Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (B)

Okay, when Hays gets to Romans 1, he argues on the exegetical level for a very similar reading of the text that I give: Paul is describing first the state of fallen Gentile humanity and then the state of fallen Jewish humanity in order to get to his conclusion that “there is no excuse,” all have sinned, Christ’s redemption is the only remedy, and there is no cause for boasting for either Jews or Gentiles.

Hays, “The unrighteous behavior catalogued in Romans 1:26-31 is a list of symptoms [italics in original]: the underlying sickness of humanity as a whole, Jews and Greeks alike, is that they have turned away from God and fallen under the power of sin (cf. Rom. 3:9).”  From here he goes on to make what he calls several important observations about Romans 1 and “homosexuality.”:

  • Paul is not describing the individual life histories of pagan sinners; not every pagan has first known the true God of Israel and then chosen to turn away into idolatry. When Paul writes, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie,” he is giving a global account of the universal fally of humanity.  This fall  is manifested continually in the various ungodly behaviors listed in vv. 24-31.  [But what if, I ask, a different understanding of sexual orientation means that some same-sex behavior, namely that in covenant relationship between two people for whom this is their natural expression of sexuality, is NOT an “ungodly behavior”–even if it bears surface resemblance to the same–but a variation in God’s creation like left handedness?]
  • Paul singles out homosexual intercourse for special attention because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God’s created order.  God the Creator made man and woman for each other, to cleave together, to be fruitful and multiply. When human beings “exchange” these created roles for homosexual intercourse, they embody the spiritual condition of those who have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.”  [I agree that this is how Paul sees things. It assumes that all sex is for procreation.]
  • Homosexual acts are not, however, specially reprehensible sins; they are no worse than any of the other manifestations of human unrighteousness listed in this passage (vv. 29-31)–no worse in principle than covetousness or gossip or disrespect for parents.
  • Homosexual activity will not incur [emphasis in original] God’s punishment: it is its own punishment, an “antireward.” Paul here simply echoes a traditional Jewish idea. The Wisdom of Solomon, an intertestamental writing that has surely informed Paul’s thinking in Romans 1, puts it like this, “Therefore those who lived unrighteously in a life of folly, [God] tormented through their own abominations” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:23). [Here I agree completely with this exegetical reading. Paul understands gay sex as a result of human fallenness and idolatry.

Hays concludes that the contemporary church should welcome GLBT persons the way it welcomes all sinners, but should continue to teach that all same-sex acts are always sinful signs of human idolatry/fallenness. He concludes that the church should not bless same-sex unions analagous to heterosexual marriage and should ordain gay and lesbian ministers only if they are celibate (as it would single heterosexual ministers).

He reaches this conclusion for several reasons–and it is here at the hermeneutical level that I think Hays’ argument fails.:

  1. The Bible speaks sparingly about homosexual acts (contrary to the impression from many preachers), but it speaks with one voice. The canon is unanimous in condemnation.  (I think there is a possible text he has overlooked–subject of my next post in this series–but it is ambiguous. Hays could be right. But, his conclusion need not follow. The Bible is also unanimous in never explicitly condemning slavery, but Hays would not conclude that slavery that followed biblical patterns, was not race-based, etc. could be legitimate.  In the case of slavery, the general direction of biblical message as a whole undermines the commands/permissions of specific texts.  The relevant question for our discussion is whether or not this is also true for same-sex covenantal love.  This is the metaphor making act of interpretation that Hays has emphasized–the embodiment of the Word in churches as communities of moral discernment.
  2. Hays points out that the Christian tradition is even more condemnatory than the Scripture. He’s right. But the tradition is also almost entirely supercessionist in its treatment of Judaism–and Hays conclusion on that issue is that the tradition gets it completely wrong.
  3. Hays is worried that revisionists like myself are simply substituting personal experience for the authority of Scripture.  There is always that danger. I share Hays’ concern here–he and I are equally critical of the way that, since Constantine, the churches have blessed war and militarism in direct opposition to the witness of Jesus and the New Testament writers.  He and I share a loyalty to biblical faithfulness against faddish trends.  But Hays’ misses the way that his own experience is shaping his interpretation, especially at the hermeneutical level: He begins the chapter on “homosexuality,” with a story about a friend of his, a gay Christian named Gary, who died of AIDS. Hays has personal loyalty to this friend–a friend who saw his inability to remain celibate as an addiction and who rejected as “cheap,” the revisionist welcoming and affirming line that I am taking.  (It is even more obvious in the original article in Sojourners from which this chapter comes that Gary’s story, including his interpretation that God had cured him of same-sex desires before his death, drives Hays’ interpretation throughout.) Likewise, it is Hays’ experience with Jews in a post-Holocaust world that directs his re-reading of the NT and rejection supercessionist readings–as he admitted personally at a meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics under questioning from a former student. Thus, without the Holocaust, Hays would probably have drawn different conclusions–more in line with the supercessionism of the church through the centuries–on Israel and the Church.  So, experience and contemporary new insights affect ALL our readings of Scripture–Hays’ included.
  4. Hays’ normative conclusions turns Romans 1 into a set of rules: Do not ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians; do not sanction same-sex marriages or “Holy Unions.”  But Hays has said that we should not transform Scripture from one mode of ethical discourse to another (see previous post).

I think it makes a difference in our normative Christian ethics not only how we read Scripture, but with whom.  If black and white North American Christians had read the Bible together in the same church buildings, could white Christians have continued to justify slavery or segregation?  Likewise, the catalyst for many of us in re-reading Scripture on “homosexuality” was our experience of reading these texts in the company of gay and lesbian Christians–and the testimony of their lives of holiness.

The full theological argument for my revisionist position awaits.  But for Hays’ counterargument(s) to work, he has to modify several of his guidelines for using Scripture in moral discernment–or come to different conclusions on his treatment of the supercessionist texts. As it stands now, his conclusions on “homosexuality” show a use of Scripture that is in tension with the use he gives in Jewish/Christian relations.

Hays is codifying Paul’s presuppositions about the causes of homosexuality–and allowing no new information to challenge those presuppositions. I think that not only fundamentally distorts Paul’s argument in the structure of Romans (Paul could have used another illustration than same-sex acts for Rom. 1), but it turns an illustration in a moral argument into a rule. On every other issue in the book, Richard Hays is a better theologian.

We all have our blind spots and I conclude that this is one of his.

July 18, 2008 Posted by | discipleship, ethics, GLBT issues | 18 Comments

GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (A)

Romans 1 Continued:  The Argument of NT Scholar Richard B. Hays

I have repeatedly hesitated to write this post.  It involves publicly disagreeing with a scholar whom I respect enormously and that is never pleasant.  But, here goes anyway.

Richard B. Hays is a United Methodist minister and the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament  at Duke University Divinity School–who previously taught at Yale Divinity School.  His book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament:  Community, Cross, New Creation:  A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), is widely agreed to be the best volume of its kind in decades. Christianity Today selected it as one of the 100 most important Christian books of the 20th C., and, for once, I agree with the editors of CT.  It is truly a remarkable book and I have used it my own teaching.  Most NT scholars, if and when they write works on New Testament ethics, confine themselves solely to the descriptive task, surveying the ethical contents of the biblical passages.  A few go on to make contemporary application.  Hays, instead, understakes a 4-fold task, and does it remarkably well:  First, descriptive:  surveying every major strand (and writer) of the New Testament and outlining the major themes in some detail.  Second, the synthetic task, searching for the canonical unity of these disparate moral teachings.  Hays rejects placing all the NT under one overarching theme (e.g., “love,” or “liberation,” etc.) and instead uses three concepts or focal images as guides: community, cross, new creation.  Third, the hermeneutical task, bridging the chasm between the meaning of the texts for their original audience and what they should normatively mean for the contemporary church.  In accomplishing this task, Hays does something few other biblical scholars bother to do: He reads widely in the writings of theologians and Christian ethicists, asking how they actually use Scripture in their work.  From this he develops a series of diagnostic questions about the adequacy of a given theologian/ethicist’s approach–illustrating this for the reader by surveying the use of Scripture in the ethics of Reinhold NiebuhrKarl Barth, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.  Hays finds appreciative points about each of these significant voices and things to criticize about each, as well, but he finds Barth, Yoder, and Hauerwas to be more helpful than Niebuhr or Schüssler Fiorenza. (It is significant that none of these figures is a racial or ethnic minority, nor comes from the Two-Thirds World. Still, this is more examination of theological ethics than done by MOST biblical scholars–who usually interact ONLY with specialists in their own field.)  From here, Hays proposes a series of guidelines for using Scripture in contemporary moral reflection in the churches.  Finally, he engages the pragmatic task  (“Living Under the Word”) of presenting case-studies for his proposals: seeking normative guidance from the New Testament on the issues of Violence in the Defense of Justice (Hays argues for Christian pacifism); Divorce and Remarriage (forbidden except in rare cases); Homosexuality (His view is what I have called, following the late Stanley Grenz, “welcoming, but NOT affirming”); Anti-Judaism and Ethnic Conflict; and Abortion (a subject never mentioned directly in Scripture–and so a good test case for using Scripture for other forms of moral discernment).

Now, in Hays’ section on “Homosexuality,” he first examines the biblical texts, as most of my posts have done to this point. I have very little quarrel with his exegesis, including his exegesis of Romans 1. As with many others, Hays’ rejection of the “full inclusion” or “welcoming and affirming” position (i.e., that would have the church bless same-sex unions analagous to marriage as I argue it should) rests most thoroughly on Romans 1.  But what I argue is that, unintentionally, Hays’ conclusion shows him violating his own guidelines for using Scripture in moral discernment–and stands in some tension to the way he handles some of the other test cases.

To argue this carefully, I must conclude this post (which would otherwise be too long) by listing Hays’ hermeneutical guidelines.  Then, in the next post, I shall (a) examine closely Hays’ conclusions about Romans 1, (b)point out where extra-biblical influences are apparent in his conclusions, and (c) contrast this to how Hays handles the texts in two other test-cases.

Here are Hays’ normative proposals for using Scripture in Christian ethics:

  • Serious exegesis is a basic requirement.  Texts used in ethical arguments should be understood as fully as possible in their historical and literary context. [This is in contrast to “proof-texting” which, surprisingly, is done by theologians and ethicists as often as by laypeople or fundamentalist preachers.]

            a. New Testament texts must be read with careful attention to their Old Testament subtexts.

  • We must seek to listen to the full range of canonical witnesses.
  • Substantive tensions within the canon should be openly acknowledged.
  • Our synthetic reading of the New Testament texts must be kept in balance by the sustained use of three focal images: community, cross, and new creation. [Presenting Hays’ argument for these 3 images, which I largely find persuasive, is beyond the scope of these posts.  Read the book.]
  • New Testament texts must be granted authority (or not) in the mode in which they speak (i.e., rule, principle, paradigm, symbolic world). [This is very important for my argument. Hays argues against taking a paradigmatic narrative, say, and transforming it into a rule.]

               a. All four modes are valid and necessary.

               b. We should not override the witness of the New Testament in one mode by appealing to another mode.

  • The New Testament is fundamentally the story of God’s redemptive action. Thus, the paradigmatic mode [of NT moral discourse] has theological primacy, and narrative texts are fundamental resources for normative ethics.
  • Extrabiblical sources [of moral discernment] stand in a hermeneutical relation to the New Testament; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority. [Here, Hays is reacting primarily to the more liberal wing of his own United Methodist Church which cites a “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Hays will, with some nuancing, also refer to this fourfold process, but wants to subordinate Tradition, Reason, and Experience, to the final authority of Scripture.  He believes that those, like myself, who argue for revising the Church’s teaching to allow for same-sex marriages have violated this guideline. He believes we/I use reason (i.e., recent scientific study on “homosexuality”) and experience (e.g., meeting gay or lesbian Christians whose lives are more holy than our own) to “trump” or counterbalance the Scriptural testimony, instead of merely using such sources hermeneutically, to illuminate the meaning of the biblical texts.  In reply, I will argue three things: A. It is much harder to make sure that Scripture is the final norm in all ethical matters than appears at first glance as the second post in this series argued. B. Hays himself finds it difficult to hold to this principle in the way he handles the test-case of anti-Judaism in the New Testament.  C. Hays’ conclusion on “homosexuality” is far more influenced by his own experience and by his reading of church tradition than he admits.]
  • It is impossible to distinguish “timeless truths” from “culturally conditioned elements” in the New Testament. [I find this the most problematic of his guidelines. While difficult, it is not impossible–and Hays himself does it in at least one test case.]
  • The use of the New Testament in normative ethics requires an integrative act of the imagination; thus, whenever we appeal to the authority of the New Testament, we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making.  [THIS is one of his best insights and I will return to it in the next post.]
  • Right reading of the New Testament occurs only where the Word is embodied.

July 18, 2008 Posted by | discipleship, ethics, GLBT issues | Comments Off on GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (A)