Monday, September 24, 2012

Sex and Slavery


In New Testament Theology: An Introduction, James Dunn notes that the NT texts "have an inescapable historical particularity" and that "the canonizing of these documents does not generalize all the particularities into universals." From these observations, he suggests that the commandments in the NT are not necessarily binding upon modern readers:
 
The issue here for a NT theology that wishes to have relevance for the present day is whether what once was heard as the word of God is therefore the word of God for all times and generations. Students of the NT are (for the most part) quite comfortable with the recognition that many OT scriptures no longer have force for Christians (circumcision, animal sacrifice, and many features of purity legislation, for example). The logic would be that of historical particularity – conventions and regulations appropriate to particular historical circumstances and periods no longer deemed appropriate to the different circumstances and conditions of later generations. Many fewer are comfortable with the application of the same logic to particular conventions and rulings in the NT: the NT's acceptability of slavery would be regarded as unacceptable by all; the attitudes of a patriarchal society (reflected in the NT) would be unacceptable to most; the Bible's (including the NT's) hostility to a homosexual lifestyle remains a divisive issue. A biblical theology of the NT cannot ignore such testing hermeneutical issues.
 
Regardless of their theological orientation, all responsible interpreters recognize that certain commands in the NT are particularities and not universals. For example, the command in Hebrews 13:18, "Pray for us," is obviously a particularity. Modern Christians are clearly not expected to pray for the author of Hebrews, who is anonymous and who has been dead for two millennia. All NT scholars understand this. Why then does Dunn consider the approach which he describes to be so controversial? The answer is found in his examples of slavery, patriarchy, and homosexuality. Dunn is not merely suggesting that some NT commands are particularities while others are universals; rather, he is suggesting that even if a command was considered a universal by the original author, it may still be a particularity.
 
Dunn's argument, I believe, has three weaknesses. First, his OT analogy is flawed. According to Dunn, while NT theologians generally agree that OT commands are subject to historical particularity and therefore may "no longer have force for Christians," many of these scholars fail to consistently apply "the same logic" to the commands of the NT. However, it is simply not true that the stipulations of the Old Covenant "no longer" have force for Christians; the stipulations of the Old Covenant never had force for Christians. Christians were never commanded, as Christians, to be circumcised or to keep the purity laws. Dunn's analogy is equivalent to the argument that, because a French citizen is not required to keep the laws of Britain, he may not always have to keep the laws of France. 
 
Secondly, Dunn's unqualified assertion that the NT accepts slavery is false. While Christians are evidently permitted to own slaves (1 Tim. 6:2), this fact cannot be held in isolation from the rest of the NT. "Each" Christian, regardless of race or economic status, is commanded to "esteem others better than himself" and to "look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others" (Phil. 2:3-4). All followers of Christ are to treat others as they wish to be treated (Luke 6:31). Their greatest commandment, straight from the lips of Jesus, is to "love one another" as he has loved them (John 15:12). Their entire ethical code can be summed up with the words, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Rom. 13:9). Love is "kind" (1 Cor. 13:4); thus Christians are commanded to "be kind to one another" (Eph. 4:32). They are to "love as brothers" (1 Peter 3:8) and "walk in love," as Christ loved them (Eph. 5:2). Jesus took "the form of a bondservant" (Phil. 2:7), and all of his followers are likewise commanded to make themselves slaves "through love" (Gal. 5:13).

Many modern readers fail to notice that, while Paul commanded slaves to "be obedient" and "render service" to their masters, he commanded masters to "do the same things" to their slaves (Eph. 6:5-9)! Instead of abolishing slavery, the NT does something far more radical; the NT makes slavery universal. The message of the NT is this: masters, serve your slaves, for thus did your Lord. Therefore, while the NT does not dictate economic arrangements, if "slavery" is defined as "the forced subjugation and exploitation of a human being," then we can say without any hesitation that the NT completely and unequivocally forbids slavery.
 
Finally, far from providing "relevance for the present day," Dunn's understanding of historical particularity ultimately divests the text of objective meaning for the modern world. Dunn stops at homosexuality, but why? I recently encountered an article suggesting that, because marriages now occur much later in life, modern Christian singles should no longer be expected to observe the NT prohibitions against fornication. On what basis can Dunn contradict this assertion? Perhaps he would not care to, but eventually he draws the line. At one point in his book, Dunn labels the anti-Semitism of past generations "evil," but how does he know this? Certainly the NT authors commanded Christians to love, but how can Dunn dogmatically proclaim that this command is a universal? If a society which values self-fulfillment and sexual openness can determine that the NT prohibitions against homosexual behavior are particularities, how can Dunn insist that another society valuing racial purity and nationalism cannot make the same determination for the NT prohibitions against racism? 
 
In conclusion, while Dunn is correct to assert that the NT theologian must determine which commands are particularities and which are universals, this determination must be governed by the author's original intent if the text is to be anything more than a mirror reflecting the preferences and prejudices of the theologian. The author of Hebrews obviously did not intend for his command in 13:18 to extend beyond his original readers, but he certainly did not anticipate any "fornicators and adulterers" whom God would not judge (13:4). 

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