Who are you going to side with: the Apostle Peter, or Timothy Dalrymple?
You’re going to have to pick one or the other, because Dalrymple, an evangelical blogger here at Patheos, is the latest contemporary American Christian to come out against Peter’s explanation of his own vision from God.
Peter believed that his vision from God was about accepting Gentiles (for starters). Dalrymple says that’s wrong. He says that Peter’s vision was really just about shellfish.
Peter says that God sent him a vision telling him to welcome the outsiders that his Bible told him should be shunned as “unclean.” Dalrymple says, No, God was merely telling him that a narrow portion of dietary Mosaic law was henceforth nonbinding for Christians.
“The old Shellfish Objection is easily dispensed for anyone who has actually studied both sides of the issue,” Dalrymple wrote in a recent post.
He doesn’t bother actually dispensing it — he simply asserts that serious, studious people have done so, easily, and that there’s no reason to worry your pretty little heads over it.
Specifically, Dalrymple is objecting to a variation of “the old Shellfish Objection” recently expressed on the TV show Glee. The relevant part of the show was summarized by Stephen Prothero:
Sam (Chord Overstreet) observes that “the Bible says it’s an abomination for a man to lay with another man,” prompting Quinn (Dianna Agron) go ask, “Do you know what else the Bible says is an abomination? Eating lobster, planting different crops in the same field, giving somebody a proud look. Not an abomination? Slavery. Jesus never said anything about gay people. That’s a fact.”
The “Shellfish Objection,” in other words, asks why contemporary American Christians insist that homosexuality is “an abomination,” based on the laws of Moses, but yet they do not regard eating lobster as “an abomination,” even though the same laws of Moses call it exactly that.
And that is what brings us back, yet again, to the book of Acts and the story of Peter’s rooftop vision from God. The contemporary American Christians, like Dalrymple, who don’t regard the Shellfish Objection as worthy of serious consideration point to this passage and say that it explains why eating lobster is not an abomination.
Here, again, is the relevant passage from the New Testament book of Acts:
Timothy Dalrymple went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. Timothy Dalrymple saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Timothy Dalrymple; kill and eat.” But Timothy Dalrymple said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Oh, wait. That’s not what the book of Acts says at all. It says Peter went up on the roof to pray, and that Peter saw the heaven opened, and Peter heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter.”
It was Peter’s vision. It was given to Peter, and Peter was the only one there to see it.
So how did Peter interpret Peter’s vision? At first, he didn’t know what to make of it. But then the Gentiles knocked on his door and suddenly he understood.
And what he understood was that his vision was not about dietary laws regarding “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” What Peter understood about Peter’s vision was that it was about Gentiles — about outsiders, about those people whom the laws of Moses said were law-breakers, unclean, an abomination.
Here is what Peter himself said about his own vision:
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.
And then, according to Acts, Peter’s interpretation of Peter’s vision was affirmed as correct by the Holy Spirit:
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
“These people” — these unclean Gentiles who did not live in accord with the laws of Moses — were receiving the “gift of the Holy Spirit” just as the law-abiding Jewish believers were. That, Peter says, is what his vision was all about.
But now that these Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit and been baptized, didn’t that mean it was time for them to repent of their non-kosher, uncircumcised, Sabbath-violating, law-breaking ways? Nope.
Peter’s vision — according to Peter — did not mean that the unclean were to be welcomed provided they were willing to become clean. It meant that Peter was not to regard them as “unclean” at all.
“The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us,” Peter says. “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
Nothing there about shellfish. Nothing.
The story of Peter’s vision in Acts 10:1-11:18 cannot be used to “dispense” with the Shellfish Objection. Not according to Peter.
Peter did not say that Peter’s vision was about shellfish. Peter said that Peter’s vision was about people — about the people he believed the Bible told him were “profane or unclean,” about the people of whom he thought the Bible required him to “make a distinction between them and us.”
Can Peter be trusted to understand his own vision? Is Peter’s interpretation of Peter’s vision correct?
Timothy Dalrymple, like Al Mohler, says no.
They say that Peter’s vision is about shellfish. They say — contra Peter — that Peter’s vision explains why it’s OK for Christians not to keep kosher. And unlike Peter, they think Christians are still required to classify others as “profane or unclean” if those others violate the non-dietary parts of biblical law. Unlike Peter, they say it is very, very important to continue to “make a distinction between them and us.”
But despite disagreeing with Peter’s interpretation of Peter’s own vision, “dispensing” the apostle’s words as “the old Shellfish Objection,” Dalrymple and Mohler still want — and need — to cling to a part of what Peter was saying. This is because, like me, they are Gentiles. Like me, they cannot say, “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”
And that means we are, according to the Bible, “profane and unclean.” Abominable. If God’s people are supposed to “make a distinction between them and us,” then, as Gentiles, we are part of them.
Here is where the studious folks hand-waving away “the old Shellfish Objection” contradict themselves.
On the one hand, they say that Peter’s vision was a limited, lawyerly amendment to biblical law — dealing exclusively with one limited set of “purity law” and declaring one limited set of “abominations” no longer abominable. But on the other hand, these folks, being Gentiles, still have to cling to the broader interpretation of Peter’s vision, because their own standing as Christians depends on it.
That’s a contradiction. Either this vision was just about shellfish, about dietary law — in which case Gentiles like Dalrymple, Mohler and me are in big trouble. Or else this vision is about people — about a commandment from God “not call anyone profane or unclean” and a commandment from God not to “make a distinction between them and us.”
The very best that can be said for folks like Dalrymple and Mohler — Gentiles who use Peter’s vision to dispense with the old Shellfish Objection — is that they’re horrifically selfish. They want Peter’s vision to apply primarily to shellfish, but they’re also relying on it being about people — but only some people, only and exclusively Gentiles.
When Peter said “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” what he really meant to say was much narrower. What Peter really meant to say was “God has shown me that I should not call Gentiles like Al Mohler and Timothy Dalrymple profane or unclean.”
And when Peter said “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us” what he really meant to say was much narrower. What Peter really meant to say was, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between Gentiles like Al Mohler and Timothy Dalrymple and us.”
Peter’s vision was mainly about shellfish, but it can also be used to sneak heterosexual Gentiles in the back door. But only heterosexual Gentiles.
And after we sneak in that back door, we should slam that door behind us and lock it tight to make sure no other kind of profane and unclean outsiders tries getting in. We double-bolt that door so that we’re still able to “make a distinction between them and us.”
That’s clearly what the book of Acts teaches, “for anyone who has actually studied both sides of the issue.” What else could it possibly mean?