ETS: A Review image

ETS: A Review

Some of you know that I'm currently in San Diego for two biblical studies conferences: the Evangelical Theological Society, at which I have just presented a paper, and the Society of Biblical Literature conference, which is the largest gathering of its type in the world, and has more theological books in one hall than you could possibly believe. In my next couple of posts, I'm planning to summarise the papers I heard, and some surprises that came my way (some of which, admittedly, are about California and America in general, rather than the conferences themselves). I'll start with my highlights from ETS.

On the first afternoon we launched straight into it - why waste time? - with a series of papers and discussions on sexual orientation. The purpose of the session, as best as I can summarise it, was to ask and discuss the question: is same-sex orientation sinful? Denny began with the point that desires can be sinful. Jesus speaks of the desire (epithumeō) for a married woman as adultery (Matt 5:28). So the question is: what makes a desire sinful? His argument was that whether a desire is sinful or not relates, not to its intensity (how strongly or not it is felt), nor to its intentionality (how far we intend or control it), but to its object (whether or not it is directed towards something that honours God): “the only sex desire that honours God is that which falls within the covenant of marriage.” In other words, all desires which are directed towards things which God prohibits are sinful.

The obvious objection to this, of course, is this: surely temptation isn’t sinful, since Jesus was tempted (Heb 4:15)? Denny’s response was twofold. First, clearly, not all temptation is necessarily sinful, as Jesus demonstrates. But second, the temptation experienced by Jesus is of a different sort to that which we experience, because he was tempted specifically with regard to his sufferings, and did not desire things which were contrary to his Father’s will. The temptations we experience are not morally neutral; James 1:13-15 reveals a desire which is directed towards evil. Thus the difference between the trials and temptations we experience and those experienced by Jesus is that his were never sinful, and ours are; Jesus faced trials externally, from outside, but we face temptations and desires internally, from within, and are culpable for them. Given this, and given that what makes a temptation sinful is its directedness towards sinful ends, we should say yes: same-sex desires are sinful.

Preston Sprinkle (who, by the way, is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet) came next, on “Orientation in Paul’s World.” One of the most common points made in the sexuality debate is that Paul had no concept of orientation. Thus James Brownson, representatively, of Paul: “the notion of sexual orientation was absent.” Some contemporary writers, in response, argue that it doesn’t matter, and some argue that it’s historically inaccurate: “I’m going to argue that it’s historically inaccurate, and it doesn’t matter.” The ancient worldview was more to do with manliness and womanliness than with homosexuality and heterosexuality, but they still believed in a fixed desire for same-sex sexual relations, and sought to explain it in various ways (as Preston shows in a forthcoming Bulletin of Biblical Research article). “What does this mean for Romans 1? Well: not much. Sorry to waste your time.”

So: is same-sex orientation sinful? Maybe not. When a same-sex attracted person describes their orientation, they don’t mean the same thing as what Romans 1 means by “desires”. If I describe myself as heterosexual, I don’t mean that I am constantly lusting after every woman I meet; I mean that my sexual desires, when they surface, occur with respect to people of the opposite sex (and thus I am heterosexual when I’m asleep, even if I am not thinking about sex at all). So orientation, in the common way of speaking about it, and “desires” in the Romans 1 sense, are not the same thing. (Also: with respect to Denny’s argument from James 1, the picture is of desire giving birth to sin, but that is not to equate desire with sin. A woman gives birth to a child, but is not the child; similarly, desire gives birth to sin, but it not itself sin.)

The third paper was from Wesley Hill, author of the excellent Washed and Waiting, on “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” The question, as Wesley framed it, is: What is the most appropriate response to a lifelong attraction to someone of the same sex? Is Paul condemning what we today call same-sex sexual behaviour, or is he also condemning the human experience of having a same-sex orientation? Denny’s argument, implicitly, is:

1. Same-sex attraction is a desire for sex with persons of the same sex.
2. Desire for something God forbids is morally blameworthy.
3. Therefore same-sex attraction is morally blameworthy.

But both of these premises need to be thought through. As true as #2 is, all human desires are fallen, not just homosexual ones; an Augustinian perspective on human sexuality, and the possibility of (for instance) lust within marriage, is badly needed here, and Steve Holmes makes a superb argument to this effect. And there are also problems with #1, which assumes that same-sex orientation is always essentially a sexual phenomenon, in the face of the way many same-sex attracted people describe their experience. Is it not possible to see celibate, same-sex, intimate friendship as redemptive? As a reordering of desire? So while we cannot see desire for a moral evil as redemptive, and hence cannot see the desire for sex with someone of the same sex as morally neutral, there may be other aspects of my orientation which can be reordered for morally good things.

After hearing all three papers, and the subsequent discussion, I was reminded of T. S. Eliot’s remark: “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” It felt like it was only after two hours of conversation that we finally knew how each interlocutor was using crucial words like “orientation”, “desire”, “lust”, “inclination” and “attraction,” and as we did so, it finally became clearer. I think it would be fair to say that all three panellists believe that (a) the desire to have sex with someone of the same sex is sinful, but (b) having the capacity to have such desires, and not having the capacity for opposite-sex desires, is not. If we use the language of “desires” or “lusts” for the former, and “orientation” or “inclination” for the latter - although Wesley referred to an important Catholic distinction between these last two - then we might be in a place to make some valuable distinctions in the debate.

The two plenary sessions I attended were fascinating, with papers presented by veritable giants: Douglas Moo (of whom we could use the word literally as well as metaphorically), and Miroslav Volf. Moo’s presentation was effectively a defence of the translation philosophy of the NIV, based on James Barr’s important work fifty years ago, and it was intriguing to hear him defend gender-neutral choices (“if anyone does this, they will ...”) to that audience, in light of substantial amounts of English usage data. Volf was a bit more hit-and-miss, in my view - he basically argued that the Church should not be in cahoots with either the state or the market, but capitalism is an easy target if you don’t present a clear alternative - although he had a number of memorable one-liners (“poor is the church that relies on the state”, “the problem with capitalism isn’t that people have swimming pools, it’s that everyone doesn’t have one”, “when we live by bread alone, somewhere always goes hungry”), and made what was probably the most thought-provoking observation I heard all week: prosperity religions are effectively fertility religions, with the worship of God / the gods leading to abundant crops, health and so on.

One other paper that stood out, for me, was Greg Beale’s on “The Necessity of the Office of Elder in Light of the Inaugurated End-Time Tribulation.” (If you’ve read Beale, you’ll know he uses titles like that all the time. It’s like reading Winnie-the-Pooh.) False teaching and deception, Beale argued, are end-time inevitabilities: we are caught between the convulsions of nature (and end of the world language) concerning the cross and Pentecost (e.g. Matt 27; Acts 2), and the cosmic conflagration at the end of earthly time. False teaching, deception, persecution and suffering are all aspects of the inaugurated end-time tribulation; the saints are threatened with persecution if they do not compromise with false teaching, both from outside and within the church, and that is part of what makes it a tribulation. So far, so good.

Well: the origin of ecclesiology and hierarchy within the church should be read against this background. Elders exist, not just as a temporary office, but as God’s means of preserving the church in the face of the false teaching and persecution that will certainly come. Titus 1:5-16, and the references in the Pastorals to false teaching in the latter days (e.g. 1 Tim 4), are explicit about this, as is Acts 20, with a view to the ongoing evangelisation of the world. (Obviously, if false teaching is not a local problem and Paul’s response is not ad hoc, but rather a response to an aspect of a broader eschatological tribulation, then this has implications for the way Gordon Fee reads 1 Tim 2:12-15; it is also significant that Paul sees the church as the continuation of Israel, as the ekklēsia tou theou, following Neh 13:1.) Furthermore, the connection in Acts 14:23 between the appointment of elders and the tribulations required to enter the kingdom also suggest this connection, as does the gathering of the apostles and elders to consider the problem of false teaching in Acts 15, as well as the address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20.

There was a lot of other great stuff, including (as is often the way) some wonderful personal conversations with friends and scholars, but those were the most interesting things I heard. I’ll talk about SBL in a few days’ time.

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