January 3, 2005

A response to William Witt

Dr William Witt has written a long and thoughtful response 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 premise 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. 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.”

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.” 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 actually used by the church 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?

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?

Witt ends the first section of his response by repeating the reasserters’ claim that the sexuality issue is one of doctrine, not discipline, and of such a nature that no local or 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. 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 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 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 created order, 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 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...” 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’ own 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 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 to do with same-sex relationships. They should take Jesus at his word before applying his words by conjecture to another question entirely.

William Witt responds to Tobias Haller