Luke Timothy Johnson Rejects Biblical Authority

Luke Timothy Johnson is well-known among those in my profession. He’s a prolific, accomplished scholar of the New Testament. But in a recent essay for Commonweal magazine, he offers a shocking public endorsement of homosexual marriage, as well as a blatant rejection of the authority of scripture on this issue. Here is the relevant excerpt:

I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, . . . I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality-namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.

I have at least one thing in common with Johnson. I too have little patience with those who do hermeneutical gymnastics with Scripture in order to obscure or eliminate the Bible’s clear condemnations of homosexual behavior. But where we disagree profoundly is what we should do with the Scripture’s teaching on this matter. Johnson says we have to reject Scripture for a higher authority. I say (following 1 Timothy 3:16) that the Scripture is the word of God written. As the word of God, the Scripture bears God’s own authority so that there is therefore no “higher” authority that we can appeal to.

Al Mohler is commenting on the article at his website: “Homosexuality and the Bible — The Rejectionist Approach.” His reflections are worth reading.

18 Responses to Luke Timothy Johnson Rejects Biblical Authority

  1. mlm August 29, 2007 at 12:39 pm #

    Denny,

    I read the articles on the Commonweal link you provided, primarily because after reading your post I thought you had misunderstood Luke Timothy Johnson. The excerpted quote you cited from his article doesn’t reveal his stance as clearly as other parts of his article. In fact, I read this excerpt totally opposite the way you did…and thought (just in reading the excerpt) that Mr. Johnson was AGAINST homosexuality and AGAINST those who appeal to experience rather than Scripture to defend it. Just a thought…

  2. Bryan L August 29, 2007 at 1:45 pm #

    Denny,

    I think it is interesting what LT Johnson says right after where you cut him off in your quote with the “…”.

    He says “…and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy-that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.”

    I think the article is interesting and it deserves to be read and considered. Denny I’m not endorsing Johnson’s views, but I’m not willing to write them off just yet either. I think this would be an interesting article for us to discuss section by section. It does a disservice to this issue if we just say Johnson endorses homosexual marriage and rejects the authority of scripture. His views are much more nuanced and complicated than that

    MLM, I don’t think Johnson is saying what you think he is. I think it is closer to what Denny is saying. I’ve heard before that this is Johnson’s view.

    Blessings,
    Bryan L

  3. dennyrburk August 29, 2007 at 2:11 pm #

    Bryan,

    I provided a link to the article so that people could read the whole thing for themselves. Yes, there’s more nuance in the whole article than what you’ll find in my little excerpt. Nevertheless, the bottom line of his position is that the authority of the Bible has to give way to human opinion.

    Anyone who adopts such a stance towards God’s written word has taken a course that leads towards spiritual harm and ruin. That’s why wanted to speak clearly against it, in hopes of enjoining readers to choose a route different than Johnson.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  4. Matthew August 29, 2007 at 2:26 pm #

    I think some people do have a very confusing experience. I think they honestly feel that they have been created gay. Whether it’s their own choice, or the result of a fallen world, or whatever else I don’t know.

    Regardless, I believe that we must submit to the text; the text does not submit to us. No matter what one’s experience, feelings, theories, worldviews, etc., each human being is obligated to submit to this text.

    I am very interested in hermeneutics. I think we can learn a lot from various disciplines and theories. I think the dividing line between “learning from” and “going too far” is right here. We submit to the text, not the other way around.

  5. mlm August 29, 2007 at 7:19 pm #

    Bryan,

    Just to clarify: after reading Johnson’s article, I in fact totally agree with Denny’s assertion. Johnson is definitely saying to reject Scripture in regard to homosexuality. My point was that if I had only read Denny’s excerpt, I would have been confused as to where Johnson stood. After reading Johnson’s article, I have no doubt where he stands. He stands in error.

    On a more human note, it’s easy to see why Johnson has wrestled with Scripture and come to the conclusion he has. His daugher is a homosexual. I can’t even imagine the pain and confusion Johnson has experienced–as a theologian, as a teacher, and (especially) as a dad. Too often we all justify our beliefs based on personal experience, which–as Denny points out–can lead to spiritual harm and ruin.

    On a “blind leading the blind” note, I’m saddened that Johnson is considered to be one of the most influential Catholic voices on biblical studies. If he is representative of seminary professors nationwide, we’re in bigger trouble that I thought.

  6. Jimmy August 29, 2007 at 7:49 pm #

    Denny,

    You misunderstood Johnson.

  7. jeff miller August 29, 2007 at 11:11 pm #

    Denny,

    Can you see how it might appear that you misread the quote?

    Maybe I’ll understand the connection between your comment and Johnson’s position after I read the article.

    luf,
    jeff

  8. Jean Mathon November 3, 2008 at 4:52 pm #

    I have a friend name Mona-Williamson.We have known eachother since the late 90,s.ever since we met.I cannot get a clear understanding wether she is gay or not,or if she is hiding something from me.I researhed your info at Deep River Baptist Church in Connecticut.We been friends for long time.I,ve met her mon and Dad.more than 9 tears ago.the last time .I saw Mona was in 2004 in the Bronx.She came to meet me at the Bronx-Station Metro-Nort.Next Prior in year 198 we went to the movies at time square.she had a young lady follow her to the ladies room.while I was at movie cinema by myself for 20 minutes.Every time we spoke on the phone,she always have an excuse to meet me.I slept with men before under the influence.She always avoiding me.do you think.I should to continue to be friends with her,she seems that.she does not wants to make time for me.she always says.I speak to my Ex every night.Do I want to go shopping.Last time we saw as a friend.was 2004.that is 4 years ago.we never had sex with each-other,she invited me the first time to her mon place.they live same apartment building.she never invites me to her place.it is begining to becoming a burden for me.I would rather her to be up-front with me.if she is gay.be open about it.I thinkn she is ashame about it.last,she always traveling while on the job as a register nurse.please pray so god could connect both of us together. thank-you

  9. Pepe January 13, 2010 at 6:03 pm #

    I don’t know, but I read LTJ as saying that our faith is based on more than just scripture. If it wasn’t, women would not be allowed to speak in church. However, we go beyond the scripture, to infer what Paul meant by what he said. We weigh it against other examples and draw on our experience in logic and reasoning to deduct that he was speaking situationally.

    Further, Jesus himself tells us that there is more to the text than what is written. For example, how many times did he say, “It is written that… but I say that…”? How about that bit about the sabbath? You know, the one about seeming to violate the sabbath by helping others. Please don’t tell me that he did not go beyond the text. In contrast, the pharisees had a literal interpretation of it and were said to be “white washed sepulchers”.

    Lastly, we go beyong the text of the scripture every time we write a commentary. And don’t insult my intelligence by saying that commentaries do not interpret what is written. It has taken an almost infinite number of words outside the scripture to get us to the way we practice Christianity today.

    So, when LTJ says that we must go beyond the scripture, he doesn’t mean that we throw it away, what he means is that we have to apply our experiences to the concepts presented by scripture (homosexuality vis a vis slavery). However -and he does mean this- our experience has to be carefully considered in the light of -and not inspit of -scripture. That is the only way the Word of God can be a living word: it does not live for itself, it lives for and though us, since it was to us and for us that it was given.

    May the Word lead us forward, alway closer to godliness.

    Pepe

  10. Don Johnson January 13, 2010 at 9:56 pm #

    In Matt 5, Jesus says, “You have heard it SAID …, but I SAY ….”

    Jesus NEVER went beyond the written Torah, he DID violate the so-called Oral Torah of the Pharisees sometimes.

  11. Pepe January 14, 2010 at 9:58 am #

    Don:

    Thaks for the correction. Even as I wrote that I knew that using Jesus as an example was wrong in many levels. Not just in misquoting him.The point still stands that WE have gone beyond scripture in order to develope present theology. There are many instances in wich we have deducted that scripture means somethin even though it doesn’t say it specificly. Are you willing to contend that?

  12. Pepe January 14, 2010 at 10:12 am #

    Sorry, I must correct myself here: instead of deducted, I meant inducted. We have used inductive reasoning to develope our present theology. Sometimes I

  13. Pepe January 14, 2010 at 10:14 am #

    … speak beyond my immediate before I correctly recollect.

  14. Don Johnson January 14, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    I would say each of us has a temptation to both go beyond Scripture and deny Scripture, either adding or subtracting from it; and we are to do neither, but rightly divide the word of God, so that the Kingdom with multiply.

    Another way of seeing it is that we each are where we are at, and God is leading us more and more into the Kingdom, as we let God do this.

    So my goal and I hope yours is to do one’s best to understand Scripture as the original readers would have and then derive applications for today from that, letting Scripture change me.

  15. Pepe January 14, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    “Did not our hearts burn within us, while He talked with us by the way, and while He opened us the Scriptures.” Luke 24:32

    May your heart alway burn the same way.

  16. Tom Wheeler March 15, 2010 at 1:33 am #

    In the first place: everyone, all the time, ‘goes beyond’ Scripture in order to try to be faithful to the God who gave us Scripture, using their reason, their experience, and the tradition of the Church as guides to what the (often terse) written word says. So in terms of hermeneutics, let there be no specious contrasting of those who simply ‘submit to the text’ and those who don’t.

    I find, by the way, the phrase ‘submit to the text’ eerie and wrong: we are to submit to the Lord, not to the text. Of course, the text is key to our understanding of what the Lord would have us do, but there is a difference between the Message, the Messenger, and the One who sent the Message.

    People who believed in American slavery as God’s ordained punishment upon black folk, and abolitionists, both quoted Scripture to their purposes, as everyone visiting this site probably well knows.

    So my point is not that Johnson was right or that he was wrong; it is (1) claiming Johnson is wrong in that, and because, he says we do (must; can’t possibly, being human, escape…) use reason and experience and tradition together, to understand Scripture, is simply misunderstanding what the human process of discipleship is all about (2) claiming that Johnson is necessarily wrong, if he DID say that a piece of what the Bible says must be set aside, with whatever care (the article he wrote’s no longer posted so I can’t read it in full) is to overlook that the Church as a whole has done just this with regard to ‘slaves obey your masters’ and to some of the more extreme rules about women – – and to gossip and other vices that are listed high up in Paul’s and others’ lists; and divorce and especially remarriage without Scriptural warrant; and heterosexual ‘fornication’. – – To say NOTHING of the American church’s complacency about its own fatness and prosperity and coldness to the stranger. By what right do we do this? Certainly by no standard that is internal to the text. – We do it because of our experience, or our reason, or our comfort with thinking that our own deviations from the Bible are just LITTLE problems, not serious sins. – – And we are hypocritical when we point the finger at the mote in someone else’s eye while paying no attention to our own failures to adhere to what Scripture plainly teaches.

    The minute you start to write me and tell me how these cases I’ve raised (fornication, gossip etc.) are different from the case of homosexuality, you will have begun to use your reason and experience to qualify Scripture…you can’t avoid doing it. The point is, to determine how to do it most responsibly, and to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. – Or even to discern which is which. – – whether the subject is dishonor to father and mother or heterosexuality or homosexuality or what-have-you.

  17. Tom Wheeler March 15, 2010 at 1:39 am #

    PS: I don’t see how one can claim that Jesus never went beyond or against written Torah, when He and His disciples do in fact work on the Sabbath, and when confronted about it, do not say “You’ve misunderstood me, I’m compliant with Torah” but rather say, “Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man” or explains that he’s following a ‘good precedent’ of David and his men when they were hungry – – find that in Torah! – it’s not there! Jesus is Lord and God, and can go beyond what was in the Hebrew Bible as He may choose, but it seems poor reading to pretend there are no cases where He does this. Whether this has any bearing on the main subject of this thread – – i.e. whether His having done this is an example of subjecting the Text to a Higher Authority – – is a separate subject.

  18. Donald Johnson March 15, 2010 at 8:40 am #

    Tom,

    Jesus never did go beyond Torah, he interpreted Torah correctly as contrasted with the Pharisees who did not always do this.

    What Jesus’ disciples did on the Sabbath was considered work that was not to be done by the Pharisees due to their legalism, but Jesus corrects them and does not contradict Torah.

    P.S. Torah means most generally God’s instructions/teachings. To Jews in the 1st century this included the Torah of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings, what we often call the OT, and to believers it includes the NT also. Jesus got his story of David from the Written Torah or Tanakh, not the Torah of Moses, obviously.

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