Recently, James Martin, SJ, suggested in a tweet (citing a recent remark posted by Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, which cites a passage from a book by the late Methodist writer Walter Wink*) that there exists an analogy between slavery and homosexuality vis-á-vis the moral authority of Scripture. He seemed to imply that not unlike the view of Christians who came to reject Scripture’s stance on slavery so too we now may possibly do the same with its stance on homosexual practice:
Interesting: “Where the Bible mentions [same-sex sexual] behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether the biblical judgment is correct. The Bible sanctioned slavery as well and nowhere attacked it as unjust. . . . Are we prepared to argue today that slavery is biblically justified?”
Now, this is all implied but it is clear what he wants to say. Since we are not prepared to justify the biblical stance on slavery, so too let us consider rejecting the Bible’s stance on homosexuality.
The Moral Authority of the Bible
A reply to Fr. Martin’s tweet must proceed from a hermeneutics that honors biblical authority. (I must be brief here. I give an in-depth treatment of biblical hermeneutics in Chapters 1 and 2, “Biblical Revelation and Authority,” and “Catholic Biblical Hermeneutics and Ethics,” in my book, “In the Beginning . . .” A Theology of the Body [Pickwick Publications, 2010]) Since the Catholic Church teaches that the Scripture is divinely authoritative for morals, then, we must come to terms with the moral authority of specific moral truth, commandments, and rules. Of course, we must not treat Scripture as a mere system of general moral propositions. The Scripture locates the Christian moral life, and the responsibility to make choices that are worthy of the calling that we have received in Christ (Eph 4: 1-16), within the context of the overarching biblical narrative of creation, fall into sin, redemption, and eschaton, which is the consummation of God’s plan of salvation.
So, yes, this authoritative biblical narrative is central for understanding the meaning and purpose of the moral life—the chief end of man, moral precepts, and virtues (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church Part III).
Still, propositional truth is an indispensable dimension of truth itself, but how truth is authenticated—that is, lived out, practiced, carried out—cannot be reduced to it—to being merely believed, asserted, and claimed because “what is communicated in catechesis is not [merely] a body of conceptual truths, but the mystery of the living God” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio §99). Regarding, then, the fundamental question of how truth is authenticated, John Paul correctly notes,
It is urgent to rediscover and to set forth once more the authentic reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out. A word, in any event, is not truly received until it passes into action, until it is put into practice. Faith is a decision involving one’s whole existence. It is an encounter, a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6). It entails an act of trusting abandonment to Christ, which enables us to live as he lived (cf. Gal 2:20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters (Veritatis Splendor §88).
Martin’s tweet may leave us confused about how to come to grips with the moral authority of the Bible. In particular, it may leave us confused about whether, as John Paul II states, “there exist, in Divine Revelation, a specific and determined moral content, universally valid and permanent” (Veritatis Splendor §37). Yes, there are moral norms formulated in Scripture having the status of not only fundamental revealed moral truth grounded in the natural law, the order of creation, but also are in themselves relevant for salvation. The New Testament moral teaching affirms not only the continuing validity of the Decalogue but also its perfection and superabundant fulfillment. As the late Germain Grisez correctly emphasizes,
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus broadens and deepens several of the commandments and demands their interiorization (see Mt 5:21-37). All the synoptics, moreover, present Jesus as affirming the commandments as a necessary condition for entering eternal life (see Mt 19:16-20; Mk 10:17-19; Lk 18:18-21).”
St. Paul, too, adds Grisez “assumes the truth of the Decalogue and its permanent ethical relevance” (The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 1, 838). Indeed, following the pattern of Christ, St. Paul urges us to avoid self-deception regarding the inseparability of the moral choices we make that are worthy of the calling we have received in Christ and eternal life. Thus, he links fundamental moral decisions with admission to, as well as exclusion from, the Kingdom of God (see 1 Cor 6:9-11).
Moral Universality and Context
Furthermore, Fr. Martin’s tweet raises the question whether or not there is historical precedence in the Christian tradition for rejecting straightforward scriptural commands. Christians appeal to God’s prohibition against same-sex relations in Lev 18:22 (“You shall not have intercourse with a man as you would with a woman. It is an abomination.”), but ignore the punishment of death for same-sex relations in Lev 20:13. They find scriptural warrant in the sixth commandment for rejecting adultery as wrong (Exod 20:14), but ignore the scriptural warrant that the punishment for committing adultery is death (see Lev 20:10). The fourth commandment tells us that we should honor our parents (Exod 20:12), but Exod 21:17 says that we should execute a son who swears at his father. Christians readily cite scriptural warrant for parental authority but none accepts execution as a punishment for disrespecting parents. How do we distinguish then between culturally conditioned specific commands from those that are universally and unconditionally valid?
Helpful here in distinguishing between commandments that are enduringly valid from those that are not, is the late Reformed theologian, Lewis Smedes’ distinction between “primary commandments” and “concrete commandments.” Consider concrete commands, such as, “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death” (Exod 21:17), are culturally conditioned. But this concrete command is an application of a primary commandment that is absolute and universal: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod 20:12). The concrete command is contextually conditioned but not the primary command on which it is based. The latter cover specific goods of human life, such as human existence, property, communication, marriage, family. The former demand or prohibit a specific act.
Furthermore, at the root of each command is the “foundational commandment” that covers all of life, namely, the central commandment of Love: We are called to love God completely and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. (Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18; Lk 10:27; Mk 12:30-31)
Christ is the Fulfillment of the Law
The first hermeneutical imperative of Dei Verbum (§12) is to attend to the canonical sense of the Scripture, the unity and content of the whole Bible. The canonical sense is arrived at by interpreting the literal sense of the text—that is, the sense intended by the author—in the context of the whole Bible. In light of this imperative, we can develop the notion of the law’s fulfillment in Christ.
The Gospel of Christ is “a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1972). Civil, criminal, and cultic (ritual) Old Testament laws are no longer binding for us. Laws regarding temple sacrifices, ritual cleanliness, and diet, like forbidding unclean meats, whose point is holiness and forgiveness of sins, have been fulfilled by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. His atoning death both perfected and transformed the Old Testament sacrificial system, because He makes a full and perfect sacrifice for sin on our behalf. “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:10, 14).
Now, is the biblical prohibition against homosexuality to be classified along with the other temporary ceremonial laws that are no longer binding because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice for sin on our behalf? Some critics of using Holy Scripture as morally authoritative claim that prohibiting homosexuality today would be like forbidding unclean meats, and since we do not accept the latter prohibition, it would be inconsistent to accept the former. This argument is unconvincing, however for several reasons.
First, the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament point to or prefigure Christ, and these laws have been fulfilled by Christ’s obedience. The same cannot be said for the biblical prohibition against homosexuality. Second, the death penalty demanded for homosexuality puts it in the moral realm and not in the ceremonial laws. The primary character of the holiness code is moral, prohibiting incest, adultery, child sacrifice, oppression of the poor, slander, hatred, unjust weights and measures—and these moral precepts are still binding today. Third, the penal code of the Mosaic Law no longer possesses juridical authority. This code stipulates capital punishment for more than twenty crimes such as disrespecting parents, adultery, and homosexuality (Lev. 20:9-10, 13). Moreover, it was directed toward the civil society of Israel and thus this criminal code, not the moral principles behind it, lost its validity when Israel ceased to be a theocratic nation. Hence, the Old Testament penal code is no longer binding for us.
Certainly, Christians must still accept as binding the moral commands prohibiting, for example, adultery, homosexuality, and disrespecting parents. The moral laws, whose core is the Ten Commandments, retain their direct and unchanging validity, on the grounds of the objective moral law. Significantly, even these commandments receive a new foundation in the Gospel.
Indeed, the key to understanding what happens to the whole law (cultic, civil and moral) of the Old Testament is Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). On the one hand, Christ’s fulfillment of the law means that we are free from the law as a means of salvation. Because of sin, which the law cannot remove, sins remain a form of bondage from which Christ sets us free. Thus, we are justified through the saving work of Jesus Christ. We are no longer under God’s law, but under His grace. On the other hand, that the law is fulfilled in Christ does not mean the gospel has no further relation to the law. Although we are freed from bondage to the law as a way of salvation, the moral law remains God’s will for the life of the Christian. Jesus Christ interiorizes the demands of the law, exposing its true and positive, indeed, fullest meaning in light of the central Love commandment, namely, that we love God completely and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Thus, there are universally valid and permanent moral precepts in the Bible, and they are grounded in the objective moral law. For example, the biblical commandments against incest, bestiality (Exod 22:19), adultery (Exod 20:14), child sacrifice, prostitution (Lev 19:29; Deut 23:17-18), and rape (Deut 22:25-29), are absolute and universally valid. It is never morally acceptable to oppress the poor; bear false witness against one’s neighbor (Exod 23:1-2); and commit idolatry (Exod 20:4; Deut 13:6-11). Of course here, too, regarding idolatry we have an instance of a concrete command (“Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the Lord must be destroyed” [Exod 22:20]) which is an application of a primary commandment from the Decalogue (Exod 20:1-6).
Three-fold Strategy for Interacting with the Culture
Old Testament theologian Christopher Wright helpfully distinguishes a threefold strategy that the Church has adopted in its response to the surrounding dimensions of a culture. (1) Total rejection (e.g., incest, bestiality, homosexual practice, adultery, child sacrifice, prostitution, and rape); (2) qualified tolerance (e.g., practices in the Old Testament, such as slavery, polygamy, and divorce that were tolerated, Jesus tells us with regard to the latter, because of “hardness of hearts,” but it was not so from the order of creation [Matt 19:8; Mk 10:5]); and (3) critical affirmation, which means affirming positively, albeit discerningly, aspects of the true, good, and beautiful in, say, the ancients and moderns (e.g., philosophical ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Scheler).
Against the background of this strategy that shows us the diverse approaches in the Bible to the surrounding cultures, we circle back now to Fr. Martin’s tweet suggesting that we adopt a similar stance regarding biblical authority on slavery and homosexuality. The analogy is unsuccessful. (For helping us to see this point, I am grateful to the magisterial work of Robert A. J. Gagnon titled The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics.)
Slavery, Homosexuality, and Biblical Authority
First, there is no Scriptural mandate for slavery, that is, no commandment to enslave others, nor is there a penalty for releasing slaves. Rather, the Old Testament merely shows a qualified tolerance of slavery as an institution and regulates it without approving it. What kind of slavery was actually being regulated? The enslaving of prisoners of war, of criminals, of people who sold themselves into slavery as a last-ditch way to avoid starvation (Lev 25:39) or to advance their careers, was permitted and regulated.
As to regulating it, Robert J. Hutchinson writes, “while in the Code of Hammurabi anyone who harbors a runaway slave is to be put to death, the Old Testament law actually commands that such slaves be given refuge: ‘You shall not turn over a slave [who has escaped] to his master. He shall dwell with you in your midst . . . you must not ill-treat him’ (Deut 23: 16-17). Not only that, but anyone who abducts someone and sells him or her into slavery—as the brothers of Joseph did in Genesis or the slave traders of the eighteenth century did—was to be put to death” (Exod 21: 16). “What’s more,” adds Hutchinson, “when a Hebrew ‘slave’ was freed, the Bible says, ‘you shall not send him away empty-handed, but shall weigh him down with gifts from your flock and threshing floor and wine press, in proportion to the blessings the Lord, your God, has bestowed upon you” (The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible, 162-164).
Significantly, the biblical warrant for this treatment of slaves is as follows: “For remember that you too were once slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord, your God, redeemed you; therefore I command you this today” (Deut 15:12-18, esp. 13-15). It is fair to state then that the Old Testament treatment of “slaves” is “revolutionary” because, according to moral theologian, Paul Copan, “the overriding goal in Deuteronomy 15 is that there be no slavery in the land at all.”
By contrast, there is a Scriptural mandate, in the Old and New Testament, to limit sexual unions to heterosexual ones (Gen 1:27, 2:24; Lev 18: 22, 20:13; Rom 1:26-28; 1 Tim: 9-11). In addition, there is a severe penalty having to do with a person’s eternal standing before God or entrance into his Kingdom. Consider St. Paul:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Stop deceiving yourselves: Neither sexually immoral persons [pornoi, i.e., like the incestuous man], nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor ‘soft men’ [malakoi, i.e., men who feminize themselves to attract male sex partners], nor men who lie with a male [arsenokoitai, a term formed from the Levitical prohibition of male homosexual practice] . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10).
Second, contra Martin’s suggestion, slavery is not divinely instituted, a structure or mandate of creation, in short, a God-ordained social arrangement. By contrast, the institutions of civil authority, marital, and parental relations are divinely instituted, creation structures; in short, God-ordained, and conduct is regulated. In particular, the biblical authors throughout the Scripture viewed heterosexual unions as normative structures of creation that are transculturally valid—permanence, male and female twoness, and sexual differentiation as a fundamental prerequisite for the two to become one-flesh (Gen 1:27; 2:24).
Third, there is tension within the biblical canon itself on the issue of slavery. This is evident from the trajectory of critique within the Bible itself on the matter of slavery. Some authors, such as moral theologian Paul Copan, refer to this trajectory as the “unfolding ‘redemptive-movement’ of God’s self-revelation to his people even within the OT.” As Gagnon summarizes this point, “We can discern a trajectory within the Bible that critiques slavery. Central in Israelite memory was the remembrance of God’s liberation from slavery in Egypt (e.g. Exod 22: 21; 23:9; Lev 25: 42, 55; Deut 15: 15). Christian memory adds the paradigmatic event of Christ’s redemption of believers from slavery to sin and people (e.g., 1 Cor 6: 20; 7: 23). Israelite law put various restrictions on enslaving fellow Israelites—even insisting that Israelites not be treated as slaves—while Paul regarded liberation from slavery as a penultimate good (1 Cor 7: 21-23; Phlm 16).” By contrast, adds Gagnon, “While Scripture shows unease with the institution of slavery, the only discomfort it shows toward same-sex intercourse is with the commission of the act, not with its proscription.”
Fourth, on the one hand, the Scripture is a countercultural witness regarding slavery, and indeed is rather liberating in relation to the ancient cultural norm. On the other hand, “The Bible’s stance on same-sex intercourse moved in the opposite direction, against any accommodation [or tolerance; rather, its stance is one of total rejection]. Simply put, Scripture nowhere expresses a vested interest in preserving slavery, whereas Scripture does express a vested interest in requiring a male-female dynamic in sexual relationships.”
In sum, “Scripture itself does not provide the kind of clear and unequivocal witness for slavery that it exhibits against same-sex intercourse.”
Therefore, Fr. Martin’s analogy between slavery and homosexuality vis-á-vis the moral authority of Scripture falls apart.
Accordingly, we must submit to the moral authority of the Bible on homosexuality in light of the Church’s teachings (Catechism §§2357-2359) without fear that doing so would lead us do the same for slavery. Do not be fooled by Fr. Martin’s tweet. Indeed, heed the Word of God that calls us to “avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith” (1 Tim 6: 20-21).
(*The essay originally stated that Fr. Martin was quoting Fr. Richard Rohr,in his tweet; the quote is actually by Methodist writer Walter Wink, but quoted by Rohr.)
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