Sola Scriptura and the Gay “Marriage” Debate: How Protestant Theory Concedes Too MuchSep 20th, 2012 | By David Anders | Category: Blog Posts
Protestant defenders of traditional marriage unwittingly concede too much in the gay “marriage” debate. They correctly argue for marriage as a divine institution, and for the absolute rights of the family as prior to and superior to any recognition by the state. But the theory of rights and of law that undergirds their position in fact plays rather dramatically into the hands of their opponents.
At stake in the debate are two conceptions of rights:
1) Rights as arising spontaneously from the nature of the human person, discoverable by reason, and which should be recognized by the state
2) Rights as essentially privileges ceded by an omnicompetent legislative authority.
The first conception derives from the classical, Thomist/Aristotelian doctrine of natural law. Law is something pertaining to reason. (S.T. 18.104.22.168) Human laws are just or unjust insofar as they derive from reason and natural law. (S.T. 22.214.171.124)
The second conception of rights is what we find in modernist philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, who conceived of government not so much as protecting natural rights (like the right to liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), but as an omnipotent authority to which we cede the right to adjudicate disputes and to legislate in order to protect ourselves against the unbridled and rapacious aggression of our neighbor.
Ironically, the second conception of rights is one also held (unconsciously) by many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. The fundamentalist shares the premise that law is simply something dictated by an omnicompetent legislative authority. (In this case – God, through the Holy Scriptures.) Consider the statement on gay “marriage” at the website of the National Association of Evangelicals:
Let’s go to the most basic question of all — who defines marriage? As Christians, we turn to the Bible as our authority. Quoting God in Genesis 2:24 Jesus said, “Haven’t you read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
Changing the definition of marriage does not change what God has said marriage is to be. Just because someone faces west and calls the sun on the horizon a “sunrise” does not change what it is. A sunset is a sunset no matter what it is called.
There is an irony in this statement. The writer likens the definition of marriage to the definition of sunset. He correctly notes that the nature of a sunset does not derive from our statements about it. When it comes to marriage, however, he fails to draw the same conclusion. In this case, the nature of marriage proceeds not from the nature of the male/female relationship or the normal mode of procreation, but rather from divine fiat.
Based on this reasoning, the argument for traditional marriage is only as good as the argument for divine revelation. Unfortunately, traditional Protestantism offers no argument for divine revelation. In fact, it denies such an argument is possible in principle. Consider John Calvin:
Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. Enlightened by him, we no longer believe, either on our own judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but, in a way superior to human judgment, feel perfectly assured – as much so as if we beheld the divine image visibly impressed on it -that it came to us, by the instrumentality of men, from the very mouth of God. We ask not for proofs or probabilities on which to rest our judgment, but we subject our intellect and judgment to it as too transcendent for us to estimate. (Inst. I.7.5)
Not all Protestant Christians share this doctrine, to be sure. But there is a strong tradition of “Divine Command Ethics” within Protestantism. This derives, in large measure, from Luther and his rather harsh assessment of human reason. In some of his more unguarded moments, Luther could even argue that irrationality was a mark of true religion:
But as He is the one and true God, and moreover incomprehensible and inaccessible by human reason, it is right, nay, it is necessary, that His righteousness should be incomprehensible. –Luther, On the Bondage of the Will
Protestant arguments for traditional marriage thus can play right into the hands of their opponents. The advocate of gay marriage can respond, “By your own admission, you have no principled argument. You appeal, instead, to a non-verifiable, interior religious experience to justify your belief in a divinely inspired law book. This is no basis for public policy in a pluralistic, secular culture.”
Classical Pagan and classical Christian philosophy, by contrast, have never shared this positivist conception of law. As long ago as Plato’s Euthyphro, philosophers have recognized the threat to freedom, dignity, and reason inherent in the idea that “a thing is good because God (or the government) says so.”
The greatest danger in the “Gay marriage” debate is that of unwittingly abandoning the classical conception of rights in favor of the modernist conception of rights. The long-term results of such a move are potentially disastrous.
A Comparison: The Civil Rights Movement and Natural Law
Advocates of gay marriage argue that we should “level the playing field” between homosexual and heterosexual couples in the field of family law. This ‘leveling of the playing field’ is presented as a matter of civil rights, comparable to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, or even to the emancipation of the slaves. But, in fact, the cases are very different.
What was at stake in the Civil Rights movement and in Emancipation? In both cases, proponents advanced arguments for freedom on the basis of the integrity of the human person. In the classical conception, freedom, as a natural right, is something that proceeds immediately from man’s rational nature. Indeed, freedom just is the ability to form rational judgments and to act on them.
In classical philosophy, justice is commensurate with the nature of a thing. This why Catholic philosophers like Thomas Aquinas could argue centuries before modern slavery that slavery was not a natural condition, and why the Popes began to condemn the modern slave trade from its inception. Slavery is not commensurate with the nature of the human person as rational (i.e., free). This is also why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could argue for civil rights on the basis of the integrity of human nature.
The civil rights movement in America (like the Declaration of Independence) was grounded thoroughly in the classical conception of natural rights. MLKs “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” argues explicitly from the concept of natural law. Appealing to classical philosophy, King argues “An unjust law is no law at all.”
The “Gay Marriage” Debate:
Freedom, as such, is not at stake in the Gay marriage debate. No one is arguing about the rights of people to form judgments or to pursue “life, liberty and happiness” as they see fit. Rather we are asking about whether the state should privilege and especially protect those domestic relations that arise spontaneously from the nature of human sexuality (between parents and children particularly), or whether the state should seek to create those relations through legislation, without regard to the natural process of human generation?
What is not at stake? No rational opponent of gay marriage is arguing for Homo-pogroms, or even for enforcement of strict anti-sodomy laws. Nor is this particularly a debate about inheritance or hospital visitation rights. The substantive issue is the legal definition of family and of parent/child relationships. It involves the nature of the right that parents have to beget and raise offspring.
Gay marriage proponents suggest a radical and dangerous conception of freedom and right. In their view, freedom requires that the state define human relations in whatever way suits a constituency. It is not a matter of discovering, through reason, those relations that arise from human nature and of protecting their inherent integrity and dignity. Thus, I have a right to someone else’s children (which is what is at stake in a debate about adoption) because I want them and the state cedes them to me.
If the state can redefine marriage and family to create “a right” (namely, the right to adopt another man’s children), then the “right” to marriage and children is not something that proceeds from the natural process of human generation and sexuality, but one that proceeds from the state.
There is also a whole different discussion that we can have about the sociological data on homosexual relations and child rearing, which is not irrelevant to the discussion. But I think the philosophical implications are primary. Catholic opponents of gay marriage initiatives believe that the gay marriage movement will ultimately threaten the protection of all natural rights by radically reconfiguring our legal philosophy in an even more positivist direction.
Protestants and Catholics agree on the dangers inherent in the Gay Marriage debate. Both recognize the enormous threat to religious liberty, and to the integrity of the family. Protestants, however, do not recognize the dangers inherent in their own public policy statements. The secular retort to defenders of traditional marriage is that our position is grounded in prejudice, convention, and appeals to ancient holy books. Unfortunately, this charge is entirely true as applied to strict Sola Scriptura Protestants. Furthermore, traditional Protestant apologetics has no reasoned response to this charge apart from evangelism.
Catholic philosophy does not fall prey to this charge. Catholics clearly believe in divine revelation, but they do not restrict moral reasoning to the data of revelation. Instead, they hold that reason and revelation both affirm the normative status of traditional marriage. To all who care about this debate, therefore, I appeal. Reconsider the wisdom of classical Christianity. You know in your bones that there is a reasoned response to secularism. I leave you with the words of Protestant historian Mark Noll:
Whenever evangelicals in recent years have been moved to admonish themselves and other evangelicals for weaknesses in ecclesiology, tradition, the intellectual life, sacraments, theology of culture, aesthetics, philosophical theology, or historical consciousness, the result has almost always been selective appreciation for elements of the Catholic tradition. Whatever Protestants may think of individual proposals, methods, or conclusions proceeding from any individual Catholic thinker, the growing evangelical willingness to pay respectful attention to the words and deeds of a whole host of Catholic intellectuals, beginning with Pope John Paul II, makes an important contribution to better intellectual effort.7