Reasonable and Holy – A Review

Let me get one thing straight right at the start. I really wanted to like this book. I did, I truly did. I was looking forward to getting my hands on a book written from a liberal perspective on human sexuality that would give me some fresh insights into thinking Biblically about the issue. How then does Tobias Haller intend to do this when the opening major argument of this thesis is to undermine the Word of God?

There are times l have to confess that the utility of Scripture in helping us better to understand our current situation may be approaching its limit. Over the last thirty years l have seen texts tossed back and forth, twisted and stretched beyond their capacity, or shrunk to insignificance. When I consider how little the Scripture actually says about the presenting issue, and how much of what it says is in a limited vocabulary of half-a-dozen Hebrew and Greek words – some so rare they are only understood by conjecture, others capable of a range of figurative and liberal application – and then take account of the energy of the debate, I begin to wonder at Scripture’s ever providing us with a settlement to the matter.

Still, Scripture is a “given” – indeed it is a gift; but it is a gift that requires unwrapping, and some assembly, and batteries are not included. Contrary to those who assert the doctrine of sole scripture, the Scripture does not (indeed cannot) interpret itself, although we may use one portion of Scripture better understand another. But Scripture does not stand alone, apart from reason, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the record of the church’s wrestling with those sometimes difficult texts.

Haller then proceeds to give us some guides to Scripture interpretation which include,

7. It must be concluded that the words of a scriptural text or texts, however compelling, cannot in every circumstance be received by the Church as authoritative. Even if the Church has no authority to abrogate “commandments which are called Moral”- unlike its jurisdiction in “ceremonies and rites” (Article VII) – the true moral significance of any commandment is not simply given but must be discerned.
8. Thus, for the Church’s judgment of the morality of actions and dispositions to be authoritative, it is insufficient simply to condemn those things that are condemned anywhere in Scripture, or to approve those things that are somewhere approved.
9. Faithful interpretation requires the Church to use the gifts of “memory, reason, and skill” (BCP 370) to find the sense of the scriptural text and to locate it in its time and place. The Church must then seek the text’s present significance in light of the whole economy of salvation. Chief among the guiding principles by which the Church interprets the sacred texts is the congruence of its interpretation with Christ’s summary of the law, the new commandment, and the creeds. (Matthew 22:37-40; John 13:34).

In some sense this is a brilliant presentation of the suppositional foundations of the revisionist position, but they cause a number of questions to be asked. How do we know when something is or isn’t authoritative? What is this overarching “whole economy of salvation” which Haller speaks of? Why has Haller elevated the Summary of the Law, the New Commandment and other things to such a height? On what authority? How does he even know they are authoritative?

It strikes this reader, rightly or wrongly, that Haller begins his book by setting up a paradigm of “We need to work very hard to know what we can take from the Bible as authoritative” and then uses this paradigm to support his argument. Take for example the claim that,

how little the Scripture actually says about the presenting issue, and how much of what it says is in a limited vocabulary of half-a-dozen Hebrew and Greek words-some so rare they are only understood by conjecture, others capable of a range of figurative and liberal application

This is just palpable nonsense. We know perfectly well what arsenokoites means. It has been demonstrated time and time again that there is a consistent interpretation of the meaning of this word through the early church and Rabbinic thought of the same period. Notions that other greek texts imply a different meaning have been demonstrated incorrect.  Perhaps that’s the reason Haller never even begins to seriously discuss the meaning of that word in all his 176 pages.

But ultimately what is so frustrating is that Haller assumes that which he wishes to conclude, as this snippet from the end of chapter seven demonstrates.

That he would have joined them in condemning a male who persisted in the “passive” role may be what he was alluding to in his use of malakoi (l Corinthians 6:9) is certainly possible. But Paul did not directly address the concept of life-long, faithful, mutual, monogamous same-sex relationships between adults. Moreover, Paul is not with us at this moment, and the responsibility falls upon us to make the best use of what we have not only inherited from him, but accumulated in the centuries since he wrote.

It is this references to “life-long, faithful, mutual, monogamous same-sex relationships between adults” that is so frustrating. Haller assumes that these are good and then argues that since they are, the passages in Scripture that condemn all homosexual practice must by definition be incorrect, since we know that “life-long, faithful, mutual, monogamous same-sex relationships between adults” are good. The danger of this approach is clear to see – one could easily do the same for “life-long, faithful, mutual, monogamous incestuous relationships between adults”. A really interesting exercise to undertake is to read the opening half of Haller’s book, where he defines the goods of marriage and shows how they can be seen in and applied to monogamous same-sex couples, and to replace every reference to homosexual couples to monogamous adult incestuous couples. What you are left with is a great case for such relationships.

Of course, Haller is ready for this and he writes,

About this time the “Slippery Slope” argument may be forming in some minds, it not already there. This usually takes the form of, “If you allow same-sex relationships, why not polygamy, incest, or bestiality?” The answer is really quite simple. What we are examining here are same-sex relationships on exactly the same terms and with the same kinds of regulation as mixed-sex relationships: adult consent, no consanguinity, no plural spouses, permanent fidelity, and no animals except as pets.

But isn’t this just a bigotted, fundamentalist, literalist argument, the kind of way of reading Scripture that Haller rejects earlier on? For example, where does he get the idea that no consanguinity is a necessary essential for marriage? Scripture? Did he not write

it is insufficient simply to condemn those things that are condemned anywhere in Scripture, or to approve those things that are somewhere approved

Is it not time that we woke up to the fact that Scripture nowhere explicity condemns life-long, faithful, mutual, monogamous incestuous relationships between adults in the same way it doesn’t, as Haller argues, condemn the same-sex equivalent? I am deadly serious in this argument – Haller does not provide an answer to this question that doesn’t require an objective a priori judgement as to the morality or otherwise of consanguine relationships, yet it is the rejection of another a priori judgement (that the New Testament texts unambiguously condemn all same-sex activity, mutually consensual or otherwise) that is the very basis for his thesis in this book. Remember, rather than jumping straight in and exegeting the key texts, Haller builds an argument by saying how same-sex relationships can demonstrate the same goods as marriages. He then uses these good comparisons to reject the key texts that would otherwise undermine his case (namely, the unambigious condemnation of all same-sex sex). Why should not such a similar argument by used for incestuous relationships? Really, why shouldn’t it? And if you really want to push this case, try taking the re-working of the woman caught in adultery that Haller performs on page 139 and recasting it yet again in the guise of an incestuous pair.

Although I am loath to add to Scripture, the following application of what I’ve said above occurs to me, purely as an imaginative exercise:

Some lawyers came to Jesus and said to him, Teacher, we found two men who have set up household and live together after the manner of a man and woman. Shall we do unto them as it is written in the law of Moses? And he said unto them, For your hardness of heart Moses gave you this law. But it was not so at the beginning, when God made companions for Adam and allowed him to choose the one suitable to him, the one who was most like him. And they said to him, But was not that Eve, the mother of all living? And he said to them, Do not be deceived, the Lord does not see as mortals see’—you lawyers look only to the outside, and do not look to the heart. But God knows what is inside a man, and it is from inside that true love flows. And do you not know that when Jonathan looked upon David his soul was bound to him, and he loved him as his own self, and gave up his life for his friend? David spoke rightly when he said there is no greater love than this. If these two should set up their lives together, what is that to you? Love the Lord your God, and do not judge.

As I say, this is purely imaginative. But it does strike me as in keeping with the gospel.

If you believe that suggesting that Jesus would ever say such a thing is outrageous, how can you possibly support the version Haller presents as a result of the trajectory he has presented in this book?

Now, the impression from all that is that I don’t like any of this book, but that is not strictly true. Where Haller really begins to excite is when he engages the work of Gagnon and others and begins to argue about what the Scripture actually means. We move from the eisegesis of the first part of the book to moments of pure hermeneutic genius. If anything, these morsels of exegesis, particularly over the meaning of porneia and its Hebrew roots, are significant contributions to the work in this area and require a suitable response. The sadness is though that Haller does not engage in the same kind of rigourous analysis of the “key texts” and that leaves one asking why. Is it because Haller knows that if he attempted to discern the exact meaning of arsenokoites in the same manner he approaches porneia, he would end up with a conclusion that contradicted his thesis? I guess this is the disappointment of this book, that Haller is not consistent in his approach throughout, but then he may very well have been forced to reach a different conclusion if he had.

The other thing that is challenging from what Haller writes in the first half of the book is that the relationships that he writes about (life-long, faithful, mutual, monogamous same-sex relationships between adults) are qualitatively comparable to marriage in many ways. Indeed that is part of the reason why Haller writes his book, because in his and other Christians’ lives they have seen obviously similarities between such couples. An honest appraisal by conservatives should be enough to put to rest once and for all the notion that gay relationships are in some sense qualitatively inferior to marriages in their ability to exhibit love (and see Rowan Williams’ The Body’s Grace). But the aim of good biblical theology is not to make Scripture fit that which we observe in life, but rather to conform that which we live to that which we observe in Scripture. The question is ultimately not “do same-sex relationships exhibit the same characteristics as marriages”, but rather, “should Christians exhibit love sexually within these kinds of relationships?” The first question is asked primarily about human experience, the second about Scripture.

And that really is where Haller and I differ. The issue between us is less to do with homosexuality and more to do with who is the real heir of Cranmer and the Edwardian Prayer Book. How do we go about about determining what is Reasonable and Holy in the first place? If we could deal with that, we might begin to move forward.

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