VARIETIES OF FIRST THEOLOGY
One’s prior reception of Scripture as revelation in its theological dialogue with the world constitutes a “first theology.” If Christian theology arises from a fusion of two horizons – the horizon of the text and the horizon of the world – reflection on how we construe that fusion is all important. Following the useful model of Hans Frei, we may organize various “first theologies” into five discrete types based on how they relate the Bible to contemporary frameworks, philosophies and agendas.
Type one theologies give exclusive priority to the Bible and its language. For theologies of this type, Scriptural teaching is immediate, obvious, all-sufficient, and immutable. Biblical fundamentalists are largely persons of this type.
Type two theologies value dialogue with alien frameworks, philosophies and agendas, but give overall priority to the teaching of the Bible. Methodologically, type two theologies proceed with a basic confidence in the language of the Scripture, but recognize its historical and cultural conditioning. This self-critical awareness of the interpreter’s distance from the world of the Bible necessitates engagement and dialogue with other voices. Type two theologies adopt a "faith seeking understanding" approach to a given question, but reject the idea of a neutral posture for dialogue. Because the Scriptures are the Word of God, no outside frameworks are permitted to set the agenda for Christian self-understanding. Type two theologies are widely represented in post-conciliar Roman Catholicism (see esp. Dei Verbum) and most varieties of classical Protestantism.
Type three theologies can be broadly described as “correlationist” because of their attempt to correlate issues raised by the Scriptures to an indeterminate variety of modern frameworks, philosophies and agendas. The notion of a larger, transcendent “Truth” to which the Bible and the other frameworks correlate is usually assumed. Theologies of this type proceed methodologically in something of an ad hoc fashion, remaining open to multiple avenues of intersection while resisting the temptation to privilege a single framework or agenda above the others. The absence of critical readings, either of the Scriptures or the given external phenomenon is key here. Think Schleiermacher here.
Type four theologies can be described as “revisionist” in that they privilege a single external philosophy or framework above others and then interact with Scripture from that critical posture. Here the external agenda sets the agenda and the Biblical teaching is judged to be valid or invalid on that basis. Type four theologies are as widely divergent as the cultural frameworks that they adopt. Liberation theologies of all stripes tend (though not exclusively) to fall into this category.
Type five theologies are “post-Christian” or “non-Christian” and represent the mirror image of type one theologies. In the case of type five, however, it is the given philosophy, framework, or agenda that claims exclusive priority. Type five theologies are usually represented by avowedly post-Christian, a-theological, or fundamentalist members of other religions.
USES OF THE BIBLE IN DEBATES OF SLAVERY AND OF HOMOSEXUAL PRACTICE
How we approach the “great issues” in our theological engagement with contemporary culture depends a great deal on how we frame the conversation. Using Frei’s model, I want to suggest some ways in which we might frame issue of affirming homosexuality and its compatibility with Christian profession in light of a past cultural conversation regarding the compatibility of slave ownership with Christian profession.
A. Charles Hodge vs. Wm. Ellery Channing on Slavery
The readings from Charles Hodge pretty clearly identify him as a type one theologian. Three quotes are telling:
What are the moral principles which should control our opinions in regard to [slavery]. Before attempting an answer to this question, it is proper to remark, that we recognize no authoritative rule of truth and duty but to the word of God. (“The Bible Argument on Slavery” p. 847)
If we were wiser, better, more courageous than Christ and his apostles, let us say so; but it will do no good, under a paroxysm of benevolence, to attempt to tear the Bible to pieces, or to exhort, by violent exegesis, a meaning foreign to its obvious sense. (“The Bible Argument on Slavery” p. 848)
The thing there forbidden is the restoration of a slave who had fled from a heathen master and taken refuge among the worshipers of the true God. Such a man was not forced into heathenism. This is the obvious meaning and spirit of the command. (“The Fugitive Slave Law” p. 813)
Channing is a bit more dicey to quantify because he stands at a historical seam between pre-critical Christian orthodoxy and Enlightenment modernity. His underlying moral sentiments reflect a thoroughgoing Christian inculturation, but he then justifies these by appeals to the “universal reason” of Enlightenment philosophy. That said, I think its fair to speak of Channing as an example of type four theologies:
The first question to be proposed by a rational being is, not what is profitable, but what is right. (“Slavery” p. 688)
It is plain that if one man may be held as property, then every other man may be so held. If there be nothing in human nature, in our common nature, which excludes and forbids the conversion of him who possesses it into an article of property; if the right of the free to liberty is founded, not on their essential attributes as rational and moral beings, but on certain adventitions, accidental circumstances, into which they have been thrown; then every human being, by a change of circumstances, may justly be held and treated by another as property. (“Slavery” p. 692)
Note that this second quotation reflects an application of Kant’s categorical imperative that, while not directed as a criticism of the Bible itself, is a criticism of fundamentalist applications of the Bible.
Two things must be said here:
First, Channing was on the side of the angels as this specific issue and one may approve of his argument even from the standpoint of a different theological type. Proponents of type two theologies, for example, will regard Channing as an instance of “good theology, bum methodology.”
Second, Hodge is subject to what I think is a devastating critique both from the standpoint of subsequent historical evaluation and on his own terms. Put simply, Hodge’s exegesis is as problematic as his fundamentalism.
THE BIBLE AND AFFIRMING HOMOSEXUAL CHRISTIANS
So to stoke the embers of debate here, let me ask three questions and suggest some tentative answers regarding the Church’s negotiation of affirming homosexual practice as it relates to our use of the Bible.
Question #1: Does the 19th Century debate over the institution of slavery serve as a reliable precedent for dealing with the contemporary question of affirming homosexual practice?
I think it important to note that there can be no naïve equation of our negotiation of affirming homosexual practice with a prior generation’s negotiation of the practice of slavery. This is true both because the issues are quite distinguishable historically and because the debates even back then resist a simple either/or construal because of the aforementioned diversity of types. If Channing can be right for the wrong reasons and Hodge can be wrong for right and wrong reasons, simple moves from one issue to the other only obscure and prejudice the debate.
Question #2: What theological types are operative in the present debate? Is there a privileged or most truly Christian type?
It is so very important that we identify which theological type is being modeled by a particular person or communion. Closely related to this is the question of which theological type should be modeled by individual Christians and the Christian communions to which they belong. Getting clarity on the prior question of how we fuse the horizons of text and world is as important, perhaps more important, than the issues themselves.
Question #3: Turning to the third, communal horizon, is there a difference between the preferred theological type for an individual interpreter and a preferred theological type for a church or churches as a communion?
Frei’s model does tend to be Protestant in that it identifies types operative in the conversation of individuals with the Scriptures. To only speak of how one or another person uses the Bible is to presume that the interpretive community is a secondary, potentially forgettable, concern.
Beyond discrete uses of the Bible in a given debate, we still have yet to speak of the issues and implications of ecclesiology. How to hold these negotiations as a worldwide communion of Christians and churches remains the great unexamined question of this debate.
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Gagnon, Robert A. J. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction To New Testament Ethics. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Moore, Stephen D. God's Beauty Parlor: And Other Queer Spaces In and Around The Bible. Stanford, Calif : Stanford University Press, 2001.
Nessan, Craig L. Many Members, Yet One Body: Committed Same-Gender Relationships and the Mission of the Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2004.
Pahls, Michael J. “Abraham’s Other Wife: Negotiating Homosexuality in a Situation of Ecclesiologial Chaos.” Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought 20, no. 6 (June/July 2005): 5-10.
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Seow, Choon-Leong. Homosexuality and Christian Community. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
Swartley, Willard M. Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2003.
Office of Communion of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. To Set our Hope on Christ: A Response to the Invitation of the Windsor Report 135. Online: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/ documents/ToSetOurHopeOnChrist.pdf.
Via, Dan O. and Robert A. J. Gagnon. Homosexuality and The Bible: Two Views. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003.