A Feature Review of
Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships
Reviewed by Paul Chaplin.
“The church needs this book,” begins the foreword by former general secretary of the RCA, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. It’s hard to disagree. Debate around same-sex relationships, both within and across denominations, is commonly characterised by marked hostility and frequent attacks on participants’ respect for received scripture. For far too many this question marks a “line in the sand” for authentic or inauthentic Christian faith. In this very challenging climate, James Brownson (who, in addition to being Professor of NT at WTS holds the interesting title – unique to the RCA – of “General Synod Professor of Theology”) makes a timely and valuable contribution.
Brownson’s goal in the book is to press the rewind and then slow-motion buttons on debate regarding same-sex relationships, asking us to take a long, hard, honest look at the assumptions we carry in to our arguments. So much evangelical discourse on this issue takes certain basic premises as given and essentially irrefutable. Brownson asks us to take a step back, re-examine these assumptions, and see if we find ourselves in the same place afterwards.
The book’s somewhat unusual structure alone reveals a lot about the author’s emphasis. The first thing to notice is that a survey and exegesis of the notorious seven passages, chalking up to a bare ten or so pages in a 280-page read, sits at the rear of the book, almost as a postlude. The great wisdom of his approach is to recognise the great difficulty Christians are having with this topic when we begin our debates on the playing field of the seven passages. Brownson suggests that real disagreement, and therefore perhaps much more profitable debate, is found at a much deeper level than the passages themselves, in the underlying moral logic surrounding sexuality which is carried into our discussions and conclusions.
And so his project is to build up slowly throughout the book a very careful survey of the key moral reasoning which sits behind the standard contemporary debates (which are not superficial, but certainly limited, and struggling) on these issues. He declares, “We must discern the deeper and more comprehensive moral logic that undergirds the specific commands, prohibitions, and examples of the biblical text. We do not interpret rightly any single passage of Scripture until we locate the text within this larger fabric of meaning in Scripture as a whole” (9).
Brownson begins by framing the contemporary debate, and offering balanced overviews of the dominant traditionalist and revisionist positions on same-sex relationships, raising concerns with aspects of both. Brownson ultimately argues a revisionist case throughout the course of the book, but is at pains to warn against some of the approaches and ideology that he sees revisionist positions sometimes being aligned with. He points to the temptation to emphasise the historical distance between the context of the biblical writers and ourselves to such an extent that it is difficult to see how scripture can in fact speak to our contemporary experience at all, not just in this area but also in wider Christian ethics. Part of his argument later will involve stressing the gulf between what biblical authors are referring to when they condemn same-sex erotic activity and the committed relationships he is referring to today, but he is very careful not to make any blanket assumptions about what moral wisdom we can or cannot glean from even such a starkly different cultural context.