Luke Timothy Johnson on the use of Experience to inform Theology

Religion / Science

Luke Timothy Johnson, a NT scholar who’s had a far reaching impact on modern scholarship (and on my own understanding of how to read scripture and understand it) has published a long essay on what it means to argue for the inclusion of GLBT Christians into the full life of the Church. He admits that there is little overt scriptural support, and that any argument is going to be based on a meta-reading of the arc of scripture’s witness rather than on proof texts. And he points out the dangers inherent in using Experience as a primary source of theological inquiry.

Yet given all that, he has come to see that the full inclusion of all Christians is in fact something that is ultimately constant with scripture’s witness and teaching. He writes near the end of his essay:

“Accepting Gentiles as beloved of God was, to be sure, but one step, however dramatic and difficult. Harder still was finding a way for Jews and Gentiles to live together, sharing table fellowship in a world that took the body symbolism of eating at least as seriously as that of sex. Compromises on both sides were required for the church to remain united despite such important differences (Acts 15:20-21). Acts provides an example for us of the church discerning God’s activity in human lives, being obedient in faith to God’s self-disclosure in such stories, and then reinterpreting Scripture in light of the experience of God.

I suggest, therefore, that the New Testament provides impressive support for our reliance on the experience of God in human lives-not in its commands, but in its narratives and in the very process by which it came into existence. In what way are we to take seriously the authority of Scripture? What I find most important of all is not the authority found in specific commands, which are fallible, conflicting, and often culturally conditioned, but rather the way Scripture creates the mind of Christ in its readers, authorizing them to reinterpret written texts in light of God’s Holy Spirit active in human lives. When read within the perspective of a Scripture that speaks everywhere of a God disclosing Godself through human experience, our stories become the medium of God’s very revelation.

Along with Scripture, the teaching of the church on sexuality is based on what is called ‘natural law.’ By no means do I want to dismiss this tradition. Indeed, in its positive dimensions, the natural-law tradition is compatible with my argument that moral thinking should begin with what God discloses to us in creation. But I add three cautionary points: (1) appeals to what is ‘natural’ are often in fact appeals to what is culturally constructed (Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 11 on the veiling of women comes to mind), and must always be challenged on the basis of actual human experience; (2) determining what is ‘natural’ or the ‘order of creation’ is often-as in recent Vatican theology-far removed from the analysis of actual human existence, and instead represents a form of essentialist thinking on the basis of Scripture; (3) appeals to the order of creation need to be chastened-as Paul himself recognized in 1 Corinthians 11-by the recognition that the ‘new creation’ brought about by the Resurrection of Jesus has real implications for our understanding of the body and sexuality (see 1 Corinthians 6-7).”

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The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...