Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture

Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture

Willis, Wendell

ROBERT L. BRAWLEY (ed.), Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996). Pp. x + 162. Paper $16.99.

This collection of nine essays was the basis for a Presbyterian consultation on biblical ethics and sexuality; therefore, it has the character of “study documents” and represents diverging viewpoints. The reader ought not to anticipate even a preliminary “conclusion.” In many ways these essays are eloquent testimony of the current diversity not only within each Christian group but within the academic guild as well. The book makes clear that the diversity of outlooks on the topic of homosexuality fundamentally reflects an equal diversity with respect to methodologies in biblical study and authority within the Christian church.

This book has two major sections: the first on the question of method in biblical study, and the second on the Bible and human sexuality. The first begins with a textual study, “Creation and Human Sexuality in the New Testament” (pp. 3-16) by Ulrich Mauser. This essay concludes rather strikingly, “If the main thesis of this study is correct, it follows that homosexual practice cannot honor the creation of human life in the essential differentiation of male and female” (p. 13). The second essay is “Textual Orientation” (pp. 17-34) by Choon-Leong Seow, an essay focused upon hermeneutical approach. In it the author examines the customary texts of both the OT and the NT on the topic of homosexuality and points to difficulties with each one-primarily with regard to obedience. These difficulties, the author insists, suggest that a more helpful alternative is a “theology from below” which he believes is supported by the OT wisdom literature. The brief scope of the essay does not allow extended consideration of the question of whether, or how, the OT wisdom literature is in conflict with the revelatory theology of law and prophets. The final essay in part I is “The Power of God at Work in the Children of God” (pp. 35-50) by Robert L. Brawley, the editor. It suggests that the Christian community should serve as the decisive basis for Christian ethics.

In part 2, the part on the Bible and human sexuality, broad fields are covered in two essays, “Marriage in the Old Testament” (pp. 53-68) by J. Andrew Dearman and “Exploring the Implications of Paul’s Use of Sarx” (pp. 69-86) by Elizabeth Gordon Edwards. The focus is narrower in two others, “The Holiness Code and Human Sexuality” (pp. 87-102) by Sarah J. Melcher and “Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences” (pp. 117-26) by Dale B. Martin. Both contemporary and ancient considerations are addressed in “Same-Sex Sexual Relations in Antiquity and Sexuality and Sexual Identity in Contemporary American Society” (pp. 102-16) by Herman C. Waetjen and in “Gentile Wheat and Homosexual Christians: New Testament Directions for the Heterosexual Church” (pp. 127-52) by Jeffrey S. Siker.

Edwards explains Paul’s (negative) view of sarx by Freudian analysis: Paul is uneasy about his maleness, and perhaps about his own experience as well. Only in a concluding thought does Edwards mention the possibility that Paul may be expressing the human rather than the male condition, and this is not really examined. Martin sees no value in lexical study of the terms arsenokoites and malakos, because the ideologies of those who study them (presumably including himself) proscribe any accurate understanding of them. Thus, after a lengthy study of arsenokoites he concludes, “I am not claiming to know what arsenokoites meant, I am claiming that no one knows what it meant” (p. 123). Rejecting all appeals to “what the Bible says” as “ideological and problematic,” he believes that only one question is worth asking: “What is the loving thing to do?” (One is then forced to ask why that is a good question, since the answer surely is not “what the Lord said.”) The cynicism here is much more explicit than the cynicism one usually encounters in theology or in historical study.

The great value of these essays lies in their diversity. The strong disagreements among the authors make clear the erosion of consensus in Christian theology and the difficulty of finding paths from where we are to the future. This is a provocative book.

Wendell Willis, Abilene Christian University, Abilene, TX 79699

Copyright Catholic Biblical Association of America Oct 1997

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