Tim Keller is well-known as a church leader, preacher and writer, particularly in Reformed circles, as leader of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York—though he is read more widely on both sides of the Atlantic. He has just posted a lengthy review (around 2,800 words) of two significant books in the debate about same-sex relationships, Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian and Ken Wilson’s A Letter to my Congregation. They are significant, the first because it is one of the most widely-read arguments and is particularly influential amongst the younger (Matthew Vines’) generation, the latter because Wilson is a well-knwon Vineyard pastor.
I am highlighting Keller’s review for several reasons. First, I suspect many readers of this blog might not read the Gospel Coalition blog where Keller’s comment are posted, and they deserve reading widely. Secondly, Keller’s approach is not to pick through the detailed arguments, so much as to engage with the ‘big picture’ issues which the books set out. As such, he offers a helpful overview of some of the key arguments in this debate as they have emerged in discussion. Thirdly, some of his comments have a direct bearing on the Shared Conversations that are taking place in the Church of England, and to which I have contributed.
Keller makes five points, and offers some reflection in closing.
1. Knowing Gay People Personally Keller here makes a point often passed over in discussion. If evangelicals changed their minds about biblical teaching once they got to know gay people personally, what was going on? Had they not known such people before? And what was the basis of their previous conviction?
They could not have been based on theological or ethical principles, or on an understanding of historical biblical teaching. They must have been grounded instead on a stereotype of gay people as worse sinners than others (which is itself a shallow theology of sin). So I say good riddance to bigotry.
2. Historical reality. Here Keller addresses the idea that the biblical writers lived in a world where same-sex relationships were only exploitative, and so the texts cannot address loving, mutual, same-sex relationships that we are discussing today.
These arguments were first asserted in the 1980s by John Boswell and Robin Scroggs. Vines, Wilson, and others are essentially repopularizing them. However, they do not seem to be aware that the great preponderance of the best historical scholarship since the 1980s—by the full spectrum of secular, liberal, and conservative researchers—has rejected that assertion. Here are two examples.
He mentions in particular William Loader and Bernadette Brooten, who both advocate full acceptance of same-sex relationships, but both are agreed that the biblical texts prohibit all forms of such relationships. I cite them, along with others, in a previous post on the Bible and the gay debate.
What is remarkable here is that, in the material for the Church of England Shared Conversations, this unsupported claim forms a major plank of the argument by Loveday Alexander in support of the church changing its position.
Paul doesn’t condemn long-term, faithful same-sex relationships, for the simple reason that he doesn’t know them: the homosexual activity he knows falls under the category porneia (‘bad sex’) because it is either abusive (abuse within the family unit, including slave-rape) or commercially exploitative (prostitution). (Grace and Disagreement, p 38).
It seems odd to me that this should have found a place in our discussion when so many, from the whole range of positions on same-sex relations, have offered ample evidence to refute it.
3. Slavery, segregation and sexuality. Here Keller addresses one of the most common arguments: we changed our mind about slavery and segregation (particularly in the US) and revised what we thought were ‘biblical’ positions, so we can do it again.
But historians such as Mark Noll (America’s God [Oxford, 2005] and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis [University of North Carolina, 2006]) have shown the 19th-century position some people took that Scripture condoned race-based chattel slavery was highly controversial and never a consensus. Most Protestants in Canada and Britain (and many in the northern U.S. states) condemned it as being wholly against the Bible. Rodney Stark (For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch Hunts, and the End of Slavery, 2003) points out that the Roman Catholic church also came out early against the African slave trade. David L. Chappell, in his history of the civil rights movement (A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, 2003), goes further. He proves that even before the Supreme Court decisions of the mid-1950s, almost no one was promoting the slender and forced biblical justifications for racial superiority and segregation. Even otherwise racist theologians and ministers couldn’t find a basis for white supremacy in the Bible.
Keller touches on other comparisons, such as divorce and remarriage. The question of women and ministry, which has been such a big issue in the Church of England, does not feature in this discussion, since for Keller and other US evangelicals there has been no comparable change in consensus. But Keller makes an important observation about the relationships between ‘biblical’ views and cultural change.
During the Civil War, British Presbyterian biblical scholars told their southern American colleagues who supported slavery that they were reading the scriptural texts through cultural blinders. They wanted to find evidence for their views in the Bible and voila—they found it. If no Christian reading the Bible—across diverse cultures and times—ever previously discovered support for same-sex relationships in the Bible until today, it’s hard not to wonder if many now have new cultural spectacles on, having a strong predisposition to find in these texts evidence for the views they already hold.
4. The nature of biblical authority. I think I found the way this point was expressed the least persuasive part of Keller’s response. But I would agree with the major point, often passed over, about why the texts (for example) in Leviticus have continued relevance in the way that commands about eating shellfish do not:
The traditional view is this: Yes, there are things in the Bible Christians no longer have to follow, but if the Scripture is our final authority, only the Bible itself can tell us what those things are. The prohibitions against homosexuality are re-stated in the New Testament (Romans 1; 1 Corinthians 6; 1 Timothy 1) but Jesus himself (Mark 7), as well as the rest of the New Testament, tells us the clean laws and ceremonial code is no longer in force.
5. Being on the ‘wrong side of history’. Here Keller points out that history is not linear, and there is no guarantee that we are moving in a direction from ignorance to enlightenment, as is so often assumed. In relation to debates about sexuality in the UK, we appear to have forgotten that, in the liberation of the 1960s, it was suggested that sexual relationships with children were acceptable in some contexts, where we would now reject such a proposal with horror. Culture can change in more than one direction.
Three final things to note. Keller concludes with a key observation: that these books focus on the negative prohibitions about sexuality, rather than on the positive vision. I think he is spot on. When I have made presentations on this as part of preparation for the Shared Conversations, I have offered an outline of the Bible’s (positive) vision of sexuality. The debate must be located there.
Second, the tone of Keller’s engagement is worth noting.
This review has been too brief to give these authors the credit they are due for maintaining a respectful and gracious tone throughout. We live in a time in which civility and love in these discussions is fast going away, and I am thankful the authors are not part of the angry, caustic flow.
But thirdly, Keller is pointing out that these two authors’ arguments have only become persuasive because their readers have not asked critical questions and have not engaged with available and well-established background information. Let’s hope the same is not true for the Church of England.
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