Following Tim Keller’s broad-brush review of Matthew Vines and Ken Wilson, it is probably no surprise that both have responded to his comments, Vines here and Wilson here. I hadn’t planned on continuing this discussion—except that I think the responses illustrate some important things about the nature of the debate that is going on. At first sight, both responses look laudable, in that they both offer a gracious tone (in response to Keller’s), and offer detailed engagement. But in fact I think there is a different dynamic at work, and one which had led us to something of a deadlocked position.
The first thing to note is the (understandable) way that the debate generates words. Keller’s piece was 2,800 words; Vines’ and Wilson’s responses are 3,200 and 2,600 respectively. And I’ve added another 1,400—that’s nearly a Grove booklet on one conversation! Apart from exhausting anyone who is not absolutely committed to the discussion, it raises an important question: is it not possible to express the issues in a more concise way? This isn’t an invitation to ‘dumb down’ the debate, but all these words can mean the real issues are obscured. We are losing sight of the wood for the sake of look at each of the trees.
Vines gives most space to the issue of historical context, and what it was that Paul was prohibiting in Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6.9. Vines corrects Keller on the shape of his argument, which is more nuanced than Keller has given him credit for. His position is that Paul is arguing against ‘excess’ rather than exploitation, based on his reading of Romans 1 and his belief that this was the dominant view in antiquity.
I argue instead that “same-sex relations in the first century…were widely understood to be the product of excessive sexual desire in general” (103-04), and I adduce dozens of texts throughout my book to support this assertion.
But in fact the shape of his argument remains the same: because Paul was not criticising the phenomenon we know, then his critique has no purchase on our situation. This is highlighted in Vines’ citing of Kirk Ormand:
“None of the so-called orientations described previously are exactly like ours, and more important, none of them would be considered normal by Plato’s Athenian audience…”
This argument rests on three assumptions, and all three must hold for Vines’ case to stand. The first is that we can say, with certainty, that there was no equivalent to stable, life-long same-sex relations in the ancient world; as Ormand goes on (in relation to Plato):
“The category of homosexual male, in which two men of the same age would be attracted to each other, and either at any given time could be thought of as lover or beloved, simply seems not to be thinkable.”
This sits oddly with the claim that same-sex attraction of the kind we are aware of is a human universal across history and culture, if only we know where to look.
The second assumption, which is more implicit than explicit, is that if Paul (along with Jesus) had known of such relations, then he would have withdrawn his condemnation of same-sex sexual relations. Apart from being historically implausible, this appears to ignore the nature of the texts we are looking at. There can be little doubt that there was a variety of views of same-sex relations in the ancient world, being seen by some as repugnant, but by others as acceptable. What is striking about the NT texts is that they are negative without any qualification. This feature is consistently noticed by all commentators of every persuasion. Vines argues (unpersuasively) that ‘excess’ is Paul’s theme in Romans 1; but is not present in 1 Cor 6.9, and forms no part of the texts in Genesis or Leviticus that Paul is alluding to. (I had a brief exchange with Vines on Twitter about this, but he did not respond to this question—and I don’t know how to interpret this.)
The third, even more deeply hidden, assumption, is that modern notions of sexual orientation change everything. This is evident in the first Ormand quotation: ‘None of the so-called orientations described previously are [sic] exactly like ours…’ but it is a recurring theme. Andre du Toit comments that
any ancient awareness of what moderns call same-sex orientation was “so rudimentary that a sympathetic insight into its seriousness and complicated nature would not have been part of the conceptual framework even of the well-informed” (324, n. 129).
Bernadette Brooten’s analysis is dismissed because
Mark D. Smith concludes that “none” of Brooten’s sources “adequately parallels the modern concept of sexual orientation” (quoted by Loader, p. 324, n. 129).
This focus goes beyond a simple observation that the social dynamics and understanding of same-sex relations has changed over the centuries. Vines appears to be claiming that our fundamental understanding of what it means to be human has changed with our understanding of sexuality.
I do argue that what we today call sexual orientation is core to who we are as human beings made in God’s image, but sexual orientation is a far broader category than “sexual desires,” a distinction that Keller elides.
This highlights what is at stake here; do we (in effect) need to re-write the Genesis narratives, so that it is not just male and female which are fundamental categories, but also ‘straight’ and ‘gay’? That is (I think) why Vines’ organisation is called ‘The Reformation Project.’ This view of sexual orientation is as fundamental to the renewal of the church, and the discovery of the kingdom of God, as was the rediscovery of the grace of God in the atoning death of Jesus. (I think this is also the issue at stake in culture; our contemporary understanding of sexuality does mean re-writing everything we have inherited in culture.) To this extent, Vines is pursuing a ‘reader response‘ approach to Scripture, and operating a kind of liberation theology for gay Christians, parallel to philosophical feminism. Where, in (radical) feminism, the experience of women is taken as prior, and everything must be interpreted in the light of that, for Vines the experience of gay Christians (and probably non-Christians?) is prior, and the Bible must be read in light of the extent to which it faithful describes (or fails to describe) their experience.
On the other points, Vines is clear that Keller has misrepresented him.
In the next section, Keller misrepresents my argument about the Leviticus prohibitions. He writes, “Vines argues that while the Levitical code forbids homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22) it also forbids eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12).”
I went back and re-read Vines chapter on Leviticus, and in fact this is an important part of his argument:
Deuteronomy 14.3–21 contains an extensive list of abominations, including the eating of pork, rabbit, shellfish and animals that are already dead. So while abomination is a negative word, it does;t necessarily correspond to Christian views of sin.
I am sure that there are better, detailed critiques of Vines than Keller has offered. But I think Keller still does something valuable in looking at the bigger picture. And it is this bigger picture which is so easily lost in the detailed exchanges.
I ought also to add that this particular part of the debate does not address the pressing pastoral issues which are at stake here. Again, Vines criticises Keller for not attending to this sufficiently. Ken Wilson’s view is worth comparing here. Where Vines passes over Keller’s opening point about bigotry, Wilson picks up on it, and agrees, yes, in the past he was a bigot.
My own acceptance of the exclusionary polices aimed at gay people, policies which I implemented as a pastor for decades, was fueled in part by this bigotry. And I don’t think I’m alone in this or unusual…As someone of Keller’s age, I was raised in a culture of rank and largely unquestioned bigotry. I think this affected me insidiously… Keller’s acknowledgement of bigotry is something we should all sit with for a while. How does one separate such pervasive bigotry from the interpretations of Scripture that are forged within this context?
This comes quite close to Steve Chalke’s view (expressed to me in conversation) that any traditional understanding of marriage must be ‘hateful to gay people.’ It seems to me that the detailed, relatively fruitless to-and-fro on the texts does not help with addressing this issue. The texts are relatively clear. The next question is, are they plausible, and what does obedience to them look like in responsible pastoral practice?
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