July 1, 2005

Episcopal Church Against Scripture

Erik Nelson has contributed a fascinating and typical work on behalf of the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD): fascinating in its use of false analogy and the slippery slope, and typical in its disregard for the actual text of Scripture, and unsupported assertions and generalizations.

For example, take the reference to Plato's Symposium. Nelson is referring to Aristophanes' famed description of the origin of sexual orientation in the splitting of primeval beings into halves. There is no evidence that Saint Paul was aware of this work, which, since it contradicts Genesis he would no doubt have dismissed out of hand. It is also abundantly clear from Romans 1 that Saint Paul did not believe in intrinsic homosexual orientation (which is "explained" by the story in Plato), but rather saw it as a perversion brought about as a consequence of idolatry. (Paul presages the Talmudic notion that this is a Genitle problem, not a Jewish one; a similar phenomenon exists in Africa today, in which homosexuality is rendered socially invisible. These come together in +Malango's recent comment that it is absurd to suggest that David and Jonathan may have had a sexual relationship because they were "married men." Apparently the "down low" is a phenomenon with which many wish to remain unfamiliar!) It is not difficult to believe that Saint Paul would reject the notion of intrinsic sexual orientation in the first century when there are plenty of "reasserters" out there right now who do the same, even in the light of abundant evidence to the contrary.

As to the changing nature of "morality" which Nelson seems to find so troubling, even his examples fail. Slavery is not simply tolerated in Scripture. It is mandated in certain instances, and approved in others. After all, Adam was created as God's "eved" -- the ambiguous Hebrew word for servant or slave -- and God's liberation of the Israelites from Egypt was not absolute -- it was because God was reclaiming his rightful property, whom he "bought" or "purchased" -- as Christ did the church! The language of slavery is intimately bound up with the mystery of salvation. It is true that by the time of Paul we get a more luke-warm tolerance of human slavery but note that Paul analogizes slavery with the proper relationships of obedience between the believer and Christ, in much the same way as he analogizes the relationship between husband and wife. But nowhere in Scripture is slavery condemned as immoral in itself. It was not until the 19th century that the challenges rose to the level of condemnation, denying the right of any person to take possession of another.

Ultimately it comes down to the question: What is moral? I can perfectly understand some folks who read, for example, Leviticus 18 and 20 and come away saying "These are eternal moral Laws to govern humanity forever." There does seem to be a tendency to group anything having to do with sex under the category of "moral." The problem is that some people skip over the laws they don't like to think about, or which would demand more of them then they desire to give. And I'm not talking about what Kendall calls the "shellfish" laws -- although one should note that the Christian distinction between "moral" and "ritual" is not in itself an OT idea; God told the people to obey _all_ of the Law.

Now of course, Jesus made distinctions about the law: quite obviously the "dietary" law. But he also touched on other of the Laws of Moses, for example concerning divorce. He held that the Law of Moses in this regard was a concession to human hardness of heart, and not part of God's original intent. Now that's quite astounding, don't you think, if you are going to regard everything in the Law of Moses as always reflecting God's will (or "being God's word"). Doesn't it raise a question in your mind that there might be other "moral" matters on which Moses' law is an _imperfect_ and all too human reflection of God's actual will for human beings? I'm not saying this "proves" anything, but it should give one pause before talking about "Scripture" as if it were a uniform body of laws all of which are equally valid and equally eternal and unchanging.

Let me give another example: a man divorces his wife and she marries another man. The second husband dies. Would it be "moral" for the first husband to remarry her? (This actually happened to my paternal grandmother, so it is close to home; she and my grandfather divorced, and then my grandfather remarried her largely because he wanted to be a real father to his biological son, my father, as he was growing up.) I think most people would find no problem with this from a moral perspective. Nor, as far as I know, would the church forbid such a remarriage. Yet the Bible does, and in no uncertain terms. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 even goes so far as to call this an abomination (using exactly the same terminology applied to certain male homosexual acts in Leviticus. (See also Jeremiah 3:1)

I think one of the problems is that people tend to see anything having to do with sex as "moral" -- when it can actually be cultic or cultural or even social. In the section of Leviticus dealing with incest and homosexuality, for instance, a man sleeping with his wife during her period is harshly condemned and entails a serious penalty. (Ezekiel continues the refrain on this wickedness.) But I doubt many people today would regard that as a _moral_ question, even if they find it distasteful.

So it is evident that some things about morality do change over time, and from culture to culture; and contrary to Nelson's slippery slope argument, it is not true that if one thing changes then everything must.

Christ gave us a standard for morality: it is called the Golden Rule. And he gave us the charge not to judge others, but to do good to others, in accord with this principle. This is the touchstone for morality from the mouth of the Son of God. We do well to hear what he says, and see all else through that lens of understanding.

Nelson's article is at Episcopal Church Delegates Argue Against Scripture, Not From It


Anonymous said...

Not a comment; rather, a question regarding St. Paul's knowledge of Greek philosophy. You wrote: "[T]ake the reference to Plato's Symposium....There is no evidence that Saint Paul was aware of this work, which, since it contradicts Genesis he would no doubt have dismissed out of hand." Yet I have always found it hard to believe that St. Paul was altogether unaware of or dismissive of Platonic philosophy; I Corinthians 13.12 too closely parallels the Myth of the Cave in the Republic. For that matter, Romans 7.15 closely parallels Aristotle's concept of akrasia: "For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I." As a non-specialist, however, I do not know what training in philosophy St. Paul is likely to have had. How might I learn more?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I am also not a specialist in the history of philosophy, but it is my understanding that by the apostolic era Plato's academy was operating at a fairly low level of influence. It wasn't until the revival under Plotinus in the 3rd century that Platonism made a comeback, and then in a much altered form. It is certainly true that some strands of Plato's teaching were current, especially in Alexandria, influencing even the Jewish writer Philo. This influence also shows up in the Wisdom of Solomon, which we can be fairly confident Paul knew well as he cites it almost verbatim in Romans; it was also part of his Bible. But it would appear that anything Paul knew of Plato would have been at third or fourth hand, passed through various Hellenistic sources. In general Paul seems to have been demonstrably familiar with Stoic thought; also he alludes to Epimenides (if I recall correctly) in the comment about Cretans (if that is an authentic Pauline text).

As to the specifics you mention, I think both of them are at least as likely of independent origin as dependency on Plato or Aristotle. The 1 Cor text is about the limitations of human knowledge, not the nature of being (I take Plato's Cave to be not merely about epistemology but reality itself, so it cuts deeper, I think), and the difference between looking in a mirror and perceiving shadows in a cave is different enough to make dependency on Plato as a source suspect. I would say the same goes for the Aristotle comment: this is, after all, a fairly common human experience as one struggles between ideals and inclinations, so again I don't think we need to posit a source relationship for two great minds coming up with a similar thought. And then Paul's conclusion is so different from Aristotle's (Paul seeing the answer to the problem in the external grace of God, while Aristotle works at the cultivation of virtue).

If you want to explore more along these lines James Dunn's massive The Theology of Paul the Apostle tracks down lots of links with Philo, but no direct ones to Plato. I imagine there must be more specialized texts dealing with exactly this question, but I'm not familiar with them.