Chris Seitz on the Biblical Crisis in the Homosexuality Debates

Chris SeitzI have been an appreciative reader of Chris Seitz for several years now. My reading of Seitz has chiefly been driven by my interest in Brevard Childs’ canonical approach, of which Seitz is one of the leading and most articulate advocates. Last month I read Seitz’s The Character of Christian Scripture, which is primarily concerned with the question of the significance of the two testament form of the Bible, and with expounding the meaning of Childs’ expression ‘we are not prophets or apostles’.

Seitz has also written on a number of occasions about the debates concerning homosexuality and same-sex marriage within the Episcopal Church. While I found his treatment of this subject in such places as the chapter on human sexuality in Word Without End to be helpful, it is in The Character of Christian Scripture that he most clearly exposes some of the deeper theological lineaments of the current debates.

Seitz builds a case that the ‘same-sex crisis’ in Anglicanism is a ‘symptom of a deeper disagreement over the interpretation of Scripture.’

He suggests that there have been three key phases in the conversation in the Episcopal Church. In the first phase it was suggested that the biblical texts should be reread and that it would become clear that they weren’t condemning homosexual practice per se (e.g. Sodom is about inhospitality). In the second phase, many started to concede that the Scripture was opposed to same-sex practice, but focused on the way that the Bible equips us to make ethical decisions. Biblical examples as the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 were appealed to as precedents for addressing religious principles to changing times and realities. In the third phase, the applicability of the biblical teachings to contemporary same-sex behaviour is denied. The work of the Holy Spirit in our day is appealed to as justification for the Church plotting a new course.

Seitz observes that the Bible has been turned into a ‘book of religious development, from one Testament to the next.’ As the Bible cannot foresee contemporary realities, it cannot truly speak to them. We live in a period of progression beyond the horizon of the text. Seitz remarks:

[T]he idea of developing religious wisdom goes hand in hand with an acceptance that texts from past contexts can only with real difficulty have any kind of meaning for the present full-stop. The Bible becomes “stories” or “resources,” at best, and its language is evocative or imaginative; it has no legislative (halakhic), exhortative, constraining, or strictly referential sense; it has “themes,” which resonate with intuitions or convictions already in place, and so forth.

Seitz proceeds to put his finger on what is perhaps the deepest concern explaining the strength of opposition to same-sex behaviour among many Christians, which is the very power of Scripture to speak with any degree of clarity into the present day at all:

If the Bible’s consistently negative word about homosexual conduct is wrong, or outdated, who will then decide in what other ways the Bible is or is not to be trusted or cannot comprehend our days and its struggles, under God? Appeal to Scripture’s plain sense is born of the conviction that the Bible can have something to say without other forces needing to regulate that or introduce a special hermeneutics from outside the text so we can know when and where it can speak.

Seitz suggests that, at the very heart of these debates is the issue of the Bible as two testaments, speaking ‘of the same God in Christ, though in different dispensations and in different figural directions.’ At stake here are two creedal statements: that the Holy ‘spake by the prophets’ and that Christ died and rose again ‘in accordance with the Scriptures.’ What progressivism has done is to change the relationship between the testaments. The work of the Spirit is now regarded as ‘fully detachable’ from his prior testimony in Scripture and the Old Testament is read, not as a faithful testimony to God in Christ but ‘only of a developmental phase of religion en route to a NT religion and then a more enlightened Holy Spirit religion.’

Seitz looks at the way that the belief that the Old Testament speaks about God as he actually is and ‘not as a God en route to some subsequent recalibration or development’ is a ‘tacit, deep, and integral knowing that has fallen out in our present situation.’ In Seitz’s Anglican context, this tacit knowledge was reflected in such things as the doxology with which the Old Testament psalms were concluded: ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.’ It was woven into the very fabric of worship, into baptismal confession, the selection and ordering of Scripture in the lectionary, in catechesis, and in the Prayer Book. The decay of this tacit knowledge marks a moment of crisis for the church. The debates surrounding same-sex behaviour are a symptom of this, but by no means the measure of the scale of its significance or effect.

Traditionally Christian sexual ethics have grown organically out of a ‘network of assumptions available in the OT.’ Our recourse to the Old Testament’s teaching in such matters is grounded in the fundamental Christian conviction that God’s character is truly revealed there. Seitz expresses the current issue sharply:

It ought to come as no surprise that once this constitutive role of the Scripture of the OT is reduced to a phase of religion, or said only to find warrant as the NT itself materially uses it, where the NT is claimed to be silent (and this controversially so) one is left in a state of confusion and crisis, such as is now manifestly and publicly plaguing the church.

Seitz insists that when the New Testament refers to the Old, it ‘does not have in mind a phase in the history-of-religion’ (whether as a ‘booster rocket that falls into the sea’ or as ‘an example of important religious lessons from the history of past efforts to be religious in the best possible sense’). When Jesus and the apostles refer to the Old Testament, they do not do so as to a mere religious resource, its relevance and authority contingent upon New Testament validation, but as an authoritative word of true testimony to the Son of God himself, who acts in accordance with it.

It is also critical that we appreciate that sacrificing the Old Testament’s authority with respect to the New has broader ramifications:

For once one begins thinking along these lines, that is, of using the New’s allegedly “new religion” to sort out the “religion of a First Testament,” instead of seeking to hear God’s Word of triune address in both Testaments, appropriate to their character as “prophet and apostle,” it is then an almost effortless transition to believing both Old and New Testaments are themselves only the provisional proving ground for religious virtues said to be en route to a Holy Spirit’s fresh declaration of unprecedented “new truth” in our day.

I believe that Seitz here brings into sharp relief what lies near the heart of the concern that many of us have about contemporary developments in some churches in the area of teaching about Christian sexual ethics. The flirting of many evangelicals with forms of trajectory hermeneutics is just one example of the way in which the creedal understanding of the relationship between the testaments has become compromised. As Seitz observes, it is a fundamental conviction of Christian orthodoxy that is at stake here: that the Old Testament is authoritative Christian Scripture, a faithful and abiding witness to the triune God.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Controversies, NT, NT Theology, OT, OT Theology, Scripture, Sex and Sexuality, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Chris Seitz on the Biblical Crisis in the Homosexuality Debates

  1. Matthew N. Petersen says:

    A supersessionism in which the Apostles and the New Covenant are superseded, not Moses and the Old.

  2. jdbar9393 says:

    Thanks for this…very thoughtful and thought-provoking

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  6. Bill says:

    I wonder what his concerns have to say about the question of war texts in the OT. Some suggest that God’s commands to kill the inhabitants of Canaan was Yahweh’s concession to the situation with an eye toward a more perfect ethic (see NT). Same argument is used about the slavery texts in OT.

    • Thanks for the question, Bill: it is an important one. I am not entirely sure what Seitz himself would say to those questions, so I can only answer for myself.

      I think that what this approach does is to rule out many of the facile answers that are put forward. The God who commanded the war against the Canaanites is the very same God that we know in Jesus Christ and not another. The Holy Spirit who inspired those Scriptures is the same Spirit who inspired the rest of the Scriptures.

      There are ways in which we can see development and ethical concession (e.g. Matthew 19:8) in Scripture. For instance, the people of God are no longer the sort of polity that Israel was and the new covenant reconstitutes our relationship to the Torah. Consequently, the OT requirements of the Torah are applied differently (it is a mistake to believe that they are just simply ‘abolished’, rather than being ‘fulfilled’—not just in Christ, but in the continued worship of the Church). In Christ the old way of the written Torah died and rose again in the new living Torah of the Spirit.

      It is also the case that Scripture is a narrative of maturation, as the people of God are shaped and moulded over time. The OT Law addressed the people of God in a state of ‘childhood’, before the maturity of Christ arrived. However, childhood ethics are not radically discontinuous with adult ethics. There are trajectories in Scripture, but these trajectories don’t give us the same luxury to condemn earlier stages, to suggest some history of religions style evolution of ethics, or to avoid the fact that the God that we know in Christ gave the commands under discussion. The divine pedagogy of the Old Testament, including the judgment upon the Canaanites was good and righteous in its own time. It would not be good to return to its mode, now that we are called to attain maturity in Christ, but we should continue to learn from it.

      Where problems arise is in attempts to nullify or condemn OT ethics in the name of some more exalted ethic that lies outside of the text, or to suggest that divine commands were not really of God. A divine command to drive out the Canaanites is rather more than a ‘concession’, don’t you think, especially when one considers the way that God held them responsible to fulfil this command and judged them when they failed to do so? I have posted some more detailed thoughts on the subject of the killing of the Canaanites here.

      More would need to be said about slavery, not least by beginning by distinguishing it from our historical memories of the slave trade and race-based chattel slavery. The OT system of slavery was, I would argue, a system that served a purpose in its time. Much as the modern prison system, the system of slavery was an imperfect system designed to deal with the realities of a broken and sinful world. However, it was hardly the brutal reality that many imagine it to be. I would suggest that you watch this helpful talk by Peter Williams on the subject. I have also made some remarks of my own upon the subject here.

      • dan1el2 says:

        Re: Slavery
        “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” -Ex 21:16

        The Torah condemned any kidnapper to death–thus, I do not think people can legitimately accuse we who base our ethics on Scripture of “agreeing with slavery” (they are working on the presumption the definition of “slavery” in Israel was the same as the definition of the slavery which occurred more recently here in America).

      • Indeed. I think that we must first ascertain exactly what biblical slavery involved before making universalizing claims about the biblical support for slavery more generally.

      • dan1el2 says:

        Or, “I don’t think one could ‘draw a line’ between Biblical Christianity and slavery.”

    • dan1el2 says:

      God judged the inhabitants of Canaan for, among other things, practicing all of the prohibited sexual practices outlined in Leviticus 18.

      Leviticus 18:24
      Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for **by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.**

      Deuteronomy 9:4,5
      “Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas **it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you.**
      Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but **because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you,** and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

      Deuteronomy 18:12
      for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And **because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you.**

      God righteously condemned and judged them for their wickedness–and used the Israelites, in a sense, “killing two birds with one stone” (condemning the wicked to death in His righteousness, fulfilling a promise in His righteousness, setting the Jews apart in order to further His goal of bringing the Messiah through which He would also righteously save us–plus other things I’m sure I’m not aware of).

  7. Your post harmonizes well with N. T. Wright’s work in The Faithfulness of Paul (2013), Book 2. I haven’t read the whole work, but the point he makes there, exhaustively sourced and currently critiqued by John Piper and others, I hear, is that Paul’s language, which should have been controversial in his letters, was not. The extension of Messiah to be synonymous with YHWH was his intent and was accepted readily by those to whom he wrote. That was how Jesus was seen. He was YHWH (Messiah), nothing less.

  8. dan1el2 says:

    Re: Homosexuality
    1. The people who try to use the fact that the “Old Covenant” is passing away to attempt to controvert standards of morality are just being deceived by the deceitfulness of sin in their hearts [Hb 3:12,13]–they don’t understand that God intentionally put the Law in place in order to point to Christ, but that Christ is the fulfillment and there is nothing else which Christ is pointing. These men and women are nothing other than the “untaught and unstable men who wrest the Scriptures to their own destruction” [2 P 3:16].
    2. Moreover, homosexuality was never once celebrated in Scripture–if God was “OK” with homosexuality, we should expect there ought to have been some celebration of it in Scripture.
    3. Whereas there is a divergence in opinions on the nature of Messiah among the precursors to the “rabbis” not a single Jew ever thought homosexuality was acceptable to God or would read the Bible in that way.

    Homosexuality is an extremely powerful delusion–but God is stronger. 🙂

  9. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Yes. I don’t mean to minimize the difficulties of reading scripture, but if the Bible is just so darn unclear and hard to understand full stop, what’s the use of the thing? To inspire us with vaguely spiritual thoughts?

    • cookiejezz says:

      Good comment. IMHO one problem with understanding the Bible in our present climate is not that it is unclear an hard to understand. Rather, false and/or misguided teachers have muddied the waters by insisting that translations cannot be taken at face value and by peddling ignorance in the guise of wisdom, a frequent example being their mistreatment of metaphors and parables.

      I have no doubt that understanding the Bible is a lot easier before people read books by modern liberal “teachers” who misuse Hebrew and Greek and leave out of their commentary any Scriptures that contradict their claims.

      Keep standing for the truth! :o)

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      Thinking about this, I have to note that central Christian doctrines, like the Trinity, often have much less clear textual support than something like the immoral nature of gay sex. By what standard can we be relatively loose on the latter while remaining rigorous on the former? I mean aren’t we being grossly unfair to Arians and gnostics by being interpretively loose just on matters of sexual morality.

      • cookiejezz says:

        Hi there… I’ve just reread your comment and seen more clearly where you are coming from, i.e. supporting the truth of the prohibition of homosexuality by reference to the doctrine of the Trinity. That modifies my response slightly, and I apologise for having got the wrong end of the stick to begin with, but I think that the points I was about to make are still worth making. Thus:

        I’m not the experts’ expert, but the doctrine of the Trinity is clear from what Scripture says. It’s not a case of filling in the blanks with leaps of imagination; rather it is clear that Jesus and the Father are One, and the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God who is also the Spirit of Christ. Thus “Trinity” is simply a handy term for summarising this three-in-oneness that crops up again and again in Scripture.

        (Feel free to grab a good Systematic Theology such as Grudem’s, which will give you all the Scriptures and a fair amount of analysis.)

        Furthermore, I don’t think it helps us find truth if we set the apparent validity of vastly different doctrines (here an issue of morality vs. an issue of God’s nature) in competition with each other. Each truth must be seen to stand on its own merits. It would strike me as a conspicuously anti-biblical argument if one were to suggest that because we don’t read the word “Trinity” in the Bible, yet rely on the doctrine of the Trinity, we can make the Bible say whatever we want or ignore bits we don’t like. I read such arguments from atheists all the time, and many liberal Christians aren’t much better.

        We need to get out of tit-for-tat annihilation of doctrine and into upholding what Scripture clearly says, whilst strenuously avoiding putting our faith in things it does not say.

        Perhaps it is my background in legal studies that helps me more clearly to appreciate that a law is a law, but I think we can all understand that when God declares something, it is truth and we are in no position to controvert it.

        Hope this helps – any nonsense or misunderstanding in the foregoing can be blamed on the fact that I’m half-asleep.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        You’ve got to put a few puzzle pieces together though to get to the Trinity. It’s a clear enough implication of the text, but it’s never baldly stated.

      • cookiejezz says:

        Aha – that’s the joy of getting to know God through his word!

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  11. cookiejezz says:

    Good article, Alastair (thank you for the link from your more recent post on the World Vision debate).

    Since I became interested in the topic, I have consistently been of the opinion that the current liberalisation of the church has a lot to do with a lack of biblical literacy, both in word and technique. It would appear that we are in many cases unable or unwilling to take what the Bible clearly says at face value (illiteracy in word), and that we are poorly equipped to know what to make of devices such as parable and metaphor (illiteracy in technique). Rob Bell and his cohorts are consistent practitioners of this second for of biblical illiteracy, as they frequently fail to grasp the significance of metaphor, and indeed seem to make a virtue of the doubt and confusion this leaves.

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  16. Canon Ian Davies says:

    Thank you for this helpful consideration on the need for a highly nuanced hermeneutic of ‘acuity’ in the articulation of theological, and ethical, conversation.
    I hope others will pause and take seriously the important questions you raise.

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