The Lion and His Table

The Lion and His Table
Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Interpretation of Scripture 2: Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals—13 Criteria for Distinguishing Transcultural, Normative Authority from Cultural Relativity


Introduction

The previous post suggested a list of thirteen criteria to consider when discussing the interpretation of Biblical texts and weighing whether they should be accepted as transculturally normative or culturally relative.  This concern arises for orthodox Christians, who take the Bible as God’s Word and seek to live under its authority.  Yet Scripture was given within cultural contexts and must be interpreted within cultural contexts, and these simple facts raise the present issue for interpreters of Scripture.

The present post offers some discussion for each of the thirteen criteria around the issues of slavery, women, and homosexuality.  There are still interpreters today who try to brush aside Scripture on the issue of homosexuality simply because of what Scripture says—or what they think it says—about slavery and women.  This all seems very logical to someone who reads Scripture with the lens of ‘liberation’ or the lens of ‘love’, but the logic does fall apart rather quickly.

My hope is that the following discussion of the proposed criteria—meant as discussion points to add depth to the conversation as well as guidelines for interpretation—will be helpful to many.

Discussion of the Criteria

1. Criterion of Exegesis.  A clear understanding of what the text was saying to the original audience may well indicate whether it is culturally relative or transculturally normative.  Ask questions such as: Who is saying What to WhomWhyWhenWhereHow?

*Slavery: The Old Testament bears witness to Israel’s practice of slavery as with its surrounding nations.  One must ask, therefore, ‘in what ways was Israelite slavery different or the same?’  (And it was different in important ways.)  Regarding the New Testament period, many slaves in Roman times were enemy captives (political or governance issues bear on the discussion); there were Roman laws governing the freeing of slaves; freedmen often continued in employment with the former household (economic concerns must be considered).  Yet, according to the New Testament, Christians radically reshaped the relationships of masters and slaves, encouraged obtaining freedom if possible, and condemned the slave trade.

*Women: In all cultures of Biblical times, women were generally considered subordinate to their husbands’ authority; modesty for married women included covering the head and being quiet in public gatherings; women were very rarely educated and therefore almost never authors or teachers.  In New Testament times, the Emperor Augustus tried to stop a new cultural practice of women dropping conventional restrictions and becoming sexually promiscuous.  Contextual issues abound for careful exegesis of texts regarding women.  For some interpreters, the use of the creation narrative in 1 Tim. 2.9-15 means a closed case: the text is transcultural.  Yet there are good exegetical arguments to consider against this (the issues are complex, and my view is, in part, that Paul is using a chiastic argument such that not teaching is paired with the example of being deceived, whereas not domineering over a man is paired with the example of being created after the man--not teaching is not a part of the creation but the fall narrative).

*Homosexuality: Various forms of homosexual practice were known in Greek and Roman antiquity, including pederasty (an adult male with a teenager/young man), living together/marital relationship, bisexuality, lesbianism, transsexuality/gender dysphoria, cross-dressing, priests of the goddess Cybele emasculating themselves and becoming women, homosexuals living openly or ‘in the closet,’ etc.  Also, there was considerable discussion about whether homosexual orientation was natural or a result of nurture.  [Not knowing these things has led to misinterpretations of Biblical texts in order to revise the Church’s 2,000 years of teaching on the subject.]
  
     2.  Criterion of Contextual Dissimilarity and Traditional Consistency.  A Biblical norm that is dissimilar to its cultural context and consistent with its own tradition will more likely be transcultural than a norm that complies with the culture of the day.

*Slavery: In a world where every culture practiced slavery and where it was an integral part of the political and economic realities, Christian households also continued the practice.  The challenge was to reform the practice.

*Women: In a world where women were uneducated and where modesty included quietness in public, Christian teachers nevertheless included women in the teaching they gave, allowed women to explain the Gospel to others, allowed women to prophesy, and probably had women serve as deaconesses.  Brief directives regarding women teaching and speaking pretty much follow the cultural context.

*Homosexuality: All Jewish literature from the time of Moses to the time of the Talmud (5th/6th c. AD) that mentions homosexuality condemns it, whereas there was considerable discussion about, say, divorce and remarriage.  Naturally, then, we find Jesus interacting with questions about the latter but not the former.  The situation changes as the Christian mission encounters cultures that did practice homosexuality.  In a Greek and Roman world that saw every sort of homosexual practice, that did not associate sexuality with religion (except the gods’ dislike of incest—despite their own behaviours!), and that permitted most forms of any sexual indulgence, including homosexuality (except that free-born Roman youth were not to submit themselves to homosexual acts of others), Christians held firm with their Biblical tradition in opposing homosexual practice.

      3. Criterion of Available Alternatives.  Where no choice really exists for actions or perspectives in a culture or context, the point may be situational and not transcultural.
     
*Slavery: The release of slaves could be difficult, unlawful, and unhelpful for the slaves. In some cities, as many as 1/3 of the population might be slaves.  The alternative more easily open to the first Christians was to reform the relationship within the slave system, as they did.
     
*Women: Very few women were educated, and they could well be susceptible to false teaching and the propagation of heresy if allowed to teach.  There also seems to be some concern in the early Church about gender confusion and promiscuity (1 Cor. 11.2-16; 1 and 2 Timothy).
     
*Homosexuality: People did have a choice about their sexual activity.  Sex was associated with the ‘one flesh’ act of marriage between a male and a female, and therefore all other sexual activity was declared sinful.  Beyond a focus simply on sexual acts, the early Church believed that passions of the flesh also could be transformed through the power of the cross of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit: people could not claim that they were simply a certain way either by nature or nurture and simply had to be true to who they were (e.g., ‘soft men’ were transformed, and persons thinking lesbianism and homosexuality were normal for them were able to be transformed by the renewing of their minds).

     4. Criterion of RepeatabilityIf something can be or was repeated in the same way under different circumstances, its authority may well be transcultural.
     
*Slavery: While slavery is found in both the Old and New Testaments, there is a considerable amount of change, as noted above, effected in New Testament writings that do not allow interpreters simply to say that the practice is transculturally normative.
     
*Women: If the focus is on gender distinctions, the Bible is consistently clear that there are distinctions.  Yet the expression of those distinctions may be culturally relative: a woman having long hair or an unmarried woman having no head covering may mean different things in different cultures.  In many cultures, teaching is not considered a criterion that distinguishes genders (although, in the West, affirmative action has, at times, made this a gender issue).  If the focus is on whether women should be allowed to teach, one needs to reckon with the fact that most societies today now have women educated just as the men (unlike in the 1st century).
     
*Homosexuality: Homosexuality was condemned in the Old Testament over against Canaanite, Hittite, Egyptian, and Babylonian cultures and in the New Testament over against Greek and Roman cultures.  It was condemned over hundreds of years by God’s people, as it was by the Church as Christianity spread from culture to culture for two thousand years.

      5. Criterion of Multiple Attestation (‘Cloud of Witnesses’).  The case for transcultural normativity is stronger the more we can demonstrate that there are multiple witnesses or proofs (different authors, different time periods, different types of literature [see next criterion]). 
     
*Slavery: References to slavery by different authors, in different time periods, and in different types of literature naturally raises the question whether it is transcultural.  Yet other criteria push against this, and the New Testament’s strong qualifications of slavery raise serious challenges for treating this as transcultural.  Moreover, there are significant differences to note between slavery in either the Old Testament or New Testament and what most people today have in mind about slavery: one has to ask to what extent the same thing is in mind even if the label is the same.
     
*Women: Biblical material, while patriarchal, also gives us an interesting variety of perspectives on the role and status of women.  If a woman is told to be silent and not teach in one text, we nevertheless find a woman (Priscilla) who knew the author (Paul) well and who engaged in teaching.  Whatever one makes of the evidence in the end, there is not a unified testimony from multiple witnesses on the role and status of women—except that there are clear gender distinctions that the church affirms as part of the way God made the world.
     
*Homosexuality: Different authors (‘Moses’—Genesis, Leviticus; ‘Joshua’; Paul; Jude) state outright that homosexual acts are sinful.  The Scriptures are consistent on this.  The consistent witness remains through hundreds of years.

      6. Criterion of Different GenreThe authority of a text is related to the genre, type of literature (e.g., narrative, laws, poetry, proverbs, history, prophecy, visions, apocalypses, letters, parables, etc.).  A point made in different genre may also be transculturally normative, and some genre are more likely transcultural than others (e.g., a narrative may simply describe a situation, whereas a law is meant to fit different contexts).
     
*Slavery: While statements about slavery are made in different genre, the texts are assuming rather than advocating or affirming slavery.  A cursory reading of Scripture—one lacking serious interpretation—may lead one to affirm slavery, as people have at various times.  (This has been a serious error.)

*Women: What is said about the role and status of women is not wide enough in the Biblical literature to be relevant to this criterion.  They key statements that people discuss are in Biblical letters.

*Homosexuality: The point that homosexuality is a sin is made in narrative, legal, and epistolary texts (in sin lists and in discussion).
 
      7. Criterion of Uses of ScriptureThere are different levels of appeal to Scripture.  The more levels of appeal that are evident in Scripture, the more likely the matter should be taken as transculturally normative.  (I would suggest four levels: specifying use (norms, rules), warranting (virtues, values, principles), witnessing (stories, examples, characters), and worldview (basic understanding of God, humanity, and the world).)
     
*Slavery: At the specifying level, norms regulate slavery but do not insist on it.  At the warranting level, slavery is not treated as a virtue, principle, or value except insofar as it is a metaphor for Christian service.  Nor is it seen as a value for Christian community, although slaves are seen as equally valuable within the Church as everyone else.  At the witnessing level, Paul gives an example of the treatment of slaves in Philemon.  At the worldview level, there is no creational view on slavery (as in the Babylonian creation myth); rather, human beings are said to have been created in the image of God.
     
*Women: At the specifying level, women are specifically told to be ‘quiet’—likely meaning not to be ‘disruptive’ in the meeting or to society.  They are told not to lord it over a man and not to teach, with the disastrous example of Eve in view.  Yet, at the warranting level, they are valued as equal members with men in the community, and husbands are to love their wives sacrificially.  At the witnessing level, there are stories of female heroes of the faith.  The husband/wife and male/female relationship is governed by an understanding of creation, while cultural distinctions may come into play as these understandings are practiced.  At the worldview level, both males and females are created in the image of God.
     
*Homosexuality: At the specifying level, clear texts state outright that homosexual practice is a serious sin.  At the warranting level, homosexual acts are considered ‘against nature’—not someone’s orientation but the way God made the world.  One’s orientation is, fundamentally, sinful, and most humans struggle with sinful sexual orientations of one sort or another that attest to the power of sin that Christ alone overcomes.  Much of the attempt to revise Christian teaching on homosexuality has stemmed from arguments at the warranting level.  One argument sees ‘liberation’ as a Biblical warrant to be used to challenge various social matters.  Apart from being reductionistic, there are many problems with so simplistic an approach to interpreting Scripture and doing Christian theology and ethics.  Most notably here, such a reading requires reading against the Scriptures and the Church’s teaching.  Another argument at this level attempts to redefine the matter around the value of ‘love’: relationships that are loving should be affirmed.  Again, this reads against Scripture.  Both of these values could be used to affirm incestuous marriage.  Vague values, like ‘liberation’ or ‘love,’ are always given clarity from sources other than the values themselves.  At the witnessing level, the stories of Sodom and Gibeah attest to God’s view of homosexual sin (and Jude 7 clarifies any confusion among interpreters as to whether the sin of Sodom was sexual).  At the worldview level, the story of creation establishes that sex is to be within marriage between a man and a woman.

    8. Criterion of Theological and Ethical Coherence.  An argument is more likely transcultural if it coheres with other theological and ethical ideas and practices and can be shown to cohere with both theology and ethics.

*Slavery: Slavery actually coheres with no theological or ethical system—it is not ‘needed’ but is actually made irrelevant to the Christian life.  It is describes Israel’s life in Egypt and captivity in Babylon, and it describes a person’s control by sin versus obedience to God.  Its only value for theology and ethics is as a metaphor.

*Women: The distinction of genders, the affirmation of marriage, and the equal participation of men and women ‘in Christ’ means that there is a Biblical view of women that is important to understand.  Yet this can play out differently in different cultural contexts.

*Homosexuality: The Biblical view on homosexuality fits into a more comprehensive view of sexuality.  It is one example of a sin against nature (cf. bestiality).  God created male and female—two genders—as part of his plan for his creation to be fruitful and multiply.  As idolatry is a turning away from the creator, so homosexuality is a turning away from the way the Creator made the world.

    9. Criterion of Rhetorical Exigence or Contingency.  A response to a specific situation might be a culturally relative or situational response.
    
*Slavery: This criterion is not particularly useful in this case.
    
*Women: When Paul addresses women’s silence in Corinth, he is addressing a host of other issues that divide this particular church.  When he address the issue of women’s silence, not teaching, and not domineering over men, he is addressing a situation of false teaching in Ephesus (1 and 2 Timothy) that is complicated: women are being told not to marry, and they have proven to be susceptible to the false teachers.  The rhetorical exigence in these churches weighs into our interpretation of the texts.
    
*Homosexuality: Despite attempts to find some contingency in texts speaking against homosexuality, those advocating this do not agree among themselves (offering conflicting suggestions of temple prostitution, pederasty, unloving and impermanent relations, and so forth).  Yet these are contemporary attempts to overturn the consistent view held by God’s people in Biblical times and the Church’s 2,000 year history.  The texts are quite clear that homosexual practice is a sin.  Paul is not trying to address a situation peculiar to this or that church but correct a cultural practice that opposes God’s purposes for sex.

   10. Criterion of the Author's Emphasis.  The more the point is emphasised by argument, authority, and emotion, the more likely the conviction is crucial and therefore transcultural.

*Slavery: There is no Biblical advocacy for slavery.  There are texts pressing in the opposite direction (note the emotion in Paul’s appeal for a runaway slave in Philemon).

*Women: Why is Paul emphatic in 1 Timothy 2 about women not domineering over a man, not teaching, and being ‘silent’ (not troublesome) in the church?  He is dealing with a heresy affecting women and attacking marriage.

*Homosexuality: Genesis (Sodom) and Joshua (Gibeah—also involving rape and murder) see homosexual practice as worthy of God’s destruction.  Jude appeals to the story of Genesis to warn of deserved punishment.  The Mosaic Law declares homosexual practice as worthy of the death sentence.  Paul declares that those who continue to practice this will be excluded from the Kingdom of God.

    11. Criterion of Church History.  The Bible is foundational for the Church and the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice.  The history of the Church’s interpretation of Scripture should be studied to see how the Church has understood the text in different ages and cultures as a way to check present understandings and to hear the Biblical text clearly.
    
*Slavery: The history of the Church offers a rich variety of views on this issue, addressing different aspects of it.  There are terribly bad examples of Christian practice and interpretation of Scripture, and there are inspiring examples of how various forms were opposed.  There are also lessons to be learned about the Church itself on this issue: where the Church as an institution compromised on Christian values and practices so as to relate to the State and its economic structures.  Significantly, the insistence in the 19th century that slavery is ‘Biblical’ is an example of cultural interpretation: reading the text in order to affirm the present practices of a culture.
    
*Women: There are diverse witnesses in Church history regarding women, wives, and their roles in the Church.  Again, the history of the Church gives both good and bad examples.  Confusing the discussion today is the fact that reconsideration of the role and status of women has largely been associated with a variety of other social changes in Western society.
    
*Homosexuality: The Christian Church has maintained a consistent witness throughout its history that homosexual practice is a sin.  Only in the past few decades have some mainline, liberal denominations in the West begun to question this witness.  All of them have been declining in numbers since the 1960s and maintain other views that the Church has rejected through the millennia—such as their denial of Scripture as God’s authoritative word in matters of faith and practice.

   12. Criterion of Meaning, Implications, Significance, and Applications.  The greater the interpreter can establish a relationship between the meaning of Scriptural texts, their theological and ethical implications, and the significance they bear on a given situation, the greater one can argue that the application has transculturally normative authority.
    
*Slavery: Biblical texts that explore the meaning of slavery further primarily do so in terms of its implication for Christian ministry.  While the social evils of slavery are opposed, the devotion and service of a slave becomes an example of the work of Christ and the character of a minister (over against, e.g., discussing ministry in terms of ‘leadership’ or ‘servant leadership’).
    
*Women: Paul’s discussion of women in the church, as noted, is part of a concern for implications in the church—its unity and heterodoxy—and part of a concern for gender distinctions (there is still a role for marriage and bearing children even if the Kingdom of God has come!).
    
*Homosexuality: What Scripture says about homosexuality has theological and ethical implications regarding creation, marriage, sexuality, and gender.

   13. Criterion of Central and Peripheral.  What is arguably central in Scripture is likely transculturally authoritative.  What we think might be peripheral may or may not be.

*Slavery: Scripture has no interest in advocating slavery.  Whether one is a slave or not has no bearing on eternal salvation.  While accommodated, it was not essential for Israel or the Church; rather, in both cases, certain evils of the system were argued against (Israel is to remember they were once slaves in Egypt, and masters are to remember that they have a master; slaves are to render service to God).

*Women: As with slavery, whether one is a male or female has no bearing on being in Christ.  However, gender distinctions, sexuality, and marriage are serious issues in the Church.  The issue of women teaching in the Church is not handled as a matter of sin in itself but, in this particular case (1 Tim. 2), as a problem that could feed false teaching in the church (as noted, above).  It is not so much a matter of Christian ethics as Christian polity.


*Homosexuality: Unlike slavery or the role and status of women, homosexuality is a matter of Christian ethics; it is a matter sin.  Homosexual practice is specifically listed as a sin that will keep one from the kingdom of God, and so it is a central, not peripheral, matter.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Interpretation of Scripture 1: Is This Text Culturally Relative?


The contextual interpretation of Scripture is relevant for ministry, missions, ethics, and theology.  The present discussion particularly has in mind the use of Scripture in Christian ethics by orthodox and Evangelical Christians--those who desire to submit to Biblical authority but have to ask whether a text is transculturally normative or culturally relative.



Thirteen Criteria for Determining Transcultural Norms
Versus Culturally Relative Teaching in Scripture

The following criteria are suggested for consideration when trying to decide if a Biblical text is transculturally normative (speaks authoritatively to all cultures and people at all times) or culturally relative (speaks to a particular culture, people, and time).  This issue arises because the Church accepts Scripture as the supreme authority for faith and practice—it has not been and is not taken by orthodox Christians as an important document for a community because of its antiquity.  It is authoritative because it is ‘God-breathed’: ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3.16).  While stated as criteria, they really indicate the kinds of discussion we have about Biblical texts and their continuing relevance.


1.     Criterion of Exegesis.  A clear understanding of what the text was saying to the original audience may well indicate whether it is culturally relative or transculturally normative.  Ask questions such as: Who is saying What to Whom? Why? When? Where? How?

2.     Criterion of Contextual Dissimilarity and Traditional Consistency.  A Biblical norm that is dissimilar to its cultural context and consistent with its own tradition will more likely be transcultural than a norm that complies with the culture of the day.

3.     Criterion of Available AlternativesWhere no choice really exists for actions or perspectives in a culture or context, the point may be situational and not transcultural.

4.     Criterion of Repeatability. If something can be or was repeated in the same way under different circumstances, its authority may well be transcultural.

5.   Criterion of Multiple Attestation (‘Cloud of Witnesses’)The case for transcultural normativity is stronger the more we can demonstrate that there are multiple witnesses or proofs (different authors, different time periods, different types of literature [see next criterion]). 

6.   Criterion of Different Genre: The authority of a text is related to the genre, type of literature (e.g., narrative, laws, poetry, proverbs, history, prophecy, visions, apocalypses, letters, parables, etc.).  A point made in different genre may also be transculturally normative, and some genre are more likely transcultural than others (e.g., a narrative may simply describe a situation, whereas a law is meant to fit different contexts).

7.    Criterion of Uses of Scripture: There are different levels of appeal to Scripture.  The more levels of appeal that are evident in Scripture, the more likely the matter should be taken as transculturally normative.  (I would suggest four levels: specifying genre/use (norms, rules), warranting (virtues, values, principles), witnessing (stories, examples, characters), and worldview (basic understanding of the God, humanity, and the world).)

8. Criterion of Theological and Ethical Coherence.  An argument is more likely transcultural if it coheres with other theological and ethical ideas and practices and can be shown to cohere with both theology and ethics.

9. Criterion of Rhetorical Exigence or Contingency.  A response to a specific situation might be a culturally relative or situational response

10. Criterion of the Author's EmphasisThe more the point is emphasised by argument, authority,       and emotion, the more likely the conviction is crucial and therefore transcultural.

11. Criterion of Church HistoryThe Bible is foundational for the Church and the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice.  The history of the Church’s interpretation of Scripture should be studied to see how the Church has understood the text in different ages and cultures as a way to check present understandings and to hear the Biblical text clearly.

12. Criterion of Meaning, Implications, Significance, and ApplicationsThe greater the interpreter can establish a relationship between the meaning of Scriptural texts, their theological and ethical implications, and the significance they bear on a given situation, the greater one can argue that the application has transculturally normative authority.


13. Criterion of Central and PeripheralWhat is arguably central in Scripture is likely transculturally authoritative.  What we think might be peripheral may or may not be.

The Parable of the Singer


The master walked with his disciples from Wales to Glastonbury, England.  He sent his disciples to the nearby villages to invite them to gather together in the countryside.  They did, but not many came.  Then the teacher began to teach.  He said, ‘There was once a singer who could sing so beautifully that she sang entire cathedrals into existence in these lands and far beyond.  Her voice rang from these fair shores like bells from the church tower, and she taught many, many people to sing her lovely songs.  People flocked to hear her, walking miles and miles through the rain of winter or the hot sun of summer just to hear her sing.  As they listened and began to sing, they felt themselves cleansed, as though her words were themselves a baptism forgiving their sins. Hope and joy filled their souls.  The land flowed with love and goodness and kindness, and the people discovered true faith in their hearts.  Her voice chased away corruption and injustice, inspired honesty in all things, and people fell on their knees before God in reverence.

‘Then the singer stopped singing.  At first, she sang verses that contradicted each other.  Then she started to correct herself even in mid-song, and she would try to sing things several different ways while her audience waited patiently.  She introduced the words of others, and she confused her melodies with other popular songs from the local pubs.  Finally, she lost confidence in her own voice and simply told the people to sing whatever song came into their own minds.  Slowly at first, then more and more, the crowds stopped coming.  People began to live their lives for themselves, and as they worked, there was no longer a song on their lips or in their hearts.’

The people who had gathered to hear the teacher teach wept.  Some remembered the days of long ago.  Others cried for what they never knew.  The disciples sat in stunned silence.  The teacher waited, and waited, and waited.  He looked about.  Then, suddenly, from the very back of the little gathering, a child’s voice started to sing—falteringly at first, then stronger and stronger—a beautiful and pure sound:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:

And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land.[1]

The master looked at the small gathering.  ‘It matters not that you are so very few,’ he said.  ‘What matters is that your song is pure and true.'

Then, standing up, he said, 'Let us go and begin again to sing.’



[1] William Blake, ‘And did those feet in ancient time,’ in Milton a Poem.  The words were set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 with the title, ‘Jerusalem.’


Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Parable of the Sheepdog With a White Collar


A report came out in the newspaper that there was a bishop who was attracted to other men and who was living with another man.  The bishop claimed that he was in a ‘relationship’ with the other man even though not sexually involved with him.  The disciples had great fun joking about this improbable arrangement, but their master was sad.  He said, ‘Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, because these are improper for God's holy people.’

Then the master told his disciples a parable.  ‘A blacksmith in this town had a sheepdog that was very well trained.  It won many medals and wore a beautiful white collar, of which it was very pleased.  The dog was very sure of itself, especially its ability to stay in control of situations no matter how chaotic things became.  Eventually, the dog took to playing in traffic.  ‘Look at me,’ the dog would say, ‘I am in control and safe even in the traffic on this busy highway!’

The master then stopped telling the story.  After a while, Peter asked, ‘Well, did the dog get run over?’  ‘Maybe,’ said the master, ‘but that is not the point of the story.’  The disciples looked at one another, wondering what the point was.  The master got up and walked away.


The next day, the disciples were walking along the road as they left the town of Abergavenny, Wales.  They suddenly smelt a foul odour and noticed a dead dog by the side of the road with a white collar.  ‘So,’ said Peter, ‘he did get killed!’  The master replied, ‘That is only a consequence to himself, sad as it may be.’  Then the disciples looked up and saw, behind a low fence, five puppies standing with their front paws on the fence, wagging their tails, and barking at the passing cars.


Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Issues Facing Missions Today 60: Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality


The following tables offer a ‘thicker ethic’ for discussing the Bible and homosexuality.  Too often, the focus in popular discourse—and among scholars—is only on texts that directly address the topic.  What the Church’s authoritative Scriptures say is, of course, at the heart of the matter—and what they say is perfectly clear.  The Old Testament and New Testament, narrative and legal texts, and sin lists in the New Testament recognized homosexual practice as sinful.  There is ample reference to the sin of homosexuality in Scripture where God’s people encountered other cultures and religions (Canaanite, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman) that practiced same-sex acts.  However, explicit texts on the topic are only one part of a Biblical ethic related to homosexuality.  Not only is homosexuality a part of a more all-encompassing Biblical sexual ethic; it is also a part of Biblical ethics in general.

The tables explore the ‘thicker ethic’ of Scripture and homosexuality in two ways.  First, the columns in the table cover three ways of considering ethics: character, actions, and ends.  The rows in the table examine the use of Scripture at four levels: concrete ethical guidance, more general warrants for ethics, Biblical witness for morality, and the Biblical worldview.  The table, therefore, incorporates different ethical theories without favoring one over the other so that what the Biblical text says might come into focus.  It also incorporates different uses of Scripture without presuming that a more general ethic of principles is preferable to a more concrete ethic of moral rules, for example.  Again, the Biblical voice is not drowned out by the presumptions of ethicists or the presuppositions of readers biased by their own cultures and contexts.  The tables are intended, therefore, as tools to ‘hear’ the voice of Scripture rather than as a methodology that might skew the results of Biblical, moral enquiry.  They are meant to be used for reflection and argument.

What the tables do not do is focus on questions that must be discussed beyond what can be represented in this format.  They are unable to engage in the exegesis necessary to understand the meaning of specific texts in their historical and cultural contexts.  They are also unable to explore fully hermeneutical concerns in Biblical theology and ethics—concerns related to the unity and diversity of Scripture and the appropriate use of Scripture by believers in different cultural and temporal contexts.  (Consideration of such issues would only strengthen the case, however.)  Yet the tables are able to flesh out some of the hermeneutical concerns over how we are using Scripture for ethics, and this is what results in a ‘thicker ethic.’ 

One final word on this is important: the New Testament nowhere sets out to challenge Old Testament ethics on issues of sexual morality, except to hold the Church to higher standards.  Thus, on the matter of a Biblical sexual ethic, concerns about unity and diversity in Biblical theology and ethics are not as significant as might be with other moral issues, such as on a question of war or laws pertaining to Israel’s unique identity (circumcision, food, special days, cultic practices).

Two tables are presented.  Table 1 sets out on a single page the overall categories (in the first row and first column).  Examples of what might be explored appear in the subsequent columns and rows.  So, for example, a concrete character ethic might explore habits, practices, roles, and social norms (mores, folkways).  Table 2 is broken up so that the different uses of Scripture appear each on its own page—but it is a single table.  It takes the categories of Table 1 and examines what Scripture says to the issue of homosexuality and related moral topics, locating the specific narratives and rules in Scripture on this topic within the larger, Biblical ethic.

Given Western culture’s reductive approach to ethics since the 18th century (when the goal became to discuss ethics around a single principle), this sort of exercise in Christian ethics is very important.  Many ethicists from the Enlightenment onwards—even in our day--have attempted to balance the entire weight of ethics on a single principle or two.  Immanuel Kant focused ethics on two principles: (1) treat others as ends, not as means; (2) the right thing to do for one person will be what is right for everyone to do.  Utilitarian ethicists balanced ethics on the single principle that we should do whatever will bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people.  In the twentieth century, ethicists in the West struggled to find some guidance within the human experience itself, a principle.  Thus, existentialists focused ethics on doing what brings self-authentication, and situation ethicist said that one would simply know the right thing to do when in the situation itself.  The latter often gravitated toward the single, vague principle of ‘Do the loving thing,’ which gives no guidance of any worth.  Yet, probably the most significant challenge to finding a thicker ethic by which to live in Western culture comes from the overriding principles of freedom and equality, understood in terms of autonomous rights rather than as being allowed to act out of conscience and for the good (however defined).

Christians face the problem of explaining their unique views in ethics over against an increasingly post-Christian culture in the West.  Grounding ethics for a community in authoritative teachings in a book, the Bible, and in the authoritative witness of the community over centuries, Christian tradition, sets the Church over against the culture on many moral issues, especially against the ethic of freedom from Christian norms in matters of sexual behaviour.  Wherever Churches revise their long-held beliefs on homosexuality, they are doing so because they have lost the vocabulary for Christian discourse and are adopting the language of culture.  No wonder, for example, Anglican provinces such as the Episcopal Church in the US, the Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church of Scotland, and lately the Anglican Churches of both Ireland and New Zealand—all in Western, cultural contexts, are affirming homosexual practice over against Scripture and the teaching of the Church through the centuries.  No wonder, alternatively, Anglican Churches not so dominated by Western culture are able to see through this moral fog and uphold Biblical and orthodox teaching on the issue.

Christians also face the problem of explaining a thicker ethic to the culture at large that thinks very narrowly about ethics.  The public square of Western ethics has a single, narrow gate through which all are expected to pass if they want to engage culture.  Christians are expected to unload their thicker ethic as unnecessary baggage and to unhinge the connections between narratives and virtue, principles and rules, values and consequences, or between character and actions and ends.  They are especially expected to remove any concrete guidance governing actions that comes from Christian authorities, especially Scripture.  Yet, if we are to be Biblical Christians, we will have to stand awkwardly in such a public square with all our baggage, standing out as some country bumpkins who forgot the rule to offer only a single, universal principle for ethics and who do not give maximal autonomy to ‘independent’ (which is neither possible nor desirable) reason.  Precisely in the peculiar figure we cut in the public square, however, whether as individuals or as a unique community, we will draw attention to a radically different alternative from the anemic, Western ethic. 

We must, however, learn the language of our rich, thicker, Biblical ethic.  To this purpose we now turn, offering the tables with their language and examples for further consideration.  Note that the information suggested here is indicative and not intended as exhaustive.


Table 1: The Use of Scripture for Moral Enquiry
Use of Scripture for ethics
Characters
(Argument: Analogy)
Behaviours (Argument: Authority)
Ends—Outcomes or Goals (Argument: Deliberation)
Specifying
habits, practices, roles, norms (mores, folkways)
moral actions, laws
Outcomes, reward or punishment
Warranting
virtues (and vices), honour or shame, innocence or guilt (conscience)
general rules, principles, definitions
intentions, values (and disvalues), pleasure or displeasure; deliberations
Witnessing
character, community, narratives, heroes and villains
duties, obligations, heroic examples
Performances (and their outcomes)
World View
the metanarrative of God and His creation
God’s eternal law and the natural order
God’s purpose and the world’s future




Table 2: Homosexuality and a ‘Thicker Biblical Ethic’
Character
Actions
Ends/Goals
Concrete Ethics
Gal. 6.1 (community: spiritual restore the sinner)
1 Th. 4.3-7 (abstain from fornication, control your own body, no lustful passions)
2 Cor. 6.14-7.1 (separation from every defilement making holiness perfect in fear of God)
Rom. 12.1-2 (bodies living sacrifices, do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by renewing of your mind)
Eph. 4.19 (loss of sensitivity and abandoned to licentiousness)
Eph. 4.22 (taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by lusts)
Eph. 5.3 (fornication and impurity not even mentioned)
Eph. 5.7 (do not associate with fornicators and impure persons)
2 Pt. 3.14 (without spot or blemish)
2 Pt. 3.17-18 (don’t be carried away with the error of lawlessness and lose your stability but grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord)
Specific Texts:
Lev. 18.22 (homosexuals);
Lev. 20.13 (homosexuals);
Rom. 1.26-27 (lesbians, homosexuals);
1 Cor. 6.9 (homosexuals);
1 Tim. 1.10 (homosexuals)
Punishments:
Rom. 1.27 (in their own persons the due penalty of their error), 28 (debased mind), 32 (deserve to die);
1 Cor. 6.10 (will not inherit the kingdom of God);
Jude 7 (eternal fire);
Eph. 5.5 (fornicators and impure persons will not inherit kingdom of Christ and of God)
Church discipline: Mt. 18; 1 Cor. 5



Character
Actions
Ends/Goals
Warrants
Virtues
1 Th. 4.3-7 (sanctification, holiness and honor)
Rom. 13.13-14 (live honorably, not in reveling and drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness…; put on the Lord Jesus Christ, making no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires)
Conscience: by rejecting conscience, some have made shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1.19)
Obedience:
Procreation Mandate: Gen. 1.28 (be fruitful and multiply);
Righteousness: Rom. 6.16-23 (slaves to sin or obedience, righteousness for sanctification)

Definition of Marriage:
One Flesh (Gen. 1.24; Mk. 10.6; 1 Cor. 6.16; Eph. 5.28, 29, 31)

General Moral Terms (e.g., debauchery, fornication)
Values:
Celibacy (E.g., Mt. 19.10-12; 1 Cor. 7)
Marriage (E.g., 1 Cor. 7)
Biological Genders (E.g., Deut. 22.5; 1 Cor. 11.2-16)
Virginity (OT Laws on sex and marriage; NT teaching on sexuality)
The problem with freedom as a moral value: people are enslaved to the ‘corruption of sinful desire,’ what masters them—2 Pt. 1.4; 2.19-20; Rom. 6.16-23



Character
Actions
Ends
Witness
Narratives:
Gen. 19; Jude 7; 2 Pt. 2.6-8 (Sodom);
Jdg 19 (Gibeah)
Examples of Actions:
Jude 7 (example of Sodom and Gomorrah)
Household Codes (e.g., husband and wife in Eph. 5.22-33)
‘Heroic’ Examples of celibacy (Jesus, Paul)


Examples of repentance and forgiveness (David, Ps. 51; John the Baptist; the cross)



Character
Actions
Ends
World View
Story of Creation:
Gen. 1.27 (created male and female)
Gen. 2.23-24 (Creation: woman taken from man, so man clings to the woman)
The Human Condition (the Fall): Gen. 3; Ps. 51.5; Isaiah 59.1-15; Rom. 1.18-3.20, 23; etc.
Desire:
James 1.14-15 (temptation—lured and enticed by desire—sin—death)
Desire/10th Commandment (Gal. 5.6, 17, 24; Rom. 1.24; 6.12; 7.7f; Eph. 2.3; 4.22; Col. 3.5; 1 Th. 4.5; 2 Tim. 2.22; 3.6; 4.3; Titus 2.12; 3.3)
Natural Law:
Gen. 2.24 (one flesh)
2 Th. 2 (man of lawlessness)
2 Pt. 3.3 (in last days, scoffers indulging their lusts will come); 3.9 (God’s patience); 3.10-12 (2nd coming, judgement); 3.13 (a new heavens and new earth ‘where righteousness is at home’)