Saturday, October 07, 2006

Robert A. J. Gagnon's answer to Mark Powell: Does the Bible Regard Same-Sex Intercourse As Intrinsically Sinful?

A Lutheran layman writes:

"The essay by Mark Allan Powell, professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, is found in the book Faithful conversations: Christian Perspectives on Homosexuality (ed. James M. Childs, Jr.: Fortress Press, 2003), which you may recall was at the time promoted as a study guide for ELCA churches. This was a book (of generally pro-homosex essays) initiated by the ELCA seminary presidents in response to a churchwide mandate to study the feasibility of blessing homosexual unions. From that collection, some regard Powell's essay "The Bible and Homosexuality" as being the most important.

In his essay, Powell lays out the grounds for his belief that the church can and should make exceptions (from the Bible's consistent proscription of same sex intercourse) and yet still remain within a spectrum of "biblically consistent views".

Mark Powell's essay has attracted the attention of Dr. Robert Gagnon, Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Dr. Gagnon acknowledges that Mark Powell is a well-published scholar who generally has high regard for the authority of Scripture in the life of the church, and states: "that so far as pro-homosex treatments by biblical scholars are concerned, Powell's is one of the better ones".

But that seemed to only inspire Dr. Gagnon to write an exhaustive point / counterpoint analysis of Mark Powell's essay. The unabridged version of Dr. Gagnon's analysis ( 33 printed pages) is found on Dr. Gagnon's website.
and an abridged form appears (along with other essays) in the book Christian Sexuality: Normative and Pastoral Principles (ed. Russell E. Saltzman; Minneapolis: Kirk House, 2003).

In my opinion, Dr. Gagnon has again succeeded in his stated goal of showing ". . that a "biblically consistent view" does not permit "exceptions" to a normative stance against homosexual practice. Rather, the gospel of the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ call for maintaining an exception-less stance against homosexual practice in the context of an outreach of love to those violating such a standard."

From the conclusion of Gagnon's essay:

"A sexual relationship is about much more than intimacy in the context of lifelong commitment.[44] It is about merging (interlocking, fusing) with another who is structurally complementary (congruous, compatible), “becoming one flesh” through a sexual relationship, and learning to integrate holistically with another who is neither too much like oneself, nor too much unlike on a structural level. Intimacy with one’s parent, child, circle of close fellow believers, or even beloved pet is a wonderful thing. Adding sex to the mix, however, changes completely the dynamics of the relationship. Intimacy turns into a desire to merge sexually. Explaining why introducing sex into such intimate relationships is wrong is not easy to do; it requires a certain intuitive and instinctive sense. We are arriving here at a “prime number” of human sexuality, a reality not easily “divisible” into logical, measurable, or scientific analysis.

Powell does cite the incest analogy to show that the capacity of some same-sex unions for love and commitment “is not sufficient” for meeting a “heavy burden of proof” for exceptions to the biblical norm. Yet he then goes on to say that the relevance of the incest analogy is limited significantly by the fact that

people involved in incestuous relationships do not usually maintain that they are so incest-oriented that a meaningful nonincestuous sexual relationship would be impossible for them. The pressing point for the Church with regard to homosexuality occurs over this issue. (p. 35)

The flaw in this observation, however, is that “sexual orientation” does not take precedence over the issue of too much structural sameness. Even apart from the fact that homosexual acts are often—perhaps most often—conducted by people who are not “exclusive” homosexuals (category 6 in Kinsey’s terms), would Powell or anyone else want to sanction a man-mother union even if there were an “orientation” involved? Obviously not. It’s just too weird.

If issues of commitment, monogamy, and longevity take a back seat to the core value of non-incestuous unions, then the question of whether “yearning for a life-partner” can be satisfied through some other means is quite beside the point. For there are no guarantees that an individual engaged in incest will find another life-partner. Regardless of the person’s prospects for some other relationship, incest is too grave an offense to be warranted under any circumstances. It transcends all matters pertaining to life-partners. This is even more true of same-sex intercourse. Whether or not the individual develops an attraction later in life for members of the opposite sex—something that no one can predict in advance—is a secondary concern in relation to the self-idolatry of attraction to one’s own sex.[45]

C. On the burden of proof
This leads us to another flaw in Powell’s approach. Any overturning or even significant modification of a biblical value must directly address the reasons for the Bible’s position. For example, it is not enough to prove that the sole expression of homosexuality in antiquity was an inherently exploitative form (pederasty or cult prostitution) or that the knowledge of an entrenched, innate, and exclusive homosexual orientation was inaccessible to the ancient mind—two claims that, at any rate, are false. One must also prove that the Bible condemned homosexual practice primarily on the grounds of the exploitative mismatch created by pederasty or on the grounds that all participants were capable of experiencing sexual satisfaction with the opposite-sex. Otherwise, even if these claims were valid (and they are not), they would still have little relevance for ascertaining the deficiencies in the Bible’s reasons for condemning homosexual behavior.

As noted early, Powell contends that anyone who wants to argue for exceptions to “what appears to be a unanimous judgment of scripture” has to meet a “heavy burden of proof” (pp. 28, 35). Unfortunately, Powell then proceeds at points to argue as if such were not the case. He believes that “we cannot know for certain what Paul would have prescribed for the redeemed Christian who continues to have homosexual impulses [and][46] to engage in homosexual activity that is neither promiscuous nor exploitative”; nor can “speculation” over what Paul “might have thought” be “determinative for the Church’s deliberations” (p. 31). Wait a minute: When does “a heavy burden of proof on anyone who wishes to argue for exceptions” kick in, if not here? Doesn’t Powell’s burden-of-proof criterion require him to assume that Paul would not have made any exceptions for “the redeemed Christian who continues to have homosexual impulses [and] to engage in [nonexploitative] homosexual activity”—unless powerful and unambiguous historical evidence to the contrary can be adduced? To meet the “heavy burden of proof,” Powell would have to demonstrate, among other things, that:

(1) Paul almost certainly could not have been aware of theories in the ancient world regarding a congenital basis for at least some forms of homoerotic attraction.

(2) Paul did not think sin could be associated with entrenched and exclusive innate desires.

(3) Paul’s primary reason for viewing same-sex intercourse as an egregious wrong had to do with an assumption about homoerotic desire as voluntary and nonexclusive, and homosexual relationships as inevitably exploitative, rather than with any notion about structural incongruity.

As it is, Powell never establishes a single one of these points. Indeed, the historical and literary contexts for Paul’s remarks about homosexual behavior do not permit any of these points to be established. Therefore, his position on exceptions, expressed at the end of the article, does not meet the “heavy burden of proof” that he himself sets up for all who contend for exceptions.
Read the whole essay here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I must confess being disappointed in Mark Powell for some time. Had him at seminary. Nice guy. However, he seems to acknowledge the biblical witness on one hand, and then disavow it with the other.

Very sad.

Peace in the Lord!
Rob Buechler

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