Interpreting Scripture, Round 3
I am grateful for this conversation with Dr. Strauss. It helps me to see the more clearly those areas that still need work, and more particularly, those areas that are most prone to misunderstanding and ineffective communication. That, of course, is no assurance that such “misunderstanding” can be easily fixed, but it does provide a focus for further work.
I’m also grateful for the multiple points of agreement that we have been able to discern between us. This definitely moves the discussion forward. Even where we disagree, there is much we have in common. I agree with him, for example, that neither the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of committed gay and lesbian Christians, nor the failure of reparative therapy settles the question of how we are to interpret Scripture. But I also want to push Dr. Strauss a bit further on this. Certainly people can exhibit the fruit of the Spirit while they are sinning. But if we take the New Testament seriously, it was also the fruit of the Spirit that led early Christians to say that the failure of Gentiles to abide by certain explicit requirements of Scripture (Kosher, Sabbath, and circumcision) should not be regarded as “sin,” despite explicit texts of Scripture to the contrary (including the death penalty for Sabbath-breakers). Setting aside the Sabbath commandment in particular is striking, since it is grounded in the creation narrative itself. So yes, these appeals to the fruit of the Spirit do not settle the matter, but they do open the question more forcefully.
Similarly, Dr. Strauss makes an analogy between Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” and the failure of reparative therapy, arguing that God does not always take away all manifestations of human brokenness. I agree that God does not always do this. But Paul also devotes significant attention in 2 Corinthians 12 to the purpose of this “thorn in the flesh,” and what God may be intending to communicate by his refusal to remove it. At the very least, gay and lesbian Christians deserve some thoughtful attention to this topic. Simply saying “this doesn’t prove gay sex is not sinful” is not sufficient. I suspect that Dr. Strauss would agree.
Then, Dr. Strauss turns to another issue that he says I have not adequately addressed: “Is homosexual inclination part of God’s intentional design for human sexuality?” I agree that I have not addressed this in our conversation, so let me try to do so now. I think that this is an issue over which many Christians may disagree, even if they agree to advocate for a more affirming posture toward gay and lesbian Christians in committed relationships. What is at issue here is the distinction between “God’s creative design” and what is “sanctifiable” in God’s redemptive purpose. Let’s consider a completely different issue to make the distinction. I think most people would agree that disability is not part of “God’s creative design.” God did not create human beings intending them to be blind, or unable to walk. And yet all Christians would agree that God can take our experience of blindness or our inability to walk, even if that disability is due to the Fall, and draw that disability into God’s creative purpose, so that the purposes of the Kingdom of God are fulfilled through it, without eliminating it. (Note that I am not suggesting that being gay or lesbian is a disability; I am simply noting how some elements that may be disputed as part of God’s creative purpose may still generate consensus when they are envisioned as part of God’s redemptive purpose.) Another example would be procreation in marriage. I would agree with Dr. Strauss that procreation is part of God’s creative design for marriage. And yet the church recognizes that God’s redemptive purpose can include married couples who are incapable of procreation. So it is not enough to talk about God’s creative design; we also need to talk about God’s redemptive purpose, including a redemptive purpose for gay and lesbian sexuality.
So what is at stake in this conversation, it seems to me, is the extent to which core aspects of God’s redemptive purpose for heterosexual marriage, revealed in Scripture, can be replicated in same-sex couples. I simply don’t find necessary and essential aspects of the divine purpose for marriage which cannot be fulfilled by same-sex couples. I suggested in an earlier post that the marriage vows might be a good place to start in this conversation.
In response to Dr. Strauss’ discussion of my treatment of lust, I simply want to reiterate that ancient Jews and Christians saw same-sex behavior springing from heterosexual desire that was driven by a thirst for the exotic, uncontent with more “normal” means of gratification. This assumption, which can be well documented in ancient sources, doesn’t seem to fit the experience of gay and lesbian Christians today. They do not experience desire that is marked by this particular sort of “excess.” I don’t see any evidence postulated by Dr. Strausss that dissuades me from this conviction. In the absence of such contradictory evidence, I continue to believe that Paul’s language about same-sex relationships being “lustful” and “consumed with passion” assumes a frame of reference that does not apply consistently to gay and lesbian Christians today.
Next, we turn to an old chestnut in this conversation, whether Paul had in mind or intended to include committed same-sex relationships in his language in Romans 1. Dr. Strauss appeals to the speech of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium to argue that the ancient world envisioned committed same-sex relationships, and thus Paul would have had these in mind. In response, I have several observations. First of all, the entire speech of Aristophanes is in praise of the power of eros, erotic love, which is not among the highest values of Greeks generally, and certainly not among the highest values of Jews and Christians. The binary creatures Aristophanes describes are not all human beings; they were originally a third portion of the human race, in addition to males and females as we now know them [189D]. Moreover, these are not model creatures. In fact, they are all, in Plato’s view, distorted, even though this is rendered in comic fashion here. Aristophanes says “Now they were of surprising strength and vigour, and so lofty in their notions that they even conspired against the gods, . . . scheming to assault the gods in fight they essayed to mount high heaven” [190B]. This is not admirable in Plato’s world, but all the binary creatures are described in this way.
But this is not the only negative word about these original binaries: Aristophanes also says the following about those descended from the original man-woman pairs: “All the men who are sections of that composite sex that at first was called man-woman are woman-courters; our adulterers are mostly descended from that sex, which likewise are derived our man-courting women and adulteresses” [191D-E]. In other words, all of the people who originated from the dyads described in Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium are those who lives are marked by excess, by desire that is out of control. Similarly, those descended from the original male-male pairs pursue men, but only “so long as their boyhood lasts” [191E], i.e., as long as they are children (pais in Greek). Plato does not present these as mature, adult relationships. What is central throughout this speech is that all these folks pay far too much attention to eros, to erotic desire (due, in the speech, to their unique origins). They lack proper balance. In other words, they are lustful, when it comes to overall sexual ethics. This raises an important question today: should we, like Aristophanes, lump gay and lesbian people together with adulterers, as those marked by erotic desire out of control? I don’t think so. This seems to fit more with the perspective I discussed in the prior paragraph, focusing on out-of-control and excessive desire. It’s a very different interpretive framework within which to understand same-sex desire, and not one that we find helpful today. These, quite simply, are not committed, adult same-sex couples like we see today.
Dr. Strauss concludes his discussion by saying “it is inconceivable to me that [Paul] would have approved of such [committed] relationships under any circumstances.” In response, I would at least partially agree. Paul could not have envisioned same-sex relationship that he would approve of, because he assumed that they were all marked by this sort of out-of-control lust, even if they restricted themselves to one person. But what if the framework that Paul takes for granted is not the only possible framework that people envision or live under? What if we have learned some things about same-sex desire and behavior that Paul didn’t know? How might that cause us to reassess what he says here? I’ll say more about this a bit later, when I address the topic of “natural theology.”
On a related topic, Dr. Strauss critiques my argument that impurity is behavior marked by selfishness and lack of restraint, and uses premarital sex, polygamy, or incest between consenting adults as counter-examples. We could discuss lots of issues here, but let’s explore the question with respect to the example of incest between consenting adults. I agree that incest between consenting adults is always wrong. However, “impurity” is not the only reason why it is wrong. As I noted in earlier posts, incest is wrong for a whole variety of reasons, many of which center on role conflicts in a household. But that doesn’t mean that all of those reasons are included under the category of “impurity.” Dr. Strauss’ case will have more strength if he can identify behaviors that the New Testament explicitly calls “impurity” that are not marked by lack of restraint and selfishness, or that don’t fit the definition of impurity Paul offers in Romans 14:14. Then we have a different sort of discussion, about the scope of Paul’s definition in this verse (along with the example of Jesus), and whether this discussion applies other forms of impurity, beyond what Paul explicitly addresses in this chapter. But my bottom line is that while Paul characterizes a variety of sexual misbehaviors as “impurity,” the category of “impurity” is not the only one that makes these things wrong. We still need to get at what it is about “impurity” that makes it wrong in particular. I haven’t seen any evidence yet which makes me think that this category should be defined in a way other than behavior that is marked by selfishness and lack of restraint.
With respect to the discussion of women in Romans 1:26, I repeat that the early church, for the first 300 years of its life, read this verse as not applying to same-sex eroticism between females, but to non-procreative intercourse between women and men. One can’t assume that Paul is speaking of lesbian relationships here. That’s an extended discussion in its own right.
With respect to Dr. Strauss’ treatment of my discussion of honor and shame, I would only respond that Paul would consider it shameful for a man to treat another man like a woman—it is failing to give appropriate honor to someone else. I don‘t see his critique touching on core issues here.
Finally, we turn to one of the big one—how to interpret appeals to “nature” in Romans 1. I agree that Jewish writers around the time of Paul use the concept of “nature” utilizing the Greek word physis, and that it is not unique to Paul. But I would argue that, for both Jewish interpreters like Philo or Josephus as well as for Paul, they use the word in order to communicate with a gentile audience for whom this word is familiar and already defined. It’s an apologetic move, plain and simple. They all interpret this category to be readily identifiable with divine purpose and design, finding a point of contact between wat we would call “natural revelation” and the “special revelation” found in the Torah. But here’s the important thing: when they use the word “nature,” their readers would not think of special revelation, but of general revelation. That’s the category within which we need to envision this language.
I agree that “Paul’s views on homosexual behavior coincide with his Jewish background.” But there are two further issues at stake here concerning “nature.” One of them is whether Paul’s understanding of the natural world is subject to change, based on further research and understanding. I think that natural revelation is not a fixed thing. Otherwise, the church would have been right to condemn Galileo’s heliocentric view of the solar system, which contradicted what everyone had assumed about the natural order (but he was right!) Rather, I believe that our understanding of the “natural world” is subject to growth and enhancement. That is what I think has happened on this topic. So I think Dr. Strauss and I agree about what Paul thought. We disagree about why he thought it, and on whether this is a “final word” in contemporary application.
The second area needing clarification concerning “nature” and Paul’s Jewish background is Dr. Strauss’ complaint about my language of “convergence” between individual disposition, social consensus, and the natural world as the goal of physis. He sees this Stoic ideal as something “higher” and fundamentally different from a “Jewish worldview.” I disagree. I think that the Jews of Paul’s day longed for a similar convergence between individual disposition, social consensus, and the natural world, and saw the Torah pointing in this direction. That’s why they seized on this Stoic category in their own apologetics for Torah. The Torah itself is loaded with concerns involving individual disposition, social order, and the natural world. The question is whether this “convergence” is fixed for all time, or subject to development and refinement. I think that Paul would have definitely opted for “refinement.” That’s why he embraced a gospel for Gentiles that was free of many explicit Torah requirements. The question for us today is whether we have the same freedom, in the pursuit of deeper goals of Torah.
I’m grateful for this conversation, and have learned a lot through it. I will need to think more, and perhaps say a bit more about the relationship between God’s original creative design and God’s redemptive purpose. These are clearly related to each other, but cannot be collapsed into a single thing. And I would love to have a wider conversation with Dr. Strauss about natural and special revelation, and how this distinction impacts Christian ethics more generally. I hope that Dr. Strauss and I will have opportunity to continue this conversation at some point face-to-face, since written conversation is always somewhat stilted and limited.