Andrew Goddard writes: As set out in my shorter summary, I believe the three articles entitled “Same Sex Marriage & Scripture: Affirming Evangelical Response” which were commissioned by Jayne Ozanne for her Via Media blog are significant and helpful responses to the Oct 2018 letter from the Bishop of Blackburn and ten other evangelical Church of England bishops. This seeks to explore each response in turn.
David Gillett: Scripture, Hermeneutics, Creation and Logical Reasoning
The opening article, by Bishop David Gillett, highlights the deeper issue of how we read the Bible and what it means for Scripture to be authoritative. He writes that he still holds “wholeheartedly to the fundamental importance and authority of Scripture”. His disagreement with the bishops and their traditional reading of the Bible is, he says, because he wishes “to expand our understanding of marriage in the light of the questions asked of those Scriptures by our understanding of sexuality and gender today”. He helpfully illustrates what he means by this with reference not to the interpretation of “the six or so verses in the Bible, which in some way or another refer to same-sex activity” but to Genesis 2. In so doing he implicitly acknowledges that it is these more foundational biblical texts and the biblical doctrine of creation – particularly God’s creation of human creatures and the institution of marriage – which are more fundamentally at stake in at least some of our disagreements.
Understanding creation and interpreting Genesis 2
David Gillett offers a response to Genesis 2 in which a gay man imagines himself as Adam, being offered various potential partners by God. Like Adam, this gay man finds many proposals unsuitable but then “after a while a man is presented to him who evokes a totally different level of recognition and response. This for him is what he has been longing for and he exclaims, ‘This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!’ They can become one”.
There can be no doubting that this indeed describes the experience of many gay men. The first person commenting on Thinking Anglicans testifies to being “moved to tears” with “the very strange experience of recognising myself, in the telling of a story about a man recognising himself, in the story of Adam and his search for a helpmeet”. Offering a theological interpretation of this experience in the light of Scripture is one of the challenging questions for those of us who share the views expressed in the bishops’ letter. It is, however, important to analyse what is being claimed here in David Gillett’s theological interpretation and reading of Genesis.
This is an approach to this chapter which – in exegetical substance, hermeneutical method, and theological conclusions – has no basis in the long Christian (or I believe Jewish) tradition which has devoted great attention to the opening chapters of Genesis over thousands of years. In relation to exegesis, Ian Paul’s comment on the original blog posting highlights three main elements of the text that highlight the importance of the difference between male and female in the text itself: the importance of the unusual Hebrew phrase ezer kenegdo to refer to a helper who is different, opposite or matching; the shape of the narrative in which something other than another adam is sought; the goal of the narrative as an explanation specifically of the male-female form of attraction and union in marriage.
In relation to hermeneutical method, the article’s approach is highly individualistic and self-centred. This is evident from the dominance of first-person references in David Gillett’s initial reading of Genesis 2 which forms the basis for his proposed re-reading from the perspective of a gay man:
As I read this story for myself, I am presented with a range of possible partners – as was Adam – and I am unsatisfied until I see the other human being – the one who became my wife – and I exclaim, ‘this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!’ For me, and for most others whom I know this encounter has been one of the most thrilling of all life’s discoveries.
The deeper problem lies here – in the method which initially presents itself as leading to a traditional heterosexual reading – not in the reading suggested on behalf of a gay man or the theological conclusion drawn in relation to Scripture and same-sex marriage. It is a method which does not pay attention to the text in its immediate (see above) or wider canonical context (discussed below). It assumes the text is a description of how any human being finds a life-partner and takes as a given my own experience of this quest, hence particularly my pattern of sexual attraction and desire. It then finds that personal experience present in and hence authorised by the biblical text. The article then further argues that others with a similar experience but a different pattern of sexual attraction and desire can legitimately follow the same process in response to the text. They will legitimately “inhabit the story” so as to find it affirming their personal experience and thus leading to different theological and ethical conclusions from those traditionally drawn from Genesis and wider Scripture.
The hermeneutical logic of the case for same-sex marriage from Genesis 2
The argument seems to be
(1) that because a gay man (or lesbian) can truly experience what Genesis 2 describes as Adam’s response to Eve but they do so for someone of the same-sex therefore
(2) what they experience is also biblically sanctioned and approved by God in the Genesis 2 creation narrative. The claim may be even stronger –
(2b) that this passage teaches us that, as regards our desire for an intimate relationship to rectify the fact that is not good to be alone, God’s purpose as revealed here is to give each of us what we believe fulfils our need not to be alone; therefore when we experience with someone what Adam experienced with Eve this too is God’s provision for us.
Whether in its weaker or stronger form this second claim clearly needs more careful articulation and qualification. I am confident that David Gillett, while he accepts the line of argument when expressed by a gay man, would not accept either of these claims in relation to a man experiencing Adam’s response to a woman who is already married to another man or to a person who claimed they were experiencing what Adam did in relation to more than one person, both of which are claims that have at times been made by Christians to justify their actions.
(3) because Genesis 2 is a description of marriage as created by God, that experienced pattern of love for someone of the same sex must also be recognised as marriage. As a result,
(4) “we will now be able to see the tradition in a fully inclusive way – or, at the very least, hope that others who disagree will allow blessings of same sex marriages – thus leaving a variety of ways of living God’s story that recognizes the full humanity and equality of our LGBTI+ brothers and sisters”.
That final claim actually goes even further and shows why our differences here are so difficult to hold together within a single coherent and united witnessing Christian community: David Gillett’s statement implies
(5) that those, like the bishops, who cannot accept this hermeneutic and so allow blessings of same-sex marriages are thereby denying some people’s “full humanity and equality”.
Disagreement and the limits of logic
This in turn makes clear that David Gillett does not really believe what he writes under the guise of “a greater generosity – in line with our all-generous God”: “I may be wrong, or they may be wrong, however we need to hold in faith the fact that we may both be right!”. That he does not really believe this is not surprising because it is logically incoherent to say two indisputably mutually exclusive truth claims can both be right. The simple fact is that eitherthose who, like David Gillett, say marriage as God intends it in creation requires “a commitment to a faithful, life-long and intimate relationship between two people” are right or those who, like the bishops, say marriage as God intends it in creation is a relationship which requires (among other qualities) that those two people be of the opposite sex are right. If David Gillet is right then the more specified definition of the bishops, in line with Christian tradition, cannot also be right. We may say we are not sure what we believe but if we truly believe one of these views is right then we must of necessity also believe the other is wrong. We cannot “hold in faith” that we may both be right unless that faith abandons reason.
The problems with David Gillett’s approach therefore include its novelty in which what is claimed to be “our understanding of sexuality and gender today” (emphasis original) is ultimately determinative of how we interpret Scripture and also its appeal, in line with our contemporary cultural context, to a highly individualistic reading which treats the passage as concerned simply about how each person finds their right partner. There is, though, a further and even more serious problem theologically.
Reading canonically and Christo-centrically
Despite his claim to be concerned with the Bible as narrative, David Gillett shows no interest in how Genesis 2 fits within Scripture as a whole. Any genuine reading of this or any other text – certainly any that claims to be evangelical – is going to be concerned with such a canonical perspective (e.g., is the male-female structure of nuptial imagery from Genesis to Revelation really so secondary?). In particular careful attention must be given to Jesus’ appeal to the text in Matthew 19 and Mark 10. There, the text is not understood as to be interpreted in the light of each individual’s way of inhabiting the story by reference to whatever way their own, unchallengeable subjective experience mirrors that of Adam when presented with Eve. Rather, explaining the focus in the Christian tradition’s reading of Genesis, for Jesus the narrative of Genesis 2 is set alongside and seen as tied to, perhaps even rooted in, the objective, bi-polar ordering and structure of God’s human creature as male and female set out previously in Genesis 1. In short, according to Jesus, the social practice of marriage is not to be rooted in our personal pattern of desires. Nor in how we believe we find them to be fulfilled. The social practice of marriage is to be rooted in the created nature of human beings. Given this teaching of Christ it should therefore perhaps not surprise us that redefining our doctrine of marriage in the way that David Gillett advocates is now so often also correlated with redefining the nature and significance of human sexual differentiation in our doctrine of humanity as created and redeemed by God.
(Responses to the other two articles can be found in successive posts, and will be linked here.)
Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Associate Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE), Cambridge and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anglican Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.
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