This essay continues my review of Robert K. Gnuse,“Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality” (Biblical Theology Bulletin 45. 2: 68-87). In part one of the review I summarized Gnuse’s take on three Old Testament passages. In this essay I will examine his exegesis and theological interpretation of the New Testament passages that condemn same-sex intercourse.
Vice Lists (1 Cor 6:9-10 & 1 Tim 1:8-11)
The vice list passages read as follows:
9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10; NRSV).
8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. 9 This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, 10 fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me (1 Tim 1:8-11; NRSV).
The Greek words “male prostitutes” (malakoi) and “sodomites” (arsenokoitai) in 1 Corinthians 6:9 perhaps refer to the passive and the active partner in same-sex male intercourse. According to Gnuse, the NRSV translation of “malakoi” implies that these men allow sex to be performed on them for money or perhaps they are slaves who have no choice. And the translation of arsenokoitai as “sodomites” implies that these men are abusers of some type and may imply men who have sex with young boys. Gnuse concludes that when the two words are grouped together
“we have the two words that describe the homosexual relationships that would have been observed most frequently by Paul. These were the master, old man, abusive sexual partner, or pederast on the one hand, and the slave, young boy, or victim on the other hand…Ultimately, I believe both words describe abusive sexual relationships, not loving relationships between two adult, free males” (p. 80).
Gnuse interprets 1 Timothy 1:10 in much the same way as he interpreted 1 Corinthians 6:9. The word arsenokoitais is used in this passage also. Gnuse again concludes that “Homosexual love between two adult, free males or females may not be described here…[the New Testament] is condemning the violent use of sex to degrade and humiliate people, not sexual inclinations” (p. 81).
Romans 1:22-28 is often taken as the most unequivocal condemnation of all homosexual activity, male and female. Gnuse denies this conclusion. I will summarize the main thrust of his extensive argument. The text reads as follows:
22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.
As with all the other passages he examines, Gnuse argues that Paul in Romans 1:22-28 does not speak “about all homosexuals; he is speaking about a specific group of homosexuals who engage in a particular form of idolatrous worship” (p. 81). Gnuse argues that Paul targets the immoral behavior characteristic of certain religious cults resident in Rome. Gnuse argues that the most likely candidate for Paul’s invective is the Egyptian Isis cult. Paul condemns idolatry as false, dark, and foolish and asserts that this darkness gives birth to gross immorality unbefitting of one made in the image of God. According to Gnuse this passage does not condemn all homosexual behavior, only that performed in idolatrous worship.
Why, then, does Paul call this idolatrous homosexual behavior “unnatural”? Traditional interpreters contend that Paul’s argument makes no sense unless he assumes that homosexual behavior is immoral even apart from its connection to idolatry. Paul’s point is that this syndrome of immorality is what happens when people abandon the true God. Paul knows that the action of men abandoning relations with women and becoming “consumed with passion for one another” (v. 27) is perverse, degrading, and “unnatural” in itself apart from its connection to idol worship. Otherwise, his critique of idolatry would fall flat. For Paul wants his readers to understand that when people abandon God and worship nature instead, they will inevitably abandon the created order and the proper function of nature; bad things will happen.
In opposition to the traditional reading that decouples homosexual behavior from idolatry, Gnuse insists that Paul critiques only those homosexual acts performed in worship to pagan gods. Why, then, does Paul label these acts “unnatural”? Gnuse answers: “What Paul would find offensive about this cultic behavior, besides the obvious worship of other gods, is that the sexual behavior did not bring about procreation, and that is what makes it “unnatural” (p. 83). Gnuse has made a telling admission here. He admits that Paul can disengage homosexual acts from idolatry and view them negatively apart from their connection to pagan worship. They are “unnatural” everywhere and always and for everyone. But Gnuse’s contention that Paul viewed them as “unnatural” only because they do not produce children makes it easy for him to dismiss Paul’s judgment as cultural bias in favor of procreation as the sole purpose of sexual intercourse. It seems to me much more likely that Paul sees homosexual intercourse as “unnatural” because it violates the natural order intended by the creator and witnessed to by the power of procreation and by the obvious physiological complementarity. The foolish “exchange” of the glory of God for images of beasts (vss. 22-23) is mirrored by the degrading “exchange” of “natural intercourse for the unnatural” (v. 26).
What are the women mentioned in verse 26 doing when they “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural”? Gnuse points out correctly that Paul does not explicitly say that these women were having sex with other women, only that they were doing something “unnatural.” Gnuse floats the possibility that Paul has in mind a form of heterosexual intercourse designed to prevent procreation. I think this hypothesis is unlikely given what Paul says about men in the next verse, but in any case, Paul asserts that whatever these women are doing is “unnatural” and therefore wrong and shameful everywhere and always and for everyone.
Given what he said about each text individually, Gnuse’s overall conclusion will not come as a surprise:
“I believe that there is no passage in the biblical text that truly condemns a sexual relationship between two adult, free people, who truly love each other….[Hence] biblical texts should not be called forth in the condemnation of gay and lesbian people in our society” (p. 83; emphasis mine).
1. Notice the negative form of Gnuse’s conclusion. He offers many alternative interpretations of these texts, some of which I mentioned. Many of them are tenuous and speculative. Some give the impression of plausibility, but as his conclusion indicates the purpose of the article is not to defend any of these alternative interpretations. The entire discussion serves one purpose: to cast doubt on the untroubled certainty of the traditional view that these passages unambiguously condemn homosexual intercourse. The goal is to make illegitimate any theological use of these texts in the modern debate over homosexuality. It is to “problematize” the interpretation of these texts, to draw traditionalists into interminable debates, which—since we cannot arrive at a conclusion that ends all debate—leave the impression that everyone is free to think whatever they will and do whatever they want. And if you continue to interpret these texts in the traditional way, you can plausibly be accused of homophobia, that is, of irrational animus toward gay and lesbian people.
2. Gnuse turns the tables on traditionalists by shifting the burden of proof onto those who would use “the gay texts” in Christian ethics to condemn all forms of homosexual intercourse. Gnuse writes as if all he needs to do to win the argument is show that the texts do not explicitly address adult, free, and loving same-sex relationships. They may be directed exclusively to homosexual behavior that is abusive, violent, idolatrous, or linked with some other behavior that modern people also find it easy to condemn. If Gnuse can undermine the use of these biblical texts to condemn homosexual relations in general, traditionalists must abandon their strongest arguments and argue with progressives on their own turf—experience, science, psychology, and subjective feelings—on which they are at a disadvantage.
To be Continued…