Monday, June 23, 2008

Authority, Doctrine, Moral Theology: Hermeneutical Reflections on Interfaith Dialogue and Sexual Ethics

By John Jefferson Davis, PhD
Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics

The following is a talk I gave on June 16th at Andover Newton Theological School at a conference on “Covenant, Community, and Sexuality” sponsored by the Boston Theological Institute. In the talk I tried to show how differences in churches and denominations on issues such as homosexuality and sexual ethics are rooted in differing understandings of biblical authority, biblical interpretation, and the nature of Christian doctrine itself – and as a result, are very difficult to resolve.

I wish to thank Dr. Rodney Peterson and the planning committee for their work in organizing this conference on “Covenant, Community and Sexuality,” sponsored by the Boston Theological Institute in partnership with Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College. The remarks that I will be sharing with you this morning come from the perspective of a faculty member who teaches at a conservative Protestant theological seminary, Gordon-Conwell, a member school of the BTI, and who, as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, has been part of a confessional body that for the last three decades has been embroiled in debate and controversy over matters of sexual ethics.

My purpose during these next twenty minutes or so is to propose, in a very schematic fashion, a “theological topography”, so to speak, of these debates over homosexuality and same-sex marriages, and to argue that the differing positions in question are based on fundamentally differing construals of authority, doctrine, and moral theology. It is the assumption of this proposal that unless these basic methodological and and presuppositional differences are recognized, it will continue to be difficult, if not impossible, for the various parties in this conversation to truly engage one another, much less reach consensus or agreement.

For the purpose of this discussion I propose to use the nomenclature of “traditionalist” and “revisionist” perspectives in these human sexuality debates. I will be using the term “traditionalist” rather than “evangelical” – the latter term commonly associated with theological positions represented by a theological seminary such as my own, Gordon-Conwell – both in an attempt to disengage the listener’s possibly stereotypical associations with this word deriving from the Christian Right and the popular media, and in an attempt to connect with a broad historical consensus on these issues that was widely shared by Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants for much of Christian history through the 1960s. I admit at the outset the limitations of any such generalized nomenclature, and invite further qualifications and nuancing of the topography that I am proposing in the discussion that is to follow.

Religious Authority and the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”

As regards the contentious issue of authority in religious communities, I propose to discuss the well known “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” as a heuristic device for analyzing the fault-lines in the current debates on human sexuality. It will be recalled that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which may be visualized as a rectangle with the four terms “scripture”, “tradition”, “reason”, and “experience” placed at the four corners of the rectangle, point to four possible sources, in any given religious community, for the construction of doctrine and moral judgments, and the subsequent justification of these doctrines and moral judgments. Scriptures are those sacred texts that the community recognizes as constitutive for its origins, continuing life, and self-identity. “Tradition” may include formal and explicit confessional documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith or Augsburg Confession, or informally, “hermeneutical protocols” or tacitly agreed upon ways of construing scriptures on matters that are deemed central to the community’s identity. For example, in Pentecostal churches it is assumed that the charismatic phenomena (e.g., glossolalia) in the book of Acts are operative and available in the present, while in certain conservative Protestant churches of a “cessationist” tradition, it is believed that such phenomena were only temporary and disappeared in the later centuries of church history.

“Reason,” a third component of the Quadrilateral, may be understood as a shorthand expression for “elite wisdom” that is recognized by a religious community at any given period of its history, and which operates to provide background information and assumptions for the interpretation of scriptures and the formulation of doctrine and moral judgments. For Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century “reason” was exemplified by the philosophy of Aristotle; in the modern and postmodern periods, “reason” may represent the current consensus of expert opinion in the natural and social sciences.

“Experience” is a fundamental concept that is somewhat elusive and not easily definable, but for the purposes of this discussion, it will be used to denote those immediate, affective, and largely pre-reflective human perceptions of persons, things, and events by the self and the community, that function both as a theological source and pre-understanding for the faith and life of religious communities. The visceral “gut reaction” of some to certain sexual practices, or, on the other, personal observations that, “In my experience, lesbian parents seem to be just as good at parenting as heterosexual parents” can both function, tacitly or explicitly, as “experience” for the various religious communities.

To bring the foregoing discussion of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to the point, it is here hypothesized that from the point of view of a traditionalist religious community, it is their self-understanding and intent to give scripture the greatest epistemic weight relative to tradition, reason, and experience. All four elements are operative, but scripture is understood to “trump” the others in cases of real or apparent conflict. By way of contrast, from the point of view of traditionalist communities, revisionist communities are perceived as giving reason and experience epistemic and theological priority: reason and experience “trump” scripture and tradition, so to speak.

To broaden this latter point even further, it might be said that from the traditionalist perspective, warrants for authority are seen to be grounded externally to the self and to the community, while for revisionist communities (at least as perceived by traditionalists), authority is not only mediated through the self and the community, but, operatively, grounded internally in the self and its community. Both perspectives appeal to experience, but locate its grounding differently – transcendently or immanently, so to speak. On this construal of the fault lines of the current debates, the “traditionalist” and “revisionist” religious communities (both across and within given confessional boundaries) are, in effect, operating with different “decision making algorithms” in which the four elements of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are each understood differently and given differing epistemic weight. Religious communities that can not agree on a shared decision-making algorithm may find themselves stalemated in intractable doctrinal and ethical debates.

The Nature of Doctrine

In the second place, it is here proposed that traditionalist and revisionist religious communities not only hold differing doctrinal beliefs, but differing understandings of the nature of doctrine as well. On this construal of the differences, not only would it be the case that revisionist communities might dissent from one or affirmations of, say, the Nicene Creed, but further, creedal affirmations as such would be construed differently from the two perspectives in question. Traditionalist communities would presuppose some form of a “divine revelation” theory of the basis and nature of doctrine. That is to say, while all creedal formulations are in fact socially constructed in specific historical and social locations by specific human agents with specific interests, it would nevertheless be believed by traditionalist communities that the fundamental source and point of reference for doctrine in not in the self or its religious community, but external to the self, ultimately located in the being and intentionality of the deity, and mediated in scriptures perceived as bearing revelatory content.

From the point of view of these traditionalist communities, it seems that in revisionist communities doctrine is viewed, at least at the limit, as socially constructed almost without remainder, so to speak, and grounded internally in the self and in the experiences of the self-selecting community, rather than in some location external to and transcendent to the self. This latter characterization of the revisionist construal of doctrine might recall Schleiermacher’s notion of doctrine as “religious affections set forth in speech,” or George Lindbeck’s “cultural-linguistic” understanding of doctrine as those forms of religious discourse that provide internal cohesiveness and identity to a given religious community. In such revisionist understandings, doctrinal assertions may or may not make any cognitive assertions about states of affairs external to the religious consciousness of the community (e.g., “rose again [bodily] from the dead on the third day”), while in traditionalist communities doctrinal claims are understood to function not only as self-identifying modes of discourse, but as making cognitive-ontological claims as well.

From traditionalist perspectives, doctrine in revisionist communities has suffered a “hollowing out” and “lightening” of epistemic weight; doctrine is seen as being effectively replaced by social ethics - a social ethic often not markedly different from that of the prevailing secular culture. From the traditionalist point of view, a robust commitment to Christian doctrine is not only intrinsically important in terms of its cognitive, ontological, and soteriological content, but instrumentally important as well in terms of its social function in maintaining a clear sense of the community’s self-identity, distinctiveness, vibrancy of worship, and mission to the world. Seen from this perpective, religious communities such as Unitarian-Universalists would be perceived as having a rather “thin-description” in terms of their doctrinal identity, and perhaps consequently, an evisceration in the intensity and vitality of worship, and a much weakened “brand identity” that handicaps retention and recruitment of new members in the religious marketplace.

Moral Theology and Metaethics

As Alistair McIntyre pointed out years ago in his seminal work After Virtue, it has been increasingly difficult in our fragmented modern and postmodern contexts to find agreed-upon bases for moral judgments that transcend the confines of a given interest group, and this has become starkly evident in the human sexuality debates. Traditionalists, at the metaethical level, tend to presuppose some form of a “divine command” theory of ethics. The foundations of moral judgments are believed to be “discovered” rather than “constructed.” Revisionist communities, on the other hand (at least as seen from traditionalist perspectives), are perceived as operating on the basis of a utilitarian construal of ethics and, concomitantly, some neo-pragmatic (Rortian) epistemology. From a revisionist perspective, moral judgments can be seen as primarily if not exclusively as the social constructions of the community, the “good” and the “just” being understood as those beliefs and practices that increase the net utility and satisfaction of the self and the community. The calculus of personal and communal utility trumps any purported “divine command” from scripture and tradition, the latter of which are revisable in light of contemporary “reason” and experience. From one perspective, marriage as being limited to a human male and a human female is a divine command; from another, marriage is socially constructed and revisable in the light of new experience.

On this reading of the landscape, as in the case of doctrine, so in the case of moral theology, the fault line in the current debates would be seen to run between one perspective (“traditionalist”) that locates final authority outside the self and the community, and another (“revisionist”) that, at the end of the day, locates final authority in the self and its self-chosen community of interpretation.

Can traditionalist and revisionist religious communities seriously listen to one another, and perhaps even achieve some new form of consensus on the contentious issues of gender and sex? Recent decades do not appear to give grounds for great optimism in either regard, and the cultural momentum toward greater affinity-group segmentation driven by the internet and digital media shows little sign of abating. Real movement toward consensus would appear to be blocked by the realities of fundamentally differing “decision-making algorithms” and notions of doctrine and moral theology in traditionalist and revisionist communities.

Nevertheless, conversations such as those fostered by conferences such as this one will prove to time well spent if traditionalists broaden their horizons of concern beyond opposition to same-sex unions to a greater emphasis on the renewal and repair of existing marriages, and revisionists rediscover a more robust construal of Christian doctrine that can, when properly understood, provide a firmer and more coherent foundation for sexual ethics and religious ethics generally.

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