Another Progressive Academic Gets Scripture Wrong

Luke Timothy Johnson 2011

Scholarship, like cooking, is as much a function of what one leaves out as much as what one puts in. Luke Timothy Johnson’s recent Commonweal  essay on Scripture and trans-sexual issues is a case-in-point: what he chose to de-emphasize is as important (I would argue even more so) that what he emphasizes.

Johnson seeks to minimalize the significance of Scripture passages that affirm the male/female relationship as the privileged symbol of man’s imaging of God and of the measure and meaning of love. He does this by downplaying texts like Genesis 1-2, Ephesians 5, etc., while pulling out others (e.g., Gal. 3) as well as by downgrading the definitiveness of Scriptural revelation as understood by the Church to argue for his semi-explicit thesis that “love” is independent of the bodily reality of sex.

Johnson admits that the “theology of the body” has been articulated in twentieth-century theology by some significant authors: Karol Wojtyła/St. John Paul II, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Angelo Scola among Catholics, as well as Karl Barth and Stanley Grenz among Protestants. (I would add Marc Ouellet and Paul Quay on the Catholic side.) Johnson argues “they share a basic perspective, one that makes their approach to gender problematic not only for addressing questions like transsexuality but for thinking theologically about sex at all.”

One could alternatively say that the conclusions drawn by theologians like Wojtyła, von Balthasar, and Scola actually facilitate thinking theologically about human sexuality, even if they make the theory of gender “problematic.”

Although he lists a number of criticisms, Johnson disapproves of their positions because theologies of the body share the insight that sex (not “gender”) “is an essential and constitutive element of human personhood.” The most obvious response is, put bluntly: well, it is. Johnson downplays that reality at the cost of a realistic philosophical and theological anthropology whose abandonment, at least for Catholics, would render huge swaths of doctrine and praxis simply incomprehensible. Human beings are bodily beings. Bodily beings are sexual beings, right down to every single cell of their bodies. And sexuality has a meaning, quite independent of the intentions that persons bring to it: it is procreative and unitive. Sex gives life and binds two sexual persons together, and these meanings of human sexuality are not in opposition to each other, although particular persons may set them at loggerheads.

Johnson says sexual acts should be “faithfully covenanted, … nurture life, and … chaste in manner.” But these terms, as Johnson applies them, have nothing in common with how the Church has understood the procreative-unitive meaning of sexuality.

Like revisionist theologians before him, Johnson tries to preserve the terms while emptying them of meaning. Thus, for Anthony Kosnik, author or Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought, sexuality is “creative and integrative” but it just has no inherent nexus to giving life. In Kosnik’s Orwellian wordplay, “creative” sex is sterile (since that is what contraceptive intercourse is intended to be).

For Eileen Flynn in her Human Fertilization In Vitro: A Catholic Moral Perspective and Lisa Sowle Cahill in Religion and Artificial Reproduction, sexuality joins people—though not physically. Instead, children come into the world through the embrace of test tubes and pipettes. Flynn’s book on the environment is entitled Cradled in Human Hands: one wishes that was her approach instead to the procreation of human children … and that the hands were a parent’s, not the lab tech’s.

Underlying Johnson’s “persons” is, essentially, an anthropology uniting revisionist moral theology: a disembodied Cartesian mind with a body attached. Johnson would, undoubtedly, vehemently deny this conclusion, insisting that we are called to serve God as bodily beings. In the end, however, I would argue that for revisionist ethics, bodily significance really doesn’t matter much. The determinative meaning comes from the mind or, rather, the will.

The implications of this notion for Catholic thought are stunning. Apart from undermining Catholic sexual ethics, they also call into question both Christology (why did God become man?) and soteriology (why do we “look forward to the resurrection of the body”?)

Wojtyła articulated his theology of the body precisely because he saw the corrosive threat posed by disincarnate Cartesianism to Christian theological anthropology. I would argue that his theology of the body also plays a central role in preserving the Judaeo-Christian heritage of Genesis, which is foundational to Western culture and under radical contemporary attack.

First, let’s consider the texts that Johnson sidelines.

Scripture Johnson Ignores
Johnson criticizes the theology of the body theologians for their strong emphasis on Genesis 1:26-28, an alleged narrowness that he wants to expand. In fact, it is Johnson who is constricting the Scriptural playing field by downplaying the most significant texts relevant to sexuality.

St. John Paul II once remarked that if the human person wants to know who he is, where he came from, and why he exists, he should search those existential questions in Genesis 1-2. Nor was it accidental that the pope launched his three-year long reflection on the theology of the body with an extended discussion of Genesis (which consumes about one-third of the whole project).

The affirmation that “God made man in his image/male and female He created them” is no marginal point. The sacred writer could have employed other qualities to image man’s likeness to God, but he was inspired to emphasize sexual differentiation. Why?

On the one hand, ancient dualism denigrated sex. Sex was part of the dirty physical world that the “human” should escape. Traditionally built into this dualistic anthropology was a patriarchal assumption: women were inferior, “misbegotten males” with missing parts. This disembodiment of sexuality clearly depreciated women. By affirming that women also embodied the “image of God,” Genesis 1 affirmed the value of women amidst cultures that devalued them.

Dualism, however, often brought the worst of two worlds together: les extrêmes se touchent. If sexuality is not really human, one can abstain—or indulge. While the “advanced” cultures of antiquity articulated full-blown philosophies (e.g., Epicureanism) to rationalize their license, Israel’s neighbors justified their libertinism by divinizing it. Religion was sexualized, especially through fertility worship while, paradoxically, this religious “Eros” was often honored by child sacrifice, another example of “honoring” the power of giving life by killing.

In presenting sex as part of man’s imaging God, Genesis sanctifies sexuality without divinizing it. Given the history of human sexuality, that is no mean feat. Genesis 1, therefore, occupies a central role in the Christian understanding of sexuality, a weight properly recognized by Wojtyła et al., if not, for the present circumstances, by Johnson.

Similar points can be made regarding Genesis 2. The creation of woman, far from representing her subordination, affirms her fundamental humanity qua woman. Furthermore, as St. John Paul drew out in his extended reflections on Genesis 2, “Adam”—generic man—is incomprehensible to himself apart from the sexual complementarity of the woman. In naming the animals, Adam recognizes that he is a different kind of being, who does not have his fit counterpart among them. He may not have known the way out of his impasse, but he does recognize his original solitude as deficiency. The resolution of the dilemma does not come from human but divine initiative, in admittedly anthropomorphic language (“he cast a deep sleep upon the man”) but language that, when examined, offers profound insights. Adam’s “sleep” is a rare term, noted Bruce Vawter: in fact, it only occurs in Scripture at certain key salvific moments, e.g., the covenant with Abraham. So, far from offering just a Biblical story of Divine anesthesia and surgery, the sacred author of Genesis 2 (generally conceded to be different from Genesis 1) draws an important conclusion: this is a watershed moment in human salvation history, one that is “very good” because “it [was] not good for the man to be alone,” a deficiency remedied by a woman, not another man nor by even an androgynous “Adam.”

The tradition of Genesis 1-2 on sex sets off a whole line of thought about the man/woman relationship serving to illustrate God’s relationship to his people. In the Old Testament, it is expressed positively through explicitly sexual imagery in the Song of Songs. Its negative side finds expression in Hosea, where sexual love and passion are marred by adultery. The same motifs find their way into the New Testament (Eph. 5, Rev. 21) to express the relationship of Christ to his Church.

Traditional Interpretation is Ignored
There is no denying that all those texts have been central throughout the ages to the Church’s reflections about not just sex but the theology of God, creation, Christology, ecclesiology, and theological anthropology. They are “gendered” for a reason.

They also are of particular focus for the theology of the body authors for a reason: they are special, indeed, central. We can look elsewhere for other texts, as Johnson seeks to do, but without reading those other texts in conjunction with these is like looking at Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and fixating on the dishware. Johnson must get these central texts out of focus, however, if he is to advance his vision of androgynous “sexuality” as compatible with a Biblical perspective.

Johnson also marginalizes these central texts from their ecclesial reception and tradition in two ways. He completely ignores how these texts have been understood in the Church. Reading the Bible in the Church is critical because Scripture is not primarily “the exegesis of ancient texts in dead languages.” Scripture itself is the product of the Church. The canon of Scripture itself arose because the material proposed for inclusion in that canon was accepted or rejected by the Christian community that found or failed to find that material expressive of the faith that community received. In turn, that community meditated on those normative texts over time. I see none of this in Johnson’s article.

Johnson conveniently ignores the reflection of centuries on the centrality and meaning of these texts for a Christian understanding of sexuality. Instead of seeing how these texts have been understood in the Church, he calls us to search for the “word of the living God” in the “specifics of human experience.”

One can agree with Johnson only with a lot of qualifications and caveats. For one, Scripture as read in the Church has a privileged revelatory normativity: the insights of the Bible are definitive for the Christian community in a way that other sources of insight are not. Revelation is not ongoing in the sense that Scriptural insight is subject to revision. (Johnson would, of course, contend that “Scripture’s language is true but inadequate.” Recognizing the limitations of Biblical language is one thing; understanding those limitations as broadly as Johnson does, however, would render Scripture meaningless by allowing readers to interpret away passages that don’t explicitly affirm the interpreter’s presuppositions.)

The Appeal to Present-Day Experience
Like reading the Bible, refracting praxis through the Church is also applicable to Johnson’s appeal to “experience.” Experience is just that: experience. Experience can be good, bad, or neutral: it requires a “hermeneutic” to interpret it. That principle brings us right back to the Church as the living place of interpretation, guided by the definitive and normative revelation of Scripture.

Revisionist approaches to sexual ethics frequently appeal to “experience” to suggest that the “Spirit” is “speaking” (correcting) the received tradition of the Church through the “ongoing revelation” of the “living God.” Experience is a favorite principle to invoke when “Catholics” are counted in the poll: it can be suggested to be a sensus fidelium. So, when 95 percent of puberty-aged males masturbate, it’s held up as evidence that ecclesiastical teaching on the subject is wrong; when “90 percent of American Catholics” use contraception, it’s the “Spirit” correcting Humanae vitae. And when “1 to 3 percent of humans—at any rate, a not insignificant number—are born with ambiguous organic and/or hormonal gender markers” it’s suggested God produced the prequel to Forty Shades of Grey.

But the preceding data also suggests that, as Mark Twain observed, there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics” … and that one can do pretty much whatever one wants with statistics. Does 95 percent of Catholics doing X mean X is at least not as sinful as previously thought? Well, 100 percent of Catholics sin, which suggests either that the Ten Commandments require rethinking or morality-by-numbers is a rather slippery slope. Likewise, “1 to 3 percent of people experience Y.” Well, 46 percent of American men experience heart disease: in neither case does the statistical incidence tell us anything about whether the underlying condition is a problem. Whether something is a pathology has nothing to do with its frequency, even if cardiovascular disease is 1533 percent more commonplace than hermaphroditism. Finally, sensus fidelium involves the Church’s self-understanding over time: the insights of the current generation alone are not normative. Johnson urges us to “openness to what God is telling us through present-day experience” while, having jettisoned relevant Scriptural texts that bear on the question, providing us no interpretive key to ascertain whether what he takes as the new Divine word today might not just simply be the transient cultural consensus of the chattering classes. So, while Johnson’s appeal to “experience” is superficially appealing, its practical utility in Catholic moral discernment is minimal.

Engaging Scripture as the hermeneutic key to interpreting the raw data of “experience” leads us back to the texts, as interpreted by the Church, which Johnson wants to sideline. Instead, he suggests “a different selection of Scriptures” for our evaluatory effort.

Johnson would have us seek passages from Paul “where he states a more radical understanding of gender, ethnicity, and social status,” e.g., Galatians 3:28 (“in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female”). These passages, Johnson insists, shows that Paul recognized “all those markers that were formerly taken to be absolute are now rendered relative.”

Again, yes and no. Paul’s “radical understanding” passages talk about what is necessary to salvation and, on a particular question—whether membership in Israel is a necessary precondition to membership in Christ—he provides clear and extended guidance. He is also clear that (in Philemon) that you can be a slave and still be saved, and that you can be a man or a woman and still be saved. But he is not saying that men and women are abolished, nor that morality is androgynous: moral choices will be made as men or as women. To elide the universality of salvation in Christ into the conflation and even abolition of sexual differentiation (which is not a national or cultural difference, like ethnicity or slave/free status) involves, however, multiple leaps of logic the gymnastics of which even Simone Biles couldn’t pull off.

Likewise, we read Scripture with Scripture. Paul was certainly not abolishing sexual differentiation, since one doubts that question would have even crossed his mind. Ephesians 5—the passage comparing Christ’s union to his Church with the man/woman union of marriage (which Johnson includes among his problematic theology of the body passages)— hardly suggests the Pauline author wanted to surmount sexuality. Johnson then suggests that Paul was “unable to grasp the full implications of this new order” perhaps because he either did not pose the question and/or thought the answer on this side of the mirror was clear. What would sexuality look like in the “liberating new creation”? One surmises Paul might have answered that question as he replied to those asking about what the resurrected body would be like: it’s a foolish question, the answer to which you will one day obtain in the future (1 Cor. 15:36). Jesus says the same thing (Matt. 22: 29-30). But Paul also notes continuity: the mature grain is different from the seed, but both are wheat, not barley.

Contrary to Johnson, “gender is [not] adiaphora (non-essential things).” Can men, women, and eunuchs all be saved? Of course! Does that mean that being a eunuch is desirable or even normal? Of course not! But recognizing that being a man or a woman is irrelevant to my ability to be saved does not mean that I will not be saved as a man or as a woman. That is how God made me, down to every last cell of my body, and the glory of God is man … and woman … fully alive, as “male and female He created them,” not as we want to re-create ourselves.

John M. Grondelski


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.