Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not a Sin: the Bible Says...

Those who believe homosexuality is a sin have a very pithy answer to the question why: because the Bible says so. It is a maddeningly over-simplistic answer. A clever retort with no depth that willfully obscures a host of important issues and questions, and intentionally ignores ambiguity in scripture. Nevertheless it is their constant refrain so it must be addressed.

All of the relevant passages of scripture have been pored over again and again by scholars in obsessive detail. I will not rehash that work here, nor pass judgment on it. You can form your own opinion about what various verses of scripture do or do not mean in relation to homosexuality. I will comment here in a more general fashion about the use of the Bible in moral reasoning.

The Bible doesn't "say" anything. The Bible has no will. It is an inanimate object. Everything we take from the Bible we do by effort and interpretation. We do not just passively sit and receive Biblical wisdom, we actively create meaning in our own minds by engaging the text. Furthermore different people frequently come to different interpretations of the same texts (even with access to all the same information), thus it is never adequate to say "the Bible says," but rather you should say "I understand this passage to mean..."

It is a fallacy to say "the Bible says" for another reason, which is that "the Bible" is not homogeneous. It is not one text, but a collection of many texts written over a long period of time by many different authors. Individual texts even show signs of composite authorship or redaction. There is no voice in scripture which can speak for all of the others. We are always only dealing with an individual passage and what we interpret it to mean. This is not to say that there is no relationship between the texts, but only to say that it is a mistake to leap from "this verse in Leviticus says..." to "the Bible says..."

There is still another reason that "the Bible says" is a poor basis for an argument: it is an appeal to authority that obscures the basis of that authority. What reason does anyone have for accepting anything "the Bible says" as authoritative? Because it is inspired by God? How do we know it is inspired by God? Oh, that's right - because "the Bible says". It is circular reasoning. In fact, there is no good reason to accept the Bible as authoritative except on the basis of another, higher, authority: either personal revelation (in which case it is actually our own experience we are taking as authoritative), or the testimony of the Church (in which case it is actually the experience of others we are taking as authoritative). No matter which way you go you find that the basis of the Bible's authority lies in human experience - we experience the Bible either directly or indirectly to be "inspired" by God.

I have not experienced a personal revelation about the trustworthiness of the Bible, but I am willing to trust the Church on this one. However, if it is the Church who has said the Bible is authoritative in the first place, then the Church is in a position to decide how the Bible is used and how it should be interpreted. This is precisely what we have done in the past, deciding that the inclusive ministry of Christ outweighed the pastoral command of Paul to prevent women from speaking in the assembly. It is precisely what is at stake now in the Church's debate about whether or not to ordain homosexuals. It is not that one side is sticking with the Bible and the other is abandoning it (an offensive lie). Rather it is that many in the Church feel that we are within our rights as the Church to understand the inclusive ministry of Christ to outweigh the other considerations against ordaining homosexuals.

In coming to the conclusion that homosexuality is (or is not) a sin, a person must do some moral reasoning. Though it does not appear that way, there is a kind of moral reasoning behind the insistence that "the Bible says" homosexuality is a sin. It is called divine command ethics. It is a type of deontology. Simply put, a deontologist says there are rules that must be followed in all times, in all places, by all people. Being good consists of following these rules. The rules are good because they come from a good authority (in this case a divine command). Deontology falls apart in one of two ways - either the authority can be shown to be unreliable, or the rules themselves can be criticized for their effects until even a deontologist must admit that the rule seems not to be "good" by any reasonable definition.

Allow me to say a few good things about divine command deontology. First of all, no one who believes in God (and believes God is good), can object that following God's commands is a good thing. I DO believe there are some rare examples of universal rules that are reliably correct. For example - thou shalt not murder. Good universal rules tend to be narrow in scope or abstract enough to have different meanings in different situations, for example: Love your neighbor as yourself.

However, deontology in general is weak for its inability to say very many specific things without running into problems. Too many rules do in fact require exceptions. Deontology does not consider things like motive, circumstances, or consequences. Either you broke the rule or you didn't - there are no mitigating factors. Divine command deontology is further weakened by the dubiousness of its authority claim. How can you prove that the rule you have described is, in fact, a divine command?

The Bible, especially, is a notoriously poor source of authority for supporting divine command deontology. The Bible is not a rule book, nor is it a treatise of moral principles. It is rather a collection of many genres of writing. How does one translate poetry into a cohesive moral principle? How does one use history or allegory as a source of authority for alleging a divine command? Most crucially, the Bible shows evidence of internal moral development. The Bible itself doesn't always rely on a deontological approach to ethics. The Bible doesn't always discern what is good on the basis of a divine command.

In fact, as I read scripture, the climactic achievement in moral reasoning in the Bible is the shift toward teleological or virtue based ethical modes. The principle of love is lifted up in the New Testament as the means to discern what is in line with God's will. By being concerned that your motivation is loving, and the consequences are consistent with that love you can be assured that you are already fulfilling all of God's commands. This teleological approach is also seen in the emphasis on "fruits of the Spirit". A virtue ethics approach is exemplified by Paul's insistence that if you develop the virtue of charity in yourself you will automatically fulfill the law.

In summary, using the phrase "the Bible says" as your first and last defence for why homosexuality is a sin must ultimately fail. Firstly, interpretive problems abound that any blanket statement of that sort glosses over far too easily. Secondly, this approach obscures the source of the Bible's authority which is principally in the testimony of the Church, meaning the Church is authorized to change her opinion on the meaning of passages of scripture (and frequently has). Thirdly, it is knowingly or unknowingly a form of divine command deontology which has severe limits as a mode of moral reasoning and is not even the best example of Biblical morality.

Ultimately I think all of these reasons point to the same underlying reality which is that nothing is as simple as "the Bible says." In calling homosexuality a sin you are making a moral judgment which means you must defend your moral reasoning and "the Bible says" is a very poor defense.


Alan said...

Excellent article that expresses better than I ever have been able to why the "The Bible Says!" arguments rankle. I usually just chalked it up to to their usual arrogance and playing God, but you lay out the argument in a much better (and less flip) way, though I wouldn't rule out the arrogance factor.

Excellent resource.

Cecilia said...

This is really quite brilliant. I've linked to it over at my place. Thank you so much. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series!

Pax, C.

Jodie said...


I really like the way you think.

It's time we brought the debate about the authority of Scripture to a head. Too often "the Bible says" is used as an excuse for not facing our own prejudice and delusions of grandeur. It's time expose this myth for what it is, and, pardon the expression, reform the practice.

Maybe something good can come out of the debate on the sinfulness of homosexuality after all.

Nate Cook said...

To the writers of Two Fools and a Fairy,
I stumbled into your blog by just clicking on “next blog.” As I first read one of your headers it said “Jesus Freak” this caught my eye for a minute. As I am a born again believer in Jesus Christ as the savior of my life. Then the ever next thing that caught my eye was your blog on “Homosexuality is not a sin.” As I skimmed through it I realized that you are not in fact a Christian blog. Though just because you say that homosexuality is not a sin, is not why I came to the conclusion that you are not a Christian. The main reason is because of what you have to say about the bible. So with that let me proceed to write my reply to your thoughts on the Word of Jesus.
First let me just say this “…Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand” Mat 4:17b
You must repent for you have sinned against Jesus. I know your thoughts and as you read this you are asking “in what way have we sinned.” This I will leave this for the Holy Spirit to convict you of.
I am sure that you already disagree with me, but your idea of the bible and its truths are so warped that I am sure you will not even hear the warning that I write to you now.
Let me submit a few words from the bible itself.
Heb 4:12 “For the word of God is living, powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the divisions of the soul and spirit, and of joints and morrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
This is the first area in which you have warped the bible. Proven in your own writings “The Bible doesn't "say" anything.” My friend the bible does in fact have “say.”
Next I would ask you to read the creations story written in Genesis. As you will see there that no man creates anything. It is Jesus Himself that creates all things. To say that we “actively create meaning in our own minds by engaging the text” is completely wrong, and a blatant disagreement with the word of God.

Nate Cook said...

I, from what I can tell, you believe that you are either a “pastor” or “Christian,” or at the very least someone who believe they are right in God’s eyes. I would submit this question to you. how do you know? If you cannot even depend on what the bible says. Again by your own words you have said “In fact, there is no good reason to accept the Bible as authoritative…” if this is in fact the truth in your heart, you have no ground to stand on in proclaiming that you are a child of Jesus, or that you will inherit the Kingdom of God as a son of God. You without the inspired word of God have faith in what? Jesus? How do you know He exists? How, and what do you preach? You yourself have disqualified the word of God for your own use. Your stance that the bible is nothing more than “poetry” shows your lack of faith in Jesus Christ. For in John 1:1 “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” & 1 John 5:7 “For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit; these three are one” when you make a deny the word of God you are in fact deny Jesus the savior of all. I submit to you this as well 1 Cor:12:2 “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” what you have done is call Jesus as the Word of God accurse. There is no Holy Spirit in you. Your fruit shows it. “For every tree is known by its own fruit.” Luke 6:44a. let me also ask you this one question “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you? unless indeed you are disqualified” 2 Cor 13:5. So test yourselves against the Word of God to see if in fact you are saved, and will inherit the kingdom of God. (please read 1 Cor 6:9-10, and Gal 5:19-26) what fruit are you bearing? Is it fruit of the flesh or fruit of the Sprit? Test yourselves! (this is just one small test, read the whole New Testament, this will in fact test you.)

Nate Cook said...

I will leave you with what I started out with. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. You have sinned against Jesus Himself. There is grace for you, and there is place for you in the Kingdom of God. You can in fact be heirs with Christ. But you first must follow what Jesus said “Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” Luke 9:23-24. Humble yourself before Jesus and repent for your wrong doings, and He will save you. He will give you His Holy Spirit and He will teach you all His ways. At that point in time the Word of God will come alive to you, and you will have a personal encounter in which you will know the authoritative truthfulness of the Word of God. It will come alive to you…. but that is not where I hope lies, it lies in the fact that Jesus did come and take upon Himself the entire worlds sins (even yours). Jesus became sin itself, and died for it. He was crucified for you and your sins. For that is the payment for wronging the Most Holy God. Jesus made away for you to be saved from hell. For that is the path that you are on. Repent of your sins and find grace in Jesus, and He will save you from hell, and give you ever lasting life in Him.
If you have any questions or concerns please email me.
In the service of Jesus
Nathaniel Cook

Doug Hagler said...

Hi Nate Cook. I skimmed your comments, and also saw that you posted them to our new site as well - incongruously, in the forum thread discussing a theological poetry slam, but I guess if you've written one diatribe, you've written them all.

I'll be honest - I'm not going to take your comments seriously. Nothing you said is anything I haven't heard before. If you read more thoroughly in this blog, you'll even find where we have refuted pretty much everything you say.

In the event that there is a Hell, and thinking for ourselves gets us there, then at least we'll get to be eternally tortured among interesting people.

I assume you think you're being helpful, or doing God's work here, but I can assure, the experience on this end is anything but.