I 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.