Monthly Archives: October 2021

“The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People”—A Review Essay (Part Nine)

In this essay I will continue my review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships by examining chapter six: “The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People.” The first sentence of the chapter states well the question that drives the chapter. “Does the difficulty of life-long celibacy provide biblical grounds for considering same-sex relationships morally acceptable?” Keen answers yes. How does she arrive at this conclusion? Does she make a compelling case?

Exceptions for Extreme Circumstances

The first step in Keen’s argument is to establish that the Bible and evangelical churches make exceptions to moral rules under certain circumstances. In normal circumstances divorce is forbidden, but Paul allows divorce in the case of abandonment (1 Cor 7:15). In this circumstance the option of saving the marriage does not exist. Thoughtful evangelicals, who view abortion as a terrible evil, recognize that in the situation where saving the life of the mother will come at the cost of her unborn child and saving the child will cost the mother’s life, abortion is permissible. You cannot save both, and there is no good option.

Keen now applies the principle derived from the extreme cases discussed above to less extreme cases. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, Paul instructs married couples not to use their devotion to God as an excuse to deprive one another of sexual fulfillment. Paul advises unmarried people to remain unmarried, but, if they are unable without great distress to remain celibate in this condition, they are free to marry. According to Keen, Paul thereby makes a compassionate concession to human weakness and need by approving marriage as an alternative to celibacy or promiscuity.

Celibacy as “Suffering.”

To prepare the reader for her application of Paul’s situational thinking to same-sex relationships, Keen’s first task is to establish a strong analogy between the two types of relationships, heterosexual and homosexual. According to Keen, long pastoral experience and recent psychological studies have demonstrated that being gay and lesbian is not a choice and can very rarely be changed. Moreover, single gays and lesbians who attempt to remain celibate, like single heterosexual people who make this attempt, usually fail. Hence traditional alternatives to forming covenanted same-sex relationships within which sexual fulfillment can be achieved are unrealistic: for most gays and lesbians, marriage to a person of the opposite sex is not a workable option, and changing one’s orientation is nearly impossible. In Keen’s estimation celibacy is “unfeasible,” produces great “suffering,” is “impossible” for most people, and produces “physical and emotional death.” She roots the suffering and unfeasibility of celibacy in divine creation:

“But the reality is that human beings are biologically made for sexual relationships, not life-long celibacy.”

“God created us with a strong familial drive to couple with another person and build a home.”

Compassionate Accommodation

Keen now closes the loop. Paul understands that most single people cannot without great unhappiness devote themselves to a life of celibacy. As a matter of caution in view of temptation to fornication and compassion in view of the suffering involved in celibacy, he permits them to marry even though he thinks that in the present circumstances it would be better to remain single (1 Cor 7:29-31). Keen argues that Paul’s logic can be applied to gay and lesbian people. Given the divinely created drive to “couple with another person” for companionship and sexual fulfillment, the pain of celibacy, and the lack of alternatives, the Pauline concession to marry can be applied to gay and lesbian people as a “humanitarian” exception to the rule. Keen is not arguing that if Paul were confronted with the predicament of contemporary gay and lesbian people and armed with the new knowledge we possess about sexual orientation, he would come to her conclusion. No one can know what Paul would do. She argues, rather, that if we exercise the same concern for human weakness and compassion for suffering as Paul exercised in First Corinthians 7, we will come to the conclusion she does. We will provide a way out of the “ethical dilemma of the gay person unable to achieve celibacy.”

Traditionalists’ Lack of Compassion

For the most part, Keen admirably refrains from impugning the character of her traditionalist opponents. However near the end of this chapter, she slips into a plaintive mood. The contemporary church’s lack of sympathy for the plight of its gay and lesbian members, she speculates,

stems from traditionalists’ bias towards concerns more familiar to the majority of church members…their neglect of gay and lesbian people and their plight reflects traditionalists’ grievous disregard of minority church members’ needs—not unlike the early church’s favoritism of Hebrew widows over Hellenistic widows during food distribution (Acts 6:1-4).

In making this accusation, Keen draws a not so subtle analogy between traditionalists’ rejection of same-sex relationships and such irrational and ugly prejudices as racism and sexism. Why does she insert these barbs? Is she “preaching to the choir” of people who already agree with her conclusions? Or, is she appealing to those evangelicals who have already been influenced by progressive culture’s successful categorization of gay and lesbian people as an oppressed minority? (The “nagging question” I mentioned in my previous post.) In any case, it seems out of character with the thrust of the book.

Keen’s Conclusion

Keen concludes the chapter with an answer to the question with which she opened it:

By extrapolating from Paul’s instruction that people with strong passions should marry, a case can be made for the moral acceptability of same-sex covenanted relationships.

Analytical Thoughts

Keen’s Argument Concisely Stated

1. If Paul makes exceptions to moral rules in view of human weakness and to prevent the suffering and harm that would be caused by imposing them, we may also make such exceptions under the same or analogous circumstances.

2. Paul makes such exceptions.

3. Hence we may also make such exceptions in the same or analogous circumstances.

4. Contemporary Christian gay and lesbian people find themselves in a predicament the same or analogous to the predicament of those people for whom Paul made exceptions to otherwise binding moral rules.

5. Hence we may also make an exception to the moral rule against same-sex relationships for Christian gay and lesbian people for whom other alternatives are not possible or would cause grievous suffering and harm.

Critical Questions

Regarding #1: The first clause of premise one is conditional. The truth of the second clause depends on the truth of the first.

Regarding #2: Number 2 appears to be false. Does Paul really make exceptions to moral rules based on circumstances? In the case of divorce (1 Cor 7), he seems simply to acknowledge that abandonment by the unbelieving partner constitutes a de facto divorce unrelated to a decision made by the believer. With regard to Paul’s advice for single people to marry if they cannot remain celibate, Paul never asserts that celibacy is a moral requirement for anyone. Hence permission to marry is not an exception to a moral rule. If Paul does not in either of these cases make an exception to a moral rule, he sets no precedent and gives no guidance about how to make exceptions to moral rules. At best, he gives us guidance about living wisely within a general moral framework.

Regarding #3: Because #2 (the minor premise) is false, #3 (the conclusion) does not follow and may also be false. Its truth, if it is true, would have to be established on other grounds.

Regarding #4: Because the conditional clause in #1 is false, the minor premise #2 is also false, and #3 does not follow, #4 is to some extent moot. It goes nowhere. However it still deserves comment. If I am correct that Paul did not make exceptions to binding moral rules in 1 Corinthians 7, then #4 contains a false assertion. The two situations are only superficially analogous. Finding yourself abandoned by your spouse is to be a victim not a perpetrator of an immoral act, and for unmarried people to enter into traditional marriage was never against divine law. Keen’s argument serves no purpose unless it presupposes that same-sex intercourse was forbidden. And Paul does not give people permission to engage in forbidden acts.

Regarding #5: As a conclusion to the entire line of reasoning, we cannot say that #5 is false, only that it does not follow. Making a weak or fallacious argument for a thesis does not prove the thesis false. If you believe on other grounds that Keen’s thesis is false, a weak or fallacious argument may confirm your doubt. However, if you believe on other grounds that Keen’s thesis is true, you may overlook her argument’s weaknesses, or you may draw on those “other grounds” to support your belief, or you may attempt to formulate stronger arguments.

Next Time: “Is it Adam’s Fault? Why the Origin of Same-Sex Attraction Matters” (Chapter 7).

The Art of Persuasion and the Debate about Same-Sex Relationships—A Review Essay (Part Eight)

Today I will continue my review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships.* However before moving on to chapter 6, “The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People,” I want to discuss a methodological issue that will become increasingly important as we reach the final phases of Keen’s argument.

Who Bears the Burden of Proof?

The Bible-Believing Audience

Who bears the burden of proof, Keen or the traditionalist? In a court of law in a criminal case, the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The prosecutor bears the “burden of proof.” There is no logical law, however, that says the one who affirms a proposition (for example, “the defendant committed the crime,” or “God exists.”) bears a greater burden of proof than one who denies that proposition. For to deny the proposition “God exists” is logically equivalent to affirming the proposition, “God does not exist.” In the same way, there is no logical law that says defendants are more likely to be innocent than to be guilty. The reason prosecutors bear the burden of proof is that in our culture we believe that it is morally preferable to let a guilty person go free than to punish an innocent one. Hence by demanding that the prosecution bear the burden of proof we increase the level of our certainty that justice will be served. Who bears the burden of proof in the discussion in which we are now engaged, the one who affirms the proposition, “Same-sex relationships are morally acceptable” or the one who denies this proposition? Logically speaking, there is no distinction in the level of evidence required to affirm or to deny this proposition. Who bears the burden of proof? is not a logical question at all but a rhetorical one, dependent on the makeup of the audience the speaker wishes to persuade.

Keen’s target audience of bible-believing evangelicals approaches her book with the presumption that the Bible teaches that same-sex intercourse is immoral and that the ecumenical church has held this view for 2,000 years without dissent. Keen acknowledges this rhetorical situation and argues as if she bears the burden of proof, for on the face of it the Bible and tradition stand overwhelmingly against her contention. She has an uphill climb, and it seems that she is clear about that.

Because Keen has willingly accepted the burden of proof and argues accordingly, I do not as a critic need to accept the responsibility of defending the opposing proposition (that is, “same-sex relationships are not morally acceptable”) to fulfill my duty of dealing with Keen’s argument responsibly. All I need to do is rebut her case. If you are an evangelical who holds the traditional view of same-sex relationships and Keen cannot move you to reject or doubt that position, you have no logical, rhetorical, or moral duty to explain why you remain unmoved.

The Progressive Audience

When the audience is comprised of progressives or simply of a cross-section of popular American culture, the rhetorical situation is completely reversed. Within the last decade, beginning in about 2010, a consensus formed in American and other Western cultures that places gay and lesbian relationships on an equal footing with traditional married couples. In 2021, anyone who argues in a public forum for the traditional view of same-sex relationships bears an insurmountable burden of proof. The biblical teaching on same-sex relationships carries no weight at all. Arguments from natural law or physical complementarity or reproductive capacity are met with incredulity, if not derision. Progressive culture has decided that the self-attested experience of gay and lesbian people—also of transgender people—is the highest authority possible for deciding the issue. Anyone who contests this self-authenticating experience or who refuses to draw the correct conclusions from this testimony can do so only from irrational prejudice, hatred, or fear. Within our culture, expressing traditional views on same-sex relationships corresponds to speaking blasphemy in theocratic cultures and engenders the same sort of response. Under these conditions and with this audience, argument is impossible, dissent is forbidden, and silence provokes suspicion.

A Nagging Question

Before I take up the last three chapters of the book, I need to ask a question to which I will return in my examination of those chapters. Keen presents her arguments as founded on–or at least consistent with–the same view of biblical authority as that held by her evangelical audience, and she seems to accept the burden of proof in relating to that audience. But I wonder how much the plausibility of her argument depends on evangelicals having absorbed to one degree or another the progressive assumption that the self-authenticating experience of gay and lesbian people is the final court of appeal when it comes to the moral acceptability of same-sex relationships. Would Keen’s interpretive strategy and novel treatment of biblical texts possess any plausibility with evangelicals were it not for the influence of progressive culture on them, that is, were they not already disposed to find her arguments plausible?

The social pressure on evangelicals to conform to progressive orthodoxy is powerful, pervasive, and relentless. They face it in their schools and colleges, in the media, in the workplace, and in law. There is no escape, no respite. It takes extraordinary clarity and strength to accept social marginalization as the price of remaining faithful to the Christian vision of life. And Keen offers a simple way out of this difficulty: you can keep your evangelical piety, your Trinitarian orthodoxy, and your doctrine of Scripture while joining progressive/popular culture in celebrating same-sex relationships. I have no doubt that this solution will appeal to many evangelicals, especially to younger generations.

Does Keen consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or instinctively, overtly or subtly appeal to those sensibilities and that desire for a way out? The cultural wind is clearly at Keen’s back. To what extent does she take advantage of it to move her audience toward her position? These questions have been eating at me from the beginning.

*I want to remind the reader again that my choice to review Karen Keen’s book is a matter of convenience. I looked for the right book to serve as a springboard for me to discuss these issues in detail. After examining many others, I decided that Keen’s book would served this purpose very well. My goal is not to chop Keen into little bits. I hope she takes my choice as a complement. There are not many books to which I would devote such thought as I have put into this one.

In the Dark all Cats are Black—A Review Essay (Part Seven)

In the previous six essays I traced Karen Keen’s construction of the principle of biblical interpretation she uses in her argument for the biblical acceptability of loving, covenantal same-sex relationships. Today I will present my critique of Keen’s hermeneutical principle.

Keen’s Method of Interpretation Restated

According to Keen’s principle of interpretation…

(1) Promoting the universal principles of justice, kindness, and love, and minimizing human suffering is the divine purpose of the Bible’s moral instructions. The well-being of individuals and the community is the point. Our highest loyalty must be given to the divine purpose of promoting justice and love.

(2) When the Bible commands or prohibits specific moral behaviors, these instructions must be viewed as conditional applications of justice and love to specific circumstances. When circumstances change, therefore, the specific applications of those unchanging principles must also change. What the biblical authors thought was just, good, loving, kind, and compassionate in their circumstances we may judge not to be just, good, loving, kind, and compassionate in our circumstances.

(3) Hence we are free and even obligated to exercise our reason to determine whether a biblical command applies to our setting in the same way it applied to its original situation. If applying a rule as written to our setting would cause suffering, injustice, indignity, or any other form of harm, we must reformulate it in a way that avoids these negative consequences.

Six Critical Observations

1. Keen’s interpretive method exemplifies a fallacy studied in every basic logic course: that which proves too much proves nothing. Keen knows that the specific biblical teaching against same-sex intercourse is subject to revision because every biblical teaching on specific behaviors is subject to revision. Only because the general principle covers every case can she presume without argument that it also applies to same-sex relationships. To be true to the divine intent, contends Keen, we must deliberate about how a specific command measures up to the divine purpose of the Bible’s moral teaching. I see two major problems with this conclusion. First, if we can find even one specific command that can also serve as a universal moral principle, she would need to revise her method. She could no longer assume but would need to argue that the general principle, though not applying in every case, applies in the case of same-sex relationships. Second, if Keen’s principle of interpretation applies to every specific biblical moral rule, every one of those rules becomes subject to review and revision in view of our understanding of what is good and just. Adopting Keen’s hermeneutical method, then, would open a Pandora’s Box of other behaviors that could in a stretch be justified by these principles. It would create a night in which all cats are black.

2. Keen’s method conflicts with another truth: a half-truth is still an untruth. Keen is correct that the Bible recognizes the difference between general moral principles and specific cases of their application. She is also correct that the Bible teaches that God gave his commands for our good. Those are easy cases to make. But Keen’s argument makes a much stronger claim. For the argument to work, (a) she must demonstrate that only general principles, never specific commands, are universally binding. She does not demonstrate this; instead she lets us jump to this conclusion. Moreover, (b) Keen’s argument depends not only on the biblical teaching that God’s commands are for our good but on our ability to know in what ways they are good for us and how God’s general moral principles may be applied today in ways that produce outcomes that are good for us. She leaves out of consideration the possibility that God’s specific commands are good for us in ways that we cannot presently grasp.

3. Does the Bible really support Keen’s view of interpretation? Every reader of the Bible knows that there is great emphasis in the Bible on trust and obedience to divine commands even when we do not perceive their wisdom. Even when obedience produces suffering and death! The Bible praises unquestioning obedience as a virtuous quality and it never approves of questioning the wisdom and goodness of the law (Psalm 119). Were Adam and Eve correct to question God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? The fruit looked good to them, and what’s wrong with knowledge (Gen 2:17)? The angel of the Lord communicated God’s approval of Abraham’s faith and obedience to the divine command to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen 22:1-19). Or, listen to words from Deuteronomy 4:

“Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live…Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations….So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deut. 4:1-32).

On what grounds may we assume that we have the wisdom and perspective to judge every biblical rule by our understanding of what is good and loving? Keen fails to make the case that her proposed method of interpretation expresses the Bible’s view of specific commands.

4. General principles alone cannot guide us in specific situations. How do the principles of justice, peace, mercy, and love, apart from specific commands and a tradition of examples, doctrine, and narratives, give us concrete guidance in particular situations? What is just? How do I love my neighbor? What are compassion and mercy? Every observer of modern culture knows that many of our contemporaries, having cut themselves loose from the biblical tradition, use these words as empty vessels into which to pour their own wishes, desires, and preferences. Consider how the word “love” is used today. Do you love someone when you affirm their desires and feelings, when you care only for their subjective sense of well-being? Or, does loving someone mean to will and seek the best for them? From where, then, do we learn what is good, better, and best for human beings…in the short term, medium term, and eternally? Taking up the Christian life involves learning the true nature of love, justice, mercy, compassion, and all other virtues from the Bible’s commands, narratives, doctrines, and examples. We cannot do this if we claim the right to sit in judgment over every specific command in view of empty general principles.

5. I am not convinced that Keen has sufficiently differentiated her interpretative principle from the liberal progressive principle of interpretation, something she has obligated herself to do by claiming to be an evangelical writing for evangelicals. Simply to say, as Keen does, that evangelicals hold these universal principles binding because God commanded them does not differentiate Keen’s approach from progressive/liberal theology. Liberal theologians make the same affirmation. Liberals might be more radical than Keen in their application of this hermeneutical principle but their principles are identical. In their radicalism, liberals can claim with some justification that they are being more consistent than Keen is with her starting point.

6. Keen fails to consider how much “love” needs to be enlightened by knowledge. Consider again the following assertion, which I quoted in a previous post:

“When the virtue of selfless love fills a person’s heart, all actions that flow from that are pure and are pleasing to God.”

After thinking about this statement, I happened to read Philippians 1:9-11, which says,

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Notice that love must be informed about what is best. Thus informed, it can produce lives that are “pure and blameless.” Good motives are not enough. For it is possible to do bad things for the best of motives, and it is possible to do good things for the worst of motives. Paul urges us, instead, to do the best things for the best of motives. Desire to do good things must be enlightened by knowledge of what is truly good.


In these criticisms, I have not attempted to demonstrate that Keen’s interpretative principle is altogether false. I readily admit that it contains elements of truth, which accounts for its power to persuade some people. Nor do I offer an alternative hermeneutic strategy to explain the Bible’s moral teaching. As a minimum result, the six criticisms above show that Keen has not demonstrated that her method of interpretation will bear the weight she places on it. Specifically, she has not shown that the distinction between universal and contextual, or virtue and deed, or general purpose and contextual application, or principle and embodiment applies to every specific biblical command in a way that justifies revising and restating it in view of its supposed underlying divine purpose. Therefore, she has not yet demonstrated that her hermeneutic method applies to the biblical prohibition of same-sex intercourse. She will have to make this case independently. Does she succeed? I will address this question in my review of the final three chapters of the book.

Next Time: A review of chapter 6, “The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People.”

Did Jesus Really Interpret the Bible Like This? A Review Essay (Part Six)

This post continues my review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. Today we focus on chapter 5, “What is Ethical? Interpreting the Bible Like Jesus.” In this chapter, Keen puts the finishing touches on her theory of biblical interpretation. She devotes the rest of the book to its application.

How Does the Bible Teach Morality?

Virtue Matters

In addressing the question of how the Bible teaches morality Keen mentions commands, examples, symbolic worlds, and virtues. Virtue seems to be Keen’s all-encompassing category. “Virtues,” she explains, “are about who a person is, whereas rules address what a person does.” Biblical virtues are culturally transcendent whereas laws and rules are culturally relative. Loving God and your neighbor are always right. In commenting on Jesus’s statement, “But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41), Keen draws the following principle:

Jesus indicates that if we act out of virtue, the outcome is always the will of God…When the virtue of selfless love fills a person’s heart, all actions that flow from that are pure and are pleasing to God.

Applying the above principle to same-sex relationships, Keen argues,

If sin is defined as something that violates the fruit of the Spirit, how are loving, monogamous same-sex relationships sinful? These partnerships are fully capable of exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. If Jesus says that all the law can be summed up in love, then don’t these relationships meet this requirement?

Interpretation within the Bible

Keen finds the argument from virtue “compelling” but realizes that some in her target audience may need more convincing. To provide that extra push she attempts to demonstrate that the biblical authors themselves employ the very interpretive strategy she has been advocating. She examines three instances of such internal rereading of the Bible: Deuteronomy 15:12-18 covers the same situation as does Exodus 21:2-11 but softens the law, making it more humane. The gospel of Matthew (19:9) makes an exception to Jesus’s strict teaching on divorce as recorded in Mark 10:11-12, and Paul adds another ground for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15. In reply to the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus and his disciples were breaking the Sabbath law by stripping grain from the heads of wheat and eating it, Jesus cites David’s breaking the law by eating the holy bread of the sanctuary because of his hunger (Mark 2: 23-28; Matt 12:3-4). Jesus concludes, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Keen infers from Jesus’s teaching on the Sabbath that “God’s ordinances are always on behalf of people and not for the arbitrary appeasement of God’s sensibilities.” If the author of Deuteronomy, Jesus, and Paul were correct to read the Bible this way, surely we are permitted to do so. Hence we are not only free but are obligated to apply biblical laws “with attention to human need and suffering.”

Helpful Distinction or Universal Principle?

In this chapter, Keen continues to build her case begun in the previous chapter for the clear distinction between the Bible’s specific instructions, which are culturally relative, and the universal moral principles that those instructions attempt to embody. This time she appeals to the category of virtue. Virtues are habitual attitudes that guide moral behavior in specific circumstances. Biblical virtues are universal principles that apply everywhere and always. In contrast, the moral quality of behaviors depends on how well they embody the universal virtues in specific contexts. Keen offers Jesus’s teaching about the purpose of the Sabbath and Matthew’s and Paul’s adaptation of Jesus’s teaching on divorce as biblical examples of the distinction between universal principles and their contextual application.

Undoubtedly, Jesus and Paul did distinguish between principle and application and between virtue and act. No one I know denies this distinction. But Keen’s case depends on transforming the admitted distinction into a dichotomy and incorporating it into an interpretative framework that allows no exceptions. For admitting the possibility of exceptions would weaken Keen’s case for the biblical legitimacy of same-sex relationships because it would plunge her into endless debates about which specific biblical instructions are transcultural and which are not. She would need to develop interpretative criteria for deciding this question also. The process of interpretation would never end.

But applying her no-exceptions interpretative method consistently would create even worse difficulties for her case. We could accept no biblical command at face value. The Christian ethicist would be required to explain how each and every biblical rule can be justified on the basis of general principles. Objections, alternative interpretations, disputes, and accusations of rationalization or callousness are sure to multiply.

Next: I will devote the next essay to criticism of the interpretative method Keen developed in chapters 4 and 5.

What Does it Mean to “Interpret” the Bible?—A Review Essay (Part Five)

Today’s post continues my analytical and critical review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. I will summarize and examine chapter 4, which along with chapter 5, gets at the heart of Keen’s interpretative strategy. Since these two chapters combine to form one argument, I will delay my critique of chapter 4 until I have summarized and analyzed chapter 5.

The Target Audience (Again)

As you think about Keen’s argument and my critiques, keep in mind her target audience and the constraints this focus places on her reasoning and my responses. She speaks to evangelicals, to people who wish to remain loyal to the principle of biblical authority. They will not accept the progressive view of the Bible’s moral teaching, which dismisses it as primitive, uninformed, and of mere human origin. Though Keen rehearses progressives’ arguments and obviously accepts some of their conclusions, she labors to distance herself from their liberal theological presuppositions. Hence to achieve her purpose of steering clear of both extremes—progressive and traditional—Keen must develop a hermeneutical strategy (interpretation) that both affirms biblical authority and demonstrates that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable. She devotes chapters 4 and 5 to this task, and I am devoting the next two essays to summarizing, clarifying, and critiquing the method she develops in these chapters.

A Theory of Interpretation

The title of chapter 4 gives us a feel for what is to come: “Fifty Shekels for Rape: Making Sense of Old Testament Laws.” In this chapter Keen compares two Old Testament case laws found in Exodus 21:22-25 and 28-30 to similar cases found in law codes of other ancient near eastern peoples. In Keen’s view the similarity of Old Testament laws to those of non-Israelite nations demonstrates that they share a common cultural milieu. Progressives take this commonality to prove that such laws are wholly irrelevant to our time, and traditionalists ignore the challenge this discovery poses to their proof text method of biblical interpretation. Keen proposes a theory of interpretation that takes seriously the cultural relativity of biblical laws while preserving their divine authority. She distinguishes between the culturally conditioned laws and the underlying purposes of those laws. We may view the underlying principles as inspired, divine commands while viewing specific instructions as culturally conditioned applications. It is a mistake, Keen argues, to focus on what the laws instruct the Israelites to do rather than on why the laws were given and the goals at which they aim. In a section on the “enduring meaning of Old Testament laws,” Keen makes the following assertions:

“Inspiration resides not necessarily in the particularities, but in the overarching reason for the laws—namely a good and just society.”

“Sin is generally defined by what harms others.”

“Thus, whether and how we apply a particularity from scriptural mandates depends on the underlying intent of the law and its relationship to fostering a good and just world.”

“What both progressives and traditionalists typically overlook is the deliberative process that we must undertake to rightly interpret and apply biblical laws today.”

The chapter concludes with two questions that prepare the reader for the next phase of the argument:

“What is the overarching intent of the Bible’s sexual laws? Are there alternative ways to fulfill that intent more fully that take into consideration the predicament of gay and lesbian people?”

Analytic Observation

1. In constructing her hermeneutic method, Keen argues that the specific behaviors that biblical laws enjoin or forbid are culturally conditioned applications of such universal and divinely inspired principles as justice, peace, mercy, and love. We are obligated to respect those universal principles everywhere and always, but we are not bound by any previous attempt to embody those principles in specific mandates. According to this interpretative strategy, we are obligated to honor the Bible’s specific rules forbidding same-sex relationships only if we can be convinced that those rules embody the universal principles of justice, peace, mercy, and love in our contemporary situation. Her success in convincing evangelicals of the biblical permissibility of loving, same-sex relationships depends on demonstrating the universal validity and workability of her hermeneutical principle. Does her method of interpretation help us grasp the unchanging divine meaning of the scriptures as she claims or does it give us license to find our own values and meanings underneath the words of scripture? This question poses one of the two or three most decisive issues the reader must decide in assessing the book’s thesis.

Preliminary Questions

1. But has Keen made a convincing case that we can separate specific biblical rules from the principles they embody as discretely as she presumes?

2. Do we agree that Keen’s list of universal principles is exhaustive, that is, is it impossible that a specific rule could do double duty as a universal principle? For example, consider this rule: “Never betray an innocent friend to death.”

3. Does limiting inspiration and divine commands to general principles while attributing all application to culturally conditioned human judgment do justice the Bible as a whole, especially from an evangelical perspective?

4. Has Keen made a sufficient case that these so-called universal principles are not merely abstractions that give no specific guidance in real-life situations but depend for their content on subjective or cultural factors? For example, does “Always love” mean “Never participate in any act that makes another person feel unhappy?” And even if we take it to mean, “Always seek the best for everyone,” within what moral framework do we determine what is best?

5. If the only inspired moral guidance in the Bible is that articulated in the universal principles listed by Keen and those principles lie behind the law codes of every nation—ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece, India, and China—what sense does it make to claim divine inspiration for their presence in the Bible? Will evangelicals be satisfied with such a theory of inspiration? It seems more like a theory of natural law written on every heart than the special revelation that evangelicals treasure.

To be Continued…