The Challenge of Homosexuality

Dale Martin, Professor of New Testament at Yale, lays down the following challenge to Christians determined to continue the Church’s traditional stand against homosexuality:

“There can be no debate about the fact that the church’s stand on homosexuality has caused oppression, loneliness, self-hatred, violence, sickness, and suicide for millions of people. If the church wishes to continue with its traditional interpretation it must demonstrate, not just claim, that it is more loving to condemn homosexuality than to affirm homosexuals. Can the church show that same-sex loving relationships damage those involved in them? Can the church give compelling reasons to believe that it really would be better for all lesbian and gay Christians to live alone, without the joy of intimate touch, without hearing a lover’s voice when they go to sleep or awake? Is it really better for lesbian and gay teenagers to despise themselves and endlessly pray that their very personalities be reconstructed so that they may experience romance like their straight friends? Is it really more loving for the church to continue its worship of ‘heterosexual fulfillment’ (a ‘nonbiblical’ concept, by the way) while consigning thousands of its members to a life of either celibacy or endless psychological manipulations that masquerade as ‘healing’?”

The challenge here is certainly not one that is unique to the issue of homosexuality, but indeed, involves the whole of Christian ethics.  Too often Christians have been satisfied with a flat, blunt, divine command approach to ethics–“God says no, so that means no.  Deal with it.”  This means that for many, God seems like an arbitrary dictator who is against fun, who is against freedom, who is against fulfillment.  This problem did not, perhaps, loom so large when society was more homogeneous, when widely-accepted customs comported nicely with Biblical morality, so that the commands and demands of Christian ethics seemed on the whole quite natural.  “Well, of course it’s bad to sleep around–everyone I know seems to agree on that, and I’d be a pariah if I did.”  With the breakdown of a social consensus, however, and the increasing diversity of Western society, people have been left asking, “Well, why not?” and the Church has often been unready to offer a compelling answer, unable to show how the demands of the Gospel are really “good news,” that points us back toward what we were created to be and toward true fulfillment, and not merely oppressive and arbitrary rules.  In our age, this disconnect, and the consequent rejection of the Church as “intolerant,” “unloving,” and “judgmental,” has been particularly pronounced in the area of sexual ethics, and is perhaps most acute on the issue of homosexuality.  

Indeed, it is here that traditional Christian ethics can look most arbitrary–sure, we can give good reasons why serial fornication, for instance, is not just against God’s will, but ultimately destructive, undermining human fulfillment, but why should a committed monogamous relationship be so terrible, just because it’s between people of the same sex?  And it is here that traditional Christian ethics can look most oppressive–after all, the categorical refusal of the opportunity for sexual intimacy and lifelong companionship is among the most difficult and comprehensive demands you can possibly make on a person.  And yet, for the most part, the Church has been singularly unready or unwilling to step up to the plate and show that God’s “No” to homosexuality corresponds to a “Yes” to creation, a “Yes” to the deepest desires of human nature and to human fulfilment; instead of just being a “No” to fun, a “No” to enjoyment, a “No” to fulfilment and freedom.  

This is why O’Donovan argues in The Church in Crisis that the Church must learn how to preach the Gospel to gays as gospel—as good news.  Of course, good news doesn’t mean easy news—the Gospel isn’t that for any of us:  “The righteousness of Jesus Christ is not comfort without demand, any more than it is demand without comfort. It is never less than that demanding comfort by which God makes more of us than we thought it possible to become.”

The urgent need for the Church today is to develop an evangelical ethic which embodies this “demanding comfort”—which integrates both Law and Gospel, creation and redemption, calling us out of brokenness to new life, and showing us why the hard road self-denial that this entails for all—but perhaps especially for the gay Christian—is a price well-worth paying, a journey well-worth embarking upon.  

Nuggets from the O’Don

My supervision meeting with Prof. O’Donovan today featured the usual generous sampling of entertaining and illuminating tangents, in which he deigned to share tantalizing tidbits of insight about political theology as a whole and that of the Reformation in particular.  Here are a smattering of them (take these with a significant grain of salt as representations of O’Donovan’s thought, since he was speaking off the cuff and these thoughts are filtered through the narrow and potentially distorting limits of my own understanding and particular interests):

The point that the Calvinists are urging at the end of the 16th century is that the Reformation has not been completed because a true Church has not been established with independent integrity as a social body.  The Anglicans respond that the Presbyterians are in fact wanting to reverse the Reformation, by re-establishing a new papacy, just a papacy of the proletariat.  There is some justice in the charge, but there is also justice in the point the Presbyterians are urging; after all, the Papacy was not an all-bad idea.  In fact, the Papacy was a historical development that grew out of the need to answer the same sort of question–namely, how do we give a locus of the Church’s identity as a unique institution in  the midst of a Christendom society?  The advent of Christendom and the Christianization of the Roman Empire called forth the Papacy as the solution, as a way of giving a clear visible form to the Church as something independent from Christendom.  The problem did not go away, and the Presbyterians were right to raise the question again.  Even Hooker recognizes this to an extent, giving the Church a certain kind of independent visible identity again, with its own laws and its own Convocation that govern how the monarch can govern it.

The invocation of the “Hebrew Republic” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was far from uniform.  For many, it was not so much a desire to repristinate the Hebrew Republic in contemporary Europe, as it was a way of accounting for the historically-conditioned nature of the political structure of the Old Testament, and thus of putting it at a certain distance from contemporary politics.  We see this with Grotius, for instance, who sees the legal system of the Old Testament as exceptionally elegant and wise, but not always applicable.  To determine how much it may be applicable, we have to look at what Christ said.

In the Patristic period, a simple binary configuration is used for making sense of the OT law–there is the enduring moral law, and the obsolete ceremonial law.  The criminal law can be subsumed under this latter, and thus comfortably done away with.  The scholastic emergence of the third category, civil law, allows one to do more justice to the authentic value of the civil laws, but while enabling them to be historically relativized where necessary.  The category of evangelical law emerges in the later Reformation.  It is not present in Lutheran and the early guys (not present in Vermigli and Bullinger, for instance), who will have no truck with the idea that the Gospel imposes a new form of law–the Gospel is of a different order entirely.  But with the Calvinists emerges the idea that that there might be a particularly Christian form of law that should affect how states operate, how justice is administered, how international affairs are run, etc.

The problem with the Puritans is that they simply wanted to copy Geneva, but the Genevan model, while very satisfactory for a small city-state, could not be so easily mapped onto a large kingdom, as Hooker recognized.  If you tried to copy Geneva in England, what you ended up with was a political structure centralized in a national monarchy, and an ecclesial structure that operated on a town and parish level, resulting in a very unsatisfactory balance of power, unlike that in Geneva.  This problem has become very evident in the American setting, where no tradition (except the Catholics) have been able to sustain a national church; the denominations have simply splintered into regionalized bodies, and ones in which effective sovereignty operates generally at the local level.  Meanwhile, political structures have become increasingly concentrated at the national level, making it impossible for there to be any effective ecclesial counterweight.  

Some Theses on Natural Law

In my interactions with Peter Escalante over at Wedgewords, the topic has turned, for the time being, from defining what the Church is to the only slightly less challenging task of defining what nature and natural law is.  Since Peter has asked me to explain my understanding of natural law, I’ve decided to give it a shot…. This is my first attempt to reflect systematically on this question and offer a proper definition from start to finish, so this may turn out to be incoherent or heretical or something.  Feel free to let me know.  I have avoided defining my position via explicit reference to any other theologians because that would pose too much temptation to lazy shorthand, but you are welcome to come in and slap labels on what I’ve said: “Aha!  So you’re just a Barthian Anabaptist Hegelian” or something of that sort, to help me resolve my identity crisis.

To cover such a broad sweep concisely, it was necessary to make this all rather abstract, and as I have not mastered the scholastic art of being simultaneously very abstract and very precise, you may be puzzled as to exactly what I am trying to say at certain points.  Please push me for clarification, and I will try to provide it if possible, though I can’t guarantee it will be:

1. There is such a thing as natural law.  

  a) When God created the world, he intended for it to operate in a certain way, he intended it for a particular destiny.  This destiny was communion with God, not of course in a narrowly-construed way that would simply instrumentalize nature–the beauty and goodness of the creation was an end in itself for the Creator–but such that the goodness of creation’s end, although not reducible into communion with God, is not separable from it either; creation achieves its full potential and perfection when it is ordered toward the love of God.  

b) natural law is, quite simply, that which is necessary for creation to achieve its perfection, to successfully reach the end appointed for it.  When creatures turn away from natural law, they become perverted from their true end and perfection, their created destiny; when they observe it, they are oriented properly toward their telos, the perfection of their own natures in congruence with the love of God

c) natural law is, therefore, implanted in every creature at creation, as an instinct or understanding of its purpose which it freely wills to obey.  


2. Natural law is Christologically-determined from the first

a) the original creation, although without corruption, was not perfect; it had yet to be perfected, because it was not intended to be static, but to mature, through a history involving further action by both Creator and creatures.  The state of the original creation, therefore, although congruent with its final end, does not in itself reveal the perfection of nature and the natural law.

b) Christ is the firstfruits over all creation, the one in whom all things consist, the Last Adam who reveals the destiny of the first, the true image of the invisible God who reveals what man, created in the image of God, is meant to be.  For him and through him and to him are all things.  In short, Jesus Christ reveals for us and leads us toward the true destiny of creation.  It is only by union with him and conformity with him that we attain unto the full stature of our humanity.  

c) Therefore, we cannot properly define natural law except by reference to the revelation in Jesus Christ that illumines the true sense of nature.  


3. Natural law is knowable in part, but not in full

a) from creation, man had implanted in him an adequate, though not perfect, understanding of the natural law.  His being was oriented toward its proper destiny, but had not yet matured into full understanding of it.  This knowledge was limited thus both by immaturity and by the finitude of the human understanding, which could not perfectly grasp the entirety of the natural law in its first principles and its necessary deductions.

b) at the Fall, man lost full fellowship with God, and with it, his conformity to the mind of God that enabled true understanding of himself and his purpose in the world.  Creation itself was cursed with decay as a result of this dislocation between humanity and God, and thus both humanity and the rest of creation ceased to be oriented toward their true end, but, detached from it, became distorted and no longer conformed perfectly to natural law.  Nevertheless, inasmuch as nature continued, though in a wounded state, natural law continued to govern it.  Man’s knowledge of it was impaired now by his lack of fellowship with God, fellowship which gave insight into God’s creation, and by the perverted state of nature itself, which made it more difficult to read nature’s purpose therein.  Thus, man often errs in his grasp of the natural law, not to mention his will to live in accord with it even when it was grasped.

c) The moral law which God revealed to his people in the Old Testament was a more lucid restatement of the natural law, specified as was appropriate for the understanding of God’s people at that point in history, yet pointing beyond itself to a fuller revelation yet to come of creation’s end and how to live in accord with it.


4. Christ is the fulfilment of the law

a) When Christ came, he came as the objective revelation not only of who God was, but of what man was, and what man was intended to be.  Through his life and death, through his teaching while on earth, and through the teaching of the Holy Spirit in his followers, He revealed the true end of creation, and how to live in accord with that end.  That is to say, in his revelation of how men were to live with God, with one another, and with the world (which we could call the “evangelical law”) he revealed the true purpose and structure of the natural law as it applied to humanity in its full maturity.

b) This revelation superseded both the revelation given in creation and discernible in nature, and the revelation given in the Old Testament, not only because it was more direct, but also because it was a revelation of the nature of creation in its full maturity–it was a revelation of the endpoint of history in the middle.  By superseding, it did not overturn or contradict what came before, but rather fully corresponded to that ideal of which the earlier revelations were necessarily incomplete approximations.

c) Although the revelation in Christ is thus the objective revelation of the true natural law, it is still limited in its subjective apprehension.  This is true quite obviously because of the limits of our knowledge–we cannot understand Christ’s revelation either in its full clarity, since we see only through a glass darkly, or in its full extent, because of our finitude.  The long practice of the Church in study and godly living, guided by the Spirit, can help us to grasp the revelation of God in Christ, as well as that in creation, better, but never completely.  More importantly, we are limited in our ability to comprehend, receive, and live out the evangelical law, because we have only tasted of the fruits of the new creation, and still live partly in the old; we are thus still immature where Christ is the fully mature man, and can only receive and live out his revelation to the extent possible in our immature state and the immature state of the world itself.  Again, the sanctification of God’s people through history will lead to a fuller, but never perfect, understanding and practice of the imitation of Christ, until at the consummation, we are perfected in him and attain to the full stature of creation.  


Peter Takes Two Swords to My Two Cities

Well, at long last, it has appeared.  Deep in the foundries of his labyrinthine mind, Peter Escalante has been forging one post to beat them all, one post to find them, one post to bring them all and in Geneva bind them.  (Hey, if you look at the post, you’ll see that he brought Lord of the Rings into it first, so don’t blame me!) 

Ever since my post “Two Kingdoms or Two Cities?” questioning Wedgeworth’s “Apostolic Succession and Civic Freedom,” and the subsequent discussion that took place largely in the comments section of Wedgeworth’s post, Peter has been promising to smother my “neo-Anabaptism” under a heap of arguments that would make Calvin’s Institutes look like an issue of Reader’s Digest.  He has done so, at last, and you can amble over there yourself now to inspect the scene and determine whether a post-mortem is in order.  

EDIT: In case it wasn’t clear, this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and I consider Peter a personal friend.  No hostility whatsoever.

I consider it a great compliment (and I mean this in all sincerity) to be rebutted by someone as learned as Mr. Escalante, and, although perhaps not up to the British standard of deft, white-gloved refutations, he has been as gentlemanly as I could wish.  However, as I posted over there in an initial reaction comment, his whole undertaking seems to have been somewhat misdirected, in that he constructed his post as a refutation of my manifesto.  But of course, “Two Kingdoms or Two Cities” was not a manifesto, but was intended at least as some summary questions and objections to Wedgeworth’s manifesto.  The goal was to elicit clarification from the “decretist” camp, and Escalante’s reply has obliged with some very helpful clarifications.  However, by taking some of my brief and partial summary statements as a thorough explication of a position, he has, I think, mis-read and miscritiqued some of them.  Hopefully over the next couple weeks, I will be able to follow up on some of these points here, explain where I agree with his position (as I certainly do at many points, now that I’ve seen it stated so comprehensively) and clarify the points where I do not.  For now, a couple brief remarks (these excerpted almost verbatim from the comment I just posted over there):

One very brief point where he seem to have misunderstood me (understandably, as I hadn’t fleshed this out thoroughly in my original posts) regards the relationship of the “State” and the “City of Man.”  Peter say that I basically think “State=City of Man=Kingdom of Satan,” which he says is un-Augustinian. Well certainly that is un-Augustinian, but I never intended to make either of those equations. In the Civitas Dei, the State is as it were the most visible institutional representation of the City of Man, but it is not simply reducible to it…it’s much more complicated than that. “More complicated? Do elaborate,” he will certainly say, and I shall try to, but not just here and now. And of course the City of Man is not the “Kingdom of Satan” simpliciter…Despite his forceful emphasis on the all-corrupting influence of the libido dominandi, Augustine clearly held that human nature, although corrupted, was still intact, and so approximations to virtue and to civic and social good were still possible in the City of Man.

More importantly, and more intriguingly, as I read Peter’s final section, where he dissect the points where I claim “Church” and “State” are in competition, it struck me that the key difference may lie at a rather different point (or is best seen from a different angle) than where he seemed to be putting it. My main concern, I think, revolves around the relationship of “natural law” and evangelical law, to try (probably unsuccessfully) to put it in a nutshell. It’s a question of ethics.

Basically, I am uncomfortable at the way the Reformers tried to rebut the Catholic distinction between the commands and the counsels of perfection. The Anabaptists absolutized the counsels of perfection into a new legalism…that can’t be right. But the magisterial Reformers responded by basically dissolving away the counsels of perfection, and blunting the hard, radical edge of Christian ethics to subsume it back into the changeless categories of the old moral law, the “natural law,” etc. That’s what rubs me the wrong way. And so in saying “the Church” responds to enemies in a certain way, or cares for the weak in a certain way, I’m contending that Christians are to be visible as a community with a social ethics that is not simply expressed in the laws of political justice.

Of course, Peter will reply that this just proves I’m Anabaptist.  But, I contend that I am not simply ruling out the ethics of the political realm as something to be entirely shunned by and excluded from the Christian community. Rather, the political remains a part of the life of the Christian people, but is always being challenged, pushed, and prodded by an evangelical ethics that remains ever dissatisfied with merely natural political justice. Now, of course, I’m just sounding like O’Donovan, and not far from Peter at all, so this can’t be all I really intend to say…obviously, I have a more radical agenda than that, right? Yes, probably so. And I’ll try to uncover the contours of that over the next few weeks.

In particular, in my very next post, I’ll be looking at the relationship between commands and counsels of perfection in Melanchthon, who I was just reading before I saw Peter’s post.