Study conferences provide opportunity for the Mennonite Brethren people in Canada to explore, discuss, interpret, and discern God’s word together. In preparation for 2013’s Oct. 16–18 event, Honouring God with the Body, the board of faith and life (BFL) invites the MB family to engage in advance study on the topic. This is the first of several book recommendations from the BFL.
Having recently heard Robert Gagnon speak at a theological conference, what surprised me about his book was not the position he took (for I knew the direction of his argument), but the size and scope of his book. It is both impressive and daunting.
At 520 pages (including apparatus, i.e. technical information, list of abbreviations, indexes, etc.), The Bible and Homosexual Practice is no lightweight piece of work. Nor are Gagnon’s credentials: he has served since 1994 as a faculty member in New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the list of praises on the frontspiece includes commendations even from his theological opponents.
The objective of the book is twofold: first, to demonstrate “that the Bible unequivocally defines same-sex intercourse as sin. Second, there exist no valid hermeneutical arguments…for overriding the Bible’s authority on this matter.”
Gagnon’s unstated goal seems to have been to refute every kind of argumentation used to defend homosexual practice in his quest to set forth a case for Christian sexuality. His work is meticulous and relentless in pursuit of that end.
The outline of the book unfolds in five chapters. After addressing Old Testament texts on sexuality against an Ancient Near Eastern backdrop, Gagnon moves on to treat Early (i.e., intertestamental) Judaism, the teaching of Jesus, that of Paul, and finally modern critiques of biblical teaching.
Measured, respectful tone
Throughout the book, his tone is measured and respectful. Gagnon’s careful research and thoroughness are difficult to fault. He seemingly leaves no argument untouched, devoting space to every variant reading of every biblical text, with attention given to cultural, linguistic, and other factors involved in interpretation of the Scriptures.
Not surprisingly, this is not an easy book to read. But given the subject matter, one will not likely approach it with that expectation in mind. There’s a lot of technical language in this book, and it’s a tough slog at many points. At times, Gagnon’s commitment to encyclopaedic treatment of the topic meant that I learned things about sexual practices that I did not want to know, and at greater length than I wanted to discover. But diligent readers will be rewarded by persevering through what is overall a masterful contribution to the conversation on human sexuality in Christian perspective.
No better resource
For those involved in conversations with individuals advocating Christian acceptance of same-sex practice, I can think of no better resource. His discussion of homosexuality is virtually exhaustive, encompassing not only practice but also orientation. He convincingly shows that biblical authors wrote against a classical backdrop in which both sexual practice and orientation were in view, and at the other end of the chronological spectrum addresses the claims of modern psychology, neurology, and genetics in an even-handed fashion.
Although Gagnon has in mind to contribute to a healthy understanding of Christian ministry to members of the gay community, his book is largely a resounding condemnation of homosexual practice. Some Christians may find this an imbalanced approach; however, one must recognize that in Gagnon’s denomination, as in others that are fragmenting over same-sex practice, the emphasis is experiential – on relating to and including the LGBTQ community – far more than it is about what the Bible teaches about human sexuality.
Oriented around primacy of Scripture
Gagnon’s work implicitly affirms a need reverse this trend, to orient Christian theological work on sexual practice around the primacy of Scripture rather than relational experience. Mennonite Brethren readers of this work will doubtless agree. Further, the discordant nature of Gagnon’s stated combination of priorities – hating the sin but loving the sinner – is consistent with the ongoing difficulty that churches face in simultaneously confronting the sin of homosexual practice and loving homosexual individuals who are increasingly prominent in our midst.
Taking a stance on human sexuality (such as Gagnon’s) comes with risk. He acknowledges the risk at the outset – being labeled homophobic, intolerant, and uncritical, among other things. But the risk of a failure to adequately confront such a major ideology is far greater. Notwithstanding accusations that Christians like Robert Gagnon are unloving in their vigorous opposition to homosexual practice, I came away agreeing with Gagnon that it is unloving for Christians not to call attention to this sin.
Christians are called to help people view human sexuality in light of the God’s design for it, and to demonstrate in word and deed a higher standard as part of our mission in the world. This book will doubtless aid that mission.
Brian Cooper is associate dean, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary-ACTS, assistant professor of theology, MBBS Canada, and chair of the CCMBC board of faith and life (BFL).
Find the complete list of recommended reading, and more reviews here.
Updated May 24, 2013 with URL to study conference website.