On Rev. Purdue’s post, Part 4: Bible translators know more about Greek than we do

June 8, 2015

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.

Today, I’ll look at the way Purdue handles the apostle Paul’s three references to homosexual practice: Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and 1 Timothy 1:8-11.

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?

deyoung_homosexuality_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.

† Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 62.

10 Responses to “On Rev. Purdue’s post, Part 4: Bible translators know more about Greek than we do”

  1. Josh Says:

    Yeah, I remember having my DS use some of this propaganda in my presence and I later found out that she didn’t even take Greek in seminary. I also found that many of the “official” UMC seminaries don’t even require Greek, or, if they do, are weak as water in what they require. In my experience, I have found “progressive” academia to be lazy and uninformed. It’s some pretty crappy stuff as far as quality goes.

    And that’s why this whole thing is getting very old and stale. There’s nothing new to talk about. The studies have been done, the assumptions scrutinized, and all the trails have been explored. It’s been over for a long time but the UMC keeps dragging it out. It’s time to poop or get off the pot.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I hear you, Josh. The reason I’m scrutinizing this pastor’s otherwise unremarkable affirmation of homosexuality is that at least two of my “affirming” clergy colleagues re-posted it as an example of why we should overturn our church’s doctrine. If they’re going to bother with argument, logic, and biblical exegesis at all (versus simply saying that the Bible is wrong), will they recognize that these are bad arguments, and they better find new ones? Of course not, but it won’t be because I haven’t done everything to make it clear!

      Honestly, when you’re so desperate to find a fig-leaf of cover for your pro-LGBT sympathies, I guess any old argument will do. But I can’t abide this sloppy kind of thinking. It drives me crazy.

      • Josh Says:

        I can’t stand it either but I have come to the point where I don’t think it does any good to argue with such people . . . especially fellow clergy. They went through the BOD questions and vows and knew exactly what our doctrine regarding human sexuality was when they signed up. They could have signed up to serve in denominations that fit their view but no, they chose to be LGBT activists in the UMC and cost the church not telling how much in time, energy, and money. There are literally multitudes who will not hear the gospel or receive needed Christian ministry because of these self-righteous, self-deluded folks. They’ll push their propaganda on you that they learned from someone else (they didn’t come to their conclusions from serious study of the Holy Scriptures) and if you give them serious refutations, they’ll either look at you blankly or get angry. But change their views? No way.

        Every now and then, you’ll run into someone in a face to face conversation that believes such things and is open to real debate. And I think those opportunities should be taken up with love, gentleness, and seriousness. But there’s also another type (who like to lurk the internet and talk all bold, because, you know, they don’t have to actually deal with people face to face) who just want to feel better about themselves by acting as the saviors of LGBT people.

        I’ve just finished preaching through a large part of 1 and 2 Timothy and Paul flat out tells Timothy to stay away from such people. I think we should intercede for them but we shouldn’t be feeding their addiction by arguing with them.

  2. hermyss Says:

    @ Josh you just scooped the words out of my mouth! Amen!

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    Well, I don’t know that it is always best to simply “sit back and let them talk” (or, “do something more productive”). We are to “be ready always to give an answer.” By pointing out the truth to these types, we make them even more guilty in the sight of God come judgment day, because they ignored even the best crafted arguments (such as Brent makes). Jesus said woe unto those who heard and saw him but did not repent, they will be worse off than even Sodom. We are to be the savor of life until life and death unto death. Sure, there are a lot of other things we can do with our time, but this argumentation is not an illegitimate use of SOME of our time. Finally, I don’t know that we need despair of not convincing anybody–a lot of people read these blogs and might become persuaded that Brent is right and these yahoos wrong, even if we don’t hear back to that effect.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, Tom. I agree. I assume Josh was talking about arguing face to face, in an angry sort of way, rather than writing these thoughtful blog posts of mine. 😉

      For me, I feel “called” to argue about it here. The stakes are too high to remain silent. And I think, in general, it will help people have greater confidence in God’s Word, which is an important reason this blog exists.

      • Josh Says:

        What I am talking about is not feeding the trolls. There are a lot of people who feed off controversy and quarreling and the Word says to have nothing to do with such people (go spend some time in 1 and 2 Timothy; I have and I have really been convicted of some things). Sometimes the best answer is silence – and then to move on and do the positive things of the Great Commission: proclaim the gospel, pray for the sick, teach others how to follow Christ, go to the dark places (trailer parks, ghettoes, the projects, wherever) and bring light. As Paul said, people are going to go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived – BUT YOU o man of God, you preach the gospel, be ready in season and out of season . . . do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 3:10-4:6).

        One of the enemy’s chief tactics is to get us focused on doing things that are a waste of time. I know; he’s got me several times with it. We’ve only got a short while here and the harvest is ripe. Folks know the truth in this current crisis – they’re just doing what they want to do.

        I’m not criticizing Brent. I agree with everything he’s wrote lately on this subject. I’ve had the same arguments. All I am saying is that we need to be careful that we don’t fall for the enemies’ tactics. Satan is real and we ALL (no matter how much seminary training or education we have) are susceptible.

        Not too long ago, I too got very upset when the bishop in New York (who is now dead) let off a person scot free for disobeying the BOD. I e-mailed one of the profs. at Asbury that I consider a friend and really respect. I wanted him to get angry with me but instead, he just simply wrote “Pray for our church.” I didn’t like that when I read but I now see the wisdom in it. There is spiritual deception everywhere, our enemy is not flesh and blood, and so we should pray for people specifically that they would be saved from such deception. We are way past arguing with folks in the UMC. We need a mighty movement of the Spirit because the UMC is falling apart and it is failing to do save souls.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I believe in the power of Satan, trust me! I don’t disagree much with what you say. I have a fellow pastor and Facebook “friend” (who is anything but a friend in real life) who posted recently, “I know I’m supposed to be all worked up about this homosexuality issue, and rant about it on social media, but the truth is, I’m too busy focusing on saving souls and doing the work of God’s kingdom.” Something very close to that. (This same pastor who otherwise spends a lot of time on social media posting about other things, by the way.)

        I disagree with the sentiment. It’s not one or the other. It’s a false choice. The LGBT issue is not a matter of theological indifference. Souls are at stake. There are pastors in the infamous “Methodist middle” who don’t have strong opinions, who haven’t thought it through. It’s worth trying to get their attention before it’s too late.

        Regardless, we can all do our part. I like blogging. At the very least, I feel better after writing about these things than keeping them bottled up.

      • Josh Says:

        Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you should stop blogging. What would I have to read? I’m just saying that we all have to choose our battles wisely and make the most of our time here. A lot of the internet battles are pointless. People will say just about anything with their typing fingers.

        And honestly, maybe the best thing to do is let people figure things out on their own. I’m like you. I try to help people figure things out when they’ve been confused by culture and the powers that be. I also see people in the Good News group and the Evangelical Methodist group focusing all the energy, effort, and time on all this LGBT arguing junk and I really wonder: If there is a split, will those on the evangelical side actually know what to do with all their new time, energy, and freedom? Would they actually come together to do real ministry in the real world? Or would they just disintegrate and disseminate into a bunch of little subgroups and eventually fade away? I don’t really have an answer for that because there is so little that unites in the UMC that has a positive focus. I sometimes wonder if people like all this arguing and fussing. I wonder if they like it because it keeps them from having a “come to Jesus moment” about the failure among us to truly impact our nation with the gospel.

  4. Josh Says:

    Oh, and you’ve got to understand where I’m coming from. I’m a pastor and I’ve got sorts of these “culture” warriors in my church who want to talk about “standing up for Jesus.” But when I try to find people to help me pick up kids from the house trailers, volunteer at VBS, become a part of a small group, or serve in some way . . . WHERE DAY AT?
    They’re out “fighting dem’ battles” . . . whatever.

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