Monday, June 21, 2010

1 Corinthians 6: the most important passage? (Pt 1.1)

Howard Pilgrim, a theological colleague within ACANZP (and contributor to the forthcoming Hermeneutical Hui) has responded to my Pt 1 below ... but had difficulties with Blogger 'chewing' the comment. So here it is (with a couple of comments from me in italics):

A second attempt to respond to your post, Peter ... Blogger ate the first one, so I will try to keep this one leaner and less appetising to the lurking nemesis. Without knowing where you intend to go with Pt2, I want to pick you up on two points so far.

1. You read this text as affirming that “our sexual behaviour ... impinges on our salvation.” This is true only to the extent that other offences on Paul’s several lists in Chapters 5 and 6 carry exactly the same consequences. Broadly speaking, those offences are matters of sexual behaviour (mostly heterosexual) and financial/economic oppression. I want to suggest that even these do not comprise an exclusive list of danger areas, but are included in this part of the epistle as a response to the particular presenting issues before Paul – the forbidden relationship between a man and his step mother, the court case(s) between fellow Christians, and some tolerance of the use of prostitutes. Paul’s rhetoric against these abuses includes condemning them by association with other sexual and economic wrongdoing. There is no suggestion that salvation is not imperilled by other classes of sins, and indeed idolatry and pride find their way into his condemnation, by association. My point then is this, that this text cannot be cited to single out sexual sins as specially perilous as you appear to be doing here. [PRC: Agreed.]

2. Your discussion of possible meanings for the key terms naming homosexual relations makes one thing clear – that the meanings of these terms, as Paul used them, is not clear at all! What does this portend for our discussion of homosexuality? How can an unclear text guide us towards the mind of God? I submit that there is a clear answer ... that we do not need to concern ourselves with the exact meanings of any of the terms in these lists of sins. Now let me explain myself:-

a) It is no easier to determine just what Paul meant by greed or robbery than it is to decipher the exact meaning of his sexual terms, but that does not lessen the impact of his warning regarding them.

b) His warning does not refer to these sins in their particular nature, but to sin in general. Sin is incompatible with salvation. Each of these particular sins is an abuse of our duty to love God and/or our neighbour, and none of them is a victimless crime. In each case, the Christians involved should have known better, and their failure to act out their faith is what puts their salvation at risk.

c) This is where my argument gets really Anglican, appealing to the tradition of Hooker, Sanderson, et. al. Any attempt to derive moral theology from the scriptures involves a fusion of at least two things: an exegetical process of reading the text to ascertain what it most probably meant in its original context; and a “reading” of our own particular social context to determine the facts on the ground to which the scripture may speak. As the two contexts, separated by 2000 years of cultural change, will have differences as well as similarities, finding the mind of God for today involves a transforming process of reasoning, prayer and consultation (as in Rom 12:1-2). One part of this process that cannot be bypassed is the “facts on the ground” investigation. Specifically, if we are considering homosexual relationships, then we need to find out what is happening in such relationships today, in our own context, among faithful Christians. Those facts, as we find them, are far more significant than what was happening among homosexuals in Paul’s day (which is why Lambeth 2008 called in vain for conservatives to engage in respectful conversations with gay Christians, as had happened among a minority of bishops at that conference). To know whether our economic arrangements constitute greed or theft, in the light of Paul’s warning, we need to examine the facts of modern life, asking whether we are loving our neighbours as ourselves. Similarly, a Christian ethic of homosexuality can only be derived from considering the facts of life as lived out by our brothers and sisters committed to faithful same-sex relationships. [PRC: The words 'can only be derived' is a very strong statement limited, apparently, engagement with what Scripture says.]


  1. Thanks for helping me by posting my comment in this fashion, Peter, and for your brief responses in brackets. Your second response (with a typo that should read, "limited, apparently by engagement with.."?) invites a little clarification.

    Yes it is a strong statement, but no stronger when applied to sexuality than economics! The point Hooker or Sanderson would make here is that no matter how clear we are about what scripture might affirm in an ancient context, its application to a present-day context can never be clear without a diligent and reasonable examination of that new context. For instance, if scripture condemns the taking of fixed interest on a loan, that is because it was oppressive to do so in the economic context of ancient Israel, not simply because God has a thing against interest as such. Ancient Israelites were expected to be able to recognize that injustice without God telling them. Whether interest-taking is always unjust in the context of a modern economy cannot be settled by an appeal to scripture, but only by a rational process of economic analysis. If it is unjust, God expects us to be able to see that for ourselves and thus to know that he is against it without recourse to special revelation. God hates wrongdoing because it is wrong ... it is not wrong simply because God hates it.
    That of course is only the classical Anglican position; the Puritans had another view!

    So... the classically Anglican view is that God expects us take adult responsibility by examining same-sex relationships for what they actually are in our own day and age. If they are unholy and abusive, that moral fact will become very obvious to all people of goodwill, Christian or not (another classical caveat), whatever scripture had to say about patterns of sexuality in its own day.

    Herein lies the true Anglican doctrine (ie., Pilgrim version, derived from Hooker via Sanderson):- Matters of salvation can only be known by revelation, because they involve our relationship with the unseen God. Matters of morality are commonsensical, because they are derived from our common human experience. God has revealed he likes common-sense. Taking moral responsibility for one another is an integral part of our response to the gracious salvation we have received through revelation.

  2. Hi Howard,
    Perhaps with a view to late in the day prompting you to strengthen your argument for next week ... I do not think this kind of statement, "If they are unholy and abusive, that moral fact will become very obvious to all people of goodwill" takes us very far. Is 'abusive' key to determining that a situation is 'moral' or not? If it is, then on what grounds would you judge that (mutually consenting) incest was moral (or immoral)? If some companions of the incestuous couple were people of 'goodwill' and saw nothing wrong in their relationship would that suffice to inform you that the relationship was okay?

    On incest the Bible helpfully tells us that it is unholy without entering into engagement with the question of whether it is abusive or not. On your words above I (for one) am unclear whether (mutually consenting) incest should be judged immoral.

    In other words, can you strengthen your case at this point? No need to comment in reply, I shall be listening intently next week.

  3. Thanks for all you do here.

    As far as I can tell this is the only site in relation to the Hermeneutics Hui.
    Fr Pilgrim writes in a comment about contributing to other sites about the Hui, but I cannot locate them and there appear to be no links to them from here. There appears to be nothing about it on the Taonga site.
    Please can you point us to the papers, discussions, and results from the first two Huis (is that the plural?)
    and explain the connection between the Huis and the rest of the church:
    How do ordinary parishioners engage with the Huis?
    Are there diocesan meetings with feedback?
    Papers available online, to General Synod, Diocesan Synods?
    How does it work?

    And when are we getting to the exegesis of 1 Cor 6 here (your part 2)?

  4. Hi Anonymous
    The character of the two hui held so far has been
    a conversation in progress. As far as I am aware the hui itself has not published papers, though there have been reports in Taonga (print) along the way. I know of no plans to publish papers from this hui ... they are papers designed to stimulate group discussion and the group discussion would be inhibited if people thought it was being recorded in order to be reported.

    The connection between the hui and the rest of the church is that the fourth and final hui next year is likely to come up with some kind of something (a statement? a recommendation?) which will go to our next General Synod. Some dioceses have tried to connect the hui with their own life, e.g. by doing some local diocesan work on hermeneutics. My general impression is that not all dioceses have had feedback meetings.

    It is difficult for 'ordinary parishioners' to engage with the hui; but hopefully if and when some substantive conclusion comes from the series there will be ways for parishioners to engage.

    I am not quite sure when I get the second post on 1 Corinthians 6 up.

  5. Peter, I thank you for your suggestions regarding how I might strengthen my arguments for next week. However, as you know, the organising committee invited me to speak on the hermeneutics of a narrative passage, Genesis 19, rather than the texts from Leviticus or 1 Corinthians where commandments and prohibitions are in view. So, like you, my comments on this post are in preparation for general discussion at the hui and beyond. If you and I are in different discussion groups during the hui, we may not get to hear one another on this text, so I am happy to continue responding to your points here and now.

    1. The category of “abuse” is useful in guiding moral judgements, but by no means the only one, unless we extend its meaning to include all the ways we might fail to love our neighbour as ourselves. My first point here is that we all develop a range of fairly general ethical categories expressing our sense of right and wrong that guide us making moral judgements in specific situations.

    2. Those categories are socially determined, and thus vary from one society to another. My second point is that, at least in my reading of scriptural ethics, God seems to give his general backing to those socially determined categories. When in Rome (and even more to the point, Romans 13), do as the Romans expect you to do, if you want to please God and there is no over-riding contrary reason such as idolatry. Why? Because God commands us to be good neighbours.

    3. The incest case in 1 Cor.5 does not support your objection. Even if the offending couple and their friends found their relationship unobjectionable, Paul is clear that wider pagan society would be just as offended as he was, and appealed to that wider opinion as evidence against them. Equally clearly, he was confident that they would get little backing within the congregation at Corinth, and hence could deal with the matter briefly, giving instructions for the discipline that would be carried out, quite unlike his later approach to idol foods, where he had to argue his case with less assumed authority and at much greater length. (Read my thesis...)

    4. Is it helpful that the scriptures tell us incest is unholy without telling us what it is? I assume that, like me, as a child you embellished some of your father’s sermons by pondering the mysteries of the Table of Kindred and Affinity in the BCP, without becoming much the wiser as to why such marriages were forbidden. I am now glad to understand that incest laws are derived from the social structures they address, whether in 16th and 17th century England, or in early Israelite society. If it is unholy to marry my brother’s wife, it is because there are good reasons why it would be antisocial to do so; unless he dies childless, that is, in which case it would be unholy for me not to marry her. Likewise, there were good reasons, widely understood in pagan society, for not marrying your father’s wife, and for Paul to be scandalised in the case reported to him. Holiness, that is to say, is in some cases derived from God’s requirement that we respect the mores of the society in which we find ourselves

    5. If same-sex relationships are unholy, this will be because they violate principles of personal and social well-being that can be widely recognized within the society in which they occur, not because God is more uptight about them than we are! In terms of classical Anglican ethics, our debate about this matter has to proceed from the most general scriptural principles of right and wrong, summed up in the great commandments, and from a careful examination of the actual phenomenon we are talking about in the here and now. Only then can we come to a proper understanding as to how scriptural proscriptions against particular intimate relations in ancient societies may or may not be binding in our own situation. This is no different from what we did with scriptural injunctions regarding women’s ministries, slavery, usury and so many other issues. It is the Anglican way!

  6. Hi Howard,
    If in Rome I would not do as the Romans do in many matters, not least because I would read Romans 1 as well as Romans 13.

    You seem to be unable to conceive that God might view something as unholy apart from prevailing social attitudes ... surely God can deem something to be unholy independent of what is happening in society?

    While I understand what you are getting at here, I still think your approach could do with strengthening. On the logic here it is not clear to me why I should stand against culturally acceptable and socially endorsed homophobia in certain countries in the Communion much commented on these days; or, if I was in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, why I should choose to go with Barth and Bonhoeffer to the Confessing Church rather than with German Christians to the Reich Kirche.

  7. Hi Peter, I have a response to your previous comment, addressing the matter of unholiness:- “...surely God can deem something to be unholy independent of what is happening in society?”. Well of course he can, but does he?

    Your question prompted me to do a quick search for biblical texts in which particular behaviours are labelled “unholy” but have not yet come across any! You may have to help me out with some of the texts you have in mind, especially if they involve terms such as “unclean” or other labels indicating divine disapproval.

    A quick search of the NRSV for the term “unholy” came up with only 6 texts: four in the OT (unholy incense in Ex.30:9 and three references to the unholy fire of Nadab and Abihu in Lev.10:1, Num.3:4 and 26:61) where it is equivalent to “other” or “unauthorised”; and two in the NT (1 Tim.1:9 and 2Tim.3:2) where it is people who are unholy rather than their behaviour.

    As I understand the biblical concept of holiness, it is God’s people who are called to be holy, which is to say totally dedicated to God’s service. Holy people act in ways pleasing to God, while unholy people tend to behave badly. That bad behaviour is, in turn, socially conditioned. The ways in which unholy people behave will vary from one social setting to another, and so will the lists of sins typifying their unholiness. My point remains that even unholy people are capable of recognizing bad behaviour within their own social contexts: as Paul avers in Romans 7, its not the knowing that is hindered by sin, its the doing. God meanwhile exercises judgement in terms of what we know to be right, although that knowledge is socially conditioned.

    However, I do think you have identified a major sticking point for conservative Christians – the sense that unholiness is a quality attached to particular classes of behaviours, rather than to the great unwashed mass of people outside of a faithful, obedient relationship with God in Christ, who by the fact of their alienation from God are inclined to behave badly. We cannot have a reasonable discussion of homosexuality without addressing the possibility that one side in the discussion may be harbouring a conviction that God has declared it yucky, or at least intrinsically wrong!

  8. One further response, regarding homophobic societies, Nazi Germany, and so on.

    It seems to be a commonplace by now that people only come to feel relaxed around gays and lesbians by actually coming to know some of them, or even better when someone they already know and love comes out as gay or lesbian. That can only happen once the prospect of being ostracised or persecuted is lessened, as has happened in the West over recent decades. Chicken and egg really. As a Christian in a homophobic society, you would only feel constrained to make a stand for just treatment of gays and lesbians in general once you had some real people in mind whose interests you needed to defend. An enlargement of your experience would give you a changed sense of right and wrong and place you under different obligations before God than had previously been the case, or than is the case for the majority of your fellow citizens. Hence the liberal cause, in my case anyway.

    As for German Christians in the compliant churches under Hitler's regime, all the evidence they needed to alarm them about their shared moral cowardice was there in the disappearing faces of their Jewish neighbours. Whatever scriptural justifications they might have sought to justify their compliance, you cannot make a case that they acted in good conscience. Those like Barth and Bonhoeffer who sought out the confessing churches did so in order to be faithful a moral knowledge that was much more widely shared. Once again, it is not the knowing but the doing that is the problem upon which scripture shines its blinding light.

  9. Hi Howard,
    I sense that there is an objective morality which transcends social circumstances and contexts.

    Incidentally my understanding of German church history is that German Christians were flocking to embrace the spirit of Nazism long before Jewish faces started disappearing. They did act in good conscience - a conscience shaped by (European/German) liberal theology's particular embrace of culture and society through the 19th and early 20th century. My understanding of Barth is that he did not seek to be faithful to a widely shared moral knowledge so much as to be faithful to his understanding of the revelation of God in Scripture, a revelation he saw as utterly opposed to liberal theology's embrace of culture.

  10. "I sense that there is an objective morality which transcends social circumstances and contexts." Yup, and Jesus identifies it for us - the general obligation to love our neighbours as ourselves. That's the unchanging cross-cultural component. Loving Jews or gays is more of a culture-specific obligation.

    As for Barth, I have just acquired my own copy of his commentary on Romans, and shall bring it to the hui to keep me on track :-)

  11. I am sure Barth will have more success than I have at keeping you on track :)

  12. "My understanding of Barth is that he did not seek to be faithful to a widely shared moral knowledge so much as to be faithful to his understanding of the revelation of God in Scripture, a revelation he saw as utterly opposed to liberal theology's embrace of culture."

    Except, of course, when it came to his own sex life!

    Our personal experience, as Fr Pilgrime underlines, is the lens through which we read the scriptures. When your best friend, son, father, self turns out to be gay - the same scriptural texts take on quite a different look. Barth was no exception - rather, he is one of the strongest exemplars of this rule. There is never such a thing as "the Bible alone".