James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, and Sexuality: Reframing The Church’s Debate on Same Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, February, 2013. 312 pp. Paperback, $29.00.
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Thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy!
James Brownson is the James and Jean Cook Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan. He is also an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. In Bible, Gender, and Sexuality he is attempting to look at the issue of same sex from a fresh angle.
The reason Brownson wants to look at the issue from a fresh angle is twofold. First, there are “gay and lesbian Christians who exhibit many gifts and fruits of the Spirit and who seek to live in deep obedience to Christ (11).” While Brownson was able to engage this issue from a “moderate, traditionalist position,” he was unable to continue doing so when his son announced he was gay.The second motivating factor made Brownson realize his former work “had stayed at a level of abstraction that wasn’t helpful when it came to the concrete and specific questions” he now faced with his son. His own son didn’t seem to fit the typical narrative used by traditionalists to explain homosexual orientation (and divide orientation from behavior). Likewise, his son seemed to him like a normal and healthy high school senior, in need of the grace of God, but not particularly or deeply troubled (12).
As a result, Brownson wanted to discern “what the most central and truest message of Scripture” was for his son, and “not to justify a certain conclusion” but discern as best the truth as best he could. In other words, because of personal issues, Brownson felt the strong need to go back and ask “Does Scripture really say homosexuality is wrong?”
Predictably, Brownson comes to the conclusion that Scripture doesn’t really say that. Once Brownson shared his personal motivations in his book project, I knew immediately this was the conclusion he would come to. That I read the rest of the book, I didn’t need to in order to see that Brownson would conclude from his study that same-sex relationships would be ok if they follow the same guidelines as opposite-sex relationships (sexual activity only within marriage). Having spent time depressed “grieving the loss of the heterosexual future” his son would miss (12), it was only natural that Brownson would now envision a “healthy” homosexual one instead.
To get there, Brownson concludes that same-sex relationships are not condemned by Scripture primarily by digging into what he calls “the moral logic” of what Scripture means by what it says. To be honest, it felt very much like the idea was to see if we could get behind what the text plainly says in order to see if actually applies to our modern situation. Lo and behold, it we dig deep enough we find that behaviors that are condemned in no uncertain terms can actually be morally acceptable in a different cultural context (if you also think that context isn’t anticipated by the biblical authors).
To make this case stick, Brownson has to argue several things. To begin, he denies that Scripture teaches gender complementarity (chapter 2). He focuses almost exclusively on Genesis 1-2 to prove this. Interestingly, he does not interact with any major commentary on Genesis in his interpretive efforts, nor does he really present a case from biblical theology. He simply examines the text for himself and finds it wanting.
Having done this, he then proceeds to try to distance himself from revisionist interpreters (chapter 3).Though it might appear like he is distinguishing himself from both traditionalists (complementarians) and revisionists by critiquing both camps, as mentioned above, he is ultimately part of the latter. He just thinks he is not as extreme. But, since he comes to more or less the same conclusions, that is really a hard sell to the reader.
After this preliminary ground clearing in the first part of the book, Brownson turns to four crucial topics in the second:
- Patriarchy (chapter 4)
- The one-flesh union of marriage (chapter 5)
- Procreation (chapter 6)
- Celibacy (chapter 7)
To summarize briefly, Brownson argues that the rules of a patriarchal culture are not normative (this builds on the denial of gender complementarity). Then, he says that the one-flesh union of marriage is primarily a kinship bond (and so not necessarily sexual). Given this, procreation may be part of marriage but not the ultimate goal, and so is not necessary. Lastly, it is wrong to argue that all people who want to gay or lesbian and Christian must be celibate because it is a gift not given to all.
This is all done without really engaging Romans 1:24-27 because Brownson devotes the entire third part of the book to this passage. He is concerned to understand what Paul means by lust and desire (chapter 8), purity and impurity (chapter 9), the dishonorable use of the body (chapter 10), and finally the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality (chapter 11). Briefly summarized, Brownson concludes that Paul condemns homosexual behavior that is driven by unrestrained lust. Then he suggests that for Paul and the rest of the NT authors, purity moves away from actions toward attitudes and dispositions. Next, if gender roles evolve, certain sexual behaviors that violate those gender roles may be acceptable. Lastly, in light of all this, there is no objective basis on which to classify homosexual behavior as “unnatural” and hence in the proper moral framework (marriage or civil union), the church should be open to accepting it.
In all this, no major Romans commentaries are consulted in reference to Romans 1. It is frequently asserted that neither Paul nor the other biblical writers were aware of something like sexual orientation. Frequently, sociological and psychological research in the abstract is referenced if it helps make the point and overlooked if it doesn’t. Speculative background contexts are used to try to reframe what Paul is saying.
But all of that pales in light of what Brownson says way back in chapter 5:
The fact that the Bible uses the language of “one flesh” to refer to male-female unions normally does not inherently, and of itself, indicate that it views such linkages normatively. (105)
This allows him to later make the following expanded conclusion:
It is clear that Scripture assumes that this one-flesh bond only takes place between a man and a woman. Yet there is nothing inherent in the biblical usage that would necessarily exclude committed gay or lesbian unions from consideration as one-flesh unions, when the essential characteristics of one-flesh unions as kinship bonds are held clearly in view. (109)
In other words, “what is normal in the biblical witness may not necessarily be normative in different cultural settings that are not envisioned by the biblical writers.” This is essentially a denial of the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture may depict certain cultural relationships as normal, but it is not our norm for understanding cultural relationships. That “norm” is whatever the deeper moral logic of Scripture is, which from Brownson’s point of view, seems to be an almost entirely cultural human product. Brownson is only interested in the moral logic of the biblical writer, as understood only as the text’s human author.
There is no concern for God’s moral logic and what might bring him glory through our sexual relationships. There is only the deeply personal experience of gay and lesbian persons that forces us to reinterpret what Scripture means by what it says. There is no recognition that we are all sexually broken in way or another and that homosexual patterns of desire represent one type of brokenness that needs the grace of God just as much as every other kind of brokenness.
In the end, there is book is a father’s attempt to affirm his son by re-reading Scripture and re-imagining a future for his son that can include a valid, church approved same-sex union. To do this, he must fight against the tide of traditional biblical interpretation and consult outlying sources to support the conclusion he was inevitably moving toward when he went back to “see what Scripture really means by what it says.” On the one hand, this book shows how tightly inter-related the case for traditional gender role is with the case for traditional marriage, and for that we should be grateful. But on the other hand, it shows what happens when experience becomes normative over and above Scripture, and for that we should take warning. Many people will find Brownson’s case compelling. Those same people may claim sola Scriptura, but approving the argument of this book requires affirming sola experientia instead.