Sent to Saddleback Church on December 22:
Pastor Rick Warren has attempted to refute criticisms that fundamentalists pick and choose when they seek to impose some parts of Jewish law (the “Torah”) but not others on modern society. Leviticus forbids sex between males (though not lesbian sex), which is a rule Warren sees as binding on everyone in the world. Yet Leviticus also forbids consumption of shellfish, certain forms of shaving, and blended fabrics. If fundamentalists were literally interpreting the Bible in its entirety, they’d have to abstain from most seafood and reject as sinful clothes made from cotton/polyester blends. Clearly they don’t.
Never mind those pesky prohibitions against eating shrimp, Warren advises his flock, because those verses don’t mean what they say, for Christians at least. He articulates a typology that distinguishes the parts of the Torah binding on everyone from those which are mere Jewish tradition. Rules about eating shellfish are “civil laws” which apply only to the nation of Israel (i.e. Orthodox Jews). Bible passages endorsing animal sacrifice are “ceremonial” which apply to the Jewish priesthood, which has been unable to conduct its temple rituals since the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Yet there are “moral laws” in the Torah that are meant to govern everyone, Jews or Gentiles, whether their own faith endorses them or not. The “moral laws” in the Torah, in Warren’s view, appropriately inform public policy in the 21st century, even where religious groups other than his own dispute their present-day relevance.
The distinctions Warren would engraft onto the Torah represent what scholars call an “accretion,” or an add-on to the scriptures. His categories are not rooted in the framework of the Torah itself but represent an interpretive gloss developed by the medieval Catholic Church. A dichotomy was introduced between things that were “malum in se” (inherently bad) and things that were “mala prohibita” (only bad because of the restriction itself.) So Christians can safely eat pork without being “inherently bad.”
The difficulty is that Warren’s typology begs the question of how you sort between the categories of Jewish tradition and universal “moral law.” Leviticus is no help. It uses the same characterization for homosexuality as it does for eating shellfish: “abomination.” If the activities are both, as said in the Torah, abominable, how is one now permitted while the other is forbidden? More fundamentally, the Torah makes no distinction between a law addressed to the Jews and a law binding on Gentiles. The “law” has a oneness, a unitary character which echoes God’s own singularity. The Torah is a sign of the Covenant between God and the Jewish people. It applies to those within the Covenant of Abraham and Moses. Gentiles, who are outside the Old Covenant, follow other rules altogether.
Warren uses the conceptual apparatus he superimposes on scripture to preserve a vestige of Biblical legalism. Without a contrived rationale to update certain Levitical proscriptions, the legalistic prohibition of male homosexuality would fall to the New Testament doctrine that “Christians live not under the law, but under grace.” Warren would change that cornerstone Christian belief to mean that Christians live partly under the law and partly under grace. By the grace of God, we can eat shrimp or wear cotton-polyester blends, but God’s grace stops and the law survives where “immorality” (as Warren defines it) is implicated. Warren’s typology must somehow differentiate the parts of the Torah binding on Christians from the Jewish traditions God has dispensed with by grace. Necessarily there are close cases: what about the rule about keeping the Sabbath–Saturday–holy? Is that a “civil law” or a “moral law?”
Warren’s comprehensive typology centered on the Old Testament would seem to leave little room for the restatement of the law by Jesus Christ, who elevated the commandment to “love one another” to the highest priority. Whether a rule is “moral” vs. “civil” is Warren’s criterion, not whether it is consistent with the supreme ideal of love. Accordingly, Warren would probably differ with Jesus regarding applications of the law in particular cases. Warren would undoubtedly describe adultery as a “moral wrong” where the Levitical proscription retains its full force. Yet Christ impeded the due course of the law–stoning to death of the adulteress–when it was being carried out to the letter by teachers of the law, the Pharisees. That episode suggests that Christ meant to modify the operation of the law, even Warren’s category of “moral law,” to depart from the literal terms of the Torah. Christ would probably say that a missionary program to see the law upheld, which the Pharisees put into practice, can conflict with the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Perhaps His denunciations of the Pharisees as missing the point of true spirituality suggest that rigid adherence to the letter of the law may be incompatible with the central message of Christianity. How does one reconcile the harsher aspects of Old Testament “moral law” with Christ’s command to love one another? Is there a way simultaneously to love and carry out the acts of violence prescribed in Leviticus for homosexuals or adulterers?
What if Warren has simply misfiled the ban on sodomy into the wrong category–it’s a “civil law” for Israel, not a universal “moral law?” He cannot escape the need for line-drawing because the Bible does not tell us whether a given verse in the Torah applies to Christians as opposed to Orthodox Jews only. The Torah itself is addressed to the Jewish people, not Gentiles, and doesn’t delineate a separate corpus of law binding outside God’s covenant with Abraham and Moses. Shouldn’t the judgment of what rules extend from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant (between Christ and His Church) follow the guiding principle of the highest law–love?
At the end of the day, “Prop 8–the Musical” is right. Fundamentalists like Warren pick and choose from Leviticus. What’s more, Warren would have us believe that fundamentalists alone have the magical sorter that separates those rules in Leviticus which are universally binding from those applying to Orthodox Jews only. Their magic sorter says homosexuality is so evil that God meant to prohibit it universally-the freedom of Gentiles to eat shrimp gives no license to LGBT people. Unfortunately, the magic sorter hasn’t progressed much since the Middle Ages, when St. Thomas Aquinas said some rules reflect moral absolutes, while others are less categorical. His logic was of the ipse dixit variety-the distinction exists because he said so and he’s a Saint after all.
Fundamentally, Warren states a conclusion without explaining how it was derived when he chooses some Old Testament rules but not others to apply in the present day. Homosexuality has long been condemned as immoral, so without question Christians must deny fellowship to unrepentant gays and lesbians. But Gentiles can eat shrimp just as they have always done. The rationale reduces to Warren says so and Warren speaks for God. To paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, it is revolting to have no better justification for a rule of law than “so it was laid down in the time of Henry VIII,” where the reasons for the law are obsolete and continued adherence reflects blind imitation of the past.
Warren and his followers are entitled to believe as they choose, and preach hellfire and brimstone to those who believe differently. He is free to claim an authority that enables him and his cohorts to decide for everyone whether a given Bronze Age norm applies today or not. He is not entitled to speak for all Christians, as though Southern Baptists had the only magic divining rod. And Warren and his fellow fundamentalists cannot justly employ secular coercive power to impose their sectarian values on people with different beliefs. Secular law should be neutral between those who believe gay marriages are ordained of God (or believe in no God) and fundamentalists like Warren. It is wrong for government to take sides in a doctrinal dispute by legislating one belief system over another.