Sunday, June 19, 2005

Shellfish alert

(the sound of shrill sirens screaming in the background)

Shrimp here: We have our 'silly shellfish' drills when you are in danger of someone changing your religion by relativising Scripture yet again by saying, "We eat shrimp don't we, therefore we are free to (fill in the blank on whatever cultural norm desired to become a Christian virtue)

The following is from an excellent essay by an Episcopalian, Dr William Witt, in which he takes on that and other nonsense. Here is an excerpt, but do make sure you read the whole essay:

"Both the Selectivist and Revisionist approaches have serious problems. The first approach is politically untenable and the second exegetically so. No church that hopes to keep the average worshiper in the pew can do so by embracing the arguments either that the Bible is a document of oppression or that it cannot be trusted in its moral assertions. The second approach fails as well because the vast majority of bib­lical scholars, both historically and recently, concede that the plain sense reading of the biblical texts prohibits homosexual activity, and that Scripture endorses only one per­missible model for sexual activity: exclusive life-long commitment within heterosexual marriage.

Thus those who want to change the Church’s historic position but who do not want to admit that they are simply jettisoning the authority of the Church’s canoni­cal Scriptures are in an unenviable position. In recent years a third position has ap­peared, one that recognizes that the plain sense reading of Scripture prohibits same-sex activity, yet nonetheless also insists that the Church can still endorse something that violates the plain sense reading of Scripture, and in doing so can still somehow be faithful to the teaching of Scripture. The argument takes the form: although the Scriptures prohibit same-sex activity, nonetheless, the Church is free not to be bound by these proscriptions in the same way that it has recognized that it is not bound by other prohibitions in the Bible.

The most superficial example of this approach has become so commonplace that it is often referred to in shorthand as the “shellfish” argument. Advocates point out that the Bible prohibits the eating of shellfish or the wearing of mixed-weave fabrics, or some other prohibition usually found somewhere in the Mosaic law. Yet we all eat shellfish and wear mixed-blend clothing. Such an observation ought to be inexcusable for Anglicans who should be aware of Article 7 of the 39 Articles, which distinguishes between those precepts of the Mosaic Law that refer to rites, ceremonies, and civil law, and those precepts that are moral.

Other regularly mentioned examples include slavery, usury, Sabbath-keeping, divorce, blood consumption, women’s ordination. In each case, it is held that the Scriptures prohibit or command a certain activity that at some time the Church has seen fit to declare non-binding. Accordingly, there is nothing to prevent the Church to declare that prohibitions against same-sex activity are no longer binding.

A more sophisticated version of this third approach can be found in the New York Episco­pal Diocese’s “Let the Reader Understand,” a small pamphlet that has received wide circula­tion.[14] A more developed form of the argument appeared in an unpublished article by Tobias Haller, one of the authors of the NY pamphlet. “Let the Reader Understand” takes its starting point from Art.7 of the 39 Articles, which distinguishes between those precepts of the Mosaic Law that refer to rites, ceremonies, and forms of government, and those precepts that are moral. Also referenced is Anglican Divine Richard Hooker’s distinction between the “positive laws” given by Moses and the “moral” precepts found in the Ten Commandments. (Laws III. 11.6). There is also an appeal to the Biblical precedent found in Jesus’ setting aside the dietary laws of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament church’s decision to admit Gentiles into fellowship. “Let the Reader Understand” mentions permission of slavery and prohibition of blood consumption as examples of biblical laws that were subsequently set aside by the later Church.

The conclusion drawn by the document is that the Church has the authority to set aside either positive biblical commandments or negative prohibitions that it considers no longer binding. In the document’s own words: “[I]t is insufficient simply to condemn those things that are condemned somewhere in Scripture, or to approve those things that are somewhere approved . . . [T]he Church has come to oppose or forbid acts mandated or tolerated in Scripture, and to allow acts or behaviors forbidden there.”

The deciding principle for the Church’s decisions in this regard is said to be the Great Commandment or the Summary of the Law. LRU states that “[t]he Church has authority to set aside or ignore its own decisions, even when these decisions are recorded in Scripture, and based upon other Scriptures to which divine mandate is attached. It does this by deciding that the divine mandate was temporary, allowing the law to lapse through disuse, or by interpreting the law in a new light.” The document claims that it is particularly the local or national church that has the right to make these decisions about which biblical prohibitions are binding or may be set aside, claiming for a local diocese the authority to set aside the moral teaching of the universal Church, and the Scriptures. One cannot help but ask where this principle could lead. Would the local church be free to set aside non-moral principles as well, e.g., the Nicene affirmation that the Son is homoousios with the Father? Could a national church or local diocese decide to add contemporary materials to the canon? Or omit material from the canon that did not conform to contemporary sensibilities? Is it logically possible that the Scriptures could continue to be morally binding in anything they teach, since the local church is free to absolve itself of having to obey any moral commands that conflict with the values of contemporary culture?"

Read about homosexual hermeneutics here.


Tobias Haller said...

I am responding here to a series of assertions made by Dr WIlliam Witt concening Let the Reader Understand. In addition to misrepresenting (I hope due to misunderstanding) the essay in question, Dr Witt fails to offer a logical response to its fundamental assertions (the the Church has interpretative authority concerning the Scripture, including the authority to set aside certain of its "plain teachings"; and that this authority is located in the national or provincial church) but rather relies on a "slippery slope" argument.

Ironically, in doing so Witt (once again) suggests that a national church is incapable of doing something which the Church of England has already done: amend the canon of Scripture. I have asked Dr Witt this question before, and he has not answered, as far as I can find. "Did the Church of England have the authority to amend the canon of Scripture or not."

First, however, to the misunderstanding: LtRU does not suggest that indivudual dioceses have the authority of a national church or province. I have always upheld the authority of national synods in this regard, based on the principle established at the English Reformation. I have also written extensively in opposition to the notion that individual dioceses represent the "basic unit" of the church. Enough said.

That being said, national churches (within Anglicanism) do make (and have made) decisions to "set aside" Christian moral teaching, and to interpret the Scripture -- the changes in policy on birth control, remarriage after divorce, and so on, all bitterly debated in the last century, testify to this reality.

Finally, the "slippery slope" -- the leap from "moral" to "non-moral" (which, by the example he gives, I take Dr. Witt to mean "doctrinal" in a larger sense). As I note above, the Church of England unilaterally (though in sympathy with the Continental Reformers) altered the canon of Scripture itself (by deletion) at the Reformation. (Note that there is no uniform canon of Scripture between the East and West in any case, so this is a somewhat "local" distinction). There were a number of reasons for this decision, including an appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures (as opposed to the LXX), but it was also the case that certain passages in the OT Deuterocanonical books were used to support Roman Catholic doctrines about which the Anglican Reformers were doubtful (e.g., invocation of saints).

When we come to the homoousios -- well, this was a result of a synodical action, and some opposed it at the time because the word was not Scriptural, an "addition" to the text; while others, rightly, argued that even if the word itself was not Scriptural it represented a truth that had been taught consistently. However, dare I raise the question of another difficult word in the Creed -- filioque? Who had the authority to add it? And who to take it out? Clearly this must be a decision of some comptent body, and it would appear to rest at the level of the national church or province. (Actually Lambeth said exactly that some years ago, making the "decision" to affirm provincial autonomy in this matter.)

So the question remains: does a national church have the authority to make decisions concerning moral issues (leaving the canon and the Creed aside for the moment) on the basis of its collective reading of Scripture, including the possibility that a moral teaching appropriate at one time in human history might give way at another time? The examples of slavery and the blood prohibition have been offered in my essay. Although Witt notes Augustine's argument that the Biblical mandate and permission for slavery was eventually overturned because it came to be seen as representing a distortion of God's original intent for humanity as established in Genesis, he has yet to offer a similar argument concerning the blood prohibition -- which would be difficult, since the blood prohibition is also recorded as a part of God's original intent for humanity in Genesis (indeed, the original intent was for vegetarianism; the allowance of meat with the maintenance of a blood prohibition is post-deluvian; and the blood prohibition was maintained up through the New Testament and in the canons of the conciliar church). Has the church erred in this matter?

Witt writes:

The document [Let the Reader Understand] claims that it is particularly the local or national church that has the right to make these decisions about which biblical prohibitions are binding or may be set aside, claiming for a local diocese the authority to set aside the moral teaching of the universal Church, and the Scriptures. One cannot help but ask where this principle could lead. Would the local church be free to set aside non-moral principles as well, e.g., the Nicene affirmation that the Son is homoousios with the Father? Could a national church or local diocese decide to add contemporary materials to the canon? Or omit material from the canon that did not conform to contemporary sensibilities?

Lost_in_Chicago said...


Your comment is so very “intellectual”, and, to be honest, this saddens me a great deal. You see, I’ve come to expect that it is of our very learned leaders who appear to be leading God’s people away from Scripture. In response I would like to say that, no matter what flowery arguments you use, the Bible is clear. And again, I think it takes a special kind of arrogance to believe that you, and your colleges, have come along at the right time in history to correct thousands of years of understanding.

Additionally, I’d like to state that I do not have too much of a problem with my sinful brothers & sisters attempting to explain away their sin by changing the definition of it… there are certainly times in my life when I try to justify my sinful nature. However, I do have a problem with the intellectual elitists who attempt to trivialize Scripture and therefore create great confusion amongst the people.

Lastly, even if you have been blessed with some great insight that the rest of us have failed to rcv, you should recall that both Paul & Martin Luther instructed their followers to “not” practice their freedoms if it created a hurdle for other people of God. So… maybe you could stop focusing on being the debate champion, look around, and, notice that you are creating a divide amongst the Christian peoples.

Lost_in_Chicago (and very perplexed with modern Christian leadership)

shrimp said...

Tobias Haller;

Thank you for droping by. You raise so many issues. I have to go back and read "Let the Reader Understand" in order to begin.

I read it some six months ago and found it so incomprehensible on the subject of setting aside moral law. I think I will host it here later.

I am on the road and have my family in the car waiting so we will have to do all this later. Please, everyone, do come back, perhaps tonight.

Tobias said...

Dear Lost,
I am sorry if you think I am trivializing Scripture by seeking to understand it. I can perfectly understand some folks who read, for example, Leviticus 18 and 20 and come away saying "These are eternal Laws to govern humanity forever." The only problem is when those same people skip over the laws they don't like. And I'm not talking about the shellfish limitations -- although one should note that the Christian disctinction between "moral" and "ritual" is not in itself a Scriptural notion; God told the people to obey _all_ of the Law.
Now of course, Jesus made distinctions about the law: for example, he said the Law of Moses concerning divorce was a concession to human hardness of heart, and not part of God's intent. Now that's quite astounding, don't you think, if you are going to regard things in the Law of Moses as always reflecting God's will. Doesn't it raise a question in your mind that there might be other "moral" matters on which Moses' law is an imperfect reflection of God's actual will for human beings? I'm not saying this "proves" anything, but it should give one pause before talking about "Scripture" as if it were a uniform body of laws all of which are equally valid and equally eternal.
Let me give another example: a man divorces his wife and she marries another man. The second husband dies. Would it be "moral" for the first husband to remarry her? (This actually happened to my grandmother, so it is close to home; my grandfather remarried her largely because he wanted to be a father to his son, my father.) I think most people would find no problem with this from a moral perspective. Nor, as far as I know, does the church forbid it. Yet the Bible does, and in no uncertain terms. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 even goes so far as to call this an abomination (using exactly the same terminology applied to certain male homosexual acts in Leviticus.(See also Jeremiah 3:1)
I think one of the problems is that people tend to see anything having to do with sex as "moral" -- when it can actually be cultic or cultural. Also in the section of Leviticus, for instance, a man sleeping with his wife during her period is harshly condemned and entails a serious penalty. But I doubt many people today would regard that as a moral question.
I am not in all of this seeking to undermind people's faith in Scripture (although I think an uncritical, or worse, hypocritical, approach is not in keeping with the teaching of Jesus) but rather to find the underlying basis for what is moral or not, not simply on the standard of "here is what it says" but at the level of "what did this mean in the time in which it was enforced, and does it mean the same thing eternally, or not." I think that is a fair question, and I confess I don't have all the answers.
Yes, this might disturb some of the faithful. I do take Paul's (and Luther's) thoughts on that seriously, but I also think it is obvious that both of them had their limits as to how much they were willing to hold back on their own beliefs as opposed to respecting the beliefs of the "weaker brothers." Obviously Paul drew the line at circumcision; Luther was famous in his initial patience with, and later anger with, Jews and others who disagreed with him. Should Paul have continued to allow for circumcision? Should Luther have remained a Roman Catholic? There comes a point when one must act in accordance with what one believes to be true, even when one is in a tiny minority. Minorities often have a way of turning out to be right, in the long run.
And thank you, Shrimp, for your hospitality. Please do take another look at LtRU, and if you have any questions I'd be glad to respond. One important factor is that this is an Anglican point of view, reflecting the settlement as Richard Hooker described it. It is not the same as the Lutheran standard; for instance, sola scriptura is definitely _not_ part of the Hookerian understanding. (He would say that reason is essential to understanding Scripture; but that Scripture tells us things about God we could never discover by ourselves; also that not everything in Scripture is of equal weight -- and actually Luther would agree on that one; remember what he said about the Epistle of James!)

May the peace of Christ be with you,

Tobias S Haller

Lost_in_Chicago said...


I was probably too argumentative in my earlier post, which wasn’t very Christian of me… I apologize. However, I still very much disagree with what you are saying. For instance, you write:

“some folks who read, for example, Leviticus 18 and 20 and come away saying "These are eternal Laws to govern humanity forever."”

My response is, yes, I think Moses is pretty clear. And, even if you believe that this Mosaic Law was only directed towards the Levites and therefore does not apply during our new covenant period, I don’t understand how you can maintain this position when Paul is also clear (which the Interpreter’s Bible attests to).

Additionally, I do not understand the argument that “Jesus did not specifically ban it”. More importantly, IMHO, he did not abolish this teaching… as He did with the dietary laws. And, I think someone could effectively argue Jesus implied that sexual immorality/homosexuality was unclean in Mk. 7:20-23.

To your comment on Jesus’ correction of the Mosaic Law in regards to divorce… maybe I’m too simple minded due to my lay background, but, in my mind, this validates that Mosaic Law is relevant. The law was tweaked… not abolished.

To your comment on re-marriage, I agree that Scripture indicates this is a sin… if I may say in the most respectful manner possible. However, it appears there was an attempt made to “go and sin no more”. Which, in my opinion, is drastically different than attempting to change the definition of the sin.

Sorry man… I really am attempting to see your point of view. In fact, I pray and study fervently regarding it. But, no matter what I do, I can’t get there. Lastly, I understand that our Lord has enabled you with the Holy Spirit to better understand and live the Word, but, over two thousand years of Christian theologians have had this same benefit and have not come to this conclusion.

God Bless,

Shrimp said...

As I said while on the road, you make so many points. Let's narrow it down a bit.

You said that "national churches (within Anglicanism) do make (and have made) decisions to "set aside" Christian moral teaching, and to interpret the Scripture -- the changes in policy on birth control, remarriage after divorce, and so on, all bitterly debated in the last century, testify to this reality."

Is "set aside" an accurate use of words? In such things as divorce, were they argued and a consensus reached or a vote passed, or did people just go ahead and do what they wanted to anyway?

Tobias said...

Thanks once again Lost and Shrimp for continuing the discussion. It is so important for Christians to be able to talk about the things that make for division -- as this is the only way to come to a better mind.

I'm not sure I can follow your description, Lost, that Jesus simply "tweaked" the Mosaic law on divorce. Moses was pretty clear: a man can divorce his wife for _any_ objectionable cause; the rabbis understood this to mean, for example, even if she burnt his supper. Jesus says "No way... except unchastity." (And it should be noted that the "out clause" concerning unchastity is considered by some scholars to be a later addition; but let's just take it as it stands for the moment.) Jesus goes on to say that anyone who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery, and that if he remarries he commits adultery. Remember, this is one of the "big Ten" commandments; it is also punishable by death under the Law of Moses. So taking something that is permitted and making it into a capital offense is a lot more than "tweaking" to my mind. Jesus "changed the definition of sin" in taking something permissable and making it a very serious matter indeed.

Which is where I come to Shrimp's question, regarding the fact that the Episcopal Church has to a very large extent come to ignore Jesus' teaching on this subject, and now allows for divorce. This matter was very hotly debated indeed, over a period of decades, starting about in 1916. For a long time no remarriage after divorce was permitted at all, then for a while only remarriage of the "innocent party" in a case of adultery. Then there was a period where long lists of possible causes for divorce (and permission to remarry) were made up and placed in the canon law. Finally, in the 1940s the present much simpler situation was finalized, after many amendments and debates, to allow the bishop of a given diocese to be the judge of marital status, and give permission for someone whose marriage had been annulled or dissolved by a civil court the right to remarry. To protect the conscience of some clergy, a clause stating that no minister was required to perform any given marriage was in place. But this was all done throught the General Convention of the church.

Finally, a further comment on the whole "Shellfish" argument. In the course of Scripture readings appointed in the Episcopal Church, we have come to Acts 10. It is an instructive story, and should give one pause before dismissing the "shellfish" argument entirely; since it appears that this is the argument that God presented to Peter, when he showed him all the unclean animals and told him to eat, and Peter rightly understood that this wasn't really about food, but about people, and how one ought to treat them, as children of God -- and thereby opened the way of salvation for all of us Gentiles!

I beseech you, think on this, and on the graciousness of God, who desires all of his children to be gathered together into his household.

May the Lord shine upon you,

Shrimp said...

Sorry, Tobias, but you are making too much of Lost's "tweak."

Thanks for the history lesson. Lutherans have no canon law, we just went ahead and did what we wanted.

Please don't do any more beseeching here. As I am sure you have seen we are quite plain spoken at this site. If you mean "cut it out" say so.

What I disagree with is your csting us as somehow against God gathering all in! Nothing could be further from the truth. Don't twist things around.

This blog is about sola scriptura, Truth, continuing a tradition. We have NEVER told a gay man or woman that they were not welcome, neiother am i aware of it ever being shown even in a subtle way.

This is about your agenda taking over and diminishing the church and its theology. That may be an unintended consequence in your mind, but there it is.

Our denom in going to unravel over this and that really saddens many of us.

Keep coming back!

Tobias said...

Thanks for your honesty, Shrimp. I'm being fully honest in everything I say, too. I am not trying to "twist things around." I am trying to clarify the argument from my perspective. I'm not asking you to agree, but to understand. I certainly never meant to imply that you are somehow against God gathering all in. All I said is that this is what God wants, and I note that God used the "shellfish argument" to change Peter's mind.

The only reason I even came across your site (via a Google search) is that you posted a piece by Dr. William Witt which misrepresented something I had written. As I noted above, we are not Sola Scriptura, and never have been. (While we hold Scripture to be authoritative, we do not separate if from the authority of the church. This is, I take it, different from the Lutheran standard that you hold to.) My only agenda is the Gospel.

As long as you post comments concerning me, I think I have a right to respond, particularly when the comments are misrepresentations or misunderstandings. However, I think in this instance I've said enough to clarify, and so wish you God's peace.

Shrimp said...

Thanks, Tobias. I agree you have every right to comment. I know you don't think you are twisting words. You come at things very differently. Yes, you are not bound to sola scriptura. It seems that few do it at all anymore. Your gay hermenuetics are being practiced by the leadership of the elca. My hope is that the penduluum will swing in the other direction.

You say that your concern is the gospel. I disagree. I think it is a false gospel that does not begin with repentance.

Anyway, we disagree on hermeneutics, and that it that. Do hope you do not think Mr Witt or we are mistrepresnting you but doing exactly what you are, apologetics.

I disagree very much that Witt is trying to change Anglicanism as much

The good ship ELCA...

The good ship ELCA...
Or the Shellfish blog...