My concerns with a recent review of ‘God and the Gay Christian’ by Tim Keller

Recently Tim Keller published a review of God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines. It is making its way around the internet as a learned response to Vines’s book. Now it does make some very good points and is worth reading, but I am troubled by the way it misrepresents many of Vines’s arguments. In fact it seems to appear that Keller did not read Vines’s book, or if he did, he did not read it very attentively. So in the interest of fairness I want to point out some of the problems with Keller’s review.

Now a bit of self-defense before I proceed. I am not doing this because I am (as some have suggested to me) now an affirming Christian. I do not agree with the ‘gay christian’ crowd and do not support ‘queer theology.’ Nor am I doing this because I agree with Matthew Vines’s book. I don’t concur with much of it at all.

I do this in the interest of fairness and clarity. If we are going to engage the opposition, we need to accurately represent their views and engage them where they speak. Otherwise we look very much like we don’t know what we’re talking about. That is how I fear Mr. Keller has come across and may have hindered the battle for truth in the gay debate.

I also do this to show the true church of Jesus Christ what we are up against in this ‘gay christian’ onslaught. The arguments are not simplistic and are not easily answered. They are often very scholarly and exegeted from the original languages and are subtle and persuasive enough to upset whole churches (to borrow a phrase from Paul), let alone individual believers. So they have to be answered in like manner.

Now on to my concerns with Tim Keller’s review.

1. Under the heading ‘consulting historical scholarship,’ Keller says, “Vines…claim[s] that scholarly research into the historical background show [sic] that biblical authors were not forbidding all same sex relationships, but only exploitative ones — pederasty, prostitution, and rape.” This is really not a very accurate statement. Vines never says that the biblical writers were thinking only of exploitative same-sex behavior. He actually gives many examples of consensual same-sex behavior in ancient literature. His argument is not that same-sex behavior in the world of Jesus and Paul was exploitative, but that it was excessive in nature. That’s the word he uses and grounds much of his argument there.

It seems to me that Keller doesn’t grasp the distinction well and therefore does not get what Vines is contending for. It is certainly common in gay apologetics to find this exploitative idea as the explanation for what Paul is talking about in Romans 1, but Vines isn’t arguing that. He is contending that Paul is there referring to sexual activity that is profligate, promiscuous, and bizarre, activity that is unrestrained and beyond normal limits. He sees Paul’s use of words like ‘dishonorable passions’ and ‘inflamed with lust’ and ‘shameless acts’ as supporting his interpretation. This behavior may be but is not necessarily exploitative, but can also be consensual.

The point of this distinction for Vines is to show that Paul, and the other New Testament writers, were not thinking of loving, committed same-sex relationships when they condemned same-sex acts. They were rather condemning these excessive expressions of it. In fact, for Vines, the NT writers really had no concept of sexual orientation as we do, so they were emphasizing behavior rather than inclination. Let Vines speak for himself: “…same-sex relations in the first century…were widely understood to be the product of excessive sexual desire in general” (103-04), and “the overwhelming majority of visible same-sex behavior (in antiquity) fit easily into a paradigm of excess” (104), and “Paul wasn’t condemning the expression of a same-sex orientation as opposed to the expression of an opposite-sex orientation. He was condemning excess as opposed to moderation” (105). His point is not to deny that Paul was anything but negative and condemning towards same-sex activity. But Paul was condemning only the types of activity and relations that he was familiar with. For Vines, a lifelong, monogamous same-sex marriage is quite different from the lustful same-sex behavior he believes Paul was describing in Romans 1:26-27.

Keller doesn’t seem to get this, so his response to Vines here is weak and irrelevant. And it gives the impression that ‘conservative’ Christians aren’t very good at arguing their position. My intention here is not to defend or agree with Vines, because I don’t, but to point out the damage to the cause of truth that can be done by poor apologetics. If we are going to respond to Vines convincingly, then we have to address the argument, which in this case is whether or not ‘excessive’ sexual behavior is only what Paul had in mind in Romans 1, and, along with it, whether Paul really did not or could not have had a concept of sexual orientation when addressing same-sex issues. I think there are good responses to both of these opinions, but Keller has not given them.

2. Also under the heading ‘consulting historical scholarship’ and related to my first point, Keller writes, “Bernadette Brooten and William Loader have presented strong evidence that homosexual orientation was known in antiquity.” Brooten and Loader are two prominent gay-affirming writers who have produced some influential works that address sexuality in biblical times. My concern here is that Keller has overstated his case and has given too simplistic a response.

First, Keller’s claim that Loader has presented ‘strong’ evidence is perhaps too strong. In his book The New Testament on Sexuality, Loader says “we cannot know for sure” what Paul knew about sexual orientation and that we “certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world” (323-24). Loader also quotes another writer who states that whatever the world of Paul’s day knew of same-sex orientation, that knowledge was “so rudimentary that a sympathetic insight into its seriousness and complicated nature would not have been part of the conceptual framework even of the well-informed” (324, note 129). So while Loader does argue that the ancients may have had some concept of same-sex orientation, he also says that it was not the highly developed conception we have of it today. That’s just not the ‘strong evidence’ that Keller states it is.

Second, Keller’s assertion that Brooten has given a strong argument for the knowledge of a same-sex orientation in the ancient world is true. She makes that claim in her bookLove Between Women. But it’s also a bit simplistic, because it fails to point out that her views have been contested and refuted by other classic scholars, most notably by David Halperin in an essay entitled The First Homosexuality? and by Mark Smith, who has examined Brooten’s ancient sources and concluded that “none adequately parallels the modern concept of sexual orientation.”

To make my point here clear, I am not saying that the writings of Loader and Brooten do not contain arguments that are troublesome for the ‘gay christian’ position. But I am saying that if we use them, as Keller has, then we need to use them accurately and honestly. They are not as ‘strong’ as Keller makes them seem.

Again, my objective here is not to give support to the ‘gay christian’ agenda or to make the conservative evangelical position look pathetic, but to show the importance of engaging the opposition accurately and fairly. I also want to make Christians aware of the strength of the gay-affirming position and how difficult it is to answer it. But we have to be ready, because the waves are rolling in.

3. My third area of concern over Tim Keller’s review is found under the heading ‘re-categorizing same-sex relations.’ Now Keller does say a lot of good stuff here, but again he accuses Vines of saying things he does not say. I’ll try to be as brief as possible.

First, Keller says that “Vines writes, for example, that the Bible supported slavery and that most Christians used to believe that some form of slavery was condoned by the Bible, but we have now come to see that all slavery is wrong.” For those unfamiliar with standard ‘gay apologetics,’ it is a common argument from them that the Bible has condoned things that the church no longer accepts, things like polygamy and trivial divorce and especially slavery. So if the Bible was wrong about these things, then it could be wrong about other things…like homosexuality. Keller seems to claim here that this is what Vines believes also.

There is a problem, though. And that is that Vines never says that the Bible supports slavery. He is in fact a proponent of the hermeneutics of redemptive movement (probably borrowed from William Webb), and actually addresses slavery in his book and concludes that the Bible opposes it. Now it is true that Vines does maintain that the church has been guilty of interpreting the Bible to condone slavery, but that’s far different than saying he believes the Bible itself condones it. And the book Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship by Hector Avalos offers some very serious rebuttals to Rodney Stark’s book referred to by Keller. In a fair fight, Keller needs to acknowledge things like that.

I personally do not agree with Vines’s position on the church and slavery. I think he fails to define his terms adequately and is consequently guilty of bashing a straw man. His motive of course is to show that the church in the past misread the Bible on slavery, so it could very well be doing the same thing regarding homosexuality. I challenge that argument, but not by ascribing opinions to Vines that he does not hold or by downplaying the difficulty of the slavery question.

Second, under this head Keller also makes some sweeping assertions about certain ‘cultural narratives’ that he believes have influenced Matthew Vines and explain why he takes the position he does. He says that Vines “assumes these cultural narratives” that “press its members to believe ‘you have to be yourself,’ that sexual desires are crucial to personal identity, that any curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage, and that individuals should be free to live as they alone see fit.”

Well, again we have a problem. First of all, Keller cites no examples from Vines’s book to prove that he holds these views. And second, I have followed Vines for quite a while so I can hear what’s being said on the other side, and I’ve never heard him make any such assertions. In fact, he says many things to the contrary. Regarding the ‘be yourself’ motivation for personal ethics, Vines has spoken out against that idea as patently unchristian. He’s never said that “curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage.” He’s rather called for sexual restraint as a biblical demand. And he does not as far as I can tell promote a notion of unrestrained personal autonomy as determinant of moral behavior.

And as far as ‘sexual desires’ being crucial to personal identity, this is a misrepresentation by Keller of Vines’s actual position. Vines does argue that sexual orientation is a crucial aspect of a person’s identity (a position I disagree with strongly), but for him sexual orientation is much more comprehensive than mere sexual desire. This is a distinction found among many in the gay Christian world and is not unique to Vines, but it’s a distinction that Keller doesn’t seem to get. If you’re going to contend with the gay Christians, it’s a distinction you have to get.

I find it quite troubling that Keller would accuse Vines of holding to so many notions that he really doesn’t hold to. Again, a person almost has to conclude that Keller never really read Vines’s book. If he did and still comes to these conclusions, I have no idea how he did that, except that it’s easy to read something you strongly disagree with and lose your ability to remain objective. Emotion and personal bias can distort what you’re reading. That may well be the case with Keller.

4. My next concern with Tim Keller’s review of God and the Gay Christian comes under the heading ‘revising biblical authority.’  Keller states that “Vines argues that while the Levitical code forbids homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22), it also forbids eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12). Yet, he says, Christians no longer regard eating shellfish as wrong — so why can’t we change our minds on homosexuality?” He seems to be suggesting that Vines bases his entire argument against the traditional reading of Lev. 18:22, and also 20:13, on this worn out ‘shellfish’ argument so prevalent in gay apologetics. Trouble is, Vines doesn’t do this.

In his book, Matthew Vines writes his entire 5th chapter as a defense of alternate readings of Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 in an attempt to prove his thesis that the Bible does not condemn loving, committed, monogamous same sex relationships. But this ‘shellfish’ argument is not one that he emphasizes in making his defense. His line of reasoning is much more thorough and complex than that and can probably be summarized along these three lines of argumentation:

  • Vines contends that the word “abomination” (toe’vah in Hebrew) used in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 refers to something ceremonially impure, rather than to something inherently wrong or abominable. He then attempts to prove his point by some rather involved exegesis of the word. The suggestion of course is that these Old Testament prohibitions of homosexuality are part of the ceremonial law that has been fulfilled in Christ (78–83) and therefore have no bearing on Christians (especially ‘gay Christians’) today.
  • Vines reinforces this first argument with another, namely that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 “reflect the inferior value that was commonly accorded to women” (93) in Israelite and other ancient societies. Vines argues that the problem for Israel with same-sex relations was not that they violated sexual complementarity, but that they violated the gender roles assigned by a patriarchal society because the act reduced the passive, or receptive, partner to the status of a woman and “feminized” him in the thinking of ancient cultures. So the sin of men lying with men had nothing to do with men having sex with each other, but rather with one man subordinating another man by putting him in the role of a female. Thus the Leviticus proscriptions are grounded in social, not natural or creative, considerations. This, by the way, is why, according to Vines, the Levitical laws do not address lesbianism, or a woman lying with a woman, because it violated nothing peculiar to a patriarchal culture.
  • There is a third element to Vines’s overall argument that informs much of his position here. I’ll introduce it with a question he asks regarding Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: “Do these writings suggest that same-sex unions are wrong because of the anatomical ‘sameness’ of the partners?” (86-87). To understand where this question comes from you need to know that Vines has been heavily influenced by the 2013 book by Dr. James Brownson entitled Bible, Gender, Sexuality. In that book Brownson contends that the idea of gender complementarity commonly used to describe the male/female language of Gen. 1-2 is really a misreading of the text. His argument is that it wasn’t the difference between Adam and Eve that is highlighted there, but their sameness. Adam was given a helper ‘like’ him. So I’m sure you can see where the gay-affirming people are going with that. As applied to the Leviticus passages, Vines maintains that sexual sameness is not the reason for the prohibitions, so there must be another explanation for them. And for him that is the patriarchal motif that lies behind them.

I have gone to the length I have here to show that Keller didn’t even come close in replying to Matthew Vines. He completely missed or avoided the complexity of the argument and offered a simplistic rebuttal that really had nothing much at all to do with it. As I’ve already said, this gives the impression that conservative evangelicals are really not capable of clear and deep thinking and are arguing more from a position of homophobia than one of accurate biblical exegesis and interpretation. This is especially true when it comes from someone of the stature of Tim Keller.

And that’s why I’m writing these things, not because it gives me any pleasure, but to help others understand the issues more clearly and see the complexity and plausibility of the gay-affirming position.

5. To avoid becoming over tedious, I’ll briefly touch on my remaining issues with Keller’s review of God and the Gay Christian:

First, under the heading ‘being on the wrong side of history,’ Keller refers to the common gay argument that “history is moving toward greater freedom and equality for individuals, and so refusing to accept same-sex relationships is a futile attempt to stop inevitable historical development.” He suggests that Vines believes this, but Vines doesn’t use this argument at all. In fact, public statements made by Vines reveal that he holds to the doctrine of original sin and consequently does not believe in an inevitable historical progress. He is not optimistic about human nature and reason, to use Keller’s words.

Second, under the heading ‘missing the biblical vision,’ Keller states that “Vines…concentrated almost wholly on the biblical negatives, the prohibitions against homosexual practice, instead of giving sustained attention to the high, (yes) glorious Scriptural vision of sexuality.” I’ll just point out here that in his book Vines has three chapters related to some aspect of the ‘glorious Scriptural vision of sexuality.’ Now I don’t agree with everything that Vines thinks that vision entails, but that’s irrelevant to Keller’s accusation. Vines has some very positive things to say in chapter 3 on celibacy, chapter 8 on marriage, and chapter 9 on the image of God and its relationship to sexuality. In fact, Vines uses Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage in his discussion of marriage in chapter 8.

Third, under this same heading Keller says: “In Genesis 1 you see pairs of different but complementary things made to work together.” Keller is obviously assuming the concept of gender complementarity that informs most of the conservative evangelical response to the gay-affirming Christians, an idea argued for by Robert Gagnon in his landmark The Bible and Homosexual Practice. What is bothersome to me here is that Vines bases much of his pro-homosex argument on a refutation of the idea of gender complementarity, but Keller does not acknowledge this or make any attempt to refute what Vines says about it. This is inexcusable in this debate.

Since the publication in 2013 of James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality, (a book that Vines obviously and admittedly is indebted to for his own ideas on the issue), no one can really be equipped to enter the ‘gay debate’ without knowing the gay-affirming arguments against gender complementarity as the basis for marriage and sex and being prepared to answer them. As Brownson asks in his book, “What exact aspect of ‘gender complementarity’ is violated by same-sex intimate relationships? And where do you find this particular aspect of gender complementarity taught in Scripture as universally and exclusively normative?” Is normativity determined by the ‘fittedness’ of male/female anatomy? Or by procreation? Or by some other biblical determination? He refutes the standard arguments. We have to be able to respond in kind.

So to sum up, while Keller’s review does have many good things to say, in many key areas he has misrepresented what Matthew Vines really says in his book. Vines does not argue that exploitative homosexual behavior is the only explanation for the Bible’s prohibition of it. He does not argue that slavery is supported by the Bible. He does not subscribe to the ‘cultural narratives’ that Keller says he does. He does not employ the ‘shellfish’ argument to prove the non-binding character of Leviticus 18:22. He does not use the ‘wrong side of history’ argument. And he does discuss a positive biblical vision for marriage and human sexuality. Add to this Keller’s assumption of the ‘gender complementarity’ position without acknowledging that it is contested by Vines through James Brownson, and you understand why I felt the need to write this.

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