Like other evangelicals, I appreciate the candor and forthrightness of Brandon Ambrosino’s article “The Best Christian Argument for Marriage Equality Is That the Bible Got It Wrong” in recognizing the problems with revisionist arguments that the Bible condones or affirms same-sex relationships. He further recognizes the unlikelihood that Jesus as a first-century Jew would have approved of such relationships, but he also argues that Jesus’ commitment to male-female complementarity is not binding on followers of Jesus today, because “Jesus’ knowledge is limited to what was knowable in the first century.”
The Gospels present a Jesus, who even with his human limitations, possesses knowledge that is at least superhuman in some cases and that is clearly supernatural in others.
The purpose of this response is to specifically address whether Ambrosino’s understanding of the limitations of Jesus’ knowledge fits within an orthodox view of the humanity of Jesus, as he has suggested. I am not writing this response as a personal attack on Brandon and felt compelled to respond in part because of some of the less-than-kind responses I saw in social media yesterday. I do not know Brandon personally, but have had some interaction with him as a student at Liberty, and I hope my response reflects a proper sense of grace and humility, in spite of the fact that I strongly disagree with his conclusions concerning the nature of Christ’s humanity. I am far more concerned with the issues raised in the article of how we view Jesus and respond to his teachings and will not be treating the larger issues relating to the biblical teaching on same-sex relationships that are found elsewhere.
Ambrosino is certainly on the right track in asking his readers to reflect on the implications of a human Jesus who learned and processed new information like any other human as he progressed from infancy to adulthood. Luke 2:40 states that Jesus “grew in wisdom” like any other human being. In his book Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament, Chris Wright makes the point that Jesus’ reading of the Hebrew Bible informed his understanding as a human of his mission and calling.
It is another thing entirely, however, to then make the argument that Ambrosino does that “Jesus’ knowledge is limited to what was knowable in the first century.” Ambrosino qualifies his own statement when he writes, “Jesus is, in many senses, limited by the first century.” His lack of precision here raises the issue whether he believes Jesus is fully limited to what was knowable in the first century or if he is only “limited in many senses.” If he is arguing the former, his argument is problematic for an orthodox view of Christ. If Jesus as the perfect and unfallen human did not progress in his understanding of the world around him beyond that of his contemporaries, he certainly made poor use of his unfallen intellectual capacities. If Jesus did not progress beyond first-century understandings of a culture living under the noetic effects of the Fall, then it also seems difficult to merely believe that Jesus was just a guy “who was wrong about stuff.” This view of the humanity of Jesus seems to require one to believe that Jesus also held to beliefs, practices, and prejudices that were sinful and evil in the eyes of the Creator.
The Gospels clearly reveal a human Jesus whose knowledge had certain limitations. In the Incarnation, the Son of God surrendered the independent use of his divine attribute of omniscience, and thus he states that “only the Father in heaven knows the hour of his return” at the second coming (Matt 24:34). Nevertheless, the fact that Jesus had limited knowledge concerning the timing of the second coming does not mean that the other information he reveals concerning eschatological events is invalid, and it is wrong to infer from Matt 24:34 that Jesus was “horribly mistaken about the end of the world” or that Jesus’ predictions concerning the end-time events constitute an example of “failed prophecy.” Why would failure to know the exact timing of an event invalidate the entire prophecy?
If Ambrosino is arguing that Jesus was “horribly mistaken” because of the way in which he conflated events from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE with his second coming, then he would have to say the same about virtually all eschatological prophecies found in the Scriptures that combine near and far events in precisely the same manner as Jesus did. The fact that Jesus views Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” as yet future despite its connections to what had happened historically with Antiochus and the Jews in the second-century BCE suggests that he would intend his prophecy of future events to be read in the same way. Or, one could simply argue for a more figurative understanding of the prophecies in Matthew 24, which also would not require one to conclude that Jesus’ prophecies were false or mistaken.
The implications of Ambrosino’s argument that one can hold to an orthodox view of Christ and believe that “Jesus was a guy who got stuff wrong” are far more serious and complex than he reflects in his article.
The Gospels present a different portrait of the human Jesus than the one offered by Ambrosino. They present a Jesus, who even with his human limitations, possesses knowledge that is at least superhuman in some cases and that is clearly supernatural in others. Already at the age of twelve, he has knowledge of the Scriptures that confounds the religious authorities, and he has a deeper understanding of his mission, calling, and unique relationship with God than do his parents. He has knowledge of the thoughts, intentions, and motives of the individuals he interacts with at times that clearly goes beyond psychological insight (cf. Mark 2:8; 10:52; Luke 5:22; John 1:4-49; 2:24-25).
As others have noted, the use of questions, such as “Who touched me?” does not necessarily entail a lack of knowledge (cf. Gen 3:9). Jesus accurately predicts his rejection, the defection of his disciples including Peter’s three denials, his death, resurrection, the destruction of Jerusalem, and his second coming. At the very least, he speaks with the revelatory insight of a true prophet. The clearest indication that Jesus was much more than a product of his first-century environment was how his view of his mission as Israel’s messiah radically conflicted with contemporary expectations. If the Gospel witness is true, then Jesus combined the roles of Davidic messiah, Isaiah’s suffering servant, and Daniel’s heavenly “son of man” in ways that were unique in perspective and novel for his day.
Even viewing Jesus as an inspired prophet creates significant problems for the argument that Jesus’ affirmation of “male-female pattern of coupling as the proper domestic arrangement” or his likely agreement “with the Levitical assessment of homosexuality as a sin” is merely the product of being first-century Jewish male. As Robert Gagnon has already noted:
Contrary to what Ambrosino suggests, Jesus' position on the male-female matrix for marriage was not an offhand comment or an undigested morsel of his first-century Jewish cultural environment. Nor did Jesus view the matter as ancillary to Christian faith. He treated this as part of the foundation of creation upon which all sexual ethics is based. He predicated on the God-intentioned duality and complementarity of the sexes a principle about number: There should be a duality of number in the sexual union matching the duality of the sexes required for that union. In other words, the twoness of the sexes in creation, obviously designed for sexual union, is a self-evident indication of the Creator's will for the twoness of the sexual bond.
If Jesus as God’s supremely-anointed spokesman simply defaulted to a first-century Jewish understanding when teaching on something as vitally important as the marriage relationship, then it raises serious questions about his credibility as both prophet and son of God. Ambrosino himself acknowledges that Jesus challenged current Jewish thinking regarding lust, adultery, and divorce, but perhaps Jesus simply did not go far enough in jettisoning his first-century worldview.
Should we view his teaching on adultery as antiquated because it was based on the belief that the woman was the property of her husband or should we abandon insistence on the duality of the marriage relationship because it was based upon the literalistic reading of the story of Adam and Eve that prevailed in Jesus’ day? What other issues related to Christian life and practice that the teaching of Jesus bears on should be subjected to the same type of scrutiny? If Jesus’ practice of casting out demons was merely the product of a pre-modern understanding of physical and mental illness, does it invalidate the gospel message that Jesus came to destroy the power of Satan and evil? To what extent do antiquated Jewish views of blood sacrifice and atonement influence Jesus’ understanding of his death as a “ransom for many”? These questions are not easily answered, but the implications of Ambrosino’s argument that one can hold to an orthodox view of Christ and believe that “Jesus was a guy who got stuff wrong” are far more serious and complex than he reflects in his article.
A significant piece of Ambrosino’s argument is that he equates Jesus’ teaching on male-female complementarity in marriage with his affirmation of Mosaic authorship of the Torah, which is problematic for several reasons. He engages in a bit of “chronological snobbery” in thinking that the non-or post-Mosaic materials in the Torah that are so evident to us courtesy of critical biblical scholarship would not have at least raised questions for even a first-century thinking individual like Jesus who was not simply constrained by tradition in his beliefs. If Jesus could quote Deuteronomy three times when under the duress of temptation from Satan in the wilderness, he might have at least pondered once or twice how Moses could speak of Israel having a king (Gen 36:31) or why Moses wrote the account of his own death in Deuteronomy 34. If I can figure it out and Brandon can figure it out, then I expect that Jesus was intelligent enough to do the same.
The larger issue is that what Jesus means by attributing the law to Moses is a complex issue. As Ambrosino acknowledges, Jesus’ references “to the Torah with the shorthand ‘Moses’ is hardly proof-positive that Jesus was wrong about the books' provenance (many scholars refer to the books metonymically).” Was Jesus merely using a form of citation or was he accommodating himself to current Jewish belief? Was Jesus saying that Moses wrote every word and verse in the Torah, or was he attributing Mosaic authority to the whole of the Torah? Ambrosino is correct to argue that a literalistic reading of the words of Jesus as proof that Moses wrote every word of the Torah is wrong, but incorrect inferences from the words of Jesus do not mean that Jesus himself was wrong. Even with prophetic updating, revision, or expansion of an original core of Mosaic material (or a core of material originally attributed to Moses), there is nothing untruthful or misguided in Jesus attributing the law to Moses. Ambrosino’s argument that this proves Jesus “got stuff wrong” goes beyond what is really here.
Finally, Ambrosino’s argument that Jesus’ incorrect attribution of the law to Moses because of first-century Jewish beliefs makes it likely Jesus was also wrong in affirming Jewish beliefs in male-female complementarity as normative for marriage fails because it compares apples and oranges. Ambrosino’s argument rests upon the same rather simplistic understanding of what is meant by “inerrancy” as the literalists he seeks to refute. Even if conceding the possibility or likelihood that Jesus believed that Moses wrote all of the Torah, the attribution of authorship is simply not the same kind of truth claim as the normative teaching of Jesus on marriage. In their 2013 work, The Lost World of Scripture, John Walton and Brent Sandy have advanced the discussion of biblical inerrancy by distinguishing between “locution” and “illocution” in biblical texts:
The communicator uses locutions (words, sentences, rhetorical questions, genres) to embody an illocution (the intention to do something with those locutions—bless, promise, instruct, assert) with a perlocution that anticipates a certain response from the audience (obedience, trust, belief). (p. 41)
Further, Walton and Sandy argue that doctrinal affirmations of inspiration and inerrancy attach to the illocution of the text and what is intended by the communicative act rather than requiring the truthfulness of every locution in the text. Whether the mustard seed really is the smallest seed is irrelevant to the truthfulness of the illocution concerning the kingdom of God conveyed by Jesus’ words about the mustard seed. Similarly, the locution of attributing authorship to Moses could be a culturally-bound perspective, but the illocution of ascribing prophetic and divine authority to the Torah is truthful and inspired.
Whether one agrees with every aspect of this view of inerrancy or not or whether one believes that a human Jesus could have believed that something was untrue or not, this explanation helps in part to demonstrate the problem with Ambrosino’s argument. One cannot simply equate an attribution of authorship in one text with normative teaching on marriage in another text. In both cases, the illocution of what Jesus proclaims (prophetic authority of the Torah and male-female complementarity in marriage) is truthful and authoritative for followers of Jesus. One can choose to believe that Jesus was wrong in one or both cases, but one cannot reject the teaching of Jesus in either instance within the boundaries of orthodoxy as easily or comfortably as Ambrosino suggests.
Image: Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons