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?
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.