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Are food and sex ‘things indifferent’?

51ka0d0GNNLLast month I was involved in a debate with Loveday Alexander, former Professor at Sheffield University, on what the biblical texts might say to the current debate about same-sex marriage. Loveday and I both contributed chapters to the resource book produced to support the Shared Conversations across the Church of England which are coming to an end in the next few months. You can watch videos of what we both said on the Oxford Diocesan website.

At the end of our two presentations, Loveday offered a brief response to my comments, and cited Romans 14.3–4 as an invitation for us to treat one another with respect, even if we disagree on this matter.

The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted that person. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?

This has become quite a popular argument within the sexuality debate in the C of E: the question of food laws was an important ethical issue in the early church; it was a debate rooted in the question of which OT laws continue to apply to followers of Jesus; and it was something on which Jesus appeared to have made little or no explicit ruling. If Paul was happy for Christians to ‘agree to disagree‘ on such an important, biblical, ethical matter in his context, why can’t we in ours? Thus also argues Alan Wilson in his book More Perfect UnionThe term used for such things is adiaphora (meaning ‘things indifferent’) which doesn’t actually occur in the New Testament but which has been borrowed from Stoic philosophy.


At one level, there is a fairly straightforward, three-part exegetical response to this. The first part relates to Paul’s own teaching in Romans and 1 Corinthians, the two letters where both food and sexual ethics make their presence felt. In both letters, Paul appears to not only reinforce key elements of Jewish sexual ethics (in Romans 1 and 1 Cor 5–6) but to state explicitly that conforming to such an ethic is connected with the response of faith to Jesus’ death and resurrection. But in both letters he equally clearly rejects the idea that conformity to Jewish food laws is an essential part of kingdom life—though those who do continue with this practice should not be seen as in any way inferior either.

The second exegetical observation relates to Jesus’ own teaching. Although Jesus does little to suggest the revocation of traditional food laws (not least since his ministry was almost exclusively to Jews rather than Gentiles), Mark and the other synoptists do seize on one of his sayings and make it relate to the later ethical issue which they are facing.

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside you can defile you by going into you. Rather, it is what comes out of you that defiles you.”

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?”  he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters you from the outside can defile you? For it doesn’t go into your heart but into your stomach, and then out of your body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: “What comes out of you is what defiles you. For from within, out of your hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities [porneiae plural], theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile you.” (Mark 7.14–23)

In his parenthetical comment (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean), you can almost sense Mark’s glee in having found something in Jesus’ teaching which would help with the tensions Paul is addressing in the mixed Jewish/Gentile church in Rome. But it is striking that, alongside reducing the significance of dietary issues, Jesus is magnifying the importance of other issues, including matters of sexual morality. The plural porneiae (translated as singular in English versions) could only be taken as a reference to the list of prohibited sexual relations in the Holiness Code, Lev 17–22.

The third exegetical response provides the foundation for the first two. The NT texts fairly consistently trace their ethic back to the creation narratives, in which marriage is portrayed as springing from the union of one man with one woman, whereas the food laws originated from a later regulation which was not an integral part of the creation narrative. (For and exploration of this a little further, see True Union in the Body?)


bishop_tomSo, despite the ethical importance of both issues, there appears to be something quite distinct about their ethical status. This is highlighted by particular texts—but is there a deeper theologic behind this? [See what I did there…?] Tom Wright tackles this in chapter 4 of Good Disagreement? ‘Pastoral theology for perplexing topics: Paul and the adiaphora.’ He starts by pointing out the unmissable importance to Paul of the unity of the body of Christ. Though he doesn’t saying quite like this, it is clear that, for Paul, unity is not so much something to be sought, preserved or striven for, but is a fundamental reality that we must recognise and learn to live with. Wright then offers the counter-point—that Paul’s writings are also full of demanding ethical instruction, and that includes provision for disciplining those who stray from this narrow path.

Is Paul  thereby being inconsistent?  Some might think so. Some might suppose that his sharp moral judgements are simply a hangover from his former culture, not least the moral scruples that he had had as a zealous Pharisee. (p 66)

Drawing on Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, he notes that, even from a social point of view, it is impossible to embrace and include certain things without excluding others. But his primary interest is in Paul himself, and the way that Paul’s understanding of the Messianic community of Jew-and-Gentile-together shapes his teaching.

We need to understand how he sees the question adiaphora, “things indifferent”: how do we know which things are “indifferent” and which are not? How do we tell the difference between the differences which make a difference (for Paul, certain differences of behaviour and lifestyle) and the differences which don’t make a difference (for Paul, certain other differences which might equally be seen as behaviour and “lifestyle”)?

This is helpful, since it puts the question in the clearest terms both for our reading of Paul and our engagement with the presenting issue today.


Wright explores this by means of his narrative understanding of the people of God in Paul’s theology, drawing together the twin themes of new creation and (re)new(al) of Israel.

For Paul, the Messiah’s people are both a “new creation” and the fulfilment of the divine intervention for Israel…

The divine intervention, as Paul saw it unveiled in the messianic events concerning Jesus, was to create a single worldwide family;  and therefore any practices that functioned as symbols dividing the different ethnic groups and could not be maintained as absolute within this single family…

This divine intention was that this single family would, by the Spirit’s work, embody, represent, and carry forward the plan of the “new creation”…  and that therefore any practices that belonged to the dehumanizing, anti-creation world of sin and death could likewise not be maintained within this new-creation family. (pp 69–71)

Wright therefore moves the debate about what makes a difference and what doesn’t away from being merely a question of pastoral practice to being one of theological construction. The possibility of letting go of food laws and other markers of ethnic identity is tied to the understanding of the community of believers as the community of the new covenant in the Messiah. But the renewal (or, for Gentiles, first embracing) of sexual ethics relates to the understanding of the community as part of the new creation in the Messiah. For Wright, this means that the distinctions Paul makes between differences that make a difference and differences that don’t is not simply about arguing that some OT laws still apply, and others can be dispensed with, in a semi-arbitrary way.

 The paradox then becomes clear: Paul insists that the markers which distinguish Jew and gentile are no longer relevant in the new, messianic dispensation; but the Jewish-style worship of the one God, and the human male/female life which reflects that creational monotheism, is radically reinforced. (p 72)

Wright then goes on to show how this explains the issues in the texts that I mentioned earlier on; Paul doesn’t offer us a random collection of liberalities and constraints, but a consistent ethic which follows the contours of his theological understanding of what God has done in Jesus by the Spirit. And Wright thereby asserts another vital dynamic: that the distinctions Paul ends up with are a reflection of understanding God as Trinity.

To understand the church as the Messiah’s Spirit-filled people, and as such as the community of new covenant and new creation, is to understand the difference between the matters in relation to which the church can and must live with difference of practice And the matters in relation to which the Church has neither right nor mandate to approve or condone such differences. (p 81)


It could be argued that, if being gay is a fundamentally new category of human identity, akin to being male or female, that might bring all this into question. But there is no scientific support for such a notion, and a proper understanding of theological anthropology shows that this is a mistake.

If you have ever puzzled at the reasons why food and sex and not equally ‘things indifferent’, either because you think they should be or because you think they shouldn’t, then there is a robust theological position here which needs serious engagement.


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21 Responses to Are food and sex ‘things indifferent’?

  1. Andrew Godsall October 15, 2015 at 9:49 am #

    OR – we can thank Paul for his insights but actually conclude that he was a: weird about sex; b: homophobic; c: mistaken; d: so influenced by his time and culture that we have to make a lot of allowances for what he meant, even if we can understand it; e: disagree with his theological conclusions; f: hold his views and our own views in tension and allow for difference; g: all of the above…..and more….

    I think the issue that your post above doesn’t wrestle with Ian is the main point in the debate about sexuality and good/bad disagreement and it is this: there are parts of scripture e.g from Leviticus that no longer strike us as reasonable, and that’s putting it mildly. It doesn’t matter whether they are to do with food or not – our understanding has changed. Once that happens you can no longer go back to a world where scripture is your only final arbiter. Reason and human experience in the matter of human sexuality give us a different perspective and one that has to weighed very seriously, despite what Tom Wright might say. He is not, after all infallible – and might just be weird about sex as well.

    And you need to be much clearer and consistent about why this is SUCH a vast issue. Will couples who had pre marital sex all go to hell? Or is there a fine dividing line? Is sex SUCH a crucial salvation issue that God and bishops need to know what goes on in every bedroom at every moment of the day/night? (HOW many times??!!!)

    It just doesn’t make enough sense (to paraphrase John Robinson) to the person on the Clapham omnibus to get so over excited about this. They’d prefer to be more honest to God. Or maybe you and Tom think that’s where it all went wrong……?

    • Steve T October 18, 2015 at 12:32 am #

      re. premarital sex. no – they wont go to hell – *if* they repent, confess, seek forgiveness, and stop (or marry). This is the point. There is a difference between sinful engagement that ceases (and is rectified by a right response to a loving heavenly father), and the wilful ongoing engagement of a transgressive act, under the impression of ‘normalising’ it with clever ‘get-out’ theology / attributing the passing of OT Mosaic laws as somehow applicable to sexual morality that stands good throughout all time. Those with oversight have all the more responsibility to remain true to the WORD OF GOD by which we shall be assessed.

  2. James Byron October 15, 2015 at 1:10 pm #

    When the issue’s two radically different theologies coexisting in the same organization, asking whether homosexuality’s a “thing indifferent,” is the wrong question. We come from such different places that we’ll talk past one another.

    Instead, we should be asking how, when one group thinks that homosexuality’s a “salvation issue,” and the other that it’s blessed by God, the two groups can coexist without either being disadvantaged.

  3. T.W. October 15, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    Where I can agree completely is that there is such a thing as a pagan Christian ethic, and exploding it really is part of the Gospel. Romans 1 is an essential and healthy text, and anyone who sweeps it under the carpet as being too embarrassing for 21st-century sensibilities is making a dangerous compromise with paganism—a real paganism that no one in the world with eyes can fail to see triumphant around us.

    That said, there really is something to the point that the same-see relations Paul referred to were exploitative, coercive, and expressive of pathologies unrelated to a Christian same-sex marriage (you see, by not acknowledging the possibility of such a thing, we are sayin that the difference between the most pagan one imaginable and the most Christian one imaginable is “adiaphoron” to us). This is too big a topic to enlarge here, and I imagine you know the arguments already, so let me confine myself to a pot-shot at NT Wright. In the video where he discusses homosexuality (I believe he’s wisely refrained from writing much on this topic), he evidently takes great pleasure in being able to claim that the relationship between Agathon and Pausanias in Plato’s Symposium proves that the ancients knew “modern” homosexuality (two consenting and loyal adult males) perfectly well. Now, any student of Classical Greek culture knows this is baloney; just consult any good scholarly discussion to realize how pathologically weird that relationship was through Ancient Greek eyes and categories. This is why James Davidson’s book “The Greeks and Greek Love” is subtitled “a radical reappraisal.” Wright and other anti-gay traditionalists have deeply accepted such a radical (and questionable) reappraisal, whether they realize it or not.

    Bottom line, Paul didn’t have a Christian gay marriage as knowable today to judge and call porneia or anything else. The Genesis-1 arguments are not the solid rock believed by their exponents (who I’m sure in their other exegeses of early Genesis do not have any interpretative difficulty making the kind of “leaps” necessary to suppose that what the text says in a form applicable to all ancient unions and the vast majority of present-day unions could also be soundly applied to a few same-sex unions).

    What a happy day for the Church when such careful and scholarly exegesis will be liberated to accept the plain fact that the modern datum of homosexuality is something new and not something already known, explored, and addressed in the pages of Scriptures. Meanwhile, instead, the anti-gay exegeses we get are broadcasting loud and clear to the world that “real” Christians who accept the “historic” and traditional faith are bound to these positions. As if it were in the Nicene Creed. Now who can blame the world for selecting “neither of the above” between progressive “believe what you like” Christianity and “historic” Christianity so manifestly in thrall to this idol. A wound on the body of Christ. My eyes look up in hope.

  4. Jonathan Tallon October 15, 2015 at 7:01 pm #

    Quote: “The plural porneiae (translated as singular in English versions) could only be taken as a reference to the list of prohibited sexual relations in the Holiness Code, Lev 17–22.”

    No. This is wrong. Porneia (singular or plural) wasn’t generally used to refer to the holiness code; see Haller (2009, 126-132). And a number of the vices are in the plural (presumably following on from the plural ‘evil intentions’).

    To expect that a first century Jew would go straight to the holiness code, rather than porneia’s usual meaning of sleeping around, particularly with prostitutes (with links in Jewish thought to idolatry), is, to my mind, bizarre.

    Tom Wright doesn’t get us any further. If you think that same-sex activity belongs to the ‘sin and death’ category, then clearly it’s a bad thing. If you think that it isn’t, then this doesn’t apply (but you might think that discrimination against same-sex couples does belong to that category).

    The move to ‘theological construction’ begs the question, as both sides will disagree on this (for example, the move to finding specifically male-female creation as being key). You could equally argue that Paul was basing all his ethics on the rule of love – what builds us and our neighbours up? Again – different answers will follow depending upon one’s position.

    The question remains – what do we do as a church when people cannot agree about what is adiaphora? (I suspect that few in Rome thought is was adiaphora).

    • David Shepherd October 16, 2015 at 11:09 am #

      Jonathan,

      Let’s do this, then. Here’s Haller on Genesis (Reasonable and Holy, p. 126):

      ‘First, it is common to hear that Jesus’ teaching on marriage and celibacy brooked no other possibility; that his reference to the creation account in response to the question of divorce offers a clear indication of his thinking on same-sexuality. This is a stretch, especially when advanced apart from, or even in denial of the explicit concern that Jesus is addressing: the permanence of marriage and the sinful status of remarriage after divorce. It is the permanence of marriage that is at issue, and Jesus locates his teaching on this permanence in the context of Genesis.’

      Haller’s thesis implies that we cannot extend Christ’s induction from the ancient Genesis archetype (which He considered to have enduring significance several millennia later) beyond the explicit question that He addressed: the permanence of marriage.

      Well, let’s see if that’s true. How about the binary nature of marriage that St. Paul endorses from the creation story? Well, that also a logical induction from the Genesis archetype.
      So, the only aspect of the Genesis archetype that Haller treats as exempt from inference is its opposite sex nature as described in Genesis 5:2. Well, that’s no more than a self-serving special pleading. The stretch is the sole exclusion of homosexual behaviour from the purview of the enduring Genesis archetype of marriage.

      If you are going to resort to Haller, you should have a look at several of my debates with him on Thinking Anglicans. He may have the tools of logic, but his ‘Achilles’ heel’ was always his inability to apply sufficient self-critical reflection to his rough-hewn theses.

      • Jonathan Tallon October 17, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

        Sorry, but you haven’t addressed the point I was making about porneia , and seeing Mark 7 as a reference specifically to Leviticus.

        • David Shepherd October 18, 2015 at 5:33 pm #

          Jonathan,

          Even if, for argument’s sake, we accept that porneia doesn’t refer back to the Levitical Holiness code, it still doesn’t invalidate my argument that the Genesis archetype that Jesus invoked reveals God’s original intent for marriage to be more than just binary and permanent.

          Nor does your point alter the fact that St. Paul’s phrase arsenokoitoi does refer back to the Levitical prohibition on male-male sex without being particularly related to idolatry.

    • David Shepherd October 16, 2015 at 12:43 pm #

      Reasonable and Holy, p. 128:

      ‘Thanks to the work of Robin Scroggs, the former term [arsenokotoi] is now usually seen as a Greek relative of the Hebrew rabbinic term for male-male sex: mishkav zakur. Both the Hebrew and Greek essentially mean “bedder of a male” and reflect the terminology of Leviticus 18:22, which refer to a male performing mishk’vei ishah-the beddings of a woman-with a male. (As noted elsewhere, the Leviticus proscriptions may relate more to idolatrous practices than sexuality per se.)’

      Fortunately, this blog has a rather long thread on this topic: http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/leviticus-and-same-sex-relations/

      Over a fairly long exchange, Thomas Renz significantly challenged Jerome T Walsh’s position that Lev. 18:22 should be understood as no more an offence against the masculinity of the receptive partner, instead of being a general prohibition against homosexual activity. Walsh eventually admitted that Renz’s interpretation was just as plausible as his own.

      These are both noted experts who, at no point, introduced the qualification (that Haller accepts as plausible) that the Lev. 18 proscriptions are more related to idolatry.

      So, we have Haller accepting the validity of St. Paul’s proscription regarding arsenokotoi in 1 Cor. 6:9.

      We have two noted scholars (three if you add Gagnon’s position) whose interpretations might vary, but who mention nothing of Lev. 18:22 addressing homosexual acts that are more related to idolatrous practices.

      Haller’s thesis, which you’ve endorsed, is once again on shaky ground.

      • Jonathan Tallon October 19, 2015 at 10:47 am #

        These issues weren’t raised directly in this blogpost, and I’d rather stick to the immediate points raised. But, in brief, Walsh and Renz were focusing on the grammar of the Hebrew. I’d be amazed if the don’t agree (as Gagnon concedes) that the predominant form of male same sex activity within that culture was idolatrous cult worship. Moving on to its interpretation in the time of Paul, the two passages are usually (perhaps always, but I am away from my resources) linked to idolatry.

        None of which has a bearing on my main point – porneia (singular or plural) would not lead to someone thinking that this was the focus of discussion.

        • David Shepherd October 19, 2015 at 4:01 pm #

          In that case, I would suggest that Haller is far from suitable a reference in support of your position.

          I didn’t take issue with which form of male-male sexual activity predominated, but with Haller’s notion that the prohibition itself related more to idolatrous practices than sexuality per se’. There is no proof of the latter.

          InsIsting that idolatrous practices were the predominant form of ancient male-male sexual activity, cannot overturn the fact that there is nothing in the Levitical proscription which adds this qualification that male-male sex acts were only condemned because of their relationship to idolatry.

          The blanket Levitical prohibition against homosexual acts was adopted by St. Paul in the first century.

          Using a reference other than Haller might have underscored more forcefully the point that you sought to make.

  5. Alan Wilson October 16, 2015 at 1:37 am #

    I don’t see a great difference here. Early Christians fell out over meat not out of food faddism but because the meat from the temples was tainted by the whole system of organised idolatry they represented. The sin Paul discusses in Romans 1, where people who are heterosexual (as we might put it) abandon their natural orientations is seen by him as a (less obvious) species of idolatry. I think it is a misunderstanding of what is going on to suggest the supposed idolatry (as some would put it) that caused falling out over meat was somehow qualitatively different from the kind of idolatry Paul identifies with people abandoning their natural orientations. The only difference I can see is that the former would be very much more pervasive and significant to his first readers. I certainly don’t see it as requiring us to set aside the advice we are given in Romans 14, or, for that matter, Paul’s advice about the state in Romans 13.

    • Jonathan Tallon October 16, 2015 at 9:10 am #

      I agree with this Alan, except that I’d suggest that idolatry was not less obvious, but more obvious in Romans 1. Townsley (2011, 2013) has argued that this would have been read as a direct description of idolatrous goddess worship (with associated sexual practices) and has provided evidence that this is the way it was understood in the earliest comments on Romans 1:26-28.

    • David Shepherd October 17, 2015 at 9:42 am #

      Alan,

      In Romans 1, St. Paul explains that his eagerness to preach in Rome again is driven by his recognition that accepting the gospel is the only means of escaping the outworking of divine wrath. The gospel redeems from the active principle of righteous indignation towards all who have rejected what could be inductively understood of God’s eternal power and transcendent greatness through the self-evident purposes of nature.

      St. Paul’s declaration is that, without the gospel, those who abandon what God’s reveals of Himself through the self-evident and beneficent purposes of nature remain consigned to the custody of their errors until judgment falls.

      St. Paul considers the invisible attributes of God (aorata) to be plainly discernible from the ‘creation of the world’. Even when He preached at Athens (Acts 17), St. Paul began his speech by declaring the sovereignty of the ‘unknown God’ in creation.

      So, the apostle’s argument from nature is telic: the overall beneficent order and purpose as established from the creation of the world (which we should accept and give thanks) is fully discernible to man.

      Contrary to your assertion, nature, as explained by Paul, is not what is simply characteristic to specific groups of people, such as natural orientation. The scale of St. Paul’s argument from nature cannot be reduced to that.

      The description at the end of Romans 1 represents the final state of heathen societies as a whole, rather than a description of the overt characteristics of any and every individual within them. Instead of the purpose of our created existence being received with grateful deference to His purposes, even the ostensible purpose of sexual function, as created, is eventually abandoned for the pursuit of self-conceived desires.

      Paul’s description of the final concomitant of reprobation is flagrant disregard for the purpose and order for which the world was created. The gift of sexual differentiation is abandoned in sexual acts. And, unlike food sacrificed to idols, this flagrant rejection of divine purpose and order *is* a salvation issue.

  6. John F October 16, 2015 at 9:19 am #

    Andrew Godsall: We can say Scripture is the final arbiter and then realise, even with most of Leviticus out of the way as ‘ceremonial law’ and live under the grace that Paul exhorts us to in Galatians, that we are still falling short of God’s standards and are damned without grace. If Scripture is not the final arbiter, then what is? Is it might? Is it consensus? Consensus is really just another form of might.

    Sex is one small part of intimate relationships, but those intimate relationships have a public aspect, like children, or even what sort of mood we’re in with other people. Further, I’m arguing from an extreme here, but we often say we don’t want the government involved in sex, until there has been a rape.

    • Andrew Godsall October 16, 2015 at 10:20 am #

      John F: “If Scripture is not the final arbiter, then what is?”
      I’d have to respond first – and this was the point of my initial post – that scripture obviously is not the final arbiter because it clearly can’t be any longer now that we all wear mixed fibres and eat shell fish. If it isn’t the final arbiter about ceremonial law/levitical code, then we have conceded that it can’t be the final arbiter. You can’t have it both ways. Even if you want to say Paul is the final arbiter, then you have to interpret Paul. And people interpret Paul differently. So Tom Wright, who seems to be a bit weird about sex, interprets him differently to my 31 year old son. And it’s no good saying that you need to be a professor/a Bishop to interpret Paul correctly because that rather undermines the idea that the bible is available to everyone, doesn’t it?

      As to what IS the final arbiter? Well that is a shifting thing too. As Anglicans we say that it’s scripture, tradition, reason, experience and the spaces between these things. Hence we change our minds about birth control and divorce…..

      Rape is not actually sex is it? It’s brutal violence. That’s why the government is involved in rape.

      • David Shepherd October 16, 2015 at 1:12 pm #

        Andrew,

        And here was I thinking that we were past these shop-worn arguments:

        ‘scripture obviously is not the final arbiter because it clearly can’t be any longer now that we all wear mixed fibres and eat shell fish’.

        Of course, if the NT establishes the provisional nature of certain OT prohibitions and not others (Mark 7; 1 Cor. 7: then it continues to arbitrate.

        We may indeed interpret Paul differently, but it’s not interpretation to apply your 21st century opinion that he was a) weird about sex; b: homophobic; c: mistaken. That’s a just value judgment that itself could be based on you being a) weird about sex; b) homophilic; c: mistaken.

        In terms of the Anglican position on birth control and divorce, both were argued with reference to whether scriptural prohibitions were in force. The arbiter has never been whether Jesus, or a particular apostle of prophet was just weird about something, such as encouraging natural fecundity or marital permanence.

        • Andrew Godsall October 16, 2015 at 3:16 pm #

          But David…

          What makes my judgements ‘value judgements’ but Paul’s judgements, and whoever wrote Mark 7 objective and binding ones? I think, as we have discovered before, there is always a provisionality about any ‘objective’ truth. And if the early church was free to loosen the reigns on scripture, then why isn’t the later church? There’s no logic here except the logic that says that once scripture (of whatever sort) is no longer the final arbiter then there aren’t really any exceptions to that logic.

          And another problem with the ‘scripture as the final arbiter’ position is that the only thing to say that it is the final arbiter is scripture itself. And when new issues arise, like reliable artificial means of contraception, we have to find ways to make the final arbiter not seem so final.

          You’ve got to be more convincing I’m afraid.

          • David Shepherd October 16, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

            ‘And if the early church was free to loosen the reigns on scripture, then why isn’t the later church?’

            The early church’s interpretation of OT verses that demonstrate specific laws to be provisional is very different from what you see as being ‘free to loose the reins on scripture’.

            For instance, the early church’s argument was that Abraham’s justification (Gen. 15:6) occurred significantly earlier than his works, especially circumcision (Gen 17:26) by which Jews distinguished themselves from Gentiles.

            ‘The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.’ (Deut. 30:6)

            So, St. Paul rightly argued that the OT promise of the circumcision of heart by the purifying work of the Holy Spirit superseded any need for physical circumcision:

            ‘Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

            A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. (Rom. 2:25 – 29)

            Your assumption about the early church being ‘free to loosen the reins of scripture’ is not borne out by the NT record. As Jesus did, the early church simply extrapolated all aspects of the OT record in order to discover which were provisional and which were enduring.

            You may well decide that St. Paul’s apostolic doctrines subjective and not binding. You’re also free to reject some or even all of teachings attributed to Jesus and still claim to be a Christian.

            Eventually, you’ll end up in identity self-contradiction: a bit like an avowed Communist who purports to be able to espouse free-wheeling capitalism at the same time.

    • Alan Wilson October 19, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

      I don’t get how your last sentence follows from what was before. For a start the behaviours complained of in Romans 1 are the punishment or symptom of a deeper malaise which is (unwitting but still culpable, says Paul) — Idolatry. But this argument is only the curtain raiser for his main argument that follows — observant Jews themselves are as subject to judgment. As to the law for Paul being one, that seems a constant part of his account of it — it can all be summed up in one commandment, to break one part is to break all, etc. etc. What seems to be proposed here is to take a Reformation concept (adiaphora) and ask “which commandments are adiaphorous?” Paul isn’t trying to justify walking out of the Church (as were reformation theologians) — so for him it’s ultimately a meaningless question. He does not reject food regulations, simply the use of them to establish salvation (a form of justification by works of the law). I can see no evidence at all that he would regard laws about sex as being qualitatively different from every other part of the law. Indeed the very use of the word sex in Ian’s title dates back in English to 1900. We would have to do a fair amount of explaining to Paul what we were actually talking about, along with the sixteenth century church political concept we were trying to use to judge the law, and then the whole bizarre idea that if the law is founded in Genesis it is eternally binding. Then we need to tell Paul that it’s not even all the laws about sex we believe are privileged. Leviticus 18:19 belongs in our moral dustbin, but Leviticus 18:22 is in fact the cornerstone of the law, on which salvation hangs, because it is founded in Genesis (is it?). And finally, for good measure, we tell Paul that we believe women can commit the sin described in Leviticus 18:22. I see no evidence for any of this desperate special pleading, reading stuff into the text on a definitional level, on the basis of our own deconstruction of its sources, then sticking a lot of wildly anachronistic concepts into it, then expanding the whole into a means of excluding others from the kingdom. I just don’t buy it. It is a canonical text and deserves basic respect as such, not hacking about to try and produce some kind of moral trump suit that will address current concerns.

      • David Shepherd October 20, 2015 at 7:17 am #

        Alan,

        If St. Paul had limited his declaration about the scope of divine wrath to a specific part of history, you might have a point. Instead, he indicates that the scale of retributive justice is universal and he uses the continuous tense ‘the wrath of God is being revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness’ All, not some. Rstributive justice is an active principle, surrendering people to do as they please until judgment falls, for which the gospel is the only remedy,

        The thrust of his argument is that all are in need of the gospel. For without the grace therein, societies are handed over to become the willing hostages to their sinful desires.

        It’s nonsensical to suggest that these outcomes of God’s universally revealed retributive justice against ‘all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’ is actually not universal at all; and that the concomitant behaviour that St. Paul describes is actually limited to ancient eras alone.

        Given that St. Paul equates greed (covetousness) with idolatry, modern society is as capable of succumbing to the worship of material possessions and worldly values that detract from devotion to God as the ancients were wont to kneel before statues. On this basis, distinguishing modern materialistic society from ancient polytheistic ones is superficial.

        Your argument about what you highlight as a selective reading of Leviticus would hold weight if there was no divinely instituted archetype for marriage prior to the Law of Moses, In contrast to your position, Christ himself made inductive inferences about the nature of marriage from the enduringly applicable Genesis archetype thousands of years after the giving of the Law.

        Those inferences are not limited to the permanence of marriage. For the weddings at which you’ve officiated, you happily accept the inference, which is also derived from Genesis, that marriage is a binary union.

        In fact, the only inference that you balk at is the one that limits marriage to opposite gender couples. So, it’s a bit rich to consider as a special pleading what you see as undue weight given to Lev. 18:22, only to exempt same-sex couples from the one other obvious inference apart from the binary and permanent nature of marriage that could be derived, as Christ did, inductively from Genesis.

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