What is a biblical theology of sexuality? Part 1

Much of the current debate, both within the Church of England and in other denominations, when it does focus on the Bible, often gets lost in the minutiae of discussion about single verses or even individual terms, as if the debate could be settled in this atomistic way. The details are indeed important—but they also build into a bigger picture, and it is this bigger picture which is often missed, but is the real measure of any proposal to change the church’s teaching of offer an innovative ethics. The big picture also has the potential to critique aspects of the ‘traditional’ teaching on sexuality; it would be hard to argue that the Church has got its teaching consistently right or healthy in past generations!

So what does a big-picture biblical theology look like? This is what I have offered in churches where I have spoken on sexuality, so the particular debates we are having now find a larger theological context. I propose eight affirmations that we find in Scripture, which seem to me to be broadly assumed across the whole biblical narrative. I’d be interested in any observations about where this list might be revised. I am aware that this isn’t a robust, ‘academic’ exposition—but it seems to me to be a fair summary of the broad theological themes in Scripture.

1. Sex is God-given

The first conviction (in terms of priority and importance) of sex and sexuality is that it is a good gift of God in creation. This is the basic assumption made by the biblical narrative which surfaces at key points in the text.

But the church has often struggled with accepting this, and the struggle is evidence in the history of the translation of 1 Cor 7.1: ‘Now concerning the things about which you wrote: It is good for a man not to touch a woman’. Earlier English translations do not put the second sentence into inverted comments, and so read this as a statement of Paul: sex (for which ‘touch’ is a euphemism) is an unfortunate necessity, and is to be avoided where possible. But the consensus of recent interpretation is that this is not the view or statement of Paul, but of the Corinthians with whom he is arguing. Their position is that if you are truly ‘spiritual’ (a theme that Paul picks up explicitly in 1 Cor 12.1, ‘Now, about the “spiritual”…’) then you will leave behind the mundane, earthy realities of sex. Against that, Paul makes this remarkable statement:

The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. (1 Cor 7.4–5)

This is remarkable because, in Paul’s only explicit statement about ‘authority’ in the context of marriage, he is clear that authority is exercised equally and symmetrically by wife and husband over each other. But it is also remarkable because he is quite clear that sex is a non-negotiable aspect of married life, and that there is no ‘spiritually mature’ position which supersedes it. Sex is for the spiritually mature! He does concede that some might be like him, single and celibate, but he is clear that, for most, the expectation is that they would be married and have sex.

This is in line with the life of Jesus, where he is accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ in contrast with the austerity of John the Baptist’s life (Matt 11.19, Luke 7.34). It is clear that Jesus was someone who fully enjoyed the pleasures of bodily life, to the extent that is caused something of a stir amongst those who criticised him. Like Paul, Jesus was celibate and single—but like Paul, he affirmed the goodness of pleasurable bodily experiences.

One of the most startling things about the canon of Scripture is the inclusion in this narrative testimony of the story of God’s dealings with his people of the Song of Songs, with its quite explicit and detailed celebration of intimate bodily pleasure between the lover and the beloved. There might well be some deeper spiritual significance to it—but on the surface it certainly looks like a celebration of intimate sexual pleasure. I remember being quite surprised when I discovered it as a teenage boy newly come to faith!

All of this is rooted in the origins of sex in God’s creation of humanity as male and female. Having made Adam and Eve in their bodily distinctiveness, it is quite hard to imagine God being either shocked or surprised when ‘Adam knew Eve, and she conceived’ (Gen 4.1).

But we struggle with the idea of sex as a good gift from God both within and outside the church. Talks on sex and relationships for teenagers rarely start at this point; most often we are afraid that they already think about sex too much, and we need to warn them away! And in the wider world, sex is often seen as something that brings harm and its misuse leaves lasting scars; the idea that it is good and a gift is a long way from the experience of many.

2. We are created bodily

The Police sang that ‘We are spirits in a material world‘; by contrast Madonna sang ‘I am a material girl‘. Christians usually are good at rejecting the materialism and hedonism of the second point of view; but we are less good at discerning the false claim of the first point of view. It was expressed long ago in Plato’s philosophy: the material world is inherently bad, and we are spirits trapped in this vale of tears awaiting spiritual release at the point of death. You find this expressed in comments at funerals: ‘He is no longer here, but has gone to be with God’; ‘This is not her, but merely the empty shell of her body’.

By contrast, the consistent view of the New Testament (also assumed in the Old) is that we are body–soul (‘psychosomatic’) unities. Our bodies are not mere containers for our ‘true’ selves which we call a soul, but the two aspects of our nature—the outer, physical, and the inner or ‘spiritual’—are integrated and inseparable.

This is why the incarnation is so important in Christian theology. For God in the person of Jesus to experience human life meant him becoming fully bodily, and so in even the most ‘spiritual’ of gospels, that attributed to John, Jesus experiences the full range of bodily emotions and experiences, including hunger, thirst, tiredness, weeping and so on. And when he is raised, he is raised bodily; in the presence of his disciples, he eats (Luke 24.30, 39, 43). He can be held, touched and embraced.

If this was Jesus’ resurrection destiny, then it is ours too. The reason why Paul is concerned with bodily behaviour in his ethical outlook is that he is quite clear that, in some sense, we carry our bodily identity into the new creation.

The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? (1 Cor 6.13–15)

We will be bodily in the resurrection, and in fact we are already incorporated into Jesus’ resurrection body, so what we do with our bodies matters.

Jesus does teach that ‘in the resurrection, they will be like the angels’ (Matt 22.30), but that does not imply a lack of bodily reality, simply that there are some aspects of mundane life with which we will not be concerned (on which, see below).

So in biblical theology, bodies matter, since we are irreducibly bodily in our humanity. This implies that sex matters too.

Come and join us for the Third Festival of Theology on Tuesday 8th October!

3. We have sexed bodies 

To talk of humans being ‘sexed’ always sounds odd, since in English ‘sex’ is both a verb and a noun, so that discussion about sex difference is easily confused with talk of sexual activity. For this reason, the language of ‘gender’ is often used, so people talk about ‘gender difference’. It is important to notice that this is a relatively recent innovation in language; before its use in this way by sexologist John Money in the 1950s and 1960s, ‘gender’ was only used to refer to an aspect of grammar. I think there is some value in distinguishing between biological sex and the social roles for the sexes within a particular culture—but of course the current debate is exactly what is the connection between the two. But my point here is that Scripture always and everywhere see the creation of humanity as clearly distinguished into male and female (often referred to as ‘sex dimorphism’, humanity as two sex-differentiated bodily forms).

In the first creation account, in Gen 1 up to Gen 2.3, there is central emphasis on humanity as male and female:

So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1.27)

It is worth noting here that this text is not asserting that humanity is male and female; it is assuming it. Within its context, the striking thing is that both male and female are made in the image of God; there is no debate that male and female people exist, and the text is not here arguing for sex dimorphism, but assuming it in its assertion that both halves of sex dimorphic humanity represent God’s image in the world.

In the second creation account, in Gen 2.5f, sex dimorphism becomes even more central to the narrative. As has often been noted, following the repeated affirmation in Gen 1 that the creation is ‘good…good…very good’ it is startling to meet the claim that ‘it is not good for the adam to be alone’ (Gen 2.18)—especially when that comes from the lips of God himself. What follows then is a narrative exploring the twin themes of equality and difference. The ‘suitable helper’ needed for the adam should be like the opposite bank of a river—equal but differentiated. All the animals brought before the adam and named by him are indeed different from him, but none is an equal partner. It is only when the woman is formed from the one who is then known as the man (Heb the ishshah from the ish) that we have a pair who are different but equal, suitable partners to one another.

Again, though, the narrative is not asserting that humanity is male and female; this is taken as an assumed datum that needs some explanation, and the explanation is found in the creative intention of God.

This bodily sex differentiation is seen as the foundation of sexual union. In Gen 2.24, the climax of the story is set out clearly:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

What is the ‘reason’? That in primordial creation, God has separated these aspects of humanity, and that marriage and the sexual union that takes place within marriage somehow reunites that which was divided. There is an intriguing parallel here with the speech of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, in which the various sexual desires of people are also explained by the division of primordial creatures.

Those of us who desire members of the opposite sex were previously androgynous, whereas men who desire men and women who desire women were previously male or female. When we find our other half, we are ‘lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy’ that cannot be accounted for by a simple appetite for sex, but rather by a desire to be whole again, and restored to our original nature.

Both these accounts offer an explanation for why the sex drive is so strong, and offer an account of the existential significance of sexual union. The difference is that the biblical account is rooted in our sex dimorphic bodily forms of male and female, rather than (like Plato) inferring an explanation from the diverse patterns of sexual desire.

This observation concurs with the reality of our bodily form. Different parts of our bodies have a biological purpose: my lungs are for the purpose of breathing and oxygenation; my heart is for the purpose of pumping my blood around my body; my legs are for running and walking. This implies an understanding of biological normality; if my legs do not function properly, so that I cannot walk or run, then we are right to describe this as a disability, simply in purely biological terms. But note that, within the complex system of the body, my lungs do not need anything else to fulfil their biological function; they are able to draw air into my body without needing another organ. Similarly, my heart can pump my blood around itself, within the complex of the body. However, my genitals are biologically unique, in that they cannot fulfil their biological function of reproduction on their own, without union with the genitalia of a female body. And if for some reason they are, even then, not able to fulfil their biological function, then we are right to describe this as a disability. The rare range of conditions that are grouped under the common title ‘intersex’ do not offer a ‘new way’ to understand sexuality, but are kinds of disability.

I don’t believe in sex dimorphism because the Bible teaches it; I believe in it because science observes it. The Bible makes the same observation that science does. This is important in current debate; if it was merely taught in the Bible, then we might be free to accept or reject it. Since it is actually observable fact, it is harder to avoid.

4. God intends us to be integrated

The consistent vision of Scripture is that, just as God is ‘one’ (Deut 6.4), humanity made in God’s image should also be ‘one’. There a sense in which God being ‘one’ means that he alone is God, but it also implies that God is unified and integrated in his character, intentions and actions. The Letter of James, an early circular to a Jewish Christian audience, makes this a central concern:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1.17)

Because God is one, we too must have integrity in our attitude to everything if we are to be like him, treating rich and poor alike, and speaking with integrity, not using kind words at one moment and harsh words at another. James’ teaching here is very close to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5–7; we are to have a ‘single eye’, a single focus in life on the kingdom of God, and our words and our actions must align with this. Our inner thoughts and our outer actions must match one another if we are to be people of integrity, rather than hypocrites, who act one part in public whilst actually playing a different part in the privacy of our own hearts.

This is the primary reason for Christian ethical commitment to sexual intimacy belonging in the lifelong and exclusive commitment of marriage. This is also the root problem behind pornography; in separating sexual activity from relational commitment, it is basically dis-integrating. Our bodily, sexual action should match the intention of our inner lives. The full bodily commitment of sexual union belongs in an inner and outer commitment of the whole of our lives, and the bodily, the personal and the social should match one another. This is reflected, for example, in the Church of England’s understanding of marriage as set out in the introduction in the marriage service.

The Bible teaches us that marriage is a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace, a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh. It is God’s purpose that, as husband and wife give themselves to each other in love throughout their lives, they shall be united in that love as Christ is united with his Church.

Marriage is given, that husband and wife may comfort and help each other, living faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy. It is given, that with delight and tenderness they may know each other in love, and, through the joy of their bodily union, may strengthen the union of their hearts and lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children may be born and nurtured in accordance with God’s will, to his praise and glory.

In marriage husband and wife belong to one another, and they begin a new life together in the community. It is a way of life that all should honour. (ASB Marriage Service)

Notice the interweaving here of pleasure, affirmation, self-discovery, self-giving, love, reproduction, and social cohesion. The ‘joy of their bodily union’ is both a reflection and a strengthening of the union of all other parts of their life.

These first four affirmations—that sex is a good gift from God, that we are created bodily, and are sex dimorphic, and that we should live integrated lives where our bodily and sexual actions reflect our desires and intentions—are essentially positive. But they need to be held with one another and with four further affirmations which add some qualifications: that sex is powerful, that we are fallen creatures, that sex therefore needs boundaries, and that it is not the ultimate reality of being human. I will expound these in a second post tomorrow.

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140 thoughts on “What is a biblical theology of sexuality? Part 1”

  1. Well you’re right, it is ‘A’ biblical theology of sexuality.

    And indeed, I probably share your view that, if the Bible is to be taken as authoritative on issues of sexuality for all societies and all times, then gay and lesbian sexuality are against the will of God. In my opinion, that is fairly clear.

    However, that presupposes ‘A’ way of reading and understanding the Bible.

    There are others, that take a less ‘elevated’ view of the Bible narratives, understanding them to be expressions of fallible individuals, writing from inside cultures, prejudices, assumptions, filters – and doing so with great sincerity.

    Your view of a biblical theology of sexuality will hinge on your view of how the Bible should be read, received, and responded to. And frankly, that’s why there are diverse views on human sexuality in the Church of England today.

    The key issue is not what we make of the specifics of biblical sexuality, or even the broader picture you are trying to construct/reassert Ian. The key issue is how we regard the Bible, and the limits of its authoritative accuracy, and its putative fallibility. That is the front line. Otherwise, you’re simply reasserting the stand-off of opinions that we all know exists.

    We are a Church with diverse views on biblical theology of sexuality. That’s just how it is. We kind of have to live with that, because it is hardly likely to change. The challenge is whether we can find continuing unity in Jesus Christ, even with these differences, and love one another in our shared journeys.

    That approach – of unity in diversity – is the one I advocate and deeply believe in. We cannot impose our consciences on other people’s consciences. For what it’s worth, I believe… at face value… the Bible pretty clearly rejects gay sexuality, not least because it falls outside marriage.
    But that’s at face value, dependent on an approach to reading the Bible that presupposes it is virtually infallible in its wisdom.

    That is a traditional paradigm, but half the Church of England today would opt to read the Bible more critically, as profound but fallible texts. Your theology, Ian, is ‘A’ biblical theology, but demonstrably not the only one. Therefore, however sharp your analysis is, nothing changes because people are working from different starting points and convictions about the Bible.

    I’m not engaging in further comment (except with you, Ian, if you choose) because otherwise we all know this will run off into 100’s of posts and endless ping-pong quibbles, and I’ve made my point and withdraw.

    • Thanks for the comment—but you appear to be contradicting yourself.

      On the one hand, you say this is only one way of reading the texts. On the other, you say that others don’t take the biblical view as authoritative.

      I would be happy to consider other possible readings of the text—if you could demonstrate where the text says something different.

      But you might just be saying ‘Yes, this is the biblical theology—but I reject it’. I think that might be a more honest approach…?

      • What I was trying to say was: there is more than one way of reading bible texts, and much hinges on how authoritative you feel the text is at text level, and the extent to which some textual statements should be regarded as ‘provisional’ because they reflect the author’s culture, lens, and time, but arguably not the eternal view and will of God.

        Other ways of reading Paul’s statements against man-man sex, to take a basic example, would be to say: “These were Paul’s beliefs and conclusions, as stated in his text, but it is reasonable to suppose that his views were deeply influenced by the social and cultural attitudes to man-man sex that existed in the religious communities he grew up in.”

        In short, the texts can be read as cultural comments that seemed valid in his own time, but ought not to be appropriated in our faith today, when most decent people respect gay sexuality.

        I am not saying “this is THE biblical theology – but I reject it.” I’m saying that “this is A biblical theology, and many people in the Church of England reject it”.

        Clearly at a simplistic, text-isolated level, the text says what it says. But I believe my example demonstrates how ‘readings of the Bible texts’ may differ in understanding, depending on the underlying way people believe the Bible should be read, and on what basis they develop ‘Biblical theology’.

        So-called liberal theology may also be ‘biblical theology’. It’s just that people draw on different methodology for reading the Bible texts, with more extensive de-construction of text in some cases, to try to get behind the ‘shop window’ and understand what really matters, and what God continues to say to us today, in our world, in our lives, in our givenness… about opening to the primary imperatives of love, and opening to God in our hearts.

        The Word of God continues to speak, through many conduits, to our human consciences. In the example I gave, what is Paul’s main concern? Holiness. That’s really relevant, but the examples for holiness that he draws upon may include some which are culturally influenced.

        I don’t reject the Bible. I love it. In so many ways it is profound and can open our hearts. Recognising fallibilities and cultural influences is not rejection. It is respect. Many of us believe there is more integrity in acknowledging those fallible human influences on the text. The Bible is a conduit, but not a flawless text, engraved in stone.

        • The idea that ‘there is more than one way of reading Bible texts’ is an extraordinary assertion for loads of separate reasons each of which should be considered separately:

          (1) How are Bible assertions intrinsically different from nonBible assertions? In each case, the assertions are either true, false or nonsensical.

          (2) The Bible contains hundreds of thousands of assertions. We are asked to group all of these in the same category?! The larger the generalisation the more inaccurate it is. This one is seriously large.

          (3) Why cannot ways of looking at the text be complementary? (Blind man and elephant.) I am sure you concur.

          (4) The vast majority of possible claims about what a text is saying or means are going to be false. Well over 99%. That is just in the nature of assertions.

          • Christopher: neither you nor Ian really engage with Susannah’s point. (Nothing very new there).

            Christopher you ask
            “How are Bible assertions intrinsically different from nonBible assertions? In each case, the assertions are either true, false or nonsensical.”

            Answer: many of the ‘assertions’ the bible makes are hidden in parables, poetry, story, ‘faith history etc. They aren’t assertions like ‘The Prime Minister prorogued parliament’. To get at the assertion you have to interpret. And interpretation is complex.

            Then, as many of us have pointed out many times, what was an assertion 2000 years ago might not necessarily be asserted now. Teaching has changed. God’s mind might have changed (as it changed in various ways during the texts as we have them).

            You then say: “The vast majority of possible claims about what a text is saying or means are going to be false. Well over 99%. That is just in the nature of assertions.”

            Hmm…which means that many of your claims, and Ian’s claims, about about what a text is saying are false doesn’t it?

          • Hi Andrew

            (1) Susannah is not making only one point.

            (2) The second half of your first para is snide, but a person will read that and think ‘people capable of being snide are less likely to be objective and unbiased, inasmuch as they are more likely to be ad hominem. So for debate, go elsewhere.’.

            (3) Third para. Well – that is often said, more in ideology than accuracy. There is a book in the Bible (Song) that is largely metaphorical, but the other 99%+ of the Bible is not that book. Revelation ‘I saw’ is a factual claim. ‘I saw what looked like’ is a factual claim. Parables by virtue of their genre are not asserting that there was a careless sower, they are asserting that there are deep structures that correspond to the careless sower.

            (4) What might have been an assertion 2000 years ago might not be asserted now – you say.

            Where to start with this? The point is not that assertions are made. Of course they are made. The point is that true assertions remain true and false ones remain false. Regardless of chronology – this is an obvious point. It is not much good making an assertion if it is false. (When we say that true assertions remain true and false ones remain false, obviously words like ‘now’ have to be unpacked within the assertion, since ‘I am now 78 years old’ will not be equally true at different times.

            As for your last 2 paras, are you accepting or rejecting the point that over 99% of possible claims are false?
            By the way I am talking of *possible* claims. The claims that are actually ever asserted are usually the more likely ones, not the merely possible ones. It is possible to claim that Herod was a watermelon.

          • Christopher:
            Factual claims. The bible claims the world was made in seven days. That there was a boat with every living creature on it. That the first man was created just like that. That the woman was created from a rib of the man. That there was a whale which swallowed Jonah. That a man called Job had a conversation with God that could be recorded….etc etc etc…..
            Are you saying we don’t have to interpret any of these assertions?

            And of course 99% of possible claims could be false. Possible claims aren’t much use in your argument though if they don’t exist so it’s a meaningless point.

          • ‘I am now 78 years old’ will not be equally true at different times.

            Absolutely. Truth is relative to context. That is what you are saying.

          • No, I am not saying that. I am saying that there is a minority of statements that includes unclear and relative terms like ‘now’. For *these* statements’ truth to be tested, the ‘now’ has to be unpacked. So assertions need to be perspicacious and perfectly clear and precise before they are tested for truth. ‘Relative to context’ does not come into it, because the unclear can always be made more clear.

          • I don’t accept your excuse about relativism I’m afraid.
            One major issue would be circumcision. It was once true that to be in a convenant relationship with God you needed to be circumcised. That is no longer true.

            So please would you address my other points Christopher?

            What kind of assertions are the biblical claims that the world was made in seven days. That there was a boat with every living creature on it. That the first man was created just like that. That the woman was created from a rib of the man. That there was a whale which swallowed Jonah. That a man called Job had a conversation with God that could be recorded….etc etc etc…..
            Your claim that 99% of the bible is packed with simple straightforward true or false assertions simply doesn’t hold true does it?

          • Hi Andrew

            Your last was 15 lines long. Within that space you made the following incorrect moves

            (1) Relativism? This is the first time and probably the last that someone has said I advocate relativism, to which thinking people are strongly opposed. Relativism is a philosophy that (in an utterly absolutist and sweeping way!…) resists absolutes in every area of life all at once, prior to the necessary investigation. I am never going to plead relativism (who would?) because of all the possible philosophies it is one of the weakest and most ideological. My point was a different one: that some words are insufficiently unpacked when they are used, because whether they are accurate or not is something that can be determined only by reference to date and other circumstances. They are still either true or false, just we need more precision in order to determine that.

            (2) Circumcision is a classic example. So long as the assertion is ‘All males are required to undergo this [understand: here, now]’ then it is true.

            (3) Which claim of mine are you referring to when you say ‘simple straightforward’? This claims to be quoting me. It is not, as you must surely know.

            (4) One of the relevant circumstances that always needs to be clarified is genre. Are we dealing with allegory? Aetiology? Here we return to the careless sower: the assertion that there actually existed this careless sower is an assertion that is not being made.

            (5) When you say ‘packed with’, these again are words I never used. However, your comment is ‘packed with’ sarcasm: ‘I’m afraid’, ‘simply’, ‘does it?’, ‘please would you address’ (implying obfuscation).
            In a panto, would the sarcastic character be a goodie or a baddie?

          • Christopher:

            Let’s try to deal with one thing at a time to avoid obfuscation. Certainly what you are saying, or trying to say, is not at all clear to me. So I am seeking clarity.

            You say – and I quote directly ” How are Bible assertions intrinsically different from nonBible assertions? In each case, the assertions are either true, false or nonsensical.”

            I gave you an answer as follows: “many of the ‘assertions’ the bible makes are hidden in parables, poetry, story, ‘faith history etc. They aren’t assertions like ‘The Prime Minister prorogued parliament’. To get at the assertion you have to interpret. And interpretation is complex.”

            You then responded that:
            “There is a book in the Bible (Song) that is largely metaphorical, but the other 99%+ of the Bible is not that book. Revelation ‘I saw’ is a factual claim. ‘I saw what looked like’ is a factual claim.”

            I then gave you a series of biblical assertions as follows:

            “The bible claims the world was made in seven days. That there was a boat with every living creature on it. That the first man was created just like that. That the woman was created from a rib of the man. That there was a whale which swallowed Jonah. That a man called Job had a conversation with God that could be recorded….etc etc etc…..”

            My question – let me be clear – is this: which of these ‘factual claims’ (your term) are True? Which are False? Which are nonsensical? and how do you know?

            Hope this is clear.

            My que quesrion

            So I have given you a number of biblical assertions as follows:

          • Sometimes when things are unclear, it is because people are expected to fall into one of 2 camps in a binary way – when of course there are 1000s of possible configurations/theories. If people only let go of framing, which is a harmful preemptive process that prejudges what the options are, we’d all be much better off.

            I don’t use unclear language, but if I am saying unfamiliar things it may be that that is the reason for misunderstanding, though don’t rule out unclarity of thought.

            To get at the assertion you have to interpret? Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. Interpretation is complex? Again, I demur – sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. And the times when it isn’t are just as real as the times when it is. Which leads one to wonder why you not only emphasise the problematic, but try to make it completely swallow the unproblematic.

            Depending on genre, some of the things you call factual claims will be, and some will not be. It looks like you have presupposed which things are factual claims. Some of them may be just repeating accounts which have been related or passed down.

          • Christopher: The question is clear but you are not answering it. Let me put it to you a fourth time.

            “The bible claims the world was made in seven days. That there was a boat with every living creature on it. That the first man was created just like that. That the woman was created from a rib of the man. That there was a whale which swallowed Jonah. That a man called Job had a conversation with God that could be recorded….etc etc etc…..”

            My question – let me be clear again – is this: which of these ‘factual claims’ (your term) are True? Which are False? Which are nonsensical? and how do you know?

          • No, Christopher, it isn’t. read Ken Stone on the Genesis narratives.
            He argues that they are as much about food and agriculture as they are about sex and that this is how early Judahite religion would have read them.

          • Hi Penny

            The Song of Songs clearly uses metaphorical language repeatedly. It is talking about married couple but on the surface is talking about fruit etc..

          • Penny you say ‘No, Christopher, it isn’t.’. What isn’t what?

            Food/agriculture and sex are not mutually exclusive anyway.

            And thirdly, how can the Genesis narratives (all of them??) have a single theme?

          • Food/agriculture and sex are not mutually exclusive anyway.

            Agriculture, in particular, involves a lot of sex. Or where did you think those lambs came from?

          • Andrew, I said that all writings (including the Biblical ones just the same) contain multiple assertions that are either true or false or nonsensical, not that we always know which ones are true or which ones are false. Or even that we can always know the genre aright – though we generally can.

            Secondly, in what I said above about facts, I questioned whether you were correctly identifying what assertions are in fact being made. In non-fiction narratives assertions can be made either (1) because a truth-claim is being made in contradistinction to other possibilities/theories, or (2) out of a deposit of inherited wisdom.

          • Christopher you seem to be making some general and vague comments and sadly, like our politicians, refusing to answer the direct question. Please can you be specific?

            Earlier you claimed that 99%+ (note the +) of the bible was not metaphorical (claiming that the Song was an exception to this) and it was the kind of literature that made assertions which could be analysed as true/false/nonsensical. So I have put to you a very specific question four times now. Here it is a fifth time! Please be specific in your answer.

            The bible claims the world was made in seven days.
            That there was a boat with every living creature on it.
            That the first man was created just like that. I.e no evolution.
            That the woman was created from a rib of the man.
            That there was a whale which swallowed Jonah.
            That a man called Job had a conversation with God that could be recorded….etc etc etc…..”

            My question – let me be clear again – is this: which of these ‘factual claims’ (your term) are True? Which are False? Which are nonsensical? and how do you know?

          • Christopher
            I didn’t say that food and agriculture and sex were not related. That is my point.

            You are right. Song of Songs does use metaphor to describe erotic encounters, but there is no evidence that the couple are married 🙂

          • Define marriage, though. There is no way of defining marriage more definitely than by natural law. If you define by ceremony, who is to say the boundaries of what ceremony is or is not valid? Marriage is in nature.

          • Yes, that’s right: 99%+ of the Biblical writings are not in metaphorical genres. But are they all, in all portions, in historical-factual styles like narrative/speech/epistle? Far from it. Bible genre is very and appropriately diverse.

            You make an astonishing claim when you say I have the slightest thing to do with political obfuscation which I abhor. I read an article today about John Humphreys playing the role of the common man who wants to elicit straight yes/no answers. But unless the question has been framed in such a way as to allow such answers, one has to take a step back and define terms. When one does so, one will be accused of obfuscation. One can’t win.

            If you frame the issues at the start and force your interlocutor to frame them in the same way as you, then you are controlling the discourse. You are saying they are not allowed to consider that the way you are framing things is incoherent.

            All anyone can do is repeat the answers already given:

            (1) It is surely obvious to you as well as to me that we do not always know the answers to which things are factually true, especially in a distant culture and time. How could we? The fact that every assertion is true, false or incoherent has no connection to our ability to discern which of the 3 it is in a given case, which is why we have to rely on evidence, historical and cosmological investigation, expertise, and logic, in order to estimate the likelihoods.

            Without properly digesting my answers, you look to have been under the misapprehension that because I said the trivial truth that all assertions are true, false, or incoherent, I must therefore always know which were which. But it is clear both that I did not say that and also that in many instances no-one could know such things.

            (2) Again repeating previous point: generically, much of Genesis is aetiology. That is a point I have made repeatedly, though only once previously on this thread, and I am not sure that comment got through (I probably pressed the wrong button) – but maybe it did. I am not an OT scholar. I gather it is a possibility that Jonah is allegorical. The scholars would know better than me, and indeed than any of us. Why you are asking such questions of a non-OT-scholar I cannot imagine, as you will not get very good answers while the good answers are, all the time, a few clicks away. I can at least pass on some things I have learnt in NT studies. The principle that correct identification of genre is extremely important and central in interpretation is one that I would firmly press. There is a lot of incoherent layperson talk about literal and metaphorical, which I have sought to address briefly in What Are They Teaching The Children?

            (3) Some genres seek to establish facts based on superior evidence; others repeat venerable wisdom.

            I can’t repeat these answers any more times – it is better that you think about their adequacy instead.

            Also, consider, are there cross-cultural analogues? Consult the Chadwick spouses on comparative ancient literature. What kinds of literature appear cross-culturally? What stories do so? Hecataeus and Herodotus; muthos and logos. Are storytelling and history like oil and water or do they sometimes merge into one another?

            With Thucydides we get somewhat more scientific history – something that is not only relatively foreign to most of his predecessors, but also completely out of bounds for anyone venturing into origins-narrative.

            Narratives do not announce their genre, whether it is bedtime story, foundation legend and/or aetiology, chronicle, great-hall epic recitation. In the retelling of far-off events (Odysseus, Arthur, Roland), it is the more memorable or even humorous portions that survive best (and grow) in the retelling. This makes historical/nonhistorical classification of legends difficult. But stick to the question ‘What genre is this?’; consult experts and shun non-experts; don’t expect anyone to be the secret guardian of all knowledge including inaccessible knowledge (and don’t harass them when they obviously are not that nor ever claimed to be). Together with an emphasis on genre, think what circumstances plausibly give rise to different genres. Aetiology – wondering about mysteries, how things came to be as they now are. Epic – need for entertainment. Chronicle – need to record and not to forget.

            You also mentioned Job. That falls in the wondering about mysteries category perhaps (mystery of suffering). It looks more didactic/wisdom than entertainment. I am perpetually speaking as a nonexpert when it comes to the OT. But cheer up – the people you can better consult on this are legion.

          • Good point Christopher
            Marriage is not defined by ceremony.
            I don’t agree with your natural law argument though. I don’t see marriage in nature at all. (except in the matter of gay penguins:-) )

          • So how do you define marriage? Or don’t you think it is a definable reality? If not, why are you using the word at all?

            Two will still become one in the natural way whether people give a word for that or withhold a word for it.

          • Christopher: far from framing a question that moved the agenda to my own territory I was simply asking you to clarify a claim you made.

            Earlier you claimed that 99%+ (note the +) of the bible was the kind of literature that made assertions which could be analysed as true/false/nonsensical. So I have put to you a very specific question about a number of passages from the bible that seem like they are making those assertions. (Factual claims I think you called them). For all of your words You either can’t or won’t address the question. It was your claim and not mine.

            According to you it’s either true or false or nonsensical that the world and everything in it was created in seven days. The same would apply to the assertions about Noah’s boat.

            You can’t make such claims and then say “well actually I’m not an OT scholar so you need to ask one of those”. It begins to look like you agree with Susannah about the biblical texts – and I welcome that agreement.

          • As to relativism: I am glad you acknowledge that circumcision falls within this real. It WAS true that to be within a covenant relationship with God males had to be circumcised. But that truth was relative to a particular time, culture and view. The Church reviewed the matter and declared it was no longer true. Males did no have to be circumcised to be in a covenant relationship with God.

            So either God’s mind had changed or we had misunderstood the permanency of that truth. You can’t have that both ways.

            The same could, of course, be the case when it comes to same sex relationships. The Church will review it. That review has already begun in various parts of the Anglican communion.

          • Nothing ‘begins’ to look like anything as the essential structure of my thought has been the same for over 30 years, though it was 15 years ago that I adopted ‘anti-ideology’ (and/or ‘truth-seeking’) as a lynchpin. My thought’s basis is not changing – though it always will if the evidence makes it. Your understanding of it is what is changing, and that is because you began with a stereotype.

            If you think I have a view of ‘the biblical texts’ you do not even begin to understand or even read what I say. (1) The texts so collected are diverse in legion and central ways (era, culture, genre, author), as well as having important commonality. The last thing one can do is generalise about them. That will obfuscate not illuminate. (2) The ‘biblical’ grouping terminology is one that you share uncritically with the fundamentalist. Why? The world was changed in one generation, and people want to understand the power and truth that caused that, because it will help them understand the way things are, will give them a much better and more accurate worldview and perspective. The primary documents and background documents about this certainly should be and are collected as one. But that does not make their nature as documents different from the nature of other documents, though the nature of what they collectively attest to certainly is on a different plane from anything else.

            ‘According to you it’s either true or false or nonsensical that the world was created in 7 days.’ Not according to me alone, according to everyone, since what other alternatives are there?

            You say ‘I can’t say that these are the 3 alternatives and then not know which of the 3 is right.’ For the nth time, you are wrong there. Of course one can know what the alternatives are without knowing which one is right. That applies to all of us much of the time. There are examples of it in all our lives every day. However, one can be guided by genre to make a jolly good guess.

            On circumcision you again misread me. Read again what I said. From the way you write, it is like OT circumcision always was wrong, and it took the enlightened later Christians to see that. Nothing to do with the inauguration of a new era. A remarkable theory, but can it be justified? Yawnfully (from my pov) you then extend that to SSM on the basis that ‘things change [well, yes…] so therefore anything I *want* to change can be the precise thing [out of millions of things] that changes next.’ It is all to do with *want*. The central facts that (a) ‘change’ is as vague a notion as is imaginable, (b) only some changes are good, (c) the connection between the 2 cases is unclear – these are left by the wayside.

          • Christopher

            I suppose I would have to ask what you mean by two becoming one in the natural way.
            Firstly, I don’t believe that two become one.
            Secondly, my definition of natural is probably broader than yours.

          • ” ‘According to you it’s either true or false or nonsensical that the world was created in 7 days.’ Not according to me alone, according to everyone, since what other alternatives are there?”

            Christopher: the alternative is very straightforward – 99% of the bible does not conform to this approach. You don’t ask whether a poem is true/false/nonsensical. You ask instead: what is it trying to communicate? What did the author believe that made them express themselves in that way? For the nth time, the early Christian fathers were right when they said it was impossible to use words about God but unless we remain silent we need to use words with all of their limitations. However, those words are helpful to us rather than being descriptive of God. The bible is trying to express things that are beyond expression. True/false/nonsensical is just a category error for 99% of the material.

            As to parallels between circumcision and SSM: well, you might be right and you might be wrong. But it’s nothing to do with want. It’s to do with discernment. And we are on that journey, like it or not. And if you don’t like it, then you need to campaign to make homosexual relationships illegal again, becasue that is the only integrated approach.

          • What I mean by 2 becoming 1 in the natural way? You are requesting a lesson in the facts of life.

            Once again we identify a basic disagreement from which much stems. Over against your position, I classify sex as having the highest importance(and had been assuming all Christians agreed), which is why we use the highest language like 2 becoming 1. I am not talking about exegesis here (though exegesis supports this) but about the way things essentially are. Unrelated people can by this means become related. I certainly have distinguished company in holding to this perspective which has sometimes been called the sacramental perspective.

          • Thoroughly inadequate. In a multi-genre collection that is agreed to be a multi-genre collection, you want to make the category ‘poetry’ eat up most of the others (how impoverishing). The sections and books you are mainly speaking of do not, to the literature scholar, look much like poetry at all, and I am not speaking merely of metre.

            Again, there are situations where one has to be apophatic, but you want to universalise that when there are loads of other types of situations.

          • Absolutely not Christopher. I think the bible is a library of many different genres. It was you who said (and again I quote directly)
            “How are Bible assertions intrinsically different from nonBible assertions? In each case, the assertions are either true, false or nonsensical.” You claimed that 99+% of biblical material could be approached in this way. You are self evidently wrong about that.

            I have challenged you several times on this. I have presented you with several examples of assertions and you can’t actually say what you think about any of them. I have no idea if you believe the world was created in seven days or whether you believe noah built an ark for all living creatures. You don’t seem to have any view about these texts. You tell me you are not qualified, that I need to ask an Old Testament scholar. The fact is that the vast majority of bible readers (99+%) are not OT scholars.

            The reason this is important to the debate about human sexuality is because the conservative position is that the bible tells us eternal truths. The views of God which must be adhered to. But you have shown clearly that in one major example that truth is relative to time and culture. Even if the change concerning circumcision is seen as the dawn of a new era, as you rightly suggest, it still means that the truth about circumcision was not an eternal truth.

            And the bible has many other examples where God’s mind has changed or where culture and era mean that truth is not eternal or universal. And so it must be with human relationships.

            And I absolutely don’t think the bible is 99% poetry. That is not what I said. I simply point out that it is limited in its ability to define God. Words will always fail us. But we have to use them with all of their limitations.

          • Hi Andrew

            You talk about ‘challenging’ – in other words pinpointing where I have been behaving dodgily. However, all readers can see the opposite: that I have said the following several times:
            (1) There is an idea that much more literature (esp.biblical literature) is metaphorical than actually is metaphorical. For example, less than 1% of the biblical literature is of any metaphorical genre.

            (2) Where it comes to metaphorical writing, it is problematic to proceed as though it is composed of assertions. It is in a way, but those assertions are not as appears on the surface.

            (3) Where it comes to non-metaphorical writings we can see or deduce assertions in them.

            (4) These assertions are either true, false or meaningless (incoherent counts as false – or as meaningless), and it is hard to see a 4th option.

            (5) Key is to establish what genre a writing is written in.

            (6) The fact that the assertions are always true, false, or meaningless is something quite separate from our ability to know which of the 3 holds in a given case.

            (7) For that, we are (as in all things) best advised to go to the scholars. That does *not* mean going to Susannah for NT nor to me for OT. The idea that most of us are not scholars I don’t see the relevance of. Whatever the topic under discussion, most people are not experts: that is to be expected. Not only are the ideas of the experts online and easily accessible, but the hubris in thinking that nonexperts can be doing experts’ jobs for them just because most people are nonexperts (which is a nonsequitur) is high. Large questions do not generally get solved in online discussions, because the calibre of participants is generally not high enough. Psephizo is well capable of being an exception – exciting findings on Matt 23 and Ezekiel in Luke (through A. Roberts) are 2 things I first found on here, to take one example. Is your point that discussions that involve people you are half familiar with are better than those involving scholars you don’t know? Better in what way? The way that they are worse is clear: average expertise.

            You say ‘this is important to the debate about human sexuality’ as though this blog is where headway will be made. You could well be right that it is one of the places where that will happen. However, that area has been extensively discussed in endless new initiatives (not that more than a few seem aware of key data yet), and it is possible that 90% of the progress that will ever be made has already been made. It is less likely (by the nature of this blog) that it is precisely where OT breakthroughs are likely to take place – though that could happen too. Skirt around and look at other sources: are scholarly consensuses emerging?

            What ought to be clear is that the depth of analysis you’ll find in our scholarly heritage on both sides of the Atlantic and English Channel is such that websites and blogs can’t compete with commentaries. So it is not clear why you are looking to the former, nor why you are failing to look to the latter.

            (8) Again to re-repeat: Aetiology is where I have several times been locating the Genesis stories (at the risk of generalisation). And to some extent Job. Since you ask what I think. That is not always a wise thing to ask when people’s expertise is so low as mine in this case.

          • Christopher: I am afraid you wrote a lot of words without really addressing the points I am making. Thanks for engaging but this conversation is not fruitful.

          • As before: is there anything I can do to help/encourage you to engage with each other more fruitfully…?

            These conversations don’t seem to be a good use of time and energy, except that they appear to reinforce each of you in your view that you are right and the other is wrong…

          • Andrew, you say ‘the Bible claims’ but that means you are against the idea of the Bible being a multi-era multi-author library where any assertion is necessarily made not in a vacuum but on behalf of the entire collection. It is not of course any old random library, and in fact library is not the best word. It is a collection, and all collections share a theme – and to a large extent it is clear what belongs in the collection and what doesn’t. This is something that holds for the genre ‘collection’ understood as collecting a set (‘anthology’ can be more diverse).

            Use of such language means you think it is valid to speak of the Bible as a single unified entity (which, as a collection or set, it is) where whatever is asserted by one part is affirmed by the whole (which, by contrast, would require more demonstration).

            Is that what you think?

            If not, why use such language?

            I think saying ‘the Bible claims’ straight off cannot be justified. The author of a particular book can claim something.

            Suppose that book is Genesis, Jonah or Job. What is being claimed depends on the genre. You are assuming the genre before you start. Always a bad move, but especially if one’s not versed in the study of genre. Something is being claimed. But what? It could be (a) ‘X happened’ (if the genre be chronicle). It could be (b) ‘X illuminates current affairs’ (if the genre be allegory or satire). It could be (c) ‘X is the received wisdom or narrative which I am passing on’ (if the genre be foundation-tale, or aetiology). And so it goes on. So whatever the genre, some claim is being made – but what is better? To devote no thought to what the genre may be (for correct identification of genre will lead to correct identification of what the claim is) or to sift the options first? Just like – is it better to ask random people or to ask experts?

            It is also possible that you have been labouring under the common binary misapprehension that everything is something called ‘literal’ or something called ‘metaphorical’ and that there is no 3rd or 1003rd alternative.

          • line 3 read: ‘library, but preferring the theory that it’s a unified composite where any assertion…’

          • Christopher: if you estimate that 99+% of biblical material is making assertions that can be either true/false/nonsensical, what percentage of those assertions would you estimate fall into each of those three possibilities?

          • Christopher
            If you mean sexual intimacy, then no, I don’t think two become one. However intimate the intimacy. In marriage two become one unit, s family; they do not become one. That’s back to ‘other halves’ and Platonism again.
            Anyway, I’m going for a swim while my other half sleeps.

          • I know it’s back to ‘other halves’ but I gave a good reason why ‘other halves’ is accurate, which you did not respond to.

            What is your reason for not thinking 2 become one? You just asserted you didn’t think they do – but why?

            Andrew – what a massive calculation. You have given a pre-emptive figure of 99% without ever doing the hard work of calculating. My own unrelated 99+% can be quite easily calculated since no books are metaphorical in nature apart from Song.

          • Ok Christopher let’s make it easier.
            All biblical assertions must be true/false/nonsensical.
            Of all the assertions in the bible, what percentage do you estimate to be true/false/nonsensical?

          • Yikes, you must be glad you are not a Bible scholar. That sort of question might take a year to answer (or achieve advance on) for one portion of one verse. But I still cannot work out why, given your presuppositions, you are treating ‘the Bible’ as a single unified mass.

          • Examples: Jesus’s divorce logia in Mark I would estimate most likely true. ‘Cain said to his brother Abel, full stop’ I would estimate as nonsensical, though the reasons are not hard to find. ‘Saul was 2 years old when he became king’ I would estimate most likely false, though there are unsurprisingly variants. One can only do this for the easiest cases.

          • All of which goes to show that you first have to determine which text you are using in cases where there are variants.

            I would say that a flaw in your modus operandi is:

            (1) You don’t take account of preliminary issues like choice of text,

            (2) and then accordingly imagine the whole task is easier than it is,

            (3) and then blame innocent 21st century individuals when it turns out to be less straightforward.

          • Christopher: I am not at all treating the bible as a unified mass. That has nothing to do with my question. You have said:

            “How are Bible assertions intrinsically different from nonBible assertions? In each case, the assertions are either true, false or nonsensical.”

            So I am asking you to give an off the top of your head estimate of the proportions about those assertions. Fine if you don’t want to do so. But it does at least imply that you think some of the assertions in the bible are false. Is that fair? Or do you think all of the assertions in the bible are true?

            Helpful to know that.

          • Christopher: our recent posts must have crossed. Thank you spelling out that you do not believe all of the assertions made in the biblical texts are true. That is helpful.

            I understand entirely about different genres and agree with you wholeheartedly about the complexity of the matter. But why do you think false assertions are permitted in a collection of texts that aim to show the word of God?

            And if the assertions you identify are false, how can we trust any of the assertions in the bible? (a question which ‘S’ is so often asking on these very pages).

          • Christopher

            I had this discussion with my husband over dinner last night. I thought I might be being contrary. But he agreed that we are not one. How could we be? We are two distinct, discrete humans. Bound in an intimate relationship, but not one.

          • Penelope

            So if you are thinking an individual human is ‘one’, how come it harbours loads of bacteria, viruses, sperm etc.?

            Lovelock even takes the whole earth to be one organism on this basis. Which is true in one sense but not in another.

            Likewise (above) an individual human is one in one sense, and not in another.

            Same goes for a couple, otherwise known as a unit or an ‘item’.

            So a couple is just as much a unit as an individual human is.

          • Andrew

            On your first para, you are still for some reason thinking it is justifiable to generalise about something you term ‘the biblical texts’. How do you justify that generalisation tendency? The greater the generalisation (in arenas where nuance is required) the weaker the thought.

            On your second para, ‘Why are false assertions permitted in a collection of texts that aim to show the word of God?’:
            (a) No one biblical writer knew all the texts or was aware of writing as part of the collection that we have today. So the collecting is something that happened later.
            (b) Permitted by whom? Which arbiter lived over a period of 1000+ years?
            (c) You don’t grasp the nettle about different MSS occasionally saying different things – so which do we follow? The Pentateuch was fixed so firmly that even readings that make no sense and cannot have been the original reading became set in stone. Hence the phrase ‘as originally given’.
            (d) To determine whether texts’ aim is to show/reveal/proclaim the word of God, look in the texts. For prophetic texts you are spot on. For salvation history texts what is shown is God’s dealing with humankind, which overlaps with the word of God but is not the same thing. For many psalms what is shown is something more Augustinian, the individual’s relationship and conversation with God. And so on.
            Again, it will largely be the prophetic texts that indicate inspiration. Experiences of inspiration are wonderful and this is or used to be my special area on which I amassed a great library (purely regarding the experiential side of things). A high proportion of biblical writers (the generalisation is yours not mine) never speak of any such experience. But such experiences are wonderful and if they had had them in regard to the receiving of the text they would speak of them. Luke and Matthew do not get inspiration to copy Mark, they just copy and edit Mark. Mark does not get inspiration to recount Peter’s preachings, he just does so, by use of memory. Luke uses memory to recount the Acts. Once again, genre is key.

            On your third para, ‘If we identify assertions as false, how can we trust any of the others in the whole Bible?’.
            Your argumentation here is not good. You are saying that if the writer of the Succession Narrative said (as he may or may not have done) that Saul acceded to the throne at the age of 2, that means that nearly a thousand years later Luke’s account of the riot in Thessalonica cannot be trusted. What on earth is the connection? It is just like saying that the errors of Aquinas’s contemporaries put in doubt the credibility of what you are now writing. I am of the school that there is obviously no connection. Why aren’t you of that school?

          • Thank you Christopher. I am exactly of that school of thought. Clearly S, whoever he or she is on here, is not. And that was my point.
            Fully with you in your argument about the diversity of the canon actually. Which is why I am not persuaded that texts about same sex relationships are eternally true.

            Thanks again for engaging.

          • Honestly, Andrew! Not the most intelligent comment.

            You’ll agree that ‘diversity’ is as vague a word as you can get. It is at the bottom end of precision, which makes it at the bottom end of scholarliness. Diversity means that not everything is the same – some things are different from other things. Who knew?

            Diversity is one of those concepts like change that is so vague and ubiquitous that it scarcely has meaning. Is your argument actually as follows: ‘Because not everything is the same as everything else, therefore I can disregard arguments and perspectives that might oppose a hedonistic sexual outlook.’? Well, they do say that if an end is desired enough then ‘any excuse’ will do.

            This move you made in the ‘argument’ – that because there are places in a text where more than one interpretation is still in the running (well – yes) therefore we are at liberty to impose any of the trillions of interpretations that suit our fancy, even in *another* place in the text.

            Weakness is not the word for this ‘argument’.

          • And as if that were not ‘felony’ enough, you also suggest (rather manipulatively, dare I say, given that you have not yet ascertained that you understand me aright – few do, alas) that I agree with this ‘argument’, than which I could scarcely agree with anything less.

          • Christopher: without a proper discussion about this face to face I think you would have no idea how closely our own views corresponded on these questions. Contrast your own view (which I support) with that of Geoff who writes just below here. He says:

            “Everything affirmed by the Bible is true.
            2.1 This is a logical deduction that the Bible, being from God, based on God’s character, is without error, inerrant
            2.2 Meaning of inerrancy: scripture in their original autographs will be shown to be true, in everything they affirm, whether this has to do with doctrine or morality, or with social , physical or life sciences.
            2.3 God used a variety of expressions, personalities and styles.”

            Now I think Geoff expresses a view held by many conservatives and it is a view that is simply impossible to support, as you have explained so well. You have given a very few examples of affirmations in the bible that are obviously not true. And there are of course others. And again, as you ably demonstrate, to say that we can suppose that because one verse that is false means that another verse written thousands of years later in a completely different genre might also be false is patently nonsense. And, of course, vice versa.

            I don’t think it’s possible to go further in the very limited medium that this allows. But as I’ve said to you and others before, I’d be happy to meet and discuss face to face.

          • ‘Now I think Geoff expresses a view held by many conservatives’

            But not by the majority; not by me; not by most of the people in the C of E who believe the church’s current teaching.

            So if you are going to engage with the majority position in this debate, you are going to have to address a different position from this one.

          • Well, you are welcome to address this position.

            But if you do, you will neither have been engaging with the majority of evangelicals/orthodox, nor the major arguments in the debate about sexuality.

            If you want to spend your time on this minority position, you are welcome.

          • It comes up a lot on your blog! Many of your contributors are coming from that position. Many in the wider Anglican Communion are coming from that position, particularly within the GAFCON movement. So I think it important to provide a counter to that view. I fully agree it is not a majority within the C of E, but it is a ‘noise’.
            Every position needs addressing I think.

          • As a footnote, Andrew, I mentioned I am not up to speed with OT studies – consequently I was punching above my weight in identifying much of Genesis as aetiology (which I am sure has occurred to people before). Looking at the genre of Genesis 1 at the same time 20 years ago, it did occur to me also that it is geneaology. Genesis has a total of 7 geneaologies – not by accident do they total 7 – all summarised by ‘These are the generations of…’. These punctuate the text and some ascribe them to someone called P or the Priestly writer – I wouldn’t know about that, since the composition or putting on paper of Genesis as a *whole* has apparently sometimes more recently been dated close to what was previously envisaged as P’s (supposedly later than other sources’) time, which might get rid of the need for quite so many chronologically-consecutive but now intermingled sources, tho’ layers can clearly be discerned at some points.

          • All eminently possible Christopher. I was taught OT in the late 1970s when the documentary hypothesis was pretty standard.
            But this was not what I was asking. I wanted to know what you, Christopher Shell, an intelligent christian, thought about two particular assertions from Genesis. Genesis asserts a 7 day version of creation. Do you think that is true/false/nonsensical? And do you think it true/false/nonsensical that a boat contained all living creatures?
            Or are these not really assertions at all?
            I don’t think you need to be an OT scholar to have a view about these questions. Your previous answers simply look like obfuscation. I would be delighted to be proved wrong about that.

          • Your idea that I have failed to answer, let alone obfuscated which is the resort of the dishonest, can easily be disproven multiple times from the foregoing.

            (I am still utterly amazed that you go to a nonexpert rather than an expert for answers. People do not do that in any other area of life.)

            My two-pennyworth anyway:

            We begin (to repeat) with genre. Aetiologies are stories that are passed down to explain how things came to be as they now are. We test the truth of things by scientific and logical thought. Ancients test it by whether it is part of received wisdom or received narrative. Merely being a narrative does not tell you what genre things are. Legends (i.e. handed down stories) will very frequently have a factual basis. Which elements of legends survive depends on how memorable or how humorous those parts are. One can readily imagine in some climates how flood stories would be the classic, shared by travellers and merchants and with regional variations and creativity, and no little personal experience. The history of literature confirms precisely that. Gen 1 is in the text because an initial first-of-seven genealogy was structurally needed for the sake of the whole. It is highly improbable that its content originated at that time, since creation stories like flood stories are as old as the hills – their origins are lost in the mists of time and events, nor can those origins necessarily be tied down to any single original initiative.
            I am saying only fairly obvious things here, which many will agree with, but on the basis of that you can see that both parts of your question are complex to answer. If you are talking the finished form as we have it, then one is in the form of genealogy and one in the form of epic or legend. Both have a factual basis: the existence of the world and in the reality of primeval flood(s). Plus the wisdom and deduction of the writers and successive thinkers behind them. Wisdom (like foresight) is the preserve of those who have come to an accurate worldview. Gen 1 is couched in the form of 7 evening-morning days. Do I think the universe was formed in that time-period and precise sequence? No, though one can see that the sequence is in most (not all) particulars right, which I suppose is a yardstick by which we can commend the writer’s wisdom – wise people are more likely to get things right. In the case of Noah we have the contemporary (but layered) local edition of an unavoidable primal legend. Should the idea of the whole world being flooded have preceded the idea of multiple animals on board, then we have a plausible development: the whole world without exception was held to have flooded – but certain land animals are still here (and they did not pop into existence more recently than the fairly recent flood, but instead were part of God’s original creation, just like all animals must have been – at what other point could they have originated?) – therefore the only possibility is that they were all on the well-known single boat together. But we can see other possibilities re the animals’ survival because we can question whether any flood covered the planet. No other concept of truthfulness had occurred to people in a pre-scientific age (where it comes to matters too large for actual investigation) than to pass on the wisdom of the elders. It is not literate to see a narrative and assume it ‘must’ be a chronicle – one looks at the different options synoptically and chooses between them based on content and context.

          • (I am still utterly amazed that you go to a nonexpert rather than an expert for answers. People do not do that in any other area of life.)

            As I have explained several times I wanted to know what *you* think. Not as an expert. But as a Christian. Surely non-expert Christians are allowed a view on these things? You are beginning to sound like the medieaval Catholic church that would not allow ordinary people to read the scriptures as they would not understand them!

          • Christopher

            That is a good point.
            No man is an island.
            We are the Body of Christ.
            But, still, we are not halves; otherwise celibate people would never by whole.

          • Therefore you think I should be allowed a star platform at the next astrophysics conference, because after all those who have the mental equipment and training to think about certain matters are on the same level as those who don’t. We can be the 2 main speakers – book your tickets now.

            Of course we are *allowed* to have opinions on things – we will not be put in prison for having them. Socrates was also right when he said that the wiser among us are those who sometimes say ‘I don’t know.’. You are confusing 2 quite separate questions: whether we are allowed to have opinions, and whether our opinions are likely to be worth much. This is typical of the way that everything gets boiled down to ‘rights’ so often today. Which is very convenient as rights (which are highly important) are unquantifiable, undemonstrable, and virtual.

          • Christopher: I’m fine knowing that your opinions, by your own admission, are not worth much. 🙂

            Thanks for the conversation. You began by saying that the bible’s many assertions were no different to any other kind of assertions and were either true/false/nonsensical.

            We have agreed that actually the bible can’t be treated as if it were a single entity and contains such a range of genres and literary styles that generalisation is a dangerous thing. (Something Susannah and I have often said).

            When finally agreeing to analyse two simple assertions (viz: the world was created in seven days, and Noah had a boat full of ever living species) you have not really been able to say if such assertions are true/false/nonsensical but rather (to quote you!) the “question(s) are complex to answer”.

            Which is what Susannah and I had been saying all along!

            And I’m absolutely with Socrates. The wiser among us are those who sometimes say ‘I don’t know.’ (A good thing to teach the children).

            It is good to find quite a lot of common ground.

            Thanks Christopher! Have a good day

          • As ever, you’re putting words in my mouth. A dangerous thing to do with anyone at any time, but especially with someone you so often misunderstand.

            Quite the contrary, I do not at all agree with you or Susannah on that. If the assertion in question were ‘The world was made in seven days’ or ‘A boat contained every species’ that is in each case false not complex. If the assertion were the putting forward (submission) of the story as a whole as received wisdom (and some do see Gen 1 as wisdom literature, not least for its numbers) then that is unimpeachable and accurate. If the assertion were the telling of the Noah story, then the story itself rather than any truth claim is the thing. What can be complex is knowing which assertion the writer intends.

            How to resolve this? As ever, by attention to genre. Genesis 1 is not pitting different theories of creation against one another and giving the reasons for thinking that this particular theory is right. The happenings mentioned in the Noah story were obviously not witnessed by the writer, nor has he witnesses to question, so he is not saying things like ‘Some say it was gopher wood and some say it was oak’. He is storytelling, and the old ones are the best. I am speaking of one writer but there is evidence of more than one in both chs 1-4 and chs 6-9.

          • As for ‘finally agreeing’, that is saying I am being dishonest. I would rather die than be dishonest. That is true, but I certainly do not believe in death-wishes either! One does however sometimes need to give context first because simple yes/no answers will always be to questions framed by the questioner who will then be in control of the process. There is no reason why that control should be allowed. Sometimes the questions will arise out of an incoherent worldview or theory, hence the need to give wider context first. And that is something found in many of my conversations with Andrew – constant questioning of presuppositions, which are just as likely to be flawed as other later steps in an argument.

        • Biblical theology.
          As revealed in the Bible:
          1 Inspiration.
          1.1 Word of God. There has been an earlier post on this. This is not the same as inspiration of an artist of musician. The bible claims to be the very word of God, from his very mouth.
          1.2 Definition,
          Inspiration has been defined as the mysterious process by which God worked through human writers, employing their individual personalities and styles to produce divinely authoritative and inerrant writings. Geisler.
          1.3 his includes the OT (such as as forming part of a whole section such as “Law and Prophets) and historic and poetic (H&P) books. H&P present “what God showed” in the concrete events in national life(history) rather than “what God said” (law and prophets). Poetry is what God said in the hearts and aspirations of individuals within the nation. Together they form part of the implicit didactic “thus says the Lord”. The are all of God’s didactics.

          2 Inerrancy. “True in everything scriptures affirm.” Everything affirmed by the Bible is true.
          2.1 This is a logical deduction that the Bible, being from God, based on God’s character, is without error, inerrant
          2.2 Meaning of inerrancy: scripture in their original autographs will be shown to be true, in everything they affirm, whether this has to do with doctrine or morality, or with social , physical or life sciences.
          2.3 God used a variety of expressions, personalities and styles.
          2.4 meaning would not be confused of misconstrued.

          3. What inerrancy is not.
          3.1 Not strict grammar. Some literary devices are used.
          3.2 Historical and linguistic imprecision does not imply error. It was compiled in ancient times using ancient standard, Precision by today’s standards should not be absolutised. The bible speaks in the language of the day to people of that day, in the mode of that day.
          3.3 Inerrancy does not guarantee comprehensive account(s)
          3.4 Does not mean there are not scribal/copyist errors.
          3.5 Not a recent idea. It goes back at least to Augustine, to Aquinas as well as the Reformers.4 There is a false separation between the spiritual, physical historical

          4 Interpretation: “That’s just your interpretation!”:
          Exegesis -reading the text to see what’s there.
          Here is a short 5 min “That’s just your interpretation.” DA Carson

        • Hi Susannah,

          Many of us believe there is more integrity in acknowledging those fallible human influences on the text.

          Herein lies a significant issue for your point of view. If the biblical writers were culturally conditioned, and fallible, then so are you and me. We are probably more so. The core issue for ‘liberalism’ is that it elevates human reason. So, the ‘liberal’ thinks that their mind is the master of all things, and so can pronounce judgement on ancient texts, and reject what they say as ‘provisional’, ‘of their time’. But our unconscious assumptions (Charles Tailor’s ‘unthought’) are equally fallible and provisional, so cannot be any more binding on people that those of the past. Some think that because we know more things, we think better. But knowledge is not wisdom.

          Christianity may not be true. But to call oneself a Christian must mean believing that the ultimate revelation to human kind is through Jesus Christ. The Bible is the witness to that revelation. In the current context the question one could ask is “was Jesus of his time in matters of sex and sexuality?” The obvious answer is no. He held to a stricter ethic in these matters than his Jewish contemporaries, who were stricter than their gentile neighbours. I think this is evidence that we have what he said.

        • Hi Susannah,

          It’s fairly well-known in theological circles that, in contrast with Shammai, the school of Hillel interpreted ‘uncleanness’ (as a valid reason for divorce in Deut. 24:1) as almost any action on the wife’s part that might upset her husband: an outburst of exasperation, talking to a stranger in the street, or even burning a meal.

          In the gospels, Jesus overtly disagreed with this and, for his rationale, harked all the way back to the Genesis narrative as being the definitive archetype of marriage.

          So, I’d wonder how a person can remain true in following Christ and assert (to paraphrase):
          “Other ways of reading Jesus’ statements against divorce for any cause, to take a basic example, would be to say: ”These were Jesus’ beliefs and conclusions, as stated in the text, but it is reasonable to suppose that his views were deeply influenced by the social and cultural attitudes to man-man sex that existed in the religious communities he grew up in.”

          Perhaps, Jesus’ declaration just spoke to a patriarchal culture in which divorcing one’s wife would likely render her destitute.

          Perhaps, there’s different approach to interpretation that gets behind the ‘shop window’ to understand that what really matters to God isn’t lifelong faithfulness, but protection from destitution. I mean, it couldn’t be both, could it?

          Perhaps, Jesus’ rejection of divorce for any cause was only (as you say) ‘culturally influenced’.

          On the question of divorce, lets say that ‘protection from destitution’ is the answer to the question: “What was Jesus’ main concern?”

          Ergo, once you get behind the ‘shop window’, it’s actually okay to divorce for any cause as long as the divorced wife and children are adequately provided for.

          Of course, we can’t know that for sure. Yet, it’s possible to assert that there is a way for Hillel’s trivialisation of divorce to be acceptable in the 21st century and still say:
          ”I don’t reject the Bible. I love it. In so many ways it is profound and can open our hearts. Recognising fallibilities and cultural influences is not rejection.

          In fact, there is little or nothing that scripture records Jesus or Paul denouncing that you couldn’t excuse and affirm by claiming that “recognising fallibilities and cultural influences is not rejection”.

    • Thank you Ian for a concise and understandable interpretation of “the faith once delivered”, the faith handed down from the Apostles and orthodoxy.

      The faith which the Church of England is gradually deconstructing to make it acceptable to the culture. We are called to be salt and light in the world – if we lose our saltiness and obscure our light, we become useless.

      • Hear, hear Tricia and well said. I support your comment completely as I watch the CofE morph into an anti-Christian peculiar entity.

        I also respect and support Christopher’s tenacity against such ill-judged responses.

  2. Thanks for this excellent piece! I strongly agree with the vast majority of what you say in it. However, I am concerned at the inference that is often drawn from Gn that because ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’, he must therefore get married and that this is the only possible way to resolve this. As Revd Kate Wharton has pointed out in her book “Single-Minded”, close and deep friendships are another equally-good, fulfilling and satisfying method of resolving the issue of ‘being alone’. I firmly believe that a robust, positive and rooted theology of singleness is needed in order for the traditional Christian and Biblical standard of human sexuality to be respected and sought. It is a narrow way and a very high standard and so, for those who cannot get married or are not married, a positive, uplifting theology of singleness is required. Thanks again.
    Kind regards,
    Ben Somervell.

    • Ben, thanks for the comment.

      I think I need to say again that this is the first half, the first four of eight. To get to Kate Wharton, you will need to wait till number eight!

      I agree with you on the place of singleness, and there is much to say there. However, if we are too quick to move there, I think it is easy to miss the force of the first commandment, which is ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ which in context can really only be understood as ‘Get married and have children’.

      I think Annabel Clarke of Engage puts it well:

      The Bible values singleness and marriage. Single people are equally valuable and competent as married people. At the same time, God’s design from the start has been for marriage to reflect his covenant relationship with the church, to be foundational to society, and to be personal experienced by most people.

      See their website http://www.engage-mcmp.org.uk

      • “At the same time, God’s design from the start has been for marriage to reflect his covenant relationship with the church, to be foundational to society, and to be personal experienced by most people.”

        – if that is the case, Ian, then why did Paul tell his hearers NOT to marry unless they couldnt control themselves sexually? Did he not understand God’s ‘design’?

        One could argue he thought Jesus was going to return very shortly, but then from our pov, He could return tomorrow (though lets face it we dont really believe that).

        This is the problem I have with your view on singleness, you claim it is ‘good’ but always have a ‘but’, thereby automatically reducing its goodness. I dont believe Paul had the same mindset and it is depressing that so many churches are still all about ‘families’.


      • Thanks so much for your prompt and helpful and prompt reply and apologies for not realising that a section on singleness was upcoming which I’m glad to hear.

        I think it’s actually quite difficult to discern how to apply “be fruitful and multiply” in today’s world. At the time, I agree that it should have been taken plainly, literally and at face value as the world had only just been created and needed filling. However, We are now told by environmentalists that the entire world itself is overpopulated and that this is and has been driving consumerism, materialism, as well as significantly higher consumption of finite resources and higher carbon footprint. Due to this we are told that couples should ideally only have up to two children (see Prince Harry’s words on this) and the UK is one of the most densely-populated countries on the planet. Do you have any thoughts on this or the impact it could potentially have on our Interpretation of that verse?

        Thanks also for linking the website and unpacking the useful idea that God’s fundamental plan and ideal is for the vast majority to, if and where possible, get married and reproduce, it puts my point in perspective. Thanks again.
        Kind regards,
        Ben Somervell.

    • Ben,

      Amen from someone who was surprised to get married for the first time aged 61, and so has considerable experience of living as a single man!

      I don’t know if Wharton or Ian will draw this out, but part of the problem for us in the West is the individualism of our culture – and it is getting worse. More collective cultures are much better at providing a place for each person, and they value a wide range of ‘thick’ relationships in families and communities.

      This is a significant opportunity for the church to demonstrate a better way. This, however, means taking proactive steps to create these relationships within the church community.

      • Hi David. Thanks for this helpful comment. Yes, I think the individualism can also sometimes be harboured/condoned in some evangelical churches in England where there can sometimes be quite a bit of middle class “cultural baggage”. I’ve certainly experienced that in a number of self-styled “evangelical Anglican” churches in England and have found it to distort relationships, friendships (creating exclusive social cliques) and the whole ambiance, atmosphere and environment as the demographic can be very narrow and unidimensional. This then, in turn, can impact the church’s view of marriage, its purpose and role, etc… I’ve found that there generally tends to be a much bigger emphasis on marriage and this idea that everyone needs to get married in such churches and a distinct absence of talks or sessions on singleness and/or celibacy. When singleness is talked about, it is only talked about negatively as a perpetual waiting room until “God provides a spouse” or as a “last resort”. This tone, emphasises, language, terminology and expression are all not Biblical, not theologically-sound and are actively damaging and dangerous in my opinion. In addition to Revd Kate Wharton’s excellent book “Single-Minded”, I’d also recommend Revd Sam Allberry’s “7 Myths about Singleness” which, as it happens, Wharton has just reviewed. I recently wrote a few short pieces on singleness and celibacy on my theology blog which might perhaps interest you. You can read them here: https://theologyseekingfaithindurham.wordpress.com/topics/#8

        Thanks again.
        Kind regards,
        Ben Somervell.

  3. Hi Ian

    I don’t agree with the Platonic analogy and I believe that this is the wrong step which Gagnon always takes. Human male and female are not two halves which only find completion and fulfillment in mixed sex desire/marriage. (This also seems to be a problem when arguing that celibacy is a good).
    Genesis 2 ‘teaches’ that man and woman are two discrete beings, who may form a new kinship group – become one flesh.

    • Thanks Penny. I note only that there is a curious parallel in Plato: in both narratives there is a single creature from which a man and a woman then emerge. This narrative is clearly etiological, in that it functions to account for either the institution of marriage or the patterns of human desire.

      I am not sure which part of the parallel you are disagreeing with. Are you saying that it is not there? In which case, which part of which narrative have a got wrong?

      It is worth noting that it was Phyllis Trible’s feminist reading that, in recent times (1973 I think) first proposed that the primal ‘adam’ figure was in some sense androgynous.

      And the language of ‘one flesh’ isn’t merely about kinship groups, but appears in the narrative also to refer in some sense to sexual union.

      • Hi Ian

        Yes, when I had written it I thought of the primal androgyne theory (Origen, was it?).
        I think the one flesh can be read as kinship only. Is the sexual union reading more recent? I am in the land of Plato, away from my books.

    • We can leave aside the language of halves, other halves, though goodness knows why as it is rather sweet, and things that are sweet should be maximised, the reverse of minimised.

      1 male + 1 female makes a unit, hence babies. That is not something one should have to spell out to anyone who has reached a certain age and education.

      This being the case, it is not hard to see why the halves language came about. QED.

      Treating ‘completion and fulfilment’ as the only angle, when there are many others, is not accurate.

      Denial of completion and fulfilment is also problematic, since married people (together with godly spinsters etc) are happiest, and marriage cultures are happier and more normal than the others. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

      There can certainly be no completion and fulfilment on the basis of individualism and overgrown adolescence and lack of self-sacrifice.

      • 1 male + 1 female makes a unit, hence babies. That is not something one should have to spell out to anyone who has reached a certain age and education.

        I’ve thought for a long while that this ties in with the ‘image of God’. One of the ways in which we are made in the image of God is that we can, like god, create (or rather-sub-create: we cannot make new life, and we cannot create from nothing, only rearrange what already exists).

        So an individual human being is made in the image of God in that they can create things (most obviously in the case of artists, but also, anybody who comes up with a novel joke or doodles a cartoon). And also a male+female unit is made in the image of God because it can create new humans.

        So we are made in the image of God both as individuals, and as complementary-sexed pairs. But images are complete, so an invidual isn’t half an image’ — they are a complete image — but they are different images, so a pair is also a single, complete image in itself, not a welding of two half-images.

        But that’s just my musings.

      • Sorry, Christopher, didn’t realise this required a response, but it’s a lot easier to reply here than scrolling through the other thread.
        Yes, I agree, a man and a woman form a unit (as do same-sex couples for that matter).
        But this doesn’t make them 2 halves, they are still entire, discrete people. Thinking of them as halves is sub-Platonic ‘heresy’ which has influenced much Christian thought. Gagnon is a great exponent of this halves language and it isn’t biblical even if you believe in a primal androgyne.

      • Hi Ian

        I don’t think,humans are very sexually dimorphic. We aren’t all that different apart from our genitals.
        Peacocks, on the other hand, are sexually dimorphic.

        • I don’t think,humans are very sexually dimorphic. We aren’t all that different apart from our genitals

          Having different genitals is what ‘sexually dimorphic’ means.

          Something can’t be ‘very sexually dimorphic’. That would be like being ‘very unique’.

          • Something can’t be ‘very sexually dimorphic’. That would be like being ‘very unique’.

            Actually there may be an ambiguity in terminology here. It may be that what Ian points out as assumed could be more correctly called dioecy rather than sexual dimorphism.

          • S
            It doesn’t.
            Sexual dimorphism means differences between the sexes besides genital differences – in size, appearance, shape etc. Think lions, peacocks.
            Some species are very sexually dimorphic. Humans aren’t.
            This is a common misconception

        • There are loads of differences between male and female.

          (1) Even the difference you cite is interconnected with everything else. It has knockon effects and ramifications.

          (2) The difference you cite is the source of things that figure largely and centrally throughout adult life – monthly cycle, pregnancy and childbearing, childrearing, menopause. That covers an awful lot. (I am always amazed I have to spell out these things.)

          (3) And think of all the other differences as well – hormonal, right/left brain typical bias, muscles/strength, size.

          (4) Fifthly, male/female has generally been by far the number one way of classifying humans. Our very wise (ahem, track record??) age is in some pockets trying to be an exception, but because plausible ideological motivation can be found for that development, how seriously should we take it?

          • Chaps
            Just look up sexual dimorphism. This isn’t a theological or philosophical point.
            Sexual dimorphism means differences between the sexes besides sexual differences.
            So, as I said, male peacocks’ tails, lions manes, that sort of thing. We all know that men and women are different, but that does not make them sexually dimorphic.

        • What a strange comment!

          Men have, on average, 40% greater upper body strength.

          I am 6 feet 1 in ch tall. Of my several thousand friends, I know not one woman who is taller than me.

          If you took 1,000 human beings at random over 6 feet tall, only one would be a woman.

          The Big Five psychological traits demonstrate cross-cultural and persistent differences between men and women, on several traits the differences are clear and statistically significant.

          In the Nordic countries, where they have attempted to effect a ‘level playing field’ in terms of roles and professions, there are the greatest differences in social sex roles in the West.

          We are sex dimorphic.

          • Ian

            Yes, a little bit, as I said. But not humans are not very sexually dimorphic. Men tend to be taller than women, but female lions don’t have manes.

          • Ian
            I know several women in ver 6’1”, but that isn’t dimorphism. Nor is it about equality in Nordic countries. Sexual dimorphism is where all males are considerably bigger/smaller tha females. Without exception.

          • Penny,

            if you live in the UK and you know several women who are over 6′ 1″ then you either know a lot of women or you know a very unrepresentative sample of women.
            Plugging the UK + women into this:


            gives that a woman in the UK who is 6’1″ is on the 99.95 percentile. I.e. only 1 woman in 2000 women is taller than that. The US is similar. If you know Dutch women, then it is less surprising. A 6’1″ woman there is ‘only’ on the 99 percentile. In contrast, in the UK a man who is 6″1′ is only on the 91.5 percentile.

        • Hi Penny,
          As Professor Joad would have commented, it all depends what you mean by sexual dimorphism. I would tend to agree with you in saying that humans are not very sexually dimorphic. However, the ‘very’ is very important. If one considers various properties of individuals, such as height, strength etc., it is clear that these vary significantly between individuals. There is a distribution. I would say that a species is very sexually dimorphic if there are properties where the distributions for males and females have little or no overlap. This means that a given property can be used with some reliability as a proxy for determining sex.
          That is not true for humans as there can be significant overlap. However, it is true that for many of the properties the distributions have noticeably different mean values. In addition, the ways distributions work means that at the extremes, the differences become more pronounced. Hence Ian’s observation about the rarity of women over six feet.
          Thus, males and females are not distinct in these sex-linked properties, but they are different. They are sexually dimorphic but not very so.

          • Following on from Penelope’s comment, unquestionably men and women are very similar in so far as they both have a propensity to sin and in very similar ways.

          • Thanks David, that’s what I said. Not very. Men tend to be bigger than women, but lionesses don’t have manes.

        • ‘Chaps, just look up sex dimorphic’. OK: ‘Sexual dimorphism is the condition where the two sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics beyond the differences in their sexual organs. The condition occurs in many animals and some plants. Differences may include secondary sex characteristics, size, weight, color, markings, and may also include behavioral and cognitive differences.’

          ‘Sexual dimorphism among humans includes differentiation among gonads, internal genitals, external genitals, breasts, muscle mass, height, the endocrine (hormonal) systems and their physiological and behavioral effects. Human sexual differentiation is effected primarily at the gene level, by the presence or absence of a Y-chromosome, which encodes biochemical modifiers for sexual development in males’

          The Wiki entry goes on to list differences in height, weight, musculature, metabolic rate, white blood cell count, brain structure, and psychology.

          If you are a doctor, you *must* know which sex you are dealing with because men and women respond differently to certain medications.

          As I say, men and women are sexed, and are sex dimorphic.

  4. You start with the quote from 1 Cor 7:1; I’m always bothered by the assumption that here Paul is quoting the Corinthians. As I understand it this was first suggested in the 1960s! Until then everybody had thought that it was well not to touch a woman was Paul’s view. Are we really sure we have got it right now? What if Paul really meant what he said, where is your argument then?

    • Yes, I think you are right about the history. But there are several problems with that reading, which is why the majority view has shifted.

      1. It is clear that Paul is elsewhere often quoting the Corinthians in order to engage with their position. It is especially likely here because of the introduction ‘Now about the things you wrote about:’

      2. Within the immediate narrative, Paul’s clear injunction in 7.4 that those who are married should have sex, and do not have the right to withhold, and within the larger argument, that being ‘spiritual’ does *not* mean avoiding sex, offer an outright contradiction to the older reading of 7.1.

      3. Elsewhere in the Pauline corpus there is a very positive view of both the body and marital relations. I always find it odd when people take a negative reading of 1 Cor 7’s exposition of marriage and sex, but a positive reading of marriage in Eph 5. of course, the common way around that is to argue that Eph 5 is not written by Paul. I don’t think that is persuasive for a range of reasons—but it then pushes the incoherence into the canon.

      Actually, I have just checked Thiselton, and you are wrong about the history. This reading was suggested by Origen! Thiselton writes (p 494):

      ‘Without doubt the allusion to abstinence from physical intimacy…comes not from Paul but from Corinth…this attitude towards intimacy as an expression of needed love [rather than duty] is distinctive to Paul over against most writing of the time on marriage in the Roman world.’

    • Ive found atheists quoting that text as if Paul was teaching no sex within marriage. I really dont understand how anyone could come to that conclusion. He’s clearly quoting an earlier letter from the Corinthians, and now in his response he is correcting this false belief/teaching. Sex is GOOD within marriage, and should only be stopped for specific reasons according to Paul.

  5. “I don’t believe in sex dimorphism because the Bible teaches it; I believe in it because science observes it…”

    May I argue a contrary (and presuppositional) point? Science changes as it makes different deductions from the same or from refined observations. However, God’s word does not change.

    If “sex dimorphism is assumed” in the Bible – and if all of Scripture is God-breathed and authoritative – then surely we believe in sex dimorphism *because* the Bible teaches it. Science merely confirms us.

    Naturally, this is not an argument to carry weight with non-Christians, but for Christians we’d want to say “God says it, I believe it.” When, or if, science changes its mind (however temporarily), the biblical Christian would naturally go back to the text, check their facts, and in this case, come back resolute that nothing had changed. Instead, they would trust that given enough time, scientists would likely come back again to the biblical dimorphism. No?

    • I wonder if you are here confusing science data and scientific theories. Theories are postulated on the existing data, and when the data are known more precisely, then often the theory will need to adapt.

      But the sex dimorphism of humanity is more about observable data.

      The Bible talks about the sun and its effects, but I don’t believe in the sun because the Bible talks about it, but because I see it with my own eyes. I am not sure why there should be a problem with that…?

      • Dear Ian, perhaps i am being sensitive with the use of the word Science. You describe observing Dimorphism in nature, and therefore accepting the biblical witness. This is granted, and the bible itself appeals to human observation to confirm supernatural revelation. Confirm, but not trump.
        However, you used the word “science”, which strictly speaking is not simply pure observation devoid of a priori assumption or interpretation. Science interprets and theorizes based on a naturalistic philosophy, and goes through fashions and Revolution, all the time holding onto the same observable data as the basis for the shifting views.
        What i was trying to politely highlight was that in tying oneself to dimorphism because of the current “science” (which, forgive me if i have misread, i thought you were saying) , and only then accepting the bible’s witness on the subject, means that you are in danger of being a Palleyian on the day a gender-spectrum Darwin publishes his/her/their new science of origins of gender.
        Again, apologies if i have misread you or not understood your argument.

    • I think you have to be careful when you say ‘I believe this or that because the Bible teaches it’ because in reality what you really mean is ‘I believe this or that because I believe this is what the Bible teaches’. The Bible is NOT a scientific textbook and neither claims to be nor should it be read as such.

      To take one example, quite a few American Christians believe God created the universe in 6 literal 24-hour days, ‘because that is what the Bible teaches’. I think that’s nonsense, and negated by scientific findings (despite what the Discovery Institute claims). But I agree that on the face of it, that is what the Bible teaches. But God has given us brains to look more deeply, and when we do we see Hebrew poetry and parallelism, we see polemics against other Near Eastern creation stories etc.

      So we must be very careful in claiming the Bible teaches this, that or the other scientific ‘fact’.

  6. Ian,
    How would one develop a theology of intersex? That is the case (albeit rarely) of individuals who are born with mixed sexual characteristics of which the Bible says nothing?

    (or is this coming in the second part?)

    • Since intersex conditions arise from similar causes to other genetic and epigenetic conditions, it is not clear to me why there is any need for a distinct theology of this. Do we have a need for a theology of Down’s Syndrome, for instance, or cleft palates, or Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome? These are all part and parcel of the broken and imperfect world in which we live.

        • For the same reason that, if my legs did not enable me to walk, I would rightly be considered disabled.

          At least one biological function of sex organs is to be able to reproduce. If they cannot do that, then for what reason would be not consider that a disability?

          And what is wrong with being disabled…?

          • Nothing in the sense that we are all imperfect. But plenty of cis people don’t or can’t procreate; don’t or can’t have PIV sex.

          • And if there are medical (rather than social) reasons for that, we would either treat them to remedy this or, if the condition is unremediable, we could describe them as having a disability.

        • Note that I said ‘part of a broken and imperfect world’. As a result most, if not all of us have imperfections of body, mind and spirit.

          One of my imperfections is a developmental oddity in utero which means that I can claim to some effect that my left foot has four toes but six toenails. It could be fixed simply by surgery but my parents decided not to because they believed the imperfection would make me ineligible to be called up into the infantry.

          A more serious condition I have, which has a significant genetic component, is ankylosing spondilitis (c.f. the woman healed in Luke 13). Although I am better off than many with this condition, there are things which are difficult for me – the loss of mobility in the neck means that looking over my shoulder when driving and needing to pull out from some junctions – or near impossible – loss of mobility in the lower spine means I cannot sit on the ground. There is also the pain, from time to time, from the inflammation.

          I am unwilling to describe these as anything other than imperfections through brokenness. They are not good. This applies a fortiori to things like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or Cystic Fibrosis, or the significant health issues associated with Down’s syndrome (all of which I have seen in people I have known).

          From what I have read, the various conditions lumped under the heading of ‘intersex’ are not dissimilar to the developmental or congential conditions I have referred to. I think most Intersex conditions result in sterility. As Ian has said, this is a significant disability. Some of these conditions have associated health issues other than with sexual functioning.

          I’m not sure it is appropriate to deny this. What is served by calling something ‘good’ which is clearly not good? Is it that this touches on sex that somehow one cannot call it what it is?

          If our (modern) society only values the capable and the beautiful (although it does not seem to value the fertile!) and so despises those who are imperfect, then that is to its discredit. The most disabled are as valuable as the least because they loved by God, made in his image and they are all those for whom Christ died.

    • Yes, but what to you say to someone who is intersex who wants to get married? Genetically they are a mix of male and female yet a person none the less. If the theology assumes only male and female then what are they supposed to make of it. Furthermore, if our pastoral responses are governed by our theology (which BTW I think they should) then I would imagine that its a pretty bleak outlook for an intersexed person is it not?

        • You are right to ask that question. The modern world would say ‘yes’ – everyone should be engaging in sexual activity. The BBC news page had an item on a young man with HIV saying “why should not I have sex?” (As if the answer was not obvious!)
          However, I think many churches have reacted against the old notion of “sex being bad” and trumpet “sex [the activity] is wonderful – God thought of it first.” Add in an emphasis on family, and it does seem that not being married and not having sex are very much second best.
          We do need to emphasis much more that the most complete and fulfilled person who ever walked the Earth was not married and did not have sex (sorry, Dan Brown).

        • No I am not. Not all intersex people would necessarily want to get married or have sex. I am saying that for intersex people a diamorphic theology appears to rule out any prospect of marriage for them at all which I think might be bleak for some. I can’t imagine that intersex people only existed in the 21st century and must have been around in Jesus’s time.

          The only reference that scripture makes to those who are physically sexually different is that of an eunuch and only then in a somewhat tangential way (and which may not have much bearing on what we are discussing here).

          So what does our theology say to them? More importantly, from a pastoral perspective what would you say to them?

          Note (which I’m sure you do) that I am referring here, to people who are born sexually ambiguous – not to those who are same sex attracted which is quite a different issue and for which a diamorphic theology of sex has quite definite things to say which I am sure you will agree.

      • Firstly, I think only Kleinfelter syndrome (XXY) could be regarded as being “genetically a mix of male and female” and I think those with this condition present broadly as male.

        I understand that ‘intersex’ is a overall term for a wide variety of genetic and developmental abnormalities which result in a degree of mismatch between the markers of sex, i.e. the genetics, the external genitalia and whether there are testes (which could be internal) or ovaries.

        A TV programme many years ago discussed this. From that I remember that there are some conditions of ambiguity in children which sort themselves out when hormone levels increase at puberty.

        For those who are affected in adulthood, then I suspect that the nature of the condition means that they are not able to participate in procreation – their ‘bits’ just don’t work. As with people with other congenital disorder, that does affect the approach to marriage.

        Another area to ask is about the reason for a marriage – what is it for? Is it the only way we can find close relationships? Is it just for the happy couple? Or does it have some wider significance? But that is another whole subject.

        • I understand that those involved in this area medically reject the use of ‘intersex’ as an umbrella term, since the suggestion that there is a unified category of a third identity (between male and female, as the term ‘inter’ suggests) is entirely misleading.

          • I do not think ‘intersex’ is a unified category as such but there do appear to be individuals whose physical attributes are strung out somewhere between male and female and are confused as to what they should be.

            So what should be our pastoral response to them if they wish to get married to someone who is either fully male or female? Do we go with the sexual identify they assume or feel themselves to be?

  7. Thanks so much for your prompt and helpful and prompt reply and apologies for not realising that a section on singleness was upcoming which I’m glad to hear. Thanks also for linking the website and unpacking the useful idea that God’s fundamental plan and ideal is for the vast majority to, if and where possible, get married and reproduce, it puts my point in perspective. Thanks again.
    Kind regards,
    Ben Somervell.

  8. Thanks so much for engaging this topic. I’ve just started a sermon series on a similar topic and very much agree we need to develop a theological narrative around the texts. I believe the idea of sexuality rooted in the image of God is a or the key concept. However, I would also contend we’ve placed too much emphasis on marriage in developing our sexual ethics. Apart from the fact this limits what is communicated to the now 17 million single folks as a simple prohibition as regards their sexuality, it also creates an idealised concept of sex in marriage. As you yourself affirm I think we need a more far reaching critique. Although sexual union is clearly part of marriage, and arguably the telos of our sexuality, it isn’t the only expression of that sexuality. We have expressions of our sexuality, as sexual arousal in its many pre-martial forms demonstrates (just ask Augustine!) long before we are married. Are we just going to say all these are prohibited or wrong or only allowable in marriage? What is the legitimacy of the expression of our sexuality before marriage and on what biblical grounds are you constructing the parameters?

    • Well, I think you are right that the ‘telos’ of sexuality is marriage. What other expressions of sexuality are you thinking of?

      If we want to adopt biblical disciplines around sexuality, then I think the only manageable way is to see marriage as the goal for most people—that is certainly the picture that Scripture appears to paint for the people of God.

      As I say above, the call to live an integrated life means that our sexual expression will keep in step with the commitment of our whole lives. Would you propose an alternative sexual ethic?

    • Alasdair, the only reason there are such unusually large numbers of singles is because of the abandoning of the marriage culture in the first place! Things do not have to be that way and almost always have not been. In general the way you phrase things has more of the culture than of the New Testament, but cultures are highly contingent and transient, however normal they may seem at the time to participants.

  9. Ian
    Most intersex people don’t need treatment or medical intervention
    Most do not describe VSC as a disability. Mostly, being intersex is not life limiting. I think the church has to better than this on her pastoral response

    • But you are just offering a circular argument here.

      They don’t ask for intervention because it is not judged they were disabled. That doesn’t demonstrate that ‘disability’ is an inappropriate category.

      There are many disabilities that are not ‘life limiting’; but if my sex organs cannot fulfil their biological function, that is a disability.

      Recognising a disability is not an adequate pastoral response? How odd.

      • Ian

        They neither ask for nor need medical intervention (in most cases).
        I think I would strongly disagree that sterility or reproductive failure is a disability.
        Which I suppose comes back to the telos of the clitoris again – not all sex organs are for making babies!
        I think a pastoral,response which believes that some people are intrinsically imperfect (especially fallen, if you like) is improper and harmful.

        • OK–but you have now shifted from a discussion to baldly asserting your different position.

          We are all imperfect; most of us have disabilities of one sort or another. I have eight.

          • Ian

            The reason I stated my belief is that I realised we are at cross purposes.
            I do not regard VSC as a disability because I don’t see sterility in terms of ‘disability’.
            I can see that if you do regard sterility or reproductive failure as disability, you would see intersex as disabled.

  10. Disability, (same as inability?) , unable: normal and normalisation of exceptions, of outliers, do not equate to genetic or social or physical or psychological or intelligence equality.
    Inability is foundational to Christ’s salvation of us. Inability is a universally equal qualification,a demerit, of all humanity in all its fallenness (and groaning creation). But that’s just Biblical theology of all of humanity.

  11. A biblical theology of sexuality is an approach to understanding human sexuality based on the teachings and principles found within the Bible. It involves examining various passages, themes, and narratives throughout the biblical text to discern God’s intentions and guidelines regarding human sexuality. Here are some key points often included in a biblical theology of sexuality:

    Purity and Fidelity: The biblical theology of sexuality emphasizes the importance of purity and fidelity within the marital relationship. Adultery, premarital sex, and other forms of sexual immorality are typically viewed as contrary to God’s design.

    Creation and Design: One aspect of biblical theology of sexuality begins with the belief that human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This foundational understanding suggests that sexuality, being a part of human nature, is also part of God’s intentional design.

    Marriage: The Bible often presents marriage as the context for sexual intimacy and expression (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6). According to this view, sexual relations are meant to occur within the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman.


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