Article Jul 28, 2015

Was Jesus Merely Wrong About Homosexuality?

Brandon Ambrosino has discovered a novel way to harmonize Christianity and homosexuality. The typical approach is to register Jesus’ silence on homosexuality and to claim this indicates tacit approval on Jesus’ part. But this is a mistake, according to Ambrosino, who says that Jesus would “almost certainly have held . . . [that] same-sex relations . . . [are] sinful.” Instead, Ambrosino offers Christians the opportunity to accede to the rightness of gay marriage, and all it takes is giving up one of those theologically insignificant doctrines of ours: the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Ambrosino gives us two instances of Jesus being in error. If we accept these, Ambrosino hopes we will also conclude Jesus was wrong about homosexuality. The first is that Jesus did not seem to know who touched the hem of his garment; the second is that Jesus held eschatological beliefs that seem to have been disproven. The former represents a lack of knowledge; the latter represents the possession of a false belief.

What if Jesus didn’t know who touched the hem of his garment?

The first instance — the one in which Jesus questioned who touched him — does not indicate epistemic failure. This is because not knowing something is different from believing a falsehood. Put differently, omniscience and infallibility are not the same — even if Ambrosino is right, this does not mean Jesus is fallible, it only means he is not omniscient. But actually it doesn’t mean either. As a theanthropic person, Jesus has two natures: human and divine. One of the divine characteristics is omniscience, which Jesus, as a divine person, fully possesses. In becoming human, God the Son doesn’t lose his claim on divine features but does gain the ability to restrict their operations. In other words, he possesses the power of intentional self-limitation.

To think otherwise is to deny the very possibility of an incarnation. As a person with two natures, Jesus experiences the communication of attributes. He is divine, which means that even as a human he is worthy of worship. Ordinary humans are not worthy of worship, so it is Jesus’ divine nature that is carrying this feature over. But the communication works in the other direction, too: he is human, which means he is divine yet able to represent humanity as a substitutionary sacrifice. As St. Anselm explained long ago, a purely divine being could not stand for us as our genuine representative. In each case, something true of Jesus-as-human, or Jesus-as-divine, becomes true of the other.

But not all attributes are like this. If they were, it would call into question the very possibility of an incarnation. Consider: Jesus is omnipotent in virtue of being divine, yet he has not allowed this attribute to overwhelm his humanity. His intensely human moments of weakness testify to this, which of course would fail to be praiseworthy were he simply feigning difficulty and all along just effortlessly conquering every obstacle before him. There is thus no complication between Jesus’ omniscience and his lack of knowledge. There is only a complication if we believe the divine attributes must always smother their human counterparts. But Jesus willingly accepts the self-containment of some of his divine attributes — this is the glory of Philippians 2:5-8.

Did Jesus hold eschatological beliefs that were disproven?

The second instance — the one in which Jesus held false eschatological beliefs — would, if true, represent epistemic failure. Ambrosino quotes C. S. Lewis, who calls Matthew 24:34 “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” That verse has Jesus capping a lengthy apocalyptic discourse in this way: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” It’s not hard to see why Lewis would be so disturbed: if Jesus did in fact believe the end of the world would occur within the lifetime of his apostles, then the unavoidable conclusion is that Jesus was wrong. The problem is it’s highly unlikely Jesus thought this.

Eschatological statements, such as this one from Jesus, are notoriously difficult to interpret. They are not impenetrable, but the reality is that since they are projections, rather than descriptions, there is a level of complexity to them that disallows them from being used in the simplistic way that Ambrosino is intending. Ambrosino has engineered his argument to work in this way: if Jesus was wrong about other things, such as eschatology, then he is wrong about homosexuality, too. But the logic of this mode of argumentation requires that the initial datum — that Jesus was wrong about eschatology — be uncontroversial.

The problem is Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, specifically the verse that Lewis finds so troubling, is deeply contested by theologians (consider the multiplicity of eschatological models that exist out there that have a different take on these verses: from partial preterism to historic premillennialism to amillennialism, etc.). There is nothing close to a consensus on this, but Ambrosino would make you think there is unanimity that Jesus was wrong.

Here’s why I don’t think he was. This verse, Matthew 24:34, comes right before another of Jesus’ statements: that no one knows the day or the hour of the second coming (verse 36). Keeping in mind that “day and hour” did not, in a phrase such as this, necessarily refer to twenty-four-hour and sixty minute units of time, respectively, but was another way of saying “no one knows when,” it’s highly unlikely that Jesus is going to make a statement implying definitive knowledge of when right before denying possessing knowledge of when. It would be uncharitable in the extreme to read Jesus as being so thick-headed that he managed to contradict himself within the span of two verses.

Another interpretation, far likelier than Ambrosino’s in my estimation, is that Jesus did not intend to suggest the end of the world would happen immediately after those signs that he delineates. Rather, he intended to communicate to his followers that they are a part of a new eschatological trajectory: the new post-resurrection advent which will culminate in the coming of the Kingdom of God. This does not begin thousands of years from now, he wants to tell them, but it begins shortly after the Son of Man has carried out his work and returns to heaven. His own followers will be a part of the commencement of that age.

Consider: if Jesus wanted his followers to be vigilant and to give their all to proclaiming his gospel, is the right approach to speak of God’s kingdom as though it will materialize thousands of years in the future? There is a didactic element to Jesus framing his statement this way. The gospel writers certainly didn’t seem to see this statement as showcasing a falsehood; that only seems like the “plain reading” to interpreters such as Ambrosino, who have a clear agenda to promote.

The reality is that certain parts of Scripture, most notably the parts having to do with end-time predictions, generate far more controversy than other parts. Ambrosino suggests his interpretation is a fait accompli, but this ignores the hermeneutical difficulties endemic to the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. His argumentative strategy requires that we all agree that Matthew 24:34 is a case of Jesus getting it wrong, but I’m sorry to say that this is by no means established, and in fact there are far better interpretations than Ambrosino’s, none of them tarnishing Jesus with erroneous beliefs.

The difference between being factually wrong and morally right

But let’s grant each and every one of Ambrosino’s assumptions, including his claim that Jesus’ end-times views were factually incorrect. Still, there is a huge conceptual gulf between getting something factually wrong and getting something morally wrong. Producing a failed theory is a favorite pastime of scientists: if a graveyard of hypotheses existed, it would likely be the size of ten solar systems. To make a failed prediction just comes with the territory of not knowing everything there is to know.

But morality is not time-bound in this way. Aristotle, who lived over two millennia ago, is just as likely to get something ethically correct as is a philosopher from our own time. In other words, even granting all of Ambrosino’s tendentious assumptions, it still isn’t clear that Jesus would get anything wrong about ethical matters. If ethical judgment is not burdened by the historical factors that plague ordinary factual predictions, then even granting Ambrosino’s arguments, it’s not certain that Jesus would have made a mistake in his assessment of homosexuality.

While it’s true that cultural identification can sometimes obscure from us ethical realities we would otherwise detect, this does not apply to Jesus, who proved time and again a thoroughgoing willingness to challenge the ethical establishment and to resist ethical conformism. To the Jewish religious powers, Jesus was a theological dissident. This means that just as he challenged rabbinic theologies of marriage, the Sabbath, the afterlife, to name just a few, he could just as easily have challenged the prevailing position on homosexuality. That he didn’t is not an indication of his inability to escape his contextual milieu, but rather evidence of studied solidarity with the prevailing Jewish understanding.

But of course we don’t need to grant any of Ambrosino’s claims, since they’re either facile theological mistakes or highly questionable assumptions. Jesus’ divinity is a non-negotiable. The church has always understood this. To jettison Christ’s divinity — of which omniscience is certainly a part — in order to accommodate a justification for homosexuality is to give up Christianity itself. After all, why should we follow a guy who may have gotten it all wrong?