SoulForce Visit: Theology and Sexuality, Part 1

Most on the ACU campus knows that SoulForce, a religiously oriented gay activist group, is visiting the school on Monday. I've spoken already at a Honor’s DeepDish gathering and I'm talking tomorrow in Hart as a part of a panel on Brokeback Mountain.

So, I've been thinking a lot about sexuality and theology.

In the past, I have attempted to start conversations with people about the theology of sexuality, but those haven't gotten too far off the ground. So, in keeping with the title of this blog, I’ll engage in a little “experimental theology” on this topic.

Reflecting on the issue of homosexuality, I've identified five theological approaches to the issue of defining "sin." In coming blogs I’ll list each with some comments:

1.) Divine Command Theory: This is a strong appeal to the Bible, the straightforward reading of vice lists. That is, if the Bible says it's a sin, it's a sin. End of debate.

Comments: The strength of Divine Command Theory is that it is simple and unambiguous. But there are a variety of problems with this “laundry list” approach to sin. First, Divine Command Theory leaves you in the dark as to why God finds an act “offensive.” This is important in that the “list” doesn’t extend to every circumstance; particularly in today’s modern age where we are asked to decide upon ethical issues the Biblical writers could not even begin to contemplate (e.g., stem cell research). Thus, any ethical reasoning that defaults with “Because God say’s so” is too simplistic to be of any help in a complex world. What we need is theology, some underlying idea of WHY God finds something offensive. The WHY gives us deeper principles we can use to reason with in novel situations. It is very similar to what the Supreme Court does with the Constitution: What was the INTENT of the framers?

Second, the “laundry list” of sins changes over the course of the Bible. Some things in the OT that God finds offensive no longer seem to bother Him in the NT. Thinking syllogistically, we have the following:

Proposition 1: God never changes
Proposition 2: Some behaviors/situations in the OT God no longer finds offensive in the NT

If these both are true, and most Christians would say they are, then we have a contradiction. The only way to resolve the issue is to conclude one of the following:

Conclusion 1: The sin lists of the Bible are products of both God’s inspiration and human construction (largely due to changing cultural milieus). Thus, the changes in “holiness” across the Bible are reflective, not of God’s changing, but of human cultures’ changing.

Conclusion 2: God has changed His mind. That is, some things He once found offensive He no longer finds offensive.

Traditionally, Christians have not liked either outcome. But, if forced to choose, most gravitate toward Conclusion 1, insisting that, although it appears that definitions of “holiness” change over time, the core ethical vision of the Bible is contiguous from OT to NT. Any changes in what is deemed “offensive” is to not due to God changing His mind, but rather the inevitable product of God’s revelation being shaped and couched in a particular cultural milieu.

But this conclusion is no good. It insists that OT offenses, that are later dropped in the NT, were peripheral and culturally driven. I have no doubt that these offenses were culturally driven, but they cannot be called peripheral. Why? Because people were killed for many of those offenses. That seems pretty central to me. Further, if those sins were not central, you’ll have to explain why God allowed justifications for murder, for non-essential ethical violations (!), to be encoded in His Book.

This situation is so bad many theologians go with Conclusion 2 and believe God has changed His mind over time. This is called Process Theology. But its implications are very scary for most Christians to contemplate.

Third, some things on our vice list are not on the vice lists of the NT. For example, "slave-holder" is not on the NT vice lists. Thus, in the NT it seems being a slave-holder was compatible with holiness. Nowadays, few sins are more contemptible than slavery. How to explain this? Some might contend that Paul, given his comments in Philemon, was making an "accommodation" to the culture, allowing the Kingdom to break into the larger culture as far as it could but not pushing the issue to the point of social disequilibrium.

If so, then this is a disturbing accommodation. Most would think that the gospel message centrally and profoundly speaks to the issue of slavery. Thus, to accommodate on this, is to accommodate the very essence of the gospel. And, if Paul is willing to accommodate at the very center of the gospel, what else might he have been accommodating on? Lots of things, then, seem up for grabs.

In short, Divine Command Theory, as simple and “Biblical” as it seems, creates more problems than it solves. We need to move past “laundry lists” and start approaching homosexuality theologically. In the next few posts, I’ll do this.

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8 thoughts on “SoulForce Visit: Theology and Sexuality, Part 1”

  1. D'accord so far. I would suggest two caveats...

    1. "Process" isn't the only solution theology has used to deal with the concept of God's changing demands - it's just the most radical. An "openness view" would suggest that God's will never changes, but that as humanity changes, His laws (separate from His will/nature) change to address human nature in light of His unchanging will/nature. The simplest human example of this would be a child playing with matches. We would scold the child for playing with them, as he might burn the house down, and injure himself, and others. But if our child grew up to be a fireman, we'd likely not get bent outta shape when he lit a match or two. Our concerns for the child do not change (our nature/will), but the circumtances, and our will in light of those circumstances, would look very different.

    2. Along those lines, there are several OT theologians who ask WHY homosexuality was wrong in the OT. The divine command is there - but the question is whether there might be a context for the practice that is particularly problematic (like idolatry, or oppression). For example, the men in Genesis 19 are not simply homosexual - they are violent oppressors, who would voraciously rape and murder Lot's daughter - so their infraction runs deeper than their sexual preferences.

    I've already read your second post, and I'm really REALLY looking forward to this thread. Thanks for the excellent thoughts.

    BTW, I am an F.O.C. - a Friend of Cole

  2. Scott,
    I agree with you. I think, once all this gets unpacked, I'm heading in the direction you've sketched out here. Thanks for the encouragement.

  3. Richard, process theology does indeed suggest that God changes over time, but process theology can't be reduced to that idea. In fact, in many versions of process theology, it's not actually clear that God has a mind to change.

  4. Chris, I agree drastically oversimplified process theology. That may be due to my ignorance. Are there good primers on process theology out there? Or, is it more of a working assumption sitting behind specific scholarship?

  5. If there is not a rationale why a sin is wrong, does the action automatically become good, "end of debate"? Can something be wrong, even though a rationale is not stated? Could something still be wrong, but not based on criteria that a non-Christian would accept?

  6. A Divine Command approach would say that some things are wrong and we might not know the rationale. So, sure, some would argue that we don't have access to God's "reasons" but we do have access to his "prohibitions."

    Also, if something is not "wrong" that does not make it "good." Most things are morally neutral.

  7. Richard, I hope you still read comments on old posts.  I just came across this series of yours and found it fascinating.

    You write that there were offenses that demanded the death penalty in the Old Testament which were dropped in the New Testament.  I've been searching for which sins you might be referring to here, as I have been unable to find any.  Idolatry, blasphemy, witchcraft/enchantment/necromancy, false prophecy, child sacrifice, murder or death because of negligence, various types of sexual immorality including types of incest, rape, adultery, prostitution, fornication, bestiality, and "homosexuality," breaking the Sabbath, being a disobedient child or dishonoring your parents, being a false witness, stealing people, and contempt of court.  All of these, to the best of my knowledge, are either unmentioned in the New Testament, or also condemned there, even if the sentence is no longer death.  Is there something I'm missing?

    I'd love to hear back from you because I find your argument very persuasive, but I believe this point affects your conclusion.  Thank you!

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