In a forthcoming Newsweek cover article already online, Lisa Miller, religion editor for Newsweek, offers “the religious case for gay marriage.” Not content to argue that the Bible doesn’t condemn same-sex marriage, Miller tries to turn the tables and present a case for gay marriage from biblical principles: “Opponents of gay marriage often cite Scripture. But what the Bible teaches about love argues for the other side.”
It is probably too much to hope that Miller’s article will end, at least for a while, the incessant chirping of those who advocate same-sex marriage that the Bible ought to be left out of the discussion. If it is legitimate for advocates to cite the Bible to support their position, surely it is legitimate for opponents to do the same thing.
A thorough, point-by-point rebuttal to Miller’s article is beyond the scope of this post. I will content myself with documenting some of the common fallacies in biblical interpretation and theological argumentation that crop up constantly in the debate over same-sex unions and that the article exemplifies.
According to Miller, “while the Bible and Jesus say many important things about love and family, neither explicitly defines marriage as between one man and one woman.” That word explicitly gives away the whole game. Somehow contemporary interpreters imagine that if the Bible failed to anticipate their creative interpretations and to deny them explicitly, then the traditional interpretation is not justified. The Bible does not come with a theological lexicon and rarely offers formal definitions of its terms. Then again, neither does Newsweek. But this lack doesn’t mean that we cannot derive clear conclusions from what it does say.
The story is told that a lady once caught W. C. Fields reading a Bible. When she asked him why, Fields replied, “Just looking for loopholes my dear, just looking for loopholes.” I’m afraid this is the way many people read the Bible. Rather than accept what the Bible says in its context, they look for loopholes to justify their alternate opinions. Any possible or conceivable way out supposedly proves that the Bible does not support the traditional view.
Confusing Descriptive and Prescriptive Elements
The classic statement on the marriage relationship in the Bible does not use the term marriage, but is historically understood as referring to the foundation of that institution: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24 NASB). In context the text is a comment on the creation of the first woman as a complementary partner for the first man: God forms the woman from part of the man’s body, and the woman is then in effect reunited to the man, making them “one flesh” (Gen. 2:18-25). The man and the woman are thus two different but complementary halves that form a whole when united in marriage. There is no room in this articulation of the significance of marriage for a union of two males or of two females, or for marriages involving three or more persons. The location of this statement in the creation narrative (agreeing with and supplementing the earlier statement that God created humans “male and female,” 1:27) makes it function as a paradigm for marriage.
Miller’s objection to this classic understanding is that the Jews from whom this text came practiced polygamy: “But as Segal says, if you believe that the Bible was written by men and not handed down in its leather bindings by God, then that verse was written by people for whom polygamy was the way of the world.” What this statement (with its hyperbolic caricature of the notion of biblical inspiration) really means is that the Bible is not allowed to offer a moral vision higher than that of the culture in which it originated. The argument presupposes not only that the Bible was not inspired by God, but that there were no visionaries, no prophets, no sages, who might express a higher view of marriage than the typical polygamous, patriarchal practice of the era.
Hence, Miller’s references to the common practice of polygamy in Israelite society have no hermeneutically valid relevance to the question of what Genesis 1-2 teaches about marriage. The Old Testament explicitly teaches the worship of only one God, without idols, despite the fact that until the Babylonian Exile the Israelites often practiced the worship of many gods, with idols. It does not follow from the Israelite practice that the biblical texts condemning polytheism and idolatry do not mean what they say.
The Old Testament condemns adultery, yet a lot of Israelites (including as honored a man as David) engaged in this activity as well. Should we then reinterpret the Old Testament to avoid the conclusion that adultery is universally wrong? I can see it now: in a few years, Newsweek will publish an article arguing that the Bible does not explicitly condemn all “extramarital affairs”—a term, it might well note, that does not even appear in the Bible. The biblical term adultery will be reinterpreted to refer to some narrower or more specific activity that postmoderns still find distasteful (assuming they can come up with something). Recent science will be adduced showing that sexual activity outside marriage has certain evolutionary benefits. We will be reminded that biblical literalism is intellectually and culturally moribund. Why not?
The above argument, let me caution my fellow logicians, is not a “slippery-slope” argument. The fallacious slippery-slope argument reasons that if we allow X then Y will certainly follow (even if it need not). The above argument takes a different direction: it argues that if we allow justification J for X, we will have no grounds for objecting to the justification J for Y.
Arguing from Silence
Predictably, Miller appeals to the lack of any reference to same-sex relations in the Gospels as part of her case against the traditional view of marriage: “Jesus never mentions homosexuality, but he roundly condemns divorce (leaving a loophole in some cases for the husbands of unfaithful women).” Is it possible for anyone writing in defense of homosexual relationships not to resort to this argument from silence? The argument from silence is one of the classic informal fallacies, a flawed form of reasoning that incautiously draws inferences from someone’s silence on a particular issue as to their view on it.
Jesus said nothing (recorded in the Gospels) about incest, pedophilia, or bestiality; what can be plausibly inferred from this “silence”? Nothing. If we had to guess, we should presume that Jesus probably held the same view of these behaviors as that of his Jewish contemporaries, which was that all such behaviors—including homosexual activities—were detestable. Nor do we need to resort to a fallacious argument from silence in reverse, arguing that if Jesus said nothing about these behaviors he must have disapproved of them. We have at least two lines of positive evidence from the Gospels for Jesus’ views of such matters (in addition to the relevant background information about the prevailing sexual mores of his culture).
First, Jesus explicitly quoted Genesis 2:24 in addressing the question of divorce, demonstrating that he grounded his views on marriage and sexuality on the creational teaching of the Bible (Matt. 19:5, 6; Mark 10:8).
Second, Jesus treated the entire Old Testament (what was at the time the entirety of Scripture) as the authoritative, infallible word of God. We can see this in his explicit statements about the nature of Scripture (e.g., Matt. 5:17-18; Luke 16:17; John 10:35) and in the way he quoted Scripture, often attributing the words of the text to God (e.g., Matt. 4:4; 15:4; 22:29-32, 41-45; Mark 7:9-13). The Gospels’ reports about Jesus’ view and use of Scripture are consistent with his historical and cultural context, since in this regard Jesus would have had essentially the same view of Scripture as the Jewish rabbis of his day.
We may therefore presume, given the above two lines of evidence, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that Jesus would have agreed with the prevailing view in his native Jewish culture of such sexual behaviors as incest and homosexual relations. We know from Matthew 5:17-18 that he would have agreed that any moral teaching of the Old Testament remained in force. At the very least, it is clearly fallacious to infer that Jesus was, or even might have been, accepting of same-sex unions from the lack of any comment about homosexuality in the Gospels.
Selective Use and Misuse of Secondary Sources
It is customary for religious and theological argumentation that appeals to the Bible as the primary source to draw attention to secondary sources—commentaries, scholarly studies, reference works, and the like—to demonstrate that one’s handling of the Bible is in keeping with the findings of trained scholars. Miller does this in her article, which is perfectly appropriate. Unfortunately, though, she does so in ways that are highly misleading.
For one thing, all but one of Miller’s secondary sources are cited in support—or at least apparent support—of her point of view. The only secondary source cited in support of the traditional man-woman view of marriage is a minister (Richard Hunter). Miller cites Hunter briefly toward the beginning of her article and spends the rest of the article refuting his traditional position. No scholars defending the traditional view appear in the article. The sources cited against this view are both scholarly and pastoral: Alan Segal, the Anchor Bible Dictionary (more on this one below), Neil Elliott, Walter Brueggemann, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rev. James Martin, Pastor Terry Davis, and Rev. Chloe Breyer. Are there scholars whom Miller might have consulted and quoted that support the traditional view? Of course, but one would never know this from her article. The classic fallacy of the appeal to authority is at work here, and in a “stacked deck” mode to boot. The clear intent is to give the impression (without saying so and thus being accountable for it) that current scholarship is uniformly on the side of legitimizing same-sex unions.
Making matters worse, in some instances Miller cites these secondary sources in a highly misleading way. The most glaring example is her citation of the Anchor Bible Dictionary:
In its entry on “Homosexual Practices,” the Anchor Bible Dictionary notes that nowhere in the Bible do its authors refer to sex between women, “possibly because it did not result in true physical ‘union’ (by male entry).”
A discerning reader, noticing right away that the words “nowhere in the Bible” are not enclosed in quotation marks, and knowing that Romans 1:26 is in the Bible, may well suspect that the ABD does not make this sweeping statement. Such a reader will be correct. The context of the statement is an article on sexuality in the Old Testament; not one New Testament citation appears anywhere in the lengthy three-page dictionary article (Tikva Frymer-Kensy, “Sex and Sexuality,” ABD 5:1144-46). It is in this context of discussing the Old Testament that the article states, “Lesbian interaction, however, is not mentioned, possibly because it did not result in true physical ‘union’ (by male entry)” (1145-46).
Selective Use of Context
When Miller does give attention to the context in which biblical statements appear, her use of context is similarly selective and tendentious. In fairness, her argument here is not only unoriginal, it is ubiquitous (like the argument from Jesus’ silence) in polemics defending same-sex unions. It is the stock “Leviticus? You can’t be serious” argument:
Twice Leviticus refers to sex between men as “an abomination” (King James version), but these are throwaway lines in a peculiar text given over to codes for living in the ancient Jewish world, a text that devotes verse after verse to treatments for leprosy, cleanliness rituals for menstruating women and the correct way to sacrifice a goat—or a lamb or a turtle dove. Most of us no longer heed Leviticus on haircuts or blood sacrifices; our modern understanding of the world has surpassed its prescriptions. Why would we regard its condemnation of homosexuality with more seriousness than we regard its advice, which is far lengthier, on the best price to pay for a slave?
Well, then, while we’re tossing out Leviticus because it gives so much attention to matters of ritual, let’s be sure to toss out all of it. In the very chapters condemning homosexual acts (in 18:22 and 20:13), Leviticus also condemns incest (18:6-18; 20:11-12, 14, 17, 19-21), adultery (18:20; 20:10), child-sacrifice (18:21; 20:2-5), and bestiality (18:23; 20:15-16). The texts condemning homosexual acts are sandwiched immediately between texts condemning child-sacrifice and bestiality in chapter 18 (18:21-23) and between texts condemning different types of incest in chapter 20 (20:12-14).
In the intervening chapter, Leviticus contains what used to be its most famous injunction: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18), quoted by Jesus as the second of the two greatest commandments (Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; cf. Luke 10:27). Leviticus 19 also commands the Israelites to respect their parents (19:3) and leave something in their fields for the poor to eat (19:9-10). They are not to steal, deceive, or lie to one another (19:11), oppress their neighbors (19:13), mistreat those with physical impairments (19:14), show partiality in judgment to the rich (19:15), spread slander or put other people’s lives in jeopardy (19:16), hate their brothers, or take revenge or bear grudges against others (19:17-18). The Israelites are not to degrade their daughters by making them prostitutes (19:29). They are to show honor to the elderly (19:32) and love foreigners like kin (19:33-34). They are to use honest weights and measures to avoid defrauding others (19:35-36).
Granted that most contemporary readers will find a few of the injunctions in Leviticus 18-20 strange or inapplicable today, it hardly follows that we are justified in throwing out the lot. It would be fair to say that most people today would admit that at least most of those injunctions express moral values of relevance in our own society.
The problem with this stock objection to the statements in Leviticus about homosexual conduct is not that it pays attention to their context but that it does not pay sufficient, close attention to their context. The argument is about as bad as reasoning that since the Gospel of Luke contains several parables, which are obviously fictitious stories (quite true), it follows that we should not regard anything in Luke as historical (quite nonsensical). The objection depends on a vague assessment of Leviticus as “peculiar” and “ancient” and therefore of no relevance to our enlightened and technologically advanced age, buttressed with selective references to elements in the book that may or may not have any direct connection to the statements about homosexuality.
Much more could be said, but this is already a rather lengthy post (nearly as long as Miller’s article). I have discussed the biblical texts pertaining to homosexuality in more detail in a chapter on homosexuality in a book published over ten years ago. It’s interesting to see that the arguments and issues have not changed much in that time. The same fallacies continue to be repeated, necessitating that they continue to be answered.