Päivi Räsänen on trial: Theologians disagree over her biblical views
Theologian Timo Eskola says courts of law should “not dictate what churches are allowed to teach about sin”. Other Lutheran academics have been less supportive of the Finnish parliamentarian.
HELSINKI · 21 JANUARY 2022 · 12:04 CET
Päivi Räsänen, the Finnish parliamentarian accused of incitement against homosexuals, will face the court on the morning of Monday 24 February in Helsinki.
Her case has had international repercussion because the committed Christian and former Interior Minister of Finland says her trial may lead to a censorship of the biblical convictions of Christians in the public arena. The case has raised a large social and media debate in the country.
“I will not back off from my conviction based on the Bible and I am ready to defend freedom of speech and religion in all necessary courts”, Räsänen has underlined in her latest statement. Earlier, in an in-depth interview, she gave details about the police interrogations over three separate cases brought to the court by the Finnish General Prosecutor: a social media post criticising the Lutheran Church leadership in which she quoted Romans 1:24-27, remarks in a radio show on the topic “What would Jesus think about homosexuals?”, and a booklet authored by her 17 years ago titled Male and Female He created Them.
Evangelical Focus contacted this week with Timo Eskola, a New Testament academic who has expressed his support for Päivi Räsänen and her views. We also reached out to Niko Huttunen, another New Testament academic who has challenged Räsänen’s understanding of Romans – Huttunen's answers can be found in the final section of this article.
Finnish theologian Timo Eskola.
Timo Eskola, Dr.theol. (1992), Dr.phil. (2011), Dr. habil. (1998, University of Helsinki) is a New Testament scholar who lives in Turku, Finland. He is the autor, among others, of New Testament Semiotics (Brill, 2021).
Question. What do you foresee will be the legal outcome of the trial against Päivi Räsänen?
Answer. The Finnish situation is quite original, I suppose. It is not exactly clear what the precise accusations against Räsänen are, even though the main lines of thoughts of the officials in question are known to the reading public. According to my own analyses, one of the main issues here will be the question about morals. The Prosecutor General has stated in some of her preliminary reports that, a view that considers homosexual behavior immoral, must be held as slander and therefore also as a token of discrimination. This is why it is obvious that prosecutors want to test the limits of the laws against discrimination – now dealing with the rather straightforward law concerning incitement against minorities (belonging to the category of war laws).
If that kind of argument would win in court, a Christian view would of course become illegal in Finland. This, however, would concern also the present convictions and ethics of the Lutheran Church in Finland (not to mention the free Lutheran church where bishop Pohjola is also facing charges in the same process). Nobody knows, however, whether present judges in office are ready to go that far in their judicial interpretations, or not.
In addition to this one must note that the particular indictments against Räsänen are not very convincing. She has quoted the Bible, naturally, but since Paul only speaks of sin, a court of law cannot – in my view – start to dictate what churches are allowed to teach about sin. This particular point of view has been already questioned, though, as I told you above. The other indictments are defective, as well, because they focus at least partly on statements and words that Räsänen has never said. It has already turned out that there were also false accusations – which, of course, is shameful for the legal system. Furthermore, some details appear to be speculations on certain psychological theories and their validity. It is hard to see how a psychological theory could become criminal during the years. But, as noted, the result remains to be seen.
Q. You have recently said the media and the public have already sentenced her as guilty. Will that social perception change if the court says she is not guilty?
A. Yes, there has been a recent poll in Finland according to which many citizens hold Räsänen guilty already and falsely assume that she has already been convicted. This must be a result of the extraordinary and unparalleled attack on Räsänen by the media during the years. In addition to that, however, Finland as probably almost every Western country is strictly divided by the woke-phenomenon, attacks of the so called keyboard-warriors, and the postmodern “social justice” movement. As Francis Fukuyama has noted, we live in a post-Christian reality where values have collapsed and new liberalism wishes to fill the empty space with the values of certain minorities searching justification for their identity. In Finland this can be seen in the phenomenon that many of the major newspapers have written harshly against Räsänen. This is something that will never change anymore. For many people, Christian morality is as much a morality of slaves as it was for Nietzsche.
Q. What could have Päivi Räsänen done better in her communication of the Christian teaching of homosexuality? Could she have avoided part of the controversy?
A. I assume that the problem does not lie in Räsänen’s ways of communication. The original accusations came anonymously from the spheres of Christian organizations that promote gender ideology and LGBT. As well known, Räsänen criticized the Lutheran Church’s alleged official attendance to the Helsinki Pride demonstration. She never wrote against gay people but criticized the decisions of the Lutheran Church – decisions which soon turned out to be false and inofficial, and were also denied by two of the Finnish Lutheran bishops inside the church itself. This was a planned attack against Räsänen, quite similar to that plotted against professor Roger Scruton in Great Britain. Also in Finland Räsänen’s opponents had gone through all her writings from the past and some of the accusations concerned a few thoughts in her old book. We have entered the era where just one expression that can today be held personally offending – despite the fact that it had been written seventeen years ago, as in Räsänen’s case – can be criminalized. The generation that attacks Räsänen is the generation that tears down statues whenever they wish to raise the rage of the crowds quite in the manner of lynching. I did not believe that I would ever need to say a sentence like this aloud until I came accross with several examples of cancel culture in many of the Western countries – and also in Finland.
Q. There has been a parallel theological debate inside the ELCF and in the broader Christian context (including free churches) about Christian doctrine, Bible exegesis, freedom of speech, etc. How would you summarise this debate in the last couple of years?
A. In my view, there are certain common features in the international debate. Firstly, it is obvious that some Christian writers want to discard Biblical anthropology, the Bible’s view of human being, sex, and marriage. There is no particular reason for this apart from their conviction that the views have grown old. Secondly, there has been heated debate on Paul and Romans 1. In Finland, at least, even Räsänen has been accused of a “Pauline” view that homosexual people should be stoned to death. Scholars know, of course, that Paul does not teach so but speaks only about sin that governs all Adam’s descendants. Nevertheless, we have encountered the polarization according to which you must either accept the principle of stoning, or abandon it and accept all sexual relationships whatsoever as the modern or postmodern society wishes to see them. In this debate many claims have been quite provocative.
Furthermore, it is important to note that the present debate concerns partly also freedom of speech, as well as freedom of religion. If judges would begin to classify Christian moral views as criminal, that would really change the status of Christianity in Finland – and probably in Europe. It is important to note that the principle of tolerance, generally, is based on a common conviction that there is a humanity worth protecting. This is why all agreements concerning human rights start with a statement of the unquestioned value of every human being. This great value must not be questioned even though people disagree on many things and particular people have different views concerning religion, race, ideology, or sexuality. This leads to real tolerance.
The postmodern approach is different, though. It claims that some of the things that in fact separate us, most of all our views on sexual behavior, should be made the basis of acceptable tolerance and the basis for human rights. This is how the postmodern world attempts to turn the view concerning human rights upside down. A source of disagreement is made the principle of consent. Such a project cannot end well.
Q. Päivi Räsänen’s case has been followed by many in the rest of Europe. Why do you think its implications are important beyond Finland’s borders?
A. I personally believe that Räsänen’s case is the most important event in Finnish Church history in a hundred years. This is the case where the entire status of Christian churches will be estimated from a completely new angle. It will no doubt become a precedent that will guide many processes after that. Therefore, it will inevitably be followed and used also in other European countries. Postmodern movements that orchestrate these attacks are global and projects follow one after another even now.
In case Räsänen would be convicted, this would no doubt result in several new cases all over Europe. If Räsänen wins her case, however, which I hold quite possible myself due to defective indictments, we just win more time. I am sorry to end this interview in this way but, to be honest, the time of Christendom in Europe has passed. In my view this is no longer a Christian continent – not even in Finland despite the fact that over 70% of the people still formally are members of the Lutheran Church. Nevertheless, Christianity that lives from the gospel of the risen Christ, never collapses. He has conquered death and nothing can prevent his work on earth.
Another point of view: Niko Huttunen
Niko Huttunen is Docent (Associate Professor) of New Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki and Researcher in Institute for Research and Advanced Training of the Evangelical Lutheran Church Finland. He has authored books such as Early Christians Adapting to the Roman Empire: Mutual Recognition (Brill 2020, Open Access).
Huttunen told Evangelical Focus he has “no idea” of what the legal outcome of Päivi Räsänen will be.
Asked about the differences between Räsänen's interpretation of the Bible on human sexuality and that of the Lutheran Church of which she is a member, Huttunen says: “The ELCF and Räsänen invoke the Bible. In my two academic articles (in Finnish) I have shown what she accepts from the Bible and what she rejects though generally claiming to accept everything”.
He further adds: “As a theologian I have made some academic remarks on her interpretation of the Bible. After referring to my findings in an article for the general audience, some persons seem to be unhappy with them. It is an academic matter to refute my findings”.
Is there a risk that Christians in Finland who hold to a traditional interpretation of the Bible (f.e. homosexual practice is a sin from a Christian perspective) are increasingly portrayed as “homophobes”? “I don’t believe that any larger set of interpretation will lead to such consequences”, Huttunen says. “The theories of biblical interpretation are too abstract for the public debates. The issue deals with few biblical verses. In the heated atmosphere, a person may be labelled as a homophobe, as an apostate or anything else depending on person’s stance on those verses”.
Finally, asked about the risk of freedom of speech of Christians being restricted in Finland, Huttunen states: “It depends on the outcome of the trial. It may have an influence on how certain biblical verses can be used in public speech. In order to put this matter into larger frames, one must note that the state has traditionally overseen religious matters in Finland, and there have been changes in public interpretation of certain verses”.