The gist of both Farley’s and Dreher’s arguments is that revising Christian disciplinary conventions about homosexuality (in response to rapidly changing social and scientific understandings of human sexuality) is problematic because it poses a challenge to fundamental precepts of Christian theology and what Dreher terms “Biblical orthodoxy” or a “Biblical view” of humanity. First, the claim that this argument is theological in nature is incorrect in a way that fatally compromises its premise. Second, positing either that there is such a thing as “Biblical orthodoxy” or that the Bible is capable of presenting a fixed model of human anthropology are dangerously mistaken claims.
I’m specifically responding to these articles now because I constantly read arguments from both sides of this debate that refer to the question of gay inclusion in the church as a “theological” issue, and I think that it’s a tremendous mistake to frame the issue this way. On the one hand, most people (myself included) have a tendency to shorthand any discussion about things that pertain to religious stuff as “theological.” However, Farley takes this comparison one step further by drawing an analogy between contemporary debates over homosexuality and the Arian controversy:
The debate over the nature of Christ—was He God Almighty in the flesh or not—raged on and on. Eventually it became apparent that continued debate with Arius and his supporters would not result in consensus, since they were following a different set of first principles. As this involved something basic to Christian discipleship there was nothing for it but to take canonical action and to anathematize Arianism . . . It seems that we may be rapidly reaching this now over the issue of homosexuality. The issue is not marginal, but basic to salvation and to what a life of Christian obedience to God looks like.
The fatal flaw of this setup is that disputes over Christian sexual ethics are completely different from debates over theology proper. Why? Because theology has to do with God, not people. (Not to be flip, but that’s why it’s called “theology” and not “anthropology.”) The Arian controversy, being entirely about God, perfectly fit all of the markers of a theological dispute. The Church’s (eventual) decision to definitively proclaim Christ as uncreated and fully divine profoundly shapes the Christian discussion about what Christ’s sacrifice was all about and how humans properly relate to God in light of this irruption of the divine-human boundary. Furthermore – and this is critically important – the decision to reject Arian theology is completely unaffected by changing human culture. It is an eternal truth that is not, and cannot be, swayed by the change and advance in human knowledge, because it belongs to the theological realm of truth, which does not operate on the same level as scientifically and culturally determined truth.
Discerning proper Christian understanding and action regarding homosexuality, on the other hand, is not a theological question. This problem is fully different from something like Arianism, because it is completely, entirely, and in all ways about us. It may be affected by our theological understandings proper, and it may be strongly influenced by our readings of the Bible and Christian tradition. But it is also amenable – crucially so – to evolving human understandings about ourselves. Human culture is constantly changing; that is something that is both unavoidable, but also a distinctively and properly human thing. There can be for human beings no absolute anthropological condition because human beings are, by nature, mutable.
A central point of Christian theology has always been this simple observation: God is impassible, but humans are changeable. In fact (swinging back to the Arian controversy), our mutability is critically related to our status as beings created by God. Since God is unchanging, and has a reality that is not affected by human beings, then by extension theological observations about God also remain immutable, and cannot be altered by variations in human culture. But just as divine unchangeability is a crucial fact about God, so human variability is a critical reality of our existence. Attempting to deny this fact by freezing human relationships and anthropological self-understandings into a mold that is eternally true actually imputes to created human beings characteristics that are proper to God. Saying that there is a biblically-revealed anthropology that is eternally valid and must be adhered to for all ages fails to recognize the essential nature of human beings, both individually and corporately.
Finally, there is no such thing as “Biblical orthodoxy.” There is just “The Bible,” which Christians have used to fashion a theological edifice known as “Christian orthodoxy.” Christian orthodoxy is defined by one’s adherence to theological decisions and understandings about God’s nature (primarily regarding Christology) and the purpose and outcome of God’s salvific action for humankind. The Bible allows us to get to the point of creating an orthodox Christian theology – it provides the literary raw material that we peruse to converse about God and create theological formulas in the first place – but conflating the two is a category mistake of the first magnitude. The Bible is susceptible to many different readings (just ask the Arians, who were reading the same text!), but only some of those readings actually get us to the Christian gospel and Christian orthodoxy.
While there are plenty of works by Christians on human anthropology that are an important part of the Christian tradition and well worth reading and pondering, they are not definitive of orthodox Christian theology. As befits writings about mutable, created beings, the conclusions of these authors are not the final word on who human beings are, or how we understand ourselves, and what our self-understandings mean when it comes to our reception and embrace of Christ’s gospel. The anthropological understandings that we create are provisional, because we humans are ourselves rather provisional. The ability, and even necessity, to change is in fact one of God’s great gifts to us. It’s really kind of a pity that we often seem so eager to reject it, and then ascribe that rejection to God’s biblically-revealed plan.
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