Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Can anyone help me understand William Abraham?

Can anyone help me understand William Abraham?

Years ago, maybe 1998 or 99, I heard William Abraham defend the United Methodist Discipline's position on homosexuality in a lecture given at a theological institute sponsored by the Baltimore-Washington Conference. I didn't understand what he was trying to say when I heard him say it years ago, so I was pleased to discover that his lecture has been published. This would give me a chance to read and study what he has to say. Unfortunately after reading and rereading his lecture, I still don't get it.

Yet, I have to give Abraham credit for this: During a time when many seminary faculty members simply refused to share their opinions and insights on the church debate about sexual orientation, Abraham was out there lecturing on this topic all over the place. In contrast, an amazing number of faculty at United Methodist seminaries, who presumably are being paid --at least in part-- to be resources to the church, just refused to speak about the topic or even to answer questions about how their academic disciplines might inform the discussion. Apparently, no matter what their viewpoint, they were nervous about their careers and, thus, chose to abdicate what some might consider to be their professional and Christian responsibility to help educate the church. You've got to say this about Abraham: He's not a coward.

But that doesn't mean he makes sense. Abraham's lecture, published as the first chapter of the book Staying the Course: Supporting the Church's Position on Homosexuality edited by Maxie Dunnam and H. Newton Malony, is more and more of a puzzle to me the harder I try to understand it.

Abraham says he wants to move the discussion beyond a debate about verses of Scripture. "The appeal to Scripture in the debate about homosexual practice," he writes, " has also led to a trivializing of the debate." (p. 23) Good point.

Abraham seems to realize that quoting a handful of biblical texts (see my discussion here) to support the Discipline's position is not very convincing, especially since there exist biblical passages of much greater significance that --if taken literally without consideration of the societal context of the times-- disagree with the Discipline's positions on divorce, the ordination of women, and other concerns. Why should we interpret the Bible literally and simplistically about same-gender sexuality if we have not chosen to do so in areas that are more likely to affect the rest of us, such as the possibility of divorced people and women being ordained? So Abraham does well to try to move the discussion beyond a shallow debate about what the Bible says.

It is where he goes from here that is a puzzlement and wonder. He suggests that to get past the problem of our inconsistency in using Scripture, applying it literally in the case of homosexuality but not in many other cases, we should understand the Discipline's position on homosexuality to be an expression of divine revelation rather than biblical interpretation.

If I understand Abraham (and I have already admitted I am not sure I do), calling the Discipline's position on homosexuality an expression of divine revelation rather than a matter of biblical interpretation means 1) we don't have to take the findings of reason (science) and experience (personal knowledge) seriously anymore because it is not just Scripture we are dealing with but divine revelation (p. 24), 2) the rules of discussion and debate change because now we are not just talking about the Bible but about the Word of God addressed to us here and now, which is not debatable (p. 25) and 3) the crucial Scripture texts are no longer the ones that address homosexuality but "the teaching of our Lord on marriage" which reveals to us "the divine intention for marriage as a specific divine calling in which male and female are joined in lifelong commitment." (p. 25)

Changing the discussion from a matter of biblical interpretation to a matter of divine revelation apparently means we can pick one or two verse of the Bible (three words actually: "male and female") and use them to trump all the rest of Scripture, not to mention reason, experience and tradition!

What about the Discipline's view on divorce then? Abraham's answer is that we have rightly followed the Eastern Orthodox Church on this. The Roman Catholic Church does not permit divorce on the basis of God's revelation. Protestantism does permit remarriage after divorce on the basis of compassion and grace. Eastern Orthodoxy upholds both revelation and compassion by including a ritual of repentance for divorced people as part of the liturgy for second and third marriages. Even though we don't actually do this, Abraham argues that the Discipline "has gotten the matter essentially if not comprehensively right ..." (p. 27)

What about the Discipline's position on the ordination of women, which might seem inconsistent with revelation? Abraham's answer is that the Bible has no blueprint for ministry. He concludes: "Since there is no blueprint on ministry in Scripture, no blueprint on the gender of those ordained can be derived from Scripture." (p. 28)

But apparently in Abraham's mind the Bible does have a blueprint for marriage, and the essence of the blueprint is heterosexuality. Because Jesus specified in his discussion about divorce in Matthew 19: 3-9 and Mark 10: 2-12 that God made us "male and female," Abraham reaches the conclusion that heterosexual marriage is an unchangeable and inflexible norm of divine revelation. Meanwhile, for Abraham, the point of Jesus' teaching --the unacceptability of remarriage after divorce-- can be tempered by the need for compassion and grace. On the other hand, the words"male and female" cannot be tempered by compassion and grace, or reason and experience.

Abraham offers two other proofs for his argument that divine revelation shows us that heterosexual marriage and practice is the only possibility for romantic relationships. One proof he offers is that it is true because some people strongly believe it is. He says: "On the matter before us, conservatives are both tenacious and urgent. This is not accidental. They are tenacious because the opinion they hold is not just a matter of human judgment or opinion. It is construed as the teaching of our Lord in divine revelation." (p. 29) It is revelation because some people feel strongly that it is.

Abraham's second proof is this: Because the church is the place where "the pure Word of God is preached" and because heterosexuality is the pure Word of God, heterosexual marriage must be the only Christian option. He writes: "If the United Methodist Church were to abandon its current teaching on homosexual behavior, it would cease to be a body where the pure Word of God is preached; and thus it would undermine its own most important ecclesiological insight." (p. 30)

After reading Abraham I feel like the mark who is trying to figure out where the pea is in a shell game. Abraham is quick, yes, but he is also slippery. He manipulates the rules to fit the conclusion he wants to reach.

He leaves me asking a lot of questions: Who gets to define divine revelation? Who gets to decide what is merely a biblical verse instead of divine revelation? Whose strong feelings get to determine what qualifies as divine revelation? If both of us have really strong feelings, whose trumps whose? Who gets to determine what is "the pure Word of God" and what isn't?

The most puzzling aspect of Abraham's essay is that he argues against proof-texting, and then uses a three-word prooftext as the basis of his argument by declaring it --arbitrarily-- to be divine revelation. Can anyone help me understand William Abraham?


Blogger Douglas said...

I'm not sure I can help you understand him completely, but if you can afford the time, his book "Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology" (Oxford, 1998, 508 pp.) will give you a thorough insight into the philosophical and theological background for his essay in "Staying the Course".
Without writing a long essay about what he says, and at the risk of grossly oversimplifying his argument to the point of misrepresentation, I would suggest that his book seeks to make the distinction between the use of "canon" - in the sense of "list or catalog" - as a means of grace that forms the Church and shapes its life, and "criterion", which provide rationally graspable rules for establishing authority and deciding questions of truth. He suggests that the "canon" of the Church is not limited to Scripture alone but also includes "materials, persons, and practices" that, since the formation of the Church in the first and second centuries, have served to relate people to one another and to God as known in Jesus Christ. The problems began, he argues, when, in the "contest" of Christianity with other religions and continuing on into intra-Church controversies, a "criterion" for "truth" was seen to be needed. The result was that other aspects of the canon - writings and practices of those who came to be considered as forebears in the faith, iconography, the sacraments and liturgical practices, creeds and doctrines, offices of the Church to oversee the proper ordering of the life of the Church, and other similar elements which together constituted the Christian "canon" - were ignored in the quest to establish "truth," thus beginning a process which put the philosophical concerns of epistemology in a central place in Christianity to the detriment of the ecclesiological and spiritual concerns of the early Christians as expressed in the canon as more broadly understood.
His faulting of agents in this process of the epistemization of theology reaches all the way back to before Aquinas and includes the major theological figures since that time. He claims that the focus on epistemology and the use of Scripture as the criterion for truth and, therefore, authority, led to the splitting of the Church East and West, to the Reformation, to the Enlightenment, to the further fragmentation of the Protestant Churches, and ultimately, to the post-Christian era in which the Christian tradition has all but disintegrated. (Interestingly enough, he has positive things to say about feminist theologians and their recognition of the importance of a wider concept of canon as exemplified by their quest to reclaim early writings that were not included in the official canon of the Church as well as liturgical practices, though, of course, he doesn't subscribe to their theological project.)
The canonical heritage of the Church, he writes, is "a subtle gift of the Holy Spirit which should be appropriated with skill, humility, and divine guidance"(22). It consists of elements that have "been accepted as binding in the community as a whole"(30). Therefore, he emphasizes that "[t]he two ideas, canon and community, are logically and reciprocally related....The canonical heritage is so much a part of the identity and nature of the community that changing that heritage radically changes the community"(30).
I could quote him further, but I think I've given you the outlines and some of the detail of his argument.
Thus, even though his "Staying the Course" essay seems to be arguing from a proof-text, the foundations for his arguments are much broader, as he indicates on p. 22: "What is at stake in this debate...[is] a whole vision of human existence under God....[T]his vision is not worked out apart from Scripture, *yet it is above and beyond Scripture*" (emphasis mine). Beginning on the next page he writes "[t]he enduring strength of drawing on Scripture in the Christian church is that it is essentially *an appeal to special revelation*....We depend substantially and nontrivially on divine revelation....What we believe or do not believe about divine revelation in part determines how we conceive of our nature....In redemption and salvation we are invited to live a life befitting such revelation"(23-24, emphasis mine). From there it follows that Jesus is the fullest human embodiment of divine revelation, and therefore his words (e.g. "God made them male and female") take on a special character in the sense of divine revelation.
I don't know if I've written enough to make clear the connections Abraham is making between a Christian canonical tradition consisting of the various elements noted above and what he calls "divine revelation," which is - he might say - hinted at by the various elements of the canon and yet is most fully revealed in their cumulative effect.
Some elements that are at work here include an ecumenical thrust that is seeking to position the United Methodist Church in a positive relation to the Church catholic as well as a not-unwarranted skepticism regarding the potential of rationalistic argument to trump materials that are effective only as they inspire trust and form and maintain community (cf. for example, his comment on pp. 20-21 that "It is as if folk have already decided the issue and then cast around for any warrant that will carry the day", which he admits expresses a cynical view of things, but which he goes on to use as a critique of those on the right as well as the left in the Church). I don't think either one of these elements is in any way inconsequential nor to be ignored in developing a response.
At the same time, Abraham and those who agree with him and/or rely upon him to develop and articulate a theological understanding of the life of the Church (UM or universal) are erring, in my humble estimation, by failing to take into account the effects of human sin on the issue of authority in the life of communities in which the source of ultimate authority is put at some distance from those who are currently in the process of seeking to live a life under that authority. He - and they - decry the "individualism" that he identifies as a product of the Enlightenment, but he fails adequately to critique the abuses of authority to which that individualism was an understandable, if overreaching, response.
I believe Wesley was closer to having it right in his concept of class meetings - to put people in covenant relationships with each other for mutual support and accountability, relating all to Christ, and making it clear that each is responsible for his or her choices in relationship to the divine as well as the community. In such a setting, it can become clearer that the canonical tradition is not only influencing but is also being influenced by those who are currently seeking to live the life of grace. In such a setting, the LGBT person may have a voice in a way akin to that of one who is not gifted in that particular way.
To say what I said above in a slightly different way, he is arguing his position under the assumption that divine revelation that is relevant to Christianity was given once for all time and is now only available to be interpreted rather than being an ongoing activity that must be attended to with care in all times and places lest it give rise to licentious living. The former stance gives rise to the institutional response of the development of a Magisterium of some sort, while the latter depends more on the openness of the various participants to the Holy Spirit's guidance - a much riskier position, and yet, it seems to me, one more apparently dependent on an implicit trust in the object of faith than the former. And yet the former goes farther in assuring that the tradition will be transmitted through time and place in a clearly identifiable form, whereas the latter bears various risks, including that which Abraham describes as the disintegration of the tradition. The two forces need to be held in balance, and yet I believe the point of balance is to the theological left of the place in which Abraham positions himself.
I hope this is of some help. Thanks for providing an opportunity to look at the material in a more practical context than I had when first reading it.
Doug Asbury

6:45 PM  
Blogger Mirdad said...

A very simple and non-intellectual observation, which may nevertheless cut to the heart of Abraham's Maximum Pontificate:

Have you ever seen a small child, perhaps 5-10 years old, who has just discovered some new knowledge, such as the existence of dinosaurs, and proceeds to lecture and hold forth at length to its elders on the new subject? This hypothetical child believes nobody but him or her could have been so intelligent as to discover (all alone and unaided, of course) and to understand this marvelous revelation. The child is compelled, by its almost physical delight in the new synapses being formed in its brain, to hold forth with overweening pride, fertilized by its superior understanding.

Such is William Abraham. He is so blinded by the glory of his own mind and its brilliance that he cannot see anything else. He should remember that the astronomers tell us that the most massive and brilliant stars end their lives as black holes, from which no light can escape.

Let us look forward to that distant possibility.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

I have meant no animosity toward Professor Abraham. I was authentically puzzled by his argument. I have ordered Canon and Criteria ... and intend to explore his thinking more.

I very much appreciate Doug's summary and critique of his work. His approach sounds very similar to Ellen Charry's approach in By the Renewing of Your Minds and seems to me symptomatic of a search for more over-againstness on the part of the church toward the larger society.

The problem with Abraham's canonical argument, it seems to me, ("The canonical heritage is so much a part of the identity and nature of the community that changing that heritage radically changes the community...") is that this could easily apply to economic systems, political practices (the divine right of kings), household economies, etc., that are patriachial and oppressive. It does not seem to allow for much reform within the church. I will explore the book when it arrives. Thanks for this help!!

11:38 AM  

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