Examining the Biblical Texts Objectively
While the Bible doesn’t directly address homosexuality as we know it today, it does have a few things to say about same-gender copulation. It also has a few things to say about how people of faith should treat those neighbors who offend them. Various advocates in today’s ongoing debates appeal to the Bible for support. The public is left more befuddled than enlightened; questions abound:
- What exactly does the Bible assert about same gender carnality? Is it a sin?
- Does God plan to punish those who become intimate with a person of the same gender?
- Does God want us to exclude LGBTQ+ persons from serving in positions of church leadership…what about same sex weddings in the church?
- Does the Bible restrict the definition of marriage to “one man and one woman?”
- Is all the attention given to sexual sins warranted, given the pervasive damage done by other sins, such as gluttony, greed, violence, human trafficking…?
- When God endowed Adam and Eve with sexuality, was he turning them loose at the starting line, anticipating that they would eventually discover an array of sexual pleasures? Or do Adam and Eve have the last word on the subject: that human sexuality should only be experienced in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship?
- Is the ancient idea of marriage between one man and one woman the first word on the subject of marriage, opening the door to a variety of monogamous covenants between consenting adults of various gender orientations and identities? Or is it the last word on marriage, closing off all other possibilities?
- Is it okay to dismiss certain parts of biblical law while insisting on obedience to other parts? For example, the Bible prohibits both the eating of pork and the act of adultery. Yet, many Christians who would take pride in serving you barbequed ribs would be aghast if you casually mentioned how much you enjoyed diddling with your neighbor’s wife. Who gets to decide that the one is okay and the other is not?
The Christian argument over homosexuality has become massive, and not surprisingly, dozens of scripture passages (relevant or not) are conscripted for the debate. How is it that people of the same religion (Christian) can read the same Bible (Genesis through Revelation) and come up with such opposite and passionate positions on issues surrounding homosexuality?
All great religions contain mindboggling internal diversity, hosting branches that contradict each other, sometimes violently. There is no singleway to be Jewish…or Christian…or Buddhist…or Hindu… So, not surprisingly, Christians often differ among themselves over how to read and study the Bible. A quick look at the different ways Christians read scripture will illuminate why there are so many arguments about so many issues. As we search the Bible to find out if it provides insight into our issues over homosexuality, it will be helpful for us to note three major schools of thought when it comes to how Christians interpret the Bible.
Three Different Approaches for Reading the Bible
- Reading the Bible Selectively
This approach assumes that only some parts of the Bible are appropriate or applicable for us. Other passages are rejected for being out of date, impractical, or unethical. Thomas Jefferson, for example, cut out all the parts of the New Testament that he believed were unscientific or untrue and only preserved those parts that he deemed edifying.
One form the selective approach often takes is to distinguish the Old Testament (supposedly no longer applicable) from the New Testament (supposedly still valid.) Those who read the Bible selectively will focus only on those passages that offer inspiration, meaning, or guidance.
This approach will also be taken when people are trying to build theories (e.g. predicting when the world will end.) Selected and scattered passages will be assembled to explain and “prove” a theory.
- Reading the Bible Literally
This approach assumes that the Bible is a static document, denotative rather than connotative. It is to be taken literally, its rules followed to the letter. Many who read the Bible this way claim that they do not interpret scripture but simply take its surface words at face value. The duty of the reader then is to comprehend the straightforward meaning of a text and give assent.
To read the Bible literally is to believe that the details recorded in the biblical narratives actually happened, even if there is historical evidence or scientific doubt to the contrary. The narratives are respected as credible, eye witness accounts. Any work of scientists or historians who challenge the factuality of a biblical text is greeted with skepticism.
Some (but not all) “literalists” believe in biblical inerrancy. This is the conviction that every stage of the Bible’s writing, transmission, and translation has been guided by the spirit of God, and that no human mistakes or errors have blemished its perfection. When several translations of the Bible appear in the same language, those who believe in inerrancy will often apply their theory to the earliest translation. For example, in English, the King James Version is sometimes considered inerrant, as opposed to more modern translations.
- Reading the Bible Artistically
This approach assumes that the Bible is a dynamic and living text, containing many layers and dimensions: historical, literary, theological… We generally plumb its most profound meanings only after wrestling past the surface words into the deeper stratums. The danger, of course, is that such ventures may only reveal who we are deep down…rather than what the scriptures contain. Therefore, we have rules to insure that we respect the original language, context, and intent of the author.
The thoughts of the Bible are handed down from person to person, language to language, and age to age. Cognitive categories get upended over time. A text simply cannot be transferred wholesale from one setting to another without risking distortion of its meaning. Stories and teachings that have a clear meaning in one culture must be rephrased and reframed in order to convey their “dynamic equivalence” in other times and places.
Those who read the Bible artistically pay attention to how the craft of writing is used in conveying meaning: using poetry, story, proverb, law, parable, hyperbole, symbolism, irony, burlesque, repetition, silence, etc. An artistic reading of the Bible does not discard a text simply because it makes no sense or is offensive. Sometimes we are able to comprehend a text. But other texts are best held in abeyance until they apprehend us. Artistic readings of the Bible can entertain multiple interpretations. Different texts will clash and argue with each other, creating synergy and paradoxes. There are times when the living word of God only emerges out of dynamic friction.
Two Disciplines for Interpreting Scripture
If one views the Bible as a dynamic and complex work of art, sometimes thick and complicated rather than always transparent and easy, there are two disciplines that are essential to its understanding and application: hermeneutics and logic. Without the rigorous disciplines of these two fields, it is very easy to twist the meaning of a passage into what we want it to say.
Hermeneutics is a branch of biblical studies that sets rules for how to go about interpreting a piece of ancient, Near Eastern, sacred literature. The one essential rule in hermeneutics is this: to never isolate a passage of scripture from its contexts. Each passage of scripture is embedded in several contexts: linguistic, documentary, literary, historical, etc. In order to treat each Bible passage with integrity, its meaning must take into account its various contexts.
The Bible was written by people who wanted to be understood by their readers. The first readers/listeners undoubtedly understood the texts much better than we do. After all, those original writers and readers shared a culture, a language full of idioms, and numerous “inside” stories. The ancient writers addressed well-known local issues that people were facing. In other words, writers and readers understood one another.
Furthermore, the people who penned the scriptures didn’t have the foggiest idea that you and I would be reading their documents…in an English translation…in an age of scientific enlightenment…in the context of 21stcentury psychological insight…at a time when Christianity would span multiple cultures. They never imagined that such people as us would ever exist. Thus, they never made any effort for us to understand them. We should be confused about much of the Bible…if we do not bother to learn its non-American contexts; otherwise we are simply projecting our own opinions onto the text.
But there is more: people of religious faith believe that even though the Bible was not originally written for the modern person, that there is a mystery at work. The writings of the Bible contain powers that keep coming alive to transform persons and systems. Those mysterious powers of holy texts can cause great good or great harm. There is incontrovertible evidence that the Bible has been used to justify terrorism and destruction: slavery, inquisitions, military crusades, domestic abuse, the KKK, the Holocaust…
On the other hand, scripture has also inspired the world’s peoples to resist those evils. The words of scripture have often been on the front lines whenever people fight for liberty or justice. Like water, fire, and sex, holy writings are necessary for life, even though they can also harm and destroy. In order to find life rather than death in scripture, it behooves us to follow sound hermeneutical rules.
Logic is the second field of discipline important for biblical interpretation. The rules of logic show us how to come up with conclusions and inferences. And inferences are how people apply the Bible to everyday life. We infer, based on logic, that some statement in the Bible should be applied in a particular way in our own lives. If our reasoning doesn’t follow the rules of logic, then our rational is invalid and our inferences will not be reliable. Likewise, if the observations and assumptions we make are false, our inferences will be untrustworthy.
For example, there is a lovely passage in First Samuel 18 about the affection between Jonathan (the prince) and David (the palace musician.) There is also a verse (Second Samuel 1:26) in which David claims that his love for Jonathan surpasses his love for women. But should we infer from these texts that the two men were homosexual lovers…and then infer further that God thus approves of homosexuality? If so, we would be justifying a homosexuality on the basis of bad logic.
Another example of making inferences starts with the first stories of Genesis. They tell how God placed Adam and Eve in a monogamist and heterosexual relationship, and then ordered them to be fruitful and multiply. These Genesis stories make up a rather straightforward narrative description. But is is logical to infer that descriptions in the Bible are legitimate prescriptions? Should we infer that all seven billion humans now living on our over-populated planet should also have sex and children in the same manner as Adam and Eve? Should we infer that the only sex allowed to us is what Adam and Eve did? Furthermore, what should be inferred about letting Adam and Eve be our role models, given that they were the two influential adults in an incredibly dysfunctional family? Why is Adam singled out by Paul as a poor role model for humanity (in contrast to Jesus), but singled out by Christians as an ideal role model for how to have sex?
Much of our quarreling could be avoided if we eased up on notions that are supported with logical fallacies. A logical fallacy doesn’t necessarily mean a conclusion is wrong, but one should exercise great humility when advocating such opinions.
We shall now look at the six texts that make a direct reference to same sex coupling. And we shall note a few other texts that are relevant for drawing helpful inferences.