Search This Blog

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Peter Jensen as Magisterium?


Dr. Peter Jensen's address last year, to the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy (E.F.I.C.) is presented in his usual indomitable style; http://vimeo.com/4457514. It is measured, reasonably well researched albeit within a very narrow range of interpretative boundaries, and delivered of course to an entirely sympathetic and uncritical audience. This means that, from my point of view, I might rate some 20% of his analysis, particularly early in his speech where he deals with some aspects of contemporary culture and its sexual mores, as very good.

The remainder however ranges from mediocre to downright deceptive. There are some major concerns that stem out of his rather simplistic Reason / Church / Scripture / Experience quadrant: like a Myers Briggs quadrant I believe that there needs to be a sliding scale of 16 main position possibilities on that quadrant rather than his implied four (perhaps just for the sake of simplification, as he acknowledges after a fashion at 7'30"). His bald statement 'I belong to the "S" group here, and I believe that is where Anglicanism truly is to be found' dismantles any nuances to the grid structure, and he builds the remainder of his argument on that un-nuanced position. It may for example come as a surprise to some that some of the best biblical scholarship in the Christian world (I put it that way because of course the Jewish scholars provide outstanding contributions to interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and indeed powerful insight into the Christian writings too. I will turn to the writings of the late Rabbi Jacob Milgrom below) stems from Roman Catholic academics, such as, for example, the late Raymond Brown, or Luke Timothy Johnson, both by and large unsurpassed in both their scholarship and their faith-integrity. This would suggest that such scholars stand on a more nuanced position than Jensen's four alternatives, recognizing Reason, Tradition (as I would prefer to call it), Scripture and Experience in a different balance (to one another and) to Jensen's.

Like most Sydney evangelicals, Jensen neglects to build into his public thought what might be called a 'theology of canon' - a public understanding of the process by which the scriptures came to be 'scripture'. This leads to a disturbing degree of intellectual and spiritual chicanery. So, for example, in rightly referring to 'the paramount place of Holy Scripture' in the 39 Articles and Book of Common Prayer there is no acknowledgment of the socio-political forces that impacted on the shape of those definitive documents. Such acknowledgment does not deny the formative impact of the documents, but it recognizes that the Church, too, is outside Eden. If Jensen is to be critical of the Catholic doctrine of Infallibility, and I suspect he is (certainly his brother is: http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=8318&com_mode=thread&com_order=1&com_id=91171&com_rootid=91148), then he needs to be careful here. Scriptures infallible? 39 Articles Infallible? Book of Common Prayer Infallible? Who decides and by what process?
Nevertheless, Jensen's analysis of sexuality as the West's greatest drive, and the reasons for that (we are all fed, all housed, by and large) is a good one. As a more or less value neutral statement it provides a basis by which to understand for example the dominant ECUSA and for example New Westminster and New Hampshire approaches to human sexuality (see e.g. around 16'15"). So too does the primary place of the individual, the 'cult of the individual' as it is often called (see http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/449579/the_cult_of_the_individual.html), that has grown in post French Revolution, indeed post-Reformation Europe. Jensen is careful to avoid this language though, because of his belief that the primary source of spiritual authority and discernment is the individual transaction of understanding between reader and scripture. Late in the address (47'45") he makes this quite clear. He does however assert than in the 'non-Scriptural' traditions 'individual rights have become the gospel' (17'30").

This is a partial truth: the cult of the individual, especially when imposed on the scriptures, can be deeply dangerous. Unfortunately he goes on to embrace forms of individualism in his own analysis, by emphasizing individualistic biblical interpretation over forms of interpretation that engage with a wider resource pool (whether the cathedra, or academia, or both, or tradition, or all of these in nuanced balances). Nevertheless, he avoids the post-modern belief that 'the reader is author': he is right to do so - and he and I could join in agreement that we thank God that post-modernity, already dating rapidly, is not the gospel! The notion of authorial intention is, unpopular though it is, central to my own analysis. I would argue, however, that authorial intention rather than the subsequent processes of canonization and the interpretations of the magisterium should be given first priority in interpretation. This (unfashionable) emphasis on authorial intention is a factor absent in Jensen's claims for scriptural priority, as is consideration of the 'site' and circumstances of original intended audiences. These elements insofar as they can be ascertained should have interpretative priority in the process or transaction of interpretation. That's called honesty.


Like any good orator Jensen sets up a (false) 'if you are not for me you are against me' dichotomy. George Bush did this, too! From 19'30" to around 20'30", with emphasis, and again at 26'oo", Jensen invites those who oppose his presuppositions, to 'go to sleep' (20'30"), to tune out. This is a favourite dramatic ploy of Jensen that I have seen him use elsewhere, and can be a highly effective oratorical ploy when preaching to a like-minded audience - as E.F.I.C. certainly is! In effect the false dichotomy is between what he calls a 'conformist Christian' and a 'biblical Christian' - and the audience are cosily comforted in their status as 'biblical Christians' (they have, after all, invited Jensen!). Like all false dichotomies this one is deeply jaundiced. It also distracts from the claims he is about to make that 'biblical authority is at stake here' (21'45"). He goes on to make his own interpretations, proposing what he interprets as scriptural attitudes to sexuality as an antidote to western society's sexual malaise. He takes a line that he attributes (rightly or wrongly - neither Jensen nor I are sure) to Four Weddings and a Funeral to build a case for a socio-sexual malaise, and he is right to do so. There can be little doubt from a Christian perspective, and even by an large from a sensible psychological perspective, that living a life of transitions through multiple sexual partnerships is fundamentally life denying rather than life enhancing (see around 22'40"). Jensen rightly underscores what might be called 'the cult of lost virginity' in our adolescent culture: all of this I heartily endorse. However he then extrapolates from promiscuity as 'an outright assault on our humanity' (23'00") to homosexual union, and herein lies a huge ideological shift. I am even more than willing - to a point - to agree that 'any human being who tries to find their identity outside of Jesus Christ is doomed to failure' (see 23'40"), though I might argue the 'eternal' aspects of that claim.
He makes the ideological shift partly when he states (24'39") 'what is at stake here is salvation itself'. This is a dangerous claim to make, especially when he begins to identify the attributes of 'those who practice ...greed ... covetousness... fornication'. The question primarily to ask here is 'who does not?' 'Who then can be saved?' we might ask. Fortunately even greedy, idolatrous, promiscuous - whatever - people can be saved. A quick glance at the history and practice of Christians through history, including the history of evangelicals, including the practice of Sydney evangelicals, suggests that while, by and large, promiscuity has not been an on-going sin, greed and avarice and covetousness have not altogether been abandoned. So Jensen's address goes on to focus on one behavioural subset of one portion of those practitioners listed in the biblical records, those practicing sexual promiscuity.

At one point early on he does ask questions as to why sexuality rather than, for example, hymn-choices should be a point of schism in the church, but here again he creates a fatuous parallel. Perhaps the question might be why sexual issues? Why not greed, or envy or strife or some of the other 'works of the flesh' that Paul hastily but wisely lists in the first century? In the case of sexuality Jensen differentiates between 'practice' and repentance (25'00") - but by now he is moving away from any similarity, in the purported eyes of God, between sexual and other sins. It has been well stressed that Jesus - surely and certainly the voice of God! - has far more to say about fiscal greed than sexual practice! There is more than one way to sanctify sin (25'20"). Or, to put it another way, to fail to point the finger at greed and avarice with us much energy as finger-pointing at sexual sin (and here we are still talking about promiscuity, not the same-sex monogamous unions envisaged by the Diocese of New Westminster) is equally or more to condemn our neighbours to live without God (22'50").
With the focus now primarily on sexual practice Jensen refers to what he calls 'a fellowship problem' (27'00"). One might well raise a similar issue about fellowship, for example, with proponents of the obscenely anti-christian prosperity gospel, the heresy of apartheid, or the acquiescence of some African Christians in regimes' decisions to execute those who they deem to be sexually deviant. These too are 'fellowship problems'. But Jensen has focussed on just one. He cites the pain western promiscuous practice causes to those Christians living in the shadow of Islam, and rightly so. If we cause our brother or sister to stumble ... the privileged West must take this seriously. At this stage his emphasis is primarily still on promiscuity. Sexual statistics from Christian African nations such as Burundi and Rwanda, Nigeria and the southern African nations suggest that there is a vast cleavage between Christian adherence and conversion to traditional non-promiscuous Christian mores. For that matter the history of Burundi and Rwanda suggests that there has been a radical cleavage between traditional Christian prohibitions of xenophobic hatred and slaughter and the brutal bloodlust that was the reality of genocidal practice - in a region that claimed amongst the highest percentage of Christian profession in the modern world.

But Jensen is moving towards a new theme of fellowship and hospitality - surely one of the fundamental doctrines of both testaments (see for example Lk. 10.6, from this Sunday's reading). 'Who do you have fellowship with?' (27'49"). Coincidentally my eucharistic reading today was Mt. 9.9-13, and the Morning Office reading was Lk. 19.1-10. 'Who do you have fellowship with?' Surely, at least at the level of the koinonia question, there is an irony developing here, a disparity between Jensen's ideals and his practice? 'To what extent am I in fellowship with sin?' (28'50"). Jensen should reflect on Mt. 9.11, albeit, obviously, held in tension with, for example, 1 Cor. 6.9-10 (to which he would appear to be alluding).

He goes on to hold up the GAFCON Jerusalem summit as a paradigm of appropriate response. Never mind, as has been pointed out by the Bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, Bishop Suheil Dawani, that GAFCON leaders never so much as sent a greeting to their host bishop, nor invited him to be present, or invited him to express his opinions on the matters raised. Unlike the 72 sent out by Jesus these 200-300 or so bishops (34'20'-34'50") did not wish God's peace on the local Anglican Christian community. Similarly, at 29'20", Jensen speaks of a 2009 primates' meeting at which several participants refused to receive communion from the soiled hands of those with whom they disagreed 'because of this issue'. Never mind that, for some, the ordination/consecration of women to the priesthood and episcopate was likely to have been an equally serious and divisive issue. It's no accident of lazily exclusive language that the 'leaders' referred to at 47'55" are to be humble men! Jensen is using this word with all the weight of gender specificity). 'To what extent am I in fellowship with sin?' The additional information that 'some men wouldn't appear in the photograph' is little more than petty 'because they didn't want to associate with those who had taken this pro-cultural, anti-scriptural attitude' (29'40); 'To what extent am I in fellowship with sin?' (28'50").

Jensen then extrapolates from the exclusivist behaviour of the Primates' minority group to make comparison with the case of St John's Shaughnessy, now more often called St. John's, Vancouver. He uses this example of a church community that has broken communion with its surrounding diocese as a lever by which to shift from questions of sexual promiscuity addressed earlier to the question of same-sex union. Assuming that this is a fair logical shift - and it is not -, and putting aside for a moment the question of pro-culturality, to what extent is the attitude of, for example, New Westminster anti-scriptural? Still referring to the decision of St. John's, Vancouver, Jensen links 'biblical authority, human identity, and salvation' (31'10"). But who determines biblical authority? What are the texts touted in the war of words surrounding same sex union - and who decides how they should be interpreted? The claim Jensen then bases his argument on is that 'they' (St. John's, Vancouver) haven't shifted their theology.

This may well be true, but is it spiritually laudable? Is it fundamentally true that theology must never shift? Must, for example, Mrs. Jensen continue to wear a hat in church, because, as far as Paul could see, that was of the very order of things? Must all Christian women wear long hair, because, as far as Paul could see, that was of the very order of things (1 Cor. 11.6). Or is this a 'culturally determined' option - and, if so, who decides which scripture is culturally determined and which is a timeless truth? Me and scripture, with no magisterial authority: me alone and scripture alone, me alone with scripture. What if my interpretation of the verse says 1 Cor. 6.9-10 is culturally determined, and 1 Cor. 11.14 is not? Who decides? It's highly likely that Mrs. Jensen dresses herself 'modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with her hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes' (1 Tim. 2.9), but should a bible believing Christian disassociate him or herself from a woman who does not? Whose idea of biblical authority is to be strengthened (41'20")?

While Jensen somewhat dismissively suggests that it is a 'policy of the liberals' (35'20") or 'the strategy of the liberal establishment (36'10") to play for time, to wage a quiet war of attrition until evangelical opinions change, may this not in fact rather be the policy of the Holy Spirit? What exactly is the 'unbiblical behaviour' that good Christians must oppose (37'40") and who, what magisterium, will dictate that the human use of genitalia is of greater concern to God than the human use of bank accounts? There is more than one form of 'official Act that endorses sin' (38'40"), and the Church has put its seal of approval to many such demonic moments. It took Wilberforce a lifetime to enact - with others - the work of God's Spirit and thus dismantle the injustices of slavery. He did so in opposition to the prevalent wisdom of the Christian community of the time. Might not the slow change that Jensen sees as 'culturally driven' be indeed the same slow and patient work of the Spirit waiting for the community of faith to wake up to its own perpetration of injustices? Might not the Spirit 'go before' us, outside the boundaries of so-called orthodox belief? Isn't this the warning of texts such as Lk. 9.49? Jensen himself notes that the under-20s in the church community are revealing a growing liberal attitude to sexuality. Obviously many of us would have liked to have had opportunity, or did have opportunity to explore the so-called liberated sexuality that has been the norm in a post-pill world, and I don't think I or many would, as I observed above, recommend sexual promiscuity. But my observation is that many young people, practicing Christians of all persuasions as well as those without faith, are increasingly tolerant of their committed, monogamous homosexual neighbours. Might this not be a move of the Spirit, and a moment in which those of us who are no longer young should listen very carefully to the Spirit's voice? Might not it be the progressive young who are breaking out of the 'cultural enslavement of the church' (38'06") and are the 'slumbering giant' (45'45") that will carry out the transformative work of God? Strangely it has often seemed to me that the Nike-wearing prosperity gospellers of Hillsong, often held up by Jensen as a credible alternative denomination for those offended by Anglicanism, or even the Nike-wearing youth of Jensen's own diocese, are far more culturally enslaved than the progressive youth that I have observed in more liberal circles, and that it is the latter that are breaking out of a slumber while the former snooze on complacently excited only by their own salvation.

Ultimately the apparent biblical prohibitions of homosexuality do not envisage the kind of monogamous relationship to which the Diocese of New Westminster and other so-called liberal dioceses have given assent. The late Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, (he died just three weeks ago) mentioned above, has, for example, written of the prohibition of homosexual practice, asking 'does the Bible prohibit homosexuality:

Of course it does ([Lev] 18:22;, 20:13), but the prohibition is severely limited. First it is addressed only to Israel, not to other nations. Second compliance with this law is a condition for residing in the Holy Land, but is irrelevant outside it (see the closing exhortation, [Lev.] 18.24-30. Third, it is limited to men; lesbianism is not prohibited. Thus it is incorrect to apply this prohibition on a universal scale. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, (A Continental Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), 196.
Whose interpretation is correct? Is Milgrom, for example, wrong, because Jensen's interpretation disagrees with this learned and prolific conservative Hebrew scholar? Who is to say so? Whose orthodoxy?

The infamous passage regarding the attempted rape of the angels in Genesis 19 is about many things, including violent, predatory and exploitative sexuality, but it is not about the sort of monogamous and loving homosexual relationship envisaged by the liberals of New Westminster. Even the Pauline horror at male prostitutes and 'sodomites' at 1 Cor. 6. (and I have heard few proclamations from Jensen and others about sinful associations with 'the greedy, revilers or robbers!') was I think envisaging the casual and promiscuous, and sometimes exploitative homosexuality of the Kings Cross variety, in its first century Corinthian guise, rather than the monogamous and loving homosexual relationships envisaged by the liberals of New Westminster. Whose interpretation is correct? Jensen has ruled out the role of the magisterium in interpretation, and I would respectfully suggest that many interpreters of as great a wisdom and experience as that of Dr. Peter Jensen (whose masters and doctorate are, in fact, in Reformation studies) have stood before the text, empowered by the unpredictable Spirit of God, and found an interpretation very different to his.
Post a Comment