An Open Letter To LCA Chief Theologian Dr Jeff Silcock. You Cloud the Gospel.

A post by Neil Hart on homosexuality, LGBT, lesbian and gay stuff and the Lutheran Church of Australia.

This is very long, dear reader. I apologise. Actually,  it is less than half of what I originally wrote. This is the honed down version. But, really, it is still too long for a blog post. Nevertheless I post it . Some things just cant be said in 1000 words or less. If you are not into long winded theological argument please just skip this post.

In the lead up to the next Lutheran Church of Australia General Synod the CTICR (the official theological think tank of the LCA) are preparing a paper on homosexuality. I have been waiting for the official paper to be released but it seems that may not happen in time for reasonable debate prior to Synod. The LCA website promises papers sometime in February (?) I was informed that it would be available after the 9 March. Still nothing. I therefore comment on an advance, non official, copy of the CTICR paper as I have nothing else to go by and there is no guarantee that the official paper will appear anytime soon.

I address this Open Letter to Dr Jeff Silcock as he is the Chair of the CTICR who are responsible for the paper.

The  paper contains the following paragraph.

Even though the laws and decrees in Leviticus 18–20 are addressed to Israel, they are intended for all people. This is made clear by the use of the term ‘humankind’ (ha-adam, Lev 18:5) for the addressee of the legislation. The earlier inhabitants of Canaan were expelled from the land for breaching these laws (Lev 18:24–30). Furthermore, the prohibition of homosexual activity is surrounded by sanctions against practices that the nations and religions of the world have shunned from time immemorial, because prohibitions based on natural law are deeply embedded in the human heart. Finally, the prohibition relating to homosexual practice at Leviticus 18:22 is written in the form of an absolute and permanent prohibition, the same form that is used for the ten commandments.

Dear Dr Silcock.

Before we move on to my main concern about this paragraph I can’t help but draw attention to one sentence that is, in simple terms, untrue. You state that *homosexual practices* have been shunned by all nations from time immemorial. The most basic reading of human history shows this not to be the case.  I look forward to examining  your sources.

But the main concern is not that. The main concern I have with this  paragraph is that it suggests a method of interpreting scripture that has never been commonly held or codified by our church, comes from the Reformed tradition and sits uncomfortably alongside our stated, confessional Lutheran principles of interpretation that always seek to uphold the gospel. That is what matters most here. This is not just about different views on homosexuality. In arguing your case you have engaged principles of interpretation that will only serve to cloud the gospel.

Let me restate the offending sentence.

Even though the laws and decrees in Leviticus 18–20 are addressed to Israel, they are intended for all people. This is made clear by the use of the term ‘humankind’ (ha-adam, Lev 18:5) for the addressee of the legislation…

…the prohibition relating to homosexual practice at Leviticus 18:22 is written in the form of an absolute and permanent prohibition, the same form that is used for the ten commandments.

At this point I could focus on the obvious problem that arises from this statement. The specified section of scripture  includes the prohibition against eating meat with blood in it, cutting the hair on the side of the head and holding back the salary of a hired worker overnight.  Your *ha-adam* argument necessitates that these also are moral laws which are to apply to all humankind for all time?

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But perhaps that is an argument for another time. The problem of your principle of interpretation is more pressing.

Dr Silcock, I have heard you use the above  language and interpretive principle before. In the Lutheran Church of Australia and Uniting Church in Australia National Dialogue, Summary and Outcome of Discussion on Interpretation of Scripture you said the following.

Humanity at large is the intended reader of the mandates in Leviticus 18, suggested by the Hebrew word for humanity (hāādām) in verse 5. Natural law is in view, applicable among the nations, not simply within Israel.

The prohibition of homosexual behaviour appears in the context of a series of moral vices: incest, adultery, child sacrifice and bestiality (Lev 20:7–26). Here they constitute an affront to the holiness of God and are not to be equated with the cultic prescriptions that Jesus abolishes.

There it is,  one little sentence that speaks volumes.

The prohibition of homosexuality (is)…not to be equated with the cultic prescriptions that Jesus abolishes.

I know Dr Silcock that your area of expertise is not primarily Biblical exegesis but you appear to have made a rather bold exegetical move to introduce an interpretive principle that has never before been codified in the LCA and, more than that, runs counter to principles that HAVE been clearly stated.

By your statement you suggest that the scripture, or at least the Old Testament is divided up into those parts which are eternal moral laws which are binding on all humanity for all time  and those parts which were merely *cultic prescriptions* which have been abolished by Jesus.

This raises what seems to be an obvious question. How are we to determine which are the cultic laws that Jesus has abolished and which are not?

Jesus made no specific mention of most of the 600 or so Old Testament laws. Are we to abolish only the ones he mentions specifically as your statement seems to suggest? Then strange haircuts and daily payments of wages would indeed be the order of the day. How are we to identify those passages that apply for all time and those that do not? How are we to divide scripture up?

I would suggest that the answer is that we don’t divide scripture up at any time, on any basis. I would suggest that such an attempt is not at all Lutheran and certainly not the practise of the LCA.

In your statement to the Uniting Church/ Lutheran Church Dialogue. You quote one sentence from the LCA Thesis of Agreement, Statement on Scripture and Inspiration.

We believe and confess that Holy Scripture does not only contain the Word of God, but that it is God’s Word as a whole and in all its parts.

Allow me to remind you of the whole statement and not just the first sentence.

We believe and confess that Holy Scripture does not only contain the Word of God, but that it is God’s Word as a whole and in all its parts. We reject all attempts made to distinguish between that which is Word of God in the Scripture and that which is not, whether this be done on the plea that Scripture consists of various writings: Old and New Testaments; Law, Prophets and Holy Writings; Euangelion (Gospels) and Apostolos (other New Testament writings); or on the plea that a fundamental distinction must be made in the whole of Scripture between the Law and the Gospel. (Scripture and Inspiration 3. Emphasis mine).

It would be difficult to find a clearer refutation of the interpretive principle you propose. You have indeed arbitrarily made an *attempt to distinguish between that which is Word of God in Scripture and that which is not.*

It is ironic that you have made this distinction in a paper presented to the Uniting Church. The Uniting Church finds its roots in the reformed tradition and traces part of its heritage through the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterians most significant confessional statement is the Westminster Confession.

Westminster Confession 1646

CHAPTER 19
OF THE LAW OF GOD

1. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.

2. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.

3. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

4. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

There we have it, Dr Silcock. Here is the confessional base to your principle of interpretation. But it certainly isn’t Lutheran and, for the life of me, I cant imagine Dr Martin adding his name to such a  legalistic method of scriptural interpretation.

The Lutheran Confessions do not give such prescriptive rules as to how we should interpret scripture. But we are not left clueless. There is a lot to be learnt from what Luther had to say about Old testament Laws and from observing the manner in which Luther applied  a Gospel principle to his use of the Old Testament Law.  And that, after all, is our common concern. Whatever either of us has to say about methods of interpretation, homosexuality or anything else, our primary concern is that the Gospel be preserved and promoted. And that, of course, was what drove Luther.

I believe that some clear instruction on principles of interpretation that preserve and promote the Gospel are given in the Confessions, namely in the Large Catechism and Luther’s explanation to the 10 Commandments.

Luther, in a 1525 Sermon with the dead-give-away Title of *How Christians Should Read Moses* gives an unequivocal answer to the question of how one should interpret Old Testament Scriptures. I will grant that if this were the only document we have to go by it would remain nothing more than a point of interest, a curiosity. But it is much more than that.

The principles outlined in this sermon are reproduced precisely and unambiguously in one of our central confessional documents, Luther’s Large Catechism. The Catechism is much more than a curiosity. Not only is it a confessional document, it is considered a Lutheran classic, a theological masterpiece and the central document written and still used for foundational education in the  Faith.  When the Catechism speaks,  we carefully and attentively listen.

First some excerpts from the sermon.

1525 sermon by Martin Luther entitled “How Christians Should Read Moses”.

“These are two kingdoms: the temporal, which governs with the sword and is visible; and the spiritual, which governs solely with grace and with the forgiveness of sins.”

“Between these two kingdoms still another has been placed in the middle, half spiritual and half temporal. It is constituted by the Jews, with commandments and outward ceremonies which prescribe their conduct toward God and men.”

“Here the law of Moses has its place. It is no longer binding on us because it was given only to the people of Israel. And Israel accepted this law for itself and its descendants, while the Gentiles were excluded. To be sure, the Gentiles have certain laws in common with the Jews, such as these: there is one God, no one is to do wrong to another, no one is to commit adultery or murder or steal, and others like them. This is written by nature into their hearts; they did not hear it straight from heaven as the Jews did. This is why this entire text does not pertain to the Gentiles.”

“I say this on account of the enthusiasts (fanatics/ zealots). For you see and hear how they read Moses, extol him, and bring up the way he ruled the people with commandments. They try to be clever, and think they know something more than is presented in the gospel; so they minimize faith, contrive something new, and boastfully claim that it comes from the Old Testament. They desire to govern people according to the letter of the law of Moses, as if no one had ever read it before.”

“But we will not have this sort of thing. We would rather not preach again for the rest of our life than to let Moses return and to let Christ be torn out of our hearts. We will not have Moses as ruler or lawgiver any longer. Indeed God himself will not have it either. Moses was an intermediary solely for the Jewish people. It was to them that he gave the law. We must therefore silence the mouths of those factious spirits who say, “Thus says Moses,” etc. Here you simply reply: Moses has nothing to do with us.”

“If I were to accept Moses in one commandment, I would have to accept the entire Moses. Thus the consequence would be that if I accept Moses as master, then I must have myself circumcised, wash my clothes in the Jewish way, eat and drink and dress thus and so, and observe all that stuff. So, then, we will neither observe nor accept Moses. Moses is dead. His rule ended when Christ came. He is of no further service.”

“That Moses does not bind the Gentiles can be proved from Exodus 20:1, where God himself speaks, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This text makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us. For God never led us out of Egypt, but only the Jews. The sectarian spirits want to saddle us with Moses and all the commandments. We will just skip that. We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver – unless he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law.”

It is difficult to imagine  Luther using any stronger language even if he were to resort to expletives.

We would rather not preach again for the rest of our life than to let Moses return and to let Christ be torn out of our hearts. We will not have Moses as ruler or lawgiver any longer.

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The reason for the strong language is clear. Luther  expressed the very real fear that  any suggestion of Moses as our lawgiver is an attack on the Gospel with the ultimate result that Christ will be *torn from our hearts*.

Even though Luther has a little patience for those who would use Moses as lawgiver, it would be a nonsense to suggest that he dismisses these texts entirely. Our thesis of agreement states that ALL scripture is the Word of God, as a whole and in all its parts and Im sure that Luther would agree with such a statement. The question is… in what way does the law of Moses come to us as word of God. What principles should apply as we read these ancient Hebrew texts as 21st century Australians?

Here Luthers gospel heart and systematic genius comes to the fore. He gives one abiding principle. Moses is our Teacher, not our Lawgiver. And Luther gives further direction. Moses becomes our teacher when we read him through the bifocal lens of the New Testament and  Natural Law. 

This immediately raises the question as to what  Luther meant by Natural Law and how the New Testament and Natural Law govern Moses.  Im sure, Dr Silcock, you would agree that this is no straight forward topic.  For mine, I like the thoughts expressed by Professor Thomas Pearson in the Journal Of Lutheran Ethics  (Martin Luthers Pragmatic  Revision of Traditional Natural Law Theory ). I offer this unreasonably short summary of his argument.

He sees Luther’s understanding of Natural Law as instinctual, provisional and pragmatic. I would dare to use the phrase, *sanctified common sense*. This common sense is guided by the Golden Rule. We know how to treat others because we ourselves know how we like to be treated. But sanctified common sense and the golden rule are unreliable as all human reason and instinct is tainted with sin. Ultimately both Natural Law and The Law of Moses are subservient to Christ and the principle of love  laid down by Christ, love toward God and love toward neighbour.

The thought that the Law of Moses is subservient to and must be tested my both the sanctified common sense of natural law and by  Jesus* Law of Love is what turns Moses from Law giver into teacher.

The clearest example of this in is Luther’s Large Catechism and the manner in which he explains and applies the Ten Commandments. Here the principles of the 1525 sermon are embedded into our confessions.

Consider what Luther says regarding the Law of the Sabbath.

Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.

As regards this external observance, this commandment was given to the Jews alone…

This commandment, therefore, according to its gross sense, does not concern us Christians; for it is altogether an external matter, like other ordinances of the Old Testament, which were attached to particular customs, persons, times, and places, and now have been made free through Christ.

But to grasp a Christian meaning…note that we keep holy days not for the sake of intelligent and learned Christians…  but first of all for bodily causes and necessities, which nature teaches and requires; for the common people, man-servants and maid-servants, who have been attending to their work and trade the whole week, that for a day they may retire in order to rest and be refreshed.

Secondly, and most especially, that on such day of rest (since we can get no other opportunity) freedom and time be taken to attend divine service, so that we come together to hear and treat of God’s Word, and then to praise God, to sing and pray.

There it is. Moses as Lawgiver is rejected. Luther clearly states that this fundamental law of the 10 Commandments is given to the Jews alone and does not pertain to us.
Then, Moses as teacher is employed. Sanctified common sense and the Law of Love toward God and neighbour bring new meaning and relevance to the Old Testamnet Law. Luther reasons that it is a good thing to allow the serfs and servants time off to recreate and worship.  

Dr Silcock, I concede that there is a certainly no agreement in Lutheran circles on what constitutes Natural Law. While I agree with the arguments put forward by Professor Pearson it would be arrogant to suppose that this is the only possible view or to ignore the history of debate on this subject.  However,  while it may not be possible to categorically state what, according to Luther,  natural Law IS… It is possible, even necessary, to state what it IS NOT.

Luther’s unambiguous method of understanding Old Testament Law in  his 1525 Sermon, together with his replication of that principle  in his Large Catechism show that Natural Law cannot be  defined by those things listed in the Law of Moses.

The laws of Leviticus 18-20 do not bind us to certain actions or prohibitions as it did the Hebrews. To suggest that they do on the basis of one very common Hebrew word is questionable theology to say the least. The Law of Moses does retain its place as our teacher. It teaches us  that God is holy. It teaches us that all sin deserves God*s punishment, even the punishment of death. Finally it  points us to Christ through whom the Law is  brought to its end (telos) and eternal life is made freely and graciously available to all.

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Dr Silcock, we in the LCA  are struggling to find consistent and commonly accepted principles for Biblical interpretation. We have not yet completed the journey to a clear unambiguous LCA hermeneutic. But we do have some important signposts that have served us well so far and continue to guide our  journey. The Catechism and the Thesis of Agreement*s Statement on Scripture can, at the very least, be relied on to tell us what we cannot do.

2 things.

  1. The letter of the OT Law as it applied to the Hebrews cannot be applied to us as if it were some  eternal moral law. Your assertion that Leviticus 18-20 form absolute, permanent prohibitions for all humanity is indefensible and contravenes our confessional approach to scriptural interpretation.
  2. The scriptures cannot be separated or divided up for any reason or according to any arbitrary principle. Your Westminster assertion that there are some eternal moral laws and there are some laws that are just Hebrew ceremonial laws is one such division that must be rejected.

My specific questions to you…

Can you identify any section in the Confessions or the Thesis of Agreement  which supports the interpretive principles you have engaged.

If not will you, for the sake of my gay friends whose relationships your statements condemn,  at least consider the possibility that your understanding and presentation of these Old Testament passages are unhelpful in the debate.

Sincerely Yours

Neil Hart.