Nicholas Wolterstorff’s recent case for same-sex marriage, delivered as a lecture at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids in mid-October, bears many of the virtues we’ve come to count on from the Yale professor emeritus of philosophical theology: lucidity, an intuitive and easy-to-follow structure, a winsome recourse to down-to-earth illustrations, a light touch, and an obvious personal concern for real, suffering Christians. But one virtue it does not possess is interpretive charity. Indeed, I’m trying to remember when I last encountered an argument for changing the church’s historic view of marriage that engaged so flippantly and superficially with the Christian tradition. If, as Donald Davidson has taught us, hermeneutical charity is the effort to maximize the sense of views we oppose and to search for all possible areas of agreement whenever we engage a view whose truthfulness and coherence we doubt, then I feel bound to conclude—alas—that Wolterstorff’s lecture lacks such charity almost entirely.
Consider, for starters, the prominence Wolterstorff gives to the double love command: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This, he rightly insists, is the governing criterion for all Christian ethical reflection. But if that’s so, he notes, then it should govern the way Christians think about same-sex sexual activity as well, and thus he concludes: “When those with homosexual orientation act on their desires in a loving, committed relationship, [they] are not, as far as I can see, violating the love command.” Love is defined here, presumably, as a gay Christian’s intention to care for and cherish her partner, and insofar as she does that, she is living up to the supreme ethical demand of her faith.
But this omits entirely the Christian tradition’s claim that love is only intelligible in light of the telos given to us as human creatures by our Creator. If I try to nurture, cherish, and will the good of someone to whom I’m not married by having sex with them, the Christian tradition would say that no matter how gently, kindly, devotedly, and self-sacrificially I feel and behave towards that person, I am not in fact truly loving them. Truly to love them, I would need not only to care for them emotionally; I would need also to will their greatest good in accord with how they were designed by God to flourish. I would need to reflect on the moral order built into the cosmos and seek to care for them in light of that, willing their good even when—or especially when—it may conflict with what I (or they) feel would be most satisfying. So, at any rate, has the Christian tradition argued. And so Wolterstorff declines to mention, let alone explore.
Things are no better when Wolterstorff turns to Scripture. After quickly dismissing Leviticus 20, despite the fact that that chapter’s prohibition of same-sex coupling alludes to Genesis and the original structure of creation, Wolterstorff turns his sights to Romans 1. Historically, most Christians have read that passage as a categorical condemnation of all same-sex sexual acts, regardless of the genuine commitment and care that may or may not accompany those acts. But for Wolterstorff, Romans 1 is a description of a “truly, appallingly wicked group” (never mind the fact that it’s a group which Paul endeavors in his next chapter to say we are all included in). “Can we generalize from this passage,” asks Wolterstorff, “and say that Paul is saying that God says homosexual activity is always wrong? There is a night-and-day difference between what Paul describes and the same-sex couples I know.” Wolterstorff appeals here, without mentioning his name, to the argument of Yale historian John Boswell that when Paul writes of “unnatural” same-sex intimacy, he can’t be describing the intimacy of constitutionally gay people because, for them, same-sex intimacy is not “unnatural.” Instead, Paul must be castigating heterosexual people who “unnaturally” depart from their own kind of sex and excessively plunge into new sexual territory. For gay Christians, whose sexual orientation is unchosen and virtually permanent, same-sex sexual expression is indeed their “natural” way of giving and receiving love, so Paul must not be condemning their sort of sex.
One would never learn from Wolterstorff’s reading of Romans 1 that multiple New Testament exegetes have offered cogent responses to Boswell’s interpretation, undermining its credibility even for most “progressive” Christians writing in this area today. Specifically, Wolterstorff declines to mention the pitched debate over the import of the multiple allusions Paul makes in Romans 1 to Genesis 1-3, allusions that suggest that “nature,” as Paul understands it, isn’t simply “what is common in Paul’s day” but rather what is given in God’s creation itself.
All of Wolterstorff’s engagement with Scripture appears to be shaped by his gambit: If same-sex sexual intimacy isn’t inherently unloving, then opposition to same-sex marriage can only be due to a misbegotten commitment to divine command theory. Once one sees that those supposed divine commands—for instance, in Romans 1—aren’t in fact a black-and-white proscription of all gay sex, then the traditionalists’ jig is up. And this is where Wolterstorff ends his lecture: Having neutralized the proof-texts beloved of conservatives, he closes with a positive case for same-sex marriage.
He turns to his own denomination’s liturgy, the 1979 Christian Reformed Church’s affirmation of the goods of marriage:
In putting his blessing on a marriage, God intended that it would provide: a context within which husband and wife can help and comfort each other and find companionship; a setting within which we may give loving and tender expression to the desires God gave us; a secure environment within which children may be born and taught to know and serve the Lord; and a structure that enriches society and contributes to its orderly function.
“A same-sex couple,” Wolterstorff affirms, “can provide or exhibit all of [these goods] except for the first part of the third,” which is to do with procreation. But Wolterstorff quickly—with a smile and a laugh, eliciting his audience’s laughter—dismisses that as a serious impediment: “The fact that the church marries couples that are beyond childbearing age indicates that it does not regard procreation or the possibility of procreation as essential to marriage.”
What is so disappointing about this is its profound shallowness. Hearing Wolterstorff’s quip, one would never guess that great figures from the Christian past like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who affirmed openness to procreation as one of the essential goods of marriage, were well aware of the crude technologies of contraception of their day and the lamentable fact of infertile marriages. One would never guess, listening to Wolterstorff, that these old saints wrestled with whether those facts invalidated their arguments about procreation, nor that they eventually arrived at accordingly nuanced, qualified views. One would never guess, furthermore, from Wolterstorff’s presentation that contemporary advocates of marriage as irreducibly procreative have also thought deeply about the reality of marriage past childbearing age, about infertility and contraception, and offered sophisticated responses that make laugh lines like Wolterstorff’s seem entirely facile.
Clearly, there exists in the church today the possibility of genuine, reasoned, substantive debate over the rightness of same-sex marriage. Some of the most humane and beautiful Christian writing I’ve read in recent years has come from same-sex-marriage advocates like the Episcopalian Eugene Rogers and the British feminist theologian Sarah Coakley. And that’s why Wolterstorff’s lecture is particularly dismaying: By firing cheap shots and caricaturing the traditional views he hopes to overturn, he hampers a debate whose depth and maturity could be further deepened.
Several years ago, a Reformed scholar hoping to overturn some aspects of his tradition’s doctrine of God wrote these words:
I regularly tell my students that I will not allow them to take cheap shots against the tradition; they have to earn their right to disagree by working through the tradition and understanding it at its deepest level. Every now and then when they do take what I regard as cheap shots I say to them: “Would you still say what you just said if Augustine were sitting right across the table from you?” Or Anselm, or Aquinas, or Calvin? In short, it is our duty to honor those forebears in the Christian tradition.
The scholar who wrote those words was Nicholas Wolterstorff. Would that, in his case for same-sex marriage, he had heeded his own counsel.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.