Homosexuality and the Bible:
A Real Debate
by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr.
October 4, 2004
stance should Christians and Christian churches take regarding homosexuality?"
That question begins an incredible and most useful conversation
between two New Testament scholars, one supporting the normalization
of homosexuality, and the other defending the historic Christian
understanding of sexuality and sexual sin. In the space of roughly
one hundred pages, these two scholars set out the basic issues of
In Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views, professors
Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon present opposing arguments with
full force. Via, now Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Duke
University Divinity School, is well known as a revisionist scholar
of the New Testament. Robert Gagnon, Associate Professor of New
Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has established himself
as the leading scholarly defender of the church's historic understanding
of homosexuality as revealed in the Bible. These two scholars meet
head to head in a confrontation that, as a rare exception, produces
as much light as heat.
Via presents his case first, arguing for a nontraditional
view of homosexuality that "seeks a more open and accepting
position" than the traditional understanding of homosexual
acts as inherently sinful. Via promises to develop a theological
and biblical rationale for this revisionist stance.
As he sets out his case, he begins with an affirmation
of biblical authority. "I take the Bible to be the highest
authority for Christians in theological and ethical matters, although
I recognize also the legitimacy of tradition, reason, and experience.
Authority does not mean perfection or inerrancy or complete consistency.
The authoritative norm is the one that you finally listen to in
a situation of competing norms." In other words, when Via pledges
to take the Bible as "the highest authority for Christians
in theological and ethical matters" he does not mean that the
Bible has the last say--much less that it is the inerrant and infallible
Word of God. He identifies his understanding of biblical authority
as the "experiential or existential view" that accepts
the Bible as authoritative "only in those parts that are existentially
engaging and compelling--that give grounding and meaning to existence."
In other words, he will decide what should and should not be taken
as authoritative in the biblical text.
As Via sets the stage for his argument, he points
to changing views of homosexuality in science and society. Ultimately,
he argues that these changed understandings must alter our view
of the Bible and its teachings concerning sexuality.
Turning to the Bible itself, Via points to "the
few biblical texts that mention homosexuality." When he looks
to the Old Testament, he sees the issue as uncleanness rather than
sinfulness. In other words, the Old Testament writers were more
concerned with ritual purity than with identifying specific acts
as sin. Via's emphasis on the purity rules of the Old Testament
allows him to dismiss any application of these texts to the New
Testament church. "In some," he argues, "the unclean
in uncleanness or impurity is disorder, confusion, the mixing of
what should not be mixed--a lack of the wholeness, unity and integrity
that contradicts what makes God God--holiness." Via does not
deny that the Old Testament presents a comprehensively negative
view of homosexuality; he simply argues that we should see the Old
Testament concern about homosexuality not in terms of sinfulness,
but of uncleanness. Thus, he questions whether Christians should
"accept a rule that is justified in the way that the Old Testament
justifies the condemnation of homosexuality?"
Confronting the New Testament, Via quickly argues
that "the new testament annuls, delegitimizes, and invalidates
in principle the very category of impurity or uncleanness."
Pointing to Romans 14:14, Via asserts that Paul denies that nothing
is unclean in itself. With this move, Via simply invalidates the
Old Testament. "When there is theological or ethical conflict
within the canon, conscientious Christians simply have to decide
to which side they will give priority. I choose Paul and the Gospels
over Leviticus as having the more profound understanding of the
But--Via does not see Paul as having a very profound
understanding of the human situation at all. Using a convoluted
argument now common to pro-homosexual advocates, Via calmly undermines
Paul's authority. "Paul seems to have agreed with the generally
held belief of the ancient world that there is only one sexual nature,
what we would call a heterosexual nature. Therefore, what he is
condemning as contrary to nature is homosexual acts by people with
the heterosexual nature." Thus, Via accuses Paul of being woefully
inadequate as a guide to human sexuality. Since Paul knows nothing
of our modern notion of "sexual orientation," he cannot
be trusted to know what he is talking about when he condemns homosexuality
in every form with vigorous force. Instead, Via argues that we should
employ the modern concept or idea of sexual orientation and "draw
ethical consequences from it."
We should refuse to relativize the biblical text
when it fails to conform to modern expectations. Furthermore, we
should appreciate Via's honesty in affirming that, according to
the Bible, "homosexual practice is forbidden in all circumstances."
Indeed, Via accepts that the Bible presents a unanimous opposition
to homosexual practice. Nevertheless, he insists that this does
not mean that the church must base its understanding on this clear
and undeniable biblical trajectory. "There is, however,"
he argues, "no a priori reason why a univocal position cannot
be overridden if the countervailing biblical, theological, and cultural
considerations have sufficient strength, as I believe they do."
Answering Via, Robert Gagnon begins his argument
by asserting that dispute over homosexual practice is "the
greatest crisis facing the church today." Why? Gagnon explains
that the Bible's "intense opposition" to homosexuality
in every form, "acutely raises the question of Scripture's
place in the life of the church." Furthermore, homosexuality
"involves the lives of our loved ones in significant ways."
While activists on one side want to end what they see as cultural
opposition against homosexuals, others "do not want church
and society to promote, and coerce our children to accept, an unnatural
behavior that jeopardizes the standing of its practitioners before
God and substantially increases the risk of health and relational
Introducing his argument, Gagnon takes the reader
through an exercise in biblical interpretation, dismissing false
claims against the Bible and placing the argument within its biblical
context. He grounds his argument in a creation ethic and then moves
to the biblical text, arguing that both the Old and the New Testaments
present a unanimous condemnation of homosexuality in every dimension.
Gagnon counters Via's view that the Old Testament prohibitions against
homosexuality are rooted in purity codes rather than an understanding
of the inherent sinfulness of the acts. Instead, Gagnon argues that
homosexual behavior is, according to the Old Testament, "a
first-tier sexual offense." As he summarizes, "Male-male
intercourse puts a male in the category of female so far as sexual
intercourse is concerned. Because sexual intercourse is about sexual
completion it requires complementary sexual others. Anatomy and
physiology provide two transparent clues to a broad range of discomplementary
features in homoerotic unions." Gagnon's candor is rare in
many modern debates about homosexuality, and his directness is to
Moving through the New Testament, Gagnon argues
that Paul appropriated the Old Testament's understanding of sexual
immorality. When Paul refers to sexual immorality in general, and
same-sex behavior in particular, as uncleanness, "he was not
reinterpreting Old Testament impurity language as sin. Rather, he
was using purity language in line with much of his scriptural heritage."
Gagnon also dismisses the modern "myth of a
sexually tolerant Jesus." While liberals customarily claim
that Jesus was free from the hang-ups about sex that marked so many
of his ancient and modern disciples, Gagnon dismisses this with
full force. "One of the most remarkable things about Jesus'
mission was that in the context of an aggressive outreach to the
lost he deepened God's demand for sexual purity. Instead of advocating
that divorce and remarriage be as easy for women as for men, he
declared that 'whoever divorces his wife' both 'commits adultery'
when he marries another and becomes partly responsible for his wife's
adultery when she remarries; moreover, that a man who 'marries a
divorced woman commits adultery'." Thus, "Jesus was virtually
without peer in his radical insistence on limiting the number of
lifetime sex partners to one."
When liberal activists argue that Jesus would not
have denied sexual fulfillment to homosexuals who were, after all,
trapped in their own "sexual orientation," Gagnon responds
that Jesus taught that sexual immorality was so dangerous that it
would be better to cut off the offending body part than to have
the whole person thrown into hell [Matthew 5:29-30]. As Gagnon summarizes:
"Most pro-homosex advocates feel certain that Jesus would never
have denied a sexual relationship to two exclusive homosexuals in
love with one another. In view of Jesus' unprecedented narrowing
of the range of legitimate sexual intercourse, it is hard to think
of someone for whom the consideration of 'sexual starvation' as
a basis for violating a biblical sex norm would have had less impact."
Looking particularly at the New Testament texts
on homosexuality, Gagnon asserts that homosexuality "dishonors
God's creation of complementary gendered beings by attempting to
reconstitute a binary sexual whole from a single-sex union."
Gagnon also presents a pastoral approach to the
challenge of homosexuality, urging the church to speak the truth
in love. Though some insist that we cannot genuinely love those
we confront with their sin, Gagnon argues: "However, doing
both is precisely what the gospel is all about. It is the work of
Jesus in the world. If the church cannot fulfill that mandate, it
should pack its bags. It ceases to be the church, the sphere of
Christ's lordship, in any meaningful sense."
True compassion means that we must minister to those
struggling with homosexuality, seeking "to alleviate suffering
caused by unfulfilled desire." Nevertheless, Gagnon reminds
the church that it can never violate God's commands. Why? "For
true life is measured not by getting what we want but by acquiescing
to the indwelling Spirit. God has something higher and better in
store for us than the satisfaction of fleshly sexual impulses."
The book concludes with rejoinders from both Via
and Gagnon, as each responds to the other's argument. Via counters
Gagnon's argument by asserting that "his accumulation of biblical
texts condemning homosexual practice is irrelevant to my argument
since I agree that Scripture gives no explicit approval to same-sex
intercourse. I maintain, however, that the absolute prohibition
can be overridden, regardless of how many times it is stated, for
there are good reasons to override it."
Gagnon responds by lamenting Via's absolute rejection
of absolute rules. "Via is an absolutist about no absolutes,"
Gagnon laments. "He insists that the church must be able to
override all rules in one or more contexts. Nothing is 'intrinsically
immoral'." As Gagnon acknowledges, he suspects that even Dan
Via cannot live with this principle in full operation. If so, no
sexual act can be categorically considered as immoral.
Homosexuality in the Bible is a landmark achievement
in the church's debate over homosexuality. Rarely have two minds
met in such an orderly, respectful, and utterly helpful debate.
This book is an indispensable guide to the controversy over homosexuality
now threatening to tear mainline Protestantism asunder. More importantly,
it is also a powerful witness to the two absolutely irreconcilable
views of biblical authority that drive opposing parties in debates
over homosexuality and the church. This book should be mandatory
reading for every thinking Christian.