Does the Bible Really Say That? — Scripture and Same-Sex Relationships—A Review (Part Three)

Today we continue with part three of my review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships, focusing on chapter two:

“Same-Sex Relations in Ancient Jewish and Christian Thought.”

Where We Stand

Each chapter in Keen’s book contributes something important to her argument, and chapter two is no exception. To grasp precisely what this chapter adds let’s keep in mind her conclusion, which I stated in part one of this review:

Because loving, committed same-sex relationships embody justice, goodness, and human flourishing, do not cause harm to the people in the relationship or the human community, and unwanted celibacy causes great harm and unhappiness to gay and lesbian people, faithful deliberation and application must conclude that the Bible allows and even blesses covenanted same-sex relationships.

Reading between the Lines and in the Margins

As is obvious from its title, chapter two surveys ancient Jewish and Christian views on same-sex relationships. Keen documents the universally negative view of same-sex relationships in the Old and New Testaments and in such Jewish writers as Philo and Josephus. Although she delays detailed examination of the biblical texts that refer to same-sex intercourse, she briefly mentions two Old Testament texts (Lev 18:22 and 20:13) and three New Testament texts (1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:9-10; and Rom 1:18-32). She admits that these texts condemn same-sex relationships. Progressives, traditionalists, and Keen agree on this point. But this consensus does not settle the hermeneutical issue, that is, how to interpret and apply these texts. For even traditionalists admit that there are many biblical commands—for example, about modest dress, gender specific clothing, not eating blood—that we are free to set aside because they address circumstances that no longer exist or the reasons they were originally given are culture-bound and not universal.

According to Keen, to decide whether or not the biblical prohibitions against same-sex relationships are universally binding we must ask what kind of same-sex relationships the biblical authors had in mind and why they condemned them. In her survey of biblical texts she discusses five discernable reasons why the Bible may condemn same-sex relationships:

1. “Violation of gender norms”

2. “Lack of procreative potential”

3. “Participation in pagan practice”

4. “Participation in common or religious prostitution”

5. “Unrestrained or excessive lust”

Concerning the question of what kind of same-sex relationships the biblical authors had in mind when issuing their condemnations, Keen relies on the “progressive” argument that the biblical authors denounce practices that involved “exploitation and misogynistic gender norms” rather than loving, covenanted same-sex relationships. Hence we should not without due hermeneutical reflection apply these texts to practices not in view when originally written. I find it interesting that Keen does not say whether or not she agrees with this “progressive” argument, even though it becomes apparent in succeeding chapters that it plays a vital role in her argument. She is very careful here and elsewhere to protect her evangelical credentials from being tainted by association with progressivism, Christian or secular. Maintaining rapport with her target audience depends on it.

Analysis of Keen’s Argument

As we discovered in our close reading and in-depth analysis of chapter one, this chapter is also more than mere description. It makes an argument and sets an agenda for the book’s further argument. In her description of ancient views of same-sex relationships she grants the fact of the Bible’s condemnation of same-sex intercourse, and ironically this admission is the beginning gambit of her argument for their legitimacy:

1. By granting the Bible’s prohibition of same-sex intercourse without conceding her overall case, she neutralizes one of the traditionalist’s best arguments, that is, the seemingly obvious assumption that the Bible’s repeated condemnation of same-sex intercourse applies to any form of such intercourse. Why people engage in same-sex intercourse is completely irrelevant. For the traditionalist, the absence of concern about the motivations for same-sex relationships within the Bible speaks volumes about how it views them. Anyone arguing otherwise bears a huge burden of proof.

2. In a second astute move, Keen asserts without argument—you hardly notice what she is doing—that the reasons (or intentions or motives) for a biblical author’s condemnation of same-sex intercourse determine the legitimacy and scope of the prohibition. Hence if we become convinced that the reasons for the condemnation were misinformed, based on shifting cultural norms, prejudiced, or arising from ignorance, we may reject or correct them.

3. As a corollary to #2, Keen implies that it is possible to form an exhaustive list of all the reasons (or intentions and motives) for a biblical prohibition. If none of these reasons can be convincingly shown to be applicable to all same-sex relationships, then the universal scope of such commands is placed in grave doubt. Notice how in this move Keen shifts the burden of proof from those who affirm some types of same-sex relationships as permissible to those who deny all of them. Something that had been obvious—that the Bible condemns same-sex intercourse—now becomes problematic. Unless the traditionalist can prove the universality of the (often unspoken) reasons behind the command, the traditionalist stands defeated and the possibility of biblically approved same-sex relationships becomes plausible.

4. By establishing the necessity of discovering the underlying reasons for the Bible’s prohibitions against same-sex relationships in order to determine their present-day scope and specific application, Keen has opened the possibility of excluding loving, covenantal same-sex relationships from these biblical prohibitions. If the underlying reasons for the biblical condemnations have to do with the presence of coercion and abuse rather than with the biological sex of the participants, a case can be made that these texts do not condemn loving same-sex relationships.

Brief Critical Remarks

Regarding #1: Keen’s gambit may not be as effective as it seemed at first. Her admission that the Bible condemns same-sex relationships may seem like a bold lateral move to throw the traditionalist off balance. But traditionalists could call Keen’s bluff and press their argument by insisting that they will not allow a hermeneutical strategy based on speculation and silence to undermine the plain meaning of the text. That would be a very unevangelical thing to do!

Regarding #2 and #3: Does a divine command’s legitimacy depend on our ability to discover a rationale for it that makes sense to us? Keen keeps reminding us that she is an evangelical, believes as do all evangelicals in biblical inspiration, and that she seeks God’s will in these texts. Also, she wishes to present arguments that evangelicals can accept without giving up their evangelical faith. As an evangelical, should not Keen acknowledge the possibility or even likelihood that God possesses reasons for his commands that are hidden from us? Why should God need a reason for his commands—one that makes sense to us anyway?

Regarding #4: Keen adopts an interpretative strategy that allows her to dismiss a specific biblical command—no same-sex intercourse—because it does not embody the ethical principle that the interpreter thinks it should have embodied. If followed consistently, this strategy would sweep away all biblical wisdom and instruction embodied in the law and even in the teaching and life of Jesus and his apostles in favor of our own sense of what it means to be a loving, just, and faithful person. (Isn’t this the essence of progressive strategy?) After all, where do we learn what a Christian understanding of love, justice, and faithfulness is but in the specific commands and examples in the Bible?

Next Time: I will examine chapter 3, “Key Arguments in Today’s Debate on Same-sex Relationships”

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