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.

But I am more and more unhappy with this mood or trend, and I’m determined to try to talk more about Scripture in future speaking engagements and debates that I participate in. Much of my thinking on this matter has been influenced by a letter that Rod Dreher posted on his blog awhile ago, from an ex-evangelical, pro-same-sex-marriage young person. Here’s an excerpt:

In all the years I was a member [of a Baptist church], my evangelical church made exactly one argument about SSM [same-sex marriage]. It’s the argument I like to call the Argument from Ickiness: Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be. Period, done, amen, pass the casserole.

When you have membership with no theological or doctrinal depth that you have neglected to equip with the tools to wrestle with hard issues, the moment ickiness no longer rings true with young believers, their faith is destroyed. This is why other young ex-evangelicals I know point as their “turning point” on gay marriage to the moment they first really got to know someone who was gay. If your belief on SSM is based on a learned disgust at the thought of a gay person, the moment a gay person, any gay person, ceases to disgust you, you have nothing left. In short, the anti-SSM side, and really the Christian side of the culture war in general, is responsible for its own collapse. It failed to train up the young people on its own side preferring instead to harness their energy while providing them no doctrinal depth by keeping them in a bubble of emotion dependent on their never engaging with the outside world on anything but warlike terms. Perhaps someday my fellow ex-evangelical Millennials and I will join other churches, but it will be as essentially new Christians with no religious heritage from our childhoods to fall back on.

What this letter shows is that this thoroughly Christianized young Baptist person had no idea what the biblical case against same-sex marriage is. It’s not that they had heard it rehearsed ad nauseam and needed to move on to encounter real gay people’s personal stories. Rather, it’s that they had been given no biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality to begin with. They had been given no sense of the coherent, interlocking architecture of why Scripture says what it says and thus were only equipped with a kind of emotivist argument against same-sex marriage—which, of course, collapsed the moment they met a gay person who wasn’t “icky.”

Reading this letter helped clarify some things for me. It reminded me that simply walking through the biblical storyline—

  • pointing out that male and female are created similar (Genesis 2:23) and yet different (2:7 20) and that both these emphases are made in Genesis;
  • pointing out that Jesus’ teaching about marriage presupposes that it is for procreation and thus depends on sexual difference (male and female) and complementarity (Luke 20:34-36);
  • pointing out that Jesus, when teaching about marriage, doesn’t just emphasize Genesis 2 and the similarity of the spouses (Mark 10:7 quoting Genesis 2:24) but draws in Genesis 1 in order also to emphasize the difference and complementarity of the spouses (Mark 10:6 quoting Genesis 1:27);
  • pointing out that Paul’s rejection of same-sex sexual behavior isn’t based on the fact that that behavior accompanies idolatry but is instead based on the belief that all of humanity is already idolatrous and that same-sex sexual behavior is the inevitable fruit (Romans 1:18, 24ff.);
  • pointing out that the New Testament makes it possible for people to choose celibacy (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:8, 26, 32-35, 38) but still envisions one of the purposes of Christian marriage as procreation (Ephesians 6:1-4 following 5:21-33)

—can seem genuinely new to people, even to well-catechized believers. This is because, as Alastair Roberts has pointed out, many of us have heard conclusions from the Bible throughout our Christian discipleship. But fewer of us have been well instructed in the way of reading that leads to those conclusions:

[A]s many young people leave our churches, claiming that their questions were never taken seriously, it seems clear to me that the incompetence of church leaders when it comes to interacting with opposing viewpoints is a crucial dimension of the problem. Young people are less shielded from opposing viewpoints than their parents, especially given the role played by the Internet in their lives. They are more likely to realize just how incompetent church leaders are in their attempts to deal with critical and dissenting voices (to whom the Internet has granted a voice) and how heavily their credibility has formerly rested upon the absence of the right to talk back to them….

The teachers of the Church [should] provide the members of the Church with a model for their own thinking. The teacher of the Church does not just teach others what to believe, but also how to believe, and the process by which one arrives at a theological position. This is one reason why it is crucial that teachers ‘show their working’ on a regular basis. When teaching from a biblical text, for instance, the teacher isn’t just teaching the meaning of that particular text, but how Scripture should be approached and interpreted more generally. An essential part of the teaching that the members of any church need is that of dealing with opposing viewpoints. One way or another, every church provides such teaching. However, the lesson conveyed in all too many churches is that opposing voices are to be dismissed, ignored, or ‘answered’ with a reactive reassertion of the dogmatic line, rather than a reasoned response.

None of this is to say, of course, that we shouldn’t listen to the stories of gay people. I fully intend to go on offering my story to the church for reflection, and I want to go on hearing the stories of friends like Justin Lee with whom I disagree. Nor do I mean that talking about the Bible more will automatically lead to greater agreement. (It took the church hundreds of years to reach agreement about the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ, and even then agreement wasn’t fully achieved!) But here’s what I do mean: I, and perhaps others, need to believe that, in the words of John Robinson, “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” Although it may seem futile, the effort to trace out the meaning of the Bible and talk about Scripture with others isn’t a vain exercise.

I love the way John Webster puts it:

[We must seek to foster] modes of public life in the churches which expect that the ministry and message of reconciliation will be borne to the communion of saints through the prophets and apostles [=Scripture!], and which do not let themselves be overcome by the anxiety that that ministry and message may mislead. Breaking the spell of that anxiety is not easy. To do so, we need to cease giving an account of ourselves as somehow located at a point in the history of human affairs where the usual rules of providence do not apply [as if God were now working by some other way than giving the church light through Scripture]; we need to be less compliant to the myth that exegetical authority suppresses rather than liberates; we need to learn that conflict about the teaching of the prophets and apostles is not abnormal or necessarily destructive in the Christian community, but may prove a way in which God keeps the church in the truth. (italics added)

Think about that last line: conflict about the teaching of the apostles may prove a way in which God keeps the church in the truth. Shying away from that exegetical conflict isn’t the right way for the church to go forward in our current debates.

33 thoughts on “An Impatience with Biblical Exegesis

  1. Thank you for this, Wes. Hearing this clear commitment to the Word and to Biblical orthodoxy has increased my respect for you and your story! Keep on keeping on.

  2. Wes, I LOVE this post. Oddly enough, what it brings to mind is something like the opposite problem, as exemplified by this story. It’s interesting that there a particular exegetical *method* is demanded — affirmation of inerrancy, of the binding authority of Scripture, is not enough, your interpretations have to follow the grammatical-historical method.

    Between the simple neglect of Scripture on one hand and the fetish of method on the other, what gets lost, it seems to me, is a basic commitment to the reading of and reflection on Scripture as a constitutive practice of Christian community. Maybe we could start by meditating on Deuteronomy 6….

    • That’s a really interesting juxtaposition, and I think it chimes nicely with what I was trying to do in this post. Although I obviously have my *conclusions* (see the bullet points above!) about what I think the shape of the Scriptural witness is on these questions, I think simply having and maintaining the practice of biblical discussion itself — regardless of the conclusions — would be a real gain for the SSM debate. That’s why, for all my disagreement, I really am glad to see books like Matthew Vines’. They give me hope that we think exegetical arguments are still worth having. So, yes to what you say!

      • Your arguments would be convincing if you could establish that ethics is a matter of revelation in the first place (I take revelation to be the disclosing of truths that would otherwise pass our understanding). Paul, whom you quote to back your opinion on idolatry, taught that morals are accessible apart from Scripture, that the so-called idolatrous pagans who have no Scripture yet have no excuse for all that as the moral truth should be available to them independently. If we had no such concept of right or wrong, we would be utterly unable to determine why the Bible is good and to be trusted in the first place, rather than, say, the Qur’an.

        And it’s ad nauseam, nausea is feminine in Latin.

  3. Thank you for a great little article. I am one of those who, having discovered the general unickyness of gay people, would really like to find a convincing theology for same sex marriage – I would really prefer not to be thought of as bigoted etc.etc. But I just can’t find it. There are as many heart-warming stories of fruitful, dynamic, gay relationships as one could hope to find, but I’ve not seen anyone with a high view of Scripture and Tradition present a plausible theology in favour of SSM.

      • What do you mean by ‘leave them in peace’? You imply that disagreeing with SSM would require me to take up active persecution of gay people!

        In any case, I think you misunderstand me: I was saying that there appear to be plenty of theologically-sound explanations of why the sacrament of marriage should not be changed to include same-sex couples, but a scarcity of good theologies in favour (and if you are going to change a sacrament of the Church, you definitely do need a theology in favour).

    • You might check out Pete Enns. I am sure there are likely others as well. Of course, you may just lean more against it and, in that case, there is going to be no plausible theology in favor of SSM. I am on the other side of the coin and find no plausible theology against it. There is no bullet proof theology for or against the evil of homosexuality in the Bible – there are only guesses.

  4. I really do enjoy this post. It definitely challenges one to a higher standard of speaking about both the Bible and homosexual subjects. I understand his point and do not really disagree with his view of your part in the talk with Justin Lee, but I do question R. Gagnon’s approach in general and was wondering what you think. Even though you and he share the same view of not affirming gay relationships your approaches are different. Do you see your (and other’s at Spiritual Friendship) approach as different than Gagnon’s. I can’t disagree with his theology but he seems to be making more of a war against the LGBT community rather than the more personal approach that you do. Where should the balance between the two lie? Thank you.

    • The approach that many of us here at SF take differs from the Restored Hope Network, of which Gagnon is a board member, in various ways — chief among them being that we criticize reparative therapy. In the particular instance of the dialogue with Justin Lee that Gagnon criticized me for, I made the prudential judgment that I wouldn’t pursue a full-fledged apologetic for the church’s traditional view of marriage. Gagnon’s response leads me to think that he thinks such an apologetic would be necessary in every public discussion of this kind. I suspect that would be another disagreement between us.

      • Wes, my concern would be that you appear to be criticizing all “reparative therapy” when (a) you appear not to have gone through reparative therapy (your book makes no mention of having done so and my concern is that you don’t really understand what it is); (b) some persons have benefitted from it; and (c) even those who don’t have desires change need to assess the problematic thinking behind sexual attractions for what one in reality shares in common with one’s own sex. To say this is not to denigrate persons with same-sex attractions but rather to say, as with any desire to do what God forbids, that a transformation based on a renewal of the mind is needed, so as to disempower said desires.

        As to your second point, I certainly think that a response is in order when Justin Lee spends 12 minutes making a case for “gay marriage” from Scripture, all the more so since you are a NT scholar and he is not. No, I don’t think that is too much to ask of you, nor am I asking that you do so in a rude manner (rather with an appropriate combination of gentleness and firmness). My concern is that your “dialogues” or “discussions” with Justin Lee show very little concern for the great danger in which Justin Lee’s false appropriation of Scripture places him in; and little concern for his deception of others on this score. To say, as you do, that you want to stress in these presentations the agreements between you and Lee shows little concern for the most important demarcation between you and Lee, that between obedience to a standard that leads to life and disobedience that leads to death. I don’t see your way of doing things reflected in Paul’s handling of sexual immorality manners, where he makes it a top priority to warn sexual offenders of the high risk of being excluded permanently from God’s kingdom. In short, for me the issue is one of true love.

  5. I have a question about one of the bullet points of the biblical storyline. As I read through the list, I was nodding my head, but did pause to scratch it when I came across this point:

    “…Jesus’ teaching about marriage presupposes that it is for procreation and thus depends on sexual difference (male and female) and complementarity (Luke 20:34-36)”

    I am familiar with the teaching that marriage is for procreation, but I was wondering how Luke 20 in particular supports that view.

    In Luke 20, Jesus responds to a legal question about a woman whose husband dies leaving her childless. She then marries the brother — per Jewish law — who also dies leaving her childless. This is repeated with each of the brothers, until none is left. The question regards who her “heavenly” husband will be. Jesus responds that those in “age to come…will neither marry nor be given in marriage.”

    In the passage, Jesus does not seem to grant the questioner’s premise(s). All he says is, “marriage is not a permanent (i.e. eternal) institution”. This doesn’t mean he disagrees with all the questioner puts forth about marriage. All it means is that in this passage, Jesus is answering a very specific legal question, and I question reading more into it. That said, I don’t read Greek and am only generally familiar with the milieu of Second Temple Judaism. So to return to my question, how does this passage demonstrate that Jesus “presupposes marriage is for procreation…”?

    I don’t ask this question just as a point of quibbling. I’m asking because the theology of many — if not all — who blog at SF seems to rest on the notion of marriage being for procreation. I understand this is important to Catholic theology, but I struggle with the biblical basis for it. (I am also Protestant, so it has not been emphasized to me before reading SF.) I also do not understand how it — procreation as the purpose of marriage — is necessary for a “biblical” — whatever that means — view of sexuality.

    Since this post details the importance of understanding and detailing how we do biblical exegesis, this felt like an appropriate place for this question.

    • Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees in Luke 20 gives a reason for why there will not be marriage in the age to come: verse 36 says it is because (*gar* = “for” in Greek) there will be no more death. In other words, marriage continues in a world where there is mortality because procreation is needed for the continuation of life. In a world where death has been abolished, procreation isn’t necessary anymore, and therefore marriage (as we know it) isn’t necessary either.

      • I have never considered your precise point here, Wesley. As a mom of two toddlers right now, it’s an interesting commentary on my life: bringing up life in a world where death has yet to be abolished. Thank you.

      • You exercise great charity and tact in your recognition of Gagnon’s critique. He could learn something from your style of engagement over matters of intra-church disagreement.

        I am curious about the argument you made here.

        The lack of death wouldn’t itself preclude the continuance of procreation, would it? Is their limited space in heaven? To adopt this view seems to affirm the human sexual act itself as exclusively procreational, which is called into question by verses like 1 Cor 2:3-9. Now, I agree, I doubt there are sexual relations in the world to come. Still, I wonder if a better understanding is that in the afterlife, we are not directly bonded to one another as in this life, but that we each are bonded to the Lord, who in turn bonds us to one another. While the latter is held up as a spiritual ideal in this life, it does not occur in fullness until the life to come. There is no longer a need for “two to become one flesh” because we already will be one in the Lord.

        Another question I have about your reading: if procreation is essential only because of mortality, then one may naturally wonder: Are we to celebrate sin? (I know you hear my implied “ouketi”.) If true, it doesn’t seem we would have come into existence had sin not occurred and death be introduced. Would you and I never have been born?

        Note that in Genesis, the LORD describes bringing forth children as occurring “in pain,” but offers no hint that the woman would have been childless had sin (and subsequently, death) not occurred.

        Your argument is fascinating. Still skeptical…

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  7. I doubt you will find may gung ho to agree with you in your own Evangelical side of things or on my more Catholic side. The problem is that opening it up to debate means that the side of the Magisterium and Gagnon might be wrong.

    Your bullet points, for example, can be (and have been) rebutted and therein lies the danger to the theology in question. The Side B folks have lost a great deal of ground to the culture already and you would ask them to gamble the rest on the table. While you are right, I simply don’t see people going for the risky move like that. Given the choice between a fight to the death against a bear in an arena and simply starving to death in a cell, I’d wager most people will opt for the cell since that seems the safer option despite having no chance to escape. You get to live a little bit longer, at least.

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  10. Wes, you raise a valid point on the need to include Biblical exegesis in the discussion of the Christian Faith and human sexuality.

    The word “exegesis” is a word foreign to many young Christians. It was until a few years, foreign to me. I never heard about it before. let alone knew how to spell it. Many Side A, pro gay-marriage, liberal Christians also are familiar with exegesis, they simply have arrived at a different conclusion on the question of sexual ethics within the Christian Faith. Unless one has gone to Bible College, the concept of biblical exegesis feels confusing and bewildering.

    I’ve also observed how Scripture has been used as a club against the LGBT community. The logic goes something like this, “The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination, and the Bible says such people should be put to death. So I’m justified for gay-bashing this young gay man. It’s okay for a gay man in Uganda to be put to death, or possibly executed.

    I’m not saying all Christians think this way, but enough of them do. Therefore, in my opinion, they are in more direr need for proper Biblical exegesis than those who would support gay marriage.


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  13. Great article. I agree that there’s a cogent biblical case to be made against same-sex marriage (SSM). Even so, I find Gagnon’s approach to be fairly off-putting: It focuses too much on the prohibitions and fails to proffer any kind of winsome alternatives to SSM. Further, it fails to address the deficiencies in our current practice of marriage that may make SSM seem more attractive than necessary. In that sense, I think any discussion has to address the following issues.

    First, we need to deconstruct orientation essentialism. There is no reason why sexual orientation should dictate any particular social identity. Our recent tendency in the church to valorize heterosexual desire and to obsess over proper expressions of masculinity and femininity are both problematic…and largely foreign to anything that the Bible teaches or that Christians have historically believed.

    Second, we need to deconstruct the nuclear family. The inwardly focused nuclear family owes more to Freud than to Scripture. It’s time to return to a view of the family that is more outwardly focused.

    Third, we have to accept that our screwed-up obsession with sex and our screwed-up view of family life has contributed to the emergence of SSM. We have radically altered the institution of traditional marriage into something that is centrally about sex, leaving those with diminished sexual desires feeling excluded from the institution. And our inwardly-focused view of family life leaves singles with no choice but to try to befriend other singles in the church. In other words, our own unbiblical practices have condemned gay singles to a fairly lonely and isolated existence in the church. So, we have to bear some responsibility for the attractiveness of SSM.

    Under a more traditional view of marriage, some number of gay people may actually feel comfortable marrying. And under a more traditional view of family life, married men and women would feel more free to develop friendships with single people of the same sex.

    So, I’m all for taking a more biblical approach to these issues. But that biblical approach must include criticizing the unbiblical ways in which the church has recently conceived of marriage and family life. This is something that Gagnon has no interest in doing.

    • On the contrary, Bobby, I quite often criticize the church for failing to focus on the need for developing close, non-sexual relationships between members of the same sex; and for giving marriage ultimate significance when it has only penultimate significance. It would be nice to know what you are talking about before you slander someone.

  14. Thanks for this post. I don’t yet know if I agree with your sexual ethics completely, but that’s because I have committed myself to stop simply accepting whatever the church says, because as you indicate, too often the church does not say enough. I’ve embarked on a voyage through the entirety of scripture, and as many other texts as I can get my hands on. Yours included. I just wish that those who don’t experience same-sex attractions were as inclined as you are to study these issues deeply before merely repeating a simplistic answer from junior high Sunday school. It is infuriating to be treated like an idiot for asking questions when the person I’m talking to cannot even discuss the broader context of the verses they wish to throw at me. I’m accused of watering down scripture yet they are not familiar with it enough to discuss anything except for 6 or 7 verses. Heaven forbid we discuss original languages or the culture of the day in which scripture was written. If a traditional sexual ethic is going to survive the next 50 years, those who defend it must be able to converse intelligently about context and historical culture. Anyway, I agree with you completely that in order to engage in this culture war, we must seriously study the scriptures before we claim to speak truth. And churches have a long way to go in equipping us to that end.

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