Fortson and Grams: Bible Limits Sex to Christian Marriage, Part 1

Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic. (Goto Part 2)

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.[1]

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.[2]Dr. Fortson is a professor of church history at the Reformed Theological Seminary, also in Charlotte.[3]

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 years[4]and AIDS is only one of the diseases (think hepatitis, social diseases …) transmitted by homosexual sex.[5]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).[6]


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.


[1]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.


[3] @sdfortson


[5]Gagnon (2001, 473) provides a long list of serious health problems associated with homosexual practice.

[6] 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

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Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

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 Monday Monologue, Origin of the Bible, April 16, 2018 (Podcast)

Stephen W. Hiemstra,
Stephen W. Hiemstra, 2017

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I share a prayer, Thanks for the Memories, and a reflection on the Origin of the Bible.

To listen, click on the link below.

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Monday Monologue, Origin of the Bible, April 16, 2018 (Podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Origin of the Bible

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

For Christians, what we know about God is revealed primarily in scripture. In order to understand the Christian perspective of God, it is accordingly important to understand the nature of the Bible and what it says about God. Let me start by describing the origins of the Bible.

People of the Book

In the Koran, Christians are described as people of the book. Part of the reason for this distinction may be that the New Testament was the first bound book. Books were cheaper to produce and more portable than scrolls, which continued to be used, for example, to record the Hebrew Bible. It is noteworthy that more New Testament texts have survived from ancient times than any other ancient manuscripts.[1]

New Testament Compilation

Athanasius suggested the twenty-seven books which now make up the New Testament in his Easter letter of AD 367. This list was later confirmed by the Council of Carthage in AD 397. The common denominator in these books is that their authors were known to have been an apostle or associated closely with an apostle of Jesus. Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome to prepare an authoritative translation of the Bible into Latin in AD 382 commonly known as the Vulgate (Evans 2005, 162). The Vulgate remained the authoritative Biblical text for the church until the time of the Reformation when the reformers began translating the Bible into common languages.


In 1522 the reformer Martin Luther translated the New Testament into Germanand followed with an Old Testament translation in 1532.[2] Luther kept the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, but followed the Masoretic (Hebrew Old Testament) rather than the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) in selecting books for the Old Testament.[3] The books left out of the Masoretic text but in the Septuagint became known as the Apocrypha. These books continue to distinguish the Catholic (Apocrypha included) from Protestant Bible translations (Apocrypha excluded) to this day. The list given below, which excludes the Apocrypha, is taken from the Westminster Confession:


Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi


Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation

Jesus’ Attitude About Scripture

In our study of the Bible, Jesus’ attitude about scripture guides our thinking. Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:17-18).

The Law of Moses refers to the Law (first five books of the Bible) and the Prophets refers to the other books of the Old Testament.

Timing of Writing

The last book in the Old Testament to be written was likely Malachi which was written about four hundred years before the birth of Christ. The last book in the New Testament to be written was likely the book of Revelation which was written around 90 AD.

Compilation and Divine Inspiration

The Bible represents the work of many authors, yet its contents are uniquely consistent. This consistency adds weight to our belief that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit. This point is expressed within the Bible itself with these words:

“Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the people of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)


Bainton, Roland H. 1995. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Penguin.

Evans, Craig A. 2005. Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies: A Guide to Background Literature. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Metzger, Bruce M. and Bart D. Ehrman. 2005. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stone, Larry. 2010. The Story of the Bible: The Fascinating History of Its Writing, Translation, and Effect on Civilization. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

[1] The technical description is the Bible was the first publication to appear in widespread circulation as a codex (bound book) (Metzger and Ehrman 2005, 15). Stone (2010, 14) cites the existence of 5,500 partial or complete biblical manuscripts making it the only document from the ancient world with more than a few dozen copies.

[2] Luther completed the entire Bible in 1534 (Bainton 1995, 255).

[3] Luther translated the Apocrpha in 1534 but specifically said they were not canonical, just good to read (see:

Origin of the Bible

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A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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Evangelische Kirche

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 1:3)

Evangelische Kirche

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Towards the end of my summer in Puerto Rico, I briefly began attending a church, but not long enough to get involved or remember the name.[1] In that church, it became immediately obvious that I should have attended church from the moment of my arrival because I would have met more people and learned more Spanish—I knew my English Bible well enough that I did not need to look up the translation when I read the Bible in Spanish. So later when I returned to Cornell University, I ordered a Spanish Bible from the American Bible Society[2] through the mail.

My experience with church in Puerto Rico led me to seek out a church immediately after I arrived in Germany. From my dormitory on Rosenbachweg, I was able to walk or take the bus to a number of churches, but most had one thing in common—few if any members. Most churches, even cathedrals, that I visited in Germany were empty on Sunday morning with only a few old widows and the pastor in attendance for worship. The exception, I learned, was a little village church, Kirche Herberhausen, which my friend, Hermann, drove me to one Sunday.

Kirche Herberhausen was different because it was packed every Sunday with women and students, many of whom no doubt attended Göttingen’s seminary. Every week worshipers would come in, grab a hymnal (gesangbuch) from a shelf near the door and have a seat—even the loft was full most weeks. Then at the appointed hour, the pastor would come in through a door in the chancel, give his sermon, and leave again through the chancel door—he never engaged the congregation in conversation or shook anyone’s hand. In Germany, clergy receive a government salary and are not dependent on the morning offering. In a Christmas visit to Germany in 1982, I learned that Baptist churches in Germany, who are not officially sanctioned by the government, operate more like American churches and one gets a hand-shake.

I remember the Sunday morning routine at Kirche Herberhausen clearly because I had to decide each week whether to walk or take the bus. The bus schedule either brought me to church very early or about ten minutes late, in which case I would not be able to get a scarce hymnal.

In my first attempt at using the bus, I arrived more than an hour early and, because the church door was locked, I stepped out for a cup of coffee at a local restaurant, whose door was also locked. But I noticed as I stood there that people kept walking by me and around to the back of the building. So I joined them going to the back of the building and through the door. There I discovered a room full of men—apparently, the tradition of frühschoppen (morning pint) amounted to men tipping beers while the women attended church. I later bought a hymnal and started walking to church, which was interesting because Herberhausen and Göttingen are separated by a beautiful park.

In addition to a hymnal, I bought a German Bible, complete with concordance, to supplement the New Testament with Psalms that I had brought with me from home. Like any typical student in those days, I traveled to Germany wearing my winter coat and carrying a backpack, which meant precious little space for a full-size Bible. Most of my biblical study at that point in my life was of books in the New Testament so not having the Old Testament did not crimp my style, but I came to love this new Bible.

My beloved German Bible never made it home. As I packed to leave for home, I was moved to ask a friend whether she needed a Bible. Being Catholic, she responded that she had never even owned a Bible so I left my Bible with her. Consequently, my only German Bible today—other than my New Testament with Psalms—is published by the American Bible Society and does not include a concordance.[3]

Shortly before I left Germany, I received admission to several university doctoral programs, including the one at Michigan State University, which I accepted in a long distance call from Germany. This call became an interesting talking point because the department secretaries perpetuated the rumor that I was myself German and every time a foreign student needed to be picked up at the Lansing Airport I got tapped with the responsibility. Of course, I did not mind at all because I met some very interesting foreign students, but I did not immediately learn the reason for my good fortune.

Between my experience at the Kirche Herberhausen and the influence of my friend, Jon, who had become a Lutheran pastor, when I studied at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan I began attending University Lutheran Church (ULC),[4] whose pastor was German. Like many university churches, ULC’s charter called for them to reserve a portion of their leadership positions for college students so I was quickly elected to serve on the worship committee and became chair of the committee, which meant that I also served on church council.

While I was happy to be of some use to the church, it was probably a mistake in view of my busy schedule with doctoral studies. Instead of fellowship and quiet time with the other students, I found myself engaged in long committee meetings focused on ULC’s stressful financial problems and discontent with the pastor. The financial problems arose because the church built a small cathedral without adequately estimating potential growth, only to find themselves strapped with a burdensome mortgage. The pastoral problems were compounded by weak and obstinate lay leadership. I remember being so frustrated with one attorney on the personal committee who instead of offering reports would dodge and weave reasonable questions—after a point I made it a personal policy to walk out of the meeting and read a book outside whenever he would make a report.

My mistake in taking on such responsibilities at ULC ultimately soured me on the Lutheran church, perhaps because I never really had a chance to enjoy it, and when I left East Lansing to live and work in Northern Virginia I returned to worship at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, where my parents were also members. Still, it was at Kirche Herberhausen and ULC that I came to appreciate the usefulness of the liturgy for dispensing God’s grace in spite of the limits of our linguistic abilities and human frailties in our hour of need.

[1] I walked from my boarding house on Calle Manila in Santa Rita to church so it could have been several churches. However, it was likely las Iglesias de Dios Pentecostal.

[2] The date written in that Bible is August 20, 1978.

[3] The American Bible Society does not publish Bibles with concordances, in part, because the concordances pose a fault line in arguments on how to interpret scripture.


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