Pastor Robert Goldstein responds to my article on “Another Way to Interpret the Bible” with two main points (See “Readers Responses” in this issue.) First, “modern science” gives us an understanding of physical (including sexual) reality that goes beyond the knowledge in the Canon of Scripture. Second, we need to be clear about our motivations when we interpret Scripture in certain ways, in particular as regards the issue of homosexuality.
My responses are three-fold. First, the Bible is not interested in cosmology; it is interested in the Creator of the cosmos and his intentions for the world he created. As a dear departed friend of mine put it, the Bible is not concerned about the age of rocks; it wants to point us to the Rock of ages. Lutherans largely avoided and do not need to bring up now the modernist/fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s.
Second, scientific historiography has long cautioned us about our presuppositions when reporting and interpreting data from the past. This is especially important in studying the Bible as Scripture. We want to put ourselves in the position of being judged by the word, not judging the word. To the list of the emotions and passions of those who oppose the LGBT agenda in the Church we might add the emotions and passions of those who advocate this agenda or engage in homosexual behavior. Are they emotionally able to be confronted by the words of Scripture concerning homosexual behavior?
Third, the issue I raised in my column concerned the authority of Scripture. My point was that historical-critical methodology, while useful in understanding the background of texts and contexts, is not helpful in treating the Bible as “the sole rule and norm according to which all teachings and teachers are evaluated and judged” (Formula of Concord). If the Bible cannot function as “sole rule and norm,”a “norming norm” unnormed by other authorities, its authority for establishing doctrine and practice is compromised. I suggested that a “canonical exegesis” helps us to take seriously historical-cultural contexts as well as to discern a theological consistency that enables us to develop church teaching and practice on the basis of “Scripture alone.” I will risk providing an example of this approach by engaging in a canonical exegesis of Leviticus 18, the text cited by Pastor Goldstein.
The canonical text itself provides the context (Lev. 18:1-5). Israel has left Egypt and is about to enter the land of Canaan. In its sexual mores the Israelites shall not engage in the practices that were done in Egypt or Canaan. The land will vomit out the Canaanites because their sexual practices had defiled the land that the Lord God intends to give to his people. But the land will also vomit out the Israelites if they engage in the same practices, because this land is holy to the Lord. It shall be the place of his dwelling, his sanctuary.
The seriousness of these laws is indicated by the fact that the Lord introduces himself by name to his people. The legislation is a personal statement to persons. It includes laws prohibiting incest as well as laws prohibiting sexual aberrations. These aberrations include marriage to the sister of a wife during her lifetime, sexual intercourse with women during menstruation, sexual intercourse with a neighbor’s wife, sacrificing one’s children to Molech, homosexual intercourse, and bestiality.
The main concern of laws setting boundaries for sexual activity in the extended family has less to do with marriage than with incest. These laws do not have to do with women as property of husbands, as Pastor Goldstein asserts, or even with preserving the honor of the head of the family. The reason for the laws against incest is that all members of the extended family are considered the same flesh (18:6, 12, 13, 17). People do not become one flesh just as husband and wife. They become flesh-and-blood relatives with everybody who has been incorporated into the extended family by other marriages within the family.
The second set of prohibitions in 18:18-23 is more varied and the reasons for the prohibitions vary. Men who engage in adultery and sex during menstruation become unclean. Homosexual activity is an abomination because it reverses what is natural. Bestiality is a perversion because it violates the boundaries between human beings and animals. Sacrifice of children to Molech desecrates the Holy Name of God by giving God’s holy children to a demon.
Theological reasons stand behind these prohibitions. First, God has elected the Israelites to be his holy people. Second, God has given his people these laws so that they may experience the fullness of life in family and community. Third, sexual defilement of individual persons leads to the defilement of the nation and the land. The land must be kept undefiled because it is the place where God dwells with his people. The references to God’s punishment of the Egyptians and the Canaanites indicates that these sexual laws apply to all human societies. But they apply especially to God’s chosen people who are called to be “a light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6).
There is nothing in the New Testament to indicate that these laws are set aside by Christ or his apostles. In fact, the New Testament broadens the promise in Lev. 18:5: “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live: I am the Lord.” When a teacher of the law asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus directed him to the Torah: “What is written in the law?” After the man quoted Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18, Jesus said: “Do this and you shall live” (Luke 10:25-28).
In the Gospel of John Jesus goes further and applies the promise of Lev. 18:5 to himself and his Word. He has been sent to give life to all people (John 3:16; 5:26; 10:10; 17:2). Those who seek eternal life should search the Scriptures with the knowledge that they testify to Jesus (John 5:39-40). “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:46). At the end of the bread of life discourse, as others leave him Jesus asks his disciples if they will also leave him. Simon Peter replies: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Far from loosening the laws governing sexuality, Jesus intensifies them. He not only accepts that adultery defiles a person but teaches that a person is defiled by secret acts of adultery and sexual immorality that are committed imaginatively in the human heart (Matt. 7:22; 15:19).
There is one case in 1 Corinthians in which Paul applies the Levitical law to his Christian congregation. He forbids the incestuous relationship of a man with his stepmother, and urges the congregation to excommunicate the offender so that he doesn’t defile the whole congregation (1 Cor. 5:1-8). The apostle also teaches that homosexual and lesbian activity perverts the natural order of creation and incurs the wrath of God (Rom. 1:26-27). As these practices would cause Israel to forfeit the land of promise, so they disqualify people from receiving the heavenly inheritance. “Or don’t you know that unrighteous people will not inherit the kingdom of God! Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor catamites nor sodomites…will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). (Catamites and sodomites refer to subservient and dominant male homosexuals.)
And yet, the apostle makes clear that those who had engaged in these sexual transgressions could—like all other sinners—receive pardon, cleansing, and a new life in Christ. “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Baptism initiates us into the new life in Christ. Forgiveness after baptism (with confession and repentance) always leads back to baptism.
What can we make of this exegesis? That God prohibits certain sexual activities, including homosexual practices, for theological reasons. Such behavior is inconsistent with the holy status of God’s people in both the Old and the New Testaments. From the standpoint of Leviticus, those who engage in such behavior are disqualified from participation in the Divine Service, and St. Paul affirms this by recommending excommunication—being barred from the Lord’s Table, the Eucharist, Holy Communion.
In the spirit of Jesus, who declined to impose the penalties prescribed in Lev. 20:10 on the woman caught in adultery for the sake of redeeming her (“Go and sin no more.”), we might want to be lenient in the application of discipline and provide pastoral care to gay brothers and lesbian sisters (and I believe we should want to do that). Still, on the basis of “Scripture alone” we find no authority to officially bless homosexual relationships or to ordain to or retain in the holy ministry those who engage in such practices.
If we make changes in these policies, it is on the basis of some other authority that has trumped the Bible, some other norm that has normed the Scriptures. I would suggest to Pastor Goldstein and others who want to revise our practice and policy that this would be a serious theological bridge for a Lutheran church to cross, and it keeps many of us who would like to cross that bridge from doing so.