June 13, 2014

NT Wright: Wrong Again

NT Wright is a distinguished scholar in the area of New Testament studies, but when he gets off his primary topic and into the muddy waters of the marriage equality debate he does not serve either himself or his reputation well, particularly when his comments are off-the-cuff in an interview. That being said, it should be expected that any competent scholar would be able to avoid the shoals of error upon which Wright founders in this conversation.

And a strange conversation it is. Wright begins by launching into an ill-informed and curmudgeonly argument about the meaning of the word marriage. His claim is that applying marriage to a same-sex couple is a total novelty — not just in English but across all cultures — and implies that the effort to give it that meaning is similar to word-torture by Nazis and the Politburo. Marriage, he claims, has “always been male plus female.”

He is obviously wrong when it comes to English; perhaps he is to be forgiven for not having heard of the 19th century “Boston marriages” in Durham. But as a scholar he is distressingly ill-informed when it comes to the language of Scripture. It has to be admitted that the Hebrew and Greek texts do not have a simple word for the concept of “marriage” — or for “husband” or “wife” for that matter, as the common words are simply the words for “man” and “woman” or (in the case of men, the equivalent of the word “lord.”) The Hebrew words for “marriage” normally revolve around the concepts of taking or carrying off — a relic of which still exists in our marriage rite as each spouse “takes” the other. And this language was applied to same-sex couples in the rabbinic tradition: it is used in Sifra Aharei Mot 8:8 in its interpretation of what Leviticus forbids in terms of the practice of the peoples distinguished from God’s people. “A man married a man and a woman a woman, a man married a woman and her daughter, and a woman married two men.” The word translated “married” here is the same used in Scripture in Ruth, Ezra, and Nehemiah. So the Hebrew mind was capable of wrapping itself around the notion of same-sex marriage, even while disapproving of it. Whether such marriages actually were a part of the Egyptian and Canaanite societies is beside the point, though if they were that would undercut Wright’s thesis as well.

So Wright can assert his counterfactual on word usage as much as he likes, but marriage not only has been used to refer to same-sex marriages for millennia, but it is now part of civil law in many countries. His response: “Simply at that level, I think it’s a nonsense. It’s like a government voting that black should be white. Sorry, you can vote that if you like, you can pass it by a total majority, but it isn’t actually going to change the reality.” Obviously he is also unaware that the English word “black” derives from the Anglo-saxon blæc — meaning “white.” (Think “bleach”). But let that pass.

More serious is Wright’s assertion that what he calls “complementarity” of “pairs that work together” lies at the heart of the created order. But it seems very odd to talk of “heaven and earth” and “sea and dry land” as “working together” in the way a man and a woman do. I have no doubt that the narrative shows a man and a woman working together — but I do not see any evidence that heaven and earth or sea and dry land “work together”; to say nothing of the many other “binaries” in Genesis 1: light and dark, fish and birds, plants and trees — to say nothing of the triads such as the sun, moon and stars. Wright is either just straining to read something into all of this to support his exclusion of same-sex pairs (which, after all, are also pairs who work together!) or indulging in a reading that would be more appropriate to the I Ching, which does indeed conceive the cosmos as being built up from opposites.

Moreover — and again Wright should know this but his antipathy towards marriage equality appears to have induced some biblical blind spots — the “marriage” portrayed in Scripture is not complementary or balanced. The institution of marriage in both Testaments is tilted strongly towards male privilege and power. This is why in the allegories the husband figures God or Christ, and the wife the people of God or the Church. It is true that there are some passing descriptions of real marriages where some sort of mutuality is enjoined or enjoyed, and the Pauline tradition attempts gingerly and modestly to even the scales ever so slightly, but when it comes to imagery the balance tips to the man, away from the woman.

In the final section of the interview Wright show all the signs of frustration at a lost cause. I can almost hear him holding his breath at the end, after a final foot-stomp. He compares the movement for equal marriage to the pressure towards war in Iraq (and why is it that all of his comparisons are violent and over the top). He seems to think that being on the wrong side of history is a statement about trends and pressures. History doesn’t force things, it records them. In this interview, Wright is wrong about history as well as being on the wrong side of it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


JCF said...

If anything, Tobias, I think were MUCH too mild in your critique of Wright.

He begins by making analogies, via "redefinition" to Nazis (Godwin's Law? What Godwin's Law?), murderous Soviets, and the process of redefinition is analogous to that done to the word "suicide". Animus R Us.

He then speaks of "the givenness of maleness and femaleness", ignoring BOTH the social construction of gender, and biological variations of sex (some have been "given" both "maleness and femaleness", in a million different admixtures. TBTG).

And re marriage as "working together", in Biblical context: you mean wife as subordinate "helpmate" of her (as you say, Tobias) "Lord"? That'll play great w/ the Southern Baptists, I'm sure, but for Episcopalians, fuhgeddaboutit!

"This is just a convenient social arrangement and sexual arrangement and there it is . . . get on with it": ah, see what Teh Gays have done w/ Our Precious Man-Woman Institution? {snark}

...then we're back to more unvarnished animus, w/ Teh Gays as WarmongeringBushCheney, and "we will bury you" Khruschev.

It's a despicable Straw Man piece, from beginning to end. Feh!

Tobias Haller said...

JCF, you are right on all points, but I wanted to hit NT where it really convicts him: the Scripture upon which he builds his case. For a "scripture scholar" he shows astounding gaps.

One thing I missed which I see someone has brought up on Facebook is just how much the Christian agenda is the deconstruction of the "binaries" NT thinks so vitally important: Galatians 3:28! How can an expert in Pauline thought miss this? Easy: homophobia and bigotry. He is so set on seeing Romans 1 as about "creation" (it isn't) that he can't argue against same-sexuality in any other way. In doing so he has fallen into the actual trap that Paul set -- he worships the creation instead of the creator, and becoming a slave to the flesh.

Lionel Deimel said...

I don’t see Wright’s comments as “off-the-cuff.” He clearly has thought through his bizarre line of argument. This man gives theology a bad name.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

It seems to me the NTW article is a pile of waffle that tells us that he doesn't like this change, though apparently he seems to have managed, thankfully, to cope with the recent abolition of basic elements of ancient marriage lore like dowry, couverture, miscegenation and the impossiblity of marital rape. He but can't or won't say why.

Tobias Haller said...

Thank you, Bishop Alan. This seems to me to be a bit like the Laws of Animal Farm. The "male and female" are the hard core of marriage for some; all the rest can drop away. Problem is that male and female will also, per Galatians, pass away, so perhaps it isn't the hard core after all. Surely the moral locus of marriage cannot simply lie in "the flesh." It is a great pity that Wright seems unable to apply the wisdeom of Galatians concerning the locus of morality, and instead seems fixated on the modern equivalnt of circumcisiion.

Lorenzo said...

Could he have become orthodox on the doctrine of grace? Would he envisage the church and Christ as 'working together'? Furthermore, if husband and wife complement one another and are types of Christ and his church, surely Christ and the church complement each other in some mystical way? I fail to see how so many consider this man a bulwark agains heresy.

David Earle said...

Your comments encouraged me to check the origin of the word "marry". As an English word it goes back to about 1300 and comes from Old French and Latin words meaning to provide with a husband or wife.

So "to marry" is to enter into a relationship. There is really nothing in the word that implies whether the person is of the same or different sex.

And it is a concept that seems to have come to England via the Normans. We don't have an Anglo-Saxon equivalent word for it (that I am aware of)


Phil Gardner said...

I am not an Anglo-Saxon scholar, so I can't check this, but I assume that the Wessex Gospels (c. 990 AD) will contain translations of, e.g., Matthew 19.10, or 22.24,30, or Luke 20.28–35. It would be interesting to see what words were used for 'marry' and 'giving in marriage'.

Tobias Haller said...

Thank you David; that was my understanding of "marry."

Phil, only had a chance to check Matthew and a variety of words are used in the verses you cite:

Mat 9.9 and 22.25 use forms of fetan, "to join" (think, "fetter")

Mat 9.10 uses to wifienne "to take a wife" -- a kind of verb form of the noun, as if to say, "to wive"

Mat 22.28 uses hæfdon "had"

This seems to be consistent with the range in biblical usage. "To wive" would be the inversion of the Hebrew "beulah" = "lorded" (i.e., having a husband)

Phil Gardner said...

Here is the Anglo-Saxon translation of Luke 20:34–36a:

þa cwæþ se hælend to him: þysse worulde bearn wifiað and beoð to giftum gesealde; þa ðe synt þære worulde wyrðe. and ærystes of deaðum ne giftigeað hi ne wif ne lædað ne ofer þæt sweltan ne magon.

Source: http://t.web.umkc.edu/turnermic/oe/texts/luke/luke20.htm

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Phil. So there are two word clusters at play in Luke, wifian = "to take a wife" and giftian to give a woman in marriage (related to gifte = "dowry").

Don M. Burrows said...

Not to mention that the New Testament Greek word for to marry ("gamo") is now the F word in modern Greek. Words change. Authoritarianism has always tried to stop that, but it never works.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Don. I didn't know about the Modern Greek meaning shift. I wonder if Mod Gk versions of the NT used in worship have found a more delicate way to phrase it?

You are quite right about words changing meaning as a result of usage. As I said in another context, meaning and usage are delicately intertwined, but usage always wins. Those who adopt a "thus far and no farther" approach to language are no more successful than Canute was with the tide. (Though it is said he was trying to prove the very point he is accused of missing...)

Erika Baker said...

Thinking Anglicans linked to your post, Tobias, and one commentator took issue with your comment on the word "black", linking to this reference:

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Erika. I saw that and left a comment. The point is that blæc in Anglo-Saxon, depending on the dialect or region, can mean either "black" or "white" or "shining." You can only determine the "meaning" from the context. If the poster would check his etymological dictionary under "bleach" he would find the ambiguity spelled out in more detail. It likely relates to an original meaning related to "blank" or "blanc" or similar other cognates, denoting lack of color.

It's been a long time since my Anglo-Saxon studied as an undergrad... but I do remember the ambiguity being a bit striking!

Tim said...

Mr Wright could reduce his wilful ignorance by investigating the Native American arrangement of "two-spirit people".

Tobias Haller said...

Indeed so, Tim. Marray and Roscoe's Boy Wives and Female Husbands: A Study in African Homosexualities is also a good source, at the same time giving the lie to claims that same-sex relationships were a European (or Arab) import into Africa...

Phil Groom said...

Seems to me the biblical use of marriage as an analogy to depict the relationship between God & Israel and Christ & the Church gives us a massive clue that the key thing about marriage is not gender difference but faithfulness v/s unfaithfulness; and it beats me how people — especially someone of Tom Wright's calibre — could miss something so blindingly obvious.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Phil. I'm glad you raise the issue of what meaning can be derived from the allegories in Scripture. In an earlier note I pointed out that there is an eschatological aspect to the imagery in Ephesians; there is also language that destabilizes the traditional male-dominant model and introduces a degree of mutuality, if still described in terms that would not too far upset the Graeco-Roman "house-tables" too extremely.

But you are quite right that for a man of Wright's obvious intelligence to become so narrow and doctrinaire and monolithic in his reading is a real disappointment.

Georges Staelens said...

It's interesting to see how NT Wright, who pretends orthodoxy, can be so heretical.

By pretending complementarity, parting humankind into 2 groups of ontologically-different people, he lacks to believe in Christ's full humanhood.

NT Wright's half-human Christ as unsaving as Arians' half-divine Christ. The only orthodox option is a 100% human Christ, saving all the humans, regardless the genders. And this option of orthodoxy doesn't leave any room to "complementarity" heresies.

Monophysism and monotheletism were old heresies; now the are replaced by the monophylism (or androphylism) of people like NT Wright. As he abandonned the traditional doctrine of grace, God have him up to heresy.

Tobias Haller said...

Thank you, George. One of the reasons I think marriage equality is the correct direction is that it does not involve any heterodox doctrinal support, merely some adjustments to pastoral theology that are actually long overdue -- such as following Jesus and Paul in locating the focus of morality in the heart rather than the "flesh." It has long appalled me how much of orthodoxy (such as the Chalcedonian Definition!) the defenders of heterosexual marriage are willing to sacrifice on their particular altar. Thanks for the new terms for this novel doctrine!

arowhenua said...

Greetings, I am not overly familiar with NT Wright or a theological scholar, however, would it be correct to say in
OT times marriage (or whatever word is used) for the Hebrew people was considered to be between a man and
a woman? Acknowledging there is historical records of same sex marriages, relationships etc in cultures outside of the
tribes of Israel. The observation being this was one way God's chosen people differed from those around them during
this time period?

And as such is it not a pertinent question to ask and be careful when making choices regarding whom the Christian definition
of marriage is between.

As for the role of women in marriage as portrayed by the bible I would dispute a few of the remarks you make in this post. Firstly, it is not obvious that God was patriachal in his view of women in marriage although Jewish culture was - note in Genesis God chooses to side with Sarah above Abraham several times. As for giving men the metaphorical role of Christ and women the church in relation to an analogy of how each is to treat the other in relationship - well I don't think that necessary favours men. In the words of Philip Yancey giving up power for the sake of love, to the extent of giving up their lives and desires for their wives. Hardly a foundation of domination.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks for the questions, arowhenua. The marriage law for the Hebrew people did not stress monogamy, though many held that as an ideal. Clearly the model is heterosexual, with a focus on fertility and progeny. This is why, for instance, a woman whose husband died before she bore children was expected to marry his brother; and why a man whose wife appeared to be infertile was permitted either to divorce her or to take an additional wife. This does differ from some of the marriage customs of the other peoples among whom Israel lived, but I see no reason to hold it up as an ideal in a current setting.

The Hebrew culture also denied the presence of same-sexuality within it: always speaking of this as something the "other" peoples did. That in itself does not prove such relationships did not exist; in fact, I am usually suspicious of such claims. Given that the most extended love story in the Hebrew Scriptures is that of Jonathan for David, and the text has been severely compromised and edited, it is certainly possible to say that same-sex relationships did exist, even if they were not celebrated as such.

That the Hebrews saw God as patriarchal is evident in some of the prophetic literature, in which God is portrayed as the spouse to the two sisters, Israel and Judah. Patriarchy does not in itself mean that a patriarch might not love his wives, or treat them kindly -- but they lack freedom of determination, and are beholden to their "master." The Hebrew word for "married" literally means "lorded over." And yes, God does seek to advance this in a more "equal" direction in both the Hebrew scripture ("you will no longer call me 'my lord' but 'my man.' Hosea 2.16) and in the Pauline letters -- but even in the latter the husband is "the head" and the wife subservient.

arowhenua said...

Hi Tobias

Thanks for the reply, yes while monogamy might have been God's original intention culturally the Israelites did stray from that ideal a little bit : ) . I see a difficulty in 'no reason to hold it up as an ideal in a current setting'

I am unsure about Jonathan and David, what you suggest is plausible but there seemed to be as much love and loyalty on David's side as Jonathan's. And there is little doubt where his sexual preferences lay : ) ... Has there actually been material discovered that shows this story has been altered? - I'd be interested to have access to those references. I agree it is quite plausible same sex relationships may have existed amongst the Hebrew people - nothing new under the sun and all that. At the same time I find it harder to concur with your perpective in seeing 'no reason to hold it [the practice of homosexuality as not a part of the Hebrew or early Christian ] up as an ideal in a current setting'. I think this is quite a sticking point in that there must have been a reason why God's model for his people in marriage was heterosexual and why this stance continued even into the NT after the salvation of Christ came to all nations. It is quite a thing to change a precedent apparently set by the Holy Spirit through the writers of the bible as something that sets them apart, even while acknowledging the pain and suffering some LGBT people experience.

Yes re women there is definitely the head reference! But as you infer what it means to be 'the head' was inexplicably changed in Jesus. And I think submissive is a more appropriate word than subservient; as Paul also wrote - husband submit to your wives, wives submit to your husband, submit to one another etc.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, arowhenua. I was referring to the Levirate law in relation to something I don't think we would hold as ideal in the current setting. Monogamy was perforce the rule at the beginning, as Jesus taught, because there was only "a male and a female." (This is the same reasoning used in support of monogamy in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

On Jonathan and David, and sexual orientation, it is not unusual, in many cultures in which same-sex behavior is considered wrong, for men whose orientation is towards other men to marry and have children. I think the text supports the notion, explicitly, that Jonathan loved David, and while I think this may have been reciprocated in the long run, the primary 'love at first sight' as described in 1 Sam 18:1-5 is striking. On alteration, note that these verses are left out of the Septuagint version. Jerome also bowdlerized David's lament over Jonathan by adding to "Your love for me was greater than the love of women..." "Like a mother for her only son." Other textual emendations are evident -- I suggest you revisit 1 Samuel and note (as scholars did with the Noah account in the 19th c.) that there seem to be two different accounts woven together: in one David is a shepherd boy, new to the field; in another he is a young soldier. Saul appears to know him, and not know him, and so on.

I don't accept the reading that God had a particular "model" for all sexuality. Clearly heterosexual marriage is necessary to "fill the earth" and most men "leave their father's house and cleave to their wives" -- which is what Genesis 2 is seeking to explain. God does not, in that chapter, appear to have a clear plan in mind; rather, he creates Adam solitary, then the animals in a search for a companion, then Eve. Rather trial and error, it would appear. The lesson seems to be that each should find the one who best supplies "a companion suitable to him." And for some people, that turns out to be a person of the same sex.

If you are interested in learning more, I have actually written a book on the subject, Reasonable and Holy, which goes into much greater depth on all of these questions.

Peace of Christ,