Monthly Archives: December 2016

Sexuality and Scripture: Further Reflections in Response to Nicholas Wolterstorff

In his speech in favor of same-sex marriage in October, Nicholas Wolterstorff emphasized that he was not speaking as an authority or expert on the subject. Indeed, he has recently clarified that, should the CRC maintain traditional Christian teaching on homosexual practice, he will abide by that decision. I laud Wolterstorff for his humility and honesty with respect to this matter.

At the heart of Wolterstorff’s speech was his confession that, based on experience, he no longer believes committed, same-sex relationships violate the biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. It is this experience that prompted him to reconsider Scripture’s teaching on homosexuality.

Man Sitting Beside the Seashore Wearing Red Long Sleeve Beside of a Man Wearing White and Grey Polo Shirt

It’s worth emphasizing how much Wolterstorff and I agree. Wolterstorff agrees that the Mosaic law condemns homosexual relationships in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:23. He also agrees that several New Testament passages, specifically Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10, could legitimately be interpreted as condemning the practice of homosexuality.

However, Wolterstorff believes that Christians are no longer bound by all of the stipulations of the Mosaic law, and he believes that none of these New Testament passages are sufficiently clear to require the church’s rejection of committed same-sex relationships.

In a spirit of friendship, I wish to offer three of my own reflections in response. (I have written a fuller response to Wolterstorff here. Wolterstorff responded to me here.)

First, we should reflect carefully about how to understand the relevance of the sexual code in the Mosaic law. Just because homosexual practice is condemned in the Mosaic law doesn’t mean it is immoral. A primary theme of the New Testament is that Christians are not under the law. That’s why we don’t submit to its sacrificial system, its penal code, its prohibitions against tattoos, or its rules concerning a woman’s menstrual cycle.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean the Mosaic law has no moral relevance for Christians anymore. We continue to submit to its prohibitions of incest, bestiality, and adultery, all of which are found in the very same passage as the prohibition of homosexual practice. Indeed, the prohibition of homosexual practice appears in the very same part of the law as the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18).

So how do we determine what parts of the law remain morally binding on Christians? We follow the guidance of the New Testament. The Jerusalem Council famously declared that while the Gentiles are not bound to keep the whole Mosaic law, they are obligated to observe its teachings regarding sexual immorality (Acts 15:29). And Paul combines the very words used to describe homosexual practice in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:23 (arsenos . . . koiten) to condemn the practice in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (arsenokoitai). It would be hard to imagine stronger evidence that the Mosaic law’s condemnation of homosexual relationships remains binding for Christians.

Continue reading this article, published in the CRC’s denominational magazine, the Banner, here.

Sexuality and the Gospel: My Response to Nicholas Wolterstorff

A few weeks ago Nicholas Wolterstorff made big news when he delivered a speech at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in favor of same-sex marriage. The speech has evoked mixed reviews. Those who desire to see the church affirm monogamous same-sex sexual relationships are ecstatic to have a philosopher of Wolterstorff’s stature on their side (however cautiously he may have presented his case), while those committed to the biblical conception of marriage as being between a man and a woman are discouraged and, admittedly, somewhat surprised at how little Wolterstoff engaged scholarly exegesis with respect to the relevant texts, not to mention the broader scriptural context of what the Bible says about homosexuality.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that Nick is a friend and mentor to me. I respect him deeply and have learned a tremendous amount from his work on love and justice. I meet regularly with him for coffee and conversation and I have discussed this presentation with him in a charitable and constructive manner. In that sense I am reluctant to write this piece, but I do so out of a sense of obligation as the professor of moral theology at Calvin Seminary, appointed by the Christian Reformed Church to offer some measure of theological leadership on moral matters, and because Nick himself has welcomed just this sort of response to his work. All that said, whatever you do, do not read this as an attack on Nicholas Wolterstoff. Read it as an affectionate, yet deeply concerned, response from one of Nick’s own admiring students. There has been no breach of friendship or respect between us, and if anything, this discussion gives us an opportunity to serve the church through respectful, substantive dialogue.

Image result for Nicholas Wolterstorff

Let me say first of all that I largely agree with the way Wolterstorff framed the issue. That is to say, I think he raises the right questions. 1) Is homosexual practice really a violation of the biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself? If so, how and why? 2) If homosexual practice is not a violation of the love command, do we oppose it simply because scripture opposes it? In other words, is this merely an issue of biblical authority, with no why or wherefore to it other than the arbitrary will of God? 3) If we answer yes to these questions, then shouldn’t we revisit scripture’s teaching on homosexuality, understanding it in its proper context, to see if we have interpreted it properly?

In addition to these questions let me stress that I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s argument that we cannot simply fall into proof-texting on this issue. Those who seek to affirm homosexual relationships do so not because they fail to see where scripture seems to fall on the issue, but because they no longer understand its logic or rationale. And that leads them, like Wolterstorff, to wonder whether there might not be some other way to read the texts in question, one which may give rise to an interpretation different from our initial reading, and one whose logic and rationale makes more sense to us. In short, the question is not, What do the texts say when taken out of context?, but, What do the texts say when understood in light of the broader context of scripture and of the gospel?

So for that reason I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s insistence that we respect context. Context. Context. Context.

Hence my disappointment with Wolterstorff’s presentation. He does not, in fact, look at the issue of homosexuality, or scripture’s discussion of it, in its full biblical context. Indeed, Wolterstofff did not even mention foundational scriptural passages on sexuality and marriage such as Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 6, or Ephesians 5. Rather, he focused on the seven texts where scripture explicitly mentions homosexuality. And even there, he does not actually interpret those passages in light of their broader context.

For instance, with respect to the all important passage of Romans 1, Wolterstorff zeroed in narrowly on what Paul says about homosexuality in verses 24-27. He entirely ignored the context of those verses, in verses 18-23. And, as I will argue, that makes all the difference in the world.

Wolterstorff presented Paul’s logic in Romans 1 as if Paul was trying to show how evil people are who experience homosexual passions. He then argued that since we know that not all people who experience these passions are evil, Paul must not have been talking about the sort of people who are committed to monogamous homosexual relationships.

But that is to miss Paul’s point entirely, because it is to take it out of context. In a sense, Wolterstoff is guilty of just the sort of proof-texting against which he warned us at the beginning of his presentation. What Paul is actually doing in Romans 1 is showing us how people suppress the truth of God revealed in creation, exchanging that truth for the lie of idolatry. Hence they worship the creature rather than the creator. They are guilty of turning the order of things on their head, and so living a lie.

The result, Paul argues, is that “God gave them over” to sexual impurity (1:24). “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (1:25). And the shameful sexual passions to which he “gave them over” (1:26) are the “due penalty for their error.” Why are they the “due penalty”? Paul is telling us that there is a logical correspondence between the practice of homosexuality (the practice in which “men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another”) and the practice of idolatry. In each case a natural or created good is “exchanged” for something objectively disordered.

Read the rest of this article here, at Perspectives.

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