us, burdening us with a man-made guilt, as opposed to truly experiencing the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, which exposes our real sin. Bottom line: We should never sin against our conscience. Nor should we encourage others to do so.

Having A Well-Calibrated Conscience, And Encouraging Others to Have One as Well

On the flip side, a well-calibrated conscience can bring about a genuine sense of sorrow, for having disobeyed God. To ignore the signals that a well-calibrated conscience would rightly give can reap spiritual disaster! The good news, the very essence of the Gospel itself, is that the work of Christ, upon the Cross, demonstrates that God can and indeed does forgive us, when we disobey Him. Our conscience can then be wiped clean, knowing that the God of the Universe has cleansed us from our real guilt and shame. We are forgiven!! Amen!!

Those who are “strong” in matters of conscience; presumably that is, those whose consciences are properly calibrated, by the standard of God’s Word, should bear with those who are “weak” in matters of conscience.

Scholars are unsure of the exact details, but it is possible then that the Apostle Paul had in mind the following situation: Consider food that was prepared in a pagan temple, but that was NOT used in a pagan ritual. Instead, such food was brought home by a Christian for dinner. Presumably, Paul would have no problem with a believer eating such food, in the privacy of one’s home.

But what if another believer came over for dinner, and that believing guest is disturbed by their conscience, regarding the presence of such meat in the home, that came from a pagan temple kitchen?

In such a case, the “strong” minded believer should not cause the “weak” minded believer to stumble. Therefore, the strong should refrain from eating such meat, when around a weak believer, for whom eating such meat reminds them too much of pagan worship. Surely, the “strong” minded believer should not serve such meat to their “weak” minded guest. But if a “weak” minded believer is not around, as a guest at one’s home, the “strong” minded believer is free to eat such meat.

Likewise, someone who is a legalist, might be prone to lecture a fellow believer, who has such freedom in their conscience. In other words, for the legalist, eating such food would be condemned, in all cases, thus making this an indisputable matter for them. But to condone such moral lecturing would go against Paul’s wisdom and exhortation. Some believers can become overly dogmatic, imposing one’s own personal convictions upon other believers, burdening them with unnecessary guilt. This is why training the conscience, and having it calibrated against the Word of God, is so important.

The difficulty here is that it is not always obvious that we have interpreted Scripture correctly, when it comes to areas that tend to shift back and forth between the “indisputable” and “disputable” columns. There are many areas in the Bible that are clear. Thankfully, such matters that are essential also line up with that which is clear. But there are also areas for where the Scriptural witness is up for thoughtful discussion, for where a clear, consistent witness, on a particular topic remains elusive. Reading one passage of Scripture might suggest one approach, whereas another passage might indicate that the topic is much more complex, resisting an easy solution.

It is with these matters that Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ so effectively addresses.

Hip-hop artist Lacrae was “rebaptized” in the River Jordan, in September, 2019, at the same exact location I was “rebaptized” in 1994. I question whether Lecrae’s (or my own) “rebaptism”) was biblically sound. The Christian church has consistently taught, throughout its history, that there is but one baptism, not two or three. My view now is that my original baptism as an infant was that “one baptism.” But in the end, the issue of baptism has been so contentious within the history of the church, that it is perhaps better off placed within the category of conscience, a topic where Christians can be free to “agree to disagree.”

Issues of Conscience: Baptism, and Women in Ministry

Now for a bit of personal application: In my previous post along these lines, I brought up the topic of baptism. Historically, the nature of baptism, specifically whether infant baptism is appropriate, alongside adult believer’s baptism, has been hotly debated during the past 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. You can surely find plenty of denominational churches that “take a stand” on this issue, landing in different places.

But my own personal journey regarding “baptism” has led me to believe that the solution to this theological dilemma is not so clear cut. Thankfully, we do not kill one anymore over such issues of biblical interpretation, but nevertheless, the discussion remains unresolved throughout the global church.

With all but a few exceptions, there is a general agreement that the mode and timing of baptism are not essential matters. It is not a first order issue, within the category where something like the doctrine of the deity of Christ resides. It is a disputable matter, but does it belong in Al Mohler’s second order or third order category? For Baptists and Presbyterians, it is a second order issue, in that Baptists do not practice infant baptism, whereas Presbyterians do. For if either denominational body were to shift in their practice, it would effectively disrupt the established order of that body of believers.

It is my conviction that baptism belongs in the third order category. A truly interdenominational church would allow for all baptized persons to join as members, whether such baptism be by adult immersion, or by infant sprinkling or pouring. Where it gets tricky is how such a church operates when a family inquires about baptism for their infant child.

In this case, a truly interdenominational church would normally only practice believer’s baptism, as such practice is accepted by both believer’s baptism and infant baptism advocates. But if a parent wishes to have their child baptized as an infant, that should be done in a more private setting, so as not to disturb the consciences of those others in the church, who do not believe infant baptism to be taught within the Scriptures. Perhaps, such an infant baptism should be performed in one’s home, with a gathering of supportive friends and family, as opposed to being done more publicly, in a full congregational worship setting.

Still, this is a conversation that must happen between a parent and their pastor. The pastor may not be led to perform an infant baptism, out of their Scriptural conviction. In such a case, the parent should respect the conscience of their pastor, and not press the matter.

Have a discussion? Yes! Seek to persuade the other believer to accept a more biblically faithful perspective? Absolutely! But one should refrain from being too forceful when expressing one’s views. I have much to personally learn in this area, as a general principle, even outside of baptism, as I tend to be quite adamant when sharing my views on sensitive topics. At the same time, I need to better learn how to boldly stand my ground, when fundamental truths that impact the Gospel are at stake. We must learn to “speak the truth in love,” reproving others of spiritual error with great gentleness and patience.

The tension created by these matters of conscience regarding baptism explains the popular rise in “baby dedications,” a uniquely modern practice within the past 50 to 100 years, in otherwise interdenominational churches. The practice of “baby dedications,” have a short history in the church, but they do offer a type of moderating solution that keeps the peace between those who favor infant baptism, and those who do not. There are at least some churches that are able to live within the midst of this theological tension, and thrive in an environment where the focus is on the “majors” of core Scriptural truths, including the importance of evangelism and discipleship, as opposed to getting needlessly distracted by the “minors.”

Likewise, the same should, in my mind, apply to the question of whether or not a local church should have women serving as elders/pastors. A denominational church, or otherwise a “non-denominational” church (whatever that means), that takes a particular approach to this issue, would most probably consider this to be within the second order category of theological controversies. Either the local church will have women as elders/pastors, or they will not. It is not a salvation issue, in the first order category. But neither is it in the third order category.

But in a truly interdenominational church, this issue would be in the third order category…. if that is even possible. I have seen this interdenominational principle work, but only rarely. It is exceedingly rare. For when this “third order” principle works, it requires great forbearance on behalf of all involved. As New Testament theologian N. T. Wright puts it, we can make great demands on the charity of another believer, but we can not make demands on their conscience.

In principle, such a truly interdenominational church would not strictly prohibit, in principle, a woman from serving as an elder/pastor of a church. This would accommodate the conscience of those egalitarians, who believe that Scripture allows for women to serve in such church offices. Yet in practice, the matter would be different. Such principled egalitarians would defer to the more restrictive conscience of the complementarians, who do not believe that women should serve as elders/pastors in a church. Such complementarians would allow their egalitarian brothers and sisters to maintain the integrity of their conscience. But since the actual act of submitting to a woman in such a position of spiritual authority would violate the conscience of such a complementarian, thereby encouraging the complementarian to sin against the dictates of their conscience, the egalitarian should refrain from pressing the matter, in an effort to keep the peace within that body of believers, and not encourage sin. Instead, other ways of empowering women to serve and use their gifts, within that local church should be cultivated and actively supported, so as not to condemn the consciences of such women who are surely gifted for ministry within the church body, who feel led by the Holy Spirit to exercise such gifts. For example, a more generous understanding could be made for deacons, to allow women to serve in that capacity, so as not to discriminate against, and bless the church in that way.

This would require both the complementarian and the egalitarian to extend a great amount of charity towards the other, while still allowing their consciences to remain intact and not violated.

Functionally, this makes such a local church complementarian in practice. Yet it remains egalitarian in principle. Egalitarians and complementarians can still be in dialogue with one another, seeking to persuade the other that their position is the better one theologically. Such a local church can thereby stay in tune to the Holy Spirit, as it seeks to have the consciences of her members properly calibrated to the Word of God. Can such a tension be kept in a local church, that is committed to a truly interdenominational vision?

I am not sure. That is why I am not sure that such truly interdenominational churches really exist. Though I hope so.

Ironically, the topic of baptism, that signifies the public profession of one’s faith in Christ, has for many centuries been an issue of contention that has divided believers, and harmed the reputation of the Christian church. In more recent times, the baptism controversy has settled towards a more tolerable situation. But just as the baptism controversy set Protestant believers at odds with one another, in centuries past, so it is that any theological topic having to deal with gender or sexuality identity generates the greatest amount of friction in today’s evangelical church.

As I have written about extensively before, it is my contention that the controversy regarding having women serve as elders/pastors within a local church is pretty much at a gridlocked stalemate. I see no effective progress in resolving these concerns. But we have much more pressing issues to face in today’s culture. For example, the whole LGBTQ conversation is several orders of magnitude greater in importance and consequences, than what the “women as elders” dispute affords us.

If there was one particular convicting lesson to be learned from reading Conscience, it would be that I should be less judgmental when dealing with another Christian who has an overly sensitive conscience. I have never really had problems with dressing up for Halloween, trick-or-treating, etc. But I know plenty of people who freak out over the prospect of honoring a particular day that some think is Satanic in origin (though it really is not). Yet perhaps I should be more forbearing towards those who do freak out, and suggest some positive alternative, whereby believers can use the time of Halloween to actually go out and meet their unbelieving neighbors, and get to know them better, and share the love of Jesus with them.

If there is one criticism I have of Conscience, it would be that it does not completely answer the question as to what is exactly a disputable matter versus an indisputable matter. Christian missionaries, dealing with cross-cultural settings, know about this dilemma, all too well. But this situation is more indicative of an inherent problem existing within Protestant evangelicalism, where people are prone to interpret the Bible as they jolly well please, as opposed to any fault of the authors of the book. On the one hand, it can be particularly frustrating when I run into instances of a hardened legalism, that easily triggers an overly sensitive conscience.

It simply would not occur to me to wear silk stockings. The young Martyn-Lloyd Jones would surely have driven me crazy!! But the problem also emerges on the other extreme, whereby the conscience of a believer does not effectively inform them when a limit to some moral behavior is being crossed.

I find that being burdened with issues of conscience can be relieved when I reflect upon larger, more substantial issues, and when I make it a habit of going to the Bible, in order to gain God’s perspective on something. How much is such an issue of conscience helping me to better love, and reach out to my non-believing neighbor? Is such an issue of conscience helping to drive me to God’s Word, to look for His guidance, and submit to Scripture’s authority?

The subject of conscience can be a real thorny issue, which is probably why the Apostle Paul gave it so much attention with his letter to the Romans, and in 1 Corinthians. In this respect, I found Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ to be a very helpful guide to walk through the theological principles involved, holding a close view as to what is the authoritative teaching of Scripture, in these matters.

It also helps to know that Conscience is a short book, with only 142 pages of text. I listened to it as an audiobook, over several days, listening to a chapter or so at a time, and I was greatly edified by what I read. If you struggle with matters of conscience, particularly when your own conscience conflicts with consciences of other believers, you will greatly benefit from this book.

See these other reviews, as well: Mitch Chase’s review at the Gospel Coalition. Tim Challies review. Kenneth Berding’s review at BIOLA.

Indelible Grace: God Himself (by Matthew Smith)

Indelible Grace is an artist collective of Christian musicians in Nashville, Tennessee, that puts classic hymns to new tunes, reclaiming these powerful lyrics for a new generation to learn. One of those artists, Matthew Smith, visited my church this weekend, to share some of their music. Matthew’s song “God Himself” really stood out to me:

Is the Word “Homosexual” in the Bible?

October 11, in a number of circles, is known as “National Coming Out Day.” Many Christians are confused, as to how to engage with others about this. A good place to start is to consider the following question: Is the word “homosexual” in the Bible? Well, the answer is “yes” and “no,” and the reason for this is really, super important.

Merriam-Webster actually lists two different definitions for the word “homosexual,” which could be an adjective or a noun:

1: of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex: GAY// homosexual man, was involved in a homosexual relationship
2: of, relating to, or involving sexual activity between persons of the same sex // homosexual acts

Those two definitions can be overlapping, but technically, they are not the same.

Actually, this distinction is profound, having a major ramification on how Christians can best love their neighbor with the Gospel.

How do we go about having helpful conversations about “LGBTQ” questions, in evangelical, Bible-believing churches, who desire to hold to a traditional view of marriage, while trying to figure out how to better love others? Perhaps we should start by talking about what IS and what is NOT in the Bible. (credit: Christianity Today).

Now, before I jump in any further, it bears emphasizing that when it comes to the topic of homosexuality, we are not simply quibbling over the meaning of words. Ultimately, we are talking about real people, with real lives, with real stories, that need to be heard. Yet part of hearing those stories about real people includes understanding what people mean when they use certain words. So, it really becomes important that we do not front load incorrect thoughts into our minds when we let people tell their stories, when they use certain words.

That being said, let us dig deeper into this….

On the Meaning of the Word “Homosexual,” and How it is Used in the Bible

In that Merriam Webster definition, they go onto say that the word homosexual entered the English vocabulary, in about 1891, in the sense of definition number 1. Definition number 1 refers to what we might call “same-sex attraction” today. It did not specifically mean someone who acted on their same-sex attraction, in the sense of actually being sexually active with another person of the same sex, which is the second sense of the word. However, it could mean that. But it does not necessarily imply definition number 2.

That definition number 2, or the second sense of the word, came later in English usage, eventually carrying the sense of embracing a particular identity, being actively involved in some type of sexual relationship. In other words, it is more than just “same-sex attraction.” It means acting upon that attraction, in terms of behavior. Today, the meaning has expanded, assuming that sexual activity with someone of the same sex is within a morally justifiable category.

Furthermore, definition number 1 could mean actively engaging in lustful fantasy, for another person of the same-sex. But it does not necessarily mean that.

Think about the alternative word, heterosexual, that appeared in the English language, at the same time homosexual did. Do heterosexuals engage in lustful fantasies, for members of the opposite sex? Sometimes, yes. But not 24×7.

In the language of modern psychology, someone is a heterosexual, even if they are sound asleep, or mentally absorbed in a baseball game. To be heterosexual does not implicitly mean that such a person is always acting on their opposite-sex attraction, in the sense of having a sexual relationship, or lusting after someone.

Likewise, the word homosexual, as in definition number 1, generally refers to having a “same-sex attraction,” but it does not require the idea of actually acting upon that desire, whether that be physically, or just mentally. In other words, a homosexual has a “same-sex attraction,” 24×7, everyday of the week, but they do not always act on that attraction, either physically or mentally.

The lateness of the word entering the English vocabulary explains why the King James Version of the Bible, translated in 1611, does not have the word homosexual, in its text. Following on from a previous post on this topic, let us consider 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankindNor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (KJV)

All of the moral categories that the Apostle Pauls mentions, such as fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, etc., all refer to repeated, unrepentant patterns of sinful human behavior. These are not mere inclinations, dispositions, or orientations, that suggest some potential or possibility of sinning, brought on by situations where such temptations arise. We all have these, to varying degrees. Rather, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul has in mind those sinful, unrepentant patterns of human activity that are unbecoming of truly committed followers of Jesus Christ.

The highlighted phrase above, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind , goes back to two interesting Greek words, malakoi, which the KJV takes to be “effeminate,” or the one who is the passive partner in a same-sex, male sexual relationship, and arsenokoitai, which the KJV renders as “abusers of themselves with mankind,” or a man who beds with another man. Technically, malakoi means “soft,” by itself, but it was also used in the Greek language in the same-sex partnered sense, in the manner that the KJV most probably alludes to.


People To Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue, by Preston Sprinkle. I highly recommend this book for those who wrestle with same-sex attraction themselves, or who have loved ones who wrestle with such questions.

Digging Into Bible Translations, About “Homosexuality”

The point here is that the Apostle Paul is designating an actively engaged upon sexual activity, with respect to homosexuality. In the words of the Apostle Paul, in the Bible, there is no strict parallel to “same-sex attraction,” as a type of orientation, inclination, or internal disposition, which originally led to the coining of the word homosexual, in the late 19th century, by the psychologists of the day.

This distinction is vitally important, in how we read Scripture. Simply put, this non-behavioral sense of homosexuality, commonly described today as having a “same-sex attraction,” has no direct correlation to any particular word that we can find in the Bible. In other words, Paul’s teaching here in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which is reflective of other related passages of Scripture, refers to a behavior, not an orientation or inclination.

Some might find the notion of homosexuality, as an orientation or inclination to be objectionable, as it is not found in the Bible. Such critics contend that this psychological category of “same-sex attraction,” should be rejected by Christians, as a result.

But we have terms that Christians use all of the time, that do not find a direct correlation in Scripture. Take just one example, where we use the word “Trinity” to describe the nature of the Godhead, “one God in three persons.” Few Christians realize that the term “Trinity,never appears in the Bible. Nevertheless, describing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as distinct persons within the singular Godhead is an incredibly significant theological concept, that most Christians take for granted.

You can do tons of research on the concepts of same-sex attraction or same-sex relations in the Bible yourself, to verify, but technically, there is no mention of homosexual in the Bible, as it was originally introduced into the English vocabulary.

Nevertheless, the meaning of words changes over time. What typically happens in this situation, a confusion of terminology often results. When the translators of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible sought to update the language of the KJV, in 1946, the old KJV phrase “nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind ,” was replaced with the word, “homosexual.”

That Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible essentially became the “de facto” accepted translation of the Bible, used throughout hundreds of English-speaking, Protestant mainline churches, during the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, the confused use of the word homosexual became ingrained in the minds of many, among multiple generations of Bible readers.

Critics of a traditional Christian view of marriage, as being between a man and a woman, contend (rightly) that the word homosexual was therefore never originally in the Bible.

But the conclusion that is often drawn from this goes beyond what the meaning of the Scriptural text can bear. Therefore, such critics argue, the traditional Christian sexual ethic was and is too restrictive, implying that sexual relations between members of the same-sex, should be allowed to be morally permissible, among followers of Jesus. But this oversimplified approach to the Bible is highly misleading, and ignores a more complex, albeit intricate story.

The RSV was later updated to read as:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.(RSV)

This substituted the previous 1946 RSV translation of homosexual(s) with sexual perverts, in the 1970s update to the RSV. But the trend towards using the word homosexual, in a more explicitly behavioral manner, was underway.

When we get to The Living Bible, in 1971, we see the word appear again:

Don’t you know that those doing such things have no share in the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who live immoral lives, who are idol worshipers, adulterers or homosexuals—will have no share in his Kingdom. Neither will thieves or greedy people, drunkards, slanderers, or robbers.(TLB)

The popular New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, in 1984, sought to be a bit more accurate here, but still comes up short:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.(NIV 1984)

Rendering the phrase as homosexual offenders (prepended with male prostitutes) was an improvement over what the RSV did in the late 1940s. By describing such homosexuals as offenders, it implied that some distinction could be made between homosexuality as an orientation, and homosexuality as a repeated, unrepentant form of behavior. But it was still confusing for some readers.

Here is the difficulty: Is the offense actually limited to being a type of sinful behavior? Or is it possibly that possessing a same-sex attraction, not acted upon, is nevertheless, still a type of offense before God?

Let us frame the difficulty this way: Is a celibate homosexual still a type of offender before God? Is such a homosexual, … who day after day seeks to mortify the flesh, and say “NO” to such sexual temptation, who resists putting themselves in situations that might cause them to give into temptation, … still, somehow, nevertheless, continues to exist as an offender, … a mere stench in God’s nostrils?

The ambiguity of the NIV 1984 translation is wholly intolerable today, in an age when same-sex relations and same-sex marriage in particular, occupy a large percentage of the public, cultural conversation.

Thankfully, when the NIV translators worked on the most recent update, in 2011, they made the distinction much clearer, and more precise, in terms specifying that the Apostle Paul had an activity, or behavior, in mind:

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with mennor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.(NIV 2011)

The English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, as of the last update in 2016, renders these verses like this:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (ESV 2016)

Here the ESV more accurately associates homosexuality with its practice, not with the mere presence of a disposition or orientation, thus showing that Paul had a behavior in mind, in this passage. Both the NIV 2011 and ESV have the following footnote, regarding this phrase in the Bible:

The two Greek terms translated by this phrase refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts.

The 2017 Christian Standard Bible (CSB), likewise, is very careful:

Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or males who have sex with males, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom (CSB 2017)


How You Read Your Bible Translation Matters

Why bother with parsing through these various translations so carefully?

Because it makes a difference. Three points are in order:

First, as briefly noted above, it demonstrates that the Apostle Paul had behaviors in mind, patterns of repeated, sinful activity, that are not becoming of a disciple of Jesus Christ. With respect to homosexuality, this follows the same pattern as idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy people, etc.

Despite the great debate today going on in the wider culture, this has been the historic teaching of the Christian church for 2,000 years. Attempts by those to revise or dispose of a traditional sexual ethic, regarding God’s intent and purpose for marriage, by allowing for active, same-sex relations, whether that be in a “same-sex marriage,” or otherwise, have a serious obstacle in dealing with the Apostle Paul, in the New Testament.

Secondly, traditionally minded Christians need to rethink the importance of making a subtle, yet ultimately highly significant differentiation between homosexuality as a behavior (including lust), and homosexuality as an inward disposition or orientation of some sort, that is not necessarily acted upon.

Thirdly, it is important to drill down on the difference between homosexuality as a disposition or orientation, and homosexuality as lust. The two are not identical. This may sound controversial, but it need not be.

Think of it as the difference between noticing an attractive member of the opposite sex, for a heterosexual, and actually lusting after that person. The latter is the sin. The former is not sinful, for if it were, then it would be a sin for a man to compliment a woman on the nice dress she is wearing. Even more absurd, it would be like a mother complimenting her son on how handsome he looks, and then somehow treating even that as sin. Confusing noticing an attractive person, together with actual lust, creates a rather absurd view of sin.

Likewise, for a homosexual, noticing an attractive member of the same sex, is not the same as actually lusting after that person. True, having a homosexual orientation is an indicator that something is not right, a consequence of the Fall of humanity. But the same-sex orientation is no more sinful than for a single, heterosexual person, who notices an attractive member of the opposite sex, or a married, heterosexual person, who notices an attractive member of the opposite sex, who is not their spouse.

I am not aware of any contemporary, modern English translation that fails to provide some linguistic framework, for making a distinction between homosexuality as a behavior, and homosexuality as disposition or orientation.

Questions about sexuality and gender are the most theologically provocative issues of our day, just as the very nature of the Triune Godhead threatened to split the Christian church, in the great controversies over Jesus’ divinity and humanity, in the 4th through 5th centuries of the Christian movement.

So, on “National Coming Out Day,” having conversations about what the Bible does NOT say, and what the Bible actually DOES say, is really important. With all of the talk today in 2019 about Christians in “hate groups,” reparative therapy, and the like, it would behoove Christians to take a closer look at how Bible translations, over the years, have created confusion. Thankfully, most modern Bible translations are more accurate these days. Christians who love their Bible, and who seek to love others, as Christ loves us, would do well to follow their Bibles in guiding how they carefully think about this most sensitive and difficult topic.

For more information of this topic, I highly recommend Preston Sprinkle’s People To Be Loved. For other posts on this topic see “Is the Temptation to Sin, Itself a Sin?,” “Single, Gay and Christian: A Review of the Book and Its Criticism,” “What Was the Sin of Sodom? (Taking a Closer Look),” “Statements: What Does Nashville Have to Do With Chicago?,” and “Such Were Some of You: The Language of Christian Identity.

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