By Robert J Gagnon
Newsweek, in an article by Kurt Eichenwald, says that Christians who regard homosexual practice as sin (or who–horror!–favor prayer in public school) “are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians,” “hypocrites,” “Biblical illiterates,” “fundamentalists and political opportunists,” and “Pharisees.” To support his slurs, Eichenwald first tries to undermine reliance on Scripture as a supreme authority for moral discernment and then to show how Christians, oblivious to the problems with biblical inspiration, ignore its clear teaching.
Eichenwald claims that the New Testament Greek text is unreliable, ignoring the fact that no other ancient text comes close to being so well attested. For example, while the oldest surviving manuscript for a significant portion of Plato’s fourth-century B.C. dialogues dates to 895, for the first-century a.d. New Testament the dates are ca. 200 (Paul) and the third century (Gospels, Acts), with over a dozen substantial manuscripts from the fourth–sixth centuries. Only a tiny fraction of the variations among the manuscripts pose any serious problem for scholars in determining the original text. Furthermore, no major Christian doctrine hangs in the balance because of these variations.
Eichenwald also charges that modern English translations of the New Testament are notoriously unreliable. The truth is that there are today a dozen or so fairly reliable translations. Eichenwald cites as his key example of translation inaccuracy renderings of the Greek verb proskune? (?????????) as “worship” when applied to Jesus. Although the verb’s basic sense is “prostrate oneself (before),” Eichenwald is ignorant of places in the Gospels where the sense is already sliding over into the meaning of “worship” such as when the disciples “prostrated themselves before” Jesus after he stilled the storm, declaring “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt 14:33).
Eichenwald flubs even worse when he claims that nowhere in the New Testament is there a clear indication that Jesus is part of the Godhead. He erroneously tries to dismiss the reference in Philippians 2:6 to Jesus being in “the form of God” as a mistranslation of “the image of God,” ignoring both many parallels with the figure of Wisdom in early Judaism and many other New Testament texts that speak to Jesus’s pre-existent divine state.
Eichenwald claims that excessive attention to the authority of the Bible, particularly regarding the doctrines of the incarnation and the atonement, has been responsible for bloodshed. It is an odd charge given the vast numbers of Christians throughout history (including the first few centuries) were inspired by their understanding of Jesus’s gracious incarnation and death to be non-violent.
Eichenwald further contends that “the sociopath emperor,” Constantine, “changed the course of Christian history, ultimately influencing which books made it into the New Testament.” Such a fallacious statement shows Eichenwald to be ignorant of the canonical process. Councils largely affirmed what had already become a reality in the churches long before Constantine “converted.”
Eichenwald also focuses on narrative “contradictions” in the biblical account in order to undermine appeals to Scripture; specifically, the Christmas story, the Easter story, the Flood narrative, and the Creation accounts. There are various ways of dealing with the problems. One approach is to find ways of harmonizing apparent discrepancies, which sometimes is plausible, sometimes not.
Another approach is to view inspiration of Scripture differently for the genre of narrative than for the genre of, say, letters. The writers of Scripture sought to be faithful to available tradition, with all the limitations of oral culture, and were not necessarily averse to adjusting narrative to Old Testament prophecy, iconic stories of their culture, and theological proclamation. All this can be brought under a more nuanced view of inspiration than the one that Eichenwald lampoons.
He assembles these objections as a prelude to attacking his political opponents. Eichenwald rails against school prayer and conservative prayer rallies, stating that they are a violation of Jesus’s warning to followers not to parade their piety publicly but to pray in secret (Matt 6:5–15). Yet context shows that Jesus did not intend by his remarks to outlaw all corporate prayer for his followers. Consider the first-person plurals of the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father . . . “), Jesus’s prayers before meals, his blessing of children, the audible prayers both in the Temple and in synagogues (often called “prayer houses”), the stories of national prayer in the Old Testament, and the communal prayers of the early Christian churches recorded in the book of Acts and the letters of Paul.
Eichenwald’s main point is that it is hypocritical to pay attention to three places in the Pauline corpus that speak negatively about homosexual practice (1 Tim 1:10; 1 Cor 6:9; Rom 1:24–27) because you don’t do all the things commanded in these letters anyway.
Eichenwald pontificates: “Contrary to what so many fundamentalists believe, outside of the emphasis on the Ten Commandments, sins aren’t ranked. The New Testament doesn’t proclaim homosexuality the most heinous of all sins. No, every sin is equal in its significance to God.” Notice the contradiction: an unqualified “every sin is equal” follows a qualified “outside of the emphasis on the Ten Commandments, sins aren’t ranked.”
Note to Eichenwald: The Decalogue is not an exclusive list of the most serious offenses. It is rather a representative list of serious offenses, explicitly specifying only those that occur fairly frequently in the population but implying a number of others. Incest, homosexual practice, and bestiality are not lesser offenses than adultery simply because they are not specified in the Decalogue.
Eichenwald is careful to compare opposition to homosexual practice only to biblical offenses that he thinks evangelicals will have a difficult time opposing consistently: drunkenness, greed, pride, and the injunction in 1 Tim 2:9–15 for women to keep silent and not have authority over men. Eichenwald even makes a comparison with the command to submit to governing authorities in Rom 13:1–8, which he comically misconstrues as prohibiting any criticism of the Obama administration. Yet if, as Eichenwald alleges, all sins are equal, why not compare the New Testament’s opposition to homosexual practice to its opposition to behaviors that even Eichenwald disapproves, such as consensual incest, kidnapping, idolatry, and cheating the poor out of their life savings?
Eichenwald is not in search of the closest possible analogues (like adult-consensual incest or polyamory) but rather focuses on more remote comparisons in order to achieve his ideological objective. The truth is that not even Eichenwald believes that “every sin is equal in its significance to God.” Does he believe that genocide is no more severe a sin than taking home a company pen? Or sleeping with one’s mother than speaking in an angry tone? Or rape than gluttony? He couldn’t believe that and maintain any moral credibility. Indeed, it is apparent from Eichenwald’s article that he is particularly upset with what he regards as great sins, like “parents banishing their kids” for “being gay. Obviously Jesus and the writers of Scripture treat some sins as more severe than others (see pp. 5–8 of this article), even though Eichenwald mocks anyone who thinks this as showing “that they know next to nothing about the New Testament.”
What then remains of Eichenwald’s claim that “the New Testament doesn’t proclaim homosexuality the most heinous of all sins”? I don’t know anyone who claims that homosexual practice is the worst of all sins. What Scripture does indicate clearly is that homosexual practice is a severe sexual violation. On pp. 8–10 of this article I give eight reasons for drawing this conclusion, including the following.
Jesus extrapolated a limitation of two persons in a sexual union (serially or concurrently) from the foundational twoness of the sexes established at creation (Mark 10:6-9).
Paul’s highly pejorative description of homosexual practice in Romans 1:24-27–“dishonorable” or “degrading,” “contrary to nature,” an “indecency” or “shameful/ obscene behavior,” and a fit “payback” for straying from God–suggests that Paul regarded homosexual practice as an especially serious infraction of God’s will, in line with all Jewish perspectives of the time.
Apart from ruling out sex between humans and animals, the male-female requirement for sexual relations is the only sexual requirement held absolutely for the people of God from creation to Christ. Both incest and polygamy prohibitions are analogically derivable from this prerequisite.
Perhaps Eichenwald’s greatest folly is in arguing that anyone who adopts Paul’s lawfree gospel must give up on the prohibitions of Leviticus against homosexual practice. This view grossly misreads Paul’s thought. While Paul contended that those who were in Christ were no longer under the Law’s jurisdiction, he also maintained continuity in core moral standards since the God who gave the Law to Moses and the God who raised Jesus from the dead were the same God. So, for example, when he expressed horror at the case of adult-consensual incest going on at Corinth he used a description of the behavior, “someone has (his) father’s wife” drawn from the prohibitions of man-stepmother intercourse in OT law (1 Cor 5:1).
Eichenwald’s final argument for why Christians should give up on their opposition to homosexual practice is all too predictable. “Jesus said, Don’t judge. He condemned those who pointed out the faults of others while ignoring their own.” Ironically, Eichenwald is exceedingly judgmental of orthodox Christians throughout his article, even abusive.
Jesus did speak against judging others (e.g., Matt 7:1–5; parallel in Luke 6:37, 41–42). However, the context makes it obvious that Jesus was not advocating that his followers cease making moral distinctions between good and bad behavior. Judgment sayings not only dominate the rest of Sermon on the Mount (7:6, 13–23) but are present in roughly half of all the sayings of Jesus (for a listing see pp. 6–12 of this article). Jesus’s point was not to reject all judgment but rather to caution against judgment that (1) lacks self-introspection, (2) majors in minors, and (3) rejoices in the damnation of offenders instead of seeking recovery of the lost.
Although Eichenwald characterized his article as “an attempt to save the Bible from the ignorance, hatred and bias that has been heaped upon it,” Eichenwald has rather contributed to that ignorance, hatred, and bias. In stating that “the actual words of the Bible can’t be ignored just to line it up with what people want to believe,” he has unwittingly offered us a picture of how the Bible is all too often misrepresented by those on the theological left who simply don’t like what it says.
One can only urge Eichenwald to put aside his ideological prejudices and let Jesus be Jesus, not some cardboard caricature of what he would like Jesus to be. That, Mr. Eichenwald, is a truly good place to start.
Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon Press). A longer version of this article can be found here.
Here is another article by Dr. Gagnon worth reading: