S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
In 2010 as a seminary student, a pastor formerly associated with my home church wrote a book on his personal ministry to people trapped in a homosexual lifestyle and wanting out. He is a longtime friend and, because his publisher wanted reviewers, I volunteered to write a review. When I later inquired as to whether to publish this review in our presbytery newsletter, I got an icy response. Now eight years later, my friend’s church has long since left the denomination and my home church is in the final stages of leaving. The church’s attitude about homosexuality remains the most important theological question facing our generation and, yet, most Christians, myself included, flinch at bringing up the topic.
In their book, Unchanging Witness, Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams write:
“…our chief concern is with those who identify themselves as Christians. Many contemporary discussions of homosexuality are based on broad assertion lacking substantial grounding in the texts of the Christian tradition. Our book is intended as a resource for those who hold the historical Christian position on homosexuality. What we offer is the combined perspective of a New Testament scholar and a church historian…”(xi).
Rollin is a personal friend and former New Testament (NT) professor of mine who remains on the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC with a lifelong commitment to reading ancient texts carefully.Dr. Fortson is a professor of church history at the Reformed Theological Seminary, also in Charlotte.
The task of reading church texts carefully is probably easier today than at any point in the past two thousand years. Ancient texts from libraries and churches around the world are now available online to virtually anyone who looks. However, in spite of technological advances and the scholarly horsepower to understand them, ironically biblical illiteracy plagues the church and careful scholarship does not always inform church preaching, teaching, and decisions.
Crisis of Authority
The real crisis, Fortson and Grams argue, is whether the church continues to view the Bible as authoritative. (168, 366) Why? They write:
“Our overview of texts has revealed that the Fathers, Reformers, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox church are unanimous in their condemnation of homoerotic behavior among those who profess Christ as Lord.”(376)
And each of these church groups base their position of homosexuality on the authority of scripture. In particular, their sexual ethic, drawn from both Old and New Testament texts, is summed up succinctly: “The place for sex was understood to be within marriage between a man and a woman.”(189) No other sexual activity, including heterosexual and homosexual sex, was permitted for the Christian, in spite of alternative cultural contexts, desires, and motives. The detailed documentation of this unusual unity of opinion among Jews and Christians in Fortson and Grams book is lengthy (385 pages) and repetitious because little disagreement existed (or exists) among orthodox believers.
In the Reformation, Protestant groups broke away from the Catholic Church over the authority of scripture arguing that the Bible was the sole of authority over matters of faith and salvation. In arguing from cultural experience and mores, liberal Protestant groups have ironically separated themselves from their own reformed tradition and reopened behaviors in the church that first led to the reformation. As Fortson and Grams observe, immoral behavior among clergy, including homosexuality, and the influence of humanism figured prominently in the decision of the Protestant churches to break away. (77-86)
Did God Really Say…
A key argument among homosexual advocates is that biblical authors and early church writers were unaware of consensual homosexual relationships as we see today and, as a consequence, biblical prohibitions against homosexuality were limited in scope to particular concerns, like pederastry (sex between an older man and a boy). Thus, consensual homosexual relationships were not in view, hence not proscribed. For example, Fortson and Grams (18) cite John McNeill (1993, xx) who writes:
“…You [traditional Catholic writers] continue to claim that a loving homosexual act is condemned in Scripture, when competent scholars are nearly unanimous in admitting that nowhere in Scripture is there a clear condemnation of sexual acts between two gay men or lesbians who love each other.”
Implicit in these arguments is that the Bible did not limit sex to one man and one woman in the context of marriage, which would render such arguments moot by forbidding all other sexual relations. Homosexual advocates therefore start by denying the existence of a Christian sexual ethic and then move on to limit the scope of biblical passages mentioning homosexuality, recognizing that most pastors and Christians will not be able to follow the historical arguments or exegete the Greek and Hebrew on their own. This is the context—reviewing original historical documents and scripture—where Fortson and Grams’ analysis proves most beneficial.
Importance of the Debate
The silence of most Christians on the question of homosexuality comes at a cost. Since ancient times, a homosexual lifestyle has been known to shorten the lifespan of those who practice it. The CDC reports that AIDS has claimed over half a million lives in recent yearsand AIDS is only one of the diseases (think hepatitis, social diseases …) transmitted by homosexual sex.Homosexuality also raises the probability of suicide dramatically.
This problem has touched me personally. The pastor who recruited me in graduate school into youth ministry later contracted AIDS and died. If he had kept his marriage vows, he would probably still be with us. The idea that someone in the church recruited him into this lifestyle or inferred that yielding to his desires was okay robbed us of a much-loved pastor.
Part one of this review gives an overview of Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams’ Unchanging Witness. Part two will examine their arguments in more depth.
Fortson and Grams provide an important resource to the church and academy on the history of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. This book is of special interest to those new to the debate about the role of homosexuality in the church and those who take scripture as the sole authority for answering questions of faith and Christian living. Fortson and Grams focus on truth-telling. In this context love means accepting people as they are, but caring enough to help them to move beyond their fallen state (John 8).
Campbell, W. P. 2010. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry: A Christlike Response to Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review)
Gagnon, Robert A. J. 2001. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon Press. (Review, part 1)
McNeill, John. 1993. The Church and the Homosexual, 4th ed. Boston: Beacon.
I bought my copy of Unchanging Witnessin 2016 when it was published. It is timely to review it now two years later because of the travails of my home church with this issue and my research needs in writing.
Gagnon (2001, 473) provides a long list of serious health problems associated with homosexual practice.
 Campbell (2010) sees Jesus’ attitude towards the woman caught in adultery as our template for ministry (John 8).
Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 1
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.
Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension