February 19, 2010

Faithful Readings

I would like to conclude my response to Ephraim Radner’s review of Reasonable and Holy with a few comments on his views of my biblical hermeneutic. Perhaps the strangest thing in this strange review is that Radner appears not to recognize what I am doing as entirely within the range of the classical Biblical interpretation. I suspect his assumption must be something like, “If your result disagrees with the doctrinal tradition, then your technique or method must diverge from the exegetical tradition.” I may be putting words into his mouth, but this is the only premise that can make sense of his further comments. Taken on its own, as a premise, it is clearly false, as many people using identical exegetical methods, at various stages in the history of engagement with Scripture, have come to very different conclusions as to its meaning and application.

However, the least accurate characterization Radner makes of my biblical approach is to call it “Liberal Protestantism.” Liberal, perhaps, but only in the sense that Richard Hooker was liberal in comparison with Walter Travers. Protestant, but only in the sense of the classical Anglicanism of the Elizabethan Settlement, or the Evangelicalism of Luther, and certainly not in the mid-19th to mid-20th century meaning of the word. If seeking a cohesive message from Scripture — such as my own that its sufficient purpose is salvation through grace by faith in Christ (an aim Radner seems to find less than fruitful, as he puts save in scare-quotes!) — then he is equally guilty of such an appeal, when he criticizes me for not developing a “larger scriptural vision” along the lines of John Paul II. If anything, Radner’s approach, and what he appears to be asking me to do, is more along the lines of the liberal protestant academy of the late 19th century.

To take one example, which I referred to in the earlier post: Radner accuses me (I think) of misrepresenting Rob Gagnon on the question of Jesus’ use of porneiai. Here is Radner:

...On the issue of whether Jesus actually says anything about homosexuality, [Haller] attacks Gagnon on his reading of porneiai in Mark 7:21ff. as possibly implying homosexual practice.

Haller provides some straightforward initial questions, ones that are worth noting, and then pursues his general theme of same-sex references in the Bible as being primarily aimed at cultic prostitution. One might think that Gagnon is a rather silly man on this basis. But the reader is never told that Gagnon himself doesn’t put much weight on the very argument Haller attacks (half a paragraph, on a verse he questions as “authentically” Jesus’ in any case), while Haller, on the other hand, deals with the question at length (four pages).

First of all, to the accuracy of Radner’s characterization of Gagnon. From his reference to my book, one would think this was Gagnon’s only statement on what Jesus thought about homosexuality. In fact, it is the only text Gagnon can attempt to twist so as to put an actual condemnation of homosexuality (in his mind) into Jesus’ mouth. Gagnon, after all, is capable of such astounding statements as, “Jesus, both in what he says, and what he fails to say, remains squarely on the side of those who reject homosexual practice.” (B&HP, 228, emphasis mine) So much for actual fidelity to the text! However, I was addressing Gagnon’s earlier statement:

...No first-century Jew could have spoken of porneiai (plural) without having in mind the list of forbidden sexual offenses in Leviticus 18 and 20 (incest, adultery, same-sex intercourse, bestiality). The statement underscores that sexual behavior does matter. If Jesus made this remark, he undoubtedly would have understood homosexual behavior to be included among the list of offenses. (ibid. 191-2)

Contrary to Radner’s assertion, Gagnon expresses no doubt whatsoever that porneiai “undoubtedly” includes “homosexual behavior.” In addition, Gagnon holds very lightly indeed any doubt he may have that this verse is an actual statement by Jesus (“If Jesus made this remark...”) — for Gagnon, Jesus damns if he does say it, and damns if he doesn’t. This is a bizarre combination of Jesus Seminar color-coding and pure eisegesis — hardly what I would call sound scholarship. And yet this passage from Gagnon is quoted widely as a definitive summary of Jesus’ position on the subject, including in the Church of England’s House of Bishops’ position paper, Some Issues in Human Sexuality. Do I think Gagnon a “rather silly man.” No, but perhaps a dangerous one, whose agenda is at all costs to spin either what the Scripture says or what it doesn’t into an overarching message of disapprobation.

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I, too, of course, do have a “larger Scriptural vision,” though it may be that Radner cannot grasp it because he doesn’t share it. He dismisses my hermeneutic based on the “Summary of the Law” as if it were not in fact “a consistent moral ‘principle’ (discerned somehow as divine)” by which we are to understand the Scripture. I think that is exactly what it is, and from the mouth of Jesus himself.

This view is not some modern concoction out of Liberal Protestantism, as Radner thinks, nor is it a means simply to dispose of difficult passages, but the means to place them in their proper perspective in the over-all plan of salvation. This principle of biblical interpretation is the basis of Jesus’ and Paul’s own engagement with Scripture — and it is the font that waters the best reflections of the early church. As Saint Augustine put it,

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up the twofold love of God and neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. (On Christian Doctrine 1.36[40])

As Augustine later says, it is better to be accurate than not, and error should be corrected. But let the correction itself by clear and sound and specific — and not like the dense circularity of Gagnon, or the flippant dismissal of Radner.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Paul (A.) said...

From my reading, Robert Gagnon is not only silly and dangerous but also a dishonest scholar.

Silly in that he uses research on the mores of non-Jewish Semitic cultures to "establish" the mores of the Jews -- a tribe that went at great lengths to distinguish themselves from their Semitic neighbors as regards mores.

Dishonest in the example of his treatment of L. William Countryman's Dirt Greed & Sex, which he cites only to criticize Countryman's analysis of Romans 1 while wholly ignoring -- and wholly failing to address -- Countryman's entire first part of his book that establishes the terms by which he conducts his Romans analysis. Conveniently, Gagnon's book is sufficiently footnoted and indexed to make these omissions plain for one who looks.

But evidently Radner is unable to read Gagnon with a critical eye, probably seduced by shared prejudices. Doubtless there are many others similarly led astray. Hence Gagnon's dangerousness, which you correctly note.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

There's always the centurion commended by Jesus in Matthew 8 as he healed the Roman officers pais.

Gary's husband, Murdoch Matthew

Paul said...

I find the Summary of the Law to be a very useful check on dangerous misinterpretations of scripture. Over the centuries, the Bible has been used in defense of any number of atrocious acts, from the inquisition and pogroms against the Jews to the current use of the seven clobber verses. I prefer to double check "Biblical" arguments against the standard of Love, as Augustine commends. I also prefer a theology which provides real service to real people, instead of serving some abstract cosmological ideal that can only be explained in Latin.

Kevin Montgomery said...

Of course, there's then the question of how do you define "love" as something to judge parts of Scripture by.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

It is a good question, Kevin. But I think Jesus gives beginning to the answer, when it was asked by the lawyer: "Who is my neighbor?" -- and the continuation of the answer in his unpacking of the Golden Rule -- doing to others as you would be done by. The answer shows love as the gift of the self for the other, the greatest love being the gift of one's own life. So the means to test the Scripture and its application is to see how it promotes that community of mutual self-giving.

From London and in haste...