The mini-sermon on the text from Galatians in the previous couple of posts was prompted, in part, by this almost comprehensively anti-Paul passage from a recent book review:
At his conversion, he wanted to find a way to believe that gay relationships were reconcilable with Christianity. But he found the hermeneutical gymnastics of progressive Christianity unsatisfying. We should sincerely applaud Bennett for rejecting revisionist interpretations that supplant orthodoxy in the interest of self-justification.
That’s from an article on The Gospel Coalition website (via SarahBeth Caplin), which criticizes a new anti-gay book due to its not being anti-gay enough. That quote initially tripped me up because of the way TGC’s Andrew Walker says “hermeneutical” when he really means exegetical. He’s not concerned with an overall interpretive framework, or with understanding how it is that we go about seeking the meaning of, or meaning from, a text. He’s talking about clobber-texts — about the kind of painstaking, word-by-word, letter-by-letter parsing that is practiced by fundamentalist religious people and maybe contract lawyers, but not by any other form of human reader. The whole point of such an approach is the convenient pretense that hermeneutics are unnecessary. Walker avoids “hermeneutical gymnastics” by pretending he doesn’t have — or require — any hermeneutic of his own.
But look at those two sentences again and marvel at how they were approvingly written for a website that prides itself as the acknowledged leader of a Reformed and purportedly Pauline theology. Note the specific words that Walker uses to convey his disapproval: “reconcilable,” “justification.” He doesn’t quite suggest that reconciliation and justification are bad, per se, but that the author he condemns has taken them too far. He spies on the freedom that others claim in Christ and recoils.
That precise attitude — a desire to keep reconciliation and justification bounded within carefully prescribed limits — can be found again and again in Paul’s epistles. But it never comes from Paul himself. It comes from the people he calls “false believers” or “spies” — the people he invites to go off and castrate themselves.
Yeah, that’s harsh. Paul tended to be really, really harsh in response to what’s being argued in TGC’s review. Elsewhere, he refers to it as “the ministry of death.”
What Paul calls “the ministry of death” seems to be what our friends at the Gospel Coalition are all about — in attitude, approach, and aim. It is what Paul also calls a “ministry of condemnation,” driven by a fierce devotion to every word and letter of the law chiseled as if in stone. That micromaniacal focus on the letter of the law, Paul says, causes them to miss the “greater glory,” making them “incompetent” (again, Paul’s word) for the new thing the gospel is perpetually bringing about — a ministry “not of letter, but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” Paul concludes in that passage.
That conclusion is something The Gospel Coalition types will always and everywhere condemn as a “revisionist interpretation that supplants orthodoxy in the interest of self-justification.” That sounds very Reformed, I suppose — condemning self-justification. But what they’re really condemning is the idea that others might also have access to the justification already provided by Christ. What they’re calling “self-justification” is the idea that Titus might be justified without the circumcision they insist is necessary. That in turn suggests the utterly un-Reformed idea that Titus actually could justify himself just by submitting to their rules. Having started with the Spirit, they are ending up with an obsession with the flesh (and, just as in Galatians, this concern for “the flesh” involves a preoccupation with Other Peoples’ Genitals).
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Where you don’t see any trace of that freedom, you can safely assume you’re not going to find much of the Spirit of the Lord either.