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.

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

  1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hello Ron,
    Thank you once more.
    May i congratulate you on the above dialectical arguments, and your inferences toward irrelevent syllogisms.
    Aristotle or Plato has not been wasted by your knowledge of dialectical syllogisms.
    However ( just as a brief aside) going right back to the beginning of this series; we should all avoid being drawn into the enthymemic dialects of such a book as you are reviewing. That is to say, arguments where the proposition, right at the start is either nebulous, misrepresented, assumptive (putting it politely) or as is in this case, often missing.
    Thanks again. Refreshingly coherent Ron. Like it sir!
    And two caveats to finish. We all know about the subleties of ‘legalise’ language, and so we should not leave ourselves open to falling into the infamous ” yes-no question proposition trap” in which, as our opinion is countenanced, that we are suddenly damned if we answer “yes” and damned if we answer “no” to the probing question. Yup, that’s in Genesis too.
    I think that- Jesus held his peace, and kept his silence- and firmly closed his mouth before Herod, did he not? We may believe that He did this because Herod had silenced the voice of God… or we may like to think that Jesus was also aware of the usefulness of greek rhetoric. You (pl.) can decide.
    Have a good day.


  2. Stephen Wykstra

    I am Just starting to read your analysis, Ron. I’m a bit stuck on the paragraph. I hope you won’t mind if I here try to figure out why.

    “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.” (You then continue:
    “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.”)

    Okay, I got a bit stuck on what the ‘”this” in “this ‘progressive’ argument” argument refers to. But I think I see it now. An argument always has at least one premise and a conclusion of course. So here, I think you are seeing the premise (P) and conclusion (C) as follows

    (P) The biblical authors denounce practices
    that involved “exploitation and misogynistic gender norms”
    rather than loving, covenanted same-sex relationships.
    (C) Hence (therefore), we should not
    without due hermeneutical reflection
    apply these texts to practices not in view when originally written.

    And you are saying that Keen does not (in this chapter, I guess you mean?) say whether she agrees with this argument (though in her book elsewhere “it plays a vital role.”

    Suppose we call this “the They-So-We” Argument. I wish we could spell out a bit more clearly what the intended argument here is; I now look forward to seeing how you might do this!
    As stated, the conclusion of course is hard to disagree with. (Who would want to assert the contrary: that we should, *without* due hermeneutical reflection, apply the texts in question to practices not in view by the original authors? Including that litte “without” caveat makes the conclusion a trivial tautology. So I think the intended argument, short of rhetorical distractions, might perhaps go more like this:

    P1 In the area of same-sex sexual behaviors, the biblical authors were familiar only (or mostly) with three types: (A) Greek and Roman same-sex sexual behavior of specific sorts (erotic relations with young male charges; (B) casual male-male sex with slaves; and (C) casual male-male sex with disreputable males adopting feminine-impersonating personas).

    P2 These sorts of same-sex sexual behaviors had wrong-making features of power-imbalances, exploitation, and misogynistic gender roles, and for these reasons were (rightly) condemned by them (the inspired Biblical authors).

    P3 We can extend the Biblical authors’ condemnation to some *other* type of same-sex sexual behavior (call it “X”) s only if, on due hermeneutical/moral reflection, we can see that X either has the same wrong-making features, or has some other equally serious wrong-making features that Scripture mandates guide our lives.

    P4 For those persons we now (scientifically) recognize as “gay” in orientation (viz, those of exclusively or predominantly same-sex sexual and romantic attraction), same-sex sexual intimacy within the context of committed life-long monogamous relationships does not, intrinsically, have the above wrong-making features. Nor does it have any other serious wrong-making features.

    C) So, we cannot rightly extend the Biblical authors’ condemnation against same-sex sexual behaviors to sexual behaviors in the context of life-long monogamous commitments between persons of gay orientation (and hence, we cannot not use the Biblical authors’ condemnation as a basis for ruling out the church’s extension of its “matrimonial” type blessing to such covenantal commitments .

    There are some unstated general premises here, so it leaves more spelling out to be done. By my sense is that this may spell out the general flow of the argument. It’s my own first shot at it, anyway, giving us a clearer target.

    Now I can go on to look for how you do it!


    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Stephen: From your clear analysis of my statement of Keen’s argument, I assume you are Stephen Wykstra, Professor Emeritus from Calvin University. I detect expertise in analytic philosophy! It would take too much space for me to document my having thought through your restatement of the argument. But on my first reading I think you nailed it. To clarify one obscurity you rightly point out, in making reference to the “progressive” argument I am adopting Keen’s language. It’s been over a year since I read her book and wrote this extended review, but as I remember it, in her lexicon, theological or Christian progressivism rejects too many evangelical perspectives, especially with respect to the authority of Scripture. She wants to argue that affirming lesbian and gay relationships on an equal basis as other-sex relationships is fully consistent with remaining evangelical. At least those “progressive” authors to which she refers belong more in the liberal camp than in the evangelical one.

      On another issue, Karen Keen found my review and we corresponded for a while. She seems to be a very sincere and kind person. I wanted to be as fair as possible.

      I am happy that you are reading these essays. Remember, however, that I am was writing them for a popular audience…not for brilliant analytic philosophers. Still, I hope I have not made any glaring logical mistakes!

      BTW: I also wrote a review of your colleague Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne.



      1. ifaqtheology Post author

        I just noticed, Stephen, that your comment was made in reference to part eight. Part eight presumes that readers have followed me from the beginning. I think that I make the “progressive” perspective clear early on in the series.

        Ron H


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