Reading Gagnon: Overstated Arguments [Scot]

Reading Gagnon: Overstated Arguments [Scot] April 5, 2012

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.

First, Ezekiel 16:49-50 appears to interpret the sin of Sodom as pride, injustice, or inhospitality; it says nothing about the sin of homosexual rape. Gagnon has an eight-page argument in which he argues that an “overtone” of same-sex intercourse is “conceivable” in this passage because of the text uses the word for “abomination” (p. 80; see pp. 79-87).

Instead of asking how Ezek. 16:49-50 is really a passage condemning homosexual violence, the more interesting question would be, “Why did Ezekiel explicitly refer to injustice and inhospitality as the real sin of Sodom, but not male rape?” Maybe inhospitality is a bigger deal than it sounds to our contemporary ears. Maybe God comes to us in the form of the stranger, the poor, the needy. Maybe it makes a difference if we welcome or reject the stranger. (While I’m not doing a very good job, I’m thinking about Richard Kearney’s discussion about God and the stranger in Anatheism: Returning to God After God.) So maybe it’s a mistake for Gagnon to worry so much about making sure that homosexual practice is included in a passage that makes no explicit mention of homosexual practice.

Second, his argument about the contemporary relevance of the Holiness Code in Levitical Law is not especially convincing. The problem is that the Hebrew term for “abomination” (tô‘ēbâ) applies both to same-sex male intercourse (Lev. 18:22) and to the abomination of having sex with a menstruating woman (Lev. 20:18; see 18:24-30). It would be easier for Gagnon to argue that both acts are still abominations; however, he admits: “Obviously, one cannot simply say: it is in the book of Leviticus so obey it” (p. 121).

While he is convinced that it is reasonable to follow biblical prescriptions unless there is very good reason not to obey them, once he opens the possibility that “(t)he passage of time produces changing conceptions of what is detestable to God (as well as changing civil penalties)” (p. 120), he opens the possibility that the “abomination” of homosexuality is also a historically conditioned idea.

Third, his chapter on “The Witness of Jesus” is also a bit of a stretch when it comes to the issue of homosexual practice. I agree with Gagnon that it’s a mistake to conclude anything from the fact that “Jesus made no direct or explicit comments on same-sex intercourse” (p. 187). Arguments from silence don’t prove anything. On the other hand, I’m not sure that Gagnon has enough evidence to conclude from the few comments attributed to Jesus about marriage and divorce that “Jesus did not overturn any prohibitions against immoral sexual behavior in Leviticus or anywhere else in the Mosaic Law” (p. 227).

Essentially, Gagnon is arguing that Jesus’ sayings on marriage and divorce connect directly to normative pattern found in creation, and that normative pattern of creation has been the basis for rejecting same-sex intercourse in Leviticus; hence, Jesus would have rejected the sin of same-sex intercourse. I think his argument would have been stronger if he simply said that it was highly likely that Jesus would have accepted the orthodox Jewish belief that homosexual practices were sinful… even though Jesus was obviously willing to challenge orthodox Jewish beliefs (“You have heard it said… but I say to you….”).

Fourth, his argument often turns on translations of Hebrew and Greek words; however, translations are notoriously difficult to assert with the kind of confidence that Gagnon has. Translations may be stronger or weaker, well attested or speculative, but it’s hard to say they they conclusively mean just what the translator thinks they mean. (This goes for people on the other side of Gagnon, who also assert that their translation is really to be preferred to Gagnon’s.)

Nevertheless, after making an eighteen-page argument with numerous comparisions of ancient texts, Gagnon claims, “It is self-evident, then, that the combination of terms, malakoi and arsenokoitai, are correctly understood in our contemporary context when they are applied to every conceivable type of same-sex intercourse” (p. 330). A claim like “2+2=4” may be self-evident; the translation of a pair of obscure ancient Greek words, not so much… especially if it is only self-evident after an eighteen-page argument.

But let’s agree for the sake of argument that Gagnon’s biblical interpretations in chapters 1-4 are entirely correct, and my criticisms are about style more than substance. Why do I still think that the biblical case for condemning of homosexual practice is not as compelling as the biblical case for justice and acceptance of the LGBTQ community?

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