The Most Revd AET Harper, OBE, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland has delivered an address to the USPG Conference, Swanwick on the topic of "HOLY SCRIPTURE AND THE LAW OF GOD IN CONTEMPORARY ANGLICANISM IN THE LIGHT OF RICHARD HOOKER’S LAWES”. It can be accessed here.
This may seem a strange thing for me to write about, but his talk addresses one of the issues of contemporary Christianity.
Hooker was appointed Master of the Temple in 1585, supplanting his cousin by marriage Walter Travers, who had exercised a very influential “readership” or “lectureship” there, obtained for him by his patron Lord Burghley in 1581. Travers was ousted on the advice of Archbishop Whitgift who considered him too much of a Calvinist for his taste and saw that he threatened Anglican Episcopy with his radical views. Harper considers that Hooker's “The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity” to provide the intellectual basis of Anglicanism; far more so than Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. Hooker makes crucial distinctions between the whole body of scripture and what he identified as "the Law of God".
Hooker was engaged on issues to do with the form and governance of the Church and the sources of authority for that form and governance. Those who advocated a Presbyterian system claimed, in essence, that such a system was the only one consonant with scripture and church government in primitive Christianity. They also pleaded that the only authority that might be referred to or relied upon was Holy Scripture. Hooker’s defence of the polity of the Church of England, as it had emerged under Elizabeth I, was that it could be entirely reconciled with the evidence of scripture as we have it, taking account of legitimate developments of tradition and the appropriate application of human reason. It is this three-fold cord of Scripture, Tradition and Reason that provided the essential components of the Anglican method.
Here is how Hooker puts it:
Two opinions therefore there are concerning sufficiency of holy Scripture, each extremely opposite unto the other, and both repugnant unto truth. The Schools of Rome teach scripture to be so insufficient, as if, except traditions were added, it did not contain all revealed and supernatural truth, which absolutely is necessary for the children of men in this life to know that they may in the next be saved. Others justly condemning this opinion grow likewise unto a dangerous extremity, as if scripture did not only contain all things in that kind necessary, but all things simply, and in such sort that to do anything according to any other law were not only unnecessary, but even opposite unto salvation, unlawful and sinful. Whatsoever is spoken of God otherwise than as the truth is; though it seem an honour, it is an injury. And as incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation; so we must likewise take great heed, lest in attributing to Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it has most abundantly to be less reverently esteemed .
I'm sorry for the Elizabethan phraseology which does make what he says indistinct to the modern ear, but his plain message is this: parts of the Bible are the Law of God other parts are simply narrative, descriptions tied to time and place, without the authority of law. Now apart from the difficulty of distinguishing one from the other, I wonder from where he derives his authority to say so, for does not Paul writing to Timothy say, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." (2 Timothy 3:16) and does not Peter in his second letter say, "just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction." (2 Peter 3:16), insisting that Paul's letter should be treated as Scripture?
Archbishop Harper draws this conclusion from Hooker's writings: Hooker makes an important distinction between material in Holy Scripture that can be determined as being the direct oracles of God and that which may be, or may have been, derived from what he calls “by-speeches in some historical narration or other.” Hooker specifically criticizes the use of such “by-speeches” by those who “urge them as if they were written in the most exact form of law.” He goes on, “What is to add to the Law of God if this is not?” Therefore, in seeking to identify those scriptural elements that possess universal application as the Law of God it is necessary to exclude all that may be accounted “by-speeches” associated with some form of mere narration and to refrain from interpreting them in any sense as “the most exact form of law.”
He continues: Self evidently, to distinguish between direct oracles and “by-speeches” requires the application of reason to the study of scripture. Reason cannot be excluded from the appropriation of the word of God in scripture. Indeed, Paul himself, as well as the Fathers, applied reason to the interpretation of scripture. In Paul’s case it was the interpretation of Old Testament scripture. In the case of the Fathers it was both Old Testament and the New. This being the case, it is inappropriate to exclude the application of reason to the writings of Paul, especially in respect of those sections in which Paul specifically exercises his own faculty of reason.
Of course, those who insist that Paul wrote his letters under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit miraculously preserved only those letters which would become part of Scripture and that the Councils that decided which documents would be included within the Canon of Scripture and which would be excluded were guided by the Holy Spirit; all those who insist on these things are to be dismissed as what? Fantasists?
Harper continues: To what extent, then, may it be possible to say that the Patriarchs, the Prophets and witnesses such as St Paul may from time to time be mistaken? Not, surely, when they are declaring the oracles of God conformable with the Gospel of Christ; but, perhaps, where it may be said that they are defective in fact or in reasoned extrapolation, deduction or assertion based upon false premises. Such are tests we need to apply in all cases of scriptural interpretation as it may be applied to faith, truth, morality, and the Law of God.
He goes on to apply this reasoning to the current debate on homosexual acts. He draws attention to Romans 1:18-27, a crucial passage. I won't take space by writing it down here; I take it that any reader who has reached this far will own a Bible, or be able to find the text on the Internet.
His first and correct observation is that the passage deals with the denial or suppression of truth. It is clear from looking at nature that there must be a creator and rather than worship this creator men worship the creature - "images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles."
As a consequence "The wrath of God is being revealed." Punishment, therefore is visited by God on those who are complicit in the suppression of the truth and that punishment is that they are given over by God “in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.”(v24) “Shameful lusts” (v26), therefore, are the punishment of God visited upon those who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.”(v25)
Those shameful lusts are identified as acts of homosexual intercourse. "Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion." (vv26-27)
So far so orthodox, but after this Harper follows a more shadowy path. According to him we are wrong to think that such acts were degrading in themselves it is because they are 'unnatural'. He lays emphasis on the fact that these women's natural sexual orientation was towards men, and it is the reorientation towards other women that is the shameful lust or degrading passion. Similarly, the men abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for other men. The obvious and astonishing conclusion being that if the natural orientation of these individuals was homosexual then their punishment would be to be inflamed with heterosexual desires, and therefore those who were once homosexual and have become heterosexual are just playing out their shameful lusts.
In Harper's opinion, Paul’s assumptions about what is “natural” and what “unnatural” are based upon the knowledge and understandings of the time, relying to a degree on the presuppositions of the Old Testament. If, on the basis of additional knowledge and the application of human reason, such assumptions and presuppositions are shown to be inadequate it will become an absolute requirement to re-visit the definition of what in this area may be described as “natural” and “unnatural”.
Harper concludes: Thus, in the case of the passage under discussion, the essentially narrative character of the account rendered by Paul, dealing with a particular situation involving what Paul interprets as the deliberate punishment of God on persons who defy and renounce the truth about Him, and featuring the application of reason and the contemporary knowledge of the time to the activities of persons who appear radically and wilfully to have changed their normal sexual orientation to embrace an orientation that was not originally normal for them, it cannot be held that what is unquestionably Holy Scripture is also a declaration of the Law of God. The only aspect that can be placed in the category of “Law” is the requirement to recognize the truth about God and not to exchange such acknowledgment of truth and the worship that goes with it, for the lie that anything other than the God revealed in scripture and through the created order is worthy of recognition and worship.
Romans 1, therefore, provides no declaration of the Law of God in respect of homosexuality and homosexual acts. Reference to such acts is what Hooker might call “by-speeches” in the context of an historical narrative and, as such, not a declaration of God’s Law. Furthermore, Paul, in his treatment of the issues, employs reason based upon the knowledge and presuppositions accessible to him in his day. These may be challenged if the knowledge base changes definitively. It is therefore inappropriate on the basis of Romans 1.18-17 and following to judge or anathematize persons on the basis of sexual orientation. It will be necessary to scrutinize other sections of scripture in a similar way to discover whether elsewhere there may be established evidence of the Law of God in this matter and I have not attempted to do that in this essay. I remain committed to the view, however, that the tools of analysis which Hooker articulated are essential to our contemporary purpose and are especially relevant for the purpose of distilling the Law of God from the total corpus of Holy Scripture.
Finally, let us be clear on this: it has not yet been conclusively shown that for some males and some females homosexuality and homosexual acts are natural rather than unnatural. If such comes to be shown, it will be necessary to acknowledge the full implications of that new aspect of the truth, and that insight applied to establish and acknowledge what may be a new status for homosexual relationships within the life of the Church.
Appealing to 'nature' carries no weight with me. Can Harper be unaware of the extent to which Paul was familiar with the natural world? Anyone who has been in the close proximity of animals is aware that some cows attempt to mount other cows and male animals are remarkably undiscerning over what they attempt to have sex with. Nature is no judge of morality. What if some future scientist decided that there was a gay gene? I have discovered that my nature is to lie, to cheat, to be promiscuous, to steal, seek vengeance, to throw my weight about, to bully, to gossip, to boast, in fact to do all manner of evil. Our natural selves are what we need saving from. The Bible tells us about Jesus; it is our primary source. You can't get there by either reason or tradition.