General revelation and Bible reading on tough topics

by Mark Safstrom

It has been my habit lately to begin the day by reading the lectionary texts and the newspaper, both on my smartphone. The lectionary I find on sites like WorkingPreacher.org, through Luther Seminary, and my newspaper of choice has been a Washington paper, the Kitsap Sun (whose editor happens to be Pietisten’s own David Nelson!). Having these resources available wherever I am has made this double reading habit rather easy to maintain and inexcusable to miss. Though the news headlines can be disquieting, having some word or phrase in mind from a psalm or other scripture passage usually brings a calming reassurance or needed change in my perspective.

The practice of reading the Bible and the newspaper concurrently has long been commended, perhaps most famously by Karl Barth, though he is not the first. In the 1870s, the celebrated preacher Charles Spurgeon called this dual activity “a mental exercise as profitable as it is pleasant,” and urged his readers to search for analogies, metaphors, and poetic figures to make comparisons between how current events may reflect the way God moves in scripture. By doing so, he thought preachers, Sunday school teachers, and other lay people could become better evangelists.

Spurgeon began his 1878 book, The Bible and the Newspaper, by quoting John Newton, the 18th century abolitionist, who said, “I read the newspaper that I may see how my heavenly Father governs the world.” While Spurgeon was scouring the news for sermon illustrations, by contrast Newton was grappling with the injustices he saw in the real world and the “Christian” society that shirked its responsibility to address them. Newton charged that the Bible did not condone the British slave trade, as many in his day believed, and instead that sincere Christians needed to end their silent complicity in the oppression of enslaved Africans. And yet despite the persuasive case he made in his 1788 pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, it still took nineteen long years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act, which abolished the slave trade in the empire in 1807. Good Christians, it turns out, can sometimes take a long time to change their minds and do the right thing.

This practice of reading “two books” that Newton and the others engaged in is part of a broader tradition in Christian theology that distinguishes between “special revelation” and “general revelation.” Special revelation comes directly from God to specific people and audiences in history and is mainly available to the church through the recording of these revelations in scripture. General revelation, on the other hand, is indirect and generally available to all people, Christian or not, through the observation and investigation of God’s creation. General revelation thus holds a complementary, if secondary, path for Christians to contemplate God’s truth. Notably the Apostle Paul modeled such dual reading in the beginning of Romans (1:18-23), as he reflected on the fragmented wisdom that can be seen among the Gentiles, who had only general revelation, but lacked the special revelation of the Hebrew scriptures. Both the book of scripture and the “book of nature” are authored by God and instructive.

According to the reformer John Calvin, the relationship between general and special revelation was that the reading of the book of nature was only intelligible with the “spectacles” of scripture—without them we would not understand one single thing. However, some Enlightenment era scientists like Carl von Linné expressed a more optimistic Christian piety that held that the book of nature could actually reveal God’s total design, and so he set out to categorize it into a discernible system. The saying among his students became, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “God created, Linné organized.” The 17th century poet, John Milton, also found a devotional purpose in reading the book of nature, saying, “In contemplation of created things, by steps we may ascend to God.”

The Psalms proclaim that while the created world speaks the wisdom of God, this wisdom is inscrutable. My morning devotional reading landed on Psalm 19 recently, the most famous of these passages: “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world” (vv. 1-4). Scripture cannot express all the answers to our questions about God’s creation, and the universe is far more complicated than we can possibly imagine. Similarly Psalm 139, in extolling human development during pregnancy, the psalmist concludes that the appropriate posture is fear and wonder (v. 14). No simplistic explanations can capture the full picture about human physiology—we are fearfully and wonderfully made!

Jesus’s teaching style routinely challenged widespread assumptions about religious ethics and demonstrated that conventional interpretation of scripture on morality was insufficient. This rhetorical brilliance is on full display in Matthew’s gospel. Five times in the Sermon on the Mount the phrase occurs, “You have heard it said…But I tell you….” Each time, Jesus demonstrates that there was far more to sin and righteousness than his listeners had ever considered, and that holiness was more elusive than keeping a list of laws, policies, or codes of conduct.

Most poignant is how Jesus showed compassion to those who were adversely impacted by popular misreading of scripture, namely those with physical ailments, injuries, and disabilities who were deemed unclean because of the biological realities of their bodies. In John 9, to the question of whether a man was born blind because of sin, Jesus’s stunning reply is, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3). The biological reality and experience of the man’s blindness, as well as his healing, speaks the wisdom and design of God. Science would one day be able to explain why the man was blind, but neither the theologians of Jesus’s time nor those of our own can explain why it happens to one person and not another—there is no speech, nor are there words! Jesus proclaims that sight is possible or impossible by God’s design, while also maintaining that physical disability is not the result of sin (thus countering passages like Lev 21:16-24 and Deut 23:1 that explicitly prohibit people with physiological “blemishes” from the temple).

Nevertheless, throughout Jewish and Christian history, mainstream popular theology has often reduced the phenomenon of abnormal physiology by explaining it as a consequence or manifestation of sin. Even after the religious leaders investigate the blind man’s healing and despite ample evidence of its legitimacy, they conclude, “You were steeped in sin at birth, how dare you lecture us,” and then they expel the formerly blind man from their presence (v. 34). Their paradigm cannot handle the possibility that they might be wrong. Yet they persist in questioning Jesus, asking, “What? Are we blind too?” (v. 40), and thus set themselves up to become the ultimate object lesson in “spiritual blindness.”

On matters of human sexuality, many Christians today seem remarkably unconcerned about the possibility that they may be on this same path. Despite 2,000 years of Christian heritage of embracing both general and special revelation, evangelicals are often content to ignore science and biological reality altogether if it complicates their reading of scripture. This is apparent lately in the news coverage of debates surrounding transgender and intersex identity, as self-professed Christian politicians around the country lobby for this or that legislation based on the premise that “God only created two genders.” Similar debates at several Protestant denominational annual meetings in recent years about gender identity and same-sex marriage are grounded on this conceit.

However, this assertion would not last long if these debates were held not in a state legislature or hotel ballroom but in the delivery room of a hospital, especially the neonatal intensive care unit. That’s where with statistical regularity, doctors and nurses encounter the phenomenon of intersex babies, e.g. those born with both testicular and ovarian tissue or indiscernible genitalia. Throughout much of history, such births have been accompanied by an experience of horror, shame, revulsion, and trauma for those involved and their loved ones, because the phenomenon was explained by well meaning people as a result of sin, an evil omen, or an “abomination.” The fate of the babies themselves, if they were allowed to live, was to hide their biological reality and attempt to pass as male or female, and surely face scorn and derision if they were found out. Modern medicine has offered surgery as a pathway to a normal life. More recently civil rights advocates have challenged this approach, arguing that what is really needed is full acceptance of such persons just as they are, instead of forcing them to conform to a gender that is not their biological reality.

History has not been kind to people with non-normative sexual identities, and Christian pastors and delegates to denominational annual meetings perpetuate this injustice every time they insist on static, binary categories of “male and female.” This paradigm comprises the basis for many conservative efforts to define marriage and bar certain people from congregational membership and ordination. And it is completely unsupported by medical science.

What if Christians reflected on the theological complexity of Jesus himself regarding human physiology? Is it possible that Jesus might walk into these debates, on cue, and say, “Who sinned that this child would be born intersex?” Or, “You have heard it said that ‘at the beginning the Creator made them male and female,’ but I say to you what Paul said: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in me’” (cf. Matt 19, Gal 3:28)? In Matthew 19, even Jesus acknowledges “eunuchs who were born that way” (v. 12), who in the ancient world were considered as being in between male and female. If Jesus can acknowledge the blurred lines of biological sex, why can’t so many of today’s pastors do the same? Christians seeking to inform themselves about sex and gender would learn a lot from watching the documentary “9 Months that Made You” (2016), which explains in fascinating detail the several key moments in pregnancy that determine biological sex and sexual orientation, or “Stories of Intersex and Faith” (2019), which profiles the experiences of five intersex people as they discuss how their identities relate to their Jewish and Christian upbringing.

Over the past 20 years, I can attest that paying attention to the “book of nature” has enhanced my own reading of scripture on the topic of human sexuality. Foremost is the example of Jesus’s interaction with non-normative people, as mentioned above. Another is a seemingly trivial grammatical detail. In Galatians 3:28, as well as in Genesis 1 and 5, the conjunction that joins male/female is “and,” whereas Jew/Greek and slave/free are joined by “or.” The difference of conjunctions suggests that maleness and femaleness is not a binary set in the same way as the other two category groups. This takes on meaning when considering the fluidity of biological sex. I learned long ago in AP Biology in high school that biological sex is determined by X and Y chromosomes, and that males can pass on either, while females can only pass on Xs. This is only one of many stages in human development that problematize the idea that biological sex is static. Male and female are interwoven parts of each other, not each other’s opposite.

Estimates vary widely on the frequency of intersex babies born in the United States each year, with conservative figures ranging from 1 out of 10,000 to 1 out of 4,500 pregnancies. Some studies posit a much more frequent rate, and the contested difference in the figures is due to which physiological traits are included. At the very least this is a population numbering in the tens of thousands. Even if there was only one such person in the whole country, this reality should change how Christians speak about sex and gender as something made by God.

Readers of Pietisten will come to this conversation from different contexts. My own denominational context is the Evangelical Covenant Church, where for the last decade-plus, poor leadership has allowed alarmist pastors and lay people to drown out any serious reflection on biblical sexuality and gender, and use the machinery of the annual meeting to expel dissenting congregations from the denomination over LGBTQ inclusion. Too many good people in the middle have stayed on the sidelines and not done the work to inform themselves on these issues. Leadership in the denominational offices that should have been providing congregations with medically accurate science about sexuality have instead only promoted a short list of approved authors (e.g. Mark Yarhouse, Julia Sadusky, Preston Sprinkle, Heather Looy), none of them rooted in the denomination’s own theology. Clergy, seminary professors, and executive ministers expressing dissenting views or even reservations have found themselves silenced, sidelined, or pushed out of their roles.

Over the past couple decades, we at Pietisten have prioritized making space for dissenting and moderate voices on the topic of human sexuality. We are sometimes asked why we don’t feature the conservative viewpoint as often—the answer is that the Covenant’s denominational leadership has only allowed the conservative view to be expressed and it is available everywhere else. In this issue, we are including a few more voices as resources in this discussion, a statement from Covenant Pastor Micah Witham, whose church was voted out of the denomination at the 2023 annual meeting, an Open Letter that was drafted last winter by several pastors urging against this action, a public statement made by Pastor Gail Song Bantum regarding the disaffiliation of Quest Church in Seattle, and an essay by Pastor Ryan Eikenbary-Barber, recommending a moratorium on such actions until we have further conversation about our policies and procedures.

The mission of the church cannot succeed if it remains wedded to advancing interpretations of scripture which have no traction in medical science or the lived experience of tens of thousands of people whose bodies do not conform to reductive interpretations of what it means that God created male and female. Christians in all denominations need to recover the courage of John Newton and, in studying their Bibles as well as the world around them, let their minds be changed when the evidence for their preconceived opinions doesn’t add up.

Guds frid – God’s peace