The HSR’s misuse of a theological tool
What if "creation, fall, redemption" isn't the language we should be reaching for right now?
The summer I was fifteen I worked for a farmer, who I’ll call ‘Jed’. Jed had a dairy herd, a lot of land and a lot of machinery. He also had a favorite tool in the pocket of his jeans, his Peterson Vice Grip. Also known as a locking plier, Jed’s vice grip could cut wire, stretch a fence, pound nails and dismantle or assemble pretty much anything fastened with hex nuts. But a vice grip inevitably damages hex nuts. It rounds off all the corners so that the nut won’t take a wrench anymore. My dad would grumble a bit about this. You could always tell Jed had been at our farm by the way the hex nuts had suffered.
I was reminded of vice grips when I read the CRC’s Human Sexuality Report and came across the line, “Reformed theology tells us that a good biblical theology follows the outline of the great moments of redemptive history: creation, fall, redemption, consummation.” This framework is our favourite theological tool. We are comfortable with it, and it has much to offer. It provides a guideline to help us try to grasp the broad flow and sweep of Scripture. It is a sobering reminder of what humans are capable of, and it invites us to trust that God in Jesus Christ is leading us into a good and beautiful future. It ‘levels the ground’ at the foot of the cross. And, it opens up a way for all people to find meaning in their daily work, understanding that as we offer our hearts, ‘promptly and sincerely,’ our tasks, even those we may think of as dull or routine, can be a way of living into the kingdom.
In search of new tools
Theological tools also have their limits. We know this. We do not sit with a friend whose child has died at the hands of a drunk driver and say, “It’s because of the Fall.” Jesus, when asked, “who sinned, this man or his father that he should be born blind?” does not begin explaining creation, fall, redemption. Nor do Job’s friends when they offer their best ideas for why he is suffering. In the HSR, the authors reach into their jeans for their favorite theological tool because it’s one they, and we as Reformed people, know best. It may be argued that Synod 2016 in constituting the HSR study committee as they did, limited the committee to the use of that old favorite tool. As an approach to the realities of LGBTQ people however, that tool is not only inadequate, it is harmful. The harm caused both by telling people their orientation is “broken, fallen, distorted” and by legislating enforced celibacy in order to remain a member of the Christian Reformed Church, is a matter of public record. Anxiety, despair, even suicidality are deeply harmful, even traumatizing. Why are we surprised that same sex people often flee our fellowships? The suicide statistics for LGBTQ people are inordinately high, not because there needs to be anything inherently depressing in one’s sexual identity, but precisely because of messages like the one the HSR draws from its vice grip theology.
Like farmer Jed, we have better tools available to us, should we choose them. Spiritually, we have the starting place of compassion for a fellow human being (see Psalm 145:9). Emotionally, we have the capacity for empathy and the ability to imagine what enforced celibacy would be like. Professionally, we have resources in Christian, Reformed scholars at Calvin University and other CRC-affiliated schools. We have psychologists, therapists, neuroscientists, sociologists and more to rely on. Most of all, we have the testimonies of LGBTQ people themselves. They won’t need special support groups if they are simply and fully accepted, welcomed and loved with the same hopeful possibilities for life that sexual majority people freely extend to ourselves and each other. No more, no less.
John— Thank you for this. I appreciate the call for us to look at all the tools available to us, including compassion and empathy and scientific insight and the testimonies of our queer neighbours. Although you didn’t say it exactly this way, I expect you would also agree with this: that good biblical theology can be explored (even from a Reformed perspective) with different frameworks than Creation-Fall-Redemption. The Bible is so rich! For example, we can see the theme of God’s presence with us, from the garden to the tabernacle to the temple to Christ to the Spirit in all believers (including queer believers). Or we can see the richness of the Bible as God’s love letter to us. Thank you for calling us to be more discerning about the tools we choose to use!
Hi Tim, thank you, and yes, I fully agree with you about good biblical theology
If everything can be viewed through the lense of God’s love for everyone, then indeed the denominational HSR missed the boat. If it were true we no longer need to worry about giving ourselves to pornography or sex with anyone, in season and out of season, male or female alike. After trying hard to understand the LGTBQ side of things, it still remains that the sinner is ‘broken’ because of trying to rationalize, normalize and live a broken life style. The 1973 report had it right, a fact confirmed by the current report, although I too think it could have been said with greater compassion for, and understanding of the difficulties for people who live with the temptations and attractions of LGTBQ Christians.
Thank you, John, for this insightful and timely article. When long accepted theological schemas remain unexamined they become stagnant and meaningless. What’s worse, they become the wrong tools for the work at hand, as you suggest. It is so necessary that followers of Christ tscrutinize constantly their perceptions about the various writings that make up Scripture. It is equally necessary to examine our attitudes and behaviours toward our fellow believers. When our beliefs and behaviours are harmful to others, we need to rethink. The power of the Gospel is that it heals and includes.
Hi May, you’re welcome. I appreciate your point about our theological schemas becoming stagnant and losing their meaning. And, Amen re the power of the Gospel healing and including.
Thanks for this piece, John. I think, however, that you got it wrong when it comes to Job’s friends. Their problem was precisely that they reached for the old theological tool of a strictly causal cosmology in which all suffering is necessarily the result of sin. “Job, you are suffering, ergo, you must have sinned.” And part of the point of the story of Job is precisely to say that this was the wrong theological tool. At their best, the authors of the HSR are like the “friends” of Job, using the wrong theological tools to try and rationalize their position. At their worst, the authors engage wield these tools as weapons of pastoral violence.
Hi Brian, you’re welcome, my comment about Job’s friends was only to point out that they don’t use ‘creation fall’ language. I agree with you about the old theological tool they reach for and wield on Job. I also appreciate and agree with your comparison of the authors of the HSR to them. Thanks for making those points in a clear and pointed way.