We’re considering Richard Beck’s post at his Experimental Theology blog summarizing four arguments for affirming same sex marriage. He did not endorse or advocate these arguments.
3. The Holy Spirit Changing a Literal and Traditional Reading of the Bible
A huge hermeneutical crisis faced the early church when the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household in Acts 10 and Peter allowed them to be baptized, formally bringing the Gentiles into the church and recognizing them as co-heirs of the covenant God made to Abraham. This was a hermeneutical crisis so big it split the church.
The issue was that circumcision was proclaimed by God to be an “everlasting” sign “in the flesh” of the covenant between God and Israel (Gen. 17.13). A plain and literal reading of the text argued that the Gentiles, therefore, would have to be circumcised to gain access to the promises made by God to Abraham.
And yet, the Holy Spirit was being poured out upon the uncircumcised. God was doing a new thing. Not just with Cornelius, but also with the Gentile converts in Antioch. How was the church to reconcile a plain, literal and centuries old traditional reading of the Bible in light of what was happening among the Gentile converts?
The issue came to a head in Acts 15 in what we call the First Apostolic Counsel. There the issues were debated–literal and traditional readings of Scripture clashing with experiences and testimony about the Holy Spirit at work among the uncircumcised. Hesitantly, the church decided in favor of experience and testimony over literal and traditional readings of Scripture.
This is not exactly right. It’s close, but the most dangerous errors are often the ones that are almost true.
How did the early church come to realize that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to be saved?
1. God gave Peter a vision explicitly telling him that the kosher food laws that had long separated Jew from Gentile no longer applied.
2. Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit upon coming to faith in Jesus — without circumcision and even without baptism. This miraculous event was witnessed by Peter and six of his Jewish Christian friends — and they saw that God himself was pouring out his Spirit on the Gentile converts.
A miracle happened that could only have come from God, and God did not require circumcision or even allow a conversation about circumcision to get started before he displayed his own will.
3. Paul’s first missionary journey not only converted many Gentiles without circumcision, but God’s approval of them was shown by their receipt of the Holy Spirit — plainly showing God’s own approval.
By now, the reader might wonder why the Jerusalem council had to be convened, the answer is so obvious. Well, the Jews were people of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Testament), and they had to reconcile these miracles with the scriptures. They re-read the scriptures, and they debated to see whether they perhaps had missed something.
4. James, the brother of Jesus and evidently the chairman of the council, concluded,
(Acts 15:15-18 ESV) 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.'”
James quoted a passage from the OT prophet Amos — not a new revelation but a very old revelation reconsidered. Ben Witherington comments,
The phrase “all other peoples” (οι καταλοιποι των ανθρωπων) is important for Luke, for it is part of his main argument that there is one savior for all of humanity, and that it is God’s intent to make out of the many diverse ethnic groups one people by means of the spreading of the word throughout the Roman Empire, indeed “unto the ends of the earth.”
In other words, there is a considerable social program implied in this gospel, a program not dissimilar to Alexander’s Hellenizing agenda, or the emperor’s Romanizing one (through setting up colonies and the emperor cult in many places). The difference comes in the means of accomplishing this Christian program—through proclamation and signs and wonders and religious conversions, not through armies marching throughout the earth. Nevertheless, this social program is rightly seen as an attempt to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6), and in this text the Pharisaic Jewish Christians are the ones who feel threatened.
If Gentiles are acceptable to God by grace through faith without circumcision or keeping of the Mosaic Law, if they are becoming part of the people of God without such things, then where does that leave the ethnic exclusiveness of various aspects of Judaism? V. 18 makes evident that no one should be surprised that these things are happening, namely, that the Gentiles are joining God’s people in numbers, because God had made it clear long ago that this would happen.
Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 459–460.
The quoted scripture (from Amos 9:11-12 LXX) does not directly address circumcision. It just says the Gentiles will be brought into the tent of David. But if they have to become Jewish proselyte converts to become Christians, then it wouldn’t be Gentiles but Jews coming in. Amos says they come in as Gentiles.
Paul makes a different argument in Rom 4, pointing out that God imputed Abram’s faith as righteousness years before requiring Abraham to be circumcised, plainly showing that circumcision is not essential to salvation by faith.
In short, no one argued against scripture. Rather, the interpretation of scripture was reconsidered, not because the Spirit’s work overruled or rewrote the text but because the Spirit’s work shed new light on the text.
The current gay marriage controversy has forced both sides to study their Bibles much more carefully, just as the early church did in Acts 15 — a very good thing. As a result, some traditional reading have been rethought and commentaries are being rewritten to reflect more thorough study.
And while some texts have been re-interpreted, the best of the Pauline scholars agree that Paul condemned homosexuality as a sin because it was contrary to the created order for man before the Fall and because the Torah condemns homosexual acts. None of this has changed.