Disagreement Between Friends, II

Part 2: The Priority of Scripture

But since, in our weakness, we cannot yet follow the path of the perfect, let us talk of what edifies, and speak of such things with reference to the words of the fathers, without undertaking to interpret the scriptures; for this latter is fraught with dangers for the ignorant.  The scriptures are written in the language of the spirit, and men of the flesh cannot understand spiritual things.  It is best to use the words of the fathers in our conversations; then we shall find the profit they contain. [1]

So say SS. Barsanuphius and John.  I quote them by way of cautionary preface. For a Roman Catholic reader of this blog (a convert from Protestantism) has asked me to speak about holy scripture, as it relates to the queer question.  I expect his query stems partly from a sort of post-modern Western curiosity about Eastern attitudes to sacred text and authority, which are rumored to be different.  The Orthodox accept a third and occasionally a fourth book of Machabees, as well as the Prayer of Manasses and the 151st Psalm, as canonical; meanwhile the Apocalypse of S. John, which is visually much in evidence in an Eastern church’s iconographic program, is never in fact read in church aloud.  Certain of the Eastern fathers caution laymen against attempting to interpret any scripture at all.

The second, and probably larger reason for my inquirer’s curiosity, is the obvious one: submitting to scripture’s authority, it is widely alleged, precludes participating in or condoning homosexual relations (or any other sort of non-procreative sexual behavior).  The traditionalist Orthodox Christian Information Center, for example, lumps its discussion of homosexuality into its discussion of abortion, euthanasia, and genetic cloning, and to do so it repeats the usual scriptural proof-texts—the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. xviii and xix); the Levitical prohibition of homosexual relations as an “abomination” (Lev. xviii and xx); and the Pauline condemnations of homosexuality (Rom. i and I Cor. vi).  A traditionalist Catholic blog does the same, and more, raising up a specter of “homosexual totalitarianism” which, if unchecked, will drive the Church “underground.”

The Church in modern history has, however, already weathered any number of philosophical and scientific challenges to its theology, and notably to its theology of creation.  Evolution by natural selection, also once regarded as a theory precluded by scriptural authority, is no longer generally controversial—such that Patriarch Bartholomew, a respected environmentalist, may simply absorb Darwin into traditional Christian cosmology: “The dynamics of evolution are henceforth linked with death—entropy, monstrosity, disintegration….  Of course the laws of nature, which make salvation history possible, witness to the cosmic covenant concluded between God and the world after the flood.” [2]

That the ecumenical patriarch regards the specific wastefulness of the evolutionary process as something continuous with human sin, is not the immediate point.  Rather, he still perceives a natural end to that process cooperative with the divine will; and he is able to take the new evolutionary account of biological reality for granted, without any particular comment.

Why, then, such frequent ferocity of opposition to accepting homosexuals?

Disagreement Between Friends

In Part 1 of this series, “The Necessity of Dogma,” I suggested that traditional dogmatic theology is neither merely optional (contra Christianity’s “cultured despisers”); nor is it necessarily incompatible with homosexual love (contra the ecclesiastical hierarchy).  I began with a discussion of the significance of dogma because it is dogma primarily which imparts to the Church its visible unity: a symbolon, the symbol of the faith “unites.”  We may disagree about most other things (including even what constitutes the complete canon of holy scriptures), yet through such disagreements we are able to say that we are still one Church, because we confess the same faith—because we answer the question “But whom do you say that I am?” (Mc. viii. 29) with the same formulas.

I now turn to consider the priority of scripture.  I hasten to add that I am not any kind of biblical scholar.  Still less do I have the spiritual gifts which SS. Barsanuphius and John (perhaps quite rightly) consider as the pre-requisites of biblical exegesis.  This essay is offered therefore in a spirit of humble uncertainty; and I am eager for those who know more than I do, to contribute their knowledge and sources.

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Published in: on September 3, 2010 at 10:02 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. Very interesting article, which i need to read again to understand better. As a catholic priest, i’d like to comment briefly, that in the Catholic religion, the Holy Scripture has no priority. HIstorically, the the HOly Tradition and the Sacred LIturgy – which is the Living Tradition – existed before the New Testament was written, and existed long before the canon of the NT was fixed. More or less, those books came grdually to be considered canonical (ca 4th century) which were chanted in the Liturgy of the Mass and during the Divine Office. Thus, the TRadition is prior: the Holy Scriptures can be seen as a part of the HOly Tradition, that part which was written down and then canonised by the Church. The proper attitude towards the Holy Scriptuers is to listen to it during the Mass and Office being sung or read. Many of the proper chants of the LIturgy are taken from HOly Scripture too, especially from the Psalms. The Church Magisterium does not base Catholic Church does not base her dogma solely upon Scripture: neither needs a divinely revealed and ecclesiastically defined dogma to be attetsted to by Scripture in order for it to be obligatory for Catholics to believe. Tradition in its whole (i.e., the consensus of the CHurch Fathers, the Creeds, the traditional LIturgy, the oral Tradition handed down through the ages, as well as the Tradition as written down in the Scriptures) are drawn upon as source of dogma. The Catholic Church’s current Teaching AUthority bases its erroneous anti-gay teachings (which are neither Traditional, nor infallible!) not upon Holy Scripture, but upon an incorrect understanding of Natural Law. (see the excellent book by Father Moore, O.P. ”HOmosexuality: A question of truth”.) Our religion is not a Religion of a Book, but rather, the Religion of the God-Man, especailly as He is present in, worshipped in , and communicated through, the Sacraments. The Scriptures are imporatant in as far as they lend themselves hereto. I suspect that the Eastern ORthodox understanding of the relationship between Tradition and Scripture is similar. At least, so i have always thought.

  2. […] earlier posts in this series, “The Necessity of Dogma” and “The Priority of Scripture,” I tried both to defend the value which conservatives attach to the traditional sources of authority […]


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