I recently read an exchange between a couple Christians on the topic of homosexuality. One of them (we’ll call him the Conservative) was arguing that “practicing homosexuality” is inconsistent with Christian identity. The other (we’ll call him the Progressive) was suggesting that it isn’t. The Conservative then quoted from a theologian, Christopher Seitz, in support of his position:
My misgiving is that is that it does not seem to me that the church was ever in much real doubt about this issue. If it were not for massive changes in sexual behavior over the past decades, I doubt that we would be considering this issue on the ground that it is one contested in Scripture itself.
As I read it, I see two claims embedded in this passage (though none clearly articulated). Let’s take a look at these two claims.
Claim one: A prima facie deference to tradition is wise
The first claim is that one ought to grant some sort of prima facie deference to positions that have been long and widely held in the history of the Church. I am very much in agreement with this general caution. Theologians today (amateur and professional) are often distressingly cavalier in the way they abandon positions traditionally considered orthodox and adopt positions traditionally considered heterodox. (I think, for example, of the theologies that toss out classical theism — or a bare caricature of it — in favor of a more palatable view of God as changing, suffering, etc.). Unqualified blind deference to tradition is foolish. But a general theological conservatism is wise.
Lest you think I’m engaging in special pleading here, this is true in other areas of life as well. Let’s say that you live in a South Pacific paradise called Kakuli. The tribal elders have always taught “Don’t touch the yellow frogs that live in the highlands”. But you know better. So when you’re out with friends you decide to impress them by catching one of the yellow frogs. You catch the frog, hold it up, everybody looks impressed and they clap. You’re the new island hero.
Suddenly your throat swells up, your heart begins pounding, you sweat profusely.
Soon after you fall over and die.
Of course, the tribal elders could be wrong. The yellow frogs might be harmless. But are you willing to chance it?
Claim two: Shifts in doctrinal belief and biblical interpretation are illegitimate if they are precipitated by changes in the wider culture
The second claim is one with which I’m much less sympathetic. I said “much less sympathetic” because there is always a legitimate warning that the church not conform to the patterns of this world. Fair enough. That is always a danger. But the problems arise when one takes that general warning and attempts to normalize it into a principle as the Seitz quote seems to do. To see why this is so problematic, consider some other scenarios where the general principle could be applied:
Circa 1630, spoken by a Catholic priest in Italy to his flock in response to Galileo’s views of the solar system: If it were not for massive changes in cosmology over the past decades, I doubt that we would be considering this issue on the ground that it is one contested in Scripture itself.
Circa 1915, spoken by a Reformed pastor in in response to the suffrage bill: If it were not for massive changes in women’s social status over the past decades, I doubt that we would be considering this issue on the ground that it is one contested in Scripture itself.
Circa 1960, spoken by a Baptist pastor in New Orleans in response to young Ruby Bridges (a six year old black girl) being sent to attend a previously all white elementary school: If it were not for massive changes in racial integration over the past decades, I doubt that we would be considering this issue on the ground that it is one contested in Scripture itself.
Circa 1990, spoken by a Pentecostal pastor in Boise to his flock in response to Darwinism: If it were not for massive changes in human origins studies over the past decades, I doubt that we would be considering this issue on the ground that it is one contested in Scripture itself.
If Seitz were offering a legitimate general principle, then it would justify the conservatism in each of these cases as wise. But few people look back on the conservatism in any of these cases as wise. And this is because it is quite irrelevant whether the proposed grounds for a change in how the Bible is read or how a doctrine is understood have origins that are extra-biblical and/or extra-ecclesial. All that really matters is the independent evidence for those proposed grounds. Consequently, any attempt to curtail theological reflection on the observation that the driving force for that reflection is sourced in wider cultural trends is spurious.