In the fourth installment of my review of Karen Keen’s book on scripture and same-sex relationships, I will take up chapter three, “Key Arguments in Today’s Debate on Same-sex Relationships.”
The Clash of the Titans
Keen constructs this chapter as a debate between traditionalists and progressives about the biblical view of same-sex relationships. It focuses specifically on the question of the significance of “gender and anatomical complementarity” for the issue. In previous chapters Keen concluded that traditionalists and progressives agree that the Bible condemns same-sex relationships for a variety of reasons–idolatry, coercion, and exploitation. But they disagree on the crucial issue of whether or not the Bible forbids same-sex relationships because of their lack of “gender and anatomical complementarity” and requires such complementarity for legitimate marriage. The debate turns on the interpretation of six texts: Genesis 1-3; Matthew 19:1-6; Mark 10:1-9; Romans 1; Ephesians 5:22-32; and Revelation 19:7-9.
Keen sets out the traditionalist argument against same-sex relationships in four theses and the progressive case in five theses:
The Bible teaches that “gender and anatomical complementarity” is an essential feature of legitimate marriage because…
- “Heterosexual marriage is a creation ordinance, and therefore not culturally relative” (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Matt 19:4-6).
- “Marriage is ordered toward procreation, but procreation is not required to validate marriage” (Gen. 1:28).
- “Same-sex desire is the result of the fall” (Romans 1; Genesis 3).
- “Heterosexual marriage is a living icon or a symbol of the union of Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:25; 29-32; Revelation. 19:7-9)
Traditionalist arguments appeal in a straightforward way to the texts they quote: The Bible obviously prohibits same-sex intercourse and commends marriage as a God-sanctioned covenant, which it never contemplates as anything other than a union of male and female.
The Bible teaches that “gender and anatomical complementarity” is an essential feature of legitimate marriage.
Progressive Counter Arguments
The Bible does not teach that “gender and anatomical complementarity” is an essential feature of legitimate marriage because…
- “Covenant fidelity, not sexual differentiation, is the foundation of biblical marriage.”
- “Procreation is minimized in the New Testament.”
- “Paul’s use of “unnatural” (para physin) in Romans 1 must be understood in his historical context.”
- “Romans 1 does not describe most gay and lesbian people.”
- “Same-sex relationships can symbolize the union between Christ and the church.”
The cumulative force of the progressive theses is mostly negative. They propose exceptions and alternative explanations to the traditional interpretations, thereby creating doubt about traditionalists’ exclusive claims. Newly formed doubt and alternative explanations wedge open the possibility that “gender and anatomical complementarity” may not be an essential feature of legitimate marriage. At this point affirming same-sex relationships as biblically legitimate is a mere possibility. It needs further support to increase its credibility. Keen offers that support in succeeding chapters.
1. This chapter operates on two levels. Our attention is drawn first to the debate between traditionalists and progressives. Although Keen denies that she fits in either camp, she nevertheless uses a progressive voice—rather than her own—to represent the viewpoint she accepts. Why? Throughout the chapter Keen’s invisible hand is at work using this debate for her own purposes. But it is not until the next chapter that she tells us that the debate between traditionalists and progressives ends in a “stalemate.” This conclusion opens space for Keen to make her own contribution, which she does in the rest of the book.
2. There may be, however, another reason Keen uses the progressive voice to critique the traditionalist argument. Or, if not a “reason,” an effect. Most Christian defenses of same-sex relationships have been articulated by progressives. Their rejection of biblical authority, embrace of historical relativism, and adherence to theological liberalism gives them greater freedom to question even the plain meaning of the Bible and look for alternative interpretations. Keen does not wish to be associated with this aspect of progressivism. However, she uses the imaginative work of progressives to put these alternative interpretations into our minds. It is an open question, however, whether you can justify the conclusions progressives reach without accepting the whole progressive package. Keen will argue that you can do so.
3. Keen devotes nearly three times as much space to progressive arguments as to traditionalist arguments. Perhaps this lack of balance makes sense because the traditionalist case is rather simple whereas the progressive case is more complicated. The traditionalist needs only point to biblical texts, which clearly condemn same-sex intercourse and commend marriage between male and female. What more needs to be said? Progressives, however, must argue against the grain of the plain meaning of the text. Each of the five progressive theses listed above attempts to defeat the traditional reading of the biblical proof texts for the traditional theses. The effect of the five progressive arguments is to create doubt and stimulate us to imagine alternative interpretations. But I don’t think I am being uncharitable to surmise that Keen gives much more space to progressive arguments because she agrees with them and wants to persuade us of their strength while maintaining her distance from progressivism’s offensive features—offensive, that is, to conservative, Bible-believing Christians.
I will make my critical comments brief. I don’t want to go into detail in a critique of the chapter’s progressive arguments because Keen has not yet tied herself to them or explained just where she agrees or disagrees with them. I do not want to risk attributing to her something she has not affirmed. In any case, my critique of progressivism would begin at a more fundamental level than the interpretation of the six texts discussed in this chapter.
1. Keen uses the term “heterosexual marriage” to designate the traditionalist understanding of biblical marriage. Usually Keen resists using anachronistic terms that attribute a modern idea to an ancient author. She violates that rule here. Traditionalists would not (or should not) accept this term as descriptive of what they believe. In the Bible marriage means just one thing. It needs no qualifier. To add the adjective “heterosexual” begs the essential question, and thoughtful traditionalists will not overlook this fallacy.
2. Keen has not yet clearly differentiated herself from what she calls “progressive” Christian theology. Hence the reader is kept in the dark about her theological stance and is forced to guess what she is up to. Her thesis is that you do not need to reject biblical authority or your evangelical faith to accept same-sex relationships as biblically legitimate. But her use of insights generated on progressive premises and developed using progressive methods evoke some suspicion about her sincerity in claiming to support an evangelical view of biblical authority.
Next: Keen introduces and applies her own interpretative method to help us to “make sense of Old Testament law.”