Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 2

Fortson and Grams, Unchanging WitnessDonald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The key theological challenge of our age is the lost sense of the transcendence of God. If God’s transcendence is no longer a lived reality, then Jesus was not raised from the dead (1 Cor 15:14) and he becomes a great teacher whose views on the authority of scripture (Matt 5:17-19) are downgraded to the status of nice to know, not a commandment. The moral teaching of the church is thereby easily waived off in favor the double-love commandment—love God; love neighbor (Matt 22:36-40)—and the first half of the commandment is held lightly. Soon, questions like—who are you to tell me who to love—make it clear that power politics, not scripture, has the last word in the church. Reading this line of reasoning backwards, the attack on orthodox faith (and its motivation) becomes transparent.

In part one of this review, I summarized arguments in Unchanging Witness by Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams. In this second part, I will delve more deeply into their arguments.

Introduction

Fortson and Grams make it clear that questions about sexuality have influenced both biblical teaching and church practice throughout history. They write:

“…Jews saw the issue [of homosexuality] straightforwardly. Jews and Christians consistently taught that homosexuality acts were sinful, and they supported their views with the Scriptures. Both the Old and New Testaments, Judaism and early church, taught a consistent view on sexuality in general and on homosexuality in particular, clearly differing from the surrounding cultures. Debate over this matter in recent times is not due to fresh illumination of biblical texts that our predecessors misread; rather, it stems from our culture’s unwillingness to accept what the text clearly says.” (191)

Why Does the Book of the Law Highlight Sex?

For my part, I have always assumed that the clarity of scripture on the sexual behavior arose from the Hebrew experience of slavery in Egypt. Is it accidental, for example, that the very first Hebrew slave, Joseph, experienced sexual abuse? We read:

“So he [Potiphar—Joseph’s master] left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, lie with me.” (Gen 39:6-7 ESV)

Was Joseph a stand-in for a generation of sexually abused, former Egyptian slaves? The Genesis account chronicles all manner of sexual perversion, raising the possibility that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis to help the former Egyptian slaves overcome their own experience of abuse. Most likely they accepted Moses’ sexual ethic that differed radically from surrounding Canaanite cultures because they knew that accepting perverse sexual relations gave a green light to the rich and powerful in their abuse of those that were less fortunate. Former slaves apparently wanted normal family relations—marriage of one man and one woman—because it was something denied them for four hundred years.

The Sexual Ethic

Most commentators on the primacy of monogamous marriage (one partner in marriage) in the Book of Genesis cite two passages:

 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

 “And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen 2:22-24)

Fortson and Grams then point out that the ideas about marriage presented in these two passages are then repeated in Genesis 5:1-1:

“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” 

This repetition implies emphasis and the context is interesting because it almost immediately follows the account of Lamech, who murders out of revenge and is reported to be the first polygamist (Gen 4:34-35). In other words, Moses is reminding us that monogamous marriage is the standard and polygamists are known to be sketchy individuals.

Other sexual relationships that are prohibited later in Leviticus 18, including incest and homosexuality, need not have been be specifically itemized (although many are) because they deviate from the sexual ethic given in the creation accounts. The fact that the homosexual act is explicitly mentioned, prohibited, and treated as a capital offense for both participants (Lev 18:22) implies emphasis. The context placing it between a prohibition of child sacrifice (Lev 18:21) and of bestiality (Lev 18:23) underscores the unambiguous attitude towards homosexuality.

In Leviticus 18:25 these acts will make “the land became unclean, so that I [God] punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev 18:25), a clear allusion to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by God himself (not Abraham and his private army) in Genesis 18. The example of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction has historically motivated cities to take a dim view of homosexual practices within their jurisdictions (69).

Early Church and Reformation Understanding of Scripture

These are starkly clear references. Fortson and Grams cite voluminous (three chapters, pages 27 to 91) early church reference and references all the way to the reformation that underscore how the church understood scriptural prohibitions of homosexual behavior in all of its manifestations. For example, Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John who was later martyred, wrote:

“Knowing, therefore, that ‘God is not mocked,’[1] we ought to live in a manner that is worthy of his commandment and glory… For it is a good thing to be cut off from the sinful desires of the world, because every ‘sinful desire wages war against the spirit,’ and ‘neither fornicators nor male prostitutes nor homosexuals will inherit the kingdom of God,’ nor those who do perverse things. Therefore we must keep away from all these things.” (31)

If homosexuality were unknown to the early church, as some homosexual advocates  have argued, then why would there be a need even to comment on it?

Likewise, the sin list in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) repeats the prohibition of “homosexual perversion” (82) in question 87, a reference now translated as “unchaste person” in the official, PCUSA translation  (PCUSA, 2016).

Assessment

Please refer to part one of this review for a general overview of the book and a discussion of my personal connections with this issue.

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).[2]

References

Campbell, W. P. 2010. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry: A Christlike Response to Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review)

Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA). 2016. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part 1 of the Book of Confessions. Louisville: Office of the General Assembly.

Polycarp. 1989. “Letter to the Philippians,” pages 125-126 in The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translation J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. Michael Holmes (orig pub 1891) Grand Rapids: Baker.

Footnotes

[1] Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Gal 6:7)

[2]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 2

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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