An Impatience with Biblical Exegesis

I want to try to comment on a—what to call it? a trend? a mood?—I’m seeing in the ongoing Christian conversations and debates about same-sex marriage. I’d like to call it an impatience with biblical exegesis, and here’s what I mean by that:

When I go and speak in various venues about Christian faith and sexuality, I hear comments like the following with more and more regularity: “We know that both sides aren’t going to agree about what the Bible says. And we know that both sides already know which are their favorite verses and how they interpret them, so we’re not going to change each other’s minds. But what we can do is share our stories with one another. We can learn to understand each other’s lives better. We can gain more empathy for each other. So let’s focus on that rather than having yet another ‘debate’ about the Bible.”

I want to add quickly that I’m not immune to this mood either! As Robert Gagnon pointed out yesterday about my recent public conversation with Justin Lee in Grand Rapids, I talked very little about my reading of biblical texts and spent much more time “telling my story.” I share the temptation that many others of my generation face to believe that talking about the Bible won’t lead to any resolution and so we’re better off simply trying to understand one another’s hopes and fears and offer support where we can. Where the Bible is too divisive, sharing our Christian stories can be something that unites us.

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Disputable Matters? Sex vs. Food

The most divisive question facing the early Church was whether it was necessary to observe the entire Mosaic Law—including circumcision and the dietary laws—in order to be a disciple of Christ.

Today, some of the most divisive questions facing the Church concern our response to same-sex attracted Christians and whether to bless same-sex marriages. In response to these divisions, some have suggested that the Apostles’ decision to set aside circumcision and the dietary laws provides a precedent for today: that we should set aside traditional interpretations of the Bible which forbid homosexual acts, and bless same-sex marriages.

In this post, I want to question a simplistic way that the New Testament narrative is applied to contemporary debates. I want to point out first, that the authority claims in the two cases are quite different; and second, that the New Testament approach to sexual ethics is very different from its approach to circumcision and the dietary laws.

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Athanasius and the Scope of the Story

This summer I’ve been making my way through Peter Leithart’s excellent work on the theology of Athanasius. Laying out Athanasius’ hermeneutical principles, Leithart explains that for Athanasius the primary framework determining right and wrong interpretation is the overall shape of the biblical story. Thus Leithart says,

The standard of right reading is the ground motif of Scripture as a whole, the history of creation, fall, incarnation, glory. As Frances Young puts it, “Athanasius is not neglectful of the details of the text,” but more basically his reading is guided by a “sense of the overarching plot” that he has inherited as the fundamental narrative of salvation. Thus “the ‘Canon of Truth’ or ‘Rule of Faith’ expresses the mind of scripture, and an exegesis that damages the coherence of that plot, that hypothesis, that coherence, that skopos [scope], cannot be right.”

Athanasius of AlexandriaWhile this is hardly the only criteria for biblical interpretation, it strikes me as a particularly helpful one. When explaining to others why I’ve been convinced by the traditional interpretation of the biblical text with respect to same-sex sexual behavior, I’ve often said that the first three chapters of Genesis were far more persuasive than any of the so-called “clobber passages”. Of course Genesis 1-3 don’t explicitly talk about same-sex sexuality at all, but I think what I’ve been trying to get at is the point that Leithart is making above about Athanasius: the overall shape of the story should guide our interpretive decisions.

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Faith and Seeking Understanding

Saint_Augustine_Portrait

Botticelli: St. Augustine

Christian faith is not the conclusion of an argument: it begins in some sense or other in a personal encounter with God. Some people experience this encounter in a dramatic way, for others, it is much gentler and quieter. But we believe because we believe God, who, in some way, speaks to us. This belief is more a matter of personal trust in the God who loves us and has revealed himself to us than it is the conclusion of an intellectual investigation.

We are created in God’s image, and God is love. Our faith is thus best nurtured by experiencing God’s love through prayer, worship, and the sacraments, by acts of service or contemplation that we do out of love for God, and by Christian community, where we love others and experience and are nurtured in love.

God also knows and understands everything, and our desire to understand Him and the world He has created is part of His image in us. Although belief and trust are primarily personal responses to God’s love for us, we also want to understand what we believe and who we trust. There are, moreover, parts of Christian teaching—like the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the virgin birth—that are difficult to understand. And Christian faith also gives rise to difficult questions: for example, if God is all knowing and all powerful, and He desires what is good for everyone, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?

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Why Did Paul Object to the Arsenokoitai?

My own beliefs about Biblical teaching on homosexual acts are relatively simple: the Jewish Law prohibited any sex between two men (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13). Paul renewed that prohibition in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10) and taught that such acts are “contrary to nature” (Romans 1:27). The Church has always regarded homosexual acts as serious sins. Thus, for me, the primary questions are, “How do I obey this teaching?” or “How does this teaching harmonize with the importance of loving and being loved in the Gospel teaching more broadly?”

However, the range of possible controversies behind those relatively simple beliefs is vast. I wrote a little about this in my recent post on Pederasty and Arsenokoitai, and @ladenheart, a friend who knows the classics much better than I do, has written a thoughtful response. His post is rich, well worth reading, and raises too many questions for me to address here. I will make at least a partial response, however. Near the end of his post, he offers the following tentative conclusion:

My general sense – although I do admit, it is a work in progress – is that what the Judeo-Christian tradition is condemning when it speaks negatively of sexual acts between men are, demonstrable in most cases, acts that are based on exploitation, unequal status, or excess.

I agree with him that, if we really want to understand what the Apostle Paul and the subsequent Christian tradition were trying to say, we need to understand the cultural context that he was writing in. However, we also need to understand the mind with which he judged that world. My concern with @ladenheart’s post—and I raise this as a concern needing further discussion, not a conclusion—is that he focuses heavily on the historical details of ancient paganism, but then judges what he finds with largely 21st century eyes.

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Pederasty and Arsenokoitai

One argument that is sometimes offered by Christian advocates of same-sex marriage is that the Apostle Paul was not thinking of loving, monogamous adult relationships, and only intended to condemn Greco/Roman pederasty. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading ancient Greek texts on sexuality recently, and that has gotten me thinking in general about Paul’s historical context and, more specifically, about this argument.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that relationships between adult men and adolescent boys or young men were the most commonly attested same-sex relationships in the ancient world. There are exceptions—Plato’s Symposium discusses committed, lifelong same-sex relationships—but this is by far the most common kind of relationship. We should therefore acknowledge that the Apostle Paul was likely most familiar with this kind of same-sex sexual activity.

It’s worth observing, however, that precisely because this form of same-sex sexuality was so common, there was standard terminology in Greek for talking about these relationships—the older man was the erastes (lover) and the younger man the eromenos (beloved). If these relationships were Paul’s target, it would have been reasonable for him to use these standard Greek terms.

Instead, he used an apparently novel term, arsenokoitai, which either he invented or which he took from Helenistic Judaism. The most logical derivation of this new word is from the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18:22, which says that you shall not lie with (koiten) a man (arsenos) as with a woman.

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The Silence of Jesus and the Voice of the Apostles

Late last week Sarah Pulliam Bailey posted an interview with Marilynne Robinson. Here’s an excerpt:

Q: For Christians who hold the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, do you think they’ll become a smaller group over time?

A: It’s hard to know. There has never been a period in world history where same-sex relationships were more routine and normal than in Hellenistic culture at the time of Christ. Does Jesus ever mention the issue? I bet it must have been all around him. You can get in a lot of trouble eating oysters if you are a literalist about Leviticus. I’m a great admirer of the Old Testament. It’s an absolute trove of goodness and richness. But I don’t think we should stone witches. And if you choose to value one or two verses in Leviticus over the enormous, passionate calls for social justice that you find right through the Old Testament, that’s primitive. There are a thousand ways that we would all be doomed for violating the Sabbath and all kinds of other things, if we were literalists.

I revere Marilynne Robinson—if there’s a midnight release party at my local bookstore for her novel Lila this fall, I’ll be there—but her answer here represents so much of what I find distressing about the quality of our debates over these matters at present.

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Building Bridges at Pepperdine and Seattle Pacific

On April 13, Justin Lee and I did a joint presentation, Let’s Talk about [Homo]sexuality, at Seattle Pacific University. Like previous presentations at Pepperdine University and Gordon College, we shared a bit about our own stories, offered some practical tips for building bridges in the midst of disagreement. We also each presented a brief overview of our own beliefs about Christian sexual ethics, Justin arguing that Christians should bless same-sex marriage, and me arguing that they should not. Rachel Held Evans recently highlighted this as the “Best Dialogue” on sexual ethics.

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Caught in the In-Between: A Reflection on the ERLC’s Panel on Homosexuality

As I was sitting at home on Monday night, I had every intention of watching some playoff hockey and then heading to bed. But a quick glance at my Twitter feed during a commercial break reminded me the ERLC Leadership Summit was happening, and that the panel on homosexuality was about to start. Intrigued, I decided to tune in. I kept my Twitter feed up to see what type of response this panel might receive from the broader internet community.

ERLC Homosexuality Panel

How can I describe what it was like to listen to the panel? As someone who comes from a conservative church background and counts many Southern Baptists as friends, I was both sympathetic and hopeful for the ERLC’s panel discussion. As someone who is deeply invested in LGBT issues and has seen the church fail routinely in this area, I was also nervous. They were, after all, in a sense talking about me.  Continue reading

A Review of God and the Gay Christian

God and the Gay Christian - Matthew VinesI got the chance to spend some quality time with Matthew Vines earlier this year at a conference, and it was clear through both our interactions and his writing that Matthew is a sincere man who engages this conversation with grace. Matthew takes Scripture seriously, and he argues for affirmation of same-sex marriage because he truly believes that is the redemptive vision of Scripture and the most loving posture the church can have toward gay people. I want to say from the outset of my review of his book, God and the Gay Christian, that it’s obvious Matthew has been deeply troubled by the way the church has mistreated the gay community, and he feels it can’t reflect God’s heart toward men and women made in His image. I believe he’s correct in that analysis, and while I disagree with his answers to the problem, I believe the church would do well to listen to the concerns he raises because they’re concerns that need to be taken seriously if we’re going to demonstrate love and compassion toward this group of men and women loved by God.

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