The Mysterious Authority of the Bible: A response to David Ney

[The sixth in a series of posts responding to articles appearing on The Living Church site.]

There are very few people who are currently participating in the conversation around scripture and the amendment of the marriage canon who are not concerned with biblical authority.

What is at stake, however, is precisely how the Bible is authoritative and which texts and narrative strands we privilege in our reading of the text.

As has become evident in the last little while, the controversy around same-sex marriage and the biblical view of homosexuality has shifted away from the texts that have been traditionally appealed to in order to condemn same-sex relationships, and has become rather surprisingly focussed on marriage as a central motif in the biblical narrative and redemption history.

Some of the problems with this interpretive shift have been addressed by Christopher Brittain in his article,  “A position in search of a rationale: Symptoms of evangelical Anglican disarray on same-sex marriage,” which interacts with the most senior scholar making this argument, Ephraim Radner. Dr. David Ney, however, in his recent post “Scripture and the Mystery of Procreation,” frames his discussion of the marriage motif in the context of biblical authority, which will also frame my response.

Dr. Ney begins by suggesting that the authors of “This Holy Estate” do not want to submit to biblical authority. This is hardly plausible, since the bulk of the document is a discussion of biblical texts. Unfortunately, his subsequent arguments reveal a continued misunderstanding of both “This Holy Estate” and the biblical text itself. [For our non-Anglican readers looking over our shoulders on this debate, “This Holy Estate” was a report written for the 2016 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada which provided the theological and biblical rationale for changing the marriage canon of the church to include same-sex marriage.]

The first of these arguments he calls the “shellfish argument,” which he describes in terms of garbage collecting.

One divides the bible into “that which is salvageable and that which is not.” Those who read the Bible this way (he says) conclude that just as the shellfish texts are no longer relevant, so the sexual prohibitions are no longer relevant. This is a problem, Dr. Ney says, “For the Bible must be taken in whole or not at all.” He continues, “But the question is never whether such texts are relevant, but rather whether we are willing to wrestle with the words of Scripture, as they have been handed down to us and interpreted by the Church, so as to discern their particular, authoritative grasp.”

This statement suggests that the authors of “This Holy Estate” (and by extension all of us who do not think that these texts apply to 21st century same-sex marriage) are not willing to wrestle with the biblical texts.

On the contrary, not only did “This Holy Estate” wrestle with the texts to discern their historical context, many of us have wrestled with these texts and have concluded that they are relevant to the life of discipleship, just not relevant to the issue currently under discussion.

Romans 1, for instance, does not condemn same-sex marriage. However, as Brian Walsh has shown, it has plenty to say about what faithful and committed marriage relationships look like. It also has plenty to say about the ways in which idolatry results in sexual violence and immorality.

Such sexual violence in our own culture is deeply rooted in pornography, the fetishization of violence in general, the way in which the bodies of women in our world are used as items of sexual gratification, and the continual use of rape as a weapon. These are also, incidentally, some of the things which undermine healthy marriage relationships.

If we took Romans 1 authoritatively, we would be speaking out much more loudly against pornography in our midst and against sexual violence.

Why is the church not doing this? It is no secret that pornography addiction is as high in evangelical circles as it is in the wider culture. Perhaps we are not addressing these issues because it is easier to “wrestle” with texts in order to apply them to the people we disagree with rather than ourselves.

But perhaps more disturbing is Dr. Ney’s emphasis on procreative marriage as the way that God carries his divine purpose forward.

I won’t repeat the same objections to this view as Christopher Brittain did in his very fine essay on Radner’s procreation argument. Dr. Ney’s piece provides other provocative ways into the discussion.

For instance, Dr. Ney asserts that “Paul’s claim that procreative marriage is a sacrament (Eph 5.22-23) is an understanding about divine and human history in the institution of marriage.”

This is a very puzzling assertion. Paul actually says that men and women becoming one flesh is a great mystery (mystērion), and that he is applying it to Christ and the church (Eph 5.32).

What does he mean by this? He has just explained it: a husband loves and cares for his wife as he does his own body, just as Christ loves the church because we are members of his body. And how do we become members of his body? This is the mystery that Paul refers to frequently throughout the letter: the mystery of the gospel, “that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known ….” (Eph 3.9-10). It is for proclaiming this mystery of the gospel that Paul is in chains (6.19).

Not only does Paul not describe marriage as a sacrament, the whole point of Ephesians is that the mystery that was hidden for ages is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3.4-6).

That is to say, procreation is not the way that God’s great plan is fulfilled; rather through the church the gospel is proclaimed to the Gentiles, for Christ Jesus “has abolished the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” (Eph 2.15).

The household that Jesus creates is not based on procreation or the blood of kinship but on the blood of the Messiah (Eph 2.13). This is a basic Christian teaching.

Of course, it would be very unusual for Paul to suggest that procreative marriage is the way that God carries forward his divine purposes (as Dr. Ney asserts).

For a Jewish man, Paul was unusually negative about marriage, giving only one reason why single people should get married: if they can’t exercise self-control they should marry so as to avoid sexual immorality.  “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (1 Cor 7.9, see also 7.36).

If Paul was so convinced that marriage was necessary for the dissemination of the gospel, why would he say in this context “I wish that all were as I myself am” and then go on to urge the unmarried to stay that way (1 Cor 7.7, 8)?

Surely if everyone were single that would severely hamper the spread of a gospel that is based on procreative marriage.

Of course, Paul can say this because he does not believe that procreative marriage is at all important for the spread of the saving good news of God in Jesus Christ.

Dr. Ney, of course, does not consider these inconvenient texts when making his argument. Instead he presses onward, asserting that “God carries forward his divine purposes for his creatures through it [procreative marriage] as well.” This assertion leaves out chunks of the story, where those who carry God’s purpose forward are not married, procreatively or otherwise. Consider Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Daniel, Micah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul himself. (If some of these prophets were married, they didn’t seem to think it important enough to mention).

He also fails to mention that the procreative marriages that do carry the story forward bear no resemblance to marriage today, since they are not only polygamous but also involve sex with slaves.

Dr. Ney concludes this paragraph by saying, “we can see that affirming the larger scriptural narrative means affirming the particulars that comprise this narrative.”

Which particulars does he have in mind, exactly?

Polygamy?

Women dressing up as prostitutes and seducing their fathers-in law (as does Tamar, who is explicitly mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy;  Matt 1.3, cf. Gen 38)?

Visiting prostitutes on the off-chance that one of them might save you from danger (referring to Rahab, also mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy; Matt 1.5; Josh 2)?

Ignoring God’s explicit commandments about marrying pagan women (Ruth, also mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy; Matt 1.5)?

Or raping women that you happen to see bathing and then killing their husbands so that no one discovers that you knocked them up (Bathsheba, the “wife of Uriah” referred to in Jesus’ genealogy in such a way as to indicate David’s sin; Matt 1.6; 1 Samuel 11)?

These are the particulars of the genealogy that Dr. Ney considers to be so important. They are the only instances where the woman is mentioned by Matthew. While procreation happened in the context of marriage for some of them, it did not happen in all. And sexual intercourse happened outside of marriage for at least three of the four.

I can go on. Dr. Ney uses language about the “traditional ideals of marriage, birth and the raising of children.”

He does not define this, but I am assuming he is not referring the biblical traditions of polygamy, sex with slaves, and finding prospective mates at a well (a common biblical theme related to marriage—see the stories of Isaac, Jacob and Moses).

Dr. Ney asserts that human life can only endure through procreative marriage, in spite of the fact that a number of countries are doing just fine with people procreating outside of marriage (I think of the Netherlands, in particular).

Dr. Ney asserts that procreative marriage and the gospel are inextricably bound to one another, in spite of the fact that Jesus did not say “Get married, procreate and make disciples of your children,” but rather, “Go and make disciples of all peoples …“ (Matt 28.19).

Let me be very clear here.

In order to make this argument for procreative marriage, Dr. Ney has had to ignore the clear witness of scripture that God’s grace is extended to all people, outside of our genealogical heritage, whether we are married or not.

He has had to ignore the overwhelming language of adoption found throughout the Bible to refer to God’s relationship to Israel and God’s relationship to us.

And, most significantly, he has had to ignore the fact that Jesus calls into question all traditional kinship relationships. “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” … Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12.48; Mk 3.31-35).

This is disappointing in someone who is adamant that we are to submit to the Bible as a whole and that “denying the particular authority of the Bible in part is the steady path to denying the authority of the whole.”

It is not up to me to discern whether Dr. Ney has begun the walk down that steady path. However, as a scholar and as a teacher, I am distressed that an article that frames a topic in terms of biblical authority chooses to ignore so much of the Bible itself. 

Sylvia Keesmaat
Sylvia Keesmaat is a biblical scholar-activist whose passions are teaching the Bible, heirloom tomatoes, and permaculture. She explores radical discipleship and resilience on an off-grid permaculture farm with her husband Brian Walsh and a fluctuating number of people and animals.

Sylvia is the author of Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire and Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, both co-authored with Brian Walsh. In her down-time she teaches part-time at Wycliffe College and Trinity College in Toronto.

8 Responses to “The Mysterious Authority of the Bible: A response to David Ney”

  1. C SEITZ

    “Romans 1, for instance, does not condemn same-sex marriage.”

    Neither does it condemn carburation. Same-sex marriage is not on the horizon, and indeed is likely unthinkable.

    I have indicated in comments to your original essay why your evaluation of Romans is misguided. I will not go over that ground again.

    I would add, in respect to your language, “the people in Rome would have thought…,” the following. This is a postscript to the comments there.

    1. How can one know what people in Rome “would have thought,” much less whether they knew anything about Nero or Caligula’s sexual aberrations? These are things you know about due to modern search engines of various kinds. This is a basic sociology of knowledge issue. A basic historical question. We may know more about the Greco-Roman milieu, due to a certain sociology of knowledge, than imaginary Pauline audiences did or could have done. You have conflated your library-mental-world with that of “the people in Rome.”

    2. Paul wrote to “people in Colossae” not having ever been there. Paul has yet to be in Rome. There is no direct hermeneutical line than runs from his intentions (themselves scripturally overshadowed) to receivers historically imagined. Colossians was written and then we are told at the conclusion of the letter it was to be passed read by “the people in” another church, and their letter in turn read by “the people in Colossae.” This points to a hermeneutical problem: it is doubtful that (especially later) letters of Paul intend to restrict their hermeneutical horizons so as to match up with constructs like “people in Rome would have thought X.” Certainly we cannot know that with any certainty. Good Jewish listeners might have reflexively concluded Paul was speaking of humanity at large consistent with his argument in the chapter as a whole and with the letter as a whole. One simply cannot say: “the people at Rome would have thought” as if this resolves something. It is a speculation and difficult to ground exegetically or historically.

    Reply
  2. C SEITZ

    My comments to ‘Whatever happened to the Bible?’ (a good question, incidentally).

    I agree that the primary point of reference for Paul in Romans 1:18-25 is his scriptures. It is for this reason, among others, that an immediate shift at v.26-27 to The Pagan Times and Nero’s leisure activities is and must remain pure speculation. As such, it cannot constrain our interpretation.

    “So when Paul described X … people in Rome would have thought of Y: the kinds of unequal and oppressive sexual behaviour witnessed in pederasty, and the homoerotic excesses seen in the imperial household during their own time. Take a look at Nero’s court! Look at how he flaunts in public his sexual degradations! Look at this out of control sexual licentiousness!”

    As you will know, others have rejected this as too narrow given the scriptural, cosmic and creational scope of v. 18-25. And of course, most fatally, nowhere does Paul tell us that this is his point reference. Paul speaks generically about men and women and not about status and Roman sexual eccentricities.

    Here historicization shows itself to be, ironically, the cousin-once-removed of allegory: a reading requiring a secondary grid above or behind the text that then displaces “the way the words go” (akolouthia).

    Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been placed first in his Letter Collection. Its scope distinguishes it. It is dubious, and another form of historicization, to argue he was writing to a specific group in Rome who would in turn need to line up, and then restrict his words in two verses, with lurid imperial conduct gone berserk. Nowhere else in the letter does Paul operate this way.

    Your historical contextualization lacks form-critical and hermenutical control. That is because it finds what it is looking for by means of canvassing a cultural milieu rather than following Paul’s argument as such.

    Reply
    • Sylvia Keesmaat

      Thank you for your comments, Chris. It is always good to have a chance to clarify an argument.

      While it is true that Paul had never been to Rome, he does send greetings to 26 people in Romans 16, and it is clear that he personally knew at least 11 or 12 of them personally. Are you suggesting that these people never communicated anything to Paul about the situation in Rome? How then did he hear of the tensions in the community he is addressing in Romans 14 and 15?

      You are right that a good Jewish listener might have thought Paul was engaging in a condemnation of humanity in general, but it is clear that he is not writing only to Jews. What might his Gentile listeners have heard? And here is where we come to the crux of your criticism.

      There are many historical and sociological studies based on inscriptions, household rituals, festivals and theatre performances, iconography on coins and statues, and even graffiti, that demonstrate what people were talking about and seeing in first century Rome. It is, of course, impossible to footnote these things in a blog—I recommend you take a look at our Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice for the scholarly work on this.

      As to whether people knew what the emperors were up to—well, this letter was written to Rome after all. The city where these things took place. And ancient historians do write about what people experienced in Rome and how they viewed the emperor.

      Of course, we do not suggest that it is only the behaviour of the imperial house that the hearers of Romans one would have thought of when they heard Romans 1. They could see such violence in their own lives, in the ways their masters treated them, and in the way that dinner parties happened in their homes. They also would have known what happened in the goddess temples by going there themselves. These aspects of daily life are also well documented. Even without the imperial house these verses had obvious referents.

      As the community talked over the letter together after Phoebe read it, no doubt various people would have provided different interpretations and all of these things would have been thrown into the mix.

      Our exegesis has a pretty solid exegetical and historical foundation, grounded in 30 years of scholarly work. What is difficult to ground exegetically and historically is the projection of later theological and ethical arguments back onto Paul’s letters turning them into systematic theologies. But that is a whole other topic.

      Sylvia

      Reply
      • C SEITZ

        On the hermeneutical challenge of using scripture for a (real or anticipated) Jewish and Gentile audience–the Corpus Paulinum has set for itself the ambitious task of doing both–see my commentary on Colossians and two recent essays in Pro Ecclesia.

        “Jewish Scripture for Gentile Churches: Human Destiny and the Future of the Pauline Correspondence – Part 1: Romans,” Pro Ecclesia 23 (2014) 294-307 ; “Jewish Scripture for Gentile Churches: Human Destiny and the Future of the Pauline Correspondence – Part 2: Colossians,” Pro Ecclesia 23 (2014) 457-470.

        I deal with two examples relevant for this topic, Colossians (largely Gentile) and Roman (Jews and Gentiles, or synagogue Gentiles). This was no easy challenge for scripture-soaked Paul to address, but he did so deftly.

        Reply
  3. C SEITZ

    Thank you for your comment.

    When you speak of telling us what the Bible says in Romans 1, you are in fact doing something else, and seem not to notice it.

    What you are doing is 1) speculating about what was in Paul’s Jewish mind concerning bizarre Greco-Roman sexual practices, such as we may read about these in a library in Toronto, 2) which is never stated directly by Paul in Romans, 3) which furthermore is also in “the people in Rome’s” mind, 4) the same people who will have heard in Paul’s generic references to “men and women” specific examples of exotic Roman sexual practices, 5) which again were in Paul’s mind to begin with when he otherwise was speaking from the context of the scriptures of Israel’s testimony to the One God.

    It reminds me of the story about a traveler in rural Canada who saw targets on barns with lots of bull’s eyes, and commented on the expert marksmanship in the region. “It’s not hard. We shoot first and draw the target afterward,” came the laconic reply.

    The Letter to the Romans is not “speculations about Paul’s mental thoughts en route to possible mental thoughts in Roman reception.” That is shooting first and drawing the target afterward.

    For this to be plausible it would require far more specific reference, lined out by Paul directly, and historical clarification about why the saints being greeted at the letter’s conclusion would know such things too, and how. That is a sociology-of-knowledge basic question. It is not clear that you see the problematic here.

    As I said, far more obvious is the common horizon of Israel’s scriptures we know Paul and his audiences indeed do share , and which remain the sustained context for Paul’s thought and citations throughout each chapter of the book as a whole. The sexual exploits of a Nero or Caligula – certainly qualifying as noteworthy! – are however nowhere to be found. Paul is not painting on a corner of this dark canvas, but is talking about the created order, men and women, and things plainly to be inferred and known. As that is so in 1:18-25, so too in 1:26-27 — and throughout his discourse in the Letter to the Romans.

    This is why most liberals in favor of LGBT endorsement simply declare Paul wrong. They know the alternative readings cannot resolve the matter and are highly implausible to boot.

    Reply
  4. C SEITZ

    “…grounded in 30 years of scholarly work.” With all respect:

    You are running your boat hard up against the shoals of historicism and seem not to know it. 30 years, 300 years, 3000 years of “hard work” cannot tell us what is in the mind of Paul, isolating two verses in Romans 1:26-27 and arguing for a definitive reading about their referent.

    Wayne Meeks at Yale wrote his first technical study on the controversy at Colossae, and at the end of his career said the entire project was flawed. The letter does not give us the sort of information necessary to resolve the question, and the more Jewish and Greco-Roman sources one calls upon, the more the “prize” disappears on the horizon.

    We have Paul’s letter. Rhetorical and form-critical studies at least hew close to that reality. History gives and history takes away. What we want to know is what the letter is saying.

    What you are trying to do is argue that Paul’s statements in vv 26-27 are situation-specific, a subset, a manifestly lurid conduct, to which one can point outside of oneself (in modernity or in Paul’s mind). You are arguing that the intended audience will get that too. “Just look around!” “Read The Daily Roman Times!”

    But Paul’s argument from scripture is saying “look around” precisely *not* in any sub-set sense. The Bible has a natural law frame of reference to which Paul is appealing. If it didn’t, the effect would be to reassure the “people in Rome” that what he is condemning is some situation-specific stuff. “Not to do with you. “ “The adventures of wicked emperors.”

    This much at least Richard Hays and others have seen very clearly. “Therefore” is the word we are looking for, and it appears in 2:1. “You therefore have no excuse.” A stance of judgment and “not to do me” and situation-specific thinking is just where Paul is headed. “You who pass judgment and *yet do the same things*” he says at 2:3. Here is where the sub-set logic comes undone, and indeed this seems to be just exactly where Paul’s clear argument was headed.

    How does this square with the idea that in 2 verses in Romans 1 Paul was doing exactly the opposite? Pinpointing a lurid romp in Roman cesspools. This would destroy the entire argument as it unfolds in Paul’s articulation. “There will be trouble and distress for every human being…first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” No one hides from this Divine Searchlight.

    That is Paul’s argument. No one is righteous. Not, “there are some really detestable conducts but they have nothing to do with us.” That is how the Epistle opens and picks up speed as we move into the ensuing chapters, 2—8. The canvas of human destiny and God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ.

    The goodness of same-sex marriage—in antiquity or today—is most likely the furthest thing from Paul’s mind, when one moves carefully through the first two chapters of his letter, and then on through ensuing chapters. Isolating vv 26-27 and saying they are about something out there in horrible land runs straight up against “You who pass judgment do the same things.”

    Roman emperors are you and me, Paul is saying, at some baseline level. Hard as that is to believe. What he is not saying is, “those are terrible conducts to be contrasted with these good ones.” However one might want to conclude that otherwise, it is most certainly not what Paul is saying in Romans.

    Reply
  5. David Ney

    Thank you, Dr. Keesmaat for engaging some of the ideas I briefly outlined in this post. I have taken the time to respond to some of your key arguments. Because such dialogues can wander far afield as they progress, I will try to keep my comments as narrow as possible by addressing specific claims you make.

    1. Biblical Authority
    Dr. Keesmaat begins by saying that my claim that the authors of THE fail to properly submit to biblical authority is dubious, since the bulk of the document deals with biblical texts. I do not wish to claim anything with respect to the intentions of the authors, only the final form of their text. My point is simply that dealing with biblical texts and submitting to them are two different things.

    Dr. Keesmaat insists that proponents of canon change strongly affirm that biblical texts are relevant to issues that concern us today. I also want to affirm this. Yet the question is not whether we can find the Bible saying the kinds of things we want the Bible to say about the kinds of things we want to talk about. The question is, “What do we do when the Bible stands over against us in what we want to say?” By appealing, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, to the shellfish argument, THE uses the modern conundrum of historical distance to slip all of the texts it finds uncomfortable under the rug.

    2. Romans 1

    Dr. Keesmaat remarks that the text of Romans 1 should, when rightly interpreted, speak more directly to the issues of pornography and sexual violence than the issue of same-sex marriage. I affirm that these issues are extremely important for us to deal with as Christians. I also want to affirm that as we search the Scriptures we will find them speaking to this shared concern. We may yet even be able to enlist Romans 1 towards this end. Yet we must be clear that such a pursuit moves us away from the the literal words of the text, and the ordering of these words, the akolouthia, as early Christians put it.

    The words we want the text to address, pornography and rape, are not found there. The only way to assert that the text is primarily about these words is to recreate a world behind the text, interpret this world selectively using favoured contemporary concepts, and then apply these concepts to today. In this case it is the recreated world behind the text that carries the freight, not the words themselves. The words are expendable. They lack authority.

    In Romans 1, Paul’s argument attempts to draw the Romans into an awareness that Jew and Gentile are all alike under sin. His aim is to compel his readers to find themselves in the First Adam in the hope that they will find themselves in the Second. He thus enumerates a multiple offences in a kind of scattershot, in order to draw his listeners into salvation history. When does his argument work? It works when we find ourselves and the people we know and love within his narrative.

    I applaud the widespread pastoral desire to make sure that homosexuals are not singled out among the peoples that are found within Paul’s cascade of references. Yet this pastoral approach is in danger of being fatal in its application. Removing those we know and love from participation in the First Adam is the only sure way of making sure that they don’t participate in the Second.

    3. Marriage and Sacrament

    Dr. Keesmaat finds that it is very puzzling that I would make the claim that Paul finds that marriage is a sacrament and, further, that Paul’s belief in the co-inherence of divine and human history in the institution of marriage underlies this belief.

    Dr. Keesmaat insists that Paul does not believe that marriage is a sacrament, yet she reminds us that he uses the word mysterion in Ephesians 5 to refer to marriage. She has failed to note that this word is Greek equivalent of the Latin term sacrament.

    For nominalists such as Dr. Keesmaat, the mystery of marriage and the mystery of the Church are two entirely different things. And because they are two different things, they are related merely by way of ornamental metaphor.

    The ornamental view of metaphor, which comes to us from John Locke, is a relative newcomer to the Church, and it fits extremely awkwardly within the Great Tradition. The Great Tradition insists that what makes mystery mystery (and sacrament sacrament) is participation. Things can be themselves and yet more than just themselves. They can, in other words, participate in greater realities without obliterating their distinctiveness. Paul does not, as Dr. Keesmaat suggests, say that marriage is a mystery and then turn to apply this fact to a distinct entity, the Church. The words of Ephesians 5 clearly convey that Paul presupposes the traditional participatory view.

    In Ephesians 5, Paul turns to reflect practically upon procreative marriage in light of his previous discussion of orderly conduct. Paul muses about what this means for women and for men, and then, without missing a beat, and without changing the topic, a bombshell: he declares that while he has been talking about procreative marriage he has also been, at the same time, talking about the mystery or sacrament of the Church.

    The mystery/sacrament does not exist in the abstract but in human history. It is a phenomenological reality, and my comments about history and procreation were a modest attempt to spell this out.

    4. Procreation and Blood Relation

    Dr. Keesmaat attributes to me the curious view that because salvation is dependent upon procreation, it is dependent upon blood relation. This is troubling given that I spell out the distinction between these two things in my post. Ironically, Dr. Keesmaat’s own elision of procreation and blood relation becomes the basis of her counter-argument: Salvation is not dependent upon blood relation, i.e., it is not restricted to national Israel, and therefore neither is it dependent upon procreation. She thus concludes that, “Paul does not believe that procreative marriage is at all important for the spreading of the good news of God in Jesus Christ.”

    This argument betrays a lack of fluency with elementary concepts of systematic theology, yet I will not belabour this point.

    To say that the gospel is dependent upon procreation is to say absolutely nothing about whether God prefers Jews or Christians, Canadians or Americans. It is simply to reiterate what should be so obvious that it need not be mentioned: One must first be born in order to be born again (John 3:7). The Gospel is instantiated in the world in and through human people through divine and human agency and thus through procreative marriage.

    5. Marriage and Celibacy

    With all of the talk today about marriage, people often rightly wonder about the place of celibacy in the Christian Church. Curiously, the contemporary reality of singleness has suddenly become an argument against the traditional view. Along these lines, Dr. Keesmaat enlists Paul’s wish for all people to be single like him as a prooftext for her revisionist position (1 Cor 7.7, 8). Her argument here depends upon the attribution of a most peculiar opinion both to me and to the cloud of witnesses who have held my position. In short, she insists that belief in procreative marriage entails belief in mandatory marriage.

    This surprising attribution betrays a lack of awareness about the tradition of Christian celibacy, which has been integral to Christian tradition for two millennia. The testimony of this tradition about the apposite nature of celibacy and procreative marriage is extensive and profound. In short, the historic testimony of Christian celibates that Christian marriage is procreative is unanimous. This comes as no surprise since the celibate Paul and the celibate Jesus agree.

    6. Culturally Specific Appropriations of Marriage

    Dr. Keesmaat seems to take for granted that procreative marriage must be what recent (evangelical?) proponents say it is, and because she regards this perspective as problematic, the very concept of procreative marriage is rejected as theologically and existentially vapid. “People are getting on alright without procreative marriage,” she says.

    I don’t claim for a moment that what the mid-twentieth century called the nuclear family and procreative marriage are identical. The nuclear family is a culturally specific ordering of the divine ideal of procreative marriage. I, for one, believe that it is now plagued by many of the same ills that have beset other late modern institutions.

    Cultures have better and worse ways of ordering procreative marriage. But if we conclude that our society’s ordering is less than ideal, it does not follow that procreative marriage can be done away with. Societies do not “get along alright” without procreative marriage. They cannot. Because the extent to which they “get along” without procreative marriage is the extent in which they disappear.

    Since the beginning of human history men and women have reached out to one another in friendship and love only to find that they have been given the surprising gift of the new life. They have recognized this gift carries powerful bonds of affection and responsibility: father and mother to child and to one another. This is what is meant by the term “Procreative marriage.” It is the divinely ordered basis of human history, culture, and society, for it is God that gives the man and the woman to one another and buries within this gift another, more mysterious wonder: fruitfulness.

    7. Scriptural Aberrations of Procreative Marriage

    Dr. Keesmaat concludes her reflections by mentioning Old Testament aberrations of procreative marriage. She concludes these aberrations confute the idea that procreative marriage is integral to the gospel. Aberrations, though, do not problematize norms, they confirm them. We can see what procreative marriage ought to be even when all we see is aberrant human manifestations of it.

    Dr. Keesmaat maintains that I fail to “mention that the procreative marriages that do carry the story forward bear no resemblance to marriage today.” I am fully aware of God’s willingness to work with less than perfect human appropriations of his ideal, which is why I insist that, “the story of marital strife, female barrenness, sibling rivalry, family discord, and national crisis is never simply the story of fathers and mothers and their offspring. It is always, at the same time, the story of God working through and within fallen procreative history to accomplish the purification and salvation of his people through his Son.”

    It is simply not the case that procreative marriages in biblical times bear no resemblance to procreative marriages today. Their resemblance is obscured when we only notice the details, which vary from place to place. What procreative marriages across cultures have in common is that they are procreative marriages, as Scripturally defined. The aberrant sexual relationships we come across in Scripture are not merely violations of some generic and invariably imprecisely defined notion of human love. They are violations of the divinely ordered form of marriage.

    The same can be said of sexual arrangements that Scripture does not explicitly condemned but nonetheless problematizes, such as polygamy. It is easy to see from afar that while polygamy is a particular cultural instantiation of procreative marriage, it is also one that easily destabilizes the exclusive bonds of affection and responsibility that fruitfulness creates.

    8. Making Disciples

    Dr. Keesmaat concludes by saying that Jesus did not, on the mount of the ascension, say, “Get married, procreate and make disciples of your children,” but rather, “Go and make disciples of all peoples.” Jesus didn’t say “get married and procreate” on the Ascension mount. He also didn’t say, “Love your enemies.”

    In what he says about marriage, on previous occasions, Jesus affirms the Old Testament vision of procreative marriage, as Cole Hartin has already shown. Jesus’ mandate to go and make disciples does not stand in contradiction to the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply, but rather builds upon it. The Great Commission is thus yet another example of how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. In this case he shows us that what God always had in mind was not simply the continuation of biological existence on earth, but a Holy people who declare his righteousness to a people yet unborn (Ps 22:31). Jesus fulfills the creation mandate on the Ascension mount, and the Church that raises its offspring as disciples of Christ participates in this fulfillment.

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  6. C SEITZ

    Not sure whether or how many study this blog, but I know that simply close-reading biblical texts is always valuable and the best commentary on commentary.

    “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.”

    Paul is not saying that Nero and Caligula et al. “knew God” but failed, in spite of that, to “glorify or give thanks to him.”

    How would he think that? They are pagan rulers.

    “Men committed shameful acts … and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

    Paul is not saying that Nero and Caligula et al. are going to face the wrath of God *in the future, because of their “shameful acts,” but rather that they have in fact already received this “due penalty.”
    But no one in Rome would believe that is the case. Paul is speaking about something publicly verifiable. What due penalty have Nero and Caligula et al. received?
    “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death.”
    Again, in what sense could Paul assert that Nero and Caligula et al. “know God’s righteous decree”? If he meant such a thing, those in Rome would rightly conclude he was ill-equipped to be of service to them as the One God’s apostle in Christ Jesus.
    This does not sound like a commentary about generic pagan life but about transgressions of “God’s righteous decree” that Paul appeals to and that his audience will know about.
    All this serves, in addition, to remind his listeners that their ability to agree with him about this public conduct–knowingly against God’s righteous decree, meriting and having received a due penalty–is but a dark example of a rebellion against God’s holiness that they and we are all implicated in.

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