Saturday, July 02, 2005

Multi-denominational Hermeneutical Battle

Tobias Haller replied below to William Witt's essay. Tobias is a real gentleman, and I appreciate you guys being nice to him.

Not everyone is. If you go to the link at the bottom of the essay you can see how the debate between Witt and Haller is going.

If you have been a titusonenine fan, you may know all about this. There we find the following. The blog's host, a canon theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, ECUSA, Kendall Harmon.

"On the House of Bishops and Deputies listserv, an essay by Tobias Haller appeared seeking to defend the Episcopal Church’s actions in 2003. While I believe the essay and the response below to it are important, readers need to be cautioned that Br. Haller’s essay is wanting in its premise in that he has failed first of all to address the reasserter’s arguments. This point needs to be made forcefully again and again in the present context. In order to argue for change, one has to be able to critique well the church’s classical position, showing that it is understood clearly and showing why it is wrong. Then, and only then, is the ability to argue for change actually won.

In the last many years, we have seen the opposite, for the most part, in the Episcopal Church. Many important reasserter’s arguments have been made, and they have certainly not been well heard much less answered. This is especially alarming given that True Union in the Body was commended for study by all the Primates of the Anglican Communion.

With a keen sense of where the burden of proof still lies, readers are asked to read both Br. Haller’s essay and this response. I will continue to emphasize that reasserters need to be able to understand all of the basic arguments in this debate well enough to articulate them in their own words.

A Response to Tobias S. Haller’s “Who’s In Charge: Judging The Scriptures” by
William G. Witt, Ph.D.

Reappraising the Scriptures

In recent years, those who want to reassess the Church’s traditional teaching about the permissibility of same-sex sexual activity have adopted a number of hermeneutical approaches to Scripture.

Those who advocate what could be called the radical position recognize that the plain sense reading of scripture is opposed throughout to homosexual activity. To use the language of the radicals, Scripture exhibits a “heterosexist” bias. Guided by a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” the radicals reject this bias as being inimical to the spiritual health and well-being of persons of homosexual orientation.

Those who endorse what we will call the revisionist hermeneutic suggest that the Church has misinterpreted what the Bible teaches about homosexual activity. What the Scriptures condemn is either exploitative same-sex activity, for example, pederasty, homosexual cult prostitution, or heterosexuals engaging in homosexual activity. Scripture does not address the question of persons of homosexual orientation living in long-term exclusive committed sexual partnerships.

The first tactic 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 argument that the Bible is a document of oppression. While one still hears the second argument used occasionally (especially by bishops or clergy who have read little on the subject except the couple of books that were popular a generation ago), the vast majority of biblical scholars today, both liberal and conservative, 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.

Of course, this places 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, in an unenviable position. So in recent years a third position has appeared, one that recognizes that the plain sense reading of Scripture prohibits same-sex activity, 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—a handy trick if one can pull it off.

The argument takes the form: The Church does not obey what the Bible says about X; therefore the Church does not have to obey what the Bible says about same-sex sexual relations. One of the more widely distributed examples of this approach was the New York Episcopal Diocese’s “Let the Reader Understand,” a small pamphlet that received wide circulation. Tobias Haller was one of the authors of that document, and “Who’s In Charge: Judging the Scriptures” is a more detailed version of the same argument. (A response to “Let the Reader Understand” can be found here.)

Haller’s paper is to be commended for two things. First, Haller forthrightly concedes that the plain sense reading of Scripture forbids same-sex activity. Second, he points out correctly that the Church has not considered itself to be
bound by every prescription or proscription in Scripture. He recognizes that the Church has developed a hermeneutic by which it decides which passages of Scripture are considered normative for ethical guidance and which are not. As Haller states: “[I]t is a question of the authority to decide in a given case
that a relatively ‘clear’ scriptural mandate or prohibition, which everyone more or less can agree means what it appears to say, is no longer applicable.”

Haller also points out correctly that the criteria for making these distinctions can be found in Art.VII 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. The Church has considered itself bound by the latter, but not the former. Haller also cites Anglican Divine Richard Hooker in distinguishing between the “positive laws” given by Moses and the “moral” precepts found in the Ten Commandments. (Laws III. 11.6). So far, well and good. Haller’s approach is certainly more sophisticated than that of an Episcopal bishop with whom I am acquainted who is on record as having compared the moral seriousness of homosexual activity to eating shrimp or lobster. After all, the bishop reminded his listeners, the Bible condemns that too. Apparently the bishop did not have Art. VII in his copy of The Book of Common Prayer.

So Haller is to be commended for beginning with the right distinctions. The Church does not recognize itself to be bound by every precept in Scripture, and there has been a classic hermeneutic by which these things are decided. Having given Haller credit where it is de­served, his article nonetheless raises a number of concerns.

Which church?

First, Haller creates a misleading impression by his ambiguous use of the word
“church.” He uses “church” to mean different things in different contexts, but does not distinguish between which church he is referring to in which context. So in the first paragraph, Haller says that the Scriptures were assembled and authorized by the “church.” Presumably he means here the church of the second century that recognized the canon of Scripture along with the Rule of Faith, the historic episcopate, and the sacraments as marks of identity that distinguished Catholic Christians from gnostic heretics.

In a later paragraph, Haller says that the “church” understood Jesus to have set aside the dietary portions of the OT law. Here the “church” must refer to the church of the apostles, since the reference is to Mark’s gospel. Later, Haller says that the “church” first for­bade and then gave Henry VIII permission to marry his brother’s childless widow. Here, the “church” clearly refers to the institutional Medieval Roman Catholic hierarchy, specifically the papacy. And later, when Haller speaks of the “church’s” response to the Windsor Report, he clearly means the Episcopal Church as a local denomination, as he makes clear by his use of the term “national church.” This last use is particularly idiosyncratic. In what sense can a small American denomination of less than 2 million members, and less than a million regular communicants, think of itself as the “church”? Even as the “national church” in a country with numerous denominations that far outnumber the Episcopal Church in size? Why would the Episcopal Church be the “national church” and not the Roman Catholics or the Southern Baptists?

By using the same word “church”without distinguishing in any way between these
different historical, institutional and national groups, Haller gives the overall impression that the “church” has reinterpreted Scripture many ways in many times, and has always felt free to decide which parts of Scripture to apply to itself, and which to disregard. Thus as the title of his article suggests, and as Haller says bluntly: “[T]he church judges the Scriptures.”

Haller thus endorses a hermeneutical position reminiscent of that of the Catholic Modernist Alfred Loisy (The Gospel and the Church, 1902) but it is not the historic Church’s understanding of how to interpret the Scriptures. Haller’s failure to distinguish between the apostolic church and the post-apostolic church is a cause for real concern here. When it is stated (as it sometimes is) that the Church wrote the Scriptures and that the Church decided which Scriptures were canonical, a distinction needs to be made. The church that wrote the Scriptures was the church of the apostles, the original eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection. The church that gathered the apostolic writings into a canon did not create the canon of Scripture, but recognized it, and one of the criteria it used to
discern which books were canonical Scripture and which were not was apostolic authority. In the very act of acknowledging a canon, the second-century church placed itself under the Rule (canon) of the apostolic witness. The bishops (who
recognized the canon) are successors to the apostles, but they are not themselves apostles. In recognizing the canon of Scripture, the church "interprets” Scripture by submitting to its authority. It does not “judge” Scripture.

So the “church” that discerned in Jesus’ statement recorded in Mk 7:19 that the dietary laws of the OT were no longer binding was the apostolic church that wrote the Scriptures, not the post-apostolic church that received the canon. Likewise the “church” that recognized that circumcision was no longer required of Gentile converts was the apostolic church, not the post-apostolic church that received the canon. Haller states correctly that there was disagreement within the apostolic church over the issue of circumcision, but it was not the disagreement that was canonized. The canonical NT Scriptures endorse only one position concerning Gentile circumcision, and it is on the basis of these statements in the canonical New Testament about clean and unclean foods and circumcision of Gentiles that the post-apostolic church recognized that it was not bound by the dietary or ritual laws of the OT. Combined with the recognition that Jesus and the apostles (as recorded in the canonical gospels and the epistles) nonetheless continued to appeal to the OT moral commands as binding, this led the post-apostolic church to develop the hermeneutic that begins to appear in the Church Fathers, continues in the Medieval church, and is echoed not only in Richard Hooker and the 39 Articles, but also in such writings as the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1.22; 2.2,5,7) and Formula of
Concord (arts. 6, 10). So Haller makes a fundamental error in failing to distinguish between the apostolic and post-apostolic church, between the church that created the canon of Scripture, and the church that receives the canon of Scripture.

Almost equally disastrous, Haller fails to distinguish properly between the Catholic (or universal Church) and the local or national church. Haller seriously misrepresents the Anglican Church’s historic understanding of its own position. Over against the Windsor Report, he appeals to an Anglican notion of the autonomy of national churches, but in doing so contradicts basic principles of Anglican theology. The Preface to the Book of Common Prayer allows for “different forms and usages . . . provided the Substance of the Faith be kept entire; and that, in every Church, what cannot be clearly determined to belong to Doctrine must be referred to Discipline . . .” “Discipline” here refers to worship and canons, not to morals. The classic appeal of Anglican theology was never to particularity, but to universality. The Anglican apologist John Jewel’s classic argument against abuses of the late Medieval church was that they were innovations, departures from the universal faith of the patristic Catholic Church. Jewel conceded that if any of the controversial practices to which Anglicans objected could find support in the church of the first five centuries that he would “give over” to his opponents (John Jewel, An Apology of
The Church of England). To the contrary, Haller wants to lay claim to just such an innovation as an example of Anglican genius!

Moral Law

Second, Haller misleadingly quotes Richard Hooker to the effect that the permanently binding moral laws of the OT are to be identified exclusively with the Ten Commandments. That Hooker distinguished between the positive laws of the OT and the “moral law” of the “Two Tables” does not mean that Hooker (or any other classical interpreter) understood the moral law to consist exclusively of the Ten Commandments or that any part of OT Law that was not part of the Ten Commandments was therefore regarded as positive law (and thus no longer applicable).

For classical interpreters of Scripture (Catholic, Protestant, Anglican), the moral authority of the Ten Commandments was understood to encompass related moral principles that were mentioned elsewhere in Scripture. (So for example, Thomas Aquinas: “[O]ther moral precepts added to the decalogue are reducible to the precepts of the decalogue, as so many corollaries.” Summa Theologiae 1.2.100.10; cf. 1.2.100.5) The command to hon­or one’s mother and father was understood to include respect for all who held legitimate authority. The command not to murder was understood to prohibit all illegitimate force or violence. The command not to steal prohibited all unjust acquisition. The command not to bear false witness prohibited any harm done by word. And the command not to commit adultery was understood as a prohibition of all illicit sexual activity, not just adultery proper, but any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, including pre­marital sex (fornication) and, indeed, homosexual activity. The Ten Commandments were not an exclusive list of moral teaching, but a summary of the basic principles behind all moral law.

Biblical interpreters understood that other biblical material besides the Ten Commandments contains moral law—the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2, other Mosaic material, the Wisdom literature, the Psalms, the Prophets, and, of course, New Testament material, including the Sermon on the Mount and the moral
expositions in the Epistles. When Haller states that because the biblical
prohibitions against same-sex activity are not part of the Ten Commandments, they are “precisely the sort of law the church has the power to reject or enforce as it sees fit,” he has it exactly backward. Because these prohibitions are part of the moral material of the Old Testament that is summed up in the Ten Commandments, and endorsed again in the New Testament with no qualifications and no exceptions, they are precisely the sorts of law the Church has never felt itself free to reject or enforce as it sees fit.

Classic Interpreters: Augustine, Aquinas, Hooker

That this is clear can be seen in the precedents for Hooker’s hermeneutic found first in the Patristic and then in the Medieval period. Patristic interpreters of Scripture were concerned to provide principles to discern what parts of Scripture were permanently binding on the Christian, and which were of temporary significance. In The Confessions, Augustine addresses the problem of those who are troubled in Scripture by what we would now call cultural relativism, for example, the polygamy of the Old Testament patriarchs. Augustine recognizes that “times change because they are times.” Nonetheless, the basic principles of biblical morality are clear: to love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbor as oneself. However, for Augustine, the love principle is not an abstraction. Since God is Creator of the universe, his commands always reflect these two principles and are always to be obeyed, even if they are contrary to the customs of a particular people. As a specific example of a practice that would always be contrary to the principles of love of God and neighbor, Augustine mentions “the acts of the Sodomites.” Same-sex sexual activity would always be condemned by divine law because it conflicts with the
nature of humanity as created by God, destroying the bond of love that should exist between God and humanity by violating the human nature of which God is the Creator (Confessions 3.8.15).

In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas established distinctions between various kinds of biblical law that provided guidance in distinguishing between parts of Scripture that have permanent authority for Christian action and those that do not. These distinctions were later echoed in Richard Hooker’s The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Aquinas distinguished between the Eternal Law, the Natural Law, Human Law, the Old Law (of the Old Testament) and the Law of the Gospel or the New Law (of the New Testament). The eternal law is the divine wisdom directing all created things to their proper ends. Natural law is human law that partakes of right reason, and so is ultimately derived from the eternal law. The Old Law (OT Law) was given by God to the Hebrew people, points to Christ as its fulfillment, and contains moral, ceremonial, and judicial precepts. The moral precepts correspond to the natural law; the ceremonial precepts provide instruction for divine worship; the judicial precepts
determine how justice is to be maintained among human beings. The New Law is the Law of the New Testament written on human hearts. The New Law is chiefly the grace of the Holy Spirit, given through faith in Christ. The New Law enables the fulfillment of the Old Law by justifying sinful human beings, and by enabling Christians to exhibit the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the natural virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Although the moral precepts of the Old Law are still binding on the Christian (and are fulfilled by the exercise of the moral and theological virtues), the ceremonial and judicial precepts are not. They had a specific application to the historic nation of Israel as a covenant people that no longer pertains in the Christian community (S.T. 2.2.90-108).

Thomas regarded heterosexual marriage as part of natural law, part of God’s
intention for humanity in the original creation (S.T. 1.92, Supplement, 41).
Homosexual activity was forbidden because it was “contrary to nature,” i.e., a
violation of the complementary nature of humanity as created male and female
(1.2.154.11-12).

As in Aquinas, the hermeneutical key that Richard Hooker used to unlock the Church’s interpretation and application of Scripture was law, thus the title of his book, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker’s discussion of law parallels that of Thomas Aquinas fairly closely. Like Aquinas, Hooker distinguished between eternal law, natural law, and positive law. Eternal law is the being of God himself, “which is a kind of law to his working.” Natural law is the law by which creatures follow God’s intentions for their order. (Laws 1.2.3-4)

According to Hooker, all human law is founded on the two great commandments to love God and neighbor (1.8.7-8). In discussing human law, Hooker distinguishes
between natural law (based on God’s intentions for humanity in creation, and which binds universally) and positive law (intended for the good of human society, but not necessarily universally binding). (1.15.1). Hooker also distinguishes between laws grounded in unfallen human nature—laws that promote the inherent good of humanity, and would obtain even if human beings had never sinned—and laws following from the fall, laws that restrain evil in a fallen world (1.10.7). Hooker also speaks of supernatural law—law oriented toward salvation, and demanding grace for its fulfillment (1.15.2).

How does Scripture guide the Church in the making of its own law? According to Hook­er, Scripture gives examples and laws, some natural and some positive. These laws and examples do not cover every case, but they provide precedents. Natural law is always binding: “Natural laws direct in such sort, that in all things we must for ever do according unto them.” The positive law contained in Scripture is binding unless God has abrogated it by revelation. Finally, when the Church makes its own positive laws, these cannot be contrary to either the natural law or the principles laid down in the positive laws contained in Scripture (3.9.2). Laws made for human beings, or societies or churches, may be changed insofar as the organization itself is not permanent. Thus the ceremonial laws of ancient Israel are not permanently binding on the Church. The gospel is “eternal, . . . whereas the whole law of rites and ceremonies, although delivered with so great solemnity, is notwithstanding clean abrogated, inasmuch as it had but temporary cause of God’s ordaining it.” (1.15.3).
Similarly, the judicial laws of the Old Testament are not binding on modern
societies, although the moral principles on which they are founded still oblige.

How would Hooker’s principles of biblical interpretation apply to the current
issue of controversy, the practice of same-sex sexual relations? Hooker
mentions homosexual activity in a Latin footnote, where he cites a source to the effect that it is “contrary to nature.” (1.12.2 note 2). But what Hooker says about heterosexual marriage is more relevant. It is clear that, for Hooker, while there are positive laws and customs associated with (heterosexual) marriage, marriage is itself a matter not of positive, but of natural law. So on the question of consanguinity in marriage, specifically whether first cousins should be allowed to marry, Hooker says that the Church must follow the natural law as expressed in Scripture. Where Scripture does not speak, the Church is allowed to make its own laws about marriage, so long as they do not conflict with Scripture’s plain teaching (3.9.2).

As an example of just such a case of the Church’s freedom, Hooker endorsed the
exchange of wedding rings (despite Puritan objections that they were not mentioned in the Bible) as a symbol of the faith and fidelity demanded in marriage, which is founded on God’s original decision to create humanity as male and female: “Man and woman being therefore to join themselves for such a
purpose, they were of necessity to be linked with some strait and insoluble
knot. The bond of wedlock hath been always more or less esteemed of as a thing
religious and sacred.” (5.73.3) It is clear that, for Hooker, life-long exclusive heterosexual marriage is rooted in natural law—God’s intentions for human nature in creation—and cannot be abrogated or altered without violating its essential structure.

Contemporary Implications

There is a danger that discussions about the authority of Scripture may turn into exercises in exegetical casuistry. We can use Scripture the way lawyers use case precedents either to vindicate or convict a defendant. The focus of concern can become: What can I get away with? What meaning will the text bear? Can it be read to further my cause? A “minimalist” interpretation of Scripture can be as guilty of this as is a Puritan tendency toward “maximalism.” There is a danger of focusing on the texts as documents, and for­getting that the Scriptures are not self-referential. They speak of a reality beyond them­selves—namely God’s creation and redemption of the world and humanity in Jesus Christ. The purpose of exegesis is not only to decipher the grammatical meaning of the text or to find precedents for permissible or impermissible behavior, but to allow oneself to be formed and transformed by the reality to which the Scriptures refer so that one can find oneself within the Bible’s
story of creation and redemption. But in order to do this, one must be willing to hand oneself over to the world of the text, to allow oneself to be challenged and even changed by it.

Aquinas and Hooker both follow Scripture in an attempt to understand that intelligible reality to which Scripture points. Both Aquinas and Hooker use the
language of law, but for both, “law” illustrates more fundamental themes by which they try to understand and re-tell the Christian story. For both Aquinas and Hooker, the story of redemption is primarily one of creation and re-creation. For both, the “eternal law” has to do with God’s very nature and with God’s intentions for humanity from all eternity, expressed in the original creation. “Natural law” is the moral embodiment of this eternal law in that human beings need to follow certain paths in order to fulfill God’s intention for them. Post-Reformation discussions of natural law have focused too often on the extent to which the contents of morality can be known apart from revelation, but for Aquinas and Hooker, the key thing about natural law is that it expresses God’s original intention for humanity, as expressed in the Genesis narratives, the Ten Commandments, and other moral law found in Scripture. In addition to the natural law, which expresses God’s intentions for human beings always and everywhere, there is positive law, which has to do with the rules human beings need to live together day by day in a fallen world. Because
cultures and conditions change, positive law changes, but positive law is good law only to the extent that it conforms to natural law, God’s intentions for humanity from all eternity. And, above all, there is humanity’s re-creation in Jesus Christ, which alone enables one to fulfill the moral law. This is illustrated in Aquinas’s equation of the “New Law” with a principle that is not “law” at all, the grace of the Holy Spirit, given through faith in Christ, or with Hooker’s assertion that after the fall, union with God is only made possible through Christ’s death and resurrection, and the grace of the Holy Spirit (1.11.6).

Sexuality plays an important but limited role in all of this. The eternal law
has to do with God’s intentions for humanity in our creation and redemption,
and it is fulfilled in the twofold command to love God and neighbor. But love
of God and neighbor is not merely a matter of good intentions. Both are to be
lived out within the structures of God’s intentions for humanity in creation
and re-creation in Christ. When God created humanity, he created us in his
image, as male and female. That we are male and female demonstrates that human
beings are not self-sufficient. We are created to be in fellowship with one
another and with God, and the complementarity of the two sexes illustrates that
God did not intend us to be alone. (Particularly helpful here is Karl Barth,
Church Dogmatics 3.1, 41; 3.2, 45; 3.4.54.) In addition, the complementarity of
the sexes points typologically to the union between Christ and the Church.

In creating humanity as male and female, God also created sexuality, and
marriage and the family as the proper structure for the complementary union
sacramentally symbolized by sexuality, as well as the procreation of children
that is the other intended end of sexuality. In a historical world, there are
numerous cultures, each with its own positive laws that regulate the social
structures of marriage. Because the union between man and woman is a symbol of
the union between Christ and the Church, the Church will need ritual and
symbols to celebrate and solemnize that union, regulated by ecclesial law. In a
fallen world, men and women often will pursue sexual fulfillment in ways
contrary to the life-long complementary union God intended in creating humanity
as male and female, and thus there will be need for laws—moral, civil, and
ecclesiastical—to prevent abuse and to guide in doing what is right. There will
also be need for confession, forgiveness, and absolution.

Both Aquinas and Hooker would have granted that the positive laws (both civil
and ecclesiastical) that regulate heterosexual marriage might well differ from
time to time and place to place. Marriage customs may vary, for example,
whether couples exchange wed­ding rings or go on honeymoons. The regulations by
which society and church try to pre­vent moral abuses of sexuality may also
vary. What would not have been conceivable for Augustine, Aquinas or Hooker
would have been that the permissible arena of sexual relations themselves might
be changed, since the restriction of sexual relations to life-long exclusive
heterosexual marriage was not part of positive, but of natural law—the
expression of the eternal law that was God’s intention for humanity expressed
in the original creation of humanity in the image of God as male and female, as
stated first in the Genesis accounts, but echoed in many places throughout the
Scriptures.

It is this distinction between (1) the morality that is rooted in God’s
permanent unchanging intentions for humanity in its original creation and its
re-creation in Christ, and (2) the different social circumstances under which
society and church attempt to promote and regulate morality in positive law
that stands behind Art VII of the 39 Articles. The distinction between moral
and positive law is not a “minimalism” that allows as permitted everything that
is not specifically forbidden by the Ten Commandments.

In conclusion, Haller is to be commended for his reminder that not everything
that is contained in Scripture has permanent moral authority, for all times and
in all places. As Augustine pointed out, customs change because times change.
Haller is also to be com­mended for his recognition that the historic Church
has developed a hermeneutic to distinguish between moral matters contained in
Scripture (which are always obligatory), and matters of ceremony or civil law.
As Haller reminds us, Hooker and the 39 Articles are good guides to this
understanding. But Haller seriously misleads when he implies that this
distinction makes room for a change in the Church’s historic opposition to
homosexual practice. What the Church’s historic hermeneutic allows for are
variations in social and religious practices and laws having to do with
exclusive life-long heterosexual marriage. But heterosexual marriage is itself
a divine institution, grounded in creation. A faithful reading of Scripture
understands that sexual relations are restricted to the context intended by God
when he created humanity in his image, as male and female.

–Dr. William Witt earned his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and serves as a layman in the diocese of Connecticut, where he is active in SEAD Northeast

You can read the post here with lots of links (near historical documents) and the comments.

1 comment:

Tobias said...

This is a short response to Dr Witt's long and thoughtful rejoinder to my short essay on the authority of the Church in relation to the Scripture. I will attempt to address some of the issues he raises.

His response reflects, I find, the major problem with the “reasserter” side of the debate: the tendency to reassert the premise rather than to argue in its support, to restate the premise in other forms, or assemble authorities who restate the premise. This is the logical fallacy of “begging the question.” The difficulty is that it is precisely the premise upon which we disagree: that, as Witt puts it, “sexual relations are restricted to the context intended by God when he created humanity in his image, as male and female.” The question is, is this assertion accurate?

Strangely enough, Witt appears to deny and then concede a basic assumption upon which I work. In one paragraph he says, that I and some other “revisionists” insist “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—a handy trick if one can pull it off,” and then two paragraphs later, concedes, that I “point out correctly that the Church has not considered itself to be bound by every prescription or proscription in Scripture. (Which is the primary theses of my essay, by the way). Witt recognizes that the Church has developed a hermeneutic by which it decides which passages of Scripture are considered normative for ethical guidance and which are not.

However, Witt mis-summarizes the argument (as he did the argument of the paper to which I contributed a few years ago, “Let the Reader Understand”) as “The Church does not obey what the Bible says about X; therefore the Church does not have to obey what the Bible says about same-sex sexual relations.” (This is the so-called "Shellfish" approach). A correct summary would be, “The Church has formally set aside the biblical requirement or prohibition concerning X, and _the same principles_ on which it did so may be applied to the case of same-sex relationships.” Perhaps Witt does not see the difference between these two statements; if so, we may be at the nub of the disagreement. For I am not advocating an “anything goes” view, in which the church can set aside _anything_ because it has set aside _something,_ but one based on the consistent application of the principles actually at work in the church’s authoritative judgment as to what is right and wrong, moral or immoral. Consistency is the watchword, to which I will return below. For the moment, I note that Witt does not actually address the list of hermeneutical principles with which I closed my essay, and which I believe to be consistent with the principles historically used by the church (at least our Anglican branch of it) in making its judgments concerning Scripture.

Witt then launches into an interesting, but I think off-the-point, analysis of church history. I am quite aware of the distinct meanings given to the word _church_ in my essay, and since Witt correctly understands when I move from one to the other I fail to see why he finds this ambiguous. Where we differ is in his belief that my use of “the national church” is idiosyncratic. He asks, “In what sense can a small American denomination of less than 2 million members, and less than a million regular communicants, think of itself as the ‘church’?” I would respond, first of all, that it is the church to which I belong, the one in which I was baptized, and the one that ordained me a priest. More importantly, I would ask, How did the Church of England (admittedly more “national” in the sense of uniformity than is the Episcopal Church in the Americas, but still not unanimous in that there were many loyal Roman Catholics in England) at the time of the Reformation become so bold as not only to interpret and apply the Scripture to its liking, but to alter the canon of Scripture itself? Many folks forget that Anglicans removed from the Scripture books that were being used by the Roman Catholic Church to bolster some of the contentious arguments of the day (prayers for the dead, invocation of saints, and so on.)

When Witt says, “In recognizing the canon of Scripture, the church ‘interprets’ Scripture by submitting to its authority. It does not ‘judge’ Scripture” he is not only reversing his position on whether the church can set aside portions of the Scripture or not (which is clearly what I mean by “judging” the Scripture) but leaves hanging the question of “Which canon of Scripture are you talking about?” — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or Protestant? They are not the same.

Witt ends the first section of his response by repeating the reasserters’ claim that the sexuality issue is a matter of doctrine, not discipline, and of such a nature that no national church dare change it; again begging the question that is at the heart of the debate. In an effort to establish a doctrinal basis for his claim, he therefore launches into an attempt to undermine my argument that the “moral law” cited by Hooker refers back to the Decalogue (following Jesus’ own example when confronting the lawyer) and offers that homosexuality is “covered” under the commandment against adultery.

First of all this can at most put the question into the realm of moral or pastoral theology, not dogmatic theology. But secondly, the assertion that homosexuality is included under the rubric of adultery remains unproven. How do we distinguish which acts not explicitly enumerated come under the Decalogue and which don’t — for clearly we do make such decisions! That very act is part of the interpretative process, since the "plain text of Scripture" in the Ten Commandments makes no explicit mention of the hotly contested issues that center on two verses from Leviticus.

So what principles can we apply to determing what the Decalogue covers? That is the question that must be answered. The concluding principles at the end of my essay, the second of which acknowledges that many other matters do come under the sway of the Decalogue or Christ's Summary, are an effort at such an answer, but Witt fails to address them.

So we then come to a favorite tool of the reasserters: a collection of reassertions. But it is not enough simply to show that Augustine or Aquinas or Hooker thought so-and-so, or even Saint Paul. The assembly of a florilegium tells us no more than that the preponderance of the Christian tradition thought homosexuality was wrong. We know that. The question is, were they correct in this?

The “classical” argument, as Witt summarizes it (citing Augustine), is that “Same-sex sexual activity would always be condemned by divine law because it conflicts with the nature of humanity as created by God, destroying the bond of love that should exist between God and humanity by violating the human nature of which God is the Creator (Confessions 3.8.15).” There are a number of problems with this argument, not least that we are now more aware of the fact (and I am bold enough to call it a fact) that same-sex sexuality is neither “against nature” nor “contrary to nature” but is rather part of the natural world, which admittedly we do not fully understand. This does not, mind you, make it morally good (or bad), but it does necessitate a shift in the argument from one based on “natural law” — especially one that takes the Genesis creation accounts as if they were historical records of the actual origins of the created universe (which reason should have prevented in any case, since the two accounts are not factually congruent in significant details concerning the very matter before us!)

To date, the primary argument of the reasserters, including Witt, is the restatement of the premise that sexual dimorphism somehow reveals a “natural complementarity” that limits the moral range of sexual behavior. He argues (following Barth) that the appropriate “other” in human relationships must be a member of the opposite sex. This is a weak point in Barth, bordering on heresy, since if, as Barth puts it, man can be man only in relation to woman, what of Jesus Christ as the complete and true man, whose relations to women were not of a sexual sort? (Indeed, to be fair, late in life Barth appears to have realized he went too far in this assertion, but was too busy to rewrite the relevant portions of Book III of his Dogmatics.) More importantly, this notion of a sexual basis for human society is contrary to Jesus’ teaching that “those worthy of the resurrection do not marry nor are given in marriage...” If there can be no society in the life of the resurrection (since the reasserters hold marriage to be the basis of human society), then what is the risen life about?

Finally, to return to the note of “consistency” I mentioned at the outset, as the ultimate “authority,” some reasserters (although not Witt himself in this particular essay) bring forward Jesus’ statement concerning the creation accounts. Surely his words on the subject should hold a central place if we are to understand God’s “intent for humanity” — that from the beginning God made them male and female, and for this reason a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. (Matt 19:5, citing Genesis 1 and 2). The reasserters take this as a prohibition of homosexual activity, generally completely ignoring that Jesus intended it as a prohibition of divorce. When I begin to hear the reasserters state that divorce is contrary to the natural law, and God’s positive law and “intent for humanity,” and call for the resignation of all divorced and remarried clergy (including some of their most vocal leadership) and the prohibition of the ordination of such people, and the threat of dissolution of communion and division of the churches should all these demands not be met, it will then and only then be time to take up the secondary question and see if this citation from the Gospel has anything whatsoever to do with same-sex relationships. They should take Jesus at his word before applying his words by conjecture to another question entirely.

The good ship ELCA...

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