p.ost

(how to tell the biblical story
in a way that makes a difference)

Scripture, same-sex marriage, natural law, and the narrative-historical method

Is the main story that the Bible tells bigger than human history or smaller than human history? The biblical story is certainly bookended with creation and new creation, but it’s what happens in between that I’m concerned about—the sequence of events from the rise of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), say, to the fall of Babylon the great (Rev. 18).

Does that sequence of events somehow—prophetically, apocalyptically—embrace the whole of human history? Or does it constitute a limited and localised storyline within human history? If the former, then we have basically a deterministic theology that precludes significant change and development—a theology that already, in principle, answers all the questions. If the latter, we have to consider the possibility that events and transformations of biblical proportions will happen after the main biblical narrative has reached its dénouement.

It seems to me that the endorsement of same-sex marriage in the West is a symptom of just such a far-reaching, post-biblical transformation. Unlike other social and ethical developments (opposition to slavery, sexual egalitarianism, for example), it cannot be claimed by the church as a progressive move intrinsically consistent with the biblical witness. Even if we accept that the biblical prohibitions were aimed at something quite different from the modern enlightened notion of faithful, loving, same-sex monogamy, the church can hardly claim credit for the development—and many in the church do not want to claim credit for it. In that respect, it signals perhaps more sharply than other ethical controversies that secularism has forcefully taken control of the moral agenda. Thank you very much, but we’re doing it our way from now on.

How is the church to respond to this? How do we continue to tell the biblical story as a dwindling minority? Do we try to maintain the traditional view that the biblical story is in principle bigger than the world’s story, that it already has all the answers? Or are we going to have to adjust our perspective and acknowledge that the open-ended story of humanity is threatening to swallow up the biblical narrative and spit out the remains?

It seems to me that not only the diminished moral authority of the church but also historical readings of scripture point in the latter direction. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the post-Christendom, post-modern marginalisation of the church puts us in a much better position to grasp the scope and purpose of the historically circumscribed biblical narrative.

The problem is that the modern theological mindset of the church blinds us to the glory of the narrative-historical hermeneutic.

In an essay called “The Bible and Science on Sexuality” the ethicist Christine Gudorf discusses the tension between scripture and natural law in relation to Paul’s argument in Romans 1.1

She argues that Paul has “at least a basic natural law theology”. He believes, for example, that “natural intercourse” is heterosexual (Rom. 1:26-27), and that Gentiles sometimes “by nature do what the law requires…, even though they do not have the law”, because “the work of the law is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15). So we can say that, in Paul’s view, “the will of God can be discerned within creation, independent of historical revelation”.

The importance of natural law lies in the fact that it “constitutes the fundamental bridge between the Bible and science as sources for ethics”. So if the Bible says that same-sex sexual behaviour is an abomination and science says that it is perfectly normal for a small percentage of the population, we may look to natural law to help us resolve the contradiction. We have other options than simply to restate of the biblical position.

Gudorf then notes a “profound” historical irony.

Catholicism, despite having fought so hard against the Enlightenment, has “carried over from its medieval theology a concept of natural law which has allowed it… to integrate the findings of science into theology as further revelation of the Creator embedded in the creation”—though not without difficulty in some areas.

Protestantism, on the other hand, despite having “carried the banner of the Enlightenment”, has rejected natural law in favour of the Lutheran doctrine of sola Scriptura, on the grounds that nature has been thoroughly corrupted by sin and can’t be trusted.

Now here’s the interesting observation. Gudorf argues that “the rejection of natural law left Protestant theology with difficulty in dealing with historical transformations in consciousness and culture”.

The result is that Western Protestantism is now struggling to respond constructively to the intense cultural pressure it is under to “refer to science in its ethical deliberations”. (The same is true, incidentally, with regard to its cosmological deliberations.) Liberals have happily taken scientific findings on board, but “often without specifying the theological foundation for doing so”. Conservatives have tended to ignore or resist the scientific perspective, particularly when it appears to contradict scripture. Only Episcopalians and Methodists have retained enough appreciation for natural law to be able to take reason and experience into account in debates over such issues as same-sex marriage.

Gudorf concludes: “The doctrine of creation needs to be taken more seriously by treating science as a method for uncovering divine intention within creation, instead of understanding science as merely describing the temporal situation in which divine intention gets played out.”

So Gudorf sees natural law as the necessary bridge between scripture as fixed revelation and the evolving scientific outlook, from which we can hardly dissociate ourselves without falling into the trap of a narrow, isolationist sectarianism that is no use to anyone.

My argument here has to do with the relation between scripture and history rather than that between scripture and science, but the basic problem is the same: the modern evangelical church does not have a good way to deal with “historical transformations in consciousness and culture”.

I maintain that the formative narrative of scripture, which is a political story about “kingdom”, found its proper fulfilment in the defeat of pagan Roman imperialism and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world. That was the limited historical horizon of the New Testament. But the story of the people of God did not stop with the rise of Christendom, and to be true to the biblical witness we have to maintain the prophetic narrative through to the modern era—and beyond. Otherwise we are walking into an extremely challenging future blindfolded.

That is a creative task—telling the story of the people of God across the undulating landscape of history. But the modern evangelical mind has been conditioned to discount historical development in the same way that it has been conditioned to disregard the testimony of science. My fear is that we will grossly underestimate the seriousness of the “eschatological” crisis that we face in the West, and that, when we do wake up to the fact, we will lack the biblical-prophetic resources to respond to it.

  • 1. In David L. Balch (ed.), Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (2000), 134-39.

Comments

Hey friend, I hope you are well. It’s been too long. A very interesting post, today. I think you may be onto something that could prove quite helpful in loosening the cultural gridlock we find ourselves in regards to human sexuality. Thanks.

I’m not sure using natural law as a means to address human sexuality is helpful. Mainly because a small percentage of individuals desire the monogamous same sex relationships that the church is so dead set against. This self-selecting group would not be harming the rest, and would not inhibit the reproduction and continuation of our species.

It seems very different than natural law applied to murder, or stealing. Those actions are indiscriminate, and if viewed as acceptable would have wide reaching consequences (breakdown of social trust, fear based world, lowering of altruistic behavior, etc).

While I find the comments about Catholic/Protestant use of natural law verses enlightenment scientific ideas fun to play with. It seems stretching and all to convenient to apply to same-sex marriage like you do here.

Paul, by “natural law” I understand something like: what a society judges broadly to be good and right according to how the world is perceived to be. Until fairly recently Western culture regarded same-sex sexual activity—as distinct from same-sex orientation—as being contrary to nature. It was either a matter of wilful perversion or a form of disease. Western societies now generally regard homosexuality as self-evidently “natural” for a small proportion of the population. That is “natural law” according to the particular mix of scientific, ethical, social and political values that currently characterises Western secularism. Not everyone agrees with it, but it is roughly where public opinion has settled.

No doubt the development can be attributed to the vociferous and forceful advocacy of that “small percentage of individuals”, but it seems to me to be an inevitable extension of the moral trajectory of Western secularism. In that respect, I think, the affirmation of same-sex marriage concerns everyone just as much as murder or theft: it has to do with the consistency and integrity of the dominant socio-political system.

The question for evangelicals, as I see it, is not so much whether we should reset the balance between scripture and natural law. It is more how we tell the story of the people of God—and here it’s about much more than same-sex marriage, though same-sex marriage has throw a sharp light on the problem. I am inclined to argue that the direction taken by the post-Christendom West is fundamentally beyond the historical purview of the biblical narrative, and we should expect things to drift further and further away from a Christian shoreline that is receding into the past. So how do we keep telling the biblical story under these radically different conditions?

by “natural law” I understand something like: what a society judges broadly to be good and right according to how the world is perceived to be.

The issue with this approach to natural law is that it assumes humans are rational & critical actors. This would have allowed the ongoing use of slavery in the US. Instead of a more broad understanding of natural law that would state “certain rights being true because of human nature because of how nature is, as understood through reason.” Which seems like a more common understanding in my opinion.

So it seems weird to me that you would make the connection to sexual orientation at all. After-all if it is natural for some (5-10+% of people) to choose same sex (or have a non-heterosexual orientation) then human reason would assume it to be a part of Gods design into creation. Therefore something natural law ought to affirm and support.

Or at the least, if you would conclude that a small percent of the whole would be a deviation from the norm I would ask how we then accommodate them. The church has been vocal about support other small minorities (disabilities come to mind - though I do believe GLBT individuals to be disabled), so how would we support them to live fulfilling and meaningful lives within the arms of the church.

I understand that you are asking a question more about the voice we use as the church going forward. I personally believe that separating the church from power is a critical step in reclaiming the churches correct place in this temporal world. Preaching the coming Kingdom of God where Jesus sits enthroned. To focus on the what I believe is the core of the message Jesus preached - to be ambassadors of grace, forgiveness, and eternal hope. Hope that is good news to the weak, outcast, and broken but foolishness to those in power. Our hope is in a resurrected Son of God who left the 99 to find each one of us - that we would be saved.

The issue with this approach to natural law is that it assumes humans are rational & critical actors. This would have allowed the ongoing use of slavery in the US. Instead of a more broad understanding of natural law that would state “certain rights being true because of human nature because of how nature is, as understood through reason.” Which seems like a more common understanding in my opinion.

But the difference is only that you have privileged the outlook of one particular culture—the modern, rationalist western culture. This wouldn’t stand up to a postmodern critique. Different cultures/societies have different ideas about what constitutes “natural” or how reason works. The debate over the nature of homosexuality is case in point. How does your definition not assume that humans are rational and critical actors?

So it seems weird to me that you would make the connection to sexual orientation at all.

I’m not sure I’m following you here, so this could miss the mark. The connection with sexual orientation arises because there appears to be a “natural law” element to Paul’s argument about same-sex sexual activity in Romans 1:26-27. Whereas Leviticus simply proscribes such behaviour, Paul seems to be saying that it is wrong, in part, because it is unnatural. But if we recognise that “nature” is a cultural construct and that different cultures describe nature differently, we have to ask whether this part of the argument remains valid today—just as we are a little mystified by his question in 1 Corinthians 11:14: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him…?”

Andrew - thanks for this. Some entirely non contrarian comments and questions.

the modern evangelical church does not have a good way to deal with “historical transformations in consciousness and culture”.

This summary statement is certainly true, whether the “modern evangelical church” is modern or not. (How modern is modern?)

You move from the various issues raised by the church being largely at loggerheads with culture over equal marriage to Christine Grudorf and the arguments about natural law bridging the gap between the bible and science. She highlights the contradictions inherent in both the Catholic and Protestant viewpoints. Do you see this as an endorsement of your own argument for “a limited and localised storyline within human history”, which might make natural law arguments irrelevant? Do you have a view about natural law, or do you think that the arguments largely spurious?

A “localised storyline” raises the possibility for you that “events and transformations of biblical proportions will happen after the main biblical narrative has reached its dénouement”. You don’t say it, but would cultural accepance provide grounds for accepting equal marriage by the church, as constituting just such an “event and transformation?”

A final comment, and question. You cite Grudorf as saying that Paul has a basic “natural theology”, as evidenced in Romans 1:26-27 and 2:14-15. I always respond to this sort of claim by pointing out that if this is the case, then 1 Corinthians 11:14 must also also be an argument from “natural theology”, since the same root word, φύσις is used in both passages. If it is not a natural law argument in the Corinthians passage (and others), though some diehards say it is, then why should there be a post-Aquinas natural law argument in Romans?

Do you see this as an endorsement of your own argument for “a limited and localised storyline within human history”, which might make natural law arguments irrelevant? Do you have a view about natural law, or do you think that the arguments largely spurious?

I think the two are related. Natural law suggests that spiritual and ethical truths can be read off the natural world, but how the world is read changes over time. So we understand “nature” in a very different way to the ancients—and, of course, there is variation within any historical era. It is this historical dimension to natural law that produces the overlap with the narrative-historical approach to scripture.

It seems to me that to claim, as I do, that Christendom constituted the fulfilment of New Testament prophecy about the kingdom of God is at least analogous to natural law arguments: it is looking at how things worked out and giving much greater weight to this concrete evidence in the overall construction of the biblical story. But if we do that, then what do we say about the collapse of western Christendom, and so on?

You don’t say it, but would cultural acceptance provide grounds for accepting equal marriage by the church, as constituting just such an “event and transformation?”

Well, yes, this is the question. Perhaps only if “cultural acceptance” is understood as symptomatic of a much more fundamental revision of what it means to be human. Same-sex behaviour was culturally acceptable to sections of Greek-Roman society, but that wasn’t an argument for toleration. I think that in narrative-historical terms acceptance requires a dense and comprehensive account of the shift from the cultural-intellectual sphere presupposed by the biblical story (through to the decline of Christendom) to the cultural-intellectual conditions of modernity.

Paul’s natural law arguments worked under particular cultural conditions, largely determined by the intersection of Jewish and pagan values in the first century. Do we have to absolutise any of it? Possibility not. Even the argument about the perception of the character of God in nature (Rom. 1:20-23) belongs to the debate over idolatry and may work somewhat differently given a scientific cosmology.

There are no straightforward solutions to these problems, but the main point of the post was that, by trying to live so resolutely within—rather than beyond—the narrative of scripture, evangelicalism denies itself the hermeneutical resources to understand and respond to the massive shift that the world is going through.

“historical transformations in consciousness and culture”

We need discernment on these, and I would think the biblical narrative (which includes a constant tendency of humans to seek their own way, and to apostatize from God’s saving purposes) provides a lot of discernment.

Why are all historical transformations of consciousness acceptable? Why can’t an historical transformation be the searing of a conscience, or an apostasy?

Slavery AROSE in the 1600s. I’m happy to call that a transformation in conscience, but it was a wicked terrible one that seared consciences. And the race “science” of the day supported it too.

Gudorf says that “the rejection of natural law left Protestant theology with difficulty in dealing with historical transformations in consciousness and culture”. That holds, presumably, whether we are talking about good or bad transformations. Or the point may only be that Protestantism lacks the resources to respond well to developments in historical consciousness that are morally neutral but which need to be taken into account if we are to communicate meaningfully. Protestant theology has little interest in history other than in the sense of resisting divergences from Reformed tradition.

But the more substantive issue, to my mind, is whether the massive and continuing shift in consciousness that we know as modernity has fundamentally changed the rules of the game. It’s not the particular controversies but the whole philosophical underpinning of our culture, in which the church participates as much as everyone else.

The basic narrative consideration is this, as I see it. The Bible gives us a detailed prophetic-apocalyptic account of the transition foreseen a world that was passing away (the world of second temple Judaism and classical paganism) to the age to come, when the former pagan nations would worship the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus Christ. A narrative theology ought to provide us with a comparable account of the very different transition that the people of God are going through as the West rebuilds itself on modern secular humanist rather than on pre-modern Christian values.