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Homosexuality and the Bible: Two views

27 February 2007

Book title: Homosexuality and the Bible: Two views
Author: Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon

Publisher: Fortress Press
Church Times Bookshop £9.99

DAN VIA and Robert Gagnon are respected interpreters of the New Testament who have contributed to the debate about homosexuality: Gagnon, indeed, has written a magisterial 500-page book on the subject (The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Text and hermeneutics, Abingdon Press, 2001). Here they join battle, presenting respectively a liberal and a conservative case, and then, more briefly, responding to the other’s position. Anyone who wants to see the full range of available arguments ably deployed needs look no further than this short book. It becomes clear that the debate in the Churches is about two things. One is how to interpret the Bible responsibly. The two writers agree, broadly, that all the overt scriptural references to homosexual intercourse are negative. Both are aware of ways in which this point can be blunted — by claiming, for example, that Paul or Leviticus had in mind only exploitative relationships, or some form of cultic prostitution — but they agree that even consensual, loving, committed homosexual acts are not approved of in the Bible. The question is, what implications does that have for us? Gagnon believes that when scripture speaks with such an unequivocal voice, the matter is settled. Via maintains that specific rulings on particular moral issues need to be understood in the light of wider parameters of theological approach. Scripture taken as a whole, he argues, provides general principles of openness to committed relationships which can countervail against its own detailed rulings. Applying Jesus’s general approach to life to our situation will require an acceptance of same-sex relationships, even though in the first-century Jewish context such acceptance would have been improbable to the point of impossibility. It is not clear to me how one could ever reach any rapprochement between these two positions. The other factor lurking beneath the surface of the debate is an argument from natural law. Gagnon argues strongly that same-sex intercourse is unnatural: that is why the Bible forbids it. Via cannot see the unnaturalness, suggesting that human relationships are more subtle and complex than this implies. There can be little doubt that gut feelings about what is natural or unnatural play a larger part in the current debate than some participants acknowledge. A point worth noticing is that both scholars seem to think that we all agree what is meant by “same-sex intercourse”. But there is a whole spectrum of activities that can be called homosexual. What the Bible condemns seems to be male-on-male anal penetration (“lying with a man as with a woman”), except for the single reference to lesbianism in Romans 1.26. Do we know just what else it was seeking to exclude, if anything? “Straight” Christians may not like to think too much about the range of possibilities, but, if we are to treat the Bible as crucial, as both Via and Gagnon do, we ought to raise this issue. Canon John Barton is Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford.

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