Book Review: Homosexuality – The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate; By Stanton L. Jones & Mark A. Yarhouse

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Letter TThe topic of homosexuality has been discussed from a variety of angles from within the Christian context. Some scholars seek to address the ancient near-Eastern and Greco-Roman contexts in which the Scriptures were written to best understand their injunctions, others attempt to deal directly with and exegete the Biblical texts.

The goal of Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse in their book here is to analyze how the most recent scientific research effects the Christian moral debate around homosexuality. To be clear, the book is not written to answer the question of whether homosexual actions are immoral in light of science, the authors begin from the assumption that it is. The goal is rather to show that “while science provides us with many interesting and useful perspectives on sexual orientation and behavior, the best science of this day fails to persuade the thoughtful Christian to change his or her moral stance.”(p.13) The goal is to answer the question of how research on homosexuality should inform the Christian understanding of homosexuality.

Overview

The basic issue that Jones and Yarhouse see in the current climate is that “After the stem ‘science says…’ sweeping and inaccurate generalizations are often made. After such generalizations ethical conclusions are often thrown out that are only loosely tied to the supposed scientific facts.” (p29) This book is written both to clarify what the current research actually says and to analyze how those findings are brought to bear on ethical discussions.

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Book Review: Homosexuality ~ Contemporary Claims Examined in Light of the Bible and Other Ancient Literature And Law – By James B. DeYoung

De Young Homosexuality.pngletter-aAuthor James B. De Young’s preface opens with the line “Western civilization has been undergoing as dramatic a shift in its ways of thinking and living as at any point in history.” This book is his analysis of that shift.

Yet De Young does not merely wish to analyze that shift on its own, but rather as the relatively long subtitle suggests, to examine contemporary claims regarding homosexuality through the lens of the Bible and other ancient literature and law. The latter part of that description makes this book seem especially compelling, as it implies that the book will work to truly examine the context in which the Scriptures were written and to get a handle on the ancient understanding of homosexuality.

In this task the book both fails and succeeds in various ways.

Content:

The format of the book is fairly straightforward. It is divided into three main parts, each analyzing ancient views of homosexuality through a different lens. Thus the author first discusses homosexuality as it is presented in the Old Testament (to include the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Septuagint), moves on to discuss homosexuality as it is presented in the New Testament (first in Romans, then 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, and then in the teachings of Jesus), and finally moves on to discuss homosexuality in the ancient world.

Throughout the text the author’s goal is to dispel three different ways that contemporary re-interpreters have mishandled the text: by arguing that references to homosexuality in the Bible don’t really refer to homosexuality as such (partly due to the word homosexual having no corresponding term in Hebrew, Greek, etc); by arguing that prohibitions against homosexuality were only meant for Israel; and by arguing that the Scriptures are outdated and irrelevant, either by casting doubt on the meaning and extent of the canon or by re-interpreting Scripture such that it renders references to homosexuality as either contextually irrelevant or contemporarily anachronistic.

In his discussion of the Old Testament, De Young focuses on the creational narrative and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Thus he argues that the creation narrative creates relationships as necessarily male and female, and then spends much time addressing modern interpretations that argue the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not related to homosexuality (but instead a lack of hospitality or rape). This discussion moves into an analysis of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, working to further point out that these texts associated Sodom’s sin with homosexuality, and that this is not therefore a modern innovation. Finally in this section he addresses the Septuagint, which critics seek to discredit since it uses terminology referring to homosexuality. In each case the author finds through exegesis that each text supports the traditional view.

Moving on to an analysis of the New Testament understanding of homosexuality, DeYoung first addresses Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality as ‘against nature’ in Romans 1, followed by discussions of his use of the term in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. These discussions are largely aimed at proving that Paul was not merely referring to pederasty or cultic prostitution, but was indeed referring to homosexuality as we understand the term today, especially where it is held that Paul and the ancient Christians had no conception of a consensual adult-adult relationship based on love.

In closing this section the author moves on to a discussion of homosexuality as it is seen in the teachings of Christ. While the author notes that while “Christ did not explicitly address the practice of same-gender-behavior or orientation” he did affirm the OT understanding and condemned the practice through implicit or indirect references.

The final primary section of the text is a discussion of homosexuality in extra-Biblical literature. This is especially aimed at addressing how the ancients understood the concept, and looking at legislative precedent in ancient world. In this the author cites Philo and Josephus as furthering the traditional understanding, points out that through a discussion of Plato that ancient Greece was aware of homosexuality as we understand it today, and that they were ok with the practice. This is relevant to the discussion due to the assertion of critics that “the Greco-Roman culture is responsible for the early writers condemnation of homosexuality” ; because “the ethical stance of Jews and Christians toward homosexuality is unique”, it could not have been a mere holdover from Greco-Roman society.

In each of these sections the author painstakingly goes through the ancient languages and contexts to make his argument that the traditional interpretation of each area is correct. The author then concludes his work with a chapter of questions and answers, each answer citing a page in his book for easy reference such that the reader can go directly to the section that answers their specific question, rather than wading through the entire text. This is an interesting feature that I haven’t seen in any other texts.

Analysis:

On the whole, the author presents plenty of support for his case. That said, writing is not the author’s strongpoint. The book is largely tedious, unengaging, and jumbled. The train of thought does not flow smoothly, largely because the author is attempting to do too much at once. The book reads more like a dissertation rather than anything meant for popular consumption.

So far as his arguments go, the author does support his case well, but in each instance is forced to point out that one cannot bypass all ambiguity. Thus after all his argument he does concede, for instance, that “there is no single Greek or Hebrew word meaning ‘homosexuality'” and “a lack of explicit references” due to the use of euphemisms and in another instance settles for arguing that “in light of the linguistic and cultural contexts, one cannot eliminate homosexual practice from the range of meaning.”

In this the author is at least honest that the positions of the critics are not entirely without basis – even if they overestimate that basis – though he does still feel confident in asserting that the thing being condemned is homosexuality as traditionally understood. In this he does a relatively good job.

Apart from his primary argument, however, the author does not present his case in a very charitable fashion (although he is still no Martin Luther or John MacArthur). Thus he begins with the assertion that “Until recently, homosexuality referred to disgusting practices that brought shame and were confined behind closed doors.” The reader gets the impression that the author desires this to still be the case; this is problematic for a variety of reasons that are too long to go into here.

In other places the author puts words in the mouths of Biblical authors in a question-begging manner; thus in one of his dramatization that serve as introductions to each chapter writes “To have sex with men was against his religion, Lot had often confessed.” This assertion comes before the analysis of Sodom and Gomorrah has been done, thereby short-circuiting the actual analysis.

Finally, while the author aptly notes that “Every person comes to the matter of homosexuality from an established opinion, which has been shaped by a worldview” , he doesn’t spend any time unpacking his own worldview and his own [extra-Biblical] biases. A similar shortsightedness can be seen when the author asserts that “One’s worldview determines whether homosexuality is perceived as right or wrong.” Yet this simply isn’t true, and there is no better evidence than this very book.

The very fact that a book needed to be written going through a systematically dismantling the ways in which contemporary scholarship has re-interpreted the Scriptures goes to show that those who have bought the argument that homosexuality isn’t condemned in Scripture aren’t necessarily operating off of a different worldview. As this book could be used to show, these individuals very well may hold the infallibility of Scripture and believe every other tenant of the Christian faith, but have simply been convinced by shoddy exegesis that the traditional view of homosexuality is mistaken and Biblically inaccurate – where this is the case the individual is not operating outside the Christian worldview.

On the whole, this book could make a decent reference work for exegesis of passages dealing with homosexuality, but even for this purpose the text is fairly jumbled and not the easiest to follow, simply because De Young tries to pack too many different rebuttals into one book.

TL:DR – Not the best book on the topic, albeit well-researched.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Homosexuality must affirm that the male gender by itself, or the female gender by itself, is an adequate representation of the divine image. It claims that the sexual differences arising from Creation are not foundational and essential and can be bypassed and overlooked.”-p15

Specific Criticisms

There are a few nit-picky problems with this text.

The first of these is the seemingly arbitrary connection of homosexuality with pride towards the beginning of the book. The argument in that section doesn’t really tie into the overall flow of the book, and merely serves to further muddle the text.

The second of these is that the author introduces each chapter with a dramatized version of some story; these are largely annoying, further muddle the flow of the text, and merely serve as an attempt to subtly insert the author’s views through narrative form.

The third of these is that even though the author clearly has a high degree of familiarity with the original language and textual criticism, he still chooses to base one of his introductory dramatizations around the woman caught in adultery, which as any first year student of the canon knows is not original to the text but a later addition.

The final criticism of this text is that the author seems to arbitrarily argue against a distinction being made between homosexual condition and homosexual practices. For some reason that isn’t ever really established, the author feels the need to argue that the Bible does more than just condemn homosexual practices, but condemns homosexuality itself (though he does seem to waffle on this point). This is one of those areas that serves well to demonstrate the way in which the author fails to get beyond his own biases.

What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?

deyoungFor those who hold the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God, one of the more relevant questions of the day is “What does the Bible really teach about homosexuality?”

As his title clearly displays, this is the question that pastor – and newly appointed Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at RTS – takes up in this book.

DeYoung begins his book in a somewhat surprising way, in that before jumping in to discussing individual passages of Scripture and how to interpret them, he first takes some time to lay out the basic assumptions of the discussion for the reason that “As is so often the case with controversial matters, we will never agree on the smaller subplots if it turns out we aren’t even telling the same story” (p9). Thus DeYoung spends his introduction making sure we’re all on the same page in regards to the basic outline of Scripture, discussing who he is writing to, and defining some of his terms and how he will approach the topic. That is to say, DeYoung first sets out to correct and/or provide a big picture view of Scripture, from which he will then proceed to dip down and analyze certain vital points.

The book is divided into two basic parts. In the first part DeYoung analyzes the five Biblical passages that most directly relate to discussions of homosexuality (Gen 1-2, Gen 19, Lev 18&20, Rom 1, 1 Cor 6 & 1 Tim 1), and argues through contextual, lexical, logical, and exegetical arguments that each of these passages does indeed amount to a condemnation of homosexual activity.

After a clear and thorough analysis of relevant Scripture, DeYoung proceeds to answer the many common objections or questions that come up when discussing the Bible’s relation to homosexual activity. These include the objections that: the Bible hardly ever mentions homosexuality (and therefore it doesn’t really care); that the Bible isn’t referring to modern, consensual, loving homosexuality; that traditionalist are inconsistent in that they don’t treat divorce and gluttony in the same way; that the church is supposed to be a place for broken people (and therefore should embrace homosexual activity); that traditionalists are ‘on the wrong side of history’; that it’s not fair because they were born that way; or that God is a God of love (and therefore approves of homosexual activity).

In each instance DeYoung carefully – and gently – uncovers the misunderstandings or misconceptions involved in each the objections, and he does so in a very concise manner (offering better arguments than similar texts and yet in a quarter of the space). Thus he points out that “The reason the Bible says comparatively little about homosexuality is because it was a comparatively uncontroversial sin among ancient Jews and Christians… Counting up the number of verses on any particular topic is not the best way to determine the seriousness of the sin involved (p72); that “If the ancient world not only had a category for committed same-sex relationships but also some understanding of homosexual orientation (to use our phrase), there is no reason to think the New Testament’s prohibitions against same-sex behavior were only for pederasty and exploitation” (p.84); asking “do we really want to suggest that one sin is no big deal because we’ve been lax about a different sin?” (p90); that “If we think people can find a Savior without forsaking their sin, we do not know what sort of Savior Jesus Christ is… No doubt, the church is for broken and imperfect people – broken people who hate what is broken in them and imperfect people who have renounced their sinful imperfections” (p98); that “As Christians we ought to fear being on the wrong side of the holy, apostolic, and universal church more than we fear being on the wrong side of discredited assumptions about progress and enlightenment” (p108); that “We cannot derive oughts from what is. Our own sense of desire and delight, or of pleasure and of pain, is not self-validating” (p111); and that “the love of God does not swallow up all the other divine attributes” (p121).

On the whole, DeYoung offers an excellent and readable resource for parents, lay elders, college students and ordinary people for dispelling misconceptions and understanding the teaching of the Scriptures on the topic of homosexual activity.

Perhaps most noteworthy in DeYoung’s text – apart from his sound exegesis – is that he doesn’t approach the discussion as one of ‘homosexuality’ itself, but of homosexual activity. That is, what he points out as being condemned in Scripture are the homosexual actions, not homosexuality (what might be called ‘homosexual temptation’) or homosexuals themselves. Thus throughout the discussion DeYoung deliberately – and rightly in my opinion – avoids the use of the term ‘homosexuality’. As he states: “Quite deliberately, these terms suggest a freely chosen activity or behavior. In using these terms I am not speaking in a blanket way about those who find themselves attracted to persons of the same sex, nor am I commenting on whether these desires were consciously chosen (almost certainly not) or whether and when the desires themselves become sinful” (p20).

Through this DeYoung avoids the standard conservative cliche of saying that homosexuals are condemned by the Bible in and of themselves, that it is a sin to be homosexual (or to be more semantically accurate, to have homosexual feelings/temptations). While DeYoung does expertly dismantle the various objections to the Biblical stance on homosexual activity, it is this aspect of his book that I have found to be missing from the contemporary conversation as a whole, and so for this aspect I am especially glad.

On a similarly helpful note DeYoung also attacks the idol of [monogamous] sex and marriage that we’ve set up for ourselves within the church, where marriage is the highest ideal; thus he points out that “If everything in Christian community revolves around being married with children, we should not be surprised when singleness sounds like a death sentence. If that’s the church’s challenge, what’s needed in the wider culture is a deep dymthythologizing of sex. Nothing in the Bible encourages us to give sex the exalted status it has in our culture, as if finding our purpose, our identity, and our fulfillment all rest on what we can or cannot do with our private parts” (p119). In this DeYoung reminds us that we ourselves as the church have contributed some of the factors that make this conversation so difficult, that it is the conservative church that has helped make marriage and sex pivotal for out purpose and identity. It is only natural that after having this ideal set up for them by the church that those who have a desire for homosexual activity feel like they are having their very identity and purpose denied them.

All in all, DeYoung’s short text is the single most lucid, orthodox, and concise discussion to be found today.

Memorable Quotes:

“The central plotline of the story of Scripture was set in motion: a holy God making a way to dwell in the midst of an unholy people.”-11

“If you are not convinced by the lexical, logical, and exegetical arguments, I only ask that you make doubly sure it is the actual arguments that are unconvincing. Our feelings matter. Our stories matter. Our friends matter. But ultimately we must search the Scriptures to see what matters most. Don’t discount the messenger as a bigot if your real problem is with the Bible.”-18

“The act of sexual intercourse brings a man and a women together as one relationally and organically. The sameness of the parts in same-sex activity does not allow the two to become one in the same way. mere physical contact – like holding hands or sticking your finger in someone’s ear – does not unite two people in an organic union, nor does it bring them together as a single subject to fulfill a biological function.”-28

“Marriage is, by definition, that sort of union from which – if all the plumbing is working properly – children can be conceived.”-29

“The meaning of marriage is more than mutual sacrifice and covenantal commitment. Marriage, by its very nature, requires complementarity. The mystical union of Christ and the church – each ‘part’ belonging to the other but neither interchangeable – cannot be pictured in marital union without the differentiation of male and female. If God wanted us to conclude that men and women were interchangeable in the marriage relationship, he not only gave us the wrong creation narrative; he gave us the wrong metanarrative.”-32

“Homosexual practice is sinful because it violates the divine design in creation. According to Paul’s logic, men and women who engage in same-sex sexual behavior – even if they are being true to their own feelings and desires – have suppressed God’s truth in unrighteousness. They have exchanged the fittedness of male-female relations for those that are contrary to nature.”-55

“The English translations are almost always right, especially when they basically say the same thing… That doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes or that we can’t learn new things they missed. But it does mean that after reading a few commentaries and perusing a couple of articles online you will certainly not know the ancient work or Koine Greek better than they did.”-62

“[H]omosexual activity is not a blessing to be celebrated and solemnized but a sin to be repented of, forsaken, and forgiven.”-67

“Talking is not the problem. The problem is when incessant talking becomes a cover for indecision or even cowardice… It’s death by dialogue… The moratorium on making pronouncements will only be lifted once the revisionist position has won out.”-76

“Silence in the face of such clarity is not prudence, and hesitation in light of such frequency is not patience. The Bible says more than enough about homosexual practice for us to say something too.”-77

“A rant is not an idea, and feeling hurt is not an argument. To be sure, how we make each other feel is not unimportant. But in our age of perpetual outrage, we must make clear that offendedness is not proof of the coherence or plausibility of any argument. Now is not the time for fuzzy thinking. Now is not the time to shy away from careful definitions. Now is not the time to let moods substitute for logic. These are difficult issues. These are personal issues. These are complicated issues. We cannot chart our ethical course by what feels better. We cannot build our theology based on what makes us look nicer. We cannot abdicated intellectual responsibility because smart people disagree.”-126

“Sweeping statements about nebulous spiritual sentiment do not a worldview make.”-127

“Faithfulness is ours to choose; the shape of that faithfulness is God’s to determine.”-129

Specific Criticisms

The only real criticism I have of this text is that the author jumps too quickly to assigning homosexual activity as one of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. While he did prove that homosexual activity was involved in the actions being done in Sodom and Gomorrah, he begs the question when he concludes that homosexual activity was condemned in that narrative. He seems to have only been successful in that chapter in proving that the sin there condemned violent homosexual activity. On the whole this does not affect the overall thesis of the book, but it does seem a case of overstating his conclusions on the part of the author.

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Kevin’s book can be found for purchase at the Westminster Bookstore and Amazon.com.