Reading Gagnon: Morality and Sin [Scot]

This week, Scot Miller is blogging about Robert Gagnon’s book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, which many readers of this blog are sure will convince Scot and me that we’re wrong about the gays. -TJ

I should probably quit while I’m ahead, but I would like to offer a final post on Gagon’s book before I shut up.

Again, thanks to Rev. Joseph Hedden, Jr., pastor of Emmanuel Reformed Church of the United Church of Christ in Export, PA, for letting me borrow his copy of Gagnon’s book. I’ll return your copy in the mail next week!

Am I absolutely certain that same-sex intercourse is not a sin when the Bible apparently says it’s a sin? Why shouldn’t I defer to the “clear” statements and commands in the Bible? Who am I to judge God’s word?

I’m not absolutely certain about moral matters in general, since moral reasoning is not like reasoning in mathematics or logic. (About the only absolute moral principles I can think of are very specific, like, “Rape is wrong.”) While I’m convinced that some moral principles and values are objective, the moral conclusions we reach are never certain, and require ongoing reflection and re-examination. So while I’m no moral skeptic, I think it’s important that we have good reasons for our moral judgments.

At a minimum, I think that good moral reasons are determined within the community of moral agents who have to live together. Moral people may disagree between themselves, but we can all provide reasons for why we act morally as we do.

Then we need to ask whether our reasons are really good or not, whether they can stand up or not. As Paul said in 1 Thess. 5:20-21, “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.”

So while I could be mistaken, I’m highly confident that the biological sex of the participants is irrelevant to the question of whether intercourse is morally good or bad. Heterosexual intercourse is neither inherently good nor bad, and the same is true for same-sex intercourse. Intercourse may be sinful when someone uses deception or coercion or violence, but it’s hard to see how the biology the participants is relevant.

But what if there is a clear command in the Bible? How can a Christian who wants to be obedient to God not do what the Bible says?

It would be nice if the Bible could be read like a moral rule book, outlining exactly what behaviors believers should do and believe. Some people, like Gagnon, seem to think that’s all we need to do when it comes to God’s prescriptive commands. They are prejudiced to read the Bible as if it were a moral rule book, and, surprise, surprise, they find the rules that they expected to find! Unfortunately, because they are unaware of their prejudices, they do not hear what the Bible really says, but only what they expect to hear.

If Gagnon were to listen to the Bible really says rather than force the Bible to conform to his prejudices, he would discover that there is no such thing as the One True Meaning of Scripture About Human Sexuality. Jennifer Wright Knust gives ample evidence that the Bible doesn’t have a simple story about sexuality, which allows her to correctly conclude,

Truth is, Scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways. And biblical writers held a much more complicated view of human sexuality than contemporary debates have acknowledged.

The truth is no believer can simply point to a scripture and say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Interpretation and understanding is inescapable for everyone. The texts about homosexuality can be legitimately interpreted in different ways.

The question for believers is not finished by asking, “What did the Bible say?” This is at best a trivial question about a historical document. (And it is a naive question, for it disregards the fact that we cannot escape the historically conditioned prejudices we bring to the text. The historical question hides within it prejudices that can obscure the meaning of the text.) The more significant question for a believer is, “How am I to understand what the Bible says?” This question opens up the possibility of theological reflection.

When the Bible says that God commands the Israelites to kill the babies of their enemies (which God does in Deut. 3:1-6 and 1 Sam 15:1-3), does this mean I’m supposed to believe that infanticide and intentionally killing noncombatants in war is good? Should I celebrate with the Psalmist when he takes pleasure in imagining the babies of his enemies being smashed to death on a rock (Ps. 137:9)?

Of course, not. These verses need to be interpreted in their historical and cultural contexts. Anyone who thinks that infanticide or intentionally killing noncombatants (or slavery) could be morally permissible because they are approved by God in the Bible is certainly mistaken. (And I know of nobody who would hold such an absurd interpretation.)

We believe these practices are mistaken because the moral arguments for these practices are recognized to be bad by our moral community. We can no longer imagine plausible justifications for killing innocent children. Neither can we justify the killing of noncombatants, a practice long forbidden by the just war theory, which was developed in part by Christian theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

And if the Bible’s acceptance of infanticide and killing noncombatants (and slavery, and the dietary prescriptions in the Holiness Code) are historically conditioned, then the Bible’s pronouncements on homosexuality may be historically conditioned, too.

Gagnon wants to say that the handful of passages in the Bible that condemn same-sex practices are universal and absolute. If you bother to read these passages, however, it is not so clear that the objections are as universal and absolute as he wants them to be. They are objections to particular sex acts in particular situations, and they are open to different interpretations.

So I’m not sure that faithfulness to the Bible requires me to accept its pronouncements uncritically.

Why is my interpretation of scripture not just a perverse rationalization for sin before God?

I think that Gagnon and I have two different ideas about what counts as sin. Gagon seems to believe that sin is about breaking certain rules that God has set up in creation. In particular, Gagnon thinks that the Bible considers same-sex intercourse a sin for two reasons: God said it’s a sin (which should be enough of a reason for anybody), and because it is a disgusting violation of nature. (In the last chapter, he adds that homosexual practices inflict untold harms on society and children, but it’s hard to take this argument seriously since it relies on the discredited work of Paul Cameron.)

(The “God said it” reason may work for people who already believe Gagnon’s interpretation, but it’s not very compelling for anyone else. And the “unnatural” argument fails on too many levels as an adequate theory, especially since nature is ambiguous, and body parts “naturally” have multiple functions.)

I think that sin isn’t about particular kinds of behaviors or actions. I think sin is more about alienation and broken relationships. Sin is our alienation from God, from our fellow human beings, from nature, and from ourselves. Salvation is the reconciliation and repairing of these broken relationships.

Can same-sex intercourse be a sin? Absolutely, especially if the act involves exploitation, deception, or using oneself or other people as objects. Of course, heterosexual intercourse can be a sin in the same ways. (And going to church can be a sin if your church attendance is used to alienate others or to elevate your spiritual ego in front of others. )

So I’m afraid that we have reached an impasse at the level of the prejudices and assumptions we bring to the Bible. I don’t buy Gagon’s approach to the Bible, and he would not buy mine. But it’s not really accurate to say that one of us is being biblical and the other disregards the Bible. We interpret the same Bible from entirely different frames of reference with different prejudices and different assumptions.

We are all subject to error in our interpretations, however, and I could be mistaken. But unless someone can come up with a better reason than, “My interpretation of the Bible and nature tells me homosexual practice is a sin,” it’s hard for me to buy the idea that homosexual practices are more sinful than heterosexual practices.

I may be making a mistake, and God may really be unhappy with people who act on their same-sex attraction. But I think it’s a bigger mistake to use one possible narrow interpretation of scripture to condemn people just because they want loving intimacy with someone of the same sex.

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  • Brian MacArevey

    Thanks for going through this Scot. It was fruitful for me. I can’t say that I have been swayed more towards either position, but you have given me some things to think about.

    One thing.

    “They are prejudiced to read the Bible as if it were a moral rule book, and, surprise, surprise, they find the rules that they expected to find! Unfortunately, because they are unaware of their prejudices, they do not hear what the Bible really says, but only what they expect to hear.”

    If everything else that you said in this post is true, than this statement is true of you too, correct? Even if you or I do understand our prejudices to some extent, it is impossible for you or I to know them all. I guess this statement just came off (in my opinion) as if you were insinuating that you are free from this problem. The rest of your post seems to say otherwise, but I thought I would ask for clarification.

    • Scot Miller

      Yes, I think prejudices cut both ways. But some prejudices can be helpful, especially the prejudice to be aware of one’s prejudices. I’m not so sure Gagnon is aware of his prejudices. I am painfully aware that I cannot escape my historical situation, and that my horizon of meaning is entirely different from the text’s horizon of meaning. The text always stands over against me, and it’s a mistake for me to think I can somehow possess or control or fully comprehend the meaning of the text.

      Moreover, I don’t want to pretend that there is ever one final meaning. As long as human beings exist in time, understanding will never be complete. (That partly explains why we can go back again and again to the Bible and find something “new.” The words in the Bible aren’t different, but we are different over time as we return to the Bible.)

      • Brian MacArevey

        Cool 🙂 Thanks for clarifying.

      • ben w.

        Happy Easter! He is risen. If Christ was not raised, we’re all dead in our sins, but thanks be to God for raising our crucified savior!
        Scot, I think you’ve overstated the difficulties of interpretation. In attempting to speak out of hermeneutical humility, you’ve seemed to suggest that one can’t understand any biblical text well enough to act upon it. Surely you don’t mean that.

        You said before that Gagnon’s “conclusions about the biblical text are basically correct.” So he provided an interpretation; you agreed. Gagnon read Paul; Miller read Paul; Miller read Gagnon and agreed Gagnon read Paul correctly. It’s complicated stuff, but it works every day. Words are written to be understood and often are – and you’ve demonstrated that you believe this process can work quite well. If Gagnon trips upon any significant exegetical fallacies, you need to point them out, not just resort to “texts are hard to fully understand.” Moreover, if one has any doctrine of divine inspiration and illumination by the Spirit, one should be confident in the general practice of biblical interpretation. God wrote these words, through men, so that His will, His Son, and the way of salvation might be known. We should be humble on the unclear parts, and confident on the clear ones.

        (Scot, it strikes me as nothing but hubris to say that you see your prejudices but Gagnon might not. He’s a biblical scholar by trade – writing a book on texts and hermeneutics – after traveling through Dartmouth, Harvard and Princeton. If he ever expressed similar views there, a dozen professors have reminded him of his biases. Surely his collegues and critics remind him of his biases weekly. He’s aware of his prejudices.)

        So, if you agree that Gagnon’s interpretation of the biblical texts is essentially correct (while wanting to qualify statements and debate “style” of presentation), then let’s please move on. No matter which side one falls on this issue, we should have the intellectual integrity to acknolwedge (as you already have) that the biblical texts universally and rather clearly present homosexual acts as sin in the few texts that address the matter particularly. If you disagree with that, please provide exegetical arguments refuting Gagnon’s exegesis. If you agree with that, then the conversation can move on having established that the biblical testimony is that homosexual acts are sinful.

        • Scot Miller

          ben w., Gagon offers an interpretation of scripture, and I bet it comes close to what the biblical writers thought (although he can’t really support all of his conclusions from the evidence he offers: in particular, he can make a strong case against male-male temple prostitution, and he can make a strong case that the people of Israel needed to procreate rather than engage in sex acts that don’t lead to procreation, but he can’t say it’s an absolute moral prohibition across the board). But I think he’s made a mistake when he says his interpretation is the final interpretation. Again, the question for me is “How should we understand what’s going on when the Bible condemns same-sex intercourse?” That’s where I differ from Gagnon.

          Like I said, I think the Bible means what it says about infanticide and killing non-combatants and polygamy and slavery and the dietary restrictions of the Holiness Code and that women are property and that homosexuality is an abomination and that disobedient children should be stoned, etc. What I think is a mistake is to say because the Bible was written in a culture in which these morally questionable practices were accepted that we have a duty to accept them too. The Bible says all these things, and these things are wrong.

          As for the issue of prejudice, I tried to explain in my very first post on Gagnon that I’m using the term “prejudice” in a more technical sense as introduced by Gadamer. So when I say he’s not aware of his prejudice, I mean that he buys into the Enligtenment’s prejudice against prejudice, that he approaches the texts assuming that his historical-critical methodology allows him direct, undistorted access to the ancient meaning. In fact, the kind of approach he takes (which is also common for biblical scholars who try to reduce the meaning of the texts to their historical meanings and nothing else) necessarily limits what is understood. He asks historical questions and finds historical answers which he then turns into timeless moral/theological principles.

          I do find it ironic that my admission of prejudice (and fallibility, and the possibility that I could be wrong) could be perceived as hubris. Wow! Maybe I take too much pride in the fact that I could be wrong. That’s something of which you could never accuse Gagnon, who is supremely confident that all of his interpretations are correct and all alternative interpretations are utter failures.

        • ben w.

          Scot, thank you for so clearly saying that “The Bible says all these things, and these things are wrong.” The real issue here is not us grappling with texts and struggling to comprehend the meaning. The issue we are grappling with is the nature of biblical authority and the application of hard-to-apply texts (not hard-to-comprehend texts). I just want the conversation to move beyond the idea that there’s lots of ambiguity about what the biblical authors teach about homosexual acts. I’m glad you’ve admitted that we essentially agree about what the biblical authors teach, but disagree with how individuals and the Church should apply these teachings.

          I wasn’t calling your admission of person prejudice as hubris, but your comparison. That is, that you’d assume that you’ve become self-aware enough to note your own presuppositions, while Gagnon probably hasn’t realized his own. I count confidence and conviction as virtues when built upon sound exegesis of the Bible and sound logic. If he can show that alternative interpretations do fail by careful arguments based upon Scripture, then he should state his conclusions confidently out of love for his readers and the Church at large.

  • Jim W

    “(About the only absolute moral principles I can think of are very specific, like, “Rape is wrong.”)” Why do you believe that rape is wrong, yet you don’t believe that killing babies today is wrong? The moral standards of this country (and many others) allow killing of babies in the womb, so why do you say that it was wrong 5000 years ago? Other country’s moral standards allow for killing of fully developed babies outside the womb, so again, why do you say it was wrong 5ooo years ago, but you apparently have no problem with it now? The US just happens to be behind the times in this issue, but it’s coming soon to a state near you.
    Why is any sexual intercourse a sin just because it “involves exploitation, deception, or using oneself or other people as objects. ” Jesus explained sexual sin pretty clearly. Why have you decided on this particular set of standards on which to call sex a sin? Why did you leave out so many other possibilities? Or why don’t you leave it as Jesus called it-Whoever looks on a woman with lust has committed adultery already. Something wrong with that? Or maybe you can somehow twist Jesus’ words to mean your above definition?
    “We believe these practices are mistaken because the moral arguments for these practices are recognized to be bad by our moral community”
    So now the community determines morality? Only a few years ago, the community determined that killing our unborn children was bad. Now the community praises such evil. You really believe that group-think should influence morals? How pathetically stupid!
    I swore I would never post here again, but the moral ambiguity (stupidity) posted here screams for some reflection.

    • Scot Miller

      Jim W, you are missing several points. First, there is a difference between killing persons and the unjustified killing of persons. In war sometimes babies are unintentionally killed by soldiers (they call it “collateral damage); but as long as the killing was not intentional and it happened in a morally justified war, we say that killing is permissible. Of course, you may believe that the military should be prosecuted for all unintentional killing in war.

      Second, I was not giving an exhaustive list of the kinds of things that make intercourse a sin, but suggesting that it’s not the act of intercourse itself, nor the parties involved which make it sinful. A married heterosexual man can rape his wife, and that act of heterosexual intercourse in a married couple is still immoral. What Jesus said is fully compatible with what I’m saying (especially if lusting in one’s heart is more about treating someone as a sex object and not as a full human being with thoughts, feelings, and free will.)

      Third, morality is human and has a human history… some of it not so pleasant. But it does not follow that there can be no moral agreement or moral understanding or moral knowledge. What it means is that we should be able to figure out what makes something good and something else bad.

      Fourth, it sounds like you’re worried about abortion (“killing of unborn babies”). I think there’s plenty of moral agreement that the unjustified killing of babies is a bad thing. Those who oppose abortion and those who permit abortion would agree. The questions, of course, are (a) whether an unborn fetus is the moral equivalent of a person, and (b) whether there are any morally good reasons for killing an unborn fetus. Not everyone agrees that a fetus is a person (being a potential person and being an actual person are two different things). But even if we grant full personhood to a fetus, of course there are cases of morally justified killing. In the case of an ectopic pregnancy (where the fertilized egg implants in the fallopian tubes instead of the uterus), the developing fetus is unintentionally but really threatening its own existence and the life of the mother. Without an abortion, both mother and baby will die; with an abortion, the fetus will die, but the mother can live. Either way, the baby dies. With the abortion, a mother lives. If life is good, then killing an unborn baby is morally justified.

  • Ancius

    Scot, I understand you to be suggesting that the Bible affirms (or just expresses?) historically conditioned views, that these views are sometimes morally repugnant. The Bible’s condemnations of homosexual practices are either instances of these morally repugnant views or the condemnations are not intended to be as general as Gagnon interprets them to be. Put differently, you are suggesting that if Gagnon is correct in his interpretation of the Bible’s general condemnation of homosexual practices, then this is an instance of the Bible affirming a morally repugnant view. Finally, I read you as suggesting that Gagnon’s own view about homosexuality is morally repugnant. I know you are also saying a lot more, but am I reading you correctly on these points?

    Also, I sympathize with your confidence that the biological sex of the participants isn’t generally significant to the moral status of a sex act. I wonder, however, whether you think that the biological species is equally irrelevant in these matters. In asking this question I don’t mean to be suggesting any that inter-human relationships are generally comparable to relationships between humans and non-human animals (almost always, they aren’t). Rather, my question is about the sorts of grounds that, on your view, can figure into justifying a moral prohibition, and whether or not you have a restricted view of these grounds which might lead you to resist certain judgments which are likely widespread (e.g., that it is morally wrong to engage in playful sexual intercourse one’s golden retriever).

  • Scot Miller

    The moral objection to bestiality (and to pedophilia) is that the relationship isn’t voluntary and mutually respectful. Animals and children can’t consent to sex, so every act of sex with them is violent and coercive, not loving or voluntary. (There are also pretty good arguments against bestiality and pedophilia on consequentialist or utilitarian grounds, and on the grounds of virtue ethics.) So I don’t think you have to appeal to “nature” to say why it’s wrong.

    • Ancius

      I don’t mean to be combative, or to divert you from your main points, but I would have thought that a golden retriever (or, perhaps more certainly, a chimpanzee) can, in a species appropriate way, consent to having sex. Can’t animal breeders and even casual viewers of nature documentaries often tell when a female animal is willing or not willing to have intercourse? By adding “playful” I meant to suggest that the sex act in question was of a nonviolent kind. (Whether the act is “respectful” is potentially loaded: for some actions, we say that they are disrespectful to a given person because such actions wrong that person–so, the point about respectfulness runs the risk of begging the question.)

      My question here is not really what the consequentialist or virtue ethicist would say, but of what you would say. (I suppose that I could also defend, on consequentialist or even virtue ethical grounds, the non-wrongness of the specific kind of beastiality I mentioned.)

      • Scot Miller

        Ancius, I’m not so sure that what you are describing about dogs or chimpanzees is really “consent,” which is a feature of human rationality. When I use the term “respect,” I understand it to be an abbreviation of the Kantian notion of “respect for persons.” A person is an autonomous moral agent, morally responsible for her or his actions in a way that non-moral agents can’t be held possible. I’m not sure that animals or children can consent to sex with morally responsible (adult) human beings.

        Moreover, it’s not enough to imagine kantian, utilitarian, or virtue-based arguments for different moral conclusions. The question is whether they are good arguments or not.

        Since I think that your questions and thought experiments are really trying to get me to reconsider natural law theory, let me confess that I think all moral theories have something important to contribute to our moral reasoning. What I like about the natural law approach is the seriousness it gives to the normative quality of human experience. I just don’t think that the judgments which people claim follow from nature are really as obvious as they want them to be.

        • Ancius

          Although I can understand why consent, in a robust sense, would often render sexual intercourse permissible, and also why, in the inter-human case, sexual intercourse without such mutual consent would tend to mean that the non-consenting individual is wronged, I don’t see why the same sort of mutual consent would be necessary to avoid wrongdoing in the kinds of beastiality cases in question. Similarly, a robust kind of consent presumably renders it permissible to give a person a permanent tattoo. Even without such consent, however, it is presumably sometimes permissible to brand a cow with a kind of tattoo–and even when the cow is clearly protesting (when it isn’t done, e.g., “playfully”). The feature of consent just doesn’t seem carry the weight you seem to want to ascribe to it. Or, when at least one human being is involved, what exactly is it about sexual intercourse which causes it to be the case that a robust form of mutual consent a necessary if wrongdoing is to be avoided?

          Also, just to be clear, I’m not intentionally trying to push you towards natural law stuff. From what your last comment suggests, I’m probably more skeptical of natural law theory than you are. I ask my questions as one who struggles to find a plausible account of these things.

          • Scot Miller

            Ancius, I must admit, I really enjoyed thinking about your thought experiment about bestiality. It’s interesting, because there doesn’t appear to be anything in my approach that would necessarily forbid such sex acts. But I think the answer is that human beings can disrespect themselves as persons as easily as they can disrespect other human beings. While animals are not persons and can’t consent to sex with humans, a human being who chooses to have sex with an animal may be regarding himself merely as a sexual being, and not as a rational moral agent.

            The same thing is what makes prostitution wrong: although both parties (seem to) “consent” to having sex for money (and a lot of people would argue that sex-workers may be coerced into making the transaction, so they are really being violated), in fact both parties have to disregard the fundamental humanity and moral agency of themselves and each other in order to engage in sex.

            Of course, it could be the case that there isn’t a very clear moral objection to bestiality that doesn’t depend upon some kind of natural law assumptions; however, society and human flourishing seem to depend on developing strong human relationships, which bestiality would disrupt in disturbing ways. So there’s a strong presumption against bestiality.

  • Justin F

    “And if the Bible’s acceptance of infanticide and killing noncombatants (and slavery, and the dietary prescriptions in the Holiness Code) are historically conditioned, then the Bible’s pronouncements on homosexuality may be historically conditioned, too.”

    This is one thing that has bugged me the more I reflect on the OT as a moral standard for society. We like to pick out certain texts like those on homosexuality as timeless moral standards, and totally ignore the numerous other texts that by today’s standards would be morally revolting. Did God really command the Israelites to kill entire cities man, woman, and child? We can make theological arguments for why God wasn’t a monster for commanding it then, but I don’t hear anyone trying to justify why it wouldn’t be appropriate behavior for today. By today’s standards much of the “righteous” OT moral standards would be considered barbaric.

    • Jonathan

      Justin F, I believe the standard conservative answer would be as following:
      Yes, God did indeed command the Israelites to kill entire cities, man, woman and child. No, it would not be appropriate behavior for us because God didn’t tell us to do it. A rather simple explanation, I think. If God did indeed command us to wipe out an entire city, it would become a moral imperative to do so. But his revealed will is complete in scripture, and he hasn’t commanded us to do any such thing.

      • Justin F

        “If God did indeed command us to wipe out an entire city, it would become a moral imperative to do so.”

        Kind of a terrifying thing to keep in one’s back pocket. Just waiting for God to give me a green light on that genocide project I’ve been kicking around 😉

        My question is, do you buy the standard conservative answer, or are you just putting it out there? I’ve got a conservative background so I’m well aware of the arguments. I just don’t find them convincing any longer, and think that they white wash some incredibly horrifying actions. Is God’s moral code timeless or isn’t it?

        • Jonathan

          Oh, I buy it. But I also believe in a closed canon. Anything God wanted to say to us, he’s said. So no additional green lights will be given. No fear there.

          “Is God’s moral code timeless or isn’t it?”
          Kind of a hard question to answer. I guess it depends on what you mean by “moral code” and what you mean by “timeless.” Not every command God has ever given is equally applicable to every human being. Christians aren’t commanded to build the tabernacle. On the other hand, God’s character is eternal and consistent. The things he hates, he hates forever. He will always hate injustice, arrogance, sexual immorality, disobedience, etc. The fruit of the Spirit he will always love. Patience won’t go out of style with God.

          So yes? His moral code is timeless, if you mean his character with regard to moral issues.

      • Mark Z.

        Yes, God did indeed command the Israelites to kill entire cities, man, woman and child. No, it would not be appropriate behavior for us because God didn’t tell us to do it.

        Tell that to Osama bin Laden.

  • ME

    Scot, if God was perfectly clear that He didn’t want homosexual sex occurring, would you still believe in Him?

    • Scot Miller

      I would believe God only if God has some good moral reason for objecting to homosexual sex. If something is right or wrong because God said it, and for no other reason, then morality would be arbitrary.

      What would keep God from saying that lying is good, and then lie to us about it? Everything we think is good would really be bad and vice versa, since God says lying is good. This is certainly possible, but such a god would not be worthy of worship.

      I trust that God has moral reasons for his commands, and if we can’t figure out the moral reasons behind God’s commands, then it’s more likely that we weren’t hearing God at all, but something passing for God. (Like Paul said in 2 Cor. 11:14, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” So not everything that appears to be from God is actually from God.)

      The only way God could be perfectly clear that God didn’t want homosexual sex to occur is if he also explained why it’s wrong, too. And as Paul suggests in Romans 1, even non-believers have a kind of moral knowledge independently of the Law or the biblical revelation, which makes everyone “without excuse.”

      • Frank

        And herein lies the fatal flaw in everything that Scot, Tony and their supporters say they believe and the main reason why they have no credibility even when they say good and right things:

        “I would beleive God only if God had some good moral reason…” -Scot Miller

        In other words they are saying “I am a higher judge than God on what is moral or not.”

        • Scot Miller

          And Frank’s fatal flaw is that he thinks his interpretation of scripture is identical to God’s point of view.

          Frank makes the mistake of saying, “I can substitute my one reading of Scripture for the entire Truth of God. My human understanding in no way distorts the Eternal Truth of God.”

          And the tragedy is that he can rationalize hostility toward homosexuals by saying, “Hey, it’s not me, it’s God who disproves of you. I only disapprove of you because God already does so.”

          • Frank

            Scot I see my post struck a nerve with you because you know it’s true.

            I have never been hostile to homosexuals if fact just the opposite. I care enough about them to tell them the biblical truth. I care enough about all people to not force them to live in what I call moral and instead point them to Gods morality as revealed through scripture.

            You are a smart guy who has let himself be deceived.

      • Mark

        Scot said, “I would believe God only if God has some good moral reason for objecting to homosexual sex. If something is right or wrong because God said it, and for no other reason, then morality would be arbitrary.”

        I recognize I am late to the party, but, i must respond to this… Scot, I was with you all the way (and still agree with your premise) until I read this, Isaiah 55:8 tells us that “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…”

        Job 38 again reflects on the awesome power of God, and who are we to question anything God says or does?

        Romans 9:20…Scripture is replete with admonitions warning we were made by God for God. to do as he chooses.

        1 Peter 1:16 for it is written, Be holy for I am holy…

        God chose Joshua over Esau, that was completely arbitrary to you and I, but God had his reasons, time and again, God’s methods don’t make sense. Hezekiah pleaded with God for continued life and his desires were granted, Moses was told “no”…

        God is Sovereign and does as he chooses, yet, he is also holy, so his actions are always right.

  • ME

    I think you hit the nail on the head in distinguishing how you and I reach different conclusions on this issue. I’m ok with morality being arbitrarily determined by God, and you aren’t. I’d be interested to know which theologians, if any, see morality the same way I do, and which theologians see it the way you do.

    Regarding God explaining why some things are immoral, I’m not sure if God explains why we can only have one sexual partner. I certainly think I’m capable of having more without causing any harm to anyone. If you could contextualize that one away (sorry, a joke!) I might really get behind your arguments regarding homosexuality 😉

    • I know I’m not the only one who finds so-called “Christian” arguments against polyamory unconvincing! (Especially since polygyny is so prevalent throughout the Bible–and even Martin Luther admitted polygamy was not incompatible with Holy Writ.)

    • DRT

      The problem with polygamy is that it is inherently discriminatory against the less affluent males (if what you are saying is that only men can have multiple spouses). There is not anything inherently repugnant about polygamy.

      Polygamy is just like the 1 percent in this country. They feel they deserve more of the resources of their society.

      But I also have to point out that polygamy and same gender sex go hand in hand and that is probably why there is no mention of it in the OT. Do you really think that the 100s of wives of some rich guy only had intimate relations with him? Get serious!

      • Your argument against polygamy is actually pretty chilling for roughly half the population. Arguing that a practice is problematic because it allows the 1% to get more than their share of the resources of society, is just fine if the resource in question is monetary wealth, food, land, etc. But when the practice is problematic, the “resource” you’re referring to is women.

        I, a woman, am a human being, not a “resource of society.” I am not an object to be acquired and consumed. I am a person. I make choices about who I have relationships with.

        If there is a problem with polygamy, it is that as it is commonly practiced it treats women as lesser, and as objects to be collected. It doesn’t have to be practiced that way, but the most popular examples of it freight it with subjugation of women, both adults and children.

        The problem with your argument against polygamy is the same: it treats me as an object, not as a person.

        • Mis-brained the last sentence in that first para:

          “But when the practice is problematic polygamy, the “resource” you’re referring to is women.

    • “I’m ok with morality being arbitrarily determined by God, and you aren’t. ”

      The problem I see with accepting a morality being arbitrarily determined by God is, God isn’t actually standing before us and dictating said morality. We’re getting it from His scriptures and prophets — mainly through the vector of the Bible. So what one would actually have to accept is a morality being arbitrarily determined by those who claim to speak for God.

      I understand faith in God. But having faith in the human transmitters of the text we’ve come to call the Bible — having the same kind of faith in them that one usually reserves for God — is incomprehensible to me.

      • ME

        Well I don’t have the same kind of faith in the human transmitters of the text, nor do I have that same kind of faith in my interpretation of the text, as I do in God. Neither do I think my position on an arbitrary morality necessitates that I do.

        My position on the whole issue is this: I’d say I’m 65% confident God does not want people to have homosexual sex. If I had complete faith in the interpreters of the text of God and in my interpretations of those texts, I’d be like Frank, I’d be about 99% certain.

        I don’t think Scot could ever get to 65% or 99% because he needs an explanation or justification from God why this particular morality is beneficial.

  • Excellent series, Scot. I think I’ll be back linking to these posts at my site. This would all be really helpful to my readers who have been asking about these types of interpretation issues. Thanks for your time and work!

  • guest

    I agree with Benw; it seems to me that all of the hermeneutical line-drawing simply precludes the point at issue. Yes, you can certainly drag out slavery, infanticide, etc and say Look! We don’t accept these so we shouldn’t accept the Bible’s verdict on homosexuality! But it seems to me that the overall of trajectory of the Biblical narrative, particularly with Christ as key and center of the canon, goes against these things. Jesus would never condone these things, and it seems certain (at least to this ignoramus) that Jesus wouldn’t condone homosexuality. Paul seems to explicitly say so. What prevents us from sliding down the slope and then saying that one can have as many sexual partners as one wishes; it’s perfectly natural?

    I was talking with a friend who has “converted” to the liberal position on the issue and he says that he was convinced of the “liberal” position by his experience with same sex couples. I provided a counterpoint in favor of consumer capitalism. I argued that based on the supposed “success” of free markets we should wealthy business people a free pass for maximizing profits, though that clearly goes against Biblical teaching (and both of our heart felt convictions!). I also used my example of multiple partners, which he disagreed with (on what grounds? How do we determine what is “healthy”?) I would love to affirm homosexuality, but the Bible is an authority for me. Are there difficulties in interpretation and application? Of course, but that shouldn’t stop us from following what for us is God’s word. I’m not going to cave in to consumer capitalism, and neither am I going to cave in to sexual immorality. Should we all be humble in light of our universally depraved status, yes!

    • Curtis

      It would be quite easy to argue that “having as many sexual partners as one wishes” is a Biblical lifestyle. There are dozens of references to men of God in the Bible who do exactly that.

      Fortunately, God has free us from such twisted hermeneutics by giving us a very clear definition of God’s law.

      The simple answer to your question: “What prevents us from sliding down the slope and then saying that one can have as many sexual partners as one wishes; it’s perfectly natural?” is that such practice would be a clear violation of God’s law as stated in Matthew 22:37-40 In particular, basing ones sexual behavior based solely on one’s individual wishes is a violation of the second law in Matthew 22, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

      Sexual behavior based on one’s own wishes, with no regard for others, is clearly a violation of God’s Law.

      • Okay, I can see the argument against “hav[ing] as many sexual partners as one wishes.” But certainly that’s not the same as having a limited number of sexual partners greater than one, where the relationship could still be founded on love and respect for all of its members.

        • Curtis

          As a matter of civil law, the state certainly has an interest in limiting the contractual and legal agreements entered into by civil marriage to two persons. Trying to sort out and enforce civil marriage rights and obligations is tricky enough between two people, I doubt the state has any interest in figuring out how that would be done between more than two people. So the state certainly has an interest in restricting marriage to two persons, as the U.S. and every other modern democracy has done throughout history.

          As a moral and religious issue, there certainly are some religious sects that have allowed and even blessed polygamy throughout history, many of them relying on Biblical teachings to do so. I’m not advocating that, primarily because of the civil complications it raises, but it would be naive to think that some people do not view polygamy as a wholly moral, righteous, and Biblical way to live.

  • Charlie

    Scot, thank you for your honesty and willingness to take a hard look at an abnormally long book that no doubt took some pouring over for you. Indeed, you were willing to ask hard questions and make some tough arguments, and I am very appreciative of your perspectives. You definitely stretched me in my thinking and theology a good bit.

    Allow me to preface this by saying that I firmly believe (in my limited capacity and knowledge) that the bible speaks very clearly against ALL sexual acts outside of the confines of a marriage between a man and a woman. The greatest case against homosexual practices is still creation. If you believe in the God of the bible (and no matter if you interpret it literally or narratively) then you have to trust in the way that God set this whole thing up.

    I also believe that the church has gravely undertaken a terrible stance and attitude towards this issue. Above all things, we should love PEOPLE despite their issues or struggles. Standing on the street condemning them is never the answer nor the example Jesus gave us.

    But I have to wonder, as many who read your posts probably have, if you are so willing to give up the sovereignty and authority of the Bible for the sake of cultural, interpretive, and scholarly criticism, either for inclusiveness or impartiality (after all, the scripture is all we have in black and white. The Spirit’s job in all of this is to discern for us, but more on that later). It also appears that based on some of your responses, you neglect the ACT itself for the heart of the matter or the social/personal implications of taking such commands as clear cut. It’s interesting, because the classic argument that the Levitical passages on homosexuality are very quickly thrown out, yet we discount sacrificing children to Molek ad bestiality as “lesser” because they are now historically and socioeconomically irrelevant.

    Indeed, the authors of the bible, “…as divinely inspired as they were, did not have 21st century” ethics or issues in mind. I believe this is where we are incredibly arrogant historically. Because we now have a fuller grasp of history and cultures long forgotten, WE have become the authorities in what is and is not clear, based on our experiences and new knowledge (which, sadly, trump too many things in our world today). It sounds like, in some of your comments, that as long as someone makes the “correct argument,” they have legs to stand on. Who are we to be the authority on what these authors “truly meant” and “what bias they had”? Words don’t really change over time, our lenses however are adjusted constantly.

    By the way, I am DEEPLY troubled by your conditional acceptance if God were clear on a subject. In essence, you are saying that as long as God conforms to your line of thought, you’ll agree with him. That, my man, we should not overlook. Until the bible is an (maybe “the”) authority for you, I wonder how many things will slide under your thinking and processies.

    Above all, I would pose a few questions for you:
    Do you trust that what God said was good enough? Are you willing to go out on faith and stand firm in the scriptures, no matter how “morally repugnant” they may appear to you? Are you willing to trust that what God set up is for His glory and not ours, and rest in that?

    • Scot Miller

      Charlie, thank you for your respectful disagreement with me. It’s so easy for people who disagree with each other to attack each other with hateful ad hominems. I appreciate what you have to say.

      I think we both want to do what God wants us to do, but we disagree on how to understand what God wants us to do. For you, the Bible is the clear record of God’s communication with us. If we want to follow God’s will, do what the Bible says. Understanding isn’t required, especially since God’s ways are higher than our ways and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Is. 55:9). Proverbs 3:5 instructs us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding” (emphasis added). And doesn’t Jesus himself say that we need faith like a little child in Matt. 18:1-10? So I think I understand where you’re coming from.

      My respect for the Bible comes from the fact that my religious experience was shaped by the Bible. I want to be faithful to the Bible, but I don’t think that the meaning of the Bible is found in its words, but in the Word to which the words of scripture imperfectly point. The Bible is is the human record of communities of Jewish and Christian believers who were trying to make sense of their experience of God. Their stories and poetry and prophetic challenges used historically conditioned language and culture to make as much sense of God as they could. The message of the Bible continues to resonate with spiritual experiences of believers, which is why the Bible can become the word of God in the lives of believers. (The Bible is not objectively the word of God, especially since non-believers don’t recognize God speaking; the Bible becomes the word of God existentially in the lives of believers.)

      I take the Isaiah passage quite literally when it says God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. We can only think of God in finite, human, limited, historically conditioned ways. Or as Paul eloquently states in 1 Cor. 13, we “see through a glass, dimly…. now we know in part.” That means that the things we say or attribute to God are better or worse, closer or farther from the reality of God, but are never in our possession. We can’t for a moment think that we have God in our pockets, that we know EXACTLY what God says. When we do that, we end up doing horrible things in the name of God.

      So I’m not so sure how quoting biblical passages gives us much guidance, especially when people can quote the Bible in support of contradictory practices (e.g., slavery, racial segregation, homosexual practices). I think Paul was right when he said we really need to “judge all things, holding to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

      So I think all we can do is the best we can when it comes to understanding scripture. You understand it one way, and I understand it differently. But we both have to “continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Perhaps I need to be cautious of relying on reason more than faith. On the other hand, perhaps all of us need to be cautious of identifying our interpretations of scripture with God’s Truth. None of us should make an idol of our finite, limited, historically conditioned interpretations of scripture.

      • Charlie

        Scot, thanks for the reply. I’m very thankful for your perspective, and that certainly cleared things up for me as far as where you are coming from. I apologize if I seemed brash or attacking, I assure you that was not my intent.

  • Curtis

    How many times have humans gone down this road in history, this road of trying to discern exactly what God’s law is? Thousands? Millions? How many times do we have to keep doing it? In Jesus time, the people asked God for clarification on this age-old question, and God gave people a clear and succinct answer as to the content and scope of God’s law.

    Matthew 22:37-40: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

    This is God’s clear and succinct definition of *All the Law*. All of it. There is nothing else. What else are we looking for? God has given us the answer thousands of years ago. Why do we keep on asking the same question?

    • Frank

      Exactly and it’s hate not love to encourage anyone to continue a sinful behavior.

    • DRT

      Curtis, so glad you support homosexual marriage and relations. It is so hard to get people to actually pay attention to the rule of love.

      • Charlie

        But within the rule of love are still some guidelines. Unconditional love, and even God’s love, does not mean unconditional acceptance for one’s actions, no matter how well placed we may think they are.

        The Beatles have brainwashed us into thinking “Love is all you need.” While it is arguably the most important thing, it’s not all there is to this whole life thing.

  • Peter Veysie

    Tony your insight is so inspiring and deeply righteous on this topic. Thankyou for all your blogs. I read with great joy and penetrating theological wows!! Keep going. From a friend in Rivonia Johannesburg South Africa. If you are ever here our church Ridgeway is open for you to share in.

  • jay

    I don’t think it is reasonable or wise to assume that biblical morals are just facts without good reason behind them. It appears that Jesus summed up the Jewish law in the commandment of love. Within this commandment of love, it would seem that “loving” homosexual acts would not be a violation of this law. Paul seems to accept the law of Chirst, but yet also refers to the law of nature which he uses as an argument against at least some sorts of homosexual behavior. How are we do conclude about this? Are all loving consensual sexual acts between two adults moral? The Old Testament law forbid a wide variety of sexual acts, not only homosexual acts, but acts between relatives and between humans and animals. The heterosexual acts forbidden, besides the ones relating to menstrual impurity, not only include blood relatives, but also in-laws. I think it is difficult to make a case using only the “law of love” against the love between a step-brother and step-sister or as far as that goes, between a sister and brother or a father and daughter. Also as Ancius, mentioned, there certainly are plenty of male dogs that readily copulate with humans, even to the point of initiating that behavior. Perhaps the question is then, not what is right and wrong sex according to the Bible, but is there any possibility to state an absolute sex ethic that forbids any sexual acts that is an act of consensual affection between two sexual beings.

    • Curtis

      Is there a sex ethic that forbids sex acts between two consenting adults?

      According to Matthew 22, any sex act which causes harm would be forbidden. In considering harm, one has to look beyond the two people directly participating in the sex act, and consider if harm may be caused to others as well.

      An absolute sex ethic that forbids sex acts between two consenting adults might read:
      “Any sex act between two consenting adults is forbidden under God’s law if the people performing the act are aware that there is a reasonable chance that their action will cause harm, to themselves or to others.”

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  • Stephen

    Thanks Tony for what you write here. It’s eye and mind opening and I love what you have to say. My spiritual journey has led me to find God in new ways and without the ridigity and fear that I experienced for so many years when in the strongly-right evangelical world. What you write is balm and wisdom in a modern world.

  • Chris

    “So I’m not so sure how quoting biblical passages gives us much guidance, especially when people can quote the Bible in support of contradictory practices (e.g., slavery, racial segregation, homosexual practices). I think Paul was right when he said we really need to “judge all things, holding to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).”

    Scott, there is quite a sense of irony in this statement isn’t there? In fact the statement seems to commit suicide. People should not quote scripture to support their views, but somehow quoting Paul to support your own is an okay thing to do.

    I agree with your quote of Paul also that “we see through a glass darkly.” In fact I truly believe it. But the only reason we both can agree with Paul’s statement is because we both operate from the presupposition that even that statement can be truly understood in a real meaningful way. Or that, if this in some strange way from God that He is somehow able to break into our world and transcend all of our cultural baggage so that we can capture its meaning accurately. If we can’t at a minimum admit even this, then I can just as readily deconstruct Paul’s statement to mean that we can in fact see things quite clearly after all. That we’re not really reading what we think we’re reading. Which is the rationale for a postmodern biblical hermeneutic when it comes to things like homosexuality. In fact, i dont even have to invoke God in order for this to be true.

    I just don’t think you can have it both ways.

    Scott. Through your honest wrestling with this I want to say I really respect you. Please don’t take my disagreement as any kind of personal judgment. And don’t make yourself crazy responding to everyone’s or my comments.

    Keep pursuing truth and I’ll try to do the same.

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