John Azumah, author of “Through African Eyes” (October), has been my colleague and friend at Columbia Theological Seminary since he arrived here in 2011. We have agreed on some matters, disagreed on others, and maintained a clear and sincere sense of collegiality regardless of our positions. One reason we’ve been able to maintain this sense of collegiality is, I think, that we agree on two basic principles: Context matters and relationships matter. Both of us see them as preconditions for active and hopeful engagements between Westerners like me and Africans like him. We also see these principles as arising out of our faith commitments to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. With these principles in mind, I want to push back against some of Azumah’s arguments.
First, context matters. I was deeply involved in the debates about student housing at CTS that Azumah’s article mentions, and I’m struck by the need for further context. First, while it was true that no gay or lesbian couple had requested married-student housing on campus (this event being prior to Obergefell v. Hodges, but after some states had begun issuing marriage licenses to such couples), several couples had already chosen not to apply to live in married-student housing because the policies at the time didn’t support such a thing. Instead, they had lived off-campus—at significantly higher rental prices—and worked with other students, staff, and faculty to change the policy.
Azumah and I talked through these matters over lunch. I argued that the fundamental concern wasn’t about sexuality but about fairness: Once a student was admitted to CTS, we had an obligation to treat that student like any other student. If a gay couple was married in another state, when they arrived at CTS, we needed to treat them as such. Azumah agreed with me and became a vocal advocate for changing our housing policy; indeed, his support was instrumental in CTS’s President Steve Hayner changing his mind about the policy. Yet no one would know of Azumah’s role in those events on the basis of his article, and I doubt readers would suspect he took such a stand.
Likewise, the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s changes to its policy took place over a much longer time than Azumah names, involved persons holding many positions left undescribed, and came about not because the denomination chose to ignore the Scriptures but because over time, many of us became convinced that there are theologically and historically faithful ways of reading the Scriptures that find space for contemporary understandings of homosexuality. Eventually, we successfully changed the policy. We neither ignored nor downplayed Scripture; we kept reading it with others, and our minds were changed.
Context also matters with regard to the way African and Western opinions on homosexuality are neither so distinct nor so generalizable as Azumah describes. It is one thing—an inappropriate thing—for some Westerners to treat some African positions on homosexuality as primitive, behind the times, or due to Western agitators. It is another for some African Christians to argue that their positions on homosexuality are wholly indigenous and that Western forces are practicing a new kind of colonialism in arguing for the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, especially when we hear echoes of Western missionary positions on homosexuality and see Western Evangelicals like Scott Lively actively stirring up hatred against homosexuals in African countries. Postcolonial relationships between colonizers and colonized are simply too complex for such African/Western dichotomies.
Now for the second basic principle that we agree on: Relationships matter. After the housing debates, Azumah and CTS initiated a “Consultation on Sexuality” in Ghana that was cosponsored by the Akrofi-Christaller Institute and brought Western and African theologians together. Azumah thought at the time—and still thinks—that conversations between partners are better than the misunderstandings or condemnations that result from refusing to engage in conversations with partners in Christ’s service. From within such partnerships, we might reach any number of agreements about problems both within the West and within Africa about how sexuality is understood. (Incidentally, since Azumah has singled out the PC(USA), I would point to the various statements that the denomination has made about the problematic ways that sexuality is treated in contemporary society to remind him that there is no more a single “Western perspective” on matters of sexuality than there is a single African perspective on matters of homosexuality.) That’s why relationships matter so much: They’re the primary way that I know of, at least, to get past stale or dangerous generalizations.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of breaking bread together with Azumah and his wife, Grace. Over the course of the meal, Azumah and Grace shared stories of their lives, including Azumah’s growing up in a polygamous family. I am also aware that polygamous relations complicate how to understand further marital relationships, including marriages between cousins (though, I hasten to add, not in Azumah and Grace’s case). Had I not known them and other Ghanaians already, I might have been shocked—even morally disturbed—at hearing about polygamy and how it can lead to marital relationships that sound, to my “Western” ears, vaguely inbred. Yet because of our relationships with the Azumahs and others, their stories, while strange and vaguely unsettling, were also charming and lovely.
In his article, Azumah takes on Western Christian perspectives about homosexuality, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and Columbia Theological Seminary. As a Western Christian, Presbyterian minister, and CTS faculty member, I find it frustrating not to find myself or my perspectives represented in his article. I find it more frustrating, though, that I don’t find significant parts of Azumah’s perspective there. One of the reasons Azumah and I get along is that we don’t insist that the other agree with us even as we recognize the deep theological convictions—many of them shared—that shape each of us. I do, though, think that we disagree better than Azumah’s article suggests.
columbia theological seminary
John Azumah replies:
I want to thank Mark Douglas for his response to my article. Indeed, Douglas is a colleague and a neighbor, and is one of the few colleagues I have had some conversations with on the issue. He is also one of three faculty colleagues to whom I gave the first draft of my article for feedback. This was followed by a spirited discussion over lunch on the arguments in my article before I reworked and submitted the final version for publication. So yes, indeed, relationships matter.
I fully agree with Douglas that context is important. The pushback from Christian Africans against liberal Western pressure to normalize homosexuality arises because they think their context (culture) is disregarded and their strongly held convictions dismissed—often too flippantly. And speaking of context, I did not “single out” or “take on” the PC(USA), Columbia Theological Seminary, and Western societies. I am simply locating myself and my article within my current context, which includes all of the above. It has also to be said that the housing policy controversy at Columbia and the debate on homosexuality within the PC(USA) were all conducted in the public domain. So there is nothing I said in my article that is not already of public knowledge. Yes, context matters, but the African context matters just as much as the American context. That is precisely the point of my article.
Douglas is right that I was very much involved in the housing policy debate on our campus a few years ago. But I have to say that my views on the issue were crystallized as a result of my conversations with our late president, Steve Hayner, and not because Douglas convinced me as he implies. I did indeed support the change of the policy in the end because upon reflection, I came to the conclusion that the seminary is an academic institution and not a denomination. As an academic institution, every subject is open to debate, and we need everyone around the table for a richer conversation. I reasoned further that since we cannot discriminate in our enrollment on the basis of sexuality, we cannot discriminate in housing, either. I shared this with the president of the seminary and with colleagues at a small meeting and supported the change of the policy purely on that basis. I am therefore baffled that Douglas claims to know my perspectives better than I do.
The claim that the housing policy issue was about “fairness” and that “several” gay couples lived off-campus at the time with significantly higher rental prices is certainly not my recollection. To my knowledge, not a single married gay couple was deprived of housing because of the policy, and not a single gay couple has lived in the family housing units as a result of the change of the policy. I therefore maintain my position that the controversy was purely ideological and political and had nothing to do with individuals suffering discrimination.
I never said anywhere in my article that the PC(USA) chose to “ignore the Scriptures” in the change to its polity. What I said is that the Bible means different things to liberal Americans than it does to Christian Africans. Douglas says that I have generalized Western and African opinions on homosexuality. I did no such thing; this is clear in the very first paragraph of my article. What I sought to do was to juxtapose the majority American view of homosexuality (acceptance and promotion) and the overwhelming majority African view (rejection and opposition). A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that nine in ten Africans are opposed to homosexuality. To be precise, 98 percent of people in Nigeria are, 96 percent in Senegal, 96 percent in Ghana, 96 percent in Uganda, 90 percent in Kenya, and 61 percent in South Africa, even though homosexual practice is legal in that country.
The dismissal of African objections to homosexuality as not indigenous but as “echoes of Western missionary positions” is rather symptomatic of the condescending and patronizing attitudes I pointed out in my article. I would ask, was American society any different from African societies on the issue of homosexuality just over a decade ago? If there has been any change of positions, it is liberal Western societies that have changed. Africans, like members of several other non-Western societies, have not changed their position and have never needed Americans like Scott Lively to educate them about sexuality. American Evangelicals might have gone to Uganda to campaign for anti-gay legislation, but so did other powerful figures on the gay lobby side, including President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, threatening African governments with the withdrawal of aid if they didn’t conform to the new Western normal.
On the issue of polygamy, I want to point out that inbred marriages are a taboo among our people—Christians, Muslims, and traditionalists. In Africa, polygamy is mainly practiced by non-Christian societies and by founders of a few African Independent Churches. This is not different from what Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, taught and from what continues today in the teaching and practice of some American Christian sects. What is different, though, between homosexuality in America and polygamy in Africa is that no mainline Christian Church in Africa has normalized polygamy as a biblically sanctioned Christian marriage as some mainline American churches in the West, including the PC(USA), have done with homosexuality. That is a very important distinction to bear in mind.
Speaking of liberal and Evangelical Americans and Africa, the truth is that liberals have never shown any serious interest in African phenomena, not least African Christianities. Evangelicals might have their own agendas, but over the years, they are the ones who have shown a keen interest in the global Church—not just as the exotic other, but as a serious missional partner. I am indeed a strong believer in conversations and relationships, but this is not helped when all that interests a dialogue partner in Africa is Stellenbosch. Until liberal American Christians begin to take interest in African Christian thought and seriously engage with it, dialogue between the two will remain tortuous, if not impossible. As a senior African scholar recently remarked, liberal Christianity is a totally different religion, and Christian Africans will have to learn to dialogue with it as we do with Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism.
As a young Protestant wading in the Tiber for some time, I read eagerly John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and Apologia Pro Vita Sua, recommended to me by a professor this summer. Having enjoyed both immensely, I was delighted to discover Carl Trueman’s “Newman for Protestants” (October). As Trueman asserts, to read Newman is to reexamine and adjust one’s theological commitments, even if Newman ultimately fails to convince concerning peculiarly Roman dogmas. Trueman sums up his feelings, and incidentally my own, thus: “From the beginning, I liked Newman. Against all expectation, I admired him. But on Mary and Rome, I could not bring myself to believe him.”
But what principle allows Trueman to consider Trinitarian dogmas authoritative but Marian dogmas in error? He cites the freedom of Roman dogmas from “biblical warrant.” But this is not entirely satisfying, for the theory of development is itself predicated on the fact that the creeds of the Christian religion, however much they seek to declare the teaching of Scripture faithfully, employ language and even concepts absent from Scripture. The development of doctrine, by its very nature, goes beyond Scripture. Thus, what is in question is not whether certain creeds are warranted by Scripture—indeed, in most doctrinal disagreements, Scripture is employed by both sides—but whether the apostolic Church, as Newman understood it, is warranted in establishing dogmas which go beyond the biblical text (as it did with the Nicene Creed).
If the answer to that question is “no,” we are left with no theological basis for authoritative extra-scriptural teachings. But if the answer is “yes,” and the Church can rightfully go beyond the biblical text in establishing dogma, what right have we to withhold our allegiance to later, peculiarly Roman dogmas? Newman recounts his realization of this principle in the Apologia: “It was difficult . . . to find arguments against the Tridentine Fathers, which did not tell against the Fathers of Chalcedon; difficult to condemn the Popes of the sixteenth century, without condemning the Popes of the fifth.”
Onsi A. Kamel
university of chicago
Carl Trueman replies:
I very much appreciate the opportunity given by Onsi Kamel to offer a few thoughts of clarification on my article on Newman’s Apologia.
First, I would certainly agree that Scripture is typically employed by both sides in debates over dogma and creeds. That, of course, does not mean that it is always employed, or employed legitimately, by each (or either) side in any given instance. As the old Dutch proverb has it, “Every heretic has his text.” There are many things that could be said in response, but I confine myself to just two.
First, it is interesting that in the fourth century, the road to Constantinople in 381 is not paved by blunt appeals to church authority but by extensive wrestling over biblical texts and fine-tooling of extra-biblical language (most notably the term “hypostasis”) in an attempt to establish which exegetical claims made sense of Scripture as a whole and which fell short. That is not to say that church authority was irrelevant. Yet even there, the question of when, for example, Nicea (325) came to be regarded as a council of universal ecumenical authority is a most interesting one, and is intimately connected to the politics of the 340s and 350s.
Second, as far as “extra-biblical” teachings go, it depends, of course, what one means by such. To concede the need for extra-biblical language or the usefulness of elaborate creedal syntheses does not require acceptance of the Roman position on tradition and authority. I have no difficulty in using the non-biblical term “Trinity” because it makes sense of the Bible’s teaching about the unity and diversity of the Godhead, the baptismal formula, the cry of praise that “Jesus is Lord!,” etc. The theological term and its theological claims rest upon a broad scriptural base. By contrast, a teaching such as the Immaculate Conception, as with so much Marian dogma, makes claims that not only stand on a highly contestable reading of an extremely narrow scriptural base but also seem to stand in tension with, if not even in contradiction to, significant biblical texts. That is why I accept the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Formula but reject most of Rome’s claims for Mary.
Third, on Trent, Newman is simply wrong. Indeed, interpreting Trent was never his strong point as the logical gymnastics and painful historical contortions of his pre-Roman Tract XC demonstrate. In this case, much as I admire him, I fear he should have looked a little harder and a little longer.
In saying all this, I am merely pointing to another layer of disagreement with Newman: Ultimately we part ways not just over our conclusions about dogma but also over our assumptions concerning the relationship of Church, Scripture, and tradition. I am thus grateful to Kamel for not wasting time on trivia but pointing to the hinge upon which the real disagreements between Rome and Geneva turn.