Joshua Penduck writes: In this long review, I have explored several critiques of Charlie Bell’s book Queer Holiness. In Part II, I looked out how despite all the merits of his book (some of which were outlined in Part I), his polemical rhetoric has led to problems of internal inconsistency, privilege, strawmanning, othering, a lack of basic research in particular areas, and an inconsistent methodology, amongst a whole host of other avoidable faults. In Part III, I looked at the proposal I raised in Part I, that something has gone wrong in Bell’s argument, namely that in relativising the role of Scripture on the question of same-sex practice (despite his protests otherwise) and having an ill-thought through approach to the Fall (which leads to the problem of Evolutionary Acid) he has ended up advocating a modernist ‘Neo-Gnostic’ approach to theology which equates progressive revelation with the dominant cultural group of which he is part, namely the Western Intelligentsia. However, I did note that the deconstruction of Bell’s text can only go so far. Many of his questions need answering, in particular, ‘Why did God allow this to happen?’,
Whilst it is impossible to fully answer this in a review—that would require delving far more into theodicy and like subjects—one can begin a tentative answer. Indeed, certainly a better answer is needed than what Bell has provided, given the hydra-headed problem that emerges once we begin to investigate the problem of evolution, genetic inevitability, and sin. My own tentative answer will not be flawless, nor a kind of deductive reasoning that gives no room for alternative explanations. Instead, to refer to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, as with the apologetic status of all Christian doctrine, I will be presenting a brief hypothesis, grounded in abductive reasoning. Part of the answer is by locating Bell’s ‘why’ in a wider revelational context and then transforming it into a ‘how’—i.e. ‘how can God allow this to happen?’ By doing so, it becomes easier to consider this part of a wider set of questions relating theodicy to the Fall. Given some the ‘facts’ of the case—that same-sex sexual attraction is not a choice, is a combination of that simplistic phrase ‘nature and nurture’, can be found in the animal world and is therefore an evolutionary ‘inevitability’—a Christian response, grounded in the Christian understanding of revelation—is necessary.
I’ll be honest here: I’m not going to respond to Bell’s arguments about sexuality and repression, because I don’t know enough about the subject. I found it the most convincing part of his book and wish he had spent more time on this (rather than the diatribe-like polemic that resulted). I have some ideas of how the first sketches of a responsive argument might be made—namely that the distinction between repression and sublimation that Bell makes (99) is blurred, the intensity of which is to a greater or lesser degree responsive to the surrounding culture’s ethical goods as narrated by the social imaginary. For example, I think this may have more to do with intensive promotion of particular ways of being in capitalist society, which is hinted at by the American-rooted topography of the Pride Movement. Nevertheless, I’ll let the psychologists, sociologists, ethicists and practical theologians debate that, otherwise I’d be making the ultimate English faux pas of contributing to a conversation the subject of which I know very little about!
Revelation and Scripture
The first place we respond is by emphasising the concept of revelation. As Colin Gunton argued, revelation means that in principle we would have no access to its content, nor know it beforehand, without the revelatory initiative of God. Whilst this is obvious with regard to General Revelation, it is also true of Particular Revelation too. For example, we would not know the Trinitarian nature of God, the possibility of the Incarnation, atonement, resurrection, etc, were it not expressly revealed by God (even if hints and shadows were given through General Revelation). It must be remembered that Particular Revelation is by nature, particular. It is focussed and localised through history. It’s why I disagree with Tillich’s distinction between ‘original’ and ‘dependant’ revelation, as much as I sympathise with his argument. This makes the risk of understanding the original revelatory events and Scriptural ‘explanation’ as merely the source (or even ‘a’ source) of the river from which the mighty and greater but technically ‘dependent’ estuary flows.
It’s also the problem with certain presentations of doctrinal development—not so much by how Newman articulated it, but rather by the ways he has been continuously been misinterpreted, as evidenced by the notion’s recent use in General Synod. Much to be preferred is the old Protestant Scholastic distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘illumination’. Here, the latter brings insight to the former, but it is not of equal ontological weight. It reduces the risk of both a liberal ‘progressive revelation’ (which invariably leads to the sacralisation of the proponent’s culture) or alternatively the need for a Magisterium to ‘monitor’ and ‘prune’ what is truly revelatory (which is the way of Rome; arguably this is more founded in Scripture and tradition than the liberal approach).
The key to my argument is that Particular Revelation includes Scripture. These are not separate categories. As such, we could not understand the meaning of these revelatory events without the interaction of both Scriptural narrative and propositions. The latter are as much part of revelation as the former. For example, the proposition ‘God is Love’ (I John 4.8b) makes sense of and gives ontological weight to the subsequent narrative verses (9-10), even as they give content to the possibly abstract proposition. This is the position of the historic church. It is the revelatory text through which we understand the revelatory acts—and is part of those revelatory acts.
It was Carl Ludwig Nitzsch who, in response to Fichte, divided the ‘matter’ of revelation from its ‘form’ (a genealogy which can be found in the Protestant Scholastics’ own distinction and Luther before them). This contrasted external revelation found in history from the ‘imperfections’ of biblical testimony. Nitzsch’s distinction would form the basis for much 19th Century Liberal theology of revelation. Bell’s own distinction between ‘revelation’ and Scripture as ‘a God-inspired record’ is simply the latest iteration of this old claim. Part III of this review demonstrated why this is such a faulty move: by relativising the role of the ‘imperfect’ Scriptures as a mere ‘record’ of revelation, it enables the contemporary exegete to claim that they better understand God’s revelation than even the Apostles and therefore they can mould revelation to be more in keeping with contemporary ethical, metaphysical or epistemological norms (see here an example of Bell himself doing this with St Paul).
In good Aristotelian fashion, by claiming that revelation includes Scripture, or rather that the matter of revelation is intrinsically ‘shaped by’ its Scriptural form, we are saying we must take Scripture with as much seriousness as one takes the historical facts ‘behind’ Scripture. Though, as Bell argues, Christ is the Word and Scripture the word (36-7), it is still the word on the Word, and not a word. One does not merely look for ‘guidance’ (46) from the Scriptures; one is bound to them, indeed submits to them. As J.I. Packer argued, Jesus never treats the Israelite Scriptures as a literary classic which guides us to understand God’s revelation, but as an authority. This is not to say that one should ignore the historical context through which the Scriptures were composed, but neither does historical criticism relativise the ontological status of Scripture—a short reading of John Webster should put pay to such an idea. Instead, with redactional, narrative and form criticism in mind, we should be looking at what Scripture is revealing to us through the methods God employed. Forget for a moment the great distinctions between inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy; lets also bracket the question of the ontological link between God’s word the human words used to express it; indeed, let’s go even further and bracket questions of Ur-texts and translations: the key thing is that God intended the Scriptures as we have them: ‘Thus saith the Lord’. Let this be the well-centre to which and from which the fuzzy sheep of scholastic questions are drawn and depart.
Genesis and Evolution
If Scripture is included in revelation, and is therefore revelatory, this means that it gives us access to things which are in principle inaccessible by any other means (though hints and shadows may be found elsewhere). Careful attention must be given to the forms through which Scripture reveals things, including narrative, propositional and poetic forms, understood not by our own modernist categories but by the categories through which Scripture was written. This is not to neglect the importance of reception history, but it is to prize first the ‘literal’ sense of Scripture, supplemented by historical criticism.
Let’s take the early chapters of Genesis, for example. Whereas in modernist categories it would come under the title of ‘history’ or ‘mythology’—and the divisions between Fundamentalists and Liberals map out onto this modernist distinction—reading it according to comparable texts and its own shape indicates a strange form: historical mythology. Not mythical history—the pretemporal chronicles of the gods giving narrative form to ontological structures—but rather the writing of temporal history using mythological tropes. (William Lane Craig demonstrates how this is the case in fuller detail than I can go into here). This means that though there are the trans-temporal structures of myth present, meaning that the story of the Adam and Eve and the snake have a cross-cultural practical application, and that it is not a ‘journalistic account’ of history, it is also the revelation of a historical ‘event’. The narrative and propositional structure of the rest of Scripture relies on the fundamental take that humanity has been ‘deformed’ from its original goodness. This works itself out in a wide variety of ways—sexuality included. As such, it is not just a ‘revelation’ of the human condition (we don’t need revelation to help us understand that), nor of some structural anthropological process (such as scapegoating), but rather of a happening in human history.
But how does this match-up with the fossil and genetic evidences for evolution? I find both Craig and John Walton helpful here for showing how the Biblical text is neither the haphazard and awkward combining of two incompatible creation stories, nor a simple literal tale, but rather a deliberate distinction between the humanity of Genesis One and the individual ‘Adam’ of Genesis 2-3. Whilst this does not indicate anything but itself, it does perhaps help the reader ‘harmonise’ the text with contemporary scientific findings. Genesis 1-3 reveals the ‘goodness’ of humanity that was ‘corrupted’ in historical time. This has been given excellent development in the writings of Augustine and his Medieval successors (though the paeans to the perfection of Adam in Protestant Scholasticism are overripe and not grounded in proper exegesis of the biblical text).
Is this compatible with our evolutionary history? There have been several accounts of how this may have happened. Some, like Craig, place the Fall of ‘Historical Adam’ in the early stages of hominid development, about 800,000 years ago. Others, like C.S. Lewis place the Fall far later in our development, around 50,000 years ago. Like Lewis, James K.A. Smith imagines it closer to the present than Craig, but nevertheless stretches the Fall out over several thousand years through a long period of ‘testing’ of a particular Homo Sapiens Sapiens group or collection of groups in the Rift Valley. Walton and Henri Blocher make it a single event by a single Adamic individual/couple (who knows—it may have been both long and short!).
It may have been the case that the unfallen ‘goodness’ of humanity developed naturally from evolutionary origins; alternatively, as with the Roman Catholic account, it may be that humanity reached a particular level of development at which the ‘rational soul’ was implanted (as with Genesis 2). I’m not too bothered here about how it happened; I’m more concerned with arguing that there is a compatibility between a historical Fall from Original Goodness and contemporary science, if revelation is not ruled out here.
Genetics may help here, especially in the Scriptural link between traits in our pre-Hominid past and our contemporary Fallenness. It is not too difficult to conceive that certain patterns of behaviour in animals are an evolutionary ‘good’; however, once transferred to humanity they are ‘bad’ (for example, promiscuousness). Without the notion of a historical Fall, it is difficult to conceive how this could be the case without some Whiggish progressive notion of humanity, as seen in the Gnostic account above. As such it is not too difficult to consider a situation where either naturally or through some kind of divine intervention of ensouling, the outer reaches of the brain—such as, say, the prefrontal cortex—had much greater control over the inner, more primitive levels. That this seems to be a present possibility through practices such as meditation, as Andrew Newberg has argued, indicates within the perspective of revelation that it may be a natural trait humanity has lost through the Fall. It may be the case that certain primitive genetic traits were ‘unlocked’ by some act(s) of traumatic disobedience, like the way a traumatic event can ‘unlock’ a natural genetic condition such as coeliac disease. In a kind of Neo-Augustinian move, we can read this as being ‘passed on’. Alternatively it may ‘corrupt’ the divinely-intended trajectory of human development were we to take an earlier hominid framework for the ‘Historical Adam’.
A different alternative may be that the Fall is the impatient ‘jumpstarting’ of human development. We could consider the supposed ‘Great Leap Forward’ a premature ‘punctuated equilibrium’ (to refer to Stephen Jay Gould), in which humanity decided to ‘advance’ before it was ‘ready’, in disobedience to divine commands. This is hinted at by the interpretation of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which argues that the command against eating is not a perpetual ban, but rather time-specific until humanity, nurtured through trusting and obeying direct divine wisdom, was ‘mature enough’ to eat of it—i.e. had reached a stage of development able to discern goodness rightly without direct divine command. Although vulnerable to questions regarding the extent of climate change impacting human development, such an approach would nevertheless perhaps explain the problem of childbearing and the Fall in Gen. 3.16b. If the Fall is a premature development because of human disobedience to the divine timetable for human evolution, we may consider that the mismatch between the size of a baby’s head and a woman’s pelvis is not simply a tragedy, but rather the results of a primordial decision which jumpstarted human development before natural selection had found an equilibrium. If so, Gen. 3.16b is not simply a just-so story, but even there may have a revelational insight otherwise hidden from scientific observation.
Fallenness and the Church
These are, of course, hypotheses. Nevertheless, such explanations, which take seriously both contemporary science as well as the revelatory nature of the Scriptures—i.e. an event which in principle could not be discovered by science or General Revelation—may also make sense of some of Bell’s arguments regarding animals demonstrating same-sex sexual attraction. Although the science of the evolutionary development of homosexual behaviour is not yet clear, it may have an evolutionary function which is very beneficial for the development of species. This does not mean it is intended for humanity anymore promiscuity or a whole host of other traits was intended. Perhaps a form of healthy sublimation is the natural state of humanity, but Fallenness means that this has been lost to both psychologically damaging repression and an impulsion to act? This would accord with the near univocal presentation of Scripture on the matter.
Nevertheless, this is not just a matter of sexuality, but to a whole variety of our psychological patterns. Such is the brokenness of humanity. And it is important to know that this fragmented brokenness inflicts us all. Bell is right: LGBTQI people ‘are not more mired in sin than others are—they are God’s beloved children’ (215). We are all broken by sin; both Jesus’ parable of a log in the eye and the desert father Abba Pior’s sack of sand comes to mind. In the words of Preston Sprinkle, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin in me’. If Fallenness is as systematic as what such a picture would indicate, we should not expect too much goodness even from the Church. Bell writes:
The structural oppression of LGBTQI people is, in many ways, just one facet of a wider sickness, a sickness that threatens to overwhelm us if it is not both recognised and fought against. The Church doesn’t need to be like this—indeed, it surely cannot survive much longer if the rot continues to spread. (214)
I get surprised by little comments like this in the book, much like the comment ‘We don’t appear to have learnt’ noted at the beginning of Part I of this review. The ‘sickness’ which threatens to overwhelm, of which the structural oppression of LGBTQI people is but a facet, is sin. Until the Parousia, oppression and the sickness of sin will be with us. This is not to say that a laissez-faire approach to sin should be adopted; but it is to say that we should not be surprised at sin in the Church. And that Bell can write, the Church ‘cannot survive much longer if the rot continues to spread’ sounds to me like a denial of Jesus’ promise that the ‘gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16.18). What of grace? What of preservation? Is it not the healing work of the Holy Spirit, applying the lather of the atonement through the sacramental actions of the Church, who keeps us from ‘rotting’ in sin, a foretaste and first-fruit of the glory and freedom which awaits us in the New Creation?
Reading comments like the above has made me realise I have a fundamentally different understanding of the Gospel to Bell: our differences over same-sex sexual practice are but the presenting issue for a deep and complex faultline over questions including revelation, Scripture, the Fall, salvation, pneumatology, ecclesiology, preservation, and the relationship between science and faith. In the words of the recently departed Tim Keller, ‘The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.’
You’re perhaps wondering why I have spent so long reviewing what is actually a relatively short book. This is because, despite all it’s very many faults in the book as outlined especially in Part II of this review, it is an excellent summary of the kind of arguments presented by revisionists on sexuality—not just in the Church of England, but further afield too. You will see similar arguments made by bishops in General Synod, the Twittersphere, Facebook, and endless blogs. Were it not for its near diatribe-like polemic, I would have happily recommended this to my PCC as a ‘typical’ revisionist account (sadly, even on that front it is ‘typical’). Like many revisionist theologies, it does the following:
- Makes a strawman argument of the conservative opposition, and in so doing Others them (a technique which conservatives are equally capable of in doing with their Revisionist opponents);
- Ignores or is ignorant of its own geneatheological history rooted in 19th Century German liberalism;
- Has an understanding of ‘stoolism’ which is very different from the classical Anglican models it purports to emulate; furthermore, using a model of the Scripture-tradition-reason triad far closer to Socinianism than to anything in Hooker or his successors;
- Simultaneously praises Scripture whilst making every effort to relativise its importance on the issue of sexuality (but inconsistently not using the same tools for other doctrinal loci), and making little effort to work out an ontology of Scripture;
- Has a weak understanding of the relationship between science and revelation, meaning that concepts of the Fall (and sin) become vulnerable to the theoretical acid of evolutionary theory; this in turn makes the Fall systematically unnecessary, and therefore gives way to what could be considered a Neo-Gnostic revelational progressivism;
- Blurs the distinction between the ethical perspective of the cultural intelligentsia and divine revelation.
In the final part of this review, I have tried to focus on one particular—but fundamental—area of Bell’s argument, that is the relationship between biological sciences and biblical revelation. Emphasising the unity of Scripture and revelation, I have argued that one can make a hypothetical case for Fallenness that fits both the historical-mythology revelation of Genesis and contemporary evolutionary science. This in turn can help give theologically grounded answers for why presence of same-sex sexual activity amongst animals, amongst a whole host of things, does not necessarily mean ‘divine blessing’ when translated to humanity. Furthermore, it helps connect the near univocal witness of Scripture to contemporary evolutionary sciences. As I argued beforehand, more work would need to be done for a fuller response, especially in the psychological aspects. Hopefully, this may give a foundation for such a response.
This has been less of a traditional ‘review’ and more a sustained engagement with a text in which the fault-lines of contemporary Anglicanism are made bare. I am grateful that Bell has written this book, especially for helping make the revisionist case so clear. It has provoked me to articulate some of the swirling thoughts in my mind, as well as the fuller response needed to the revisionist argument. In reading it and thinking through the implications, my belief that a change in ecclesial policy on matters of same-sex sexual activity would be a departure from orthodox Christianity as historically understood has been (ironically) deepened and enriched.
Joshua Penduck is the Rector of Newcastle-under-Lyme, St Giles with St Thomas, Butterton, in the Diocese of Lichfield. Prior to ordination he was a composer and has written music for the LSO, BCMG and Orkest de Ereprijs. He is married to Shelley, who is also an Anglican minister in Stoke-on-Trent.