Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Uses of the Bible in Slavery and Homosexual Debates

Here are the notes from a talk that I gave last week at SLU...


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.


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.

B. Observations

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.


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 na├»ve 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.


Bahnsen, Greg L. Homosexuality: A Biblical View. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978.

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.

Scroggs, Robin. The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background For Contemporary Debate. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

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: documents/ToSetOurHopeOnChrist.pdf.

Via, Dan O. and Robert A. J. Gagnon. Homosexuality and The Bible: Two Views. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

They Live!

"I came to kick ass and chew bubble gum...and I am all out of bubble gum."
(Las Vegas) A man suspected of killing two tourists and injuring 12 others on the Las Vegas Strip told police he steered his car into the crowd on the sidewalk because they were staring at him like demons.

"They were staring at him like they were `demons,'" the report said. "Ressa admitted he became angry at them, and intentionally steered the vehicle toward them."

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Positively Ghoulish

Planned Parenthood offering abortion to rape victims in New Orleans

BATON ROUGE, September 12, 2005 ( - The Catholic Exchange reports that the crisis pregnancy centres in Mississippi and Louisiana areas are being called upon to help with maternity cases but Dorothy Wallis, director of Care Pregnancy Center of Baton Rouge, said that the huge influx of donations is not getting to them. “The hospitals are sending their post-delivery patients to us for care. The American Red Cross sent eight families today.”

In an email, pro-life nurse and activist, Jill Stanek told that as of today, the centres have received only US $5000.00 and that is to cover extra expenses for all the pregnancy centres in the area, including the overflow from the five New Orleans clinics destroyed by the hurricane.

Caring to Love Ministries has set up a website where readers can send in tax-exempt donations for the care of expectant mothers in the Gulf area. The Care Pregnancy clinic of Baton Rouge offers critical personal, prenatal, and post partum support for women and particularly focuses on low-income mothers.

The group hopes to counter the action of Planned Parenthood teams who have already descended upon the refugees offering surgical abortions and chemical abortifacients to rape victims and other pregnant refugees. Wallis said, “I will walk side by side with Planned Parenthood into the devastated area.” “We have something to give they do not. We offer love and compassion. We have the opportunity to give forth life. Devastation and death have already arrived.”

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Ugly Wins Are Still Wins...

Of course this ugly win came against #3 MICHIGAN in the Big House for the first time since 1993!

Lloyd Carr

Go Irish!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Return to Glory (For Real This Time)

Notre Dame Defeats Pitt 42-21

Trust me, dear reader, I was sitting in the hallowed confines of Notre Dame Stadium last year as Tyler Palko and Pittsburgh hung five passing touchdowns on our defensive secondary. It pains me to this day, but those wounds finally began to heal as my beloved Irish put on an offensive clinic in the first half of last night's game. By halftime Notre Dame led 35-13, scoring more points in a half than Tyrone Willingham's teams had in 35 of his 37 games under the golden dome.

Charlie Weis has brought Notre Dame football back from the brink of extinction!

Bring on Michigan!

Friday, September 02, 2005

Prayer and Action for Hurricane Katrina Relief

Prayers for the Gulf Coast

O God of all the nations of the earth: Remember the multitudes who have been created in your image but have not known the redeeming work of our Savior Jesus Christ; and grant that, by the prayers and labors of your holy Church, they may be brought to know and worship you as you have been revealed in your Son; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son came not to be served but to serve: Bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom, patience, and courage, they may minister in his Name to the suffering, the friendless, and the needy; for the love of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Heavenly Father, giver of life and health: Comfort and relieve your sick servants, and give your power of healing to those who minister to their needs, that the people of the Gulf Coast, for whom our prayers are offered, may be strengthened in their weakness and have confidence in you loving care; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Several charities allow you to donate online:

Anglican Communion Network

Catholic Charities

The Red Cross

Samaritans Purse

Also, those friends who have "one click" set up, go there and give.

Less Churchy!?

New poster ads are being distributed in the UK by the Church of England. The general theme demonstrates a concern to convince fellow Brits of a less "churchy" Church. Here are some notable examples:

"The Church. Provider of judo lessons, antique sales, playgroups, ballet lessons, school discos, flower-arranging classes, theatre clubs and, oh yes, church."

"Church. It isn't as churchy as you think."

"More dances are held in church halls than in dance halls"

"You have to be a pretty good bloke to let 40 screaming kids and a bouncy castle in your house"

"Why go to India to find yourself? You might be round the corner."

All the posters end with the line "Church. Part of modern life".

Now I may be completely turned around on this one, but the systematic disenchantment with the church in our culture seems to stem from its being less "churchy" not "more churchy." Sure, koinonia is all about the messiness of one embodied soul interacting with other embodied souls, but when we run away from mystery - from the Holy - we tend to lose the inherent transcendent and transfigurative heart of resurrection faith. No, it can't always be smells, bells, and mystical ascent, but I'm pretty sure that communion with the Holy through the Resurrected Jesus is the only unique thing the Church really offers. After all, any social organization can offer judo lessons, antique sales, playgroups, ballet lessons, school discos, flower-arranging classes, and theatre clubs - and usually of a higher quality than the average cash-strapped local parish.

Perhaps our best advertising is to remain true to who we are: redeemed sinners, becoming saints, mystics, martyrs, reformers, and - yes - resurrected, transfigured humanity. Some words from St. Dominic capture my point:

"It is not the display of power and pomp, cavalcades of retainers, and richly-houseled palfreys, or by gorgeous apparel, that the heretics win proselytes; it is by zealous preaching, by apostolic humility, by austerity, by seeming, it is true, but by seeming holiness. Zeal must be met by zeal, humility by humility, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching falsehood by preaching truth."

By the way - Does anyone under 40 not hear the term "modern" (as in "modern life") in a negative light? To me at least, the advertisement sounds like a saccharine invocation of mid-twentieth century late-Enlightenment enthusiasm. Remember, the pinnacle achievement of "modern life" hubris was Nazi Germany