Saturday, July 09, 2005

William Witt's Response to Tobias Haller

Just a quick response to some of Haller's points.

Haller complains that I seem to think that reassertion of the traditional position is sufficient. I hope that he does not think that I was trying to make an argument in “natural theology.” Haller did not make a case for same-sex activity, and I did not respond to one. I thought Haller was trying to make an argument for how the Church interprets Scripture. I think it fair to say that his point was analogical. Although Scripture prohibits same-sex activity, the prohibition is of the same kind as other prohibitions that the Church feels free to dispense with, and the hermeneutical grounds on which it can do so is the distinction between matters of morals, rites and civil law found in Art VII of the 39 Articles.

This is where the question of natural law comes in. For both Aquinas and Hooker, natural law, moral law, and the moral teaching of the OT are coterminous. Although both Aquinas and Hooker were scholastics enough to use supporting arguments, their primary task is theological in the strict sense, fides quaerens intellectum. How do we read Scripture? If Haller is to make the point he is trying to make in his paper he either has to show that the tradition was willing to consider homosexual activity a matter of ritual or civil (but not moral law), or that the tradition has misunderstood Scripture here. If he is unable to do this, my critique stands. One cannot legitimately use the distinction between ritual, civil and moral law to justify same-sex activity. The tradition has interpreted Scripture to say that this is a moral issue. The majority of modern exegetes agree that the authors of Scripture thought that this was a moral issue.

Haller finally gets to the real cause of disagreement between us when he says that “It is not enough to show that Aquinas or Hooker thought so, or even Saint Paul. [This] tells us no more than that the preponderance of the Christian tradition thought homosexuality was wrong. . . . The question is, were they correct in this?”

Yes, indeed, and this shows clearly why the disagreement between reappraisers and reasserters is not primarily about homosexual activity, nor about exegesis. The question has to do with the authority, not the interpretation of Scripture. The classic Christian tradition does not put Aquinas and Hooker and Saint Paul on the same level. As Kierkegaard pointed out, the distinction here is between “apostle” and a “genius.” Aquinas and Hooker were geniuses. Paul was an apostle. His writings are part of canonical Scripture, and as I pointed out in my paper, in acknowledging a canon of Scripture, the second-century church placed itself under the authority of that canon. If the plain sense of Scripture consistently advocates a pattern of sexual morality that confines sexual relations to marriage, and prohibits various other sexual activities, including same-sex activity—and there is no question that it does; the “radicals” are correct that Scripture has a heterosexist bias—then this should be enough for those who believe that God “spoke through the prophets.”

Haller is correct to point to Jesus’ statement about divorce. Jesus certainly believed that Gen. 1 and 2 provided not just a descriptive but a normative account of God’s intentions for sexual activity, as did Paul in 1 Cor. 6:15-20, and a good case can be made that Paul is deliberately echoing Gen. 1 and 2 in the structure of his argument in Rom. 1. And Haller will certainly get no argument from me that divorce should also be of prime moral concern. I am of the generation that first began to experience the effects of the modern divorce culture. There are those who are close to me whose faith has been far more shaken by being children of divorce than they have by the question of homosexual relations. And, of course, the majority of us whose sexual misdeeds have been heterosexual need to acknowledge our failures. The heart of Christian faith is about forgiveness of sins, of which there are enough to go around.

But if Haller really means to ask whether Scripture is “accurate” in what it teaches about sexual morality, then our disagreement is not about a question of biblical interpretation, and it is misleading to speak as if it is. This is a question of whether reappraisers and reasserters are really practicing the same religion."


Anonymous said...

Just for clarification. Tobias Haller and Shellfish have entered into a conversation here beginning about a month ago. Part of Haller's contribution here seems to be a re-posting of material he had already used elsewhere in a response to something I had written. What Shellfish posts here is a blog comment I had posted some time ago in my previous response to this previous material. As was Haller's, this is not new material.

Shrimp said...

Yes, and if you go to the June archives you can find previous papers by Witt and Haller and some responses.

I posted this comment as a stand alone piece because it is a beautiful piece of theological writing!

Tobias said...

Let me try to respond with some fresh thoughts on this.

1. The distinctions between "moral" and "ritual" are Christian: the Law of Moses makes no such distinction, and the people are to obey "all" the laws. After all, idolatry (the worst possible sin from a Mosaic perspective) is a matter of "ritual" since that is what it involves: the worship of idols rather than the true God. So the distinction between moral and ritual is not as simple as it might seem.

2. Christians since the time of Jesus and Paul, _have_ made a distinction between "moral" and "ritual" and what goes into which category has changed over time. Jesus did more than "declare all foods clean" when he made the comment about what defiles a person coming from the inside, from the heart. He was saying that external matters are not the location of morality -- it is the heart that counts. Matters such as circumcision and keeping the sabbath, and, yes, the dietary laws, which had "moral" weight for observant Jews were early on seen as matters of ritual only, and not binding on Christians. So it was Paul and Christ who first started making this distinction. Interestingly enough, things like slavery, which we now consider immoral, were not considered so by Saint Paul, unless the slave master was unjust or cruel.

3. There has been a tendency to see anything that has to do with sex as "moral." However, there are a number of OT laws relating to sexuality which are not followed by the church, and some are even reversed. The most striking of the latter is the Church's rejection of the Levirate Law --- what was required by Scripture is now forbidden. And this has to do with marriage! Also note that polygamy is allowed under the Law, but the church early on forbade it (probably more because of the Roman civil law than any particular moral qualms -- at least none were raised in the NT itself; the requirement for clergy in Timothy and Titus may reflect the desire to keep their home-life manageable!)

4. So it isn't enough to say "this must be a moral issue" simply because it is about sex. How _do_ we know when a matter is moral or ritual? We need to look at what the Bible actually says.

5. The only explicit condemnations of homosexual sex (male) in the Law are all connected with matters of ritual. The levitical text includes the description: "toevah hu" -- "this is an abomination," which is to say, a matter of ritual! As the BDB Hebrew dictionary puts it: "abomination -- 1. ritual sense: a. Isr.'s sacrifices; of physical repugnance. b. to God and his people: of unclean food; worshipper of idols; various objectionable acts; offering of children; idolatrous practices (sts. with other illegal acts) (intermarriage with idolaters); usu. c. pl. noun; of idols; idolatrous objects." The Deuteronomical texts refer to male prostitutes, apparently in some way connected with the idolatrous cults. Obviously we still consider offering children to an idol to be immoral -- but it's not because of the idol, but because we would say child sacrifice is wrong _quite apart from the idolatry._ Some might make the same claim about homosexuality -- but in doing so they are departing from the Scriptural text, and are necessarily appealing to some other rationale or authority. This is the nub of the problem, as I see it. The biblical situation in Leviticus is not relevant to our present discussion; neither is Romans 1, these are all plainly about the behavior of idolaters. That leaves us with the isolated words used in 1Cor and Timothy -- and they appear to relate to prostitution, again, about which there is little disagreement as to morality.

6. So is this a moral question or a ritual one? The OT uses the language of ritual; condemning homosexuality in connection with idolatry (as indeed Paul does in Romans 1). But what does this have to do with homosexuality that is _not_ connected with idolatry? This is why the church of today is discussing the question. We are not "ignoring" Scripture, but rather trying to be faithful to what it actually says.

The good ship ELCA...

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