Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Latest in the Haller-Witt Exchange

Dear Mr. Haller,

1) One of the points in our discussion is whether the moral authority of the Scriptures is restricted to the Ten Commandments. I think I showed that the tradition has never understand this to be the case. Certainly the writers of scripture have not understood this to be the case as shown in both Paul’s and Jesus’ references to the Gen. narratives as providing not merely descriptive but normative accounts of God’s intentions for humanity.

2) You speak of “natural law” in a way that is understandable, but, I think, unfortunate. Since Descartes, an unfortunate split between philosophy and theology has led to “natural law” being a matter of “natural theology.” So you suggest that “natural law” arguments about sexuality have various problems. But although both Aquinas and Hooker believed that the content of “natural law” is at least knowable in principle apart from revelation, that is not in fact how we generally come to it. For both Hooker and Aquinas, natural law has to do with God’s intentions for humanity in creation, apart from the fall, apart from questions of positive laws for particular culture. For this, the Genesis narratives are normative, not philosophical or sociological or scientific speculation.

3) Aquinas does indeed address the question of whether slavery is part of natural law in a discussion of whether a slave has a right to marry without the authority of his or her master.

His answer is interesting and has relevance to the common comparison between the Bible’s tolerance of slavery and what it says about homosexual activity.

Aquinas allows as an objection that Aristotle says that slavery is natural; since the slave is the owner’s property, the owner should determine the slave’s marital status.

Aquinas answer to the question is most revealing. He asserts that Aristotle is wrong, and appeals not to natural theology but to Scripture, specifically the Exodus narratives and redemption in Christ to argue that freedom is God’s intention for human beings.

He says that marriage is part of natural law, i.e., God’s intentions for humanity in the original creation, while slavery would not have existed if there had been no fall. Slavery is a punishment and should always be avoided where possible, while marriage is an inherent good. Accordingly, a slave’s right to marry overrrides the master’s preferences.

It seems fairly clear then that for Aquinas, heterosexual marriage is part of natural law (and unalterable). Again, the authority here is not natural theology but Gen. 1 and 2. Slavery is, at most, part of positive law, not part of God’s intentions for humanity, and is indeed in tension with both the Exodus and God’s redemption in Christ. From Thomas’s point of view, abolition of slavery would in no way conflict with the teaching of scripture. The blessing of homosexual relationships would.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And, again, just a reminder that this is not a new contribution to this discussion between Haller and myself. It is a blog comment that was posted on Kendall Harmon's blog some time ago.

Greetings, Shellfish and Tobias. BTW, although I disagree strongly with Tobias Haller's conclusions, I want to express my appreciation for the courtesy with which he engages these matters.

In these days of heated passions and strong disagreement, it is all too easy to substitute name-calling for engagement.

William Witt

The good ship ELCA...

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