About nine years ago, John Piper preached a message about “Discerning the Will of God Concerning Homosexuality and Marriage.” The message made an impression on me, and for many years now I’ve been reading a portion of this sermon every semester to my hermeneutics students.
I share the message now because it is astonishing to me how prophetic it is in light of the decisions handed down from the Supreme Court earlier this week. You can read the manuscript excerpt below, but I recommend that you listen to the audio. There is much more in the audio version than in what appears in the manuscript. Keep in mind that this was nine years ago:
[begin at 30:50]
What has changed dramatically in the last fifty years is the concept of meaning and truth in our culture. Once it was the responsibility of historical scholars and judges and preachers to find the fixed meaning of a text (an essay, the Constitution, the Bible) and justify it with grammatical and historical arguments, and then explain it. Meaning in texts was not created by scholars and judges and preachers. It was found, because the authors put it there. Authors had intentions. And it was a matter of integrity to find what a writer intended—that was the meaning of the essay, the Constitution, the Bible. Everybody knew that if a person wrote “no” and someone else creatively interpreted it to mean “yes,” something fraudulent had happened.
But we have fallen a long way from that integrity. In historical scholarship and in constitutional law and in biblical interpretation, it is common today to say that meaning is whatever you see, not what the author said or intended. To get right to the point, today the Constitution is being “amended,” whether we like it or not. That is, courts are finding there what never was there in any of the authors’ minds, namely, a right to marriage between two men or two women. This kind of so-called interpretation creates out of nothing a definition of marriage that has never existed. In other words, the question is not whether the Constitution will be amended concerning the meaning of marriage and the rights of homosexual people to marry; the question is simply how it will be amended. Will it be by the means established by the Constitution itself? Or will it be by the Supreme Court creating a meaning for the Constitution which was never there in the authors’ farthest imaginations?
I realize that there are many people who will read this and dismiss it as a passé throwback to modernism and its hermeneutical hang-ups. I beg to differ. Piper is right. It is in fact a matter of integrity to understand what an author intended by what he wrote. That principle applies to all literature, including the Constitution. It strains credulity—to say the very least—to imagine that the framers intended this document to become the legal basis for gay marriage. But the hermeneutical control of authorial intent has been almost completely sidelined in modern jurisprudence. Authorial intent is one among many factors in interpretation, but it is not the decisive factor for many judges. And therein is the loss of integrity that has led to rulings such as we saw this week.
Piper goes on to talk about how Christians ought to engage a culture that is rapidly undoing itself with sinful fictions like gay marriage. Piper says he is not happy with the political engagement that he sees among many evangelicals. Again, there is so much more in the audio, and I recommend that you listen to it. The manuscript version below is a bit more abbreviated.
[begin at 44:32]
We do not smirk at the misery or the merrymaking of immoral culture. We weep. Being pilgrims does not mean being cynical. The salt of the earth does not mock rotting meat. Where it can, it saves and seasons. And where it can’t, it weeps.
Being Christian pilgrims in American culture does not end our influence, it takes the swagger out of it. We don’t get cranky when evil triumphs for a season. We don’t whine when things don’t go our way. We are not hardened with anger. We understand. What’s happening is not new. The early Christians were profoundly out of step with their culture. The Imperial words of Christ were ringing in their ears: “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).
I think these words will become more and more our lifeline as religious liberty erodes in coming days. This is a good word, and I recommend that you listen to all of it.