Richard Hays is a Methodist and one of the great scholars of Paul of this age. In his seminal The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethic, Hays argues that our interpretation of the scriptures regarding Christian ethics should be based, in part, on experience.
Experience, as we have already noted, can claim theological authority only when it is an experience shared broadly by the community of faith. Its primary role is to confirm the truth of the teaching of Scripture, as it is confessed and lived out by the community. We know that our hope is not futile, because we have the experience of “God’s love… poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5: 5).
Of course, experience is a notoriously tricky guide: human beings are susceptible to all kinds of illusion and self-deception. That is why claims about experience as a theological authority must always be tested in light of Scripture and through the corporate discernment of the community of faith.
Certainly, the private experience of an individual cannot overturn the theological authority of the New Testament. Are there cases, however, where the church as a whole might acknowledge some new experience as revelatory even against the apparent witness of Scripture?
The paradigm case for such a possibility is found in the story of Peters preaching to the household of the Gentile Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11, and the church’s subsequent acknowledgment that God had given the Holy Spirit even to those who were “unclean” according to biblical norms.
In Part IV of this book, we shall consider some issues concerning which this sort of authority is claimed for experience. Such possibilities cannot be excluded a priori; God is, as Barth would insist, free to act in surprising ways.
It must be stated as a theological guideline, however, that claims about divinely inspired experience that contradicts the witness of Scripture should be admitted to normative status in the church only after sustained and agonizing scrutiny by a consensus of the faithful. Far more often, our experience, ambiguous and sin-riddled, will need to be judged and corrected in light of Scripture, which teaches us again and again not to be conformed to this age but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may rightly discern the will of God (Rom. 12: 2).
Hays, Richard (2013-07-30). The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New CreationA Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethic (pp. 297-298). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
I would argue that experience can sometimes open our eyes to truths we might have otherwise missed. That is, our wisdom and our experience are to be conformed to scripture, not the other way around. But sometimes our experience forces us to take a fresh look at scripture and perhaps find a new, better, truer interpretation.
Thus, when God saved Cornelius and his household without circumcision, and then God saved Paul’s many converts made on his first missionary journey — again without circumcision — the fact that these converts obviously had received the Spirit forced the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to take a fresh look at the Scriptures, that is, the First Testament. And they found, on a fresh reading, grounds to accept the Gentiles as fellow Christians even if they weren’t fellow Jews.
Is it possible that experience will cause us to decide that the scriptures support gay sexual activity within a homosexual marriage? Well, at this point our experience with homosexual marriage is severely limited. As a nation, the United States has embarked on a social experiment with little basis — other than Scripture — to know how it will turn out. But some early returns are in.
Just today (as I’m typing this), this article appeared: “Sexual orientation in the UK: Half of young people say they are not 100% heterosexual.”
According to a new YouGov survey, 49% of 18-24 year-olds in Britain define themselves as something other than completely heterosexual. The Kinsey scale invented in the 1940s placed people on a range of sexual preferences from exclusively heterosexual at 0 to exclusively homosexual at 6.
In the YouGov study, individuals were asked to put themselves on that sexuality scale. In total, 72% of the British public scored themselves at the completely heterosexual end of the scale, while 4% were at the completely homosexual end, with 19% stating they were somewhere in between – classed as bisexual by Kinsey.
One of the most striking findings of the new study is that with each generation, people see their sexuality as less fixed and more fluid. The results for 18-24 year-olds are particularly telling, with 43% placing themselves in the non-binary area between 1 and 5 and 52% place themselves at one end or the other. Of these, only 46% say they are completely heterosexual and 6% as completely homosexual.
The YouGov results are posted here. That article has this graphic —
So the British have accepted homosexual activity and marriage longer than the U.S. and their culture is much less Christianized than American culture. But it’s only been a few years longer — and yet the impact on the young people of Great Britain is astonishing — surely because the public schools have been working hard there, as in the US, to normalize homosexuality.
What impact will this have on British society? Well, we don’t know entirely. Obviously, it will likely greatly reduce birth rates, and adoptions by homosexual couples will likely increase.
And this leads to a second bit of evidence borrowed from the case files of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision approving gay marriage. Here is the Amicus Brief (friend of the court argument) filed by the American College of Pediatricians. Click the link, read the brief, and make up your own mind.
The gist of the brief is that the objective evidence shows that children adopted by gay couples have measurably worse outcomes than children adopted by heterosexual couples — and that the reporting to the contrary is dishonest and agenda driven.
So, very early in this social experiment, we’re finding some very worrisome trends. It may be that at the individual level allowing two gay people to marry will in fact make them happier. I really don’t doubt it. But what is the impact on society when gay marriage is widely approved? I think we have very good reason to believe that it will be severely negative.
In fact, already we’re seeing efforts to legalize polygamy, and I really don’t see how the U.S. Supreme Court can impose gay marriage without doing the same for polygamy. Many opponents of gay marriage have argued that pedophilia will soon be approved, once gay marriage is approved. Advocates for gay marriage laugh off the argument, finding it ludicrous and insulting, although that is exactly what is happening. I think it’ll be much easier for the courts to reject pedophilia than polygamy, as in the US, the magic words are “consenting adults.” But the cases will be brought and the arguments made.
I do not much care for slippery slope arguments, or as some say, parades of horribles. But the point is not that we necessarily know how the normalization of gay sex is going to affect society. That point is that we don’t know, and that there therefore is no basis on which to conclude that it will harmless and healthy. That case cannot be made. Therefore, there is no reason to suppose that our reading of the scriptures is in doubt — just because five of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices are willing to grant a right to gay marriage. Or the fact that some married gay people speak highly of the benefits of their marriages. Or the fact that some churches are now approving gay marriages. That is not the evidence that truly matters — not even close.
Indeed, it’s easy to imagine any number of possible negative outcomes if we reject the Bible’s teaching on this subject. And how can we possibly claim to know things are going to turn out well when God’s word says not to do this?