Matthew Vines has made a name for himself. He took two years off from college to study the question of homosexuality and the church. At the end, he came out bearing what he takes to be good news: Same-sex sexual activity is not contrary to the teaching of the church, or so he tells us.
His arguments are nothing new. They are the same historical and exegetical claims that have driven revisionist readings on this question for decades. Paul did not know committed same-sex relationships between equal, adult persons, so he could not have been speaking to them. What is condemned in the Bible is temple prostitution, and abusive relationships between a grown man and an adolescent boy.
What he has done is to present these claims in the relatively approachable format of an hour-long video online, a video which to date has garnered an impressive 400,000 views. The momentum of his message has grown steadily, until last month, when he was featured in the New York Times. At this point, some response is necessary from those who uphold a traditional sexual ethic, especially those of us who are, in fact, gay. What, then, is the response?
His arguments vary in strength. His claim that the “natural/unnatural” in Romans 1 must refer to a person’s natural heterosexual or, by extension, homosexual inclination is incoherent with his claim that it has to be read in terms of a wider usage indicating social custom. It seems absurd to claim that we don’t know the meaning of arsenokoitai (which can be roughly broken down into “male-bedder”), when the word, coined by Paul, clearly hearkens to the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18:22, arsenos ou koimethese koiten gunaikos, a text which Vines grants as a general prohibition on male-male intercourse.
The fact that malakoi is, in 1 Corinthians 9, paired with arsenokoitai makes the most plausible reading a reference to active and passive partners in same-sex intercourse, rather than a broader sense of immoral indulgence. On the other hand, the most likely point of reference is, as Vines suggests, a far cry from the committed, monogamous relationships that he and others in the church are calling for. (There is the question of how many gay male relationships are, in fact, monogamous or committed. However, if we believe that the traditional sexual ethic is true, it must hold true against the strongest example, not merely the most common). That said, the burden of proof remains on them to show that Paul would approve such relationships, had he known them.
But the cracks in Vines’ message run far deeper than his arguments; his hermeneutical approach to the whole question is deeply flawed. Vines is approaching Scripture as though it were a puzzle to be solved. His impassioned plea that we not declare good what Genesis declares evil, that man should be alone, raises serious questions about the role of gay people in the Church, but the answer he seeks has clearly determined his engagement with the text.
If Scripture is merely a code to be broken, then we can enter into it by ourselves, armed with lexicons and concordances, to declare its true meaning. But a deeper reflection will reveal that this leaves us with no defense against our own prejudices and the ways in which we have been shaped by our culture. It would seem that Vines has absorbed the problematic attitudes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
C. S. Lewis, in his introduction to St. Athanasius’ De Incarnatione, offers words Vines would do well to heed: “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
No approach to Scripture can be unmediated. The only question is: Will my approach be mediated only by the prejudices, concerns, strengths, and weaknesses of my own day, or will they be balanced by the weight of Christian tradition? Mr. Vines is not unacquainted with the tradition; he cites St. John Chrysostom (anonymously, as “a fourth-century Christian writer”) on this question. Astoundingly, though, he seems to regard Chrysostom’s voice as having no value, except to demonstrate a late antique perspective on where homosexual desire comes from. There is no discernible sense that the earlier Christian voice might have a valuable contribution to make to this discussion.
What is the role of the Holy Spirit in all of this? For Matthew Vines, the Paraclete seems only to inspire Scripture and Matthew Vines’ own interpretation of Scripture, which we must assume is Spirit-led. But what of the ancient Christian tradition? Is it devoid of the presence of the Spirit? A robust pneumatology recognizes that the work of the Spirit is not limited to the inspiration of Scripture, but is seen in the living community of believers throughout the ages, and in the theological tradition which that community has handed down. This tradition is not infallible, but it does have a certain degree of normativity, which he ignores.
Matthew Vines would do well to recall the words of the true vine, who promised “I will not leave you as orphans.” While Scripture is foundational to the Christian life, it is not the only resource upon which we may draw; we are also incorporated into an ancient and continuous body of believers, a body whose very identity is found in the love of Christ, in conformity to him, and in the firm assurance of his continued presence in our midst, mediated by the Holy Spirit.
Matthew Vines has very real and pressing concerns about love, about loneliness, and about life. But in contradicting the consistent and unchanging witness of the community of faith throughout the ages, he must deny the real work of the Spirit in shaping that witness from the time of the Apostles to our own day. By rejecting this unbroken teaching, he may be making himself an orphan, a child who is all on his own, without caretaker, model, or point of entry into the society of Christ.
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a doctoral student in historical theology at the Catholic University of America.
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