Homosexuality, Science and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture

Homosexuality, Science and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture

Patrick, Dale

Homosexuality, Science and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture. Edited by David Blach. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. 318 pages.

The topic is a hot one in churches. The volume is essays from a 1993 conference. The participants are ordained pastors and professors who speak within the church, not the academy. The program represents debates over science, Bible, and doctrinal theology.

Toulouse sets the debate in context, narrating changes since 1956. At that point, all churches regarded homosexuality as condemned by Scripture, morally repugnant and psychologically aberrant. In the years since, liberal church leaders and a few denominations have reversed their positions entirely, other denominations have split into factions, and even evangelicals have softened their rhetoric.

The next three essays assess social-scientific and biological evidence. Actually, Schoedel’s essay concerns Greco-Roman conceptions of sexuality and their influence on early Judaism and Christianity. Contemporary scientific debate concerns the prevalence and genesis of homosexuality. The “conservatives” in this book, Jones and Yarhouse, maintain nothing in the evidence requires the church to alter historic teaching. The “liberal,” Gudorf, takes the view that homosexuality is not a psychological or moral aberration, and that demanding clerical celibacy is harmful.

Biblical studies are central to the debate. The Old Testament says little about homosexuality, but a few texts are unequivocal. Lv 18:22 prohibits male homosexual intercourse and Lv 20:13 prescribes capital punishment (although Sodom gave its name to homosexual practice, the story in Genesis 19 actually concerns hospitality to strangers). Bird approaches these texts, reasoning from cultic purity and national distinctness, to be historically conditioned. Neither category stands up in contemporary ethical sensibility. Seitz challenges religious communities to regard divine law as having performative force. Christ does not abrogate God’s law, and churches which accommodate teaching to cultural sensibility fail their calling.

The only New Testament texts directly mentioning homosexuality are by Paul. Frederickson argues that Paul has been misunderstood: Rom 1:24-27 and 1 Cor 6:9 condemn unbridled erotic passion, not homosexuality as such. Jewett retains a traditional interpretation of the Rom 1:24-27, but proposes that it appeals to a sexually exploited class in Roman society.

The final essays are by doctrinal theologians. GreeneMcCreight observes that the issue is hermeneutical, not exegetical. Distinguishing “traditionalists” from “revisionists,” she maintains that the burden of proof is on revisionists, whose arguments she dismantles one by one. Duff enlists Barth’s theology to propose an ethics of calling, according to which gay men or lesbians could be called by God.

Editor Balch not only summarizes and categorizes the positions taken, but reviews the Jewish discussion – it closely parallels the Christian.

Homosexuality is proving to be a case of the church being forced by culture to re-examine historic teaching. Readers may find one pole or the other more persuasive, as Balch himself does, but one has to admit that both sides have powerful arguments. This has the earmarks of an interminable debate, with no clear winner.

What compromise will allow the discussion to continue with integrity and churches to act without a clear mandate? Let revisionists honor traditional teaching – fidelity in marriage, chastity in singleness – even as they seek modification. Let traditionalists respect revisionists’ Christian freedom to test their hermeneutics in practice. This idea offered by Bird struck me as wise: Let church bodies persuaded that gay and lesbian lifestyles are no impediment to ordination and marriage experiment on behalf of the whole church.

Dale Patrick

Drake University

Copyright Christian Theological Seminary Summer 2002

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