The church can be tempted to close the Biblical canon and to treat the NT as a definitive guide, not only in its spirit but also in its actual rules. Over the centuries some of these rules may have no longer been followed, such as those about head covering, long hair or the place of women. But there has been little appreciation for the character of all NT rules as time bound.
When a culture struggles with painfully controversial problems, such as the morality of same-sex relationships, Christians depend on the guidance of Scripture. In such situations it becomes crucial to understand the kind of literature Scripture is and to know how it is properly read. New Testament theologian N.T. Wright has offered the metaphor of a play in three acts for the unfolding of the Spirit’s guidance on the human journey, seen from a Christian perspective. The Old Testament, as the first act, tells us the initial story of people living with God’s hopes and expectations. In act two, the New Testament, we read how Jesus embodied and the early church re-enacted the deepest spiritual core of act one. In their spiritual vision, that core had suffered from neglecting the living Spirit in the Torah, in favour of eternalizing its historical and temporal embodiment. The law of Moses was no longer a living source for the intended fullness of God’s grace. In Jesus and the Spirit, act two looked for a new life firmly rooted in love, free from rules and regulations treated as permanent law. The third act would be written by the church in the freedom of the Spirit, seeking a constantly renewed and renewing embodiment of love in acts of grace and compassion shaped for their time.
The church can be tempted to close the Biblical canon and to treat the NT as a definitive guide, not only in its spirit but also in its actual rules. Over the centuries some of these rules may have no longer been followed, such as those about head covering, long hair or the place of women. But there has been little appreciation for the character of all NT rules as time bound. The gospel of John provides an understanding of the dynamics of following the NT’s Spirit when we adapt its letter to our times. In 5:39 Jesus points out that the Scriptures as guide to life must be read as bearing witness to him. So when in 1:14 John refers to the Word Incarnate as full of grace and truth (chesed and emeth), he tells us that in Jesus the presence of God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34:6-7a comes alive. Focused on Jesus and guided by the Spirit, the Bible becomes a book of forgiving and life-giving love. All its deepest spiritual intuitions serve to generate this love. Hence the importance of 8:11, where Jesus guides us to the forgiving God who does not condemn an adulterous woman but writes a new commandment of love. When John (14:6) talks about Jesus as the way to God, he has in mind a spiritual dynamic rather than a new set of rules. So what Paul writes about homosexuality is not cast in concrete but subject to reading in grace and truth.
In the discourses of the upper room, John 14-16, Jesus explains that following him after his death is made possible by the spirit of truth (i.e., of chesed and emeth), who will unfold for us the way to God as lived by Jesus. The Jesus to whom the Torah bore witness is the same Jesus made known to us by or in the Spirit. In Acts 10 and 11 Luke portrays the change from a Torah buried in law, to being oriented to Jesus. Peter, in a dream he accepts as coming from the Spirit, trusts that rules of the Torah are no longer the language of the Spirit for following Jesus.
The NT does not erase the Torah, but sets the Spirit’s arch blessings free from being captured in a timeless specific tradition. The Spirit of the Torah and the Spirit of Jesus do not differ. Being “in Christ” is not different from loving God with all our being (Deut. 6:5). Paul ceaselessly teaches that freedom in the Spirit prohibits slavery to any rule-bound tradition. Our lives are to be lived “in Christ,” or in God or in the Spirit. At the same time, he teaches concrete ways for the Spirit to lead people on their way. These actual NT paths of the Spirit belong to their own time. The Spirit of Old and New Testament remains God’s and Jesus’ Spirit. That Spirit lived in these Scriptures to show the way to love and life and will always remain recognizable in the actual rules of these Scriptures as spiritual footprints of old. But living “in the Spirit” today will ever require forging new paths to make the Spirit recognizable in our own time. In this way the Spirit according to the Scriptures not only allows, but urges us to discern new paths along which to redemptively resolve our painful controversies surrounding homosexuality.
Even the Old Testament unmistakably distinguished the Spirit of Torah from the letter of the law. Jeremiah (7:21-23) virtually denied God had ever commanded the sacrificial instructions that people mistook for the heart of Torah. Isaiah (56:3-5) foresees that the spirit of Torah will one day set aside the prohibition that keeps eunuchs out of the temple (Deut. 23:1).
The apostles teach us to follow a “spirit” and not a law, even when they do set out actual paths of the Spirit for their time. These NT paths are footprints of the Spirit that we interpret to make rules for our own time. 1 Corinthians 7 is perhaps the clearest and most extensive example of how an apostle can struggle with a contemporary issue. Paul wants to help Corinthians with guidelines for marriage. Being single, he has no experience and the Old Testament has few insights he can lean on. So, flexibly, he makes a concession that is not a command (6), gives a command he considers the Lord’s (10), makes rules that are his and not the Lord’s (12), lays down his own rule for all churches (17), offers his personal judgments as a reliable person (25), and presents his view as one who has the Spirit of God (40).
Paul’s mature New Testament confidence in his own Scripture-informed judgments as a follower of the Spirit sets out, in my view, the heart of living with the Scriptures in the Spirit in our own times. I heartily recommend that we trust his Spiritual maturity to give shape to our ending the impasse in moving forward together with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.