Part of a series leading up to the Anglican Church of Canada’s 2019 General Synod. Previous installments may be found here.
In 2013, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada passed Resolution C003, directing the Council of General Synod to draft a motion “to change Canon XXI on marriage to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in the same way as opposite-sex couples.” In response, the Council resolved to establish a commission which was asked to provide “a biblical and theological rationale for this change in teaching on the nature of Christian marriage.” This commission presented its findings to the Council on September 22, 2015, in This Holy Estate (THE).
The first thing that must be said about this process is that it betrays a particular understanding of what it means to consult the Bible: namely, to come to the Bible with a particular view in mind, and then to find this view within its pages. THE pursues this approach with predictable results. Texts that are deemed to contravene the doctrinal innovation the commission was commissioned to justify are overlooked or dismissed.
We might ask ourselves whether this approach to Scripture is adequate. Have we actually acknowledged scriptural authority if we come to the text in order to justify a particular point of view? Kierkegaard, I believe, is helpful here. In his little tract On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle, he points out that true arguments from authority vest independent weight in the authority in question. It is hard to tell whether you actually regard something as an authority so long as the outcome corresponds to what you already think. The test is what happens when what you already think and the authority in question are at odds. Recognizing authority consists in submitting what you happen to already think to that authority.
Acknowledging the Bible’s authority means submitting what we already believe to it as a whole and in part. Submitting to the Bible as a whole is quite a natural thing to do. It happens all the time to people as a part of their conversion process. Part of their turning to Christ consists in embracing the Bible—accepting their status as God’s creatures, God’s revelation of his will for them, and so forth. If the Bible is what it purports to be — divinely authoritative communication from God to his creatures — then what we have in the Bible is just what we would expect, a text asking us at times to be led where we do not wish to go (John 21:18).
We are, of course, entitled to reject all of this about the Bible, but we must be clear about what such a rejection is: It is a way of rejecting the Bible as Scripture. Usually such rejection isn’t wholesale, at least immediately. It begins in part, by obscuring the divine address of particular passages that have a claim on our identity and actions. Denying the particular authority of the Bible in part is the steady path to denying the authority of the whole.
Cole Hartin has shown that THE’s treatment of specific Gospel texts consists in finding ways to avoid having to reckon with these particular texts as authoritative. Murray Henderson has exposed a similar tactic in THE’s treatment of the injunctions against homosexual practice from the book of Romans. In both cases, THE relies upon the so-called “shellfish argument,” which runs something this: the Bible condemns shellfish eating, yet we eat shellfish with a clear conscience. Similarly, so the argument goes, many of the sexual prohibitions of the Bible no longer apply.
According to the shellfish argument, reading the Bible is like garbage collecting. You proceed by dividing the mess into two categories: that which is salvageable, and that which is not. This is not the same as submitting to the authority of the Bible. The Bible, as Augustine saw, must be taken in whole or not at all. Every honest interpreter will confess that discerning just how texts dealing with shellfish and other seeming obscurities apply today is no easy matter. But the question is never whether such texts are relevant, but rather whether we are willing to wrestle with all 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.
As Jeff Boldt highlights, THE replaces the authority of particular texts with a vague appeal to Scripture as a whole, which, we are told, has to do with the inclusion of the Gentiles into the family of God. Yet this ingrafting into the people of God, as Christopher Seitz forcefully demonstrates, is not analogous to the inclusion of homosexuals into the Church today, since it already extends scripturally to all of humanity. The question thus becomes one of actualization, how God’s gracious gift is appropriated by the Gentiles of the world. Seitz shows that the terms that are laid out for us all in Acts 15 are simply a reiteration of the ancient Law.law. Thus, “To turn the discussion and decisions of Acts 15 into an analogy for modern ‘spirit discernment into New Truth’ is not just exegetically faulty, but runs almost exactly against the grain of how the Scriptures, the Law, and the Holy Spirit are effectively at work in Acts 15 and in Acts as such.”
As Catherine Sider-Hamilton points out in her study of THE’s appeal to Scripture as a whole, the scriptural narrative, as we receive it, begins with a creation account which comes to a climax in the created difference of man and woman. And the union of these two creatures is immediately blessed as fruitful. This fruitfulness is the foundation and substance of the scriptural narrative. Without it there would be no Scripture. Indeed, there would be no history. And what is most remarkable, both scripturally and historically, is that God mysteriously embraces this narrative as his own. Scripture tells us that Jesus, who at the appointed time was born of a woman (Gal 4:4), is the long-awaited offspring that Eve is promised will overcome the devil (Gen 3:15).
By being “born of woman” Jesus confirms what we see throughout the scriptural narrative: 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. Human history is divine history because it is the story of the Word made flesh, the incarnate Jesus Christ.
God’s own story is irrevocably tied to the story of a man leaving his father and mother and being united with his wife. In other words, underlying Paul’s claim that procreative marriage is a sacrament (Eph 5:22-33) is an understanding about divine and human history in the institution of marriage. To believe in the larger narrative of Scripture is to believe not only that God propels human history forward through procreative marriage, but that he carries forward his divine purposes for his creatures through it as well. Having acknowledged this, we can see that affirming the larger scriptural narrative means affirming the particulars that comprise this narrative.
Thus, as I have argued, a church that defines marriage as procreative does not merely hold up traditional ideals about marriage, birth, and the raising of children. Such a church insists that procreative marriage is not just something that interested parties agree to, or even something that ensures the survival of the species. Such a church affirms that procreative marriage and the gospel are intractably bound to one another. For it is the children of the Church who, by following the path that Jesus walked, will ensure future generations will “proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn” (Ps 22:31). Human beings, the fruit of procreative marriage, have hope for the future because the Church endures. And the Church has a future because God has appointed, from the beginning, that human life will endure through procreative marriage. Because of this, I worry that the church that fails to publicly protect the unique sacramentality of procreative marriage may just find that it has cut its own umbilical cord.
The Rev. Dr. David Ney is a native of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. He currently serves as assistant professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry, in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.