This is the fourth part of my discussion of fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s recent post, “The Bible and Homosexuality.” See my three previous posts for more.
In my three previous posts on this subject, I’ve refuted Rev. Purdue’s “argument from silence”: Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality, therefore his silence indicates that he approves of homosexual practice in some cases. Next, I turned my attention to his misinterpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, which he used to suggest that Jesus was open to alternatives to marriage between one man and one woman for life.
Mostly, he doesn’t handle them, unfortunately. Here’s the extent of his words about these passages themselves:
The Apostle Paul speaks about homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, & 1 Timothy 1:8-10. “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 NRSV) How do we read those three passages? Some scholars assert that Paul’s word usage connotes a casual promiscuous sexuality, not committed monogamous gay and lesbian marital relationships. I leave the particular word studies to the Greek scholars. However, we must not ignore or proof-text Paul’s teachings on homosexuality. We must consider the three passages in their context and in light of the entirety of Christian teaching.
Indeed, “some scholars” do assert that Paul’s usage “connotes a casual promiscuous sexuality, not committed monogamous gay and lesbian marital relationships.” Some scholars also deny that Jesus of Nazareth existed. What about it? We can always find a fringe of scholars in any academic discipline that assert any number of deeply eccentric ideas.
It’s only been in the past 40 years, however, in the wake of the sexual revolution and cultural pressure to affirm homosexual practice, that even a small minority of scholars believe that Paul is referring to something other than homosexual practice per se. Interestingly, even many mainstream, “gay-affirming” Bible scholars and historians, who’ve written extensively on the Bible and the practice of homosexuality in the ancient world, agree that the biblical witness against homosexual practice is clear and unambiguous. Here are three that I know of: William Loader, Bernadette Brooten, and Luke Timothy Johnson (from my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology at Emory).
In a Commonweal article written by Luke Timothy Johnson several years ago, in which he advocated for changing church doctrine on sexuality, he writes:
The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy—that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.
My point is, if Purdue is sincere when he says he wants to “leave the particular word studies to the Greek scholars,” he ought to be prepared to accept their verdict: there is no ambiguity in the Bible regarding homosexual practice.
After all, Purdue isn’t very different from me (as far as I know). If he went to a UMC-approved, mainline Protestant seminary, much less an official UMC seminary like mine, and earned an M. Div., he isn’t any better prepared to argue the nuances of biblical Greek and Hebrew than I am, much less with scholars in the field. Our knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is limited, to say the least. We are, to some extent, at the mercy of scholars who know much more about ancient languages than we do.
But I’ve noticed that my gay-affirming colleagues in ministry—who, again, have a limited understanding of Greek and Hebrew themselves—often make appeals to the obscurity of these languages as a way of saying, “We can’t know for sure what Paul meant when he said these things that seem to relate to homosexual practice. We can’t know for sure the true meaning of these obscure Greek and Hebrew words.”
I disagree. First, if Greek and Hebrew are really so obscure, how do we know anything about what the Bible says—not just the things in the Bible that make us uncomfortable, but also those scriptures that we happen to like? After all, we rely on the same exegetical and hermeneutical resources to arrive at Christian convictions concerning God’s love, grace, and mercy as we do to understand that the Bible condemns homosexual practice in the strongest terms in both Testaments. Why do we think we know something in the former case but not the latter?
Keep in mind: There was absolutely no ambiguity about the meaning of Paul’s words prior to around 1980 or so. There just wasn’t! By all means, every Christian thinker could have been wrong up to that point, but how likely is that?
The truth is, while neither Purdue nor I is well-prepared to argue Greek and Hebrew, we don’t need to in the vast majority of cases. Why? Because our English translations of the Bible are a reliable guide to understanding what the ancient Greek and Hebrew are saying.
In his new book, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality, Kevin DeYoung makes this point very well in reference to Paul’s words about homosexual practice in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 (emphasis mine).
The English translations are almost always right, especially when they basically say the same thing. Think about it: each of the nine translations listed above [ESV, HCSB, KJV, NAB, NASB, NIV (2011), NKJV, NLT, and NRSV] was put together by a team of scholars with expertise in biblical scholarship and the original languages. That doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes or that we can’t learn new things they missed. But it does mean that after reading a few commentaries and perusing a couple of articles online you will certainly not know the ancient world or Koine Greek better than they did. If the translators thought a specific word really meant X (as seminary students and bloggers are apt to say), they wouldn’t have translated it as Y. Our English translations, imperfect though they may be, are faithful and reliable translations of the original languages. They do not need decoding.†
I’ll continue to examine Rev. Purdue’s argument about Paul in my next post on the subject.