In the current church debates over homosexuality, the discussion often veers into the authority of Scripture. According to many traditionalists, if Scripture prohibits homosexual conduct, that's the end of the discussion. The conversation usually goes something like this: Where does Scripture get its authority? From Jesus. Why should Jesus's views be dispositive? Because he was God. How do we know that? Because the Gospel of John says so.
I've never been convinced by that logic. My traditionalist on-line friends sometimes castigate my caution. In particular, they want to know why I'm reluctant to accept the Fourth Gospel's high christology, its view of Jesus as God.
Let's try a thought experiment: Let's imagine that a document about President Kennedy, comparable in many respects to the Gospel of John, were suddenly to appear on the scene. Let's think about how much credence -- or how little -- we might give to such a document.
Suppose that one day a long, manuscript about Kennedy's presidency were to appear on the Internet from an unknown source. The manuscript -- which is in French, not the English that Kennedy spoke -- does not have a title, nor does it name its author. People start referring to it as Trois Anneés Avec JFK (Three Years with JFK). or simply Trois Anneés.
Now let's suppose a few other parallels with the Gospel of John:
• We don't really know who wrote Trois Anneés. It's also hard to infer much about the author from the text, save that he's a passable writer in French and evidently idolizes Kennedy. (He also seems to have a chip on his shoulder about Democrats who don't share his feelings about the late president.)
• The author of Trois Anneés purports to base his account on the stories of an unnamed Kennedy aide. The "buzz" is that the aide was long-time JFK associate Sean Fisher. [NB: this is a made-up name and character.] The manuscript never mentions the aide's name -- nor does it ever mention Fisher by name -- but it does claim repeatedly that the aide was a special favorite of Kennedy's.
• Fisher, who came from the working class, was one of Kennedy's early political associates. He was not known to have spoken French. Just how much contact he actually had with the author of Trois Anneés, and what role he played in the writing of the manuscript, is a mystery.
• Fisher was an ... interesting character, according to some other Kennedy biographies. He apparently had a temper; Kennedy once referred to both
him and his brother Seamus as serious hotheads. In fact, according to one source, when the brothers felt that
Kennedy had received an insufficiently-respectful welcome on a visit to a hostile foreign city, they urged Kennedy to "nuke" the city. Reportedly, the brothers wanted to be Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State, and
asked the president to appoint them to those positions; even their mother
lobbied Kennedy on behalf of her sons. The president turned them down, gently but firmly.
• To its credit, Trois Anneés gets some of the historical and geographical details right. But oddly, it doesn't cite a single one of the other extant JFK biographies, not even the ones believed to have been written by Fisher's fellow White House staffers. Curiously, the Trois Anneés manuscript differs from other biographies in several significant respects.
• Trois Anneés includes what purport to be extensive quotations, translated into French, of many of JFK's public and private remarks from 40-plus years before -- but with no citation to any written speech texts, contemporaneous personal notes, secondary sources, or even films of the events. For all we know, the quotations came from decades-old memories (of people who may or may not have spoken French), filtered through unknown layers of hearsay. We don't know whether any of the people involved had agendas to push, axes to grind, or scores to settle.
• What's really interesting is that the John Kennedy of Trois Anneés says things recorded in no other contemporaneous JFK biography. For example, at one point, the Trois Anneés manuscript claims that at a campaign stop, JFK supposedly told his audience that he had counseled George Washington during the American Revolution, and that (unsurprisingly) his listeners greeted that remark with hoots of skepticism. In no other extant biography does Kennedy say anything like this.
• In the introduction to Trois Anneés, the author describes Kennedy as a god-like figure who discovered America before Leif Ericsson. The author does not explain, however, just how he purported to know this. Again, no other extant Kennedy biography makes assertions remotely similar to this one.
• Like some other Kennedy biographies, Trois Anneés asserts that after Kennedy's assassination, the deceased president appeared to his former aides on numerous occasions, talking with them and even sharing a meal with them. All agree that after Kennedy's assassination, his former aides made a striking recovery from their initial demoralization and rededicated themselves to his legacy, believing he would soon return to unite the world under his benevolent rule.
• Eventually, many Democrats came to revere Kennedy as one of their party's heroes.
Given these things, just how are we supposed to treat Trois Anneés?
Some might view the manuscript as a historically-interesting account that, while dubious in some of its details, still manages to recap, more or less accurately, the broad-brush themes of JFK's presidency. That wouldn't be an unreasonable approach, as long as we treat it with caution.
But let's extend our hypothetical analogy a bit further.
Suppose that a particular faction of the Democratic Party were to come to view Trois Anneés as their primary political text. They begin insisting that all Democrats worthy of the name must agree that JFK was indeed a god-like figure who discovered America before Leif Ericsson.
These particular Democrats also proclaim that that everything Kennedy supposedly said in Trois Anneés must be received as holy writ. They say that Democrats who don't believe this should find themselves another party.
Before we tell Democratic doubters to hand over their membership cards, would we be out of line to ask for more proof of these claims? Of course not. Indeed, on the basis of this evidence, doubt is not merely unremarkable, it's unavoidable.
Even so, could Democrats who hold divergent views about Trois Anneés and its claims still work together to advance President Kennedy's ideals? We can certainly hope so.
That, in a nutshell, is why I approach the Fourth Gospel with a considerable dose of caution.
In fact, I'll go further than that: I simply do not understand how any serious person who has studied the New Testament -- and who knows anything at all about the limitations of human knowledge, the plasticity of memory, and the way stories can mutate even in a short time -- could even consider accepting the Fourth Gospel's claims at face value; certainly not without much more first-hand corroborating evidence than we are ever likely to have.
But I recognize that for nearly two thousand years, millions of intelligent people have indeed accepted the Fourth Gospel's claims (although many of those people have also believed other things that we since have learned were not so).
I also recognize that I've been wrong many times before, and I can't categorically rule out that I'm wrong on this issue (although I don't think so).
I maintain that it really doesn't matter. There's no question that different Christians hold divergent views about the Fourth Gospel and about other matters theological. It has always been that way, and always will be. But our disagreements are about matters that can never be conclusively proved or disproved, at least not in this life. Consequently, we should never allow those disagreements to cause us to stop sharing fellowship, to "walk apart."
Think about this: Our doctrinal disagreements might actually be part of God's plan. Let me suggest another analogy. In court, an advocate tries to prove his or her case by proposing a story that fits the available evidence, and by finding and pointing out flaws in the other side's proposed story. In this clash of competing stories, each side must --
- push to assemble a complete picture of the evidence, to avoid ambush by a more thorough adversary;
- constantly review all the available evidence, including new evidence as it comes to light;
- sharpen and refine its story, the better to fit the evidence and withstand challenges from the other side.
For centuries, beginning long before Hegel, the law has regarded this process, this clash of ideas, as one of society's great engines of truth.
Perhaps a similar engine of truth is at work in our doctrinal clashes. Perhaps our disputes are part of the way the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth, which Jesus promised he (the Spirit) would do.
If that is indeed the case, do we dare throw up our hands and abandon the contest? If we start walking apart from each other, might we be fighting against the Holy Spirit? Could that be the unpardonable "sin against the Holy Spirit"?
Instead, we should simply accept that none of us really knows whether the Fourth Gospel's christology is correct. Consequently, neither can we say that Scripture is or is not the ultimate authority in doctrinal matters. We should trust that, if God wants us to know the answer definitively, it will be revealed to us in his good time.
So, when we find ourselves slipping into purely-doctrinal disputes, we should agree to disagree; praise God; and get back to (his) work -- together.