Response to Gagnon

Points for consideration in response to
Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice.

Edward F. Campbell, Jr.
Professor of Old Testament, McCormick Seminary (retired)

Robert Gagnon has written a tightly argued, thoroughly documented book. It is not to be dismissed by anyone who cares what the Bible claims on issues of human sexuality and how we build hermeneutic bridges. Its tight reasoning is both laudable and upsetting, for it operates on a mathematically rationalistic style of demonstration: each passage study or encounter with optional interpretations ends with a kind of “QED” wrap-up. Its readers are led to believe that there are few options and little mystery left about what the Bible advocates or pays attention to. That is misleading.

Trouble is, people will not read all 493 pages, let alone nearly 700 footnotes; they will read the conclusions, and assume that the author has covered everything and demonstrated the truth. In some cases he has; in many he has not.

The crucial axis of the book read as an entirety is the claim that the Bible presents a picture of gender complementarity as the one and only norm for understanding human sexuality. Man and woman fit together, and only they fit. Together, then, they are the true image of God. This fit is self-evident to Dr. Gagnon, to be seen as obvious in the two creation texts in Genesis (don’t forget there are a large number of creation passages throughout the Bible) and observable to any common-sense person who just looks around. Great effort is expended to establish it as the biblical position, hence the Bible’s mandate, and to find it confirmed by our own experience. Gagnon knows he has a bias here, but he may not know how deeply presuppositional it is for him — remember Rudolph Bultmann and his sage warnings about unrecognized pre-understandings.

Dr. Gagnon wants to expand the number of biblical passages that are pertinent to the question of whether homosexual practice is a gross sin and a clear violation of the gender complementarity criterion. I don’t think he succeeds. The biblical passages that govern his argument are Genesis 1:26-28, 2:21-24; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; and Romans 1:24-27 (“arguably the single most important biblical text”), the same ones that have been at the center of biblical debate for quite some time. After working through Genesis 9:20-27 (Ham and Noah), Genesis 19:4-11 (Sodom and Gomorrah) with its congener in Judges 19:22-25, the David and Jonathan cycle in Samuel, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Dr. Gagnon pretty much leaves them behind. His big passages are the first five; discussing the others seeks to remove roadblocks to hearing these five as he hears them, or to hint at possible further ammunition (notably his study of the Noah/Ham encounter in Genesis 9, which is highly speculative). In dealing with Romans 1:24-27, a special concern is the meaning of “contrary to nature,” with help from Philo and Josephus in particular.

A few thoughts about these passages:

* Genesis 1 and 2 address human vocation in God’s good creation. For Gagnon, marriage is “etiologized” in these two passages as the one right way for humans to live their sexual lives, indeed their whole lives. An articulation that appears regularly and frequently throughout the book is that such marriage is to be monogamous, life-long, procreative, and heterosexual. In a very few places, Gagnon speaks of those who choose or live a single life-style, but never with enough persuasion to help his reader deal with Jesus’ and Paul’s singleness. In a few more places, he will speak to the question of pleasure in sexuality and affirm that sex is not always for purposes of procreation. No attention is given to polygamy/bigamy as a reality in the biblical record. All non-heterosexual behavior is ruled out, whether consensual or forced, in whatever form.

* Gender complementarity is established not only by appeal to Genesis 1:26 “in God’s image” for the male and female and by Genesis 2:24 “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife,” but also by repeated reference to human anatomy and the perfect fit between sexual organs — hand and glove, foot and slipper, etc. Gagnon is not cavalier in working his way through these passages, but the outcome is predictable before the text is plumbed. Concessions that the creation passages have other more important concerns, like the proper stewardship of God’s world and garden, or the vocation to be in covenant with each other, are fairly readily dismissed. An example of myopia: consider the word “cling” which Gagnon (p. 61) takes to buttress gender complementarity (Hebrew dabaq in Genesis 1:24). Then notice how crucial the same verb is in describing the mutual commitment of Ruth and Naomi.

* The two passages in the Holiness Code are plain enough in what they say:
Leviticus 18:22 — no lying with a man the way one does with a woman;
Leviticus 20:13 — both partners culpable and to be put to death.
Each formulation calls the act “an abomination.” These verses belong in collections of law usage about wrongful sexual behavior. Dr. Gagnon is impressed that the two about homosexual relations are each styled “an abomination” explicitly, while the group of which they are a part is collectively “abominations.” The singular tag for him makes these especially heinous; no sin is worse than homosexual relations. To signal such relations as “an abomination” seems to give Dr. Gagnon license to use our contemporary vocabulary in his evaluation: “disgusting,” “scorned,” “repulsive,” “egregious,” and “abhorrent.” Given the ancient implications in “abomination” of ritual purity and danger as well as insult to God, it is not correct to equate “abomination” with our chosen synonyms. That he does so, repeatedly, suggests that while homosexual behavior is revolting to Dr. Gagnon, the biblical attitude is not so easily described.

* The Holiness Code passages are unequivocal so long as we know precisely what is being described. Dr. Gagnon points out that many of the other sexual practices the Holiness Code anathematizes we now still accept as sinful. True. Incest is clearly anathema and we disapprove of it. But in Genesis 38, Judah commits incest with Tamar, after Tamar places herself in his way as a prostitute. In this dramatic story a larger consideration comes to play. Tamar is exonerated because a greater injustice is being perpetrated — the failure to preserve a family, combined with mean deception on the part of Judah. Other moral considerations are prioritized over incest. Or we may ask what happened at the threshing floor in Ruth 3, or whether Boaz and the nearer kinsman were previously married. Would that mean adultery? Or even incest? Levirate marriage is called for in the law collections, and it would seem to require bigamy in some cases. These stories like most of the Bible invite one to think contextually about absolutes. When it is convenient, Dr. Gagnon does think contextually, but he doesn’t when it is not.

* On homosexuality as contrary to nature, Dr. Gagnon shows that Jewish thought in the Hellenistic and Roman periods spoke to the issue frequently, with virtual unanimity. But, for Dr. Gagnon, what Paul’s Jewish contemporaries mean by activity contrary to nature applies exclusively to homosexual practice. Hence it probably means that for Paul, and since Jesus thought with the same mind, it must have meant that for Jesus. If one reads Genesis 1-3 as focusing not on gender complementarity so much as on violating covenantal faithfulness and that any violation of another person (including God) is sin, an awful lot of our behavior is “contrary to nature.” Dr. Gagnon, by placing the focus on homosexual behavior alone, has rendered the convincing study by Robin Scroggs of pederasty and homosexual rape irrelevant. Repeatedly, what may be horror at homosexual rape for Dr. Gagnon will not distinguish violation from other homosexual behaviors, a merging he admits and accepts. Yes, there was a permissive attitude toward homosexuality, especially pederasty, in the world surrounding Jesus and Paul, and we, like most, strongly oppose rape, pederasty and abuse. It seems to me, although I cannot be as sure as Dr. Gagnon nearly always is about his conclusions, that violation of others is a far more important criterion for judging sexual behavior than is whether there has been penal insertion of another man’s anus — the single most disgusting act for Dr. Gagnon.

* What does Dr. Gagnon really think those who disagree with his neat formulation stand for — a sexual free-for-all? Or do we seek a loving effort to find faithful ways to hear brothers and sisters speak about their own experience and their profound wrestling with what they find within themselves? Those who strive to understand are not defending exploitative heterosexual and homosexual behaviors. Too often, Dr. Gagnon implicitly “straw-mans” his opponents.

* Any effort to establish in one area a clear and unequivocal mandate with which to judge human behavior runs the risk of reducing all other issues to relative trifles. If the focus is wrongful sexual behavior, true, in 1 Corinthians 5 Paul is exercised about an instance of incest. He is firm in his condemnation, and gives a procedure to follow in dealing with it. Six chapters later Paul will take up another violation of human relationship, namely ruining the significance of the Lord’s Supper by keeping the poor or at least less well endowed from the joy of the mutual celebration, the Eucharist, at the heart of being the body of Christ.

How should it happen that our harshest criticism should be aimed at homosexual behavior when social injustice in so many forms seems to be a vastly more significant issue in the minds of virtually every biblical writer. Is the pervasive cry in the law collections, in story after story, and throughout the prophets for economic justice and their indignant outburst against oppressors less worthy of attention? Dr. Gagnon would not say that it was, I suppose, but the impact of this book, and of the three fundamentals of the Confessing Movement, would seem eloquently to speak otherwise. Although Dr. Gagnon from time to time mentions such issues of social justice, he will not stray into exploring them because they are off his point. But that decision speaks clearly to his claim of what takes first priority for biblically faithful people.

* Human sexuality is a realm of great interest, great complexity, and great mystery. One reason why so many of us are disquieted by works like that of Dr. Gagnon, however thoroughly documented and foot-noted and neatly argued, is that they dissolve mystery. Human sexuality was a realm of mystery for the biblical writers as well. The Genesis creation stories indicate what a matter of wonder, complexity and mystery it was and is. The Man’s joyous outburst on seeing the new creature God has fashioned probably has companionship rather than marriage and sexual relations at its heart, since sexual matters haven’t come up yet. Why did God make us this way — with a tender sense of loving care for one another and a yearning for covenantal love combined with a tendency to ignore God’s way and to take advantage of one another? Why did God punish us (well, at least half of us) with pain in fulfilling the procreative responsibility? What is the purpose of sexual fulfillment? Can one enjoy it?

These issues require intense and faithful thought, not dogmatic closure. (Dr. Gagnon pays strikingly little attention to “feelings,” which he seems to thoroughly distrust — except for disgust and a commendable if patronizing compassion for those who have strayed into sin however heinous, aimed at changing them). If contemporary research turns out to confirm that attraction to a member of one’s own sex as well as to one of opposite sex is a partially innate factor (Freud and the psychologists who work on infant behavior) to be channeled but not always to be altered in the socialization process, how will we relate that to God’s love for God’s creature? Does an issue of theodicy play any part here — why does God confront humanity with such a problem?

What most of us whom Dr. Gagnon opposes are trying to do is more fully to understand and to honor mystery. Many of us combine a high respect for the Bible in its entirety with interpretive efforts by predecessors and with their own experience to try to cross the hermeneutic bridge. But we stand in awe of what we do not know, we take seriously our friends who try to tell us how it is to be gay or lesbian living remarkably caring and constructive lives — and we wait for more light.

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