Thursday, August 24, 2000

Marriage: Whence Comes It, from Heaven or from the Church?

Marriage: Whence Comes It, from Heaven or from the Church?

A Response to Joseph Monti’s "Review Article: By What Authority?"

By Stephen F. Noll

And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus answered them, "I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?" (Matthew 21:23-25a)

I suspect it has never occurred before that the Sewanee Theological Review (Pentecost 2000, pp. 342-371) devoted thirty pages to an unremitting attack on a book it was purporting to review, not to mention a review by one professor at an Episcopal seminary directed against a peer (as I then was) at another seminary. Therefore I trust that the editor will publish a brief response from the recipient of this attack.

I welcome Professor Joseph Monti’s review of my book, Two Sexes, One Flesh: Why the Church Cannot Bless Same-Sex Marriage (Latimer Press, 1997). [1] On an issue of this magnitude — changing the Church’s doctrine of marriage — only the fullest, most honest exchange is called for.

Let’s set the context of my book and Monti’s review, beginning with the wider theological and ecumenical context. For the 2000 years of its history, the Christian Church has never approved any sexual relationships outside of holy matrimony (John Boswell notwithstanding). [2] It is true to this day that no major Christian church approves such relationships, with the exception of the United Church of Christ. In decisions as recent as May and June 2000, mainline Methodists and Presbyterians have rejected same-sex blessings and ordinations of practicing homosexuals. [3]

Internationally, the Anglican bishops at Lambeth 1998 stated: "This Conference…while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation….; and cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions." [4]

The thesis of my book — that marriage must remain exclusively heterosexual — is hardly novel. Nevertheless, Professor Monti characterizes me as some kind of pre-Enlightenment dinosaur, whose views represent the "small minority of Episcopalians, grouped in various configurations — with the American Anglican Council at the center — who will either ‘save’ the majority denomination or offer an alternative to its evident infidelity" (Monti, pp. 362, 352). The dinosaurs apparently still roam the land, especially outside the camp of elite opinion-makers in the Episcopal Church.

My book was originally written as part of a "process" of responding to the 1994 General Convention Resolution C042s. That Resolution committed the Episcopal Church to "continue in trust and koinonia ordaining only persons we believe to be a wholesome example to their people, according to the standards and norms set forth by the Church’s [traditional] teaching" and it prohibited the development of unauthorized same-sex blessing rites. [5] However, it also authorized study of the "theological and pastoral foundations of same-sex unions."

Between 1994 and 1997, the Righter Court verdict opened the door to no-fault ordinations of practicing homosexuals and same-sex blessings, and a heavily biased subcommittee of the Standing Liturgical Commission began to plan to reverse the traditional teaching. It became clear to me that getting the seminaries’ approval was part of a plan to lead the 1997 General Convention to say in effect: "We see no theological objections to the development of same-sex blessings."

I came to conclude, sadly, that no seminary other than Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry was prepared to make a full-blown case for the traditional position. I also knew from experience that Trinity’s response would be buried in a report that noted a minority voice but went on to condone the innovation. This was exactly what happened: my paper was the source for most of the minority quotations in the final report. The majority view led to a Resolution (originally C003s, later changed to C002) authorizing the development of same-sex blessing rites.

In early 1997, my intramural document became a book, which sold about 4,000 copies without benefit of a major publisher. [6] Whether it had a significant impact on the 1997 General Convention, I cannot say. The fact remains that Resolution C002 failed in the House of Deputies by a slim margin and did not go to the House of Bishops.

At the July 2000 General Convention, a Resolution (D039) appeared not unlike that of 1997, calling for the development of rites "to support relationships of mutuality and fidelity other than marriage." The particular section quoted (Resolve 8) was defeated once again. At the same time the Convention affirmed two other Resolves which, taken together, suggest that both marriage and same-sex relationships can be "characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God" (Resolve 2 and 3). Finally, Resolve 7 reaffirms "the imperative to promote conversation between persons of differing experiences and perspectives, while acknowledging the Church's teaching on the sanctity of marriage." Hence Professor Monti’s critique of my book is of continuing usefulness. My response to that critique can, I presume, be seen as part of that ongoing conversation.

I wish to address Monti’s critique on four points:

1) that my book "substitutes assertion for argument" (p. 343);
2) that my reading of Scripture is "staid, doctrinaire and traditionalist" in comparison with his own approach, which is "duly contextualized for contemporary understanding" (pp. 356, 357);
3) that my understanding of grace and nature results in a static naturalism as opposed to a dynamic notion of new creation; and
4) that my strident tone is needlessly demeaning to people like himself and divisive within the Church.

I. Assertion and Argument

It is hard to defend oneself from the assertion that one’s writing "substitutes assertion for argument." Let the reader decide. Certainly it is my intention to mount a sustained argument (Two Sexes, One Flesh, pp. 10-11). My thesis can be summed up well by the 1920 Lambeth Conference:

Recognizing that to live a pure and chaste life before and after marriage is, for both sexes, the unchangeable Christian standard, attainable and attained through the help of the Holy Spirit by men and women of every age, the Conference desires to proclaim the universal obligation of this standard, and its vital importance as an essential condition of human happiness. (Lambeth 1920, Resolution 66) [7]<

The following steps form the argument for my thesis.

Chapter 1. I begin by defining terms. What is marriage? Do terms like "same-sex blessing," "committed relationship," and "holy union: refer to a marital relationship or something else? I argue that the change of language signals not just an extension of traditional marriage but a new ethic, which I call "the ethic of intimacy."

Chapter 2. I lay out a hermeneutic for reading Scriptural texts, in which multiple witnesses are brought to bear on my thesis. First, there are the many direct texts condemning fornication and homosexuality. Next there is the absence of any positive moral examples of same-sex erotic relationships. I propose a legitimate way to reason from the silence of Jesus to a moral conclusion, while opposing what I call the method "proof-analogy," making false associative leaps, as in making the situation of slaves, women, and gays a continuum of progressive liberation. Characteristically, Monti employs this precise method in his treatment of the Jerusalem Council in Acts (see below).

Chapter 3. This chapter gives extensive treatment of the foundational texts about creation, human nature, sexuality, and marriage. Working exegetically from Genesis 1-3, guided by the classic Anglican marriage rite, I defend the natural design for marriage, as stated by ethicist Oliver O’Donovan:

Human beings come into existence with a dimorphically differentiated sexuality, clearly ordered at the biological level towards heterosexual union as the human mode of procreation. It is not possible to negotiate this fact about our common humanity; it can only be either welcomed or resented. Marriage, precisely by being ordered around this fact, enables us to welcome it and to acknowledge it as a part of God’s creational gift....

From the creational design flows the implication that marriage, however fallen and sinful in practice, is ordained as universal, exclusive, and unchangeable.

Chapter 4. In a chapter largely omitted by Monti in his review, I look at the concrete legal traditions, both ancient and modern, which regulate the institution of marriage. In so doing, I argue that same-sex marriage cannot claim a basis in known systems of justice, which is particularly noteworthy since many proponents claim same-sex marriage is a "justice issue." I conclude that since marriage does involve matters of law and justice, then the state has a legitimate interest in regulating it, but is at the same time obliged to observe its essential character.

Chapter 5. I claim that Christian marriage, while participating in natural and legal forms, has a distinct "sacramental" character. I accept the idea of a "new creation" in human sexuality but see it as forming a continuity with the original creation purposes of God.

Chapter 6. The final chapter has to do with praxis: how the same-sex debate is working itself out in the context of the Episcopal Church. My premise here is that because traditional marriage and the ethic of intimacy derive from different premises about human nature, one side will ultimately force the other to abide by its norm or leave the Episcopal Church.

It is one thing for Professor Monti to disagree with my case, but to claim that it is "ideology…an attempt to persuade to conviction and action on the basis of emotional appeal and relatively unquestioned assumptions of truth and rectitude" (p. 352) is, I think, itself an ideological statement. Surely my thesis would be recognizable to every major theologian of the Christian Church down to the late twentieth century, and the rhetorical style in disputation certainly finds exemplars from St. Paul to Athanasius to Martin Luther and Martin Luther King.

II. Biblical Hermeneutics and Biblical Authority

Again, it is hard to defend oneself against the assertion that "Noll engages in little specific exegesis but relies on repeated assertions of ‘the literal’ or plain sense of Scripture." (p. 353, n. 12). Let the reader check this out via my index of Scripture references. As to my use of plain sense exegesis, I plead guilty, along with many other serious scholars. [8]

By contrast to plain sense exegesis, Monti offers an alternative approach to reading the Bible. The most significant example of this approach is his exegesis of Acts 10 and 15 (pp. 355-358). Of the former text, he states:

The pertinent texts in this narrative on unclean, impure, and profane states and categories of life invite further reflection, suggesting a creation theology quite other than Noll’s: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (10:15; 11:9); "But God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean" (10:28).

I am in full agreement with his exposition so long as "categories of life" have to do with class and status and not moral behavior, which is not mentioned in the text at hand.

Moving on to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, he quotes the decree "telling them merely to abstain from anything polluted by idols, from fornication, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood." "Duly contextualized for contemporary understanding," he continues, "this was a list of ‘essentials’ along with the direction that no further burden should be placed upon the gentile converts."

At this point, he does not bother to examine the meaning of the word porneia (fornication) which consistently refers in the New Testament to sexual activity outside marriage; rather, he proceeds to make his own imaginative leap.

In the radical context of the new creation, I believe that it would be a legitimate contribution to the contemporary debate to draw an analogy between the categories of "circumcision" and "uncircumcision" and being "straight" and "gay" as other "categories of the flesh." Thus we could say that "neither being straight nor being gay is anything; but a new creation is everything."

This is a clever move, but it assumes that "gay" and straight" are natural "categories of the flesh" or, if not, that they are transformed from being unnatural to natural in the new creation. It also indicts the New Testament apostles and the entire Christian tradition for missing the Council’s main point and condemning generations of homosexuals to obloquy.

According to a more natural reading, the new covenant retains and even heightens the sexual requirements of purity outside marriage of man and woman, even as it removes the partial distinctions of culture and law between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Such a reading seems clearly in line with Article VII of the Articles of Religion (BCP, page 869), which distinguishes the civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament from "the Commandments which are called Moral."

But even if his particular exegesis fails to convince, Monti has a fall-back position: "By what authority," he asks, does the Church make decisions? His answer to this query is: "‘we’ as the Church and as people of the Book have this authority. . . . Whether we like it or not, we must courageously be the Church because we are the Body of Christ" (p. 369, 370).

First, let me ask: who is this "we"? Is it the historic church of the ages? Is it the ecumenical church of the 21st century? Is it the Protestant mainline churches of the United States? Is it the bishops of the Anglican Communion? No, apparently "we" means a small group of Episcopal leaders who since 1989 took it into their own hands to ordain and bless practicing homosexuals without any collegial authorization and who plan to continue to do so regardless of whether they can get a resolution through the small denomination called ECUSA. And this is the fruit of what Monti calls his "catholic ecclesiology."

Monti has, I think, put his finger on the fundamental difference between us, the difference which causes him offense. I am representing an understanding of marriage as "given from heaven" in Scripture and the rejection of all non-marital sex as an implication of that given. [9] This is, I believe, the classic Anglican position, articulated in Articles XIX:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. (BCP, page 871)

If I have mistaken the priority of authority (p. 358), I have good company.

III. Conflating Nature and Grace

While claiming that he can appreciate good natural law arguments, Monti accuses me of "conflating" and "collapsing" the distinction between nature and grace into "an economy of glorious and angelic perfectionism" (p. 361). He accuses me of producing a "wild supernatualistic polemic of grace" (p. 362) and at the same time of viewing marriage principally as a justification for sex (p. 351). He notes that my position is a "hybrid biblical/natural law argument" (p. 347) and expresses puzzlement that I claim to be an evangelical but speak like a doctrinaire catholic (p. 368 n. 33).

As to the last charge, I stand convicted as accused. I thought that is what Anglicans were: Protestants with a respect for the catholic tradition. Was it not the case that our foundational theologian, Richard Hooker, sought to articulate just such a "hybrid biblical/natural law argument"? Is it not the case that the preeminent Anglican ethicist of our day, Oliver O’Donovan of Oxford University, has developed a careful theology of the moral order renewed and not subsumed in the resurrection order? [10]

The charge of conflating rests much more heavily on Professor Monti. In the name of "new creation," he wishes to conflate the distinction between persons and of sexes and the distinction of erotic love and of friendship and family affection. This gnostic tendency to transcend particularities of revelation shows up in other areas, such as his obvious unease with straightforward Trinitarian language (see his reference on page 367 to "God Father/Creator, Son/Redeemer, and Spirit/Sanctifier"). Presumably Monti objects to traditional language for God the Father on the same basis that it is a wild supernaturalistic projecting of gender into the Godhead. [11]

IV. Stridency or Kulturkampf

I suppose it would be too much to expect Professor Monti to see in my work a positive statement of the "glory of marriage." I did in fact intend to critique proposals for same-sex marriage "from heaven," i.e., from the Church’s doctrine of marriage. Once again, I leave readers to determine whether my book is a mere cavil or a constructive illumination of the doctrine of marriage emerging from a contemporary dispute.

I do not see my argument as strident but rather strenuous, as is appropriate when one is in the midst of a theological battle on a matter of essentials of the faith and the soul of the Church. The nature of the dispute may determine the range of the artillery employed: one does not discharge a howitzer against a single foxhole; but, as I have argued elsewhere, the sexuality debate is part of a wholesale revision of the Christian faith and spirituality. [12]

Monti vacillates as to whether the sexuality debate entails a such a worldview war (Kulturkampf) or is merely rearguard skirmish with died-in-the-wool conservatives. On the one hand, he writes: "Noll and I are beyond disagreement. It is more that we are seeing different realities, experiencing different worldviews, reading texts and cultures differently, and indeed, abiding in different households of faith" (page 343).

But then he complains that I have framed the debate in a way that it will have an winner and a loser: "At the outset, Noll alerts his readers that this book will not contribute to the debate itself but, if accepted, will end the debate If serious consideration is being given to change, the debate itself is unfaithful" (page 366). To be frank, I do not think the question of changing the Church’s sexual norm should ever have begun. It is an open and shut case: that is why there are so few references in Scripture, tradition, or the canons on the subject. That is why so many Third World Anglicans find our Church incomprehensible. However, it is disingenuous for Monti to suggest that this is just a debate. Proponents of same-sex blessings have been performing them or a decade now, assuming and indeed trying to force their conclusion on the Church. "It’s already happening, get used to it" was the constant refrain we heard from the microphones at the recent General Convention.

As to Monti’s suggesting that my book exhibited personal animosity toward opponents, I have checked all his references and find them lacking in substance. [13] It is most telling that his supreme example of my harshness (p. 366 n.31) comes in the following quotation from my book: "Foremost among the tears wiped away in the world to come, I suspect, will be those proceeding from the yearning of our flesh to be united with lost spouses, parents, and children who have refused God’s grace in Christ." When did the Episcopal Church adopt universalism as its official doctrine? When did it declare Articles XVII and XVIII (BCP, page 871) to be harsh and mean-spirited? [14] And what kind of heaven does Professor Monti promise us all — the biblical one or some limbo of the Church’s current devising?

I accept his critique in turn as a strenuous rebuttal, although there are times when he descends to caricature and psychologizing. [15] The most telling part of his critique appears is his objection that I question the sincerity and faith of opponents and would seek to exclude them as unfaithful and heretical (pp. 352-353). It is true I question whether revisionists are being faithful to God’s Word and to the Church when they promote homosexuality as blessed by God. They are heretical in doing so. I do not, however, question the sincerity of revisionists. Indeed, I see their own notion of justice propelling them to a position that will logically exclude me and my views (see Two Sexes, One Flesh, pp. 85-89).

While I do believe we are in an unresolvable theological and ecclesiastical crisis, I have not advocated a winner take all approach. I have publicly called for a modus vivendi — the Jubilee Initiative — which would keep both sides in the same legal structure while allowing parishes to follow their consciences. [16] It seems to be the case that it is the revisionist wing of the Episcopal Church that is bound and determine to win it all: how else can one explain a "Jubilee" Convention that restores the Inquisition to pursue those who oppose women's ordination? "But the canons must be obeyed," they say. Good point: in a Church where the authority of Scripture and tradition have been set aside, the canons are all that keep us from utter chaos. And of course, no one disputes that the Church — or at least a select committee of the Church — writes the canons.

Am I happy about the present state of affairs? Hardly. It grieves me greatly, which may account for the jeremiadic passion with which I write about my mother Church: "How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she that was great among the nations!" George Herbert, it seems, foresaw our end, when he wrote of the Church in America:

Then shall Religion to America flee:

They have their times of Gospel, ev’n as we….

Yet as the Church shall thither westward flie,

So Sinne shall trace and dog her instantly:

They have their period also and set times

Both for their virtuous actions and their crimes.

(The Church Militant)

The power of the Gospel in the Anglican Church has moved from West to South, and I only hope that the fate that has fallen the once beautiful Episcopal Church may not be extended to her sister churches throughout the Anglican Communion. It was in this spirit of prophetic hopefulness that I concluded my book:

I believe that God is refining his Church and the institution of marriage by means of this present crisis. This refining must involve our repentance, which includes thinking more deeply about the true meaning of marriage. As a result of this repentance, God may teach us how to be better disciples and to value elements of Holy Matrimony that we have taken for granted or neglected. By rediscovering the riches of our heritage, we may even be able to speak, humbly and wisely, to our fellow citizens who are suffering from the breakdown of this divine institution. (Two Sexes, One Flesh, page 110)

I noted at the beginning of this article that the publication of such a diatribe as "By What Authority" is unparalleled in Episcopal academic publishing. But it also is real and necessary. And for this I thank Professor Monti and for the editor in allowing this response.


[1] To my knowledge, the only critical review ever written was by Dr. Eleanor McLaughlin. It was circulated by Integrity at the General Convention but never published (or if it was, no one bothered to send me a copy).
[2] See Two Sexes, 20, n. 27 for my comment on Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (New York: Villard Books, 1994). Monti (p. 351) seems to be alluding to Boswell, although he does not name him.
[3] The United Methodist General Conference on May 11, 2000 reaffirmed, by a two to one majority, Paragraph 65G of the Book of Discipline stating that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The Presbyterian Church USA, having passed "Amendment B" in 1997, clarified further, by a vote of 268-251, on June 30, 2000: "Scripture and our Confessions teach that God's intention for all people is to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or in chastity in singleness. Church property shall not be used for, and church officers shall not take part in conducting any ceremony or event that pronounces blessing or gives approval of the church or invokes the blessing of God upon any relationship that is inconsistent with God's intention as expressed in the preceding sentence." This Amendment will now go to the Presbyteries, where is will probably be adopted.
[4] For an exegesis of Resolution 1.10, see my article, "Lambeth Speaks Plainly" in Mixed Blessings: Why Same-Sex Blessings Will Divide the Church (American Anglican Council, 2000) 30-43 and "What the Bishops Said Abut Sex" in the "After Lambeth" issue of Trinity's magazine Mission & Ministry.
[5] Guideline 8b, Continuing the Dialogue [1994], 94. The word "traditional" is added for clarification on the basis of Guideline 2.
[6] I knew from previous experience that no Episcopal publisher would touch such a controversial book, especially prior to the 1997 convention. It is a well known fact among "the small minority of Episcopalians — with the American Anglican Council at the center" (Monti) that no "mainstream" Episcopal publishing house will accept conservative books. It is to the credit of Latimer Press that it has kept the argument alive in a church that wishes to stifle genuine argument.
[7] For a history of Lambeth's statements on sexual behavior, see "Resolutions on Sexuality from Lambeth, 1888 to 1998," in the "After Lambeth" issue of Trinity's magazine Mission & Ministry.
[8] See esp. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in This Text (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998); and several essays in David L. Balch, ed. Homosexuality, Science, and the "Plain Sense" of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).
[9] Monti (p. 366 n.29) claims that "disclosing norms are not in themselves ordering rules. Other rules of life, guided by the theological and moral disclosures of heterosexual marriage, will be necessary for some." I also note that certain deviations from the marital standard have are "deficient" but in some sense real. However, not all deviations are acceptable, and Scripture and tradition has consistently and apodictically censured homosexuality in this regard.
[10] See Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986) 19: "Creation and redemption each has its ontological and its epistemological aspect. There is the created order and there is natural knowledge; there is the new creation and there is revelation in Christ. This has encouraged a confusion of the ontological and the epistemological in much modern theology, so that we are constantly presented with the unacceptably polarized choice between an ethic that is revealed and has no ontological grounding and an ethic that is based on creation and so is naturally known. This polarization deprives redemption and revelation of their proper theological meaning as the divine reaffirmation of created order."
[11] See my reference to C. S. Lewis on sex and gender in Two Sexes, p. 84. On the current debate over inclusive language, see John W. Cooper, Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998). Monti has good company in the Episcopal Church: many of the appointed liturgies at the 2000 General Convention went out of their way to avoid naming God the Father.
[12] See my The Handwriting on the Wall: A Plea to the Anglican Communion (Latimer Press, 1997). On arriving home from the General Convention, I found in my mail an invitation to a conference titled "Beyond Orthodoxy," which is certainly a provocative and indicative title for the project of the "apostolic pioneers" in the Episcopal Church.
[13] Cf. his review, p. 353 n. 11. I do not attack Margaret Farley ("Roman Catholic nun") at all but simply cite her article on sexuality. As to Carter Heyward and John Shelby Spong, I think they can fend for themselves. As to my questioning Bishop Righter's competency to continue as a bishop after multiple marriages, my position is no different than many bishops take toward their own clergy and has certainly been the mainstream position of the church based on Scripture.
[14] Monti has company, I admit. At one of the 2000 General Convention hearings, the chaplain read from John 14, ending with verse 6a: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life . . .", pointedly omitting verse 6b: "no one comes to the Father, but by me." She asked participants to turn to a neighbor and answer: "Who is Jesus to me?" Clearly the one answer discouraged by this truncated reading was the correct exegesis: that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
[15] Monti writes: "I take no pleasure in saying that I find Two Sexes, One Flesh to be a book more in line with self-righteous indictment than "speaking the truth in love" (page 345). Speaking the truth necessarily involves battling for righteousness (Ephesians 6:14). What Monti fails to do is explain why my argument is self-righteous. Am I suspect because I am happily married and hence a heterosexist?
[16] "The Jubilee Initiative: Why We Need It, What It Means, and Will It Work?" Encompass (December 1999) p. 5.

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