J.R. Daniel Kirk on the heart of the gospel (This is not an Official Statement of a stance on an issue)

Unlike Tony Campolo and David Neff, J.R. Daniel Kirk has not released an Official Statement this week clarifying his stance on the issue of homosexuality and the church. Instead, Kirk yesterday published a blog post about the heart of the Christian gospel.

I quoted from the beginning of Kirk’s essay in the previous post here:

Certain kinds of people simply cannot be part of the people of God.

Making such a judgment is not based on bigotry. It is simply based on the story of God in which the people of God are defined in particular ways. These definitions demand that some are out while others are in.

That’s horrifying. It’s meant to be.

Even more horrifying, it’s an accurate representation of what the Bible says — repeatedly and unambiguously in many places.

And that is, for many white evangelicals, the end of the conversation. Specific Bible texts can be cited to state, unambiguously, that “certain kinds of people simply cannot be part of the people of God” and nothing more needs to be said. As Al Mohler, prefect of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Southern Baptist and Universal Inquisition, wrote yesterday on his blog: “The Bible is clear. Are you ready to give an answer?”

Mohler cites something Billy Graham wrote in 1956:

I use the phrase “The Bible says” because the Word of God is the authoritative basis of our faith. … I do not continually distinguish between the authority of God and the authority of the Bible because I am confident that he has made his will known authoritatively in the Scriptures.

That’s a stark declaration of white evangelical biblicism (which, as Peter Enns notes, in an infantile, illiterate approach that makes baby Jesus cry). “The Bible is clear” and we can allow no distinction between the authority of the Bible and the authority of God. (Or, of course, between our own authority when we selectively quote the Bible and the authority of God.)

J.R. Daniel Kirk is — like Billy Graham — a white evangelical. He is an associate professor of New testament at Fuller Theological Seminary — an impeccably evangelical institution. His books of evangelical theology and biblical studies are published by Eerdman’s — a pillar of the evangelical publishing world.

But unlike Graham and Mohler, Kirk is not a biblicist. He knows, for example, that calling the Bible “the Word of God” is unbiblical.

And he knows that just because certain biblical texts unambiguously state one claim, that does not make that claim the final or the only biblical teaching on the matter. Thus, for Kirk, “certain kinds of people simply cannot be part of the people of God” is not the final word:

Take Canaanites.

This is a blanket term for the people living in the land that God gave to the people of Israel through the wars of Joshua. They are excluded from participation in the people of God.

One way they are so excluded is in multiple warnings not to allow daughters and sons to intermarry with these indigenous peoples. Such liaisons might lead the Israelites astray to worship gods other than Yhwh.

But there is only one way to make sure that no such commingling occurs: kill them all. “You must devote them to complete destruction,” says Deuteronomy 7:2. Make no covenant. Show no mercy.

Chapter and verse. “The Bible is clear.” Canaanites cannot be a part of the people of God.

So when a Canaanite woman from the hill country comes up to Jesus, a woman evocative of the remnant of the Canaanites that Israel couldn’t quite seem to root out–he rightly rejects her.

Jesus rejects her not because of bigotry, but because the Word of God has assigned her a place in the story. She cannot belong.

She wants an exorcism: “Lord! Son of David! My daughter is badly demon possessed!”

Jesus rebuffs her: “I was only sent to the sheep. To the House of Israel.”

She continues, “Lord, help me!”

Jesus rebuffs her again, “Look, dog. It is not right take bread from the children and throw it to such as you.”

Ouch. Jesus knows her place. And so, it would seem, does she.

“Yes Lord. And, even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from the tables of their masters.”

And then, finally, he relents. Finally he is willing to extend transgressive grace. Finally he is willing to allow that this woman who by all biblical rights should be excluded and even killed, might be embraced in the onslaught of the kingdom of which Jesus, Son of David, is king.

“Oh woman! Great is your faith! Let it be as you wish.” And her daughter was healed.

This, too, is right there in the Bible. It’s in the Gospels. It is the gospel. And the gospel — the good news of God revealed through Jesus Christ — is also “clear.”

The gospel means that no one is excluded. The gospel means that everyone can be a part of the people of God.

BaptismofCornelius
The Baptism of that Roman Scum Cornelius. (Wikimedia photo by Jean Paul Grandmont of baptismal font in St. Bartholomew’s Church by the artist Renier de Huy.)

This is the heart of the gospel. This is the central theme and plot of the book of Acts. And this is the essence of Paul’s argument in his epistles.

When God made covenant with Abraham, God was quite clear: the only way, at all, ever, to be part of the people of God is to be circumcised.

If anyone remains uncircumcised?

He “will be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.” — God

But this was only for a time, right?

“My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.”

Forever.

You don’t get to eat the defining meal of the people, Passover, without being circumcised.

So Jewish people might be excused for thinking that their exclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles is not a matter of bigotry. It’s a matter of principled adherence to the Word of God.

But then… the kingdom of God bursts beyond the bounds of the circumcised.

Peter has a vision, yes. But it is when he musters the courage to go, to relate to a Gentile, and then observes that God has accepted them through the gift of the Spirit that Peter is finally converted.

In that personal interaction, Peter sees that God has worked. And he no longer can hold to his own position. Not because he was a bigot, but because a new moment has arrived in the story.

Paul will say a similar thing in Galatians. “You received the Spirit. God worked miracles among you.” Their experience tells them that they don’t have to be circumcised, don’t have to keep food laws, to be part of the people of God.

Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is the tl;dr version of Romans, and this is the core argument of both books: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” The barriers we erect to keep certain kinds of people from being a part of the people of God are “nothing.”

Even when those barriers come from the scripture. Even when we can cite chapter and verse and commandment. As Kirk writes:

In the unfolding narrative of God and who belongs to God’s people, the move from exclusion to embrace has been marked by the inclusion of those who had previously been excluded due to the theology, principles, and narrative of scripture.

That’s all very well and good when we’re talking about Gentiles, say Gentiles like Mohler and Graham, but surely the Bible is still clear that we cannot move from exclusion to embrace when it comes to LGBT people. That’s a self-serving, stingy notion of the gospel of reconciliation — inclusion for outsiders like us, exclusion for outsiders like them; we are under grace, but they are under law.

It’s also premised on the indefensible and flatly wrong assumption that the biblical passages condemning homosexuality are somehow less ambiguous and more forceful than the massive host of biblical passages commanding, and demanding, circumcision.

But wait, they say, one of those anti-gay biblical texts comes from the book of Romans itself! Surely we can’t be so audacious as to turn Paul’s own argument against Paul?

Well, why not? The audacious claim that the barrier-breaking gospel of reconciliation should embrace and include even the LGBT people that Paul seemingly cites as emblems of depravity is no more audacious than his own claims about circumcision. It’s the very same audacity that Paul demonstrates and argues for and commands in all of his epistles.

Paul had no problem turning Peter’s own argument against Peter, and he was right to do so. And the Canaanite widow in the Gospel story above had no problem turning Jesus’ own argument against Jesus, and she was right to do so. “The Bible is clear” that they both wound up on the winning side of those arguments.

If the gospel is not allowed to be audacious, then how can it possibly be good news? Audacity — sheer, mind-boggling audacity — is a core characteristic of the gospel. If your idea of the gospel isn’t so audacious as to give you pause, then your idea of the gospel is far too small.

 

 

 

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