Apples and Oranges?: Why I Have Not Changed My Mind on Homosexuality

By: Dr. Chuck Quarles (Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology, SEBTS)

On February 11, Danny Cortez preached an hour-long sermon to the congregation of the New Hope Community Church. The title of the sermon was “Why I Changed My Mind on Homosexuality.” In the sermon, Cortez argued that the clear prohibitions of homosexual conduct in the New Testament do not really apply today. He claimed that he attempted to immerse himself in ancient homoerotic literature “with a latte in hand.” In the process, he discovered that ancient homosexuality involved violence, abuse, and domination of a subordinate (boy, slave) by a superior (older man, master). By contrast, modern homosexuality is genuinely loving and does not involve such abuse. Using the New Testament to condemn homosexual conduct is wrongheaded. It is simply comparing apples to oranges.

Cortez is certainly right to oppose abuse. But he is wrong in claiming that this is the driving concern of Romans 1:26-27 and terribly wrong is his charge that the traditional Christian rejection of homosexuality is paramount to the very abuse that Paul condemned.

I am puzzled by Cortez’s portrayal of ancient homosexuality and by his interpretation of the New Testament. I admit that I have not chosen to immerse myself in ancient homoerotic literature like Pastor Cortez says that he has. On the other hand, I majored in Classics at a state university and remain a student of the history of the New Testament era preserved in the writings of the ancient Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius. Many ancient texts and quite a few ancient artifacts portray homosexuality in Paul’s time quite differently from what Cortez would lead us to believe.

To find an example of a homosexual who willingly adopted both dominant and passive roles in homosexual relationships, one need look no further than the infamous emperor Nero. He castrated a boy named Sporus (not to torture him but to prevent the onset of puberty and thus preserve Sporus’ femininity) and then publically married him in a ceremony with dowry, bridal veil, and all the trappings. After the wedding, Nero had Sporus dress as an empress and treated him in every way as one would a queen. But this is not the entire story. Later Nero later fell in love with an adult free man named Doryphorus and publicly married him. Yet this time Nero chose to act as the bride and have Doryphorus act as groom. Then Nero played the feminine role in their homosexual acts (Suetonius, Nero, 28). Suetonius portrays Nero’s relationship with these two men as characterized by genuine affection. Nero’s willingness to marry the men publically and confer royal privileges on them suggests that the relationship had remarkable similarities to the relationships of gay couples today. It certainly shows the fallacy in Cortez’s claim that in ancient homosexuality “The dominant would penetrate the passive, but it would never be reversed” (c. 36:00 mark).

One might also mention Aristotle’s description of the relationship between two Corinthian men. Aristotle described Philolaus, a famous philosopher and political thinker as “a lover of Diocles, the Olympic victor.” The two homosexual men lived together until the day that they died. They even chose to be buried side by side (Politics, Book 2). These are only two of a plethora of ancient depictions of homosexual relationships in the Greco-Roman world demonstrating that Cortez’s portrayal of such relationships is mistaken.

The error of Cortez’s argument should be obvious to any careful readers of Romans 2, even if they are not familiar with ancient descriptions of homosexuality. Cortez interprets the text as if Romans 1:27 referred to men committing shameful acts with boys or abusers performing shameful acts on victims. But Paul actually wrote: “Males committed shameful acts with males” (HCSB). The translation in the HCSB is very accurate and precise. The sexual act was a shameful act because it involved two people of the same gender, two males, and was thus a perversion of the Creator’s intention for sexual relationships (Gen. 2:24). Paul was not making assumptions about the act involving violence, abuse, or domination. The preceding statement in the verse actually implies that one male was not imposing his desires on another male, but rather the males “were inflamed in their lust for one another.” The reciprocal pronoun translated “for one another” implies mutual desire and reciprocity rather than violence, force, and abuse.

I share Cortez’s concern for comparing apples to oranges. Things that are vastly different should not be equated. When I consider Cortez’s interpretation of Romans 1 and then read what the Apostle wrote under the inspiration of God–that’s when I see apples and oranges. Cortez’s interpretation is vastly different from what Paul wrote. I suspect that the Apostle Paul would be appalled by it. I hope Southern Baptists will be too.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (8): What Roles Do Philosophical Theology and Systematic Theology Play?

For many Christians, the words “philosophical” and “systematic” do not have the best of connotations. “Philosophy” reminds them, perhaps, of certain philosophers who have mocked Christianity, such as Nietzsche or several of the New Atheists. Likewise, “systematic” might conjure up images of theologians whose “system” subverts or overrides the biblical testimony, or whose books are so dense and technical that one wonders who could possibly understand them. And while these negative impressions might sometimes have been earned by practitioners of these two disciplines, I think that both disciplines can be helpful tools in a theologian’s toolbox, if treated appropriately. I will give you a hint: I am going to suggest that it will be helpful for the church if professional theologians will do systematic theology in such a manner that they move a step or two away from philosophical theology and step or two toward biblical theology.

The Nature and Legitimacy of Philosophical Theology

There are various ways of conceiving the task of philosophical theology, but it will suffice here to say that philosophical theology is the appropriation of philosophical tools for the task of theology. Such appropriation has been evident since the earliest days of church history, in which the church found itself needing to interact with a language and a Greco-Roman framework of thought that were not designed with the needs of Christian theology in mind. McGrath writes, “On the one hand, it was necessary to go beyond the insights of scripture in order to meet the new intellectual challenges faced by the Christian communities; on the other, it was necessary to ensure that these extensions of the scriptural vocabulary and conceptual framework were consonant with its central insights.”[1] Indeed theologians in the present era wrestle with the same challenge, acknowledge that some level of philosophical theology is unavoidable, and find appropriate ways to draw upon his context’s conceptual languages and frameworks.

The Nature and Legitimacy of Systematic Theology

As with biblical and philosophical theology, there are more than a few ways to conceive systematic theology. For the purpose of this chapter, we will define systematic theology as a discipline which draws upon the biblical narrative in order to conceptualize and articulate the biblical faith in a comprehensive, well-proportioned, and unified manner for a particular cultural context.[2] Because it is done for a particular context, it often conceptualizes and articulates the biblical faith in relation to questions that arise outside of the text, and with categories that are not explicitly found in the text. It is “systematic,” by nature of the fact that it is organized based upon a set of presuppositions, and also on the basis of pedagogical and presentational concerns. A faithfully biblical systematic theology will be “systematic” without flouting the biblical ordering, lopping off awkward biblical data, or otherwise relegating Scripture to a secondary status. It will seek to construct systematic conceptions of the biblical material that arise comfortably from the biblical narrative, resonate with its core teachings, take into account all of the biblical data, and recognize its own secondary status in relation to Scripture. Further, we note that faithful theologians will not read the Bible in order to construct “great systematic theologies.” Rather we construct systematic theologies that help us read the Bible better, systems that lead us to deeper and richer exegesis. Scripture is primary, while systematic renderings of it are secondary.

The Relationship of Systematic Theology to Philosophical Theology and Biblical Theology.

Evangelical systematic theologians generally sustain conversation, at some level, with both biblical theologians and philosophical theologians. Systematic theologians are sometimes dependent upon philosophical theology for certain concepts with which to articulate the Christian message. Rational representation of the Christian message requires concepts, which are abstractions of the more concrete and historical biblical narrative(s). Philosophical theology provides those concepts, and has done so throughout church history. For example, the early church fathers spoke of Christ as being homoousios with (or, “of the same essence as”) the Father. They did so in order to speak clearly and in a common language within their cultural context. Philosophical concepts can function as a sort of intellectual shorthand which allows for more direct apprehension than can be had from the sprawling narrative of Scripture, composed as it is of narrative, poetry, prose, and other genres.

However, these concepts can undermine the Bible unless the theologian defines those concepts biblically, filling them with Christian meaning drawn from the biblical narrative. In his seminal article on this topic, Michael Williams writes, “I want to argue this precise point: the biblical narrative structure, the story of God’s relationship with his creation-from Adam to Christ crucified and resurrected to Christ triumphant in the restoration of all things in the kingdom of God-forms the regulative principle and interpretive key for systematic theology no less than it does for biblical theology. This suggests that a systematic theology that is oriented to the biblical narrative and scriptural ways of knowing ought to be redemptively-historically grounded rather than ordered to a cultural convention of rationality or an extra-biblical conception of system.”[3]

If the concepts drawn from philosophical theology are ever “cut free” from the narrative and allowed to “float” on their own, the result will be a distortion or subversion of the biblical teaching. For example, Christian theologians have drawn upon Aristotelian philosophy in order to conceive and articulate God’s attributes in terms of God’s “pure actuality,” “simplicity,” “aseity,” “necessity,” and so forth. But if God is described merely in those terms, without those terms being defined by the biblical witness about God and his mighty acts in history, we have not understood who God is. We have contemplated some abstractions about a purported deity, but we have not understood or embraced the God of Israel who alone can save. For this reason, we affirm that biblical theology, rather than any culturally conditioned philosophical framework, is the home environment of systematic theology.

Theology’s often inappropriate relationship with philosophical theology began in the patristic period, but gained steam in the medieval period, as the scholastic method fostered an impulse toward abstraction. Theology became an exercise in abstract, metaphysical knowledge of God divorced from the concrete particularity of the historical narrative. In fact, the Reformers sought to reform theology on this exact point. Luther’s “theology of the cross” was an attempt to assert the priority of the narrative over metaphysics. “Luther’s fundamental point . . . is that the narrative of the crucified Christ must be interpreted on the basis of a framework established by that narrative itself, rather than upon the basis of an imposed alien framework.”[4] The theologian of the cross is the one who allows his conceptual framework to arise naturally from the biblical narrative rather than vice-versa, interpreting the biblical narrative on the basis of a preconceived system.

[1] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 6

[2] This definition draws upon, but modifies and expands, the definition given by John Webster, that “systematic theology aims at a comprehensive, well-proportioned, and unified conceptual representation of Christian teaching.” Webster, “Introduction: Systematic Theology,”12.

[3] Michael Williams, “Systematic Theology as a Biblical Discipline,” in All for Jesus: A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Covenant Theological Seminary, ed. Robert A. Peterson and Sean Michael Lucas (Fearn, Tain, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 167-196.

[4] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 65.

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 17: The Crisis in 21st Century Preaching: A Mandate for Biblical Exposition, Part E

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

The Crisis in 21st Century Preaching: a Mandate for Biblical Exposition
Part E

5. Effective biblical instruction will take serious and develop the implications of what Jesus said in Luke 24 about the Christological nature of Scripture.

Jesus said in John 15:26, When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father- the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father- He will testify about Me.” And in John 16:14, Jesus adds, “He [the Holy Spirit] will glorify Me.” Call it what you will, preaching that does not exalt, magnify and glorify the Lord Jesus is not Christian Preaching. Preaching that does not present the gospel and call men and women to repent of sin and place their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not gospel preaching. We are not Jewish rabbis or scribes, and this truth should guide us in how we handle the Old Testament. Jesus, Himself, provides the hermeneutical key in Luke 24 (cf. also John 5:39).

Good and faithful exposition will be Christological in focus, inner-canonical in context, and inter-textual in building a biblical theology. It will carefully interpret Scripture in the greater context of the grand redemptive storyline of Scripture. The near and immediate context will be honored, but the extended and canonical context also will be honored and explored as well. Such a hermeneutic and homiletic is in harmony with that which was employed by the apostles. Applying what can be called a comprehensive Christocentric hermeneutic, we will examine “the little narratives” and “pericopes” in light of the “big narrative,” the great redemptive narrative centered in Christ. As this applies to the Old Testament, we will exegete and expound Scripture recognizing that all of the Old Testament points to Christ, and as those in Christ, it points to and is applied to us mediated through Christ.

Jon Akin guides us when he writes,

We look for clues, themes, etc. that foreshadow what will happen at the end of the story. After reading the whole story, those clues and themes make greater sense, and are read in light of the rest of the story. When reading stories like Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey, or The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, etc. we do not dissect the earlier episodes without putting them in the context of the entire story. It would be like analyzing act two of Romeo and Juliet without seeing the clues and themes that foreshadow the tragic movement of the plot. The same must be done when reading the Old Testament, because there are “clues” and themes that point forward to fulfillment in Christ (Jon Akin, “Reading the Bible Christocentrically: Part 2,” SBC Witness, 11-08-06).

6. From beginning to end, from the study to the pulpit, the entire process of biblical exposition must take place in absolute and complete submission to the Holy Spirit.

J. H. Jowett captured the essence of what we are after when we stand to proclaim the Word of God. There is a sobering and piercing nature to what he says: “What we are after is not that folks shall say at the end of it all. ‘What an excellent sermon!’ That is a measured failure. You are there to have them say when it is over, ‘What a great God!’ It is something for men not to have been in your presence but in His” (J. H. Jowett, quoted in Context, Dec. 1, 1997, p. 2).

All that we do in preparation and proclamation of the Bible should take place in humble submission to the Holy Spirit. In the study, as we analyze the text, study the grammar, parse the verbs, consult commentaries, and gather the raw materials for the message, we should seek His guidance and confess our total dependence on Him.

When we stand to preach, to minister the Word to our people, again we must plead for His filling and direction. Word and Spirit was a hallmark of the Reformers, and it must be the same with us. Submission to the Spirit is no substitute and no excuse for shirking the hard work of the study. However, a homiletical masterpiece will be of little value without the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

We are not journey guides, self-help gurus, positive thinkers, entertainers, comedians, or liberal or conservative commentators, parroting the wisdom of the world, true though it sometimes may be. We are gospel preachers, Jesus-intoxicated heralds by virtue of the indwelling and filling of the Holy Spirit. Submission to the Spirit will lead to exaltation of the Son.

7. Changed lives for the glory of God is always the goal for which we strive. Therefore it is a sin, of the most serious sort, to preach the Word of God in a boring and unattractive fashion.

We agree with Charles Koller who says, “It is more important clumsily to have something to say than cleverly to say nothing” (Charles Koller, Expository Preaching Without Notes, 42-43). However, in Ecclesiastes 12:9-10 Solomon says, “. . . the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.”

In the multi-media, entertainment saturated culture in which we live, we repeatedly tell our students, “What you say is more important than how you say it, but how you say it has never been more important.” Haddon Robinson, paraphrasing a Russian proverb says, “it is the same with men as with donkeys; whoever would hold them fast must get a very good grip on their ears.”

We believe that we cannot improve on the 3 canons of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. In the communication event we must weave together in an attractive tapestry Logos (what), Ethos (who), and Pathos (how). Content is essential, credibility is crucial, and delivery is of no small importance. Aristotle reminds us, “it is not enough to know what to say – one must know how to say it” (Rhetoric, 182). Chuck Swindoll warns us, “If you think the gathering of Biblical facts and standing up with a Bible in your hand will automatically equip you to communicate well, you are deeply mistaken, It will not. You must work at being interesting. Boredom is a gross violation, being dull is a grave offence, and irrelevance is a disgrace to the Gospel. Too often these three crimes go unpunished and we preachers are the criminals . . . preaching is not as simple as dumping a half-ton load of religious whine, and a hodgepodge of verbs, nouns, and adjectives; but preparing the heart, sharpening the mind; delivering the goods with care, sensitivity, timing, and clarity. It’s the difference between slopping hogs and feeding sheep . . . [Therefore] study hard, pray like mad, think it through, tell the truth, then stand tall. But while you’re on your feet, don’t clothe the riches of Christ in rags. Say it well” (Evangelical Church Of Fullerton Newsletter, date unknown.) Martyn Lloyd-Jones adds, “There is no doubt about this; effective speaking involves action; and that is why I stress that the whole person must be involved in preaching.”

An effective communicator will always be genuinely relevant. The wise preacher will exegete both the scriptures and the culture. He understands that he must know each equally well. Both Luther and Calvin understood this. Luther said, “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ” (quoted in Good News, Sept/Oct 1998, p. 9).

Calvin adds,

What advantage would there be if we were to stay here half a day and I were to expound half a book without considering you or your profit and edification? . . . We must take into consideration those persons to whom the teaching is addressed . . . For this reason let us note well that they who have this charge to teach, when they speak to a people, are to decide which teaching will be good and profitable so that they will be able to disseminate it faithfully and with discretion to the usefulness of everyone individually” (John Calvin, quoted in Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words, pp. 132-133).

Bad preaching will sap the life of a church. It will kill its spirit, dry up its fruit, and eventually empty it. If we would dare to be honest, we must say that bad preaching is not true preaching. It is preaching not worthy of the name. It is preaching that will stonewall a Great Commission Resurgence.