The Brownson Challenge 2

The Brownson Challenge 2 March 18, 2013

James V. Brownson, professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary (Holland MI), in  Bible, Gender and Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships challenges traditional thinking about homosexuality what values sustain the Bible’s statements about sexuality (his big idea is the kinship bond of “one flesh”) and he also challenges the boundaries traditional thinking has affirmed.

Thus, in the previous post he sketched patriarchy, one flesh, procreation and celibacy — four traditional sustaining points — and he found each of them in need of re-thinking. In this post I will sketch his views on lust and desire, purity and impurity, honor and shame, and nature. These are the traditional four categories that establish the boundaries.

Are these the four standard “boundary” arguments in your world? Which is the most compelling? which is the least compelling? 

The big text in this discussion, and it’s unfair to call it a “clobber” text unless it is being used thoughtlessly (some do, most don’t), is Romans 1:24-27, and this text is esp the focus for Brownson’s challenges:

Rom. 1:24    Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Rom. 1:26    Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Lust and desire: Paul expects his readers to identify with his outrage over these sins; it is excessive self-centered desire. Words like lusts, passions, consumed, burning, and with passion are at work here.  Same-sex relations were seen in the Roman and Greek world as characterizing insatiable desire and discontent with normal sexual relations. It is possible Paul is describing a former emperor, Gaius Caligula. Desire is not evil; excessive desire is. The focus on the text, so says Brownson, is not on same-sex desire but excessive desire. The Bible does not permit a sharp distinction between sinful desire and sinful practices; if the practice is sinful, desire for it is sinful. Same-sex desire, then, if sinful would be wrong and that means the typical distinction between orientation (desires etc) and practices (same-sex relations) is not as legitimate as many would say. He believes same-sex relations not characterized by excessive desire, passion, lust are not in view in this text.

Purity and impurity: The OT defines purity as conforming to created order, safeguarding life, and Israel’s distinctiveness. The NT has three movements when it comes to purity: away from the external toward the internal, away from separation toward Spirit empoweredness, and away from replication of creation to the new creation. For Paul then same-sex impurity is about the internal disposition of lust and desire.

Honor and shame: same-sex relations are shameful according to Romans 1:24-27. This language emerges from public status and esteem and where roles are defined. “Their women” in 1:26 is about dishonorable forms of heterosexual intercourse. Degrading acts is about same-sex excessive lust relations. Honorable category fluctuates from one culture to another. What is shameful then is the excessiveness and violating nature of these sexual relations. He asks if same-sex fits this in our culture.

Nature: this is the big one. The word “nature” is not an OT word; it is a Greco-Roman and post canonical Jewish category. In the ancient world there are three dimensions to “nature”:

1. One’s individual nature or disposition.

2. What contributed to the good order of society, so “order” is the sense.  This means “nature” is social convention.

3. Biological processes, including procreativity. But he observes the word “nature” is not connected in the ancient world to sexual organs.

These three do not convene as neatly in our world as they did then. Nature also needs to be connected to “new creation” and not just “old” creation.

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  • brad

    Thanks for the summary. I’ll be interested in the dialogue to follow. One question for clarification: Brownson says that “their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones (v.26)” refers to dishonorable forms of heterosexual sex? What, in his view, are these dishonorable forms of heterosexual sex? Doesn’t the following verse (“IN THE SAME WAY, men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another”) most naturally imply that Paul is referring to same sex relations in both 26 and 27?

  • EricW

    @1 brad:


    Basically Miller argues that non-coital intercourse (e.g., oral, anal) may be what is being discussed.

  • JoeyS

    Just putting this out there because it is topical. Rob Bell affirmed marriage equality this past weekend at a church in SF:

  • I am interested in reading this book, but it’s my understanding (secondhand, so could be wrong) that Brownson fails to engage substantially with Rob Gagnon’s (seemingly ever-expanding) body of work on this topic generally and on the Romans passage in particular. I recognize that this would be a challenging task, but isn’t that sort of the point? In the sense that if you want to write something substantial about this you probably ought to spend the most time engaging those who have written the strongest arguments counter to your own position? Particularly important in this regard is the idea that Paul would not have known the idea of people being “naturally” attracted to others of the same sex. This idea is not tenable – the best evidence Gagnon cites suggests that the ancient world (and Paul) would have been well aware of a range of same-sex desires and relationships, even some that were “marriage-like.” If Paul was aware of this it raises the important question of why he still could have written the things he did in Romans, or why he felt it was important enough to use such desires as the focal point of an argument as he did.

  • EricW

    @4 Rory Tyer:

    NOTE: I put spaces in the URLs so my comment wouldn’t be treated as spam. You can copy and paste the links and then remove the spaces to go to the actual PDF documents.

    I haven’t read Gagnon’s book, though I’ve read some of the articles on his Web page. This scholar, Jean Nardelli, has read and critiqued Gagnon here:

    h t t p : / / w w w p d f

    Gagnon responded here:

    h t t p : / / w w w p d f

    And Nardelli replied here:

    h t t p : / / w w w p d f

  • Rob


    I cannot speak for all of the categories present here, since only one falls within my own area of study. Nevertheless, when discussing passion/desire, I find some difficulties here.

    1. I have yet to find a text which speaks of same-sex desire and excessiveness that does not portray same-sex desires as excessive. In fact, in Greco-Roman literature, passion in general, not only excessive passion is often considered to be excessive by its very nature. Philo argues for extirpation of passion. Aristotle and Stoic writers echo this theme, but at times view moderation as a “therapy” for the illness of passion. Even the Romantic novels view passion as something that needs to be controlled by means of sexual expression.

    2. Even so, the goal was to quench the fire within. As such, almost exclusively ancient writers saw passion in general and sexual passion in particular as an element that requires moderation. Thus, for Brownson to argue that same-sex sexual passion could be viewed as not excessive would go against the very nature of passion itself, let alone sexual passion in particular. In fact, Dale Martin of Yale has argued that Paul’s own rhetoric in 1 Cor 7 and 1 Thess 4 demonstrate that Paul was anti-passion. I don’t endorse this view, but to say that there could be a form of passion, which is not excessive, particularly same-sex passion would be difficult at best and certainly rare. Even in Jewish writings, on the rare occasions where moderate forms of passion are discussed, they are done so within the context of being an element which can quickly morph into an excessive state. Thus, whatever the nature of passion was for Paul, it was viewed as something which required moderation and self-control. A character trait obviously not pressent in the current passage.

    That said, I find the conclusion that the form of passion being discussed by Paul is a same-sex passion, which is not excessive, untenable. Passion in general was viewed predominately as excessive. Same-sex passion was almost exclusively (read: I know of no example and have read hundreds, but don’t want to make a definitive statement) viewed as excessive. Some viewed excess as ok, while others certainly did not. Jewish and Christians writers would fall into the latter category, while Romantic novels and other Greco-Roman writers could conceive of such a category, but this was not found in ethical writings.

  • Jon G

    My stance on this subject is in transition. To be honest, I don’t know exactly where I fall but the following is a short summary. For me, any question like this starts with “God is good and designed the Universe to run a certain “good” way which promotes “shalom” and repairs the breaking of “shalom”.

    So then the question for me is “what are the factors in homosexual realationships that either add or subtract from shalom”? I came up with 3 main factors: 1) Loving, 2) Committed, 3) Fits God’s Design

    I don’t see the kind of relationships we are fighting over today (monagamous, life-long, homosexual partnerships) being specifically addressed in any of the problem passages in the Bible although I do see homosexuality being used to represent the breaking of God’s design. Simply on the basis of anatomical design and complimentarity of disposition, it seems to me that the man/woman relationship seems more in tune with God’s original design (it seems like both physically and emotionally, men and women have characteristics that “fit”). And where they don’t “fit” it seems to be more of a consequence of sin than faulty design. But God also designed us to be loving, and designed relationships to be committed, so it seems like, in the case of loving, monogamous, homosexual couples, you still have 2 of the 3. Of course, realistically, all three criteria would cover a spectrum (more loving – less loving, more committed – less committed, etc.) and I doubt that even the best relationship is totally loving or committed – heterosexual OR homosexual.

    So, that leaves me with the notion that homosexuality is not ideal, but it is hardly as bad as everybody makes it out to be. I currently liken it to overeating or smoking (I don’t mean to trivialize, just to emphasize that it is not the ideal and it can lead to problems, but that it doesn’t need to be discussed with any more fervor than one would discuss other instances of choosing what is less than ideal). It seems like the greatest commandmant, and the one most stressed by the Bible is to Love, so that one factor trumps the rest. So, is the relationship in question loving?

    And I think that a loving, committed homosexual relationship is FAR better than an unloving, unstable heteralsexual relationship. In fact, when it comes to marriage, the three ingredients that I see as key run in this order: 1) Loving, 2) Committed, 3) Natural (conforming to God’s design).

    In this discussion, we must ask ourselves – where are we placing our final criteria?

    Just thinking aloud. I’m open to correction.

    So, I don’t support homosexuality on the same basis that I wouldn’t support overeating (which I am guilty of), but I would gladly affirm it on the basis of life-long commitment or love. Those two seem to build much more shalom than the unnaturalness destroys.

  • Jon G

    oops, I meant for that last paragraph to be inserted earlier. my bad.

  • “He believes same-sex relations not characterized by excessive desire, passion, lust are not in view in this text.” Too much wiggling around the obvious meaning.

  • TJJ

    The twisting and turning and flipping of the text by Brownson is akin to working a rubics cude to get to the outcome one desires to get to. What is significant is not so much that squeezing such a sense out of the text can’t be done, but the spectacle of what all one must do to get there. Seems it would be more honest to just acknowledge the text speaks contra to same sex relations, but that either Paul was wrong or that the text does not apply today. I don’t agree, but I respect such honesty more.

  • TJJ

    *rubics cube*