Bible and Homosexuality – Two Views (book review)

Terry Weldon

K. Renato Lings. Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible. ISBN 978-1-46698-790-6
Matthew Vines. God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. ISBN 978-1-60142-516-4

For over half a century, since the pioneering work of Canon Sherwen Derrek Bailey, Bible scholars have been reassessing what was one a commonly accepted view that the bible strongly and obviously condemned homosexuality. By the twenty first century, what was once a trickle of revisionist books on the subject has become a torrent: a book search on Amazon with the terms “bible” and “homosexuality” will turn up many more titles which either reject the traditional biblical view, or accept that there is room for disagreement, than those still insisting that the biblical view is hostile.

These reassessments, applying particularly to the six “clobber texts” take many different forms, varying from scholar to scholar and from verse to verse.  Some follow Bailey in pointing to internal biblical evidence that contradicts the idea that the destruction of Sodom was because of same-sex practices. Others, notably William Countryman, show that the Levitical prohibition was part of the Jewish purity code, and so is not applicable to Christians, just as compulsory male circumcision and kosher dietary laws are not. Boswell and others deal with Paul’s complaint in Romans about men who act “against nature” with other males, by reminding us that for those with an inherently same-sex orientation, it is heterosexual intercourse that is truly unnatural – and so the apparent prohibition does not apply. Still others have examined problems of translation and mistranslation or argued that the problem lies not in understanding or interpreting the texts, but in applying them to modern conditions and understandings of sexuality.

Some of these new books becoming available are aimed at the general reader, summarising and presenting the range of scholarly material in more accessible forms, others present fresh, independent scholarship for an academic or specialist audience. I’ve been reading two very different new books, one from each of these perspectives. Each offers something new to what is already available, and each can be recommended, for its own intended market. Matthew Vines’s “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships ” is firmly in the former category, easily accessible by an interested general reader – but I concentrate here on the scholarly work of Renato Lings.

While many others have written about the difficulties of translation of “malakoi” and “arsenekotoi” in Corinthians and Timothy, Lings is the first that I know of who has applied linguistic tools to the whole set of clobber texts.  He is by training a linguist as well as a biblical scholar, with a doctorate in theology as well as higher degrees in literature and linguistics. In his exhaustive study of the relevant texts, he draws on all these diverse, complementary skills. To describe the work as “exhaustive” though, is an understatement. Early in the book, he describes how the Bible, which was written down over many centuries, was subjected to many repeated translations and retranslations: from classical Hebrew of the oldest texts to the Greek of the Septuagint, from the Septuagint to the Latin Vulgate, and from the Vulgate into later European languages, and the myriad translations available today.

He also presents, as preparation for what follows, a meticulous analysis of the Hebrew verb “yada (”, which is commonly translated as “to have sex with” (especially in the story of Sodom in Genesis 19). That translation lies at the heart of the traditional association of the chapter with homosexuality, and also with the common English phrase, “to know (in the Biblical sense). Lings however, presents exhaustive evidence that in the Bible “to know” rarely has a sexual connotation (statistically, in only about 2% of all occurrences of the verb).

In dealing with the Sodom story, he applies his scholarship over four full chapters, to devastating effect. Having already shown that the sexual meaning of the verb is highly unusual, in this specific instance it is even less plausible, by means of a literary rather than linguistic analysis. Narrative repetition is an important Hebrew literary device, and in earlier uses of the verb in the fuller telling of the story, in what had happened previously, the same verb is used in contexts where the sexual sense is totally inappropriate. Conversely, he also shows, by presenting alternative verbs that could have been used with an unambiguously sexual meaning, and often are elsewhere in the bible, that if a sexual sense had been intended, some other word than yada ( would surely have been used.

But it’s not only linguistic and literary analysis that he uses. Like Bailey and others before him, he describes how the internal evidence from elsewhere in the Bible and early post-biblical writings, makes clear that the sin of Sodom is nowhere described as sexual, but variously as arrogance and excessive love of luxury, failure of hospitality to strangers, as sexual violence, or as a general (but not specific) sexual licentiousness. It was only much later that “sodomy” became associated with same – sex eroticism. In doing so, he makes clear how this range of interpretations developed with the passage of time, influenced by changes in the available translations available as well as changing cultural conditions.

Four full chapters devoted to this careful examination of the Sodom story, represents far more than he can give to the other troublesome clobber texts, but he does apply to them the same techniques: careful analysis of the words used, the alternative meanings that could be applied, alternative words that might have been used but were not, and the broader social and cultural context of the passages in question. As with the story of Sodom, he also applies an historical account, of how others of these texts, like that of Sodom, acquired their assumed interpretation as critical of homosexuality only after the time of writing.

Lings is a Quaker, not a Catholic, but his approach to the bible and homosexuality is fully in keeping with the guidelines of the Pontifical Biblical Commission – that all interpretation should pay careful attention to linguistic and literary analysis, to the cultural and social contexts applicable to the passage, and also to the wider context of the bible as a whole, never examining any verse or passage in isolation.

In reading this book, I was reminded of John Boswell’s pioneering work in gay church history. Boswell was writing as a scholar for scholars, with copious footnotes in a range of classical languages, making it forbidding to non-specialists, but nevertheless of inestimable value to those of us who persevered. His research was ground breaking, but some of his conclusions have since been criticized by later scholars. Nevertheless, it remains true that much as his work contains flaws, no modern writer on the subject can ignore his work. I have a suspicion that in years to come, we may look back on Lings’ book in much the same way.

The detail of the scholarship is exhaustive, and for non-specialists, unable to evaluate it, the extensive tables may simply get in the way. Ignore them, if you like, just as we can ignore Boswell’s footnotes in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Syrian and still find profit in his books. If the scholarly approach puts you off even so, wait for Matthew Vines more accessible book (at the time of writing, not yet generally available, but due for publication on April 22nd).

I am not competent to assess Ling’s scholarship, but as with Boswell, the evidence he presents, in meticulously organised tables, is extensive.  It may well be that other scholars may disagree with him – but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to ignore his work.

If Renato Lings’ “Love Lost in Translation” is an academic work of scholarship, possibly intimidating to non-specialists, then Matthew Vines “God and the Gay Christian” is the reverse – primarily a summary account of familiar, existing work on the half dozen most notorious clobber texts. Those coming to the subject for the first time will find the book valuable for its clarity of exposition. Vines has shown previously (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezQjNJUSraY) that he is a gifted communicator in speech, and he shows similar skill in managing text. Those who are already familiar with the extensive corpus already published by trailblazing scholars and other popularizers may find the treatment of these key bible verses useful as clear summary, but with little new to offer.

What made the book particularly interesting to me though, was not these central chapters, but the opening and closing chapters which book – end it, and justify its sub-title, “The Biblical Case in Support of Same – Sex Relationships”.  Vines is a young man from a conservative Protestant background, raised by deeply religious parents who, together with the rest of their Presbyterian congregation in Kansas, shared in the traditional views that Christianity were bitterly unhappy when the majority of their denomination took decisions that led to the ordination of openly gay, partnered  clergy. They shared the traditional view, that is, until Vines began to realise that he too was gay, and the day that he came out to his father was described as the “worst day of my dad’s life”. In the opening chapters, which I found to be the most absorbing part of the book, he discusses his personal journey of biblical exploration and discovery. Unable either to reject the Bible or to renounce his sexual orientation, he took almost two years out of college for intensive study of the Biblical sources, and other relevant material. I found that these opening chapters left me with some notable and useful new insights, especially some extracts he quotes from Pope John Paul’s Theology of the Body.  These assure us that celibacy is difficult and a gift, not a command, and so is not required of all. Those for who have not been given the gift of voluntary celibacy, says John Paul, should marry. Noting that for inherently gay people, heterosexual marriage is not an option, Vines’ conclusion is that this necessarily means same – sex marriage. I cannot fault the logic, but never expected to find an endorsement of gay marriage, even indirectly, from Pope John Paul!

He returns to this subject in the closing chapters, putting the case for same – sex marriage, including blessing and affirmation of same – sex covenanted relationships in church. Finally, he closes with a chapter called “Seeds of a Modern Reformation”, seemingly a reference to his fascinating program for evangelising LGBT inclusion in church, “The Reformation Project”.

I have some quibbles. I was left with an uneasy feeling that this should really have been two books, one on defences against textual abuse of the Bible, and another combining his opening and closing chapters – covering more of his personal journey, the affirmative texts he presents, and how the biblical case for affirming our relationships, and the development and plans for his Reformation Project.

Although his presentation of the defensive chapters is clearly presented, generally reliable and backed by extensive reading, there are weaknesses. His discussion of Sodom and Genesis 19 accepts without question the standard translation of the key verse, “Let them come out, so that we can have sex with them” – even though his own analysis of all the other Biblical references to Sodom make it clear that there is no sexual association at all (not even as male rape).

Much of his argument is based on the contrast in understanding of sexuality between classical times, when there was no conception of homosexual people, or orientation, and modern understanding, in which people are understood to be either heterosexual or homosexual, with no possibility of a change in orientation. He’s right, but the treatment is simplistic: he completely ignores the possibility of bisexuality, for instance, and oversimplifies the Roman position.

I was also somewhat irritated by what comes across at times as a degree of youthful arrogance. He presents his “third way” in reconciling biblical authority with sexual integrity by reinterpreting the texts for modern conditions, as something new and original, which it is not. Others have been doing it for decades, as he well knows (he has drawn heavily on their work). In celebrating his allies on the Reformation Project, he completely ignores the extensive similar work that others have been doing since before he was born, including many in his own denomination.

But these are quibbles. Anyone coming to the subject for the first time, will find a readable, clearly presented response to the half dozen problematic texts, and those already familiar with those will find a moving story of a young man confronting the challenge of being both gay and Evangelical Christian, and supported by his father, finding a way to reconcile both, with integrity.

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One comment on “Bible and Homosexuality – Two Views (book review)
  1. There seems to be a lot of people who feel that they have to express their opinion instead of concentrating on their own relationship with God, or, even themselves.
    As to specific commentary on Mr.Vine`s hard work and integrity I am refraining from commenting here as this forum seems to engender the verbal equivalent of fighting, instead of positively motivated enquiry.

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