Interpretation and homosexuality passages

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I received an email from someone who I assume would prefer to remain anonymous, in response to some of what I've said about homosexuality. His basic thrust was that he couldn't understand how I could take passages about homosexuality literally to conclude that there's something bad about homosexuality despite all the evidence against that view, especially when I wouldn't take other passages literally, e.g. Joshua with the sun standing still in the sky and Genesis 9 with its once-common interpretation that the curse on Canaan justified slavery of all blacks. There are so many things with this argument that I find mistaken that it wasn't easy to work through it step-by-step, but here's my response.

Update: I've added the response into the extended entry now that I'm on Movable Type and can do such things.

First off, I should say that I don't think this is a huge issue, which was why I wanted to get my fellow Christians to tone down their rhetoric and seek to love rather than hate people who are gay. I see homosexuality as a bad thing, but I don't see the state of being homosexuality as a sin. I do think homosexual sex is wrong, and I think it's wrong to pursue homosexual relationships, just to be clear. I don't think the wrongness of this is any worse by any great degree than the wrongness of anything else that I would believe to be sexual sin (except rape, which includes pederasty), e.g. adultery, premarital sex, divorce. This means my attitude toward someone who is gay and sexually active in a homosexual relationship isn't going to be any different from my attitude toward someone who is straight and is sexually active outside the context of marriage. This affects none of how I relate to someone. I don't go around trying to stop gay people from doing anything. I've got a bisexual friend who I'd trust with my kids. I don't see why gay couples can't adopt. I even think civil unions are a good idea. I say this just to make sure you didn't read only parts of what I've said on my blog and thought I was literally homophobic, as too many people who complain about the wrongness of homosexuality are.

As for the stuff I wrote, I appreciate your comments, but I don't think you understand very well how most conservative biblical scholars take these passages. I think you were assuming that I hadn't thought about these issues. That's not true. I've spent a lot of time thinking about all these issues, bringing even very recent philosophical work to bear on some of them, and I don't think your argument will end up working.

Jeremy, I've read your comments on homosexuality, and I think you have erred by adopting a paradigm that doesn't allow for an honest inquiry. You've also been highly selective in your application of your paradigm by insisting on a literal interpretation of the text on gay issues even though you wouldn't dream of adopting a literal interpretation of the text in almost any other context.

Well, we'll see. I don't think that's even close to true.

A literal reading of the story of Joshua commanding the sun to stand still would compel the conclusion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. In fact, Joshua was invoked against Galileo.

Even today we say the sun rises, and what that statement means is phenomenological. Saying it stood still in the air is just explaining how the appearance is relative to the earth. Philosophers at this point don't have a consensus on whether that counts as being true but not literally true or whether they take it as literally false but useful to say. It depends on whether the semantics or pragmatics is doing the work. On one view, the semantics really works it out that it means something true, because the sun rises as we see it, and that's what the sentence means as we use it. After all, meaning is determined by use. It's like when I say there's no milk in the fridge, and someone points out a tiny puddle in the crisper. I'd respond by saying that I didn't mean milk in general but milk in a carton that I can pour into my cup and drink. On the semantics view, my sentence had all that built into the meaning, and so what I said was literally true. On the other view, pragmatics does the work, since the sentence is literally ok, but on our rules of conversation it's as appropriate (but false) to say that the sun rises even as it's appropriate to say that there's no milk in the fridge despite the little puddle at the bottom. For the record, I lean toward the semantics view. Philosophers seem evenly split on this, as far as I can tell. Either way this passage works out fine, because on the semantics view what the passage says is literally true, and on the pragmatics view what the passage says communicates what it intended (and on that view biblical inerrancy isn't about literal truth anyway, since God doesn't have literal arms, but about accurate communication of what was intended).

A literal reading of Genesis 9 compels the conclusion that Black people should be slaves. During the Civil War, Southern slaveholders invoked Genesis 9 to justify slavery.

But they misinterpreted what it was saying. First, it's a curse and a prediction. It never endorses the actions of the people who would fulfill it, just as Isaiah 10 never endorses the evil of the king of Assyria who carries out God's wrath on God's people but actually condemns him for it. Second, it's a curse on Canaan, and as far as I know Genesis never traces black people back to Canaan but to Ham's other sons. The literal interpretation here gives nothing of the sort.

In both cases, a literal interpretation of the text was abandoned when that literal interpretation became untenable.

I just don't agree with that. There are passages about homosexual sex that are clear descriptions that were certainly intended in a literal way. There are no metaphors that can be taken non-literally in Romans 1 or I Corinthians 6. I Romans 1 Paul simply describes homosexual sex as a bad result of the fall (though some people misinterpret it to be saying that homosexuality is a cause of bad things -- for Paul it is a bad effect of rebellion against God, just as sickness, death, and other things that we do consider unfortunate). In I Corinthians 6 he uses two words, one for the penetrating partner, the other for the penetrated party, in homosexual sex in a long line of kinds of behavior that would be sufficient on its own for counting as rebellion against God and therefore being unworthy of eternal life (though he considers Christians who have repented washed of it and no longer guilty before God). To take it non-literally, you would have to see it as somehow a metaphor for something else, and I just can't see how that would work. I don't intend to get into the epistemology of Christianity at this point, so I won't give you the reasons why I think the Bible is trustworthy, though I could if you wanted me to. I don't expect that you would.

So there's a clear difference between how I see the passages above, which don't have to be taken the way some people have taken them in the past, and the passages I mentioned about homosexual issues, which I think do have to be taken the way I interpret them. This isn't really about literalness. It's about whether the scripture can be taken authoritatively in exactly the ways I've done with all the passages I've discussed, and I don't see any inconsistency in the interpretations as I've given them. The reasons for the interpretations I've given in the passages you mentioned that happen to be old covenant aren't the same sort of reason that gives any wiggle room in the Pauline passages. I realize that there are issues with the Sodom and Gomorrah stuff and with the Leviticus passage, but the ways out for those passages won't work with Paul.

The same will happen with homosexuality. The notion that homosexuality is a bad thing is just as absurd as the notion that the earth is flat or that black people should be slaves. The only people who honestly can't see that are people who, like you, have adopted a paradigm that won't allow them to. The crushing weight of evidence is against your position, and some day even the most conservative of Christian churches will be forced to acknowledge that fact.

I'm not sure what this evidence is supposed to be. How can evidence tell you whether something is wrong? That doesn't seem to be the sort of thing that evidence can tell you. If a moral argument has premises that need to be supported, then evidence can come in there if one such premise is non-moral. For instance, if you have a principle that the only thing that could make something wrong is that it's harmful, then you could dispute whether something is harmful, and you can use evidence to support that claim. That won't necessarily work, though, because some people think something is harmful simply because it's wrong, even if it cause no other harm, and I tend to agree with that. So even if you could give all sorts of evidence to show that homosexuality is not harmful, it wouldn't prove that there's no moral wrongness involved.

When that day comes, Romans 1 will take its place next to Genesis 9 and Joshua, passages whose literal interpretation has been abandoned. Someone as intelligent as you obviously are should be able to see that.

I'm just not sure how a non-literal reading of Romans can be squared with Paul's intentions. If you don't care about Paul's intentions, I see no reason to bother with the Bible at all, but again I'm not going to defend the Bible at this point. I have done that, and if you do care to read it I can give you the link.

There's a lot about hermeneutics that you just don't seem very familiar with, and this is all basic stuff that an introductory course would cover. These sorts of arguments just assume a lot that's false about how people who see the Bible as authoritative will look at things, and since the passages really aren't the same kind of passage there's no reason to have to take them in exactly the same way, and this need have little to do with literalness. So I just don't see how your inevitability argument works.

Update 2: The conversation continues.

16 Comments

I find it interesting that you accept Paul's statements in Romans 1, but you'd still leave your children with a homosexual and you'd support homosexual adoption. I take it that when you refer to Romans 1 you're talking about verses 26 and 27, but what of the following verses. Verse 28 says they are given to a reprobate mind. That is a mind that is unfit or lacking in judgment. I couldn't imagine you'd want to leave your kids with someone that has a reprobate mind. Yet verse 28 is followed by 29-32, which says they're in the class of, or are, unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, and unmerciful. I mean you have to take it part and parcel right? Just curious how you sort this all out.

1-26-04 11:29 am

Matthew, I think Romans 1 has a much broader application than just to beat homosexuals over their heads with our biblical proof of their sin. The things that you mention from Romans 1 can be said of any sinner, and since we are all sinners they can be said of christians as well.

I always wonder why christians save special venom for homosexuals but let things like divorce, adultery, and fornication slide. These are all sins of the same magnitude but rarely get as much air time as homosexuality in christian circles.

1-26-04 12:55 pm

I'm not suggesting that homosexuality as a sin is greater than other sins in the eyes of God. I have equal disdain for adultery as homesexuality. It seemed to me that there are two distinctions. Paul seems to be linking verses 26 and 27 with verses 29-32. In which case it says some special things about homosexuals as sinners. Further I'm not sure that the class of things he mentions can be said of all sinners. The reprobate mind part seems to be a state of mind that is ongoing, in the active sense. That leads into the second distinction which is that unlike other sins, like taking the lords name in vain, the homosexual maintians the state of sin much like and active adulturer.

1-26-04 1:23 pm

I think the thing that bothers so many Christians is that you wouldn't suggest that the person living in a state of active adultery was in an ok spot. You'd certainly think they were lacking in good judgement. However it seems that that is the suggestion on the homosexual side. It isn't simply that they have occasional sinful activities, the whole process from from desire to action, is sinful.

I'm just puzzled because Jeremy seems to be saying it's wrong, but it's ok. It seems to me that there are different classes of sin, which effect the way people live and interact. While we all have sin nature it seems hard to accept someone who glories in their sin, or persists in their sin.

1-26-04 1:25 pm

Rom 1 lists effects of the fall, rebellion vs. God by human creation, a general indictment of Gentiles. The effect is a giving over to sinful desires, to deeper sin. Vv.28ff. aren't about homosexuality but continue the general line of thought, sin's negative effect. The progression: All ungodliness and righteousness, suppressing truth, not honoring God though knowing of God, idolatry, futile minds, dark hearts, dishonorable passions even as unnatural as homosexual acts, not recognizing God, being given over to wrong, then a list of particular sins

Not acknowledging God is first, then idolatry, then God's giving them over to unrighteousness, then the effect of extreme of sexual reversal, then other consequences. This is the secular/pagan mindset, anything against God, true of all nonbelievers. Would I trust someone like this to babysit my kids? Not someone with all these features, but we've left our kids with nonbelievers and will continue to do so if it's someone we trust.

1-26-04 2:58 pm

I'm not sure why you think I'm accepting homosexual acts or relationships as ok. I'm saying Christians shouldn't resist so vehemently what the secular government does. In what sense do I seem to be saying it's ok? Certainly not any moral sense.

How you treat someone is a separate issue. We should love enemies, no matter how much an enemy you consider someone who is gay. I don't think we should see any human being as an enemy but rather someone lost who needs to respond to the gospel.

As for active sin, Paul says that everyone who isn’t a Christian is in that state. It’s active rebellion against God. In different people it takes different forms. It never specifically singles out homosexuality apart from using it as an argument for how depraved the rebellion has gotten, with such a reversal of sexual desire as created by God. He says nothing about it in isolation from all the other statements about the human state in rebellion against God.

1-26-04 3:11 pm

Thanks for the reply. I was curious because it seems a lot of commentaries rope those verses together. If it's a progression as you say, then it seems that you mark homosexuality pretty far down the line. If it is indeed a progression, then don't the later stages still contain the previous problems; and begin to lead into the later problems. Also 1000 characters is tough!!

1-26-04 5:51 pm

The reason I thought you we accepting is that you say you see homosexuality as a bad thing, homosexual sex as wrong, homosexual relationships as wrong, and homosexual acts are on par with sexual sins like, adultery, premarital sex, and divorce. However you say that you don't think being a homosexual is a sin. That doesn't seem to follow from what you previously said. Doesn't being a homosexual entail homosexual acts and/or homosexual desires and thoughts? Further you support gay adoption and having a gay babysitter, which doesn’t seem prudent if the above is true. I'm not trying to suggest that people should hate gays, or make enemies, out of homosexuals. However if the above is true then it seems like this is behavior you would want to discourage. From the Christian perspective it seems like supporting civil-unions would be on par with supporting no-fault divorce. I'd think that Christians would support laws that discourage, not encourage, wrong behavior.

1-26-04 5:52 pm

Douglas Moo: "In vv.22-24 and vv.25-27 Paul has shown how the sexual immorality that pervades humanity has its roots in the rejection of the true God in favor of gods of their own making. In the third and final portrayal of this sin-retribution sequence (vv.28-32), he traces sins of humanity, of man's hatred of his fellow man in all its terrible manifestations, to this same root sin of idolatry." (NICNT).

Thomas Schreiner: "The same theme informs verses 28-32.... The handing over to all the various sins specified in verses 29-32 is rooted in a rejection of God." (BECNT)

These are the two most recent large-scale, scholarly, evangelical commentaries. Neither mentions the view that v.28 is with vv.26-27 and not with vv.29-32.

Joseph Fitzmyer: "Pagan idolatry leads not only to sexual perversion, but to all sorts of immoral and improper conduct." (Anchor Bible, on v.28 )

Both vv.26-27 and v.28 are effects of idolatry, so v.28 isn't continuing effects of vv.26-27.

1-27-04 12:59 pm

Calling homosexuality a sin is a category mistake. It's a state of being. Sins are actions (sometimes internal ones, but actions nonetheless). Homosexuality involves a tendency for one's sexual desires to be toward someone of the same sex. Having desires can't be a sin, though. It's what you do with desires that would be a sin. Now I believe something has gone wrong to get someone to a point of having those desires for someone of the same sex, but the mere having of them isn't itself a sin anymore than my merely having a tendency toward sexual desires in general for people other than my wife isn't itself a sin.

1-27-04 1:52 pm

On discouraging behavior, I want to discourage smoking, premarital sex, drunkenness, and cohabitation before marriage. A good friend of mine who has babysat for us has done all of them. I don't understand why someone can't have some vices but also be virtuous in terms of caring for my children. I wouldn't stop this friend from having children. Why would it be different with a different vice list, as long as the vices don't interfere greatly with raising children. Legally, we don't even discourage people with vices that do affect childrearing from continuing to have children (e.g. repeated divorce, substance abuse, swearing at children).

The 1000-character limit is annoying. I looked for an engine with the best balance of good, and I didn't find one without that limit that also allowed maximizing the comment window, some HTML code, links to comments, and other features I wanted. The other downside is the lack of a preview. Do you know of a better one?

1-27-04 2:00 pm

Enlightening! I wasn't trying to separate v.28 from v.29-32, or specially attach it to v.26-27. I'd always taken them together, but seen them as both progressive and building. Initially it seemed that you took it as a progressive statement also, but on further application it looks as if you read it as a lump.

So a desire is not an action, and desires can't be sin? But what of something like De 5:21 that "Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour's wife" or Mt 5:28 "But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." Is lust not desiring? It seems that there are lots of verses about the inward man (heart, thought, desires) which seem to imply that our state of being can be one wholly given over to sin.

1-27-04 2:35 pm

The difference between your babysitter who has had vices and homosexuality seems to be that one is past tense and the other is ever present. I guess we may differ here on not seeing the desire as sinful. If the desire to have homosexual relations is sinful, and not just the act, then I think the difference is clear.

While we don't legally discourage people with vices that do affect childrearing from continuing to have children, I think that morally and legally we should. For example getting rid of no fault divorce could force people to think a little bit harder about what they're getting into. It could also force people to work a little harder about working out problems instead of just quitting.

1-27-04 2:39 pm

I think lust is an action. You can have desires for people you shouldn't lust after, and if you don't nurture it but declare it to be something not to dwell on, I don't think that's a sin.

I do think we're responsible for our heart condition, and ultimately that's what we're evaluated on. We certainly influence our heart condition by what we do. We were talking about sins, however, and a sin is an action.

The babysitter I had in mind still smokes and gets drunk but has since gotten married. This person has other vices as well. The point was about vices that don't have a large bearing on childrearing. I don't think homosexuality does.

On discouraging vices that do have a bearing on childrearing, I agree.

1-27-04 5:26 pm

on www.cbn.com last week they had an article that I downloaded as a pdf format approx. 20 pages by Dr. Diggs, "Health risks of gay sex." After reading that, you will have some wonderful arguments to use for people that don't believe scripture that substantiate the gospel as well. If you can't find it, I would be more than happy to email it to you.
blessings,d

I think homosexual sex can be harmful, but that's also true of heterosexual sex. In fact, the only main difference is that anal sex has a couple extra features (e.g. smaller/less pliable orifice to be penetrated with greater chance of bleeding and therefore easier chance of spread of disease). But then of course anal sex isn't limited to homosexuals (apparently many heterosexuals engage in it, which I don't at all understand), and homosexuals aren't limited to anal sex (many homosexuals even prefer oral and manual sex, which I can certainly understand). So I'm not sure how this sort of evidence will affect the public debate.

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