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.
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Reading Gagnon: What Went Wrong [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 have really tried to be charitable to Gagnon’s book in my blog posts. Maybe I’ve been too charitable, since Gagnon doesn’t just “overstate” the conclusions in his biblical exegesis. He relentless forces all of the evidence into arguments that seem intended to annihilate even the possibility of an alternative interpretation.

It is more difficult for me to be charitable with his fifth chapter, however. In this last chapter — about one-third of his book — Gagnon attempts to refute as many arguments as he can think of which attempt to “override the Bible’s authority” by appealing to “general theological principles or contemporary scientific knowledge and experience” (p. 37).

While the first four chapters of Gagnon’s book could be read as an important contribution to biblical scholarship on homosexuality and sexual ethics, I’m afraid that the last chapter reads more like partisan talking points that can be used to attack and dismiss interpretations which differ with Gagnon’s particular interpretation of the Bible. Instead of seriously engaging the theological and modern scientific challenges to the Bible’s apparent position on homosexual practice, Gagnon’s mind is clearly made up, and he will come up with any argument he can, good or bad, to defend what he already thinks.
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Reading Gagnon: Overstated Arguments [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 think that Gagnon’s conclusions about the biblical texts are basically correct. It seems pretty clear that the Hebrew Bible regards male same-sex intercourse as a sin, though it is silent about lesbian practices. Gagnon tries to argue that lesbian practices are implicitly regarded as sin, too (pp. 142-46), but this part of his argument isn’t very convincing, especially since the texts he had discussed in the earlier part of the book speak more directly of the sin being found in the “unnatural” penetration of a man by another man’s penis, which has nothing to do with lesbian practices.

But if the Hebrew Bible is silent about lesbian practice, Paul isn’t. Romans 1:26 explicitly condemns “women [who] exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural.” Of course, Paul explicitly argues in 1 Cor. 11:14-15 that “nature” also teaches that long hair on a man is degrading, but it is a woman’s glory.

Gagnon assures us on pp. 373-380 that Paul really meant “nature” in a moral sense in Romans (i.e., homosexual practice violates the natural law), while he really meant “nature” in a descriptive sense in 1 Corinthians (i.e., we can see that in nature women tend to have long hair while men typically go bald). Gagnon admits that Paul’s argument about hair length in 1 Cor. 11:14-15 isn’t really “credible” (p. 377), unlike the simple and obvious moral argument in Romans that two men (or two women) don’t naturally fit together like a man and a woman do.

While I agree with Gagnon that Paul is confusing a cultural bias with “nature” in 1 Corinthians, why can’t Paul be confused in the same way in Romans? Gagnon certainly offers a plausible argument why they should be read differently, but I’m not sure his evidence is as overwhelmingly convincing as he thinks.

So my complaint about Gagnon’s argument in the first four chapters isn’t that the conclusions are mistaken, but that he tends to overstates the strength of his conclusions. Let me offer four more examples of what I mean.
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Reading Gagnon: Here We Go [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

Robert A. J. Gagnon, Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has impressive academic credentials: a B.A. from Dartmouth, M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity, and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. But I have seen few scholarly works written by one author that is as impressive as his massive work, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (2001). (All page references are to this book.)

And by impressive work, I mean the entire book is 520 pages long — and it would have been longer, if the extensive discursive footnotes had not been printed smaller font. The list of abbreviations used in the book for ancient texts, journal titles, and major reference works is eleven pages long. The twenty-five page index listing his references to 472 different contemporary authors (by my count) and to numerous ancient texts. I was surprised that the book lacks a bibliography, but it probably would have added at least 30 more pages to the length of the book.

Robert Gagnon

Given the magnitude of the book, it is obvious that Gagnon is more than a little concerned with the growing tolerance for homosexual practice both in society and in the church. Acceptance of homosexual practice is not only a threat to “intellectual integrity [and] free speech,” but also threatens to make “a potentially irreversible change in the morality of mainline denominations … in this vital area of sexual ethics” (p. 35).

Gagnon is writing to offer a comprehensive, exhaustive, and definitive account of the biblical and theological message that homosexual practice is a sin. It should be the “go-to” book for anyone interested in defending the sin of homosexual practice against those who would “reinterpret” scripture or offer theological justifications for tolerance of LGBTQ practices.

Throughout the book, Gagnon is careful to distinguish between homosexual orientation and homosexual practice. According to him, the Bible has little interest in sexual urges as such, but with what one does with those urges (p. 38). This distinction permits him to show compassion and love toward the person with same-sex attraction or orientation (since having homosexual attraction is not a sin), while strongly condemning those who act on that attraction (since engaging in homosexual practice is a sin; see pp. 35-36, 489-93).

As the subtitle of the book suggests, Gagnon intends to establish that the biblical texts unequivocally regard same-sex intercourse as a sin, and he wants to refute all theological arguments and interpretations that would override the unequivocal authority of the Bible on this matter (p. 37).

This post will focus on Gagnon’s discussion of the biblical evidence.
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