Friday, February 19, 2010

Response to Radner (3)

I would like to conclude my response to Ephraim Radner’s review of Reasonable and Holy with a few comments on his views of my biblical hermeneutic. Perhaps the strangest thing in this strange review is that Radner appears not to recognize what I am doing as entirely within the range of the classical Biblical interpretation. I suspect his assumption must be something like, “If your result disagrees with the doctrinal tradition, then your technique or method must diverge from the exegetical tradition.” I may be putting words into his mouth, but this is the only premise that can make sense of his further comments. Taken on its own, as a premise, it is clearly false, as many people using identical exegetical methods, at various stages in the history of engagement with Scripture, have come to very different conclusions as to its meaning and application.

However, the least accurate characterization Radner makes of my biblical approach is to call it “Liberal Protestantism.” Liberal, perhaps, but only in the sense that Richard Hooker was liberal in comparison with Walter Travers. Protestant, but only in the sense of the classical Anglicanism of the Elizabethan Settlement, or the Evangelicalism of Luther, and certainly not in the mid-19th to mid-20th century meaning of the word. If seeking a cohesive message from Scripture — such as my own that its sufficient purpose is salvation through grace by faith in Christ (an aim Radner seems to find less than fruitful, as he puts save in scare-quotes!) — then he is equally guilty of such an appeal, when he criticizes me for not developing a “larger scriptural vision” along the lines of John Paul II. If anything, Radner’s approach, and what he appears to be asking me to do, is more along the lines of the liberal protestant academy of the late 19th century.

To take one example, which I referred to in the earlier post: Radner accuses me (I think) of misrepresenting Rob Gagnon on the question of Jesus’ use of porneiai. Here is Radner:

...On the issue of whether Jesus actually says anything about homosexuality, [Haller] attacks Gagnon on his reading of porneiai in Mark 7:21ff. as possibly implying homosexual practice.

Haller provides some straightforward initial questions, ones that are worth noting, and then pursues his general theme of same-sex references in the Bible as being primarily aimed at cultic prostitution. One might think that Gagnon is a rather silly man on this basis. But the reader is never told that Gagnon himself doesn’t put much weight on the very argument Haller attacks (half a paragraph, on a verse he questions as “authentically” Jesus’ in any case), while Haller, on the other hand, deals with the question at length (four pages).

First of all, to the accuracy of Radner’s characterization of Gagnon. From his reference to my book, one would think this was Gagnon’s only statement on what Jesus thought about homosexuality. In fact, it is the only text Gagnon can attempt to twist so as to put an actual condemnation of homosexuality (in his mind) into Jesus’ mouth. Gagnon, after all, is capable of such astounding statements as, “Jesus, both in what he says, and what he fails to say, remains squarely on the side of those who reject homosexual practice.” (B&HP, 228, emphasis mine) So much for actual fidelity to the text! However, I was addressing Gagnon’s earlier statement:

...No first-century Jew could have spoken of porneiai (plural) without having in mind the list of forbidden sexual offenses in Leviticus 18 and 20 (incest, adultery, same-sex intercourse, bestiality). The statement underscores that sexual behavior does matter. If Jesus made this remark, he undoubtedly would have understood homosexual behavior to be included among the list of offenses. (ibid. 191-2)

Contrary to Radner’s assertion, Gagnon expresses no doubt whatsoever that porneiai “undoubtedly” includes “homosexual behavior.” In addition, Gagnon holds very lightly indeed any doubt he may have that this verse is an actual statement by Jesus (“If Jesus made this remark...”) — for Gagnon, Jesus damns if he does say it, and damns if he doesn’t. This is a bizarre combination of Jesus Seminar color-coding and pure eisegesis — hardly what I would call sound scholarship. And yet this passage from Gagnon is quoted widely as a definitive summary of Jesus’ position on the subject, including in the Church of England’s House of Bishops’ position paper, Some Issues in Human Sexuality. Do I think Gagnon a “rather silly man.” No, but perhaps a dangerous one, whose agenda is at all costs to spin either what the Scripture says or what it doesn’t into an overarching message of disapprobation.

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I, too, of course, do have a “larger Scriptural vision,” though it may be that Radner cannot grasp it because he doesn’t share it. He dismisses my hermeneutic based on the “Summary of the Law” as if it were not in fact “a consistent moral ‘principle’ (discerned somehow as divine)” by which we are to understand the Scripture. I think that is exactly what it is, and from the mouth of Jesus himself.

This view is not some modern concoction out of Liberal Protestantism, as Radner thinks, nor is it a means simply to dispose of difficult passages, but the means to place them in their proper perspective in the over-all plan of salvation. This principle of biblical interpretation is the basis of Jesus’ and Paul’s own engagement with Scripture — and it is the font that waters the best reflections of the early church. As Saint Augustine put it,

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up the twofold love of God and neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. (On Christian Doctrine 1.36[40])

As Augustine later says, it is better to be accurate than not, and error should be corrected. But let the correction itself by clear and sound and specific — and not like the dense circularity of Gagnon, or the flippant dismissal of Radner.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


DavidH said...

Tobias, die Erika Baker hat mich geboten, Ihr Buch mir Ihnen an Ihrem Website zu diskutieren (sorry about my inadequate German.... the rest in English). She recommended your book as an example of the use of an evangelical approach to our Scriptures that supported homosexual marriage (NB in my view it is necessary to be careful about what we mean by "homosexual" - I love, care about, and am attracted to the companionship of men, but not sexually... So I use homosexual to mean sexual relationships between people of the same sex - which are the only "same-sex relationships" that have been understood to be sinful by the Church).

Unfortunately I'm away at the moment and don't have your book with me, so I'll just restrict myself to making a point that struck me clearly: you argue as if "fornications" in Jesus sinlist (Mark 7) should be seen in the light of the contemporary language and thought of the time. This strikes me as unlikely because the point of that pericope is that Jesus, as he does elsewhere, is critical of the Pharisees and scribes for following the teachings of the elders rather than the Mosaic Law. So in His sin list, it seems to me that the most plausible way to understand what Jesus means by fornications is that He is pointing back to what the Law says is sexually immoral (eg Leviticus).

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Although the assertion is made from time to time, I've yet to see any clear evidence that "porneia" was used by anyone in the period to refer to the forbidden degrees in Leviticus. Leviticus itself does not use the Hebrew equivalent (z'nut) in connection with these matters, nor did the LXX.

My point is that the word has a simple meaning -- harlotry -- and that is probably what Jesus means when he uses it. There is no need to read other very narrow readings, unless one wants to acknowledge the use of this word to apply to a married man having intercourse with a woman other than his wife. That would, of course, also be "harlotry" (the use of rather than the being of harlots) and I have argued elsewhere that this may have been a way to judge men of a crime equivalent to adultery, but not so treated under Jewish or Roman law (under which men were free to have extramarital affairs or concubines.) This would appear consistent and offer a ready explanation for the pairing of moixeia and porneia in several of the lists.