Yesterday I posted “Homosexuality and Christianity: A Review of the Brown-Vines Debate (Part 1)“. After tweeting out the post I received a gracious reply from Dr. Michael Brown. However, in a subsequent tweet he added the additional comment:
“BTW, you gave two options for my “zero question” comment but I’m quite surprised you failed to realize there’s a third option.”
By way of background context, I was responding to Brown’s assertion that there is “zero question whatsoever” regarding what the Bible says about homosexuality, and by implication what we should think about it. In my review I observed,
“Two individuals who are equally serious about their Christian faith and the authority of the Bible may, nonetheless, arrive at opposite conclusions on this important ethical issue. And thus, anybody who claims there really is no debate here (as Brown does) is either dishonest or shows himself unable to grapple with the theological nuances of this issue. (In Brown’s case I certainly think it is the latter since I have no reason to think him dishonest.)”
Needless to say, I wanted to hear more about Brown’s third option, and so I invited him to share it with me either via thirty or forty short tweets or a single email that I could republish for my readers. He kindly obliged (and thankfully chose the second option!). So here is Brown’s response, rendered in red font (a color choice that is not meant to prejudice the discussion in Brown’s favor; ha ha).
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Although there’s a lot I differ with and question in the first part of your review, there’s one section in particular that concerned me, namely when you claimed that my comment that there was “zero question” about what Scripture said about homosexual relationships could only be based on two possibilities: “either [Brown is] dishonest or shows himself unable to grapple with the theological nuances of this issue. (In Brown’s case I certainly think it is the latter since I have no reason to think him dishonest.)”
For a critical thinker like you, I was surprised that these were the only two options you considered, leaving out the correct one: I have grappled with the theological nuances, reading Matthew’s book carefully and with prayer and pain and love (for him and those in his shoes); I have wrestled with them for years, reading as many personal stories as I could, meeting with professing gay Christians face to face to hear their stories, reading the literature that seeks to make a biblical case for same-sex unions, getting alone with God in tears of intercession. And I am 100% sure that it is impossible to make a biblical case for homosexual relationships.
I do believe there are many debatable issues that divide us within the Body today, and I’ve engaged in friendly debates with other believers about some of these issues (like eschatology; predestination; etc.). And, as a Jewish follower of Jesus, while being completely sure that Jesus is our Messiah, I believe there’s a valid debate to be had about important issues like Messianic prophecy and God’s tri-unity (meaning, the rabbis raise strong objections to our views which we must answer). But when it comes to homosexual practice and the Bible, I’m certain there is no real debate to be had and, as I’ve written elsewhere, it’s impossible to fully affirm the full inspiration of Scripture and at the same time affirm homosexual practice.
So, you can differ with my assessment – no problem there – but for you to claim that I have been unable to grapple with the theological nuances is to make a personal (and, I assure you, inaccurate) judgment.
You see, as an apologist, I’m committed to: 1) rightly understanding the argument the other person is making, lest we talk past each other; and 2) feeling the weight of the objection, which is often terribly costly and painful, as it requires you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see the world through their eyes, sometimes requiring much heartbreak and prayerful meditation. God knows that I have done this when it comes to “gay Christianity” – as I mentioned during the radio debate, I was overcome by this much of the day before the debate – and it is out of love and concern that I seek to blow the lid off the myth that the Bible, representing God’s mind and will, is compatible with homosexual practice. (Regarding the very difficult subject of transgenderism, which you mention in your review, I have an older, male cousin who now wants to be known as a woman, and this is also a subject I have sought to understand better, with God’s heart and based on professional studies.)
Also, when I speak of the fact that in 31,000+ verses, not one author ever made a positive statement about homosexuality, while every reference to homosexual practice is decidedly negative, I don’t say that glibly but rather to drive home the obvious point, illustrated well my friend Larry Tomczak (and I quote now here from my book):
“Let’s say you buy a new cookbook featuring healthy dessert recipes, none of which use sugar. In the Introduction to the book, the author explains her reasons for avoiding sugar products, telling you that you will find sumptuous, sweet dessert recipes – but all without sugar. And so, throughout the rest of the book, the word ‘sugar’ is not found a single time – not once! Would it be right to conclude that avoiding sugar was not important to the author? To the contrary, it was so important that every single recipe in the book makes no mention of sugar.
“It is exactly the same when it comes to the Bible and homosexuality. There are a few, very strong, very clear, references to homosexual practice – every one of them decidedly negative – and then not a single reference to homosexual practice throughout the rest of the Bible. Was it because avoiding homosexual practice was not important to the authors of the Scriptures? To the contrary, the only relationships that were acceptable in God’s sight or considered normal for society were heterosexual relationships, and so homosexual practice was either irrelevant (because it had nothing to do with the God-ordained relationships of marriage and family and society) or, if mentioned, explicitly condemned.”
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First, I’d like to start off on the right foot by apologizing to Dr. Brown for rendering an opinion that he understandably took to be a personal slight. I agree that the suggestion that Brown is unable to grasp the theological nuances sounds condescending. So let me state the obvious at the outset: the man clearly is far more learned than I. For starters, he’s written more than twice as many books as I have. Heck, he was already in the academy when I was watching “Sesame Street”. I have no doubt that he has way more background knowledge of the biblical texts than do I. But that doesn’t change the fact that I find Brown’s claim that there is “zero question” on this particular issue to be absolutely indefensible.
Let’s start with common ground. Both Brown and Vines agree that the Bible says nothing positive about homosexual acts. On that trivial point all are in agreement. The salient question, however, is whether those condemnations are probative for homosexuality as we understand it today. It is on that point that Brown and Vines disagree. And whether or not Vines is correct, it seems to me there is at least a reasonable disagreement between the two. It is this possibility of reasonable disagreement that Brown denies with his “zero” comment. There is much I could comment on in Brown’s response. But I am going to focus in on one particular sentence that will help us get to at least one very central issue. Brown writes:
“when it comes to homosexual practice and the Bible, I’m certain there is no real debate to be had and, as I’ve written elsewhere, it’s impossible to fully affirm the full inspiration of Scripture and at the same time affirm homosexual practice.”
I was intrigued so I clicked on the link to that article that Brown had written “elsewhere” and found myself reading an article which is titled “Why Gay-Affirming Christians Can’t Accept the Inspiration of the Bible.” In the article Brown writes:
“The simple fact is that is impossible to fully affirm the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, which includes a full affirmation of the deity of Jesus, while at the same time claiming that God approves of committed homosexual relationships.”
He explains further:
“But for the sake of argument, let’s say that this was true and that Moses and Jesus and Paul knew nothing about long-term, committed homosexual relationships or that they had no notion of modern concepts of allegedly inborn, fixed homosexual orientation. That would mean that God inspired the biblical authors to write in such a way that homosexual men and women would be rejected and marginalized and judged for almost 3,500 years (from the time of giving of the Law to Israel until the late 20th century).
“It would mean that God inspired Moses to write that it was an abomination for a man to lie with a man even though he didn’t mean committed men lying with committed men, and even though Old Testament Israel (and religious Jews to this day) and the New Testament church (including conservative Christians to this day) would think God was prohibiting all homosexual relationships.”
I have two responses here, a quick response and a longer one.
First, the quick response. It seems to me that when he talks of “inspiration” Brown is assuming something like the “moral inerrancy standard”. He is free to do so, but to suggest that this is somehow tied to the doctrine of biblical inspiration is absolutely false. To read more about the problems with this view, check out my articles “Inerrancy: how to save a lost concept by comparing the Bible to ‘Ulysses’” and “Errant statements in an inerrant book“. You also might like to hear my sermon “How do you preach killing babies? A sermon on the Imprecatory Psalms“.
Now for the longer response. Brown appears to be presenting a reductio ad absurdum, his point being that if we accept that the biblical authors issued their categorical prohibitions of homosexual behavior in ignorance of homosexual identity as currently understood, then it follows “that God inspired the biblical authors to write in such a way that homosexual men and women would be rejected and marginalized and judged for almost 3,500 years….” And Brown takes that to be an absurd conclusion.
Well let me offer my own reductio ad absurdum in reply. I’m going to argue that if we accept the force of Brown’s argument, then we should commit ourselves to the propriety of beating children. I take that to be absurd. I take it you agree. And so I think we should both reject Brown’s argument.
So how do I arrive at my conclusion? To get there we need to get a good handle on what the Bible has to say on the corporal punishment of children. At this point, I will be drawing my material from my article “Beat your children well? A Review of Corporal Punishment in the Bible by William Webb“. In his book, Webb notes that Christian conservatives love to talk about a “biblical view” of punishing one’s children. These days, that supposedly biblical view is taught as spanking (two smacks max!) for insubordinate behavior. As Webb notes, Focus on the Family has long claimed this is the biblical view which it then advocates to its many supporters. But, Webb observes, this is not in fact the biblical view. In the book Webb carefully gathers the biblical teaching on corporal punishment in the Bible which he then summarizes into seven principles:
“1. Do not be duped by age restrictions. Teenagers and elementary school children need the rod just as much, if not more, than those in early childhood, and beatings are effective (not ‘ineffective’ for older children as presently claimed).
2. Forget the idea of a two-smacks-max limit. Apply a gradual increase in the number of strokes so that it fuses better with the forty strokes cap for adults.
3. Get the location right. Lashes are made for the ‘backs of fools’ not for their bottoms.
4. Remove the ‘no bruising’ restriction. Bruises, welts and wounds should be viewed as a virtue–the evidence of a sound beating.
5. Pick the right instrument. A good rod (hickory stick) will inflict far more intense pain and bruising than a hand on the bottom.
6. Stop thinking about corporal punishment as a last resort. Use the rod for nonvolitional misdemeanors as well as for major infractions.
7. Drop the notion of ‘love but no anger.’ Mix in a little righteous anger with your use of the rod.” (52-53)
So the irony is that North American conservative evangelicals talk about upholding the authority of scripture and the wisdom of the Bible’s parenting principles, and yet they don’t, in fact, follow the Bible’s clear and explicit teaching. Now we face a crossroads. If we are committed to following the biblical teaching then we should be committed to severely beating our children with a good hickory stick for a range of infractions.
I am inclined to think this is absolutely horrible advice. Webb does as well. In the book Webb critiques this biblical approach to corporal punishment and strongly advises that Christians find non-violent means to discipline their children. He begins his book with the moving story of how he shared his manuscript for Corporal Punishment in the Bible with a young Ethiopian student at his seminary named Fanosie. Since Fanosie came from a country where corporal punishment was still widespread, Webb was anxious to hear Fanosie’s reply to the book. Webb writes:
“I still remember his vivid answer. He said nothing, nothing at all. Instead, Fanosie bent down his head and showed me a series of welts, scars and ugly disfigurations. He is a tall man and his dark curly hair hid these marks fairly well. He explained to me that he could take off his clothes and show me more marks from beatings he had as a child. He described being raised in a typical Christian home, and how not infrequently, his father beat him with a stick. In fact, Fanosie told me how it was still acceptable for many Christian husbands in Ethiopia to beat their wives as an act of corrective discipline.” (18-19)
Webb goes on to recount how Fanosie then pleaded with him to publish the book and distribute it to Ethiopian pastors so that they could find a less destructive way to teach parents to discipline their children.
Now back to the main topic. In this analogy Webb’s response to the biblical view of corporal punishment parallels Vines’ response to the biblical view of homosexual acts. And Brown’s response works perfectly as a rejoinder to Webb. Following Brown’s reasoning, we should reject Webb’s argument with the following reductio:
“But for the sake of argument, let’s say that Webb’s view is true and that the biblical writers knew nothing about the proper, non-violent way to discipline children. That would mean that God inspired the biblical authors to write in such a way that children would be beaten for almost 3,500 years (from the time of giving of the Law to Israel until the late 20th century).”
Well yeah, that’s what it would mean. However, I take that to be a reductio for Brown’s position, not Webb’s, since the logic of Brown’s response obliges us to go on beating children.
As for the nature of biblical inspiration. My response (and Webb’s as well) is that we need a different, more nuanced view of inspiration than one that is slavishly committed to some form of the moral inerrancy standard.
But if we’ve rejected the force of the reductio in the case of corporal punishment, we likewise need to reject it in the case of homosexuality. And thus, we can’t continue to reject (or endorse) x just because biblical writers reject (or endorse) x. Our data set needs to be broader. Does corporal punishment work or are their superior non-violent means to discipline a child? Do we have an understanding of homosexuality today that differs from that assigned by the ancient prohibitions, and if so what significance might that have?
All this brings me back to that whole “zero question”. There clearly is a significant debate to be had here, just as there is on corporal punishment and countless other topics. Thus, denying the room for debate at the outset, as Brown does, is simply mistaken.