Theologian William Witt has posted a substantial and thoughtful article entitled The Hermeneutics of Same-Sex Practice: a Summary and Evaluation. In it, he reminds Christians, and especially Anglicans, of the answers given long ago by Church Fathers (Augustine, Aquinas, Jewel and Hooker) to issues which present a challenge to the Church’s traditional reading of Scripture.
Today, the Church is beset on all sides by advocates for the full recognition of same-sex practices in the Church. They claim to have brought new insights to their readings of the passages in the Bible which have in the past been cited against same-sex relations. Professor Witt deals with them all—in a scholarly and charitable manner, to be sure—but ultimately he leaves them with no ground on which to stand.
We can all use a refresher course in the wonderful resource that is our Church fathers. Let me give some excerpts here from Dr. Witt’s article, but be sure to read the whole thing (and here is a link to it in a .pdf format).
He begins by surveying the views of a school which he calls “Selectivism”:
This position recognizes that Scripture condemns same-sex sexual activity. Despite this prohibition, its advocates insist, same-sex sexual activity is morally permissible. In short, the Bible is mistaken in what it says about homosexuality.
Advocates in this group range “from those who are rather straightforward in their rejection of what Scripture teaches to those who try to articulate a more nuanced stance.” In the former category are those like Robert Williams (Just As I Am), John Shelby Spong and Michael Hopkins, the former president of Integrity. To them, if Scripture says what it says, then it is just wrong.
In the “more nuanced” category are writers like Robin Scroggs, Tom Horner, L. William Countryman, Marcus Borg and Bernadette Brooton (see notes 8-13 in the article’s references). But all selectivists, no matter how nuanced their approach, follow a two-step process. They first identify “elements in the biblical text that can no longer be considered authoritative”; and then they argue for “countervailing positive themes” (e.g., liberation from oppressive structures; self-fulfillment) which can “compensate for these undesirable limitations found in Scripture, and . . . provide the legitimation for the Church’s approval of same-sex activity.”
Next, Prof. Witt takes up what he calls the “Revisionist” school. As its name implies, this group would recast traditional readings of Scripture so that the Bible “does not condemn loving committed same-sex relations”, which are “the only kind of sexual relationships the modern advocate is interested in endorsing.” Citing John Boswell, Dr. Witt writes: “What was condemned by the writers of Scripture was either exploitative same-sex activity, pederasty, or cult prostitution.”
Both of these two schools of thought, Dr. Witt points out, have serious contradictions. By admitting what the Bible actually says on same-sex practices, the Selectivists make it difficult for themselves to retain parishioners: “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.” And the Revisionists have to buck the great weight of exegetical authority—including, as Dr. Witt shows later, the authority of the greatest Church fathers.
A third school of thought in this area tries to argue that the Church can “change its mind” about sexuality. We’ve all heard variations on “the shellfish argument”, or statements like “the Church was wrong about slavery . . .” (to which Dr. Witt adds these other topics: “usury, Sabbath-keeping, divorce, blood consumption, [and] women’s ordination”). If the Church no longer holds to the position it once held on those matters, the argument goes, then why can’t it change its mind about same-sex practices, as well? Thus, a pamphlet prepared by the Episcopal Diocese of New York (“Let the Reader Understand”) states:
The 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.
Notice, however, the ambiguity in the term “Church.” The Diocese of New York wants to argue that a local church—ECUSA—has the “authority” to decide to dispense with certain Church doctrine, on the basis that “the Church” has done so in the past. But as Dr. Witt points out,
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. . . .
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 canonical 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. . . .
Finally, Dr. Witt summarizes the stances of those who proceed simply by closing their eyes and ears to what Scripture says (footnotes omitted):
The first of these appeals might be called “Enthusiast.” The claim here is that God is doing a new thing in the Church. The Holy Spirit is leading the Church into a new understanding of what it means to be the Church. It is claimed that the inclusion of practicing homosexuals in the Church is parallel to Gentile inclusion in the early church in which at first only Jews had been members. As the Holy Spirit led the apostle Peter to admit the Gentile Cornelius to the Church (Acts 10), and had led the Council of Jerusalem to realize that Gentiles did not have to keep the Mosaic law to become Christians (Acts 15), so, it is claimed, the Holy Spirit is leading today’s Church to recognize that those who practice same-sex sexual activity should be welcomed into the Church as well.
Parallel to the above argument is an appeal to” inclusivity.” The theological basis is often a doctrine of baptism, understood as something like a membership card. Former Episcopal Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning’s motto –“There can be no outcasts in the Episcopal Church”–has become a mantra of a doctine of “inclusivism.” It is suggested that for the Church to forbid same-sex sexual activity is to deny the baptismal rights of homosexuals. Advocates note that the “Baptismal Covenant” in the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer commands us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons . . . respecting the dignity of every human being.” It is said that this must include gay men, lesbians, and transsexuals as well. Advocates often appeal to Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners as providing precedent.
In this regard, acceptance in the Church of those who practice same-sex activity is also viewed as a civil rights or justice issue. Just as the American church had to overcome slavery during the nineteenth-century American Civil War, and to recognize that racial prejudice and mandatory racial segregation were morally offensive during the 1960’s civil rights struggle, as well as the 1980’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa, so now the Church must overcome homophobia—irrational prejudice against gays and lesbians. It is a requirement of the promises made in baptism that practicing homosexuals be admitted into the Church, their relationships blessed, that they be ordained as clergy. As it is sometimes said, “If we are not going to ordain gay Christians, then we shouldn’t baptize them.”
There are still other variations on these themes, and Prof. Witt encapsulates them well. After having done so, he proceeds to the “Evaluation” part of his essay. What all these approaches have in common, he demonstrates, is an appeal to cultural relativism:
The implicit argument behind such appeals is too often an appeal to cultural relativism. The assumption seems to be either that the Church’s decisions about such matters are arbitrary, or else that the Church bases its readings of Scripture on principles of modern (or post-modern) cultural enlightenment. The people who wrote the Bible did not know any better than to have slaves. They were taboo-obsessed, which led them to reject the eating of certain kinds of foods (like pork or shellfish) or to declare that certain people, for example, menstruating women, were unclean. They did not have the advantages of modern consumer capitalism, so they forbade the charging of interest. We know better than that now.
Dr. Witt then states the heart of his thesis:
What is lacking in these appeals to cultural enlightenment and modern relativism is any consideration of how the Church has interpreted Scripture in its past, and what kind of criteria it has used to decide what stipulations of Scripture are binding and which are not. Moreover, the arguments do not provide adequate criteria by which to decide why we should prefer contemporary criteria over ancient ones to evaluate which passages of Scripture are normative and which are not. Apart from prior principles of discernment and biblical interpretation, appeals to “inclusiveness” and “love” are meaningless abstractions. It is only possible to know whether the Church should be “inclusive” of those who practice same-sex activity or whether it is “loving” to approve of such activity if we already know on other grounds that same-sex activity is morally permissible and conducive to growth in Christian virtue.
And in the rest of his article, Prof. Witt canvasses the views of the Church fathers regarding the authority of Scripture. He points to the analytical framework established by St. Thomas Aquinas, building on the work of St. Augustine, which classified the various kinds of biblical law into a hierarchy: “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 first consists of God’s unchanging commandments, “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 eternal law.” As for the rest:
Human law (the law of societies or positive law) derives from natural law insofar as it is just. Insofar as human law is unjust, it is a perversion of law and is no law at all. 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 (again, creation is central here); 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 fulfilment 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.
To illustrate how Aquinas applies this framework to a specific question, Dr. Witt considers St. Thomas’ discussion of slavery (footnotes are again omitted):
How Thomas understood Scripture to bear on the question of slavery is illustrative of his hermeneutical principles, and directly bears on the objections modern people raise that the Bible may condemn homosexual practice, but it also permits slavery. Aquinas does not seem to have directly challenged the practice of slavery, either as it was practiced in biblical times, or in his own day. Nevertheless, his hermeneutical approach to the question made theological distinctions that make the practice of slavery problematic.
In his discussion of the Old Law, Aquinas allows the biblical narrative to challenge the traditional custom of slavery on which all traditional economies were based. Aquinas notes that the Old Testament is in conflict with Aristotle’s belief that, since the slave is the master’s property, slavery should be perpetual. Thomas notes to the contrary that, since the Lord God had delivered Israel from slavery, Israel was then bound to serve God, not the Egyptians. Hence, in Israel, slaves were not the owner’s property, and had to be freed after seven years, and allowed to rest on the Sabbath.
Similarly, Aquinas raises an important distinction concerning natural law in a discussion of whether slavery is an impediment to marriage. Aquinas argues that while marriage is a part of natural law (rooted in God’s intention for humanity in creation), and would have obtained even if there had been no fall into sin, slavery is part of positive law, exists only in a fallen world, and is a punishment for wrong-doing. Marriage is a good to be pursued for its own sake. To the contrary, slavery is an evil to be avoided for its own sake. On the question of whether a slave can marry against his or her master’s will, Aquinas appeals to the freedom enjoyed in Christ (Gal. 3:26, 28). The natural law as the foundation of marriage over-rides the positive law that has made a person a slave.
Thus, for Thomas, while the Bible speaks of both heterosexual marriage and slavery, they are not the same kinds of things, and they do not fall under the same kinds of law. As part of God’s original intention in creation, heterosexual marriage is a positive good, and falls under natural law, which is immutable. Slavery exists only as a consequence of the fall into sin; it is an evil to be avoided, and falls under the category of positive (specifically judicial) law.
Dr. Witt clinches his analysis of Aquinas’ position on slavery with this summary:
On Thomas’s principles of biblical interpretation, there would be no inconsistency in arguing that the abolition of slavery is consonant with the thrust of the biblical narrative, while what the Bible teaches about the normativity of heterosexual marriage is immutable because part of God’s original intention for creation. For Aquinas, classical and Medieval assumptions about slavery are qualified not by an appeal to cultural relativism but by three biblical themes: first, the biblical doctrine of creation of humanity in the image of God as male and female; second, humanity’s fall into sin and suffering (including slavery) that is a consequence of sin, and, finally, the theme of Christian liberty, as foreshadowed in Israel’s redemption from slavery, and fulfilled in Christ’s atoning work that liberates from sin.
From this point, Dr. Witt proceeds to draw in the similar analytical frameworks of the Anglican reformers, Richard Hooker and John Jewel. He shows how their approach to the same question of the kinds of biblical law echoes that of Aquinas, and provides present-day Christians with all of the tools necessary to meet the same-sex arguments head-on. In doing so, he points out the oft-repeated fallacy about the so-called “three-legged stool”:
In contemporary Anglican theology, Richard Hooker is often cited most famously for his “three-legged stool” of Scripture, reason, and tradition, to which the fourth leg of “experience” is sometimes added. There is no such three-legged stool in Hooker’s writings. To the contrary, an oft-cited passage is regularly misinterpreted to suggest that Hooker viewed Scripture, tradition, and reason as of equal authority. Rather, the passage has to be understood in the context of the central hermeneutical issue of Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity—how the Church recognizes which areas of Scripture are permanently binding and which are not. The crucial principle of the so-called three-legged stool is actually Hooker’s own affirmation of the principle of the sufficiency of Scripture already endorsed by Jewel. The original context of the passage is the distinction Hooker makes between doctrine and morals (which are unchangeable, and therefore permanently binding) and matters of church order and polity (which are changeable, and thus not permanently binding). Hooker stated: “The church hath authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another time it may abolish, and in both it may do well. But that which in doctrine the church doth now deliver rightly as a truth, no man will say that it may hereafter recall, and as rightly avouch the contrary. Laws touching matter of order are changeable, by the power of the church; articles concerning doctrine not so.” This appears immediately before the famous passage and is the key to its interpretation “Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other [i.e., doctrine or order], what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the church succeedeth.” [Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1907, reprint 1954), 2 vols. Laws 5.8.2.]
I hope I have given enough of the flavor and direction of Dr. Witt’s article to encourage you to visit his site and read or download it in its entirety. Here is a final excerpt, from his Conclusion:
In conclusion, classical biblical interpreters like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Jewel and Hooker, remind us that not everything in Scripture has permanent moral authority, for all times and in all places. As Augustine pointed out, customs change because times change. At the same time, we need to remember 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. Hooker and the 39 Articles are good guides to this understanding. It would be seriously misleading, however, to conclude 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, for example, as Hooker, pointed out, the exchange or wedding rings, or what are the limits of marital consanguinity. 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.
If the revisionist attempts to find biblical justification or re-interpretation to justify same-sex relations fail insofar as they do not adequately take into account what Scripture actually says about sexuality, the extra-biblical attempts to find reasons for the Church to approve of same-sex activity also fail insofar as they do not take the biblical material into account at all. If theology as understood historically is faith seeking understanding, that is, critical reflection on the subject matter of revelation as witnessed to in Holy Scripture and Church tradition, then these latter approaches are not properly theological. Although both Scripture and Church tradition have much to say about the place of human sexuality in God’s intentions for humanity in creation, redemption, and eschatological beatitude, these latter approaches studiously avoid discussing this.