Academic Freedom in Context

Introduction

I wrote this document to clarify my ideas on matters being discussed in the college where I teach. Your observations on how I could improve it are welcome.

Human Freedom—Conceptual and Practical

Freedom is primarily a negative concept. It names the absence of a determining, coercive, or deceptive force that channels human action to a particular end.

The concept of freedom does not contain within itself any evaluation of the ends toward which human action is obligated or desires to move. In other words, the bare concept of freedom contains no information about what is right or good. Freedom is of value only as a means to right or good ends. And freedom is of value to a particular individual only as a means to ends that that individual desires or feels obligated to seek. Hence freedom cannot serve as an end in itself; it is not a freestanding value.

Freedom is openness for action or inaction with other ends in mind. Freedom is meaningless (that is, without purpose as a means) unless the action it permits is directed by compelling ends. But to direct an action to an end is simultaneously to negate other possible actions. Hence freedom cannot be a means to any particular end apart from limits that exclude other possible ends. Interestingly, then, freedom, that is, unlimited openness for any logically and physically possible action, is useless (as a means) apart from limits!

Does the concept of limit, then, contradict the concept of freedom? Of course, unlimited freedom cannot coexist with limits. But we must remember that freedom is not an end in itself. It is a good only insofar as it enables an agent to act toward a good or right end. And freedom is a good to a particular agent only as it provides the conditions under which that agent is enabled to work toward an end that seems good or right to them. Hence an agent’s decision to limit its action to achieve particular good and right ends does not contradict the concept of freedom-as-a-means; it contradicts only the concept of freedom-as-an-end-in-itself.

Human Freedom in Community

As we concluded above, even considered solely as individuals—at least in a world like ours in which not all actions are good or right—to be a value freedom must be limited by the directing power of worthy ends. But we also live in a world with other agents. And other individuals have differing conceptions of good and right and of what ends to seek. Hence arises the possibility of another type of limit on freedom. When conceived as the freedom of multiple particular agents acting simultaneously, freedom may even contradict and limit itself; because the space in which these agents act overlaps. A new problem then arises: how may we harmonize the freedom of many individuals. Perhaps we could dream of a utopia where the desires and consciences of everyone are in complete harmony and everyone could pursue their desires without being limited by others’ pursuit of theirs. But that is not the world we live in. In the world in which we live the freedom of an individual is limited not only by the ends we seek and limits we impose on ourselves but by the freedom of others to do the same.

To live in our world we must live in community, that is, in some mode of harmony achieved by coming to a common understanding of the good and right ends to which freedom is a means. Through long-term experience we learn how to give and take, compromise, care, share, and otherwise enjoy the benefits of living cooperatively with others as compensation for the limits on freedom of action. These arrangements and rules are institutionalized and codified in tradition and law. The optimum balance of freedom and limits is called justice.

Academic Freedom in General

Just as we can consider human freedom as an abstract concept or as it applies to life in community in general, we can also consider the concept as it applies to a particular sphere of institutionalized social activity. The concept of academic freedom can be considered as abstracted from any particular academic institution. Drawing on our analysis above, we can say without extensive argument that academic freedom is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Whereas the concept of absolute freedom is not self-contradictory in itself, unlimited academic freedom is a contradiction in terms. For the modifier “academic” limits the word freedom. That’s what modifiers do. “Academic freedom” by definition directs—and therefore limits—freedom to serve the end of the academic enterprise, whatever that may be.

What is the end of the academic enterprise? The proper end of academia can be, has been, and (from my perspective) should be a matter of continuous enquiry. Historians of education often point to two master paradigms of education: (1) one focused on traditioning, character building, and moral training. This view may be called the classical paradigm, and it dominated education in the western world until recently. (2) The other paradigm directs its energy toward discovery of new knowledge, critical thinking, and developing skill in research methods. This view is relatively new, and some see its origin in 1810 with the founding of the University of Berlin. It has been called a never-ending, never-arriving “search for truth.” The clash of these two very different paradigms explains much of the contemporary debate about the scope and limits of academic freedom. If the end of the academy is traditioning, character formation, and moral training, academic freedom will be directed to whatever promotes those ends and exclusive of whatever thwarts achieving those ends. Similarly, if the end of the academy is the production of new knowledge and bold researchers, academic freedom will be directed to whatever activities promotes those ends and exclusive of whatever thwarts achieving them. An institution that attempts to work toward both ends will inevitably be involved in constant tension over the scope and limits on academic freedom.

Academic freedom, then, must be conceived as a means to a particular conception of the nature and end of the academic enterprise. The precise articulation of a theory or a policy on academic freedom must be accompanied by an implicit or explicit understanding of the ends of the academy. Discussing academic freedom without also seriously discussing the ends of the academic enterprise will produce nothing but a clash of subjective opinions and wishes determined as much by private interests as by rational discussion. And agreement on the one demands agreement on the other.

Academic Freedom in Individual Institutions

Drawing on our reasoning above, we know that the scope and limits on any coherent theory and policy of academic freedom must be based on a clear understanding of the nature and ends of the academic enterprise. Since there is no universally accepted understanding of the end of higher learning, there are bound to be differences among theorists on the end of the academy. And those different understandings have produced differences among institutions. In turn, those differences produce different understandings of the nature and scope of academic freedom, which will be reflected in policy. A research institution will naturally have a different understanding of academic freedom from that of an institution that conceives of its end as traditioning, character building, and moral training. It makes no sense for one type of institution to criticize the other for its policies on academic freedom. They are living from incommensurable paradigms. Let Providence be the judge of which institution has chosen the better end.

Academic Freedom in Christian Educational Institutions

What can we say about academic freedom in Christian institutions of higher learning? Much of what to say can be easily drawn from the line of reasoning developed above. Christian institutions of higher learning—if the designation “Christian” is not to be a meaningless holdover from another era—conceive their ends as determined by the truth, wisdom, and moral vision of the Christian faith. It makes sense that most Christian institutions of higher learning lean heavily on the classical (traditioning-character building-moral training) view of the end of education. After all, most Christian colleges were founded to defend, explain, and pass on the truth, wisdom, and moral vision of the Christian faith. And the concept of academic freedom that fits an institution devoted to research and production of new knowledge will not fit a Christian institution devoted to the ends I described above. Nor, of course, would it fit with any program of classical education.

In the past, from about 1880 to about 1980, Christian colleges were criticized by the dominant academic culture because they supposedly stifled the disinterested search for truth and the advance of knowledge in deference to their religious commitments. They limited the questions and answers researchers could pursue. Christian colleges were at fault for not accepting the view of academic freedom demanded by the dominant understanding of the ends of the academy. The academic enterprise should be carried on, they contended, according to its own internal rules rather than having to consider external authorities. Recently, however the dominant academic culture has begun criticizing both the Christian understanding and the older value-neutral research understanding of the ends of higher education and consequently it has begun to limit academic freedom in new ways. I am speaking of course of the rise of the political correctness, leftist politics, and wokeness that now dominates many institutions of higher education. The rise of political correctness signals a return to the traditioning and character-forming model of education but with a different tradition to pass on, a different moral vision to inculcate, and a different vision of how character should be formed. These institutions now openly suppress academic freedom in view of their new orthodoxy in ways they imagined Christian colleges did in the past in service to Christian orthodoxy. Measured by a classical liberal view of the social order and its value-neutral understanding of the search for truth the new orthodoxy is illiberal, intolerant, and unscientific. And so Christian institutions of higher learning must fight on two fronts to maintain their liberty to teach and learn according to their understanding of their ends.

If a Christian institution understands its reason for existence to be producing good human beings as measured by the Christian faith, if that is its non-negotiable end, then it will not accept any view of academic freedom that allows teachers to thwart achieving that end—either by restricting academic freedom to suppress politically incorrect speech or expanding academic freedom so as to undermine the Christian purpose of the college. Each particular Christian institution will have to define the scope and set the limits for academic freedom in its own way and according to its understanding of what activities help it achieve its ends or prevent it from doing so. But one thing is certain: the scope and limits of academic freedom in a Christian college must be determined not by an abstract concept of freedom, not by a general concept of academic freedom, not by a disinterested research ideal of academic freedom, and not by the new limits on academic freedom imposed by the politically correct academic establishment but by a clear and unapologetic understanding of the ends the institution holds dear.

Dust and Smoke: A Tale of Progressive Hypocrisy

In the past few months I have been addressing the theme of the Bible and Christian ethics. I discussed some of the basic categories and concepts used in Christian ethics: the good, the right, moral law, divine commands, wisdom, the burden of proof, tradition, the concept of a “way of life,” and others. Since it is a burning contemporary issue that cannot be evaded, I have given special emphasis to how the Bible has been used in the contemporary debate over same-sex relationships. In a series of eleven essays I examined Karen Keen’s argument that evangelical churches should affirm loving, same-sex relationships as morally equal to traditional marriages between other-sex couples. I also reviewed Robert K. Gnuse’s argument against the usefulness of the traditional biblical proof texts for the contemporary debate. Gnuse is a progressive Lutheran supporter of mainline churches affirming same-sex relationships. Very soon I want to bring all these ideas to bear on a positive statement on the Christian ethical status of same-sex relationships and how the Bible may be properly used to support this traditional position. In preparation for this statement I want to take stock of where we stand.

Secular Progressives

It is important to keep in mind that the secular progressives do not care what the Bible says. They do not acknowledge its authority and may express great hostility toward it. They don’t mind hearing the Bible quoted as long as it echoes their views but will not accept any criticism of progressive morality based on the Bible. I am not speaking to this group in this series. This task would require a completely different approach. I am addressing people who for one reason or another claim to care what the Bible says. This group falls into two broad categories: traditionalist/conservative and progressive/liberal Christians.

Progressive versus Conservative

Not all progressive Christians are alike. Some reject or extensively revise the doctrines held dear by the historic tradition—the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Trinity, the incarnation, and the call to conversion. I find it difficult to think of them as Christian at all. Some are less radical in their revisions. What they all have in common is that they feel compelled to revise traditional/biblical Christian doctrine and morals in view of “enlightened” modern culture. The dominant contemporary culture has given up all ethical principles by which it might condemn any behavior that does not involve coercion and lack of consent. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on individual freedom and autonomy, the Romantic Movement’s emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual’s inner self, and post-modernism’s debunking of objective truth have come together in contemporary culture to create a picture of each individual as a self-creating god who can do anything it wants as long as it does not do violence to other self-creating gods. And progressive Christians try to adjust their theology and ethics to this culture. They are as embarrassed by traditional Christian moral teaching as they would be if they suddenly found themselves naked at a Kennedy Center opera performance.

At times I wonder why progressive Christians even bother to appear to care what the Bible says. Traditionalists care what the Bible says because they place themselves under its authority and sincerely believe that God’s speaks through the Bible. They want to live in a community that lives according to the Bible’s teaching. When progressives engage in sophisticated exegesis and hermeneutics, such as that we find in Gnuse’s article, do they do this because they really care what the Bible says? Or, do they know already from the spirit of the times what the Bible should have said? I think some progressives work as hard as they do to reinterpret the Bible, not because they care what it teaches but because other less enlightened people care and stand in the way of moral progress. Progressive efforts seem designed to undermine the certainty of the traditional moral teaching while giving the appearance of sincere desire to understand the scriptures. In other words progressive writing on biblical exegesis and hermeneutics and theological ethics strikes the traditionalist as dissimulation and deception. And it will persuade only those who want to be persuaded.

Proof-Text Hypocrisy

As I outlined in the two previous essays, Robert K. Gnuse argues that the biblical proof texts most often quoted by traditionalists to condemn same-sex intercourse do not explicitly condemn all same-sex sexual relationships. They do not explicitly condemn loving, freely contracted same-sex relationships. These texts, progressives opine, are most likely directed to abusive relationships common in the culture of that day. And because they do not specifically target loving gay and lesbian relationships these passages are irrelevant to the contemporary question about the Christian legitimacy of same-sex relationships. We do not know what Paul would say about loving gay and lesbian relationships, progressives claim; we know only what he said about abusive same-sex relationships. Gnuse is not alone in adopting this line of argument. It is common among progressive Christian writers.

There is so much that could be said in response to the progressive strategy. But I will limit myself to one observation. It seems to me quite hypocritical for a progressive to argue in such a legalistic way. Progressives are not known for being sticklers for the letter of the law. Are we really to believe that if the New Testament undeniably condemned all same-sex intercourse, even between loving people, that progressives would dutifully follow the New Testament in its condemnation? I do not think so. Progressives also have many strategies for rejecting any explicit New Testament teaching that conflicts with progressive culture. When clear New Testament teaching conflicts with progressive dogma, progressive writers complain that the New Testament authors were limited by their patriarchal, unscientific, homophobic, and sexist culture.

When progressives argue in this legalistic way it is not because they want to obey the Bible to the letter. No. They argue this way to take advantage of the fact that traditionalists want to obey the Bible to the letter. And insofar as traditionalists think that the Bible teaches moral truth only by means of explicit divine commands, they set themselves up for the progressive trap. If somehow the supposed clarity of the biblical proof texts can be obscured by whatever means, the traditionalist is left without recourse. Progressives by throwing exegetical dust into the air and blowing hermeneutical smoke in traditionalists’ eyes hide the rank hypocrisy of their argument. For they have no intention to practice what they preach.

Next Time: The Plasticity of Principles

“Seven Gay Texts”—A Review (Part Two)

This essay continues my review of Robert K. Gnuse,“Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality” (Biblical Theology Bulletin 45. 2: 68-87). In part one of the review I summarized Gnuse’s take on three Old Testament passages. In this essay I will examine his exegesis and theological interpretation of the New Testament passages that condemn same-sex intercourse.

 Vice Lists (1 Cor 6:9-10 & 1 Tim 1:8-11)

The vice list passages read as follows:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10; NRSV).

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, 10 fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me (1 Tim 1:8-11; NRSV).

The Greek words “male prostitutes” (malakoi) and “sodomites” (arsenokoitai) in 1 Corinthians 6:9 perhaps refer to the passive and the active partner in same-sex male intercourse. According to Gnuse, the NRSV translation of “malakoi” implies that these men allow sex to be performed on them for money or perhaps they are slaves who have no choice. And the translation of arsenokoitai as “sodomites” implies that these men are abusers of some type and may imply men who have sex with young boys. Gnuse concludes that when the two words are grouped together

“we have the two words that describe the homosexual relationships that would have been observed most frequently by Paul. These were the master, old man, abusive sexual partner, or pederast on the one hand, and the slave, young boy, or victim on the other hand…Ultimately, I believe both words describe abusive sexual relationships, not loving relationships between two adult, free males” (p. 80).

Gnuse interprets 1 Timothy 1:10 in much the same way as he interpreted 1 Corinthians 6:9. The word arsenokoitais is used in this passage also. Gnuse again concludes that “Homosexual love between two adult, free males or females may not be described here…[the New Testament] is condemning the violent use of sex to degrade and humiliate people, not sexual inclinations” (p. 81).

Romans 1

Romans 1:22-28 is often taken as the most unequivocal condemnation of all homosexual activity, male and female. Gnuse denies this conclusion. I will summarize the main thrust of his extensive argument. The text reads as follows:

22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.

As with all the other passages he examines, Gnuse argues that Paul in Romans 1:22-28 does not speak “about all homosexuals; he is speaking about a specific group of homosexuals who engage in a particular form of idolatrous worship” (p. 81). Gnuse argues that Paul targets the immoral behavior characteristic of certain religious cults resident in Rome. Gnuse argues that the most likely candidate for Paul’s invective is the Egyptian Isis cult. Paul condemns idolatry as false, dark, and foolish and asserts that this darkness gives birth to gross immorality unbefitting of one made in the image of God. According to Gnuse this passage does not condemn all homosexual behavior, only that performed in idolatrous worship.

Why, then, does Paul call this idolatrous homosexual behavior “unnatural”? Traditional interpreters contend that Paul’s argument makes no sense unless he assumes that homosexual behavior is immoral even apart from its connection to idolatry. Paul’s point is that this syndrome of immorality is what happens when people abandon the true God. Paul knows that the action of men abandoning relations with women and becoming “consumed with passion for one another” (v. 27) is perverse, degrading, and “unnatural” in itself apart from its connection to idol worship. Otherwise, his critique of idolatry would fall flat. For Paul wants his readers to understand that when people abandon God and worship nature instead, they will inevitably abandon the created order and the proper function of nature; bad things will happen.

In opposition to the traditional reading that decouples homosexual behavior from idolatry, Gnuse insists that Paul critiques only those homosexual acts performed in worship to pagan gods. Why, then, does Paul label these acts “unnatural”? Gnuse answers: “What Paul would find offensive about this cultic behavior, besides the obvious worship of other gods, is that the sexual behavior did not bring about procreation, and that is what makes it “unnatural” (p. 83). Gnuse has made a telling admission here. He admits that Paul can disengage homosexual acts from idolatry and view them negatively apart from their connection to pagan worship. They are “unnatural” everywhere and always and for everyone. But Gnuse’s contention that Paul viewed them as “unnatural” only because they do not produce children makes it easy for him to dismiss Paul’s judgment as cultural bias in favor of procreation as the sole purpose of sexual intercourse. It seems to me much more likely that Paul sees homosexual intercourse as “unnatural” because it violates the natural order intended by the creator and witnessed to by the power of procreation and by the obvious physiological complementarity. The foolish “exchange” of the glory of God for images of beasts (vss. 22-23) is mirrored by the degrading “exchange” of “natural intercourse for the unnatural” (v. 26).

What are the women mentioned in verse 26 doing when they “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural”? Gnuse points out correctly that Paul does not explicitly say that these women were having sex with other women, only that they were doing something “unnatural.” Gnuse floats the possibility that Paul has in mind a form of heterosexual intercourse designed to prevent procreation. I think this hypothesis is unlikely given what Paul says about men in the next verse, but in any case, Paul asserts that whatever these women are doing is “unnatural” and therefore wrong and shameful everywhere and always and for everyone.

Gnuse’s Conclusion

Given what he said about each text individually, Gnuse’s overall conclusion will not come as a surprise:

“I believe that there is no passage in the biblical text that truly condemns a sexual relationship between two adult, free people, who truly love each other….[Hence] biblical texts should not be called forth in the condemnation of gay and lesbian people in our society” (p. 83; emphasis mine).

Brief Comments

1. Notice the negative form of Gnuse’s conclusion. He offers many alternative interpretations of these texts, some of which I mentioned. Many of them are tenuous and speculative. Some give the impression of plausibility, but as his conclusion indicates the purpose of the article is not to defend any of these alternative interpretations. The entire discussion serves one purpose: to cast doubt on the untroubled certainty of the traditional view that these passages unambiguously condemn homosexual intercourse. The goal is to make illegitimate any theological use of these texts in the modern debate over homosexuality. It is to “problematize” the interpretation of these texts, to draw traditionalists into interminable debates, which—since we cannot arrive at a conclusion that ends all debate—leave the impression that everyone is free to think whatever they will and do whatever they want. And if you continue to interpret these texts in the traditional way, you can plausibly be accused of homophobia, that is, of irrational animus toward gay and lesbian people.

2. Gnuse turns the tables on traditionalists by shifting the burden of proof onto those who would use “the gay texts” in Christian ethics to condemn all forms of homosexual intercourse. Gnuse writes as if all he needs to do to win the argument is show that the texts do not explicitly address adult, free, and loving same-sex relationships. They may be directed exclusively to homosexual behavior that is abusive, violent, idolatrous, or linked with some other behavior that modern people also find it easy to condemn. If Gnuse can undermine the use of these biblical texts to condemn homosexual relations in general, traditionalists must abandon their strongest arguments and argue with progressives on their own turf—experience, science, psychology, and subjective feelings—on which they are at a disadvantage.

To be Continued…

“Seven Gay Texts”—A Review

In the previous essay in this series on “The Bible and Christian Ethics” I argued that given the 2,000-year consensus of the Christian tradition on the subject of same-sex relationships, the contemporary church corporately and individually is “fully justified in being extremely skeptical of the argument made by some individuals that it has been wrong all these years in its understanding of…the teaching of the scriptures.” Traditional believers do not bear the burden of proof to justify their continued adherence to the traditional view of same-sex relationships.

Today I will examine a representative example of an argument that is used to set aside the 2,000-year consensus on the meaning of the Bible’s statements condemning same-sex intercourse. In his article “Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality” (Biblical Theology Bulletin 45. 2: 68-87), Robert K. Gnuse aims to demonstrate that “there is no passage in the biblical text that truly condemns a sexual relationship between two adult, free people, who truly love each other” (p. 85). Hence the biblical passages that are traditionally used to condemn homosexual acts are irrelevant to the modern debate and “should not be called forth in the condemnation of gay and lesbian people in our society today” (p. 85). I will not take the space to do a full review of the very sophisticated historical and exegetical aspects of his argument. I will concentrate, rather, on the theological conclusions he draws from his exegetical work.

As the title indicates, the article examines the seven biblical passages most sited as condemning homosexual relationships. None of the passages, Gnuse argues, addresses the case of loving, adult relationships. All are directed at some abusive situation where there is idolatry, prostitution, lack of consent, or coercion. I will briefly summarize what he says about each passage.

“Seven Gay Texts”

The Curse of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27)

In this passage Ham, one of the three sons of Noah, looked on the naked body of his drunk father. After Noah sobered up he cursed Ham and his descendants. It is sometimes argued that Ham performed some sort of homosexual act on his unconscious father, which is the reason for the curse. The story is taken, then, to condemn homosexual acts in general. In response to this theological use of the text Gnuse points out that even if the text speaks of a homosexual act, it is also an act of incest and rape. The passage, then, cannot be used to condemn same-sex activity in general.

Sodom (Genesis 19:1-11; compare Judges 19:15-28)

This passage tells the story of the visit of two angels (apparently disguised as men) to the house of Lot and the demand by the men of the city of Sodom that Lot give his visitors to them so that they can rape them. Lot offers the men of the city his daughters instead, but the men angrily insist on having the visitors. In response, the angels struck the men with blindness. This story has been presented as proof of the Bible’s severe condemnation of homosexuality, so much so that the name of the city became a designation for homosexual acts and persons: Sodomy and Sodomite. Gnuse points out that homosexual rape (by heterosexuals) of strangers, slaves, and foreigners was a common way in the ancient world to humiliate and dominate vulnerable people. According to Gnuse, then, this passage condemns the men of Sodom for attempting to rape Lot’s visitors to whom he had given shelter. It “has nothing to do with homosexuality between free consenting adults in a loving relationship” (p. 73).

Leviticus 18:21-24 and 20:13

Leviticus 18: 21-24 condemns three practices: sacrificing children to Molech, same-sex intercourse, and bestiality. Verse 22 addresses same-sex intercourse: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is abomination.” Traditionally, verse 22 has been taken as a clear condemnation of homosexual intercourse in general. And, apart from consideration of the context, verse 22 seems to condemn all forms of this behavior, no matter what the circumstances. Gnuse, however, argues that this verse may be directed to practices common in the cultic worship of Canaanite gods. Interestingly, Gnuse admits the possibility that the prohibition could refer to homosexual relations in general. But even if it does so, Gnuse attributes the prohibition to the Israelite obsession with maximizing population growth “because as a people they always faced a chronic population shortage” (p. 76). Implicit in Gnuse’s explanation is the thought that the waste of sperm and absence of reproduction are the real sins, not the same-sex acts themselves. If these concerns were removed, as they are in contemporary circumstances, the text would lose its force as a general moral rule. I will make one critical observation at this point. Notice that verse 21 does not explicitly condemn child sacrifice in general but only that made to Molech. According to the reasoning employed by Gnuse in dealing with verse 22, verse 21 leaves open the possibility of sacrificing children to gods other than Molech.

Leviticus 20:13 says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” On the face of it, this text condemns in very harsh terms homosexual intercourse in general. Gnuse takes this text also to refer to cultic prostitution, which would involve worshiping a Canaanite god or goddess. Gnuse concludes: “The real question is what the text really condemns, whether it be all homosexual behavior or cultic homosexual behavior. If it is cultic homosexual behavior, we should not use it in the modern debate” (p. 78).

How to “Theologize” Based on Biblical Texts

Gnuse’s replies to Robert Gagnon’s argument (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Abingdon Press, 2001) that the Old Testament moral perspective at work in the texts themselves and in the background culture condemns all forms of homosexual behavior. Gnuse’s reply is worth quoting in full:

“He is probably correct about the cultural assumptions of that age and maybe even about the attitudes of the biblical authors. However, we theologize off of the texts, not the cultural assumptions of the age or something the biblical authors may have thought but did not write down….The homosexual texts, and the laws in particular, do not lead us anywhere; they simply prohibit certain forms of activity. But the bottom line is that we theologize off the texts, not our scholarly reconstruction of the cultural values of the authors. The texts appear to condemn rape and cultic prostitution, not generic homosexuality; we should not therefore conclude that all homosexual behavior is condemned” (p. 78).

If I am reading him correctly here he says that the Bible does not explicitly condemn loving, adult same-sex relationships, though we have good grounds to think that the biblical authors would have condemned them had they been asked about them. Nevertheless, we cannot use this knowledge to illuminate the texts or to inform the contemporary debate about same-sex relationships. In constructing Christian ethics, opines Gnuse, we are limited to what the biblical writers actually say about the circumstances at hand not what we think they would say about other circumstances.

I doubt that Gnuse can consistently apply this (very legalistic) rule to his own interpretation. The rule seems designed specifically to make these “gay” texts irrelevant to the current debate. Moreover it seems to me that this principle of theological interpretation makes it nearly impossible to argue successfully that the Bible teaches any ethics at all. For the Bible never speaks directly to contemporary circumstances. On any moral topic one can always assert that circumstances today differ from those addressed in these ancient texts.

To be Continued

Church, Tradition, and the Burden of Proof (The Bible and Christian Ethics, Part Five)

Developing a clear understanding of how to apply the Bible to morality requires us to get clear on a few more preliminary matters before we enter into a discussion of the morality of same-sex intercourse and marriage and of gender fluidity. Otherwise we will be talking past each other. It is not as easy as looking in a concordance to find texts relevant to the topic under discussion.

Community

There is no use in quoting the Bible as an authority on moral issues to people who do not accept its authority. Hence the first clarification we must make is about the community to which we are speaking. Are we speaking to the Christian community, the church, or to the world? In other words, are we speaking to people who accept the authority of the Bible for their faith and practice, so that we can believe they are committed to accepting its moral teaching once they become clear what it is? Are we speaking to people who want to be part of that body and benefit from its faith, collective experience, and reflection? Otherwise we are wasting our time engaging in searching the scriptures for their teaching and engaging in exegesis and interpretation. Why expend energy working to understand the Bible’s moral teaching with people who don’t care what it says unless it confirms their preconceived opinions. We may find ourselves having serious disagreements even with those who say they affirm Scripture’s authority.

In this series, I am speaking to the Christian community. In this essay I am speaking to believers who hold to the traditional understanding of the moral status of same-sex intercourse…to encourage and strengthen you.

Tradition

As I hinted above, simply agreeing that the scriptures are “authoritative” (or “inspired,” “inerrant” or “infallible”) does not settle the issue of what the scriptures actually teach on a moral issue. Even people who claim to accept biblical authority differ on some issues. How, then, do we discover what the Bible teaches? Let’s remember what the goal of Christian ethics is: to articulate the moral rules the Christian church is obligated to live by and teach to its young and its converts. A Christian ethicist cannot merely speak from her or his wisdom or private opinion. They speak to, for, and with the Christian community about what that community is obligated to practice and teach. The church existed, lived, and taught about morality long before our generation. It has spent 2,000 years reflecting on what it means to live as a Christian according to the scriptures. Many wise, brilliant, and good Christian people have lived and thought about moral issues. The knowledge and wisdom of the church—what has been called “the mind of the church”—about the nature of the Christian life is embodied in its tradition. If the church is confronted by a Christian ethicist who wishes to argue against the consensus of its moral tradition—that is, what it has believed for 2,000 years is the teaching of the scriptures—the church is fully justified to place on such a person a heavy burden of proof.

On the issues of same-sex intercourse and marriage and gender fluidity, the church is fully justified in being extremely skeptical of the argument made by some individuals that it has been wrong all these years in its understanding of what is right and good and of its understanding of the teaching of the scriptures. The church does not bear the burden of proof here. And if you are unmoved by the arguments for the Christian legitimacy of same-sex marriages and for blurring the distinction between male and female, you are not obligated as a Christian to accept diversity of opinion and practice on these issues. If you wish to trust the 2,000 year consensus of tradition—and the plain meaning of the scriptures—on these issues above the sophistic exegesis and interpretation and appeals to emotion of its critics, you have every rational, theological, and moral right to do so. Do not be intimidated. You are not obligated to refute the critic’s arguments or prove tradition correct before you can continue to believe and live as you have been taught by the church.

“The World is Changed” (The Bible and Christian Ethics, Part Four)

Hesitation

There are some topics I had rather not discuss in public. At the top of the list is the ethics of same-sex relationships. Does my hesitancy arise from discretion or cowardice? Do I think I am incompetent to take on the subject or am I afraid of being cancelled? Is the time not yet right to engage in this battle or is it already too late? I confess that I have many faults, and I am probably not aware of most of them. But I am aware that I like being liked and that sometimes I allow this desire to keep me from speaking a word I ought to speak.

“The World is Changed.”**

For many reasons, I believe that I ought to speak now about the (Christian) ethics of same-sex relationships. The contemporary church woke up on June 26, 2015 to find that the Supreme Court of the United States had struck down all laws that limited marriage to man and woman (Obergefell v Hodges). The culture had been moving steadily in this direction for some time—since the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Mainline churches (Lutherans, Episcopal, and Methodists) have been mired in controversy and division over non-celibate gay clergy and gay marriage since the 1990s. Why not speak earlier?

With regard to politics and the courts, I did not think it was my calling to get involved in a culture war, that is, a political battle over who controls the culture, conservatives or progressives or radicals. With regard to the controversies within the mainline churches, I am not a member of a mainline church and have no standing to enter into their deliberations. Besides, mainline churches have long been dominated by a liberal theology soft on the cardinal Christian doctrines and coy or dismissive of biblical and apostolic authority. It is in their DNA to attempt to keep up with progressive culture. Hence I was not surprised by their openness to same-sex relationships. So, what has changed?

I began my eleven-part series reviewing Karen Keen’s book Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships with this explanation of what has changed (September 10, 2021)*:

However, within the past five years a significant number of pastors, professors, authors, and church members who claim to be evangelical, bible-believing, and orthodox have spoken out in favor of the church accepting same-sex relationships on the same or a similar basis as that on which it accepts traditional marriage. I am not speaking here only of something far away and limited to books by authors I do not know. I am speaking also about pastors, professors, and church members I know personally. I do not see how any church or parachurch institution can avoid this internal discussion for much longer. We are past the point of “the calm before the storm.” The storm is upon us. And it will not end until it exhausts its energy.

Keen and others like her argue that you can remain true to evangelical theology, hold to biblical authority and inspiration, faithfully practice biblical morality AND affirm committed same-sex relationships as legitimately Christian. I do not believe this can be done, and I wrote my review to refute her case. In that review I followed her argument in description, analysis, and critique but did not develop my own approach. In the present series I want to show why in order to affirm same-sex relationships you must revise the meaning of biblical authority, undermine the coherence of biblical morality, and accept revisionist biblical interpretation and progressive morality, which places all moral authority in individual experience. As I see it, such an approach is either naive, self-deceptive, or disingenuous. In any case I am convinced that it will lead those involved to accept the marriage of liberal theology and progressive morality that dominates mainline denominations. And the movement will not stop there. Once you accept the progressive understanding of morality, the pressure from the left flank will only grow stronger. You will feel pressure to drop even liberal Christian theology to become secular and, then, ever more radical. The fateful decision was made long ago when, for progressive culture, individual feeling replaced traditional wisdom as the surest revelation of the right and the good. This poison may be slow acting but it is relentless nonetheless.

__________________

*Many of the thoughts I will develop in the next few essays I touched on briefly in this series. For anyone serious about this topic I suggest you read these eleven essays, which began on September 10 and ended on November 8, 2021.

**From Galadriel’s Prologue to the Lord of the Rings:

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is now lost, for none live who remember it.”

The Bible and Christian Ethics (Part Three)

Before we can make further progress in our series on “The Bible and Christian Ethics,” we need to distinguish among three concepts: the universal moral law, ethics, and a way of life.

Distinctions

Universal Moral Law

In the previous essays I spoke of a universal moral law as the set of the basic moral rules known everywhere, at all times, and by all people through reason and conscience. The Bible demands that we live according to these rules, but it does not claim that they are grounded or known exclusively through its commands.

Ethics

Ethics is a rational discipline of reflection on morality—on the grounds, justification, ways of knowing, extent, and application of morality. Every society articulates moral rules, but not every society produces a rational account of those rules. Christian ethics is a theological discipline that reflects rationally on the Christian way of life for the Christian community. This series is an exercise in Christian ethics.

A Way of Life

A way of life is a comprehensive set of rules, often unarticulated, for living in a particular community. It incorporates the universal moral law but includes much more. It embraces also the traditional wisdom and customs learned by communal experience and a vision of human living inspired by its views on human nature and destiny—all of which are set within its understanding of the divine. A community may be called to a way of life more demanding—but usually not less—than the universal moral law instructs. Christianity is a way of life that incorporates everything right and good taught by reason, conscience, and experience into the vision of God and humanity revealed in Jesus Christ.

The Christian Way of Life

Each traditional community embodies the basic universal moral rules in its own distinct way, given its unique history and identity and beliefs. The ancient Israelites, as I said in previous essays, incorporated the universal moral law into their laws but embodied it in distinct ways and augmented it in view of their beliefs about God and their unique calling to be the holy people of a holy God.

Christianity incorporates within its way of life the universal moral law as mediated by the Old Testament law along with the wisdom embodied therein. In continuity with ancient Israel the church understands itself to be God’s special people, called to live in a way consistent with the character, identity, and expectations of Israel’s God. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And referring to Leviticus, Peter urges believers living among pagans, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16).

But Christianity does not merely continue the Old Testament way of life unchanged. It reorients everything with a view to Jesus Christ—his teaching about his Father, the kingdom of God, the life of peace, love of enemies, purity of heart, and suffering for righteousness sake. The apostolic teaching points to Jesus’s humility, obedience, and self-giving, especially as exemplified in the cross, as the model for all Christians to follow (Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Peter 2:21). This new Christ-centered way of life places the universal moral law and traditional wisdom about what is good for human beings within a new order, but it does not delegitimize them.

Christians are expected to be good people by universal moral standards. Christianity calls on all members of the Christian community not only to avoid criminality and behavior reprehensible to everyone but also to the highest ideals of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and all the other pagan moralists as a minimum standard. Christians must not lie, steal, murder, commit adultery, or dishonor their parents. They must also rise above the common vices tolerated by the world. They do not curse, use profanity, gossip, or slander. They are not greedy but content, not arrogant but humble, not selfish but generous. They do not envy, get angry easily, act rudely, or boast (1 Cor 13:4). They are just, honest, kind, and faithful in all their human relationships. They control their passions: they are not gluttons, drunks, quarrelers, pornographers, fornicators, adulterers, or greedy. They love their wives and husbands, and they take care of their children. They exemplify the full spectrum of inner virtues: courage, prudence, humility, patience, faith, joy, peace, and love. Above all, they love God with their whole being and seek him in everything they do.

The Way Forward

I have argued that the Christian way of life set out in the New Testament is a combination of the universal moral law known by conscience and reason, traditional knowledge of a good and wise life learned though communal experience, and the Old Testament’s vision of a holy people in service to a holy God—all placed in relation to the definitive revelation of God and human destiny in Jesus Christ. Everything in the Christian way serves the end of transforming us into the image of Christ and achieving for us the destiny he pioneered, eternal life in likeness and union with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The New Testament’s inclusion of the universal moral law, traditional wisdom, and the Old Testament’s vision of the holy people as a part of the Christian way of life validates their force for the Christian life. Each component of the package is important and possesses its own weight. Many mistakes made in current debates among Christian ethicists result from neglecting this fact. In the next essays I will address the proper role of the Bible in discussions of moral issues where reason, conscience, and traditional wisdom have something to say. Specifically, I want to return to the issues of same-sex relationships and transgender issues and apply to those disputes the view of the Christian way of life I have developed in the previous two essays.

The Bible and Christian Ethics (Part Two)

Previously…

In the previous essay I argued that it is a mistake to treat the Bible as if it were the only basis for belief in a divine reality or for the concept of God. The Bible itself presupposes that people outside its sphere of influence believe in a divine reality and share some beliefs about the nature of the divine with those of the Bible. The Christian doctrine of God is shaped by the history of Israel’s experience of God as documented in the Old Testament and even more by God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. If we do not acknowledge that belief in God’s existence and some beliefs about the divine nature can be properly founded on reason, nature, human experience, and other sources available apart from the revelation contained in the Bible, we deprive ourselves of the common ground on which we can share the distinctly Christian understanding of God with outsiders and we exclude the help that reason, nature, and human experience can give in forming our concept of God.

Universal Moral Law

The Universal Influence of Moral Law

In this essay I want to show why it is important for Christian ethics to acknowledge that the Bible is not the only basis for moral beliefs. Just as human beings have a tendency to believe in a divine reality and hold certain beliefs about the nature of the divine, human beings also have a tendency to believe that some acts are good and some are bad, some right and some wrong, and some just and some unjust. The people of Israel, Egypt, and all other ancient nations believed it was wrong to dishonor one’s parents, commit adultery, steal, covet, murder, and bear false witness long before God gave the Ten Commandments at Sinai. These laws and all the others given in Exodus and Leviticus have parallels in the nations and cultures of the ancient world. The covenant and the laws promulgated at Sinai were given to constitute Israel as a nation, not to reveal hither to unknown moral rules. All cultures have rules that govern marriage, proper sexual relationships, personal injury, property rights, family relationships, and myriads of other human interactions as well as penalties for infractions. The boundaries that define what is permitted and the nature of the penalties differ from culture to culture and age to age but the presence of moral rules and mechanisms for their enforcement remains constant.

Even without going into great detail about the history of moral codes and ethical and legal systems, two things are clear. First, human beings everywhere and always know that some acts are good and some bad and some are right and some are wrong.* Second, people do not live up to the moral ideals they acknowledge. The existence of laws proves the first point and the necessity of penalties demonstrates the second.

The Source of Moral Knowledge

What is the source of this universal moral knowledge? Clearly, it must be founded in something universal in human beings, given with human nature, derived from human experience, or some combination of the two. Some have argued that knowledge of the universal moral law has been implanted in human nature as conscience (the Stoics and Immanuel Kant). Others speak of human nature as possessing an inner urge that seeks what is truly good for its perfection, so that through individual and collective experience people discover what is good* (Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre). In my view both are important factors in moral experience. For what distinguishes moral action from other types of goal-seeking behavior is a sense of obligation. But it does not seem right that obligatory moral action should be completely disassociated from what is good for human beings.

What Does the Bible Add?

A Repository of Wisdom

What, then, does the Bible add to general moral knowledge acquired through conscience and experience to constitute a distinctly Christian way of life? First, for cultures influenced by Christianity, the Bible functions as the most significant repository of this general moral knowledge and wisdom. Every new generation must be taught the traditions, customs, morals, and wisdom received from the foregoing generations. No one is born wise or can gain sufficient knowledge of what is good, right, and wise from their untutored private experience. Irrational emotions must be disciplined and destructive desires need to be enlightened. Viewed in this light the moral laws of the Bible are not all that different from the proverbs and wise sayings found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs or the wisdom traditions of other nations. As a repository of moral wisdom, the Bible’s authority is no greater than the wisdom embedded in the laws and wise sayings themselves. It is important not to dismiss—as we modern people are inclined to do—this type of authority as of no significance, because it derives from the collective consciences and experiences of many generations and has been tested in the lives of millions of individuals.

The Laws of a Nation

Second, it is vital to understand that the Old Testament law also served as a moral, civil, criminal, and religious regime for the ancient nation of Israel. It would not be true to say that the Old Testament makes no distinctions among these four areas, but compared to modern secular societies the boundaries are a bit blurrier. The most obvious difference between the laws of ancient Israel and those of modern secular states is that religious infractions—worshiping idols, witchcraft, or working on the Sabbath, for examples—are punishable by the state. With regard to criminal law, every nation must decide and continually evaluate which actions are so detrimental to the peace, order, and general welfare of the nation that they must be criminalized. This judgment must take into account all known factors that can affect the welfare of the nation. Though there is some overlap, the factors considered by ancient peoples to be vital to the common good differ dramatically from those so considered by modern secular states. No state, however, attempted to criminalize every immoral and irreligious act. The Old Testament considers adultery and same-sex intercourse to be seriously detrimental to the general welfare and punished them with heavy penalties whereas modern secular societies have decriminalized these acts, albeit only recently. The measures by which the two societies measure the harmful effects of these and other immoral acts differ markedly.

Are the Laws of an Ancient Nation Still Relevant?

Of what relevance are the Old Testament civil, criminal, and religious laws for Christian ethics? Old Testament civil and criminal laws are of no direct relevance to Christianity because the church is not a nation, state, or empire. The Old Testament’s religious laws were given to the ancient Jewish people and cannot guide Christians in their religious practice. The New Testament makes clear that Christianity includes gentiles and Jews in a new covenant based on faith. The laws about sacrifice, ritual purity and separation from gentiles, circumcision, Sabbath, and other religious matters no longer apply.

But what about the Old Testament’s moral laws? Are they useful in constructing Christian ethics? In answering this question we need to remember first that many if not all the Old Testament’s moral laws merely republish moral laws universally found among human beings. Hence their authority derives not from their sheer presence in the Old Testament but from their universal acknowledgment as right and good. In so far as the Old Testament is authoritative in its own right—because it is included in the Christian canon—its affirmation of these universal moral laws may be viewed as a confirmation of their validity. But Christian ethics must not indiscriminately appeal to Old Testament moral law as authoritative. Christianity is based on the new covenant. The Laws of Moses—moral as well as civil, criminal, and religious—are the rules that define faithfulness to old covenant that God made with the people of Israel and them alone. Hence no law of any category in the Old Testament possesses universal and abiding force simply because it is commanded.

Next Time

As we shall see in future essays, Christian ethics incorporates the universal moral law into its vision of the Christian life. And in a way similar to the Old Testament, the New Testament adds to these universal moral laws its unique rules and principles guided by the vision of human nature and destiny revealed in Jesus Christ.

*For a detailed treatment of the concepts of “the good” and “the right,” see my essays from July 9 & 12, 2021.

The Bible and Christian Ethics (Part One)

In my recent eleven-part review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships, many of points of disagreement focused on the different ways Keen and I understand how the Bible should be interpreted and applied to the issue of same-sex relationships. The root of our disagreement on this particular issue of interpretation and application lies in part in disagreements about how Scripture may be used properly in theology and ethics in general.

With this essay, I will begin a short series addressing the issue of the proper use of Scripture in Christian ethics. I plan to deal with such questions as the following: Is the Bible the exclusive source for our knowledge of good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral? Does the Bible teach morality by means of specific commands, narratives, or general principles? Are the Bible’s moral commands right because it commands them or does it command them because they are right? Does the Bible permit whatever behaviors it does not explicitly exclude? How does the moral teaching of the Old Testament relate to the moral teaching of the New Testament? In what sense is the Bible an authority for moral teaching? What part does tradition play in interpretation? How do insights from modern psychology or science or culture relate to biblical morality?

However before we can address these important questions effectively, I believe we need to set the issue in its broadest context and develop a method for dealing with it in a systematic way. Let us, then, address a more fundamental question first: What is the proper use of the Bible in constructing our understanding of God? The answer we give to this question will illuminate our path toward answering the question about the proper use of the Bible in Christian ethics.

The Bible and the Doctrine of God

To deepening our understanding of God, we need to answer three questions: (1) Is there a God? That is, is there any sort divine reality? (2) What is God? What are the qualities or attributes that belong to the concept of God? (3) Who is God? What is the divine character and identity, and what are God’s attitudes toward human beings and his expectations of them?

These three questions are interrelated. The answer you give to one will somewhat determine the answers you give to the others. Nevertheless, there is an order from general to specific, so that those who disagree in their answers to (2) and (3) may agree on (1). And there can be a large area of agreement about the divine qualities (2) without agreement about the divine identity and character (3).

It should be obvious that the Bible is not the exclusive source for belief in God. People believed in God, gods, or some divine reality before and apart from the biblical history. The Bible itself presupposes and many times acknowledges this. Let’s consider the Bible’s relevance to each of these questions.

Is There a God?

Human beings have a tendency to believe in a divine reality, based in part on the existence, qualities, and impressive powers of nature. The Bible never tries to prove that there is a divine reality. Nor does it contest the legitimacy or basis of other nations’ belief in a divine reality. The debate focused on two other issues, the nature and the identity of the divine reality. In view of this fact, it would be a mistake for us to base our belief in a divine reality exclusively on the Bible and argue that people who believe in God on other grounds are mistaken! Of course, the witness of the Bible contributes to our belief in a divine reality, but it is not the only grounds for belief. If God delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery and raised Jesus from the dead, God indeed exists! But belief in God’s deliverance of Israel and Jesus’s resurrection are themselves contested, and it is easier to believe in the Exodus and the resurrection if you already believe in God.

What is God?

What are God’s attributes? What does it mean to be divine? Again, the very fact that people before and apart from the influence of the Bible believed in a divine reality shows that they had some sort of concept of the divine. In every case, the divine is of a higher order of being than human beings and the rest of nature: the divine is the creative, knowing, immortal power behind and above nature. The areas of theological belief contested between ancient Israel and other peoples were the unity, universal lordship, and exclusive divinity of God in opposition to the many nature gods of the nations. Also, there is within Greek philosophy a line of reasoning that leads to the one most perfect and eternal reality. The thought of Plato and Aristotle and many of their successors tends in this direction.

Hence it would be a mistake to base our understanding of the divine attributes exclusively on the Bible and deny that outsiders possess any true beliefs about the divine nature. For the Bible itself does not deny but assumes that those outside the Bible’s influence have some truth in their concept of God (see Acts 17). The Bible contributes significantly to our understanding of the divine nature: there is only one God, the creator and lord of all. Especially significant is the New Testament’s inclusion of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit within God’s life as the eternal Trinity and its redefinition of God’s power and wisdom in view of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. These differences redefine but do not cancel the pre-Christian view of divine power and wisdom.

Who is God?

What is the divine character and identity, and what are God’s attitudes toward and expectations for human beings? The biblical answer to this question diverges more from the answers given by other ancient religions than its answer to the first two questions. Nevertheless, many ancient peoples believed that their god was good and just—at least to them. The majority of Greek philosophers argued that the divine nature is purely good and above anger and jealously. For the most part the pagan gods’ identities were determined by their connections to nature and its powers and cycles.

In the Old Testament, God is identified as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He bears the Name YHWH (the LORD). He chose Israel, delivered her from Egypt and its gods, and made the covenant with her. He is faithful to his covenant promises and exhibits loving kindness and mercy. He is holy and righteous in all he does. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ becomes the place where we look to see the divine character and identity and to know God’s attitudes toward and expectations for human beings. This center then reorients all our acts of religion toward God.

Conclusion

The uniqueness of the Christian doctrine of God does not lie in its affirmation of a divine reality or in its assertion that God is the powerful, wise, eternal, and immortal Creator. Its uniqueness rests in its distinct appropriation of the Jewish understanding of the divine identity developed in the history of God’s dealings with the people of God as witnessed in the Old Testament. Specifically, Christianity directs our attention to the words, deeds, faithfulness, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the source of our deepest knowledge of God’s character and attitude toward human beings, his expectations of us and the destiny he has planned for us. Beliefs about God derived from other sources, though not rejected as false, are transformed by their new relationship to Jesus Christ.

In future essays I plan to apply a method to the issue of the Bible and Christian ethics similar to the one I used in this essay.

The Journey’s End: Scripture and Same-Sex Relationships (Part Eleven)

In this essay I will finish my chapter-by-chapter summary, analysis, and critique of Karen Keen’s book, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. In this series I followed Keen’s outline, used her vocabulary, and let her frame the issues. However after today’s essay, with Keen’s argument and my analysis still fresh on our minds, I plan to reflect on the issue of same-sex relationships a bit more independently.

A New Approach?

The Framework

In chapter 8, “Imagining a New Response to the Gay and Lesbian Community,” Keen makes her final appeal for changes in the way evangelical believers relate to gay and lesbian Christians. She opens the chapter by summarizing her foregoing conclusions and urging readers to allow the following principles to inform the debate:

“Scripture interpretation requires recognizing the overarching intent of biblical mandates, namely, a good and just world.”

“Scripture itself teaches us that biblical mandates, including creation ordinances, cannot be applied without a deliberative process.”

“Evidence indicates that life-long celibacy is not achievable for every person.”

“Evidence shows that same-sex attraction is not moral fallenness; it could be understood as natural fallenness or human variation.”

Practical Options

On the basis of these four assertions, which are the conclusions to which the previous chapters have come, Keen argues that there are three ways evangelicals can embrace same-sex relationships without abandoning their evangelical faith:

First, the “traditionalist exception” view enables even those who believe that same-sex relationships are wrong to accept them as accommodations to human weakness because covenanted, loving relationships are better than promiscuity.  Second, the “traditionalist case-law” view accepts the principle that we must take into account the “overarching intent” of biblical mandates. Given that many gay and lesbian people cannot remain celibate and that their determination to live good lives would be greatly strengthen by remaining within the Christian community, traditionalists could view the relationship as morally acceptable.

Third, the “affirming” view accepts gay and lesbian relationships on the same basis as those between other-sex couples. The affirming view sees the biblical prohibitions as “prescientific” in the same way as the biblical cosmology is prescientific. The affirming view bases its acceptance of same-sex relationships not on the letter but the intent of biblical sexual regulations. For the Bible’s rules for sex are designed to prevent harm and facilitate “a good and just world.” “Same-sex relationships are not harmful by virtue of their same-sex nature,” Keen adds. They become harmful in the same way other-sex relationships become harmful, that is, when they are poisoned by betrayal, violence, coercion, deception, manipulation, and other unloving attitudes and acts.

Karen Keen’s “Personal Journey”

In the last section of the book, Keen recounts her journey from her introduction as an infant to “a small-town conservative Baptist church” to the frightening—in some ways shattering—experience in her late teens of “falling in love” with her best female friend. Keen continues her story by recounting some of the stages in her twenty-year spiritual and intellectual quest to understand herself as gay and an evangelical Christian. I will not attempt to summarize in detail Keen’s story. I could not possibly do justice to the confusion, pathos, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and suffering that at times shows through her rather straightforward account. Her book is the fruit of her intellectual journey…so far.

Analytical Thoughts

Theoretical or Practical?

From the beginning I’ve been struck with way Keen combines her intellectual arguments from biblical exegesis/interpretation and science with her pragmatic goals. In this last chapter we see highlighted her practical, pastoral side. Clearly Keen would prefer that evangelicals accept her exegetical/hermeneutical case for accepting loving, covenanted, same-sex relationships on the same basis as other-sex loving, covenanted relationships. But she is willing to tolerate the “traditionalist exception” and “traditionalist case-law” views—though they are far from ideal—as ways to achieve her practical goal of having evangelical churches allow same-sex couples to participate in the life of the church without having to deny their identities or struggle unhappily and unsuccessfully to remain celibate. Keen will not allow fanatical desire for ideological purity to stand in the way of achieving her practical aim. I am only speculating here, but perhaps she hopes that once churches allow gay relationships, even on a less than ideal basis, they may be persuaded to move on to the “accepting” view by coming to understand gay people on a personal level.

The Rhetoric of Autobiography

It is foolish as well as arrogant and uncaring to argue with someone’s telling of their story or to diminish the significance of their self-reported experiences. People feel what they feel and experience what they experience, and no one knows this better than they do. The quickest way to alienate a contemporary audience is to appear unsympathetic to anyone society has designated a victim of oppression. Hence it is almost impossible for members of officially recognized oppressed groups to resist using their stories of struggle and oppression as proof that they are on the right side of history, justice, and goodness; anyone not sympathetic with them is by that very fact on the wrong side. I appreciate very much that Karen Keen resists this temptation. Along with everyone else she knows that feeling that something is good or right or true does not make it good or right or true. Things are good or true or right independently of our private experience. To assume otherwise would destroy the very idea of morality. Nor can telling one’s story serve as proof for anything other than the subjective experience of the story teller. A listener has no rational or moral obligation to accept a story full of pathos and suffering as proof of anything other than the emotional state of the story teller. Such stories rightly evoke compassion but cannot legitimately command agreement.

It would take a hard heart indeed not to be moved by Karen Keen’s story and stories like hers. And I do not have a hard heart, and I never have. Her first church experience was not unlike my own, of a small, very traditional, and Bible-centered congregation. She wanted to become a missionary, and I wanted to preach the gospel in the church. I too made a journey through graduate study of the Bible and theology, confronting all the critical questions modern historians, biblical scholars, philosophers, and theologians raise about our faith. I am also passionate about healthy teaching in the church and the care of the little lambs in Jesus’s flock. We both published books with Eerdmans Publishing Company. I do not, however, have her experience of being a woman or of having same-sex attraction. I do not consider myself better than her on this account. I know that I am worthy only to pray the tax collector’s prayer, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is also my prayer and hope for everyone, including Karen Keen.

Since I read Keen’s book the first time and looked at her website, I’ve felt a great love for her. I find her story compelling in many ways. And yet, I find myself unmoved by her argument that accepting same-sex relationships is consistent with a Bible-based evangelical faith for all the reasons I’ve laid out in this eleven-part review.