The Bible: Rule Book or Witness to God?

A Review of
Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics
(Nashville: Abingdon, 2001. 520 pages. $49.00.)

Beth Johnson
Professor of New Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary

Let me be clear at the outset about my presuppositions. I believe it unlikely that the church will welcome gay and lesbian Christians into full membership in the church solely or even largely on the basis of exegetical arguments. It has been my experience that people’s minds are changed when their hearts are changed, that altered perspectives do not become intellectual until they are existential. The remarkable shift in attitude we have witnessed in the North American church during the past quarter-century has come not from books about the Bible or ethics but as a result of relationships between gay and straight believers who have borne witness to each other about the grace of God in their lives.

Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice is a book that will impress people who already agree with him and confirm to them the rightness of their position. It is not likely to persuade people who disagree with him to change their minds. That said, it is a book worth knowing about.

Gagnon’s is one of three volumes chosen by the United Methodist Publishing House to stimulate conversation about homosexuality in advance of the UMC’s 2000 General Conference. The Loyal Opposition: Struggling with the Church on Homosexuality, edited by Tex Sample and Amy DeLong, and Where the Spirit Leads: The Evolving Views of United Methodists on Homosexuality, by James Rutland Wood, appeared that year. But neither is as large or complex a project as Gagnon’s, which is why his took over a year longer to produce. Instead of figuring in the Methodist debate, then, Gagnon now contributes to the Presbyterian conversation about Amendment A, an appropriate turn of events since he is himself Presbyterian and serves on the faculty of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This is an impressive volume, encyclopedic in its scope, detailed in its argumentation, and massive in its documentation. It may well be, as its champions have claimed, that The Bible and Homosexual Practice will become the standard academic work against homosexuality. Kenneth Bailey refers to it and its title is featured in the Presbyterian Coalition promotional video currently making the rounds of presbyteries.

In his introduction, Gagnon says he speaks at some personal risk and only for the greater good of the church that is jeopardized by the possibility that moral standards for Christians might deteriorate to include any state but heterosexual marriage and celibacy. The anxious tone of this introduction is revealing, I think. First, Gagnon acknowledges that he writes from a minority stance both within the guild of biblical scholars and among Presbyterian professors of Bible. Second, he is aware that his position may not carry the day in the church and this strikes him as nothing short of dire. A “potentially irreversible change in the morality of mainline denominations” is at stake. That urgency fuels the tone of every paragraph.

The book contains four chapters that investigate attitudes toward same-sex intercourse in ancient Israel, early Judaism, and the early church. A fifth chapter discusses what Gagnon calls “the hermeneutical relevance” of the exegetical conclusions he draws. There is much here that is familiar to those who know the conversation, and some that is new or at least newly revived.

The bottom line for Gagnon is that the Bible speaks unequivocally and unambiguously of homosexual intercourse as sin. Gagnon treats the texts most commonly invoked (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10), and argues, often quite cogently, that revisionist attempts to redeem those passages are unsuccessful. Similarly, he places on the same level of importance texts that are today frequently excluded from the conversation, such as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:4-11) and its parallel, the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19:22-25). Both, he says, manifestly condemn not rape generally but homosexual rape specifically, and so are properly relevant. Gagnon even includes texts that seldom appear in the modern debate, notably the story of the sin of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27).

Although it is frequently noted that the New Testament ascribes no comment on the matter to Jesus of Nazareth, Gagnon determines what Jesus must have thought on the basis of his otherwise conventional Jewish attitudes toward sexual ethics and “male-female complementarity,” a value that Gagnon finds ubiquitous in antiquity. There is simply no ancient Israelite, Jewish, or Christian writer who endorses any form of “homosexual practice.”

There is much to commend the descriptive task Gagnon undertakes. Although I disagree with his analysis of the malakos/arsenokoites debate (1 Cor 6:9) and I am not persuaded that first-century moralists cared as much about procreation as Gagnon does, I think he is probably correct about his historical reading of many of the other texts he investigates. What biblical writers said on this subject is not all that difficult to discern, and I too am skeptical about revisionist exegesis. Ancient Jews and Christians were notably concerned to preserve their understanding of sexual purity against the dangers of paganism.

What the Bible means, though, how it should function in our life together, is a much more difficult question, and it is that question that divides us. For Gagnon, the descriptive task–what the Bible said in its original historical context–is sufficient to determine what contemporary believers should do. He finds nothing in individual or ecclesiastical life to “override the Bible’s authority” on this matter, and he is characteristically thorough in rejecting arguments to the contrary. The historical task is for me the beginning rather than the end of the theological task. I think we encounter the Bible’s authority not in its static content but in its dynamic power to shape and reshape us as the people of God in the world for which Christ died.

Because this book is not only about the Bible, but also about how the church interprets the Bible, it features arguments drawn from psychology, sociology, and anthropology as well as the fields of history and Bible. Gagnon notes, for example, that although the biblical writers had no concept of sexual orientation, the current debate is very much influenced by it. Although he speaks more often of “urges” than of “orientation,” he operates with a quasi-Freudian theory about homoerotic orientation that is caused by domineering mothers and absent fathers. Behind this scenario of people warped by bad parenting is a kind of Manichean anthropology that sees people (or at least male people) as both enslaved by insatiable lust and possessing infinitely malleable free will, both “intractable” impulses and “the possibility for change.”

I do not know the psychological literature nearly so well as the biblical. But my colleagues in pastoral theology have taught me to be wary of knowing more than can be known about the mysteries of sexual attraction, and to take with some salt claims that orientation can be permanently altered. Gagnon’s book rests solidly on both these questionable assumptions.

The question for Gagnon boils down repeatedly to what did or did not constitute sin in the eyes of our ancestors who produced the Bible. The Bible is thus a rule book in which to find the boundaries of acceptable behavior, rather than a collection of what my colleague Walter Brueggemann calls “truth-telling” texts, witnesses to God in the midst of God’s people. So long as these two profoundly different perceptions of the Bible itself continue to divide us, we will continue to read and interpret it differently.

Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.