Who says we haven’t done the theology?

The Anglican Theological Review has made its Summer 2008 issue available online, thanks in part to a grant from the Chicago Consultation.

The issue is structured around the essay Some Notes on the Current Debate on Homosexuality and the Place of Homosexuals in the Church by the Rev. Canon Richard A. Norris, Jr., a distinguished patristics scholar and ecumenist who taught for years at the General Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary, and died unexpectedly in 2005.

In his introduction to the volume, W. Mark Richardson writes:

“Notes” is a practice in the large scope of Norris’s thought. He begins with an imagined utterance of a parishioner trying to come to terms with changes going on inside herself, and the church more widely, on matters of attitude toward sexual orientation and normative practices. Then Norris himself imagines the kinds of confusion within the church reflected in this parishioner’s sincere but conflicting remarks. He does not belittle but rather finds opportunity in this ordinary experience to launch a reflection on homosexuality that addresses the incomplete, sometimes unhappy state of present debate: “The Bible states clearly that . . .” at one pole, and appeal to either sentimentality or “rights” language, at the other pole. Norris’s argument moves through hermeneutical reflection on the few biblical texts alluding to same-sex relationship of some kind, patristic interpretative systems that deliver insight on hermeneutics, Aristotelian and Stoic moral systems, reflections on natural law theory in the context of Aquinas, and a last section on Kant’s alternative moral system. This comprehensive span, so skillfully brought to bear on this topic in Christian moral theology, recognizes the transitions in moral frameworks for thinking about the identified topic, while remaining focused on the dynamics that press upon current treatment of same-sex relationships and the church.

Norris’ essay is 76 pages long, but well worth the investment. For a sampling of this though, Read more.

B.4.7 “The Bible” then (a) does not contain precise answers to all concrete moral problems; and more than that, (b) many of its injunctions,behavioral and ritual, have been, or have come to be, disregarded by the churches, largely on the (often unspoken) ground that they do not and cannot apply in current circumstances (whatever time and place “current” refers to in a given instance). Hence persons who raise questions about biblical prohibitions of certain species of sexual behavior between individuals of the same gender may be “revisionists”; but they are no more so than many of the prophets—or Jesus, or Paul, or certain of the saints of later times (Athanasius, e.g., or MartinLuther, or the Wesleys, or Wilberforce, or F. D. Maurice, or Martin Luther King, Jr.). In Christian circles, revisionism is traditional, even if, like its contrary, it has sometimes been wrong-headed. The churches have not seldom judged that certain biblical instructions or prohibitions are trivial or pointless in new sets of circumstances for “circumstances” do “alter cases,” as the old maxim insists), or that principle which governs a particular requirement might not be better maintained by a revision of the law in question; and that some of them may seem, to us at any rate, to bear on matters of ritual purity, and not

morality at all. One is bound, therefore, to conclude what has already been asserted above … that scriptural commands or prohibitions cannot, in doubtful cases, be sufficiently well understood to be authentically obeyed without some form of further inquiry: inquiry as to exactly what a particular instruction intends; as to the principle that governs the instruction; and as to its agreement or disagreement with other principles or instructions upon which one habitually acts. And clearly there may well be circumstances in which such inquiry produces

a verdict that a particular injunction has either ceased to apply or is inconsistent with other, more authoritative instructions. Nor indeed is this a conclusion that is historically confined to

Christians of the modern era. It is often forgotten that in the ancient church, the Jewish Scriptures were defended from the attacks of gnostics, of Marcion, and, later, of Mani and his followers, precisely by a policy of “relativizing” forms of behavior and divine commands or

mandates that were inconsistent with the moral sensibilities of Christians. Thus Augustine records that there were those in his day who asked on what grounds any persons—and in particular the patriarchs of the Genesis narratives—who “had several wives at the same time

and killed people and offered animals in sacrifice” could be reckoned as righteous (Conf. 3.7.12). He was compelled, therefore, like Irenaeus before him, to defend the morals of the patriarchs and their descendants; and his defense took the form of a distinction (Conf.

3.8.15) between “wrongful actions that are contrary to nature” ( flagitia, quae sunt contra naturam) and “wrongful actions that are contrary to human customs” (quae . . . contra mores hominum flagitia). In the latter category fall rules established by the custom (consuetudo) or

laws peculiar to a particular city or nation; and these are normally to be obeyed in their native time and place, on the ground of their “congruence” with the social whole in which they function. Such congruence, however, does not entail that they are inviolable or universal

in their scope or in their authority: God can—and, Augustine thinks, clearly does from time to time—command their contraries. Although Augustine plainly classifies homosexual behavior as a violation of natural law, then, he also insists that what was right for the patriarchs may in some cases be wrong for Christians.

B.4.8 All the more reason, then, for wondering whether all particular scriptural prohibitions and injunctions are uniformly and universally applicable, and for recognizing that one cannot treat the

Scriptures as offering specific regulations for all the normal occasions of human life in all times and places. Scriptural injunctions respond to questions or issues that arise, or have arisen, or once arose, in consequence of the circumstances of the people who formulated them. …

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