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What Are They Talking About?

Review of the Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality —
The Law

Pr. Jonathan Jenkins

Easter 2008


What does the Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality (DSSHS – pronounced “dishes”) have to say about the law of God? What is the law of God? What does the law encompass? What does the law of God say to us about human sexuality?

“Both the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther emphasized the important role of the law to reveal to us God’s intentions and promises for our lives, and to constrain, support, and guide us in daily living” (142). That seems clear enough, as does the description of the “two functions of the law” that follows. The “two functions” refers to the purposes for which God uses the law – what God does in the world via the law.

The “functions” of the law are clear, but what about the content of the law? What are the requirements of the law? What is commanded by God, and what is forbidden? What exactly are “God’s intentions and promises”? Here, DSSHS is less clear.

Instead of content, DSSHS prefers to speak of “experience” and “patterns.” “When we honestly examine the extent to which we are ensnared – individually and collectively – in patterns of self-serving, exploitation, abuse, and shame, we experience the power of the theological function of the law…” (153). Perhaps these “patterns” could be deduced from the Ten Commandments, but this road is not taken in DSSHS.

How are our judgments related to God’s judgments? What is the exact relation of our specific judgments (i.e. those actions we say are “self-serving, exploitation, etc.”) to the specific judgments of God pronounced in Scripture? Here DSSHS is slipperiest.

How do we know that such-and-such is “self-serving”? Because the Bible tells me so? DSSHS wants to answer “yes,” but is vague about specifics:

As the basis of Christian ethics, Scripture functions as both law and gospel to reveal God’s heart and the reality of the human situation. Scripture provides the Ten Commandments, teaches the law of love, and values the conscience. It also reminds Christians that they cannot discover God’s intentions for Christian morality simply by observing nature or the world. Scripture teaches that God’s will can only be comprehended through the foolishness of the cross and resurrection…” (401)

(The last sentence is another instance of DSSHS’ penchant for over-statement that side-tracks the reader. What do they mean by “can only be comprehended”? Everywhere in Scripture God’s will can be “comprehended” apart from the cross, sufficiently for the law of God justly to condemn the wicked! Cf. Romans 1:32, 2:12.)

“Scripture provides the Ten Commandments, teaches the law of love, and values the conscience.” Of course, but what exactly do these sources say? That’s not a question that DSSHS answers.

As I pointed out in my first review, DSSHS is quick to lay down the law on what we cannot do: “When law is exercised without gospel, however, it can lead to legalism, notably in matters of human sexuality. An ethics focusing only on rules, dangers, prohibitions, and duties has distinct limits. Lutherans sexual ethics cannot limit itself to lists of right or wrong deeds (though some deeds are, indeed, right or wrong)” (271). What is legalism? “Legalism” indicates a belief in the need for literal adherence to or trust in commands and “shoulds,” whether from Scripture or elsewhere” (FN19).

Martin Luther didn’t get the memo. In the Small Catechism, Luther calls for “literal adherence to or trust in commands and ‘shoulds’” as being identical to trust in God: “God promises grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments. We should therefore love him, trust in him, and cheerfully do what he has commanded.” “Literal” means “with careful attention to the words.” Does the committee object to that way of reading Scripture?

DSSHS’ “moral discernment” can be characterized as, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” It sounds beautiful in the Declaration of Independence, but not a church social statement.

What is the law of God? What does the law encompass? What does the law of God say to us about human sexuality? Carefully considered answers to these questions are to be found in The First Grace by the Catholic philosopher Russell Hittinger. Subtitled “Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World,” it is a breath of clean, fresh air after doing the DSSHS.

For our purposes, Hittinger’s critique of another Catholic philosopher, Joseph Fuchs, sheds some light on the murkiness of DSSHS:

Actually, Fuchs presents his own view more accurately when he accuses the older theological tradition of “fundamentalism.” So, too, is looking for such a norm in nature, even when nature is described from the theological perspective of creation… For his part, Fuchs argues that human participation in the divine plan does not begin with a reception of a moral law, much less with absolute moral norms; rather moral reasoning creatively uses the gift of nature, ordering it according to practical judgments. Practical judgments do not proceed from pre-existing law, but from the practical reason’s interpretation of what action requires in the light of the totality of concrete circumstances. (p.48)

DSSHS is more pessimistic than Fuchs with respect to the power of sin to mislead us. But such philosophical subjectivity is exactly what is going on in DSSHS.

The “older theological tradition” is based on the premise that moral laws (inscribed in Scripture or nature) are objective, because these are the laws of God. The older tradition is taken for granted by the Formula of Concord: “We unanimously believe, teach, and confess on the basis of what we have said that, strictly speaking, the law is a divine doctrine which reveals the righteousness and immutable will of God, shows how man ought to be disposed in his nature, thoughts, words, and deeds in order to be pleasing and acceptable to God, and threatens the transgressors of the law with God’s wrath and temporal and eternal punishment” (Solid Declaration V, 17).

In the ELCA, too, the older theological tradition is stigmatized as “fundamentalism.”

DSSHS works long and hard to pioneer a path around the Formula of Concord and its definition of the law of God as “a divine doctrine which reveals the righteousness and immutable will of God” in definite laws. Hittinger points out where DSSHS goes wrong:

It is important to understand that the problem is not simply the application of a natural law to this or that issue in moral conduct… but what the natural law is in the first place. Whereas the classical theological position situated natural law within the economy of divine laws, some contemporary theologians hold that natural law denotes the human practical reason. Once the natural law is equated with the human power to make practical judgments, its specifically legal character as a received (or participated) law is muted, if not abandoned. (p.46)

Hittinger means that the “law of God” is not a law at all, in the commonsense meaning of the term.

There’s an old joke about the Ten Commandments becoming the Ten Recommendations, but that seems to have happened in DSSHS. In its actual use of Scripture, DSSHS posits a “creating, but not a commanding God” (p.62) – or at least a God who doesn’t command anything in particular about human sexuality – or at least a God who doesn’t command anything in particular about human sexuality in the Bible. Instead we are left with a church that issues many pages of its own “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.”