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.”

12 thoughts on “In the Dark all Cats are Black—A Review Essay (Part Seven)

  1. Scott Storbakken

    I appreciate your decision to focus entirely on Keen’s questionable hermeneutical methods rather than the conclusion she reaches. Her arguments should not be persuasive to anyone with a high view of Scripture. Nevertheless, solid arguments have been made that reach her conclusion using conservative hermeneutics (e.g., Hebrew or Greek texts that either use words that translate to “homosexual” or that tell stories involving same-sex actions always do so within either a context of rape or cultic prostitution, never relationship, thus saying nothing about modern issues like same-sex marriage). I imagine you will deal more with Keen’s specific conclusion in other posts if you haven’t already, but it is very important to give this much attention to how we reach the conclusions we reach, regardless of what those conclusions are. Thank you for doing that.

    Divine commands indeed remain weighty and do not change based on the changes of the world (unless the text explicitly places a limitation on a given command). But in order to follow universal divine commands, we must first grasp what those commands are and how their first recipients obeyed or disobeyed them. After much study and rethinking of my views on the issue, I have moved from a traditional Evangelical conclusion to one that aligns with Keen’s. I believe I have done so, however, without compromising my high view of Scripture as Keen seems to have done. Rather, I shifted my ideas on this issue out of a desire to be faithful to the unmovable commands in Scripture. Thank you again for your attention to how we approach interpreting Scripture.


  2. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hello Ron,
    Thank you for this penultimate issue. There is much to comment upon here, one overarching observation would be the way that divine attributes seem to be translated downwards by this author into human qualities and virtues (as i’ve said before this makes no great sense to me); for example divine “love” as we think we understand it is almost always reduced by a human agenda and human conditionality- so using love as a goal for arguing same sex relationships is neither scriptural nor valid. Similarly with free will and truth, we often pollute these with greed and sin. See later, John Wesley.
    If we want to look faithfully at christian marriage, i believe that we must consider the cultural spectrum of the bible’s times and at least try to compare with our own contemporary issues before generalizing what we think might be allowed.
    The hebrew-jewish woman might not have even thought that lesbianism was wrong; it is not mentioned or recorded as a “sin” because the masculine orientated ( sexist) culture and records show that female-female relations were not considered fundamentally sexual, since there was no phallus, no semen, and no penetration. Furthermore, at the time of the NT, female-female relationships echoing marriage were commonplace for family reasons (looking after children, men not involved) and as a matter of fact, the ruling Roman authorities already allowed fully Legal Marriage between women! ( we would say like a civil partnership today). Finally, the culture of romantic poetry and writing was full of love between women, notwithstanding, jewish men were not intimidated by this practical arrangement- itself even having a specific hebrew word. See Naomi as the father.
    The case for homosexual men was very very different. The Jewish Talmud specifically forbids it in all of its guises, calling it ” The Egyptian Sin” and marks it punishable by death (hanging). This was in notable contrast to the occupying Roman culture where, whilst marriage amongst men was simply ‘not required’ in Roman law, nor was it a ‘thing’- homosexual behaviour was a commonplace recreational activity (as it was in ancient Greece) and particularly with younger men.
    So we see already, a dichotomy of behaviour regarding ‘marriage’ and sexuality in the hebrew-jewish history.
    Same-sex ‘marriage’ has so polarized modern thought, that the American Methodists have had conferences hijacked by altocations about policy. I find this interesting, because i’d started to wonder along with them ” what would John Wesley have said about this complex issue?”
    So thinking about marriage as we have it before God. That lead me to his Volume 1, Sermons On Several Occasions, number 19 page 248. Rev J W. Entitled “The Great Priviledge of those that are Born of God”. 1John 3:9 ” ..whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin”. Wow! JW explains what he understands by ” born of God” and then “doth not commit sin”.
    Wesley agonizes over a few examples, and then he starts praising King David. He clearly loves David, particularly for his live of God and then, starts to think about the fact that King David had 19 wives, and many more concubines (mistresses), and in his own words, only ever really “loved” one woman- and she, out of wedlock! Wesley really puts himself through it with this essay, but i will not spoil it for you all. Rev JW draws a remarkable conclusion.
    And so, returning to sin and temptation, repentance and forgiveness confused and bewildered. I’ve just one question to ask?
    If a couple are happily married, and married as devout christians, and adopted into a church that blesses this sacrament properly- and yet they are unable to consummate their marriage physically (the particukar couple i have in mind are special needs): are they still married???
    And would you be tempted to distinguish between that couple as gay or heterosexual even if they were neither?
    How deep do your cultural sexist prejudices lie?
    So perhaps, when you read the gospel of St John and wonder why his narrative for the jewish and gentile audience starts with a simple miracle- but a miracle at a wedding. Ask yourself why John wants us to think hard about seeking the kingdom of God by starting with a proper understanding of what ‘ marriage’ really is?
    God bless


  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    I am always amazed at your erudition. Sometimes, I get confused about what your bottom line is and whether you are agreeing with my essay or not…and to what extent. But I am always thankful for your engagement with the essays. Thanks. RH


    1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

      Dear Ron.
      Apologies to you. I didn’t edit or read my reply its gone 2 am here now. But i should have done so, in my keenness to reply. Please forgive.
      Of course i agree wholeheartedly with you and your ethos. Sorry about my rant.
      I remake a personal point about virtues being overdone at the expense of christian piety, towards the “author”.
      The rest of my reply implies incorrectly that i’m talking to you. I’m not. I’m referring to you ‘PLURAL’, being we the audience of your blog..
      My fault again. The questions are therefore rhetorical. If you find the Wesley Essay to which i’ve tried to remember from memory- he himself refers the issue itself back to sin, and temptation.
      That’s been my contention for some time now. Sin and soteriology.
      So i’m very respectfully, trying very hard to make points that you make in your most excellent new book. Without quoting you (as i don’t have your permission to do so).
      The Lord be with you.


  4. Karen

    Hi Ron, thank you so much for taking the time to read my book and give such a detailed and thoughtful review thus far. I happened upon it just this week and read with interest. Given that you are still in the process of reviewing the book, I thought it might be meaningful to respond to a few points.

    It’s not clear that we actually disagree on certain key points. You write: “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 then, you make a statement that doesn’t not represent a view that I claim. You write: “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.”

    I do not claim that there are *only* general principles and *never* specific commands that are universally binding. As I state in my book, “The Old Testament laws are not irrelevant, as progressives tend to argue. Neither are the laws impervious prooftexts for ethical behavior. . . what both progressives and traditionalists typically overlook is the deliberative process that we must undertake to rightly interpret and apply biblical laws today” (51).

    In other words, how and whether a law applies requires discernment. That is quite different than arguing that specific laws never apply.

    What i am discussing is not novel. We see this deliberative process in Scripture itself, and evangelicals regularly engage in deliberation about when and how to apply mandates in Scripture. The problem is evangelicals fail to apply this discernment process to same-sex relationships (no doubt because of personal aversion and lack of relatability; we are biased toward interpreting Scripture for issues that relate to our ourselves but not on behalf of others whose concerns we don’t relate to).

    The question is whether the biblical prohibition against same-sex relationships is a universally binding command or not. That is what I begin to address through a deliberative process in the following chapters that you have not yet covered.

    A second concern I have is that you frame my argument as essentially a virtue ethics argument. But I specifically indicate that this is not persuasive to many traditionalists and I move on from it (even though I personally think its relevant). You inaccurately summarize that one of my key arguments is related to suffering, saying “unwanted celibacy causes great harm and unhappiness to gay and lesbian people.” Yet I don’t make an argument on this basis.

    I do not base my argument on suffering since I know some traditionalist do not take that into consideration. Instead I base my argument on whether life-long mandatory celibacy is *possible* for every person who attempts it. I look primarily at feasibility, not whether it causes distress. There is plenty of evidence, including in Christian tradition, that life-long celibacy is not possible for every person who attempts it. Possible for some, yes, but not all. To resolve that ethical dilemma as it relates to people exclusively attracted to the same sex, we have to engage in discernment.

    I also discuss issues around the fall and misconceptions about same-sex attraction.

    So far, I am not seeing that you have made a clear rebuttal to my argument. You do suggest that certain things are above reason and we shouldn’t question. We should obey even when we don’t understand. While I agree that some things are above reason, the discouragement of asking questions is a prooftexting fallacy that prevents engaging in responsible discernment when reading Scripture. Reason is one of the things God has given human beings in a manner above the animals. To neglect it is an affront to being made in the image of God.

    I suspect you are not opposed to reason and discernment when reading Scripture, as much as you are reluctant to engage in a deliberative process about *same-sex relationships in particular.” I suspect you already believe the answer is obvious and so it does not require legal deliberation in the manner of other issues.

    I look forward to reading the remainder of your review. I hope it will reflect some of the concerns I have raised here. Kind regards, Karen Keen


    1. ifaqtheology Post author


      I am so glad you found this series! I am gratified that you trust my character enough to believe that I would not dismiss your thoughts or reply in a frivolous or disrespectful way to your comments and corrections of my review. I believe in being as fair as possible to the thoughts of others; and I want to be a disciple of Jesus in every dimension of my life. And if I have misunderstood what you are saying or have read into your arguments meanings that you don’t believe are there, I want to correct my mistakes insofar as I can see them. As you probably surmised, I am using my review of your book to take me into these questions, and I did not choose your book simply to critique it. You have written a very good book, which I think will be compelling to many people. I hope you see my choice as a complement and not as an insult. And your arguments cannot be properly addressed apart from serious analysis; they demand a critic with extensive knowledge of biblical studies and theology and with an analytic mind. And for various reasons in my own setting, the time is right for me to address the arguments you raise. Also, those of us that do not have a great personal investment in the topic tend to go with our intuitions rather than invest the energy it takes to think through these issues from top to bottom. And those of you who do have an intense personal interest are way ahead in your reading and argument formulation. It takes close reading and analysis for the rest of us to follow the logic. I find that now is the time for me to do that. I suppose you have read my bio (About Ron Highfield), and know a bit about where I am and what I do. Of course, I read the autobiographical parts of your book and those on your webpage for your organization.

      I need to read your reply very carefully, and I may write a response in my next essay before I go on the the next chapters in your book. Would you mind if I quote extensively from your “reply”?

      If you want to engage in a conversation “off the record” and not in this public forum, please feel free to write me at I would like that.


      Ron Highfield


      1. Karen

        Hi Ron, thanks for your reply. Yes, I appreciate your desire to be charitable. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts. And I will try to send you an e-mail as well. Peace to you.


  5. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hello Karen,
    Thank you for replying to Ron’s honest lucubrations. It’s interesting to read, and to try to learn from such discussions!
    Referring to your reply, may i ask you for one example (in Scripture) of your comment- “we see this deliberative process in Scripture itself” with a rationale, please?
    And, with as much expression of your own view on ‘discernment’ as you can include? This would be a great help to my understanding thanks a lot.

    Finally. I’d like to point out (briefly) that religious celibacy in it’s many forms, is a huge ‘thing’ across time, antiquity and in the world. From Julianne of Norwich, to celibate priesthoods to buddhist holymen bricking themselves up with a few leaves to eat (until they self- mummify {gruesome}), and even, to medieval flagellation practices.
    But celibacy to some’s thoughts, is a conscious decision to prove one’s own flesh with the purity of Divine Love that is offered to us all from God; a personal willingness to gladly accept God’s pure love and to try to return it, chaste, unsullied and perfect, back in worship to the creator, in spite of the wretchedness of the physical condition.

    It is an attempt at a form of ‘loving expression’ that transcends morals or virtues- since it avoids and is itself a ” lack of doing something” or “a way of not behaving”. As such celibacy is hard to criticize like an action or thought.
    Celibacy shows of a good intent and it aims at holiness rather like some rules or laws (and i think that St Paul mentions it as such). Though celibates often limit or distance themselves from society, and so thinking of celibacy like an OT maxim for society bears little practical sense- it’s more ethereal or heavenly in nature (St Paul).

    In extreme forms however, celibacy-oriented behaviour fails to ‘give’ (anything- forgiveness?) to itself by necessity, it is depriving not humble and more importantly, ignores others in many senses. This seems in opposition to the teachings of Christ, and in direct opposition to the expression “choose life” (choose life it is a gift from God) O.T. ; also in a popular cult film.
    In conclusion, i’m going to have to avoid celibacy as an argument in same-sex partnerships or relationships. If there is a simple generalism, then celibacy avoids certain physical behaviours only; it may be a step on the path to holiness, but is not universally useful in the avoidance or understanding of sin.
    Best wishes
    Looking forward to your reply.


    1. Karen

      Thank you for your interest in the conversation. Regarding your two questions (about the deliberative process, as well as celibacy), I encourage you to read my book as it provides a thorough discussion of both of these. I have two chapters that focus particularly on first question of the deliberative process (with specific examples), as well as a full chapter on celibacy that incorporates a discussion on deliberation as it relates to people who are exclusively attracted to the same-sex. If you get a chance to read it, I would be interested to hear your thoughts in relation to your inquiry here.


  6. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Thank you very much Karen.
    I’ve seen it thank you. Irrespective of Hays.
    And i’m happy with 1 Cor 7:8-9
    from St Paul’s view. Though he does make it abundantly clear that some scripture is from God, and some he himself interprets (from his best intention and guided by the spirit of course). Is he moralizing?
    My own pronouncements are blogged herein, and i’m not too bothered about moralizations for the reason that Divine Free Will can be promulgated into humanity in any number of ways {by humanity}- but pure Christian free will is a gift of God to the individual, and as such is unique in every case and situation (see St Paul).
    One thing is certain for all of us- we’re very good at making rules, and even better at breaking them.
    This is why i feel that St Paul is really telling us not to go any deeper into the red ” just stay as you are” – even considering celibacy ; and don’t do that very human thing of trying to make things seem to qualify as holy… when they are not.
    Discussing intimate and personal beliefs about sexuality is not for everyone, and often times, such things as are behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors- in plain sight of God (for me).
    The invention of the latex condom does however, throw a spanner in the works of judeo-christian dogmatics who misunderstand archaic “uncleanness”. The condom as a physical barrier to contact; covers a multitude of sin? Discuss?

    But let’s not then discuss St Peter on the roof, and particularly why you might think that God took him to task about what is made clean. Marriage?

    I did wonder about your own ideas of ‘discernment’ too (as i’ve said), and i wondered how you might interpret Matt 11:12 for example? In the absence of anything else.
    Thank you again.



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