A recent essay by Walter Brueggemann on the Bible and ‘homosexuality’ has received wide circulation (I put ‘homosexuality’ in inverted commas since, although it is included in the title to the essay, it is not a word I ever use in this discussion, since it is poorly defined.) Brueggemann sums up his argument in these closing paragraphs:
The Gospel is not to be confused with or identified with the Bible. The Bible contains all sorts of voices that are inimical to the good news of God’s love, mercy and justice. Thus, “biblicism” is a dangerous threat to the faith of the church, because it allows into our thinking claims that are contradictory to the news of the Gospel. The Gospel, unlike the Bible, is unambiguous about God’s deep love for all peoples. And where the Bible contradicts that news, as in the texts of rigor, these texts are to be seen as “beyond the pale” of gospel attentiveness.
Because [of a range of issues in interpretation], all of these angles of interpretation, taken together, authorize a sign for LGBTQ persons: Welcome!
Welcome to the neighborhood! Welcome to the gifts of the community! Welcome to the work of the community! Welcome to the continuing emancipatory work of interpretation!
Along the way, Brueggemann makes some important and illuminating observations—but he also smuggles in some massive assumptions about what the Bible is and what it isn’t, and all of these throw important light on the nature of the discussion about the Bible and sexuality.
Perhaps the most interesting and significant thing that Brueggemann says, in the context of current discussions about the Bible and sexuality, come right at the beginning of his piece. He sets out by citing the ‘boo’ texts in Lev 18.22 and Lev 20.13, and adds to them Paul’s comments in Romans 1.23–27 (though, for some reason, he does not cite 1 Cor 6.9, which deploys a term that Paul coins from Lev 20.13). He then comments:
Paul’s intention here is not fully clear, but he wants to name the most extreme affront of the Gentiles before the creator God, and Paul takes disordered sexual relations as the ultimate affront. This indictment is not as clear as those in the tradition of Leviticus, but it does serve as an echo of those texts. It is impossible to explain away these texts.
This is fascinating, and cuts right across much popular debate at the moment: ‘It is impossible to explain away these texts.’ Without feeling any need for explanation, he simply rejects attempts by popular writers like Matthew Vines, drawing on the largely discredited work of William Countryman and James Boswell, to claim that the ‘boo’ texts don’t really mean what they appear to mean. In taking them seriously and at face value, Brueggemann is agreeing with the vast majority of scholars on these texts.
It is very possible that Paul knew of views which claimed some people had what we would call a homosexual orientation, though we cannot know for sure and certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world. If he did, it is more likely that, like other Jews, he would have rejected them out of hand….He would have stood more strongly under the influence of Jewish creation tradition which declares human beings male and female, to which may well even be alluding in 1.26-27, and so seen same-sex sexual acts by people (all of whom he deemed heterosexual in our terms) as flouting divine order (William Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality pp 323–4).
Professor Gagnon and I are in substantial agreement that the biblical texts that deal specifically with homosexual practice condemn it unconditionally. However, on the question of what the church might or should make of this we diverge sharply (Dan O Via, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views p 93).
Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct (Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible”).
This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700, p 705).
Homosexual activity was a subject on which there was a severe clash between Greco-Roman and Jewish views. Christianity, which accepted many aspects of Greco-Roman culture, in this case accepted the Jewish view so completely that the ways in which most of the people in the Roman Empire regarded homosexuality were obliterated, though now have been recovered by ancient historians…
Diaspora Jews had made sexual immorality and especially homosexual activity a major distinction between themselves and gentiles, and Paul repeated Diaspora Jewish vice lists. I see no reason to focus on homosexual acts as the one point of Paul’s vice lists [in 1 Cor 6.9] that must be maintained today.
As we read the conclusion of the chapter, I should remind readers of Paul’s own view of homosexual activities in Romans 1, where both males and females who have homosexual intercourse are condemned: ‘those who practice such things’ (the long list of vices, but the emphasis is on idolatry and homosexual conduct) ‘deserve to die’ (1.31). This passage does not depend on the term ‘soft’, but is completely in agreement with Philo and other Diaspora Jews. (E P Sanders Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought pp 344, 373).
The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good (Luke Timothy Johnson).
It might seem slightly excessive to include such a long list here—but it is needed, since many continue to claim that the texts don’t really express prohibition of same-sex sexual relations. The vast majority (I could quote others!) agree that they really do, and that we need to take that seriously.
How does Brueggemann respond to this reality? He makes a significant claim about the nature of Scripture: ‘the Bible does not speak with a single voice on any topic’ and illustrates this in the contrast between ‘texts of rigor’ and ‘texts of welcome’. The particular example he uses here is the contrast between the regulation prohibiting the admission of the castrated to the assembly in Deut 23.1 and the inclusion of eunuchs in Is 56.3–4.
This text issues a grand welcome to those who have been excluded, so that all are gathered in by this generous gathering God. The temple is for “all peoples,” not just the ones who have kept the purity codes.
He then extends this by citing Jesus’ invitation to ‘come to me’ in Matt 11.28–30; these are examples of ‘texts that are tilted toward the inclusion of all persons without asking about their qualifications, or measuring up the costs that have been articulated by those in control….No qualification, no exclusion.’
But is that a reasonable reading of these texts? It is surprising question to have to ask, since Brueggemann is known as someone who reads texts attentively, which is why his commentary is highly valued. Yet the text of Isaiah 56.4–6 states quite clearly:
To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name…
(As an aside, the phrase ‘a memorial and a name’ is literally ‘a hand and a name’, in Hebrew Yad VaShem, which is the title of the holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.)
The welcome here is not to those who have failed to keep the purity codes, but an invitation to all to keep covenant obedience with God. Brueggemann passes over the contrast between the prohibition on same-sex sex in Lev 18.22 and Lev 20.13, and the exclusion of the castrated in Deut 23.1: one is a prohibition of an act, the other is the exclusion of a kind of person. Isaiah appears to revise the latter but continue to affirm the former.
And it is rather odd to take Matt 11.28 as a sign that Jesus makes no demands on his followers. The gospels are replete with comments from Jesus about how difficult and demanding it is to follow him. Our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees (Matt 5.20); if we are to enter the kingdom, we must travel on a hard and narrow way (Matt 7.14); for those attached to their wealth, entering the kingdom is impossible (Mark 10.27); indeed, all who follow Jesus must radically renounce their own interests, in principle their very life, in order to follow him day by day (Mark 8.34). We could go on!
Brueggemann appears to claim an absolute contrast between the demands of Jesus and the demands of Torah:
Since Jesus mentions his “yoke,” he contrasts his simple requirements with the heavy demands that are imposed on the community by teachers of rigor. Jesus’ quarrel is not with the Torah, but with Torah interpretation that had become, in his time, excessively demanding and restrictive. The burden of discipleship to Jesus is easy, contrasted to the more rigorous teaching of some of his contemporaries. Indeed, they had made the Torah, in his time, exhausting, specializing in trivialities while disregarding the neighborly accents of justice, mercy and faithfulness (cf. Mt. 23:23).
I confess, as I continue to read the gospels, I cannot characterise demands of Jesus as ‘easy’! And Brueggemann seems to miss his own point: ‘Jesus’ quarrel is not with the Torah’. His first followers did not see the logic of his teaching as abandoning the need for obedience to Torah, and Jewish believers in Jesus continue in this approach today.
Brueggemann completes his focus on ‘texts of welcome’ with Peter’s declaration in response to his vision and encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10.34:
I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Yet Brueggemann, focussing on God’s impartiality (which I think is at the heart of the gospel), strangely ignores the requirement that we need to ‘do which is right’. Always and everywhere in Scripture, obedience is the essential response to grace.
This then brings us to understanding Brueggemann’s assumptions about the nature of Scripture. He summarises the tension that he finds in Scripture in relation to ‘texts of rigor’ and ‘texts of welcome’ in this way:
I take the texts I have cited to be a fair representation of the very different voices that sound in Scripture. It is impossible to harmonize the mandates to exclusion in Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 and Deuteronomy 23:1 with the welcome stance of Isaiah 56, Matthew 11:28–30, Galatians 3:28 and Acts 10.
Other texts might be cited as well, but these are typical and representative. As often happens in Scripture, we are left with texts in deep tension, if not in contradiction, with each other. The work of reading the Bible responsibly is the process of adjudicating these texts that will not be fit together.
But, whilst he claims that it is diverse voices from different people in different contexts and places within the canon that are in contradiction, this is not the case. It is within the writings of single individuals that this tension appears—and Brueggemann is claiming that their own beliefs are in irresolvable contradiction, and that therefore, as a modern reader, he must adjudicate between the contradictory views of such people. It is the same Paul who wrote the text of ‘welcome’ in Gal 3.28 who also wrote the text of ‘rigor’ in 1 Cor 6.9, in which the term arsenokoites (otherwise unknown prior to Paul) is effectively a quotation of the Greek of Lev 20.13. The same Jesus who says ‘Come to me, all who are weary…’ also says ‘The road to life is hard and the gate is narrow, and those who find it are few’. And this continues to the final words of Scripture: the words of radically inclusive invitation in Rev 22.17 (‘Let anyone who is thirsty come and drink…’) follow on immediately from words of radical exclusion in Rev 22.15 (‘Outside are the dogs and the sexually immoral…’).
His approach is summarised in his closing paragraphs, when he contrasts the gospel with the Bible: ‘The Gospel is not to be confused with or identified with the Bible.’ This is an approach that has been around for a long time, and was first practiced by German critical scholarship under the title Sachkritik, meaning ‘substance criticism’, the ‘substance’ meaning the assumed heart of the gospel message. (For an account of this approach over the last 100 years, see Robert Morgan’s article in JSNT here.) The various biblical texts are not all consistently faithful to the ‘gospel’ of the good news that God has for humanity; our task, therefore, is to discern what that ‘gospel’ is, drawing it out from the right biblical texts, and then using this to critique, and quite possibly disagree with and dismiss, contrary biblical texts. This is the approach that Douglas Campbell takes with the texts on sexuality in Paul:
If Paul was inconsistent at this point, as seems likely, failing to prosecute his soteriology with complete ethical consistency (and who of us can cast the first stone here?!), then I suggest that, having detected this, we should simply overrule those inconsistencies in the name of his central convictions. Paul’s soteriological centre, along with its consistent ethical corollaries, should trump his inconsistent ethical admonitions; his position on redemption should overrule his inconsistent statements about creation…[T]he result of this decision is that we should jettison Paul’s commitment to a binary, and essentially Hellenistic, theology of creation (The Quest For Paul’s Gospel, p 127).
We need to recognise here the assumptions that are being made in the use of this Sachkritik approach:
- First, not only is Scripture contradictory, inconsistent, and ultimately incoherent between the diverse voices in difference contexts—but individual writers and speakers within Scripture are also contradictory.
- Secondly, as modern readers, we are able to discern the ‘true’ meaning of the gospel, selecting from these contradictory elements.
- Finally, we are then able to correct the errors in the texts, ‘overruling’ what is mistaken according to our judgement, and bringing to the fore the elements that we think are correct.
This is the approach that Brueggemann is taking, highlighting what he regards as texts of welcome, and overruling what he regards as texts of ‘rigor’. This approach is making very substantial theological, philosophical and intellectual claims. It is rejecting traditional notions of the authority, coherence, and inspiration of Scripture. But it is also claiming that, 2000 years or more after the event, and from a very different cultural context, we as modern readers know what Paul should have said better than he did. We are claiming here to have a better grasp of the gospel than Paul. And because the tension between ‘welcome’ and ‘rigor’ exists in the teaching of Jesus in the gospels, we are by implication also claiming that we understand the gospel better than Jesus. That is why Luke Timothy Johnson is correct: the affirmation of same-sex sexual relations that Brueggemann wants to make as part of his ‘welcome’ does depend on appealing to a higher authority than Scripture—the judgement of the modern reader, over against what the text of scripture says.
In the second half of his article, Brueggemann makes important observations about the task of biblical interpretation, in particular on the need for awareness by interpreters, and the importance of context.
Every interpretation is indeed undertaken from a particular context, and we cannot ignore this. But Brueggemann appears to think that it is impossible to escape our context—which in turn means that his own view is possibly nothing more than a projection of his own concerns. He does not countenance the possibility that any interpreter might allow Scripture to challenge and reform their own assumptions.
We indeed cannot interpret without taking into account questions of context. That is vital, one of what I would identify as four essentials in reading scripture well. But the idea that our understanding of sexuality in the modern world is without precedent flies in the face of the evidence (that settled same-sex attraction and faithful same sex relationships were known in the ancient world) and against the claim of queer theorists that there have always been gay people in society.
And there is no denying that different biblical texts, on first reading, appear to be in tension with one another on key issues of violence, slavery, the role of women—and, of course, Torah obedience. The question is: what is the nature of this tension? Is it to do with different cultural and contextual issues, or do these tensions arise from irreconcilable contradiction? In each of these contested issues, different texts at first appear to be in tension with one another as they refer to the subject directly. We do not have to reach for unrelated texts in order to counter the overall picture that Scripture offers.
But here is the irony: whilst Brueggemann claims that ‘the Bible does not speak with a single voice on any topic’, the subject of same-sex sexual activity is the one issue on which the Bible does indeed appear to ‘speak with a single voice’. Humanity is created male and female, in the image of God, and sexual union between a man and a woman is depicted as a reflection of that creation pattern. The Levitical rejection of same-sex sexual activity appears to be drawing on that account, and both Paul and Jesus refer to it explicitly, Jesus in his understanding of marriage, and Paul specifically in his rejection of same-sex sex, citing creation in Romans 1, and the Levitical code in 1 Cor 6.9 and 1 Tim 1.9.
So perhaps the most helpful thing that Brueggemann does for us in his article is to highlight that the debate about sexuality in the church today is, at heart, a debate about Scripture. Can we trust Scripture to speak the truth of God to us? Is Scripture ‘God’s word written’ which has a essential theological coherence (Article XX in the XXXIX Articles of Religion), or is it an amalgam of God’s good news to us mixed with sinful, even repugnant, human ideas, so that we need to select the one from the other, rescuing gospel gold from biblical dross?
As Wolfhart Pannenberg has commented:
Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
We do indeed need to hold up a big sign of ‘Welcome!’ to all, regardless of sex, race, sexuality or situation. But it is a Welcome to follow the demanding path of life to which Jesus calls us.
71 thoughts on “Is the Bible contradictory on sexuality?”
Thank you, Ian…..this is an excellent response to Brueggemann’s article, and one which I will use to respond to several colleagues who have asked me what I make of Brueggemann’s claims.
I think the one point I would add is that Brueggemann seems to read Scripture increasingly through a lense of “liberation”, with a particular focus on social exclusion/inclusion and oppression/liberation. While this does reflect a proper and biblical concern for the realities of our embodied existence as social creatures, when taken to extremes it loses sight of an overall biblical trend towards seeing social injustice as a symptom of humanity’s alienation from God, which then leads to distorted relationships with one another.
Indeed. My question would then be a parallel one: how do we define ‘liberation’? Where do we get our understanding from? And on what grounds do we decide that our definition is superior to Scripture’s?
I would also add a parallel example, from James Cone about racial liberation. He says this:
‘From this, however, we should not conclude that the Bible is an infallible witness. God was not the author of the Bible, nor were its writers mere secretaries. Efforts to prove verbal inspiration of the scriptures result from the failure to see the real meaning of the biblical message: human liberation! Unfortunately, emphasis on verbal infallibility leads to unimportant concerns. While churches are debating whether a whale swallowed Jonah, the state is enacting inhuman laws against the oppressed. It matters little to the oppressed who authored scripture; what is important is whether it can serve as a weapon against oppressors’.
He is quite clear that some texts in Scripture oppose liberation—and that we should overrule them.
“He is quite clear that some texts in Scripture oppose liberation—and that we should overrule them.”
If scripture is not infallible, why should that be a problem? People clearly drafted biblical texts within the contexts of their own times and culture. What seemed right for their own societies, may not be right for all societies and all times.
That seems glaringly obvious and, yes, we should overrule isolated surface-level text, if it is harmful to people. The Christian message is broader than isolated, individual texts.
Which surface level texts would you regard as harmful and should be overruled Susannah?
What would be your definition of a ‘surface level’ text?
Do you regard liberation as easy to define?
Well, it can’t be. There are, for example, things which are short-term liberating and also simultaneously long-term enslaving.
Do you (a) disagree that such things exist, (b) think ‘liberation’ is not a simple concept?
But is Cone correct? Do to others as you would have them do to you if you swapped roles is relevant about slavery, but to say that other texts “oppose liberation” is contentious. Fallen man would live under anarchy in the absence of laws, and the OT laws concerning slavery are about debt slavery within Israel – pay off all you can within a fixed and quite short period and then be set free – or how to save from destitution the wives and children of men slaughtered in battle against Israel. This is all very different from transatlantic slavery.
His honesty about the clarity of Scripture on this issue is refreshing: if only this would be more wide spread. And I quite agree that we ought to also worry more about the other issues that Paul highlights in his lists. I’d love to stop talking about this actually, but we are constantly being forced to defend biblical orthodoxy on this matter, and not, say on licentiousness regarding food or drink.
But the moment I see anyone try and claim that there is some sort of Gospel discernable from the Bible which is in some sense seperate from the text, one knows they are building a Gospel in their image. It’s a bit like the whole ‘historical Jesus’ movement: Any attempt to discern the ‘real truth’ ‘hidden’ in the Gospels, and all you discern is your own reflection.
It’s also rather Gnostic: we have the knowledge to find the hidden truths behind the common word.
It’s a damnable heresy (words chosen carefully) and needs to be called out as such.
I think your observation about it being Gnostic is interesting. In none of these situations have I ever found anyone explaining their methodology—why is the gospel *essentially* inclusive, or liberating, or whatever? On what grounds do you accept one set of texts and reject another?
I think the reality is that it is assumed to be self-evidence from culture…!
What a sparkling article, thanks and returning yet again to what scripture is and reading it all through his own two -pronged binary categories.
Not only that, you have highlighted the self-contradictory approach of WB’s article and the source of source criticism.
Is there ever an attempt in the article to define, biblicism? He seems to recognise discontinuity but not continuity of the covenant Good News of Jesus.
Nor does he seem to differentiate, salvation and sanctification.
Thank you for your vigilance, wakefulness. It seems to be ever needful.
“It is impossible to explain away these texts.”
I have always agreed with this point. The Bible is not okay with man-man sex. That is pretty much obvious, whatever theological gymnastics people attempt.
And yet the texts cause grievous harm and contribute to homophobia in some. They vilify and marginalise the intimate love and devotion of decent people.
The logic is that biblical authors write from within the cultures of their own religious communities. But they are fallible and they can be wrong (although expressing their own cultural assumptions).
‘The logic is that biblical authors write from within the cultures of their own religious communities. But they are fallible and they can be wrong (although expressing their own cultural assumptions)’
Quite. But by the same token, modern commentators on the Bible also write from with their own cultural assumptions and can be wrong. This seems to be a point that Bruggemann has missed. One would need to to determine first, whether the issue in question is culturally invariant.
I guess the obvious question in return is “How do you know that the spirtual truths you claim to find in these writers are not just culturally conditioned?” After all, they all come from a culture which assumed the existence of God/s just like their cultural assumptions lead them to condemn “man-man sex”.
What knowledge do you have that allows you to select which elements of the Bible bear the word and intent of God and which are plain wrong?
You wrote: “biblical authors write from within the cultures of their own religious communities..”
As Chris Bishop has pointed out, a similar point applies to modern commentators (and, indeed, to commentators in every age). I would go further, and say that the entire biblical text is expressed from within the cultural matrix of the time. The issue then, is that we focus on cultural influence only when our culture holds differing views (although we sometimes fail to actually read the text in its socio-historical context and wrongly assume it is underpinned by our contemporary values..!), but we have no way to adjudicate between the differences….
Did God not inspire any part of the Bible then?
The Gospel versus the Bible? What twaddle this is! Where is the gospel written?
Brueggemann speaks only of texts. But the people who wrote down the texts that became the Bible were believers in Jehovah, and latterly in Jesus Christ. Nobody who didn’t believe in God would portray the relationship between God and man found in scripture, and nobody who did would dare put words in God’s mouth (Jesus’ mouth). So, when Leviticus states that God finds “man lying with man as with woman” to be toevah, how did those words get there?
Ultimately this discussion is another in which one side asks the question “Did God really say…” We know who started that.
Wasn’t it Martin Luther who first proclaimed that there is a ”Gospel” that can be set against the totality of the witness of the Bible? For Luther the Gospel was justification by faith alone, and any part of the Bible that appeared to contradict this gospel of justification by faith – mostly notably the Letter of James – was treated by him as having little or no authority.
I think Luther didn’t think much of the Book of Revelation either!
I think that is how people have subsequently read Luther. And here is the paradox of German critical Lutheranism: that anything which does not meet that test is discounted as non-Pauline.
One of Tom Wright’s well struck points is that the New Perspective reading of Paul actually means that Paul wrote what Paul wrote.
My final comment on this page. Ian has encouraged us all to limit our posts, to avoid domination by certain voices. Therefore I won’t post more than 3 comments on any one page on this site, and I’ll try to keep them short. The only exception I will make is to reply to Ian himself, if he chooses to engage. Thank you for letting me participate. I generally write more extended views at ‘Thinking Anglicans’. My underlying position on gay and lesbian sexuality is that the Bible is not okay with it. It’s clear that the religious communities at the time allowed sex only within marriage, saw that as between a man and a woman, and regarded man-man sex as sinful and wrong. No-one will persuade me that the early Christians and bible authors thought sex between men was alright.
However, that was their time and their culture. The Bible is not an infallible text. It can be wrong about things – most certainly if applied to different societies and times. We are gifted with God-given conscience, and openness in prayer and life to the Holy Spirit, right here, today. We should exercise our consciences to weigh up which bible texts are steeped in culture, and possibly provisional, and which are dominant texts about fundamentals such as the great commandments to love.
I believe the Church of England is going to accommodate the acceptance of gay sexuality, while still also trying to accommodate those who take a more conservative line. As Brueggemann suggests, we need to make fine and prayerful discernments on how we read different texts in scripture, and that’s why we’re given minds, conscience and the Holy Spirit. We can also do this communally as well as individually. That’s part of what’s been happening with LLF.
If the Church of England does that, it will wither and die, the withering being an outworking of a divine decree against it in heaven.
Is the Bible wrong about the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection?
You are aware of the import of your phraseology: is “going to “accommodate contrasted with “trying to” accommodate? Take it or leave it. It was the predetermined strategy, sham, of LLF, undermining and setting aside Holy scripture. The lamentations of Lambeth are yet to be played out fully and globally and eternally. It is of no small, local, cultural, import, but is of eternal significance and substance.
Sorry but that just sounds like if you personally dont like what certain parts of the Bible say, then you reject them as ‘wrong’.
Inevitably that leads to complete contradictions as to what God has ‘really’ said. Do you not find it odd that different people supposedly open to the Holy Spirit can contradict each other so easily as to what God’s view is on any particular matter? Im pretty sure the Spirit does not contradict Himself.
‘However, that was their time and their culture. The Bible is not an infallible text. It can be wrong about things.’
That a perfectly permissible view to have and express. But please just be aware that it puts you outside the doctrine of the C of E, outside the Fathers, and outside the Great Tradition of the Christian faith.
And illustrates, yet again, why the discussion about sexuality here is really about the Bible, and whether or not God can speak to us.
The further question is whether it should put one outside the church, as to propagate it inside is to change the church radically.
But it is obvious the Bible is not an infallible text!
What a strange discussion…
What an odd comment. It isn’t ‘obvious’ at all.
Do you really believe the Bible to BE an infallible text? Really? Not a rethoric trick?
You have written a very good article critical of the Bruggemann post. However, it does cause me to wonder how consistent you are being with other highly contested passages in Scripture.
In your critical review of Andrew Wilson’s defense of a “softer” complementarianism, that you title “Spoiling the Beautiful Difference,” you make several arguments that some might easily view as trying to “make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties (Luke Timothy Johnson),” in support of having women serve as presbyters, despite the 2,000 year old practice of only having qualified men as presbyters in historically, orthodox circles.
In contrast with extreme forms of complementarianism, Wilson’s generous argument in support of women as deacons, and even as apostles, and even supporting the practice of having non-presbyterial women teaching in certain contexts, do not appear to be convincing to you, at least not enough to concede that there are at least some restrictions in 1 Timothy and Titus that make it “impossible to explain away these texts.”
I can see how it might be easy for someone to roll their eyes in reading your condemnation of “homophobia” in this article, as being an instance of special pleading, while being bewildered as to why your critique of a “softer” complementarianism does not lend itself a similar logical pattern to want to affirm same-sex unions in this piece.
I am not necessarily saying that I am convinced that you are doing that here. But I can guarantee that others will not be swayed by your form of argumentation. Claims that you are being inconsistent are bound to emerge. How would you respond to that?
By saying ‘If you read what I have written, you can see I don’t do that’.
The entire basis of our response to Andrew Wilson is to return to what Scripture says. The issue I have with him is that he makes claims that are pretty clearly contradicted by Scripture—nothing more, nothing less.
I am not sure if that helps…?!
Ian, you might be correct here in all of what you are saying. But consider this:
Though you do not address this in your previous blog post, and without diving into the weeds, I am just not aware of any non-evangelical critical scholar who accepts the evangelical egalitarian claims that 1 Timothy or Titus do not impose some sort of restriction against women serving as presbyters in a local church. Neither an agnostic/atheist Bart Ehrman, nor a liberal Anglican like John Barton (see his _A History of the Bible_, p. 183.) agrees with you on this. Perhaps they are not familiar with your work, or other committed evangelical egalitarians. Perhaps. But every time that I have the raised the issue with a non-evangelical scholar, they just are not buying the evangelical egalitarian line of argumentation.
My point here, Ian, circling back to the topic of this article, is that someone like a Karen Keen, or a James Brownson, or a David Gushee might respond by saying that they are making their arguments for same-sex marriage based on Scripture; e.g. Paul’s prohibition against same-sex relations in Romans 1 is within the context of pederastry, and not covenant marriage (see Robin Scrogg’s efforts).
They might cite you as making “claims that are pretty clearly contradicted by Scripture—nothing more, nothing less.”
I am not saying that I am won over by that argument. In fact, your appeal to the New Testament in this your article above against same-sex relations is most convincing to me at least.
But I can understand how liberal critics get to their position, and their complaint that evangelicals often are inconsistent in terms of applying their hermeneutical method.
‘I am just not aware of any non-evangelical critical scholar who accepts the evangelical egalitarian claims that 1 Timothy or Titus do not impose some sort of restriction against women’
In my experience, that is because they have no interest, and don’t engage in the argument. They take a surface reading, and say ‘So Paul is an incoherent misogynist—so what?’
I have been rather stunned by the wooden literalism of critics in the last few days. Apparently intelligent people saying ‘Jesus taught us to give away all our money, and you don’t do that!’. It is, in the real sense of the word, such a stupid way of reading scripture.
(If you wish to compare my approach on these two issues, do read my two Grove booklets:
Thank you very much, Ian.
I’m reminded of Rowan Williams’ comment that:
We welcome people into the church, we say: ‘You can come in and that decision will change you.’ We don’t say: ‘Come in and we ask no questions.’ I do believe, conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions.
Where is it from?
The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says.
The same applies to Jesus’s, Paul’s and Moses’ understanding of Genesis 1. If we are not to be inconsistent in our critique of Brueggemann’s preferring the wisdom of the modern age to that of scriptural revelation – the revelation that God himself inspired – then we need to acknowledge honestly what the text says in Gen 1 (and Ex 20:11, Ps 33:6, 33:9 etc) and defend it with similar vigour. The truth that God created the heavens and the earth by the power of his word is even more vital, and the failure to see this is indeed not unconnected to the present attempts to sanctify sodomy (Rom 1:20, 25, 27).
Brueggemann feels at liberty to pick and choose what is true and acceptable in Scripture because in relation to the doctrine of creation evangelicals have done exactly the same.
If it’s not unconnected, how do you explain someone like me who believes both evolution and that gay sex is unacceptable to God?
Ill say again, we both agree that ‘God created the heavens and the earth’ but it is the ‘how’ of that on which we disagree.
I explain it as inconsistent.
Genesis and Psalm 33 are both clear about the ‘how’. Creation is by definition something that (i) happens and finishes ‘in the beginning’ and (ii) involves supernatural agency. The world cannot explain itself. In addition, (iii) animal life requires the immaterial breath of God. In all three respects, the biblical account – which is perfectly reconcilable with the astronomical and geological facts, so there is no need to reject it – contradicts the atheistic account propagated by the universities. They teach that the universe’s more than two trillion galaxies were initially concentrated into something smaller than a pea, from which all things exploded into existence and gradually attained their present form over 14 billion years; that the genetic code began in the chance auto-assembly of organic molecules; and there is no such thing as spirit. This is not creation, and scientists do not describe it as creation – only Christians do.
No Creator, no God.
No God, no gospel.
No gospel, no Church.
The world (the universities especially) can see that, but the Church cannot. The modern Church is like the unfaithful steward. No one can serve two masters, but in her desire to please both Baal and Yahweh (I Ki 18:21), the Church thinks she can.
The Church has consequently been withering on the vine for decades.
What an oddly literalistic way of reading the Bible.
There’s a part of me that wonders if Brueggemann was answering a different question from what some of us were asking. He certainly argues for people who identify as gay to be welcomed participants in the community of faith. The most common experience (at least historically) when an individual comes out to a church leader is that the individual is either formally excommunicated or informally ‘other-ed’. There are definitely texts in the OT that show such an individual was not welcome into the sacred space, and definitely texts in the OT and NT that indicate the behavior is sin.
But is it possible to welcome gay people to the gifts/resources and work of the community? For context, my church invests heavily in the city’s homeless population; many have terrible struggles with drugs and alcohol. Many are on the sex offender registry. How do we welcome them to the community and still put up wise and effective guardrails, promoting ongoing discipleship, and keep people safe and healthy? It is very nuanced and challenging, but they still have access to the gifts/resources and work of the community. We get accused all the time of being enablers when we invest so much in certain folks and they struggle or relapse over and over, even though we are clear that we believe something like drug abuse is sin.
Would Brueggemann affirm gay relationships and covenantal monogamous gay marriage? I think many of us are assuming now that he would, but I don’t know he is very explicit about it, at least not in his article. There are a lot of practical and ecclesial questions that he doesn’t address in his article. His focus is the “kick them out, or welcome them in?” question, while acknowledging that gay sex is defined as sin in the Bible. From that, many more questions would arise for him.
I suspect your church is the sort of church the Lord delights in!
Thanks Joe—all very pertinent questions! From my own experience, all I can say is that when my best friend in theological training came out to me, I pledged to support him in any way I could on what I thought would be a difficult journey. It is a source of grief to me that that has not been possible.
You might be interested in the recent book by Darrin Snyder Belousek, Marriage, Scripture and that Church, which ends with a similar question to the one you have raised.
It’s disappointing but not surprising that Brueggemann takes the stand he does. He seems to come out of a liberal stable. I would have hoped he may have been more conservative than he is. I have read only an occasional snippet of his work. The battle for the Bible is never far off. I pray that you and others will be helped as you defend a biblical view of the Bible. We are not free to pick and choose. Moreover, some issues are so clear that the only honest defence is to say the Bible is wrong. It may be honest but it’s heresy.
I know Brueggemann is well thought of by many, though I havent read any of his books. It strikes me he is largely taking the same view, now common in theological circles, that the whole of the Bible must be viewed through Jesus/cross-shaped spectacles. If anything, particularly in the OT, appears to contradict such a perspective, it should be rejected as not of God (as Jesus is God of both Old & New Testaments). This is then applied to passages concerning such issues as slavery, killing of the Canaanites etc.
I tend to disagree though I can understand having such a viewpoint.
Given that it was raised as an example, what is your explanation of Jesus’ words ‘my burden is light…’ and ‘you must carry your cross…’?
Is there not a contradiction there? Noone in their right mind would claim carrying a cross is ‘light’. Is following Him easy or hard?
I guess the answer would have to be: yes and no.
It’s light in that God has shouldered the burden of our sins: we do not have to work for our salvation but it is given freely. It is heavy in that the response to that grace requires us to walk the path of the cross, to invite sanctification, and to pursue that which is holy.
This was asked online. Here is part of my answer—though I might write a whole blog post on this question!
That’s a good question, with a simple answer: ‘easy’ is a poor translation of χρηστος, which is the term Jesus uses in Matt 11. BDAG gives a range of meanings of the term: well-fitting, of a high standard, morally good and benevolent. ‘Kind’ is a better one-word translation. Note the pun that Peter makes of it in 1 Peter 2.3: ‘if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is χρηστος’. In modern Greek, iota and eta are pronounced the same, and some argue for that having ancient roots, so that χρηστος sounds exactly like Χριστός. It is in Christ that we discover the kindness and benevolence of God, and it is a kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom 2.4). This has absolutely nothing to do with the ‘pleasant’ road to destruction, and it being ‘easy’ εὐρύχωρος in Matt 7.13.
I would add that there are two ways in which Jesus’ yoke is well-fitting and good for us in practice. First, he calls us to fulness of life, and to the purpose for which we were made. Secondly, we are enabled to live in this way by the power of the Spirit, and not by our own efforts.
Does that all help?
‘Secondly, we are enabled to live in this way by the power of the Spirit, and not by our own efforts.’
Given your previous comments on personal behaviour, Im surprised by this statement. Per your previous posts, it seems our own behaviour is of paramount importance, and in my view that is largely down to our own efforts, eg carrying our cross, and Paul’s various directives . If not how can God judge us?
Ian, I am wondering if it is desirable here (or anywhere actually!?) to try to find a ‘one-word’ translation to ‘cover’ the whole range of senses of χρηστος. So is ‘kind’ really a _better_ translation than ‘easy’ for what ‘Matthew’s’ text is saying rather than the ‘well-fitting’ that you use later?
It really shows the bankruptcy of (both intellectual and ideological) liberalism, which is practically incapable of avoiding transient cultural conformity. Indeed, it is practically identified with it. My point here is (something I have observed before) that even the very best of liberalism is something of a dead end. Ages 8-17 I was in touch with, and being semi-educated by, the very best of liberalism, and that in retrospect is the impression I got.
As you well know, Ian, each theologian has his/her own followers. On this subject of sexuality and the Bible, I am one who happens to see more merit in Brueggemann’s line of argument than yours I suspect, too, that he might have more understanding of the gay situation than has been your privilege. Each of us speaks, also, from our own experience. What is your experience of being LGBTQI?
My best friend at theological college came out to me; I have a trans person in my familiar; I have a good number of personal and online friends who are gay, and who take a range of positions. But it is a conceit of modern, atomising, individualism to say that no-one can say anything about anyone unless they are themselves that person.
If you like Brueggemann’s position, where do you think my argument fails?
I happen to believe, Ian – with all due respect to your own (second-hand) experience of the phenomenon of same-sex attraction – that, unless one actually experiences same-sex attraction and has actually acted upon that experience, finding a fulfilling knowledge of the love of God within that committed relationship; it would be impossible to speak or write about it with any degree of authenticity. The same applies, of course, to innately S/S-attracted persons who finds themselves incapable of heterosexual union. One can only really speak from one’s own experience on this particularly sensitive matter. The fact that homosexual relationships are found in the natural animal environment – with no moral connotation – ought also to be a guide to naturalness of such a function in the created order.
Heterosexual marriage is obviously not essential for human beings to rejoice in their salvation and redemption – which has already been secured by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf. Jesus never married; he did not generate physical children (only spiritual ones). He did have a ‘special relationship’ with the apostle John, whose own reference to that love enabled him to record in Scripture the fact that he was Christ’s ‘beloved’ disciple – a fact for which he was regarded suspiciously by some of the others: “And what about him?”
If sexual relationships were meant only for procreation (a possibility that seem to be over-emphasised by some conservative evangelicals) – why do they at the same time take advantage of contraception, designed specifically to deny the possibility?
The Jewish ethic was directed towards the building up of the race – a reason for which the prospect of other than procreative sex was viewed with suspicion – leading to the general outlawing of any same-sexual loving relationships. Context is important! Racial purity was also an important consideration for the Jewish community. However, even Paul did say that ALL are one in Christ, with differences reconciled in the Cross of Jesus. “They will know you’re my disciples by your love”.
Does that mean Jesus could not understand sinners without becoming a sinner? I understand that lived experience brings insight not possible without lived experience but lived experience is raised way above its value to trump all other insight. Surely the power of analogy is relevant. We can all understand to a great measure the experience of others by comparing it with something analogous in our own. Most of our understanding comes this way.
Interesting that human marriage provides an analogy for what it was always intended to illustrate, the marriage between Christ and the church.
Ron… you try to justify in round about ways what Scripture plainly condemns. Surely here Bruggemann (and Catherine above who iis transsexual). Is being more honest with the text.
So you haven’t managed to offer any engagement with my critique of Brueggemann….
You could also address that question to evangelicals such as Rev’d Sam Allberry, who experiences sexual attraction to other men but believes that to act on it would be sinful. He has written at least one book on the subject.
The deepest question for gay Christians is: Is the attraction I feel for members of my own sex part of God’s design plan, or is it a consequence of the Fall? Where else could you find an answer to that question than the word of God?
I doubt anyone can be the full alphabet but there are plenty of people who are one of those letters and do not agree with Brueggemann. Also when activists privilege “lived experience” over every other type of knowledge they usually have an agenda of silencing critics.
Thank you for your timely and thorough articles.
Alas, I haven’t understood your meaning when you write “In each of these contested issues, different texts at first appear to be in tension with one another as they refer to the subject directly.” (see paragraph copied below). Please could you explain further?
“And there is no denying that different biblical texts, on first reading, appear to be in tension with one another on key issues of violence, slavery, the role of women—and, of course, Torah obedience. The question is: what is the nature of this tension? Is it to do with different cultural and contextual issues, or do these tensions arise from irreconcilable contradiction? In each of these contested issues, different texts at first appear to be in tension with one another as they refer to the subject directly. We do not have to reach for unrelated texts in order to counter the overall picture that Scripture offers.
When you consider the role of women in leadership, some texts appear at first to allow this, some at first appear to prohibit it. So we need to read these together, as well as attending to each in context, to resolve this tension.
But the text on same-sex sex are in unison, and have no tension. Brueggemann has to reach to quite unrelated texts in order to create a tension. In doing so he is not merely claiming that different writers are in tension in Scripture, but that individuals, including Jesus and Paul, are contradictory in their teaching.
Does that make it clearer?
Thank you for this summary and your good comments.
In Brueggemann’s Old Testament Theology, he sets out an intentionally postmodern methodology that he claims is in the Biblical text itself: diverse voices. As a postmodern, he welcomes this and, might even suggest, this assumption colours his reading of the OT. Indeed, how could he argue out of this circularity? Be that as it may, one can see that he is predisposed to treat any Biblical discussion in the same way.
As you point out at the end, though, this perspective of diverse voices that give one the right to dispel one lot of texts in favour of another does not apply to at all to this topic. That is why my book on this subject was titled, ‘Unchanging Witness.’ The celebration of diverse voices on this subject also falters in a study of Church history–up until a few declining denominations from the 1960s in Western countries, rejecting Biblical authority, were swayed by their post-Christian culture.
Thanks for commenting—and for the book, which I have!
And you are right to note that this position flows from Brueggemann’s already stated commitment to a postmodern reading.
I think Scripture is all ancient text and correctly interpreting it is a complex process. So I think the claim that some texts are clear is an backdoor way of trying to establish a Magisterium.
Since I do not believe in a Magisterium, I will grant that someone can choose to interpret Scripture for themselves and then are bound by that understanding for themselves, since they cannot act against their understanding in faith. But for someone to claim that their understanding is how another must understand gets problematical, I think.
So do you think there are no texts in the Bible which are pretty clear…?
I have learned that it happens more than it should for a teaching to take a verse out of context and claim it is clear, when in a broader context, it is not so clear. And if one stitches together such decontextualized verses, one can pretty much create any doctrine they want. In my studies, I keep discovering that texts that I thought were clear can have a different or at least enhanced meaning when read using more context, such as immediate context, Scripture context, or cultural context at the time they were written.
I try to approach Scripture with humility and I do make an attempt to understand it as best I can and I then try to apply that understanding to my own life. But I am also always seeking to learn more, including questioning whether I may be wrong in some way in my understanding. I am not a 1st Century believer at Corinth or Timothy, so I try to take that into account as I read. Most NT letters by their nature are a record of one half of a conversation and some things that are known by both sender and receiver can be omitted, but how is a reader today to know what those other things were.
I can and do arrive at my current understanding, but then another arrives at a different understanding and there is no court or Magisterium to decide which understanding is preferred. I always reserve the right to change my understanding when I learn more and I have learned from example that this includes things I may have thought were clear before learning more.
Paul says whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Rom 14:23b) to me this means that I should act in faith based on my current understanding of Scripture, but it can happen that I learn more and change my understanding, which can change what acting in faith means.
As I see it we need a repository of the strongest arguments from all sides on what truths the Bible sets before us, which can be humbly and self critically read, weighed, challenged, defended by us all: scholars, theologians, archbishops, bishops, clergy, lay persons and exercise our private judgment, ready to admit where we are wrong.
My view on how this can best be done can be found in my article “The Search for the Truest Christian Doctrines and the True Knowledge of God” in the Journal Churchman – log in to the Church Society website and search “Philip Almond”.
I think people can do what you suggest in your paper, but without a Magisterium, I do not see a way to resolve differences if parties decline to budge. Each of us has finite resources of time and money and there are so many different ideas out there, I am sure there are many I have not seen.
If people are not persuaded by the strongest arguments, they are not persuaded. The impasse remains and we await the Day of Judgement when the secrets of all hearts will be revealed.
“Is the Bible contradictory on sexuality?”
An important question indeed.
But a much more important question is:
“Is the Bible contradictory on whether we all need to be saved from the wrath to come?”
How would Walter Brueggemann answer that question?
September 15, 2022 at 9:23 am
‘However, that was their time and their culture. The Bible is not an infallible text. It can be wrong about things.’
That a perfectly permissible view to have and express. But please just be aware that it puts you outside the doctrine of the C of E, outside the Fathers, and outside the Great Tradition of the Christian faith.
And illustrates, yet again, why the discussion about sexuality here is really about the Bible, and whether or not God can speak to us.”
Yes: “….really about the Bible, and whether or not God can speak to us.”
As the Bishops finally decide (presumably, sadly, behind closed doors) what line to take and recommend at the final General Synod debate in 2023, this is the real issue. And it is not only about the sexuality disagreement but about whether we all face the wrath and condemnation of God until God delivers us.
And how can that final Synod meeting possibly honestly and properly deal with that momentous question when it involves a series of 3-5 minute speeches with no proper interaction and challenge?
I think there’s a middle path between the two main views on this. We can agree with Paul’s condemnations in Rom 1 and see them as a conscious interpretation and endorsement of Lev 18-20, and take them as current and relevant, but also see them as inapplicable to a same-sex marriage between same-sex oriented partners. Here’s what I mean by inapplicable: The whole reason we (Evangelicals) can’t distinguish our position from prejudice in the public mind is that we can’t persuade anyone that our objections are moral and conscientious. We can’t say what self-evident moral issues we are objecting to. It’s not unfaithfulness or promiscuity, not exploitation or abuse, not any neglect of marriage or family (when we no longer believe in mixed-orientation marriage as a general answer to same-sex orientation), and so on. This is why, in politics and advocacy, we’ve resorted to some dubious natural law arguments, without, as Protestants, believing in natural law. And it’s why, in church, we’ve resorted to more abstract claims about nature and theology that lack the moral force or the sense of self-evidence of the biblical/moral condemnations. So we end up saying it’s a test of biblical faithfulness, or that the issue is religious freedom, or (sometimes) that there’s a conspiracy against us — claims one step removed from the moral issues. For Paul in Rom 1 these were self-evidently moral issues. Without making those moral arguments apply to same-sex-oriented people in same-sex marriages, there’ll be no way back from the presumption of prejudice and even callousness toward those who are same-sex oriented. Some of us are the first Christians in history to believe in mandatory lifelong celibacy for some clearly-defined group of people, and that’s not something we’re good at morally defending either. So there are major problems in the ‘simple, biblical, traditional’ position that require some rethinking, but for doing so within the biblical tradition rather than by rejecting parts of it, as Brueggemann and other writers have finally concluded they must.
Glad I ventured down this rabbit hole and read to the end comments string to find your golden nugget. As a heterosexual member of a denomination that is currently reeling from a recent decision to make condemnation of homosexual relationships confessional, I’ve been reading a lot lately. I like Bruegemann’s article, because it’s a refreshing change of pace that acknowledges that some scripture clearly condemns same-sex relations and others focus much less on sinful lifestyle choices and more on welcoming and loving those on the margins.
I loved finding your approach because it seems to give more traditional thinkers room for a scenario that doesn’t actually exist in all the proof texts that are used against same sex relations (not that they’ll quickly adopt it): two same-sex oriented people committed to a lifelong relationship. At the same time, it puts the brakes on the slippery slope of “If we allow this, what next?”
I’ll read your full wiki when I have more time, but for now skipped ahead to the Conclusions and Talking Points. I think there may be a mistake in one talking point that needs correction (5c, 2d):
“Paul’s statements about same-sex desires in Rom 1 show decisively that he [is not?] referring to orientation as now understood. No biblical author can be shown to positively refer to orientation.”
Appreciate your approach and look forward to diving deeper into your Modest Proposal.