book review – The Bible on the Question of Homosexuality

The Bible on the Question of Homosexuality. Innocent Himbaza, Adrien Schenker, and Jean-Baptiste Edart. Tr. Benedict M. Guevin. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2012.

The amount of ink, pages, and pixels expended in debating what the Bible says on the issue of homosexuality is no doubt approaching “stars in the sky, sand on the seashore” territory. The “wheels within wheels” nature of the discussion is vast and complex, and not the least of it is the impact on how we understand the question of imago Dei as it applies to humanity. Did God create people in his image to engage in same sex activity? Is someone who has no heterosexual interests but who does have homosexual interests made less in God’s image than someone who has only heterosexual interests? Even taking account of the fall into sin, if heterosexual sinners can engage in sex in a marriage in a God-pleasing manner, why can’t homosexual sinners join in a committed relationship that parallels heterosexual marriage?

While there is nothing shockingly new in The Bible on the Question of Homosexuality (henceforward, BQH), the book can still be commended for consideration because it was developed apart from the current contentious context of North America. Innocent Himbaza teaches at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) in the areas of Old Testament and Jewish literature in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. Adrien Schenker also teaches at the University of Fribourg in the area of Old Testament. Jean-Baptiste Edart teaches at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, focusing on the New Testament, and in particular Paul’s letters. Himbaza is a Protestant, Schenker and Edart are Roman Catholics (as is the translator, Guevin, with the essays in the book originally composed in French).

As the bibliography and footnotes reveal, the authors are well-versed in the literature that forms the basis of the debate on what the Bible says on the topic of homosexuality, a debate that has led a number of church bodies to adopt an open and welcoming view toward homosexual behavior as acceptable within Christian ethical norms. Denominations that have become open to particular same-sex relationships felt it necessary to develop exegetical arguments dealing with texts that were historically seen as prohibiting same-sex practice. Because the authors of BQH were not participants in the North American debate in particular, their hope is to provide a non-partisan assessment of the biblical material, striving to avoid both homophilic and homophobic presuppositions (pp. xiv, 2). It is noted that the “principal danger of every study of texts on this subject is to project the current situation” upon them (p. 122).

The three chapters of BQH examine the standard texts and the arguments put forth over the last several decades: Genesis 19 (Sodom and Gomorrah), Judges 19 (Gibeonites and the Levite’s concubine), 1 Samuel 16-20 (relationship between Jonathan and David), legal texts in Leviticus 18-20 (specifically addressing male-male sexual behavior), Pauline material in Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:10. In addition, the authors take up the argument that Jesus is silent on the issue of homosexuality and that this silence should be construed to mean Jesus was not opposed to same-sex activities that did not violate the larger ethic of love.

In assessing the evidence, the authors of BQH regard as unconvincing exegetical arguments advocating for an acceptance of same-sex activity within a biblical ethic of love. They conclude that such approaches are examples of an ideological reading rather than a contextual reading of Scripture (pp. 42, 110, 112, 114).

The authors of BQH recognize that the Bible does not directly address many elements of the contemporary discussion, particularly the idea of homosexuality-as-orientation (pp. 5, 132). Nevertheless, the authors still maintain that the biblical prohibitions of same-sex activity in Scripture have a central place in contemporary discussions. This is so, BHQ argues, because both the Old and New Testaments base the prohibition of same-sex activity on the foundations of community and creation. Such foundations are sufficient, the authors aver, to outweigh the argument that biblical prohibitions of same-sex activity should be seen as historically contingent to ancient times and therefore are not applicable to contemporary understandings of homosexuality.

A full assessment of the arguments found in BQH is beyond the scope of this review. However, the undersigned would call attention to how BQH authors anchor the meanings of controverted words to the Bible’s own cultural and temporal settings. Thus, in the contemporary debate some argue that Paul’s terminology is ambiguous: malakoi (soft/passive partners/male prostitutes/men who practice homosexuality) and arsenokoitai (males engaged in sex/active partners/sodomites) in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and the understanding of metallassw/allassw (exchange) and phusis (natural) in Romans 1:26-27. Since some of these words can be found used in extra-biblical documents in ways that call into question the traditional interpretation of same-sex injunction, the argument is made that these verses do not prohibit all same sex behavior but only that which is destructive. The authors of BQH make a strong case that those kinds of arguments are instances of special pleading, substituting matters of probability (assigning what a word might mean in some usages to any or every usage) for the far more sound hermeneutical principle of relying upon how the words are used in their near-context and by the community in question.

Regarding the argument that Jesus’ silence on the matter should be seen as dispositive in favor of same-sex activity, BQH notes, “Jesus’ silence on this matter can only be interpreted as reflecting agreement with the tradition of Israel on this point. Besides, it is highly probable that he never directly came across the question in the Jewish milieu, since, given the existing prohibition, this behavior had no social visibility” (p. 114).

If you have found yourself in the camp of those frustrated by the partisan exegetical approaches of many who debate homosexuality and the Bible, the authors of BQH bring some calm to the discussion as they cover the material in a dispassionate manner, offering sound exegetical arguments that contribute to an accurate understanding of Scripture.

As Christians consider how to speak the Gospel truth on this matter in the contemporary context, it truly is problematic that the conversation almost immediately rises to the boiling point, leading to the demonizing of anyone who disagrees with either side of the argument. The authors of BQH are to be commended for engaging the discussion seriously while avoiding the boiling point. As we take up the meaning of imago Dei as it pertains to all of God’s creation, both fallen and redeemed/restored, BQH is recommended both for its contents/conclusions and for its approach toward the subject matter.

Charles W. Blanco
Associate Professor of Theology, Concordia University, Nebraska


Comments are closed.