Response to Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality

[1] As a draft teaching document for the ELCA, the document provides scant and occasional reference to classical and past Lutheran theological construals of human sexuality, especially in relation to ‘homosexuality’. The only explicit reference in the body of the text is the statement that “[a]t this particular point in history, this church confesses with regret the way in which Lutheran historical teachings concerning homosexuality sometimes have been used to tear apart families with gay or lesbian members” (p. 24). While not denying the abuse of such Lutheran historical teachings and the need for confession with regret, the statement as such invites further questions. Most importantly, one would like to know what were those “historical teachings.” Except for the brief reference to “orders of creation” as a theological category “sometimes employed … as their primary framework” – “often used in tandem with a static biological understanding of “natural law” ” in the nineteenth century and later on p. 47 n. 6, the document never attempts to explicate a recounting of those past teachings. To those unacquainted with the history of past Lutheran teachings, this scant reference to Lutheran discussions arising in the nineteenth century could give rise to possibly misleading impressions. In addition, questions would arise as to the character of the systematic theological construals/frameworks informing those past Lutheran teachings (including statements on sexuality by the predecessor bodies to the ELCA) that understood and judged ‘homosexuality’ as such to be a sin.

[2] The draft of “[t]his social statement addresses the question: What does it mean for us as sexual creatures to love our neighbors as ourselves and thus fulfill God’s law of love in this time and society?” (p.2). It would appear that an explication of this question and an attempt to answer it would need to attend to three elements of the question and their interrelationship: creation, law, and love.

[3] Yet, as a teaching document, its order of progression, surprisingly, puts the topics of creation and law in a subordinate position. “…, Section II contains important introductory material designed to explain how Lutherans approach ethics in the light of God’s incarnation and our hope in God who justifies us in Christ. Only after having discussed these fundamentals does the statement address the subject at hand. Section III describes God’s gift of sexuality in creation (p. 3). The document contends that the theological and ethical foundations for understanding human sexuality are the foundational convictions of incarnation and justification. It “professes that the Triune God accepts and redeems humankind and reconciles the creation in Christ. This belief grounds [emphasis added] the affirmation that God has lovingly created all humans as sexual – and therefore relational – beings” (p. 3). In Endnote 6, it is stated that “[j]ustification and incarnation provide the theological framework for this discussion of human sexuality. This may surprise some, but because sin has intervened, Christians cannot ground [emphasis added] their understanding of sexuality in nature or creation itself” (p. 47). Indeed, this claim is quite surprising – one might even say astounding!

[4] Two things are cited in support of this claim regarding the grounding of sexuality in incarnation and justification. First, reference is made to Luther’s summary conclusion to the exposition of the Creed in the Large Catechism (BC 439-440:64-65) as evidence that “Christians cannot understand God’s intention for creation for creation except when viewing it through the lens of what God has done for us in becoming flesh” (p. 47). Secondly, the document appeals to the concept of “orderings” rather than the language of “orders of creation” sometimes employed in previous Lutheran discussions of sexuality: “The concept of “orderings” assumed here is dynamic and provisional. It understands the orders of creation, or better, “orderings of preservation,” as subject to God’s ongoing creative activity. They are discussed, therefore, under the rubric of hope and the entire discussion of sexuality is grounded by justification and incarnation as the theological framework” (p. 47).

[5] With regards to the Large Catechism citation, it highly dubious that it can be used in order to warrant the claim regarding the grounding of sexuality in incarnation and justification. The fundamental point of that section is to distinguish the differences in teaching between the Creed and the Ten Commandments (the “law” according to Art. IV of the Apology to the Augsburg Confession [BC 121:6]), particularly in relation to what makes us Christian. It is, I contend, a misreading to extrapolate from that reference a warrant for the claim regarding the purported grounding of sexuality in the incarnation and justification. It is also at odds with what Luther cites as warrants for his treatment of marriage and human sexuality in his explication of the sixth commandment in the Large Catechism. The warrants for his position there are precisely appeals to creation and nature (see BC 414:207 and 211 for references to creation and BC 415:212 for reference to nature). In addition, he does not even make explicit reference to or appeal to Scripture in his claims regarding creation and nature. Luther’s argumentation and exposition regarding the sixth commandment is in marked contrast to the foundations claimed in the draft statement. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Luther’s claims concerning sexuality in relation creation and nature, they need to be noted and presented.

[6] With regards to the appeal to “orderings” of creation, the draft document only states an assumption and does not make explicit arguments for that assumption. While many (including myself) would support such a dynamic and provisional (assuming this means not immutable) concept of orderings,” yet the further claim that “they are discussed, therefore, under the rubric of hope and the entire discussion of sexuality is grounded by justification and incarnation as the theological framework” requires further argumentation in order to be persuasive. It is not evident how the “therefore” follows such that the “entire discussion is grounded by justification and incarnation as the theological framework.” There are many presentations of a dynamic/provisional understanding of orderings of creation in modern theology that do not necessarily lead to such a claim regarding the theological grounding of the entire discussion of human sexuality in incarnation and justification. Many of those presentations are complementary to, but not necessarily reducible to a theological framework of justification and incarnation. Many of those discussions contend that a theological framework in terms of creation and law is the horizon for the centrality of incarnation and justification in terms of a theological ethics, but that a claim concerning centrality does not necessarily require that “[a] Lutheran sexual ethic looks to the death and resurrection of Christ as the source for the values that guide it” (p. 11). In terms of the structure of the draft statement, the quite excellent statements regarding family, marriage, and social trust and the common good in Parts IV and V could very easily be derived from an alternative theological framework. It is not apparent why the discussions in Part IV and V require the framework articulated in Part II. If the document as revised for future submission to the next churchwide assembly still wants to maintain and defend the assumption as stated and its “therefore” claim regarding the theological grounding of a Lutheran sexual ethics, further argumentation will be required. Theological argumentation that endeavors to reform the teaching of the church in relation to the complex issues concerning human sexuality will have to address explicitly the arguments and theological frameworks that have informed previous teaching and present persuasive reasons as to why they are relatively inadequate and why possible reformed theological positions are more relatively adequate.

[7] A classic formulation in the Lutheran tradition that has informed later considerations of marriage and sexuality is the treatment of the question of sacerdotal marriage in Art. XXIII of the Apology – a text nowhere considered in the draft statement. Melanchthon appeals to both divine and natural law in his critique of the requirement of clerical celibacy (see BC 248:6-249:13). His arguments are formulated largely in terms of the horizons of creation and law. Whether one agrees with Melanchthon’s claims and the warrants for those claims, the crucial thing is that arguments were marshaled.

[8] One would hope that a teaching document of the ELCA on the central issues concerning human sexuality would strive to emulate the quality of theological argumentation presented in the Apology. And, if recommendations for the reformation of policies currently precluding practicing homosexual persons from the rosters of the church are forthcoming (which I would argue for), the church deserves nothing less than the formulation of an “apology” that explicitly addresses the theological frameworks that have informed and structured past teachings regarding human sexuality, which were formulated chiefly in terms of creation and law (and its expressions in natural law, the Decalogue, and the great love command).