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Distinguished Theologian Robert Gagnon Critiques Richard Hays over his Changed Views on Homosexuality

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This will likely lead to an acceleration of evangelical capitulation on the scripture’s (and Jesus’) male-female foundation for sexual ethics. It will also likely signal Fuller Seminary’s capitulation on sexual ethics.

The two Hays argue that God, who is ever “changing his mind” to “broaden,” “widen,” and “expand” his “grace” and “mercy” in order to “include more and more people,” “has already gone on ahead of our debates and expanded his grace” to embrace “full inclusion of LGBTQ people in Christian communities.”

They contend that the arguments about the so-called “handful of specific passages” dealing with homosexual practice and transgenderism (it is really the entire matrix of biblical texts dealing with human sexuality) “have reached an impasse” and are “missing the forest for the trees.”

This is a nonsense claim. There is no exegetical (or hermeneutical) impasse. The texts that speak directly to the issue of homosexual practice and transgenderism, understood in their ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman contexts and taking into consideration the flaws of “new knowledge” arguments, decisively demonstrate a strong biblical witness against these behaviors from ancient Israel through early Christianity.

Nor is discussion of these texts “missing the forest for the trees.” They are part of a larger matrix where every narrative, law, proverb, exhortation, and poetry having anything to do with sexual ethics, from Genesis to Revelation, including the teaching of Jesus, always presuppose a male-female foundation and thus exclude the implosion of that foundation that would come about by embrace of homosexual practice or transgenderism.

The position being espoused by the two Hays is akin to claiming that arguments against adult-consensual incest or polyamory that are based on biblical texts directly indicting these practices “miss the forest for the trees.”

Hays had previously defended the orthodox scriptural position in a journal article in 1986 (“Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell’s Exegesis of Romans 1,” Journal of Religious Ethics 14/1:184-215) and a book chapter in 1996 (ch. 16, pp. 379-406, in: The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics [HarperSanFrancisco]).

Even then his work had problems.

(1) He dismissed the relevance of the Sodom text (and the related Levite at Gibeah), failing to grasp the ancient Near Eastern context and think analogically. In fact, Sodom and the Levite at Gibeah are both stories that present homosexual practice as an egregious offense within stories about multiple offenses (similar to a story about a man raping his father as not indicting only coercive forms of incest).

(2) He wrongheadedly critiqued Boswell for allegedly thinking that Paul operated with a view of sexual orientation when (Hays claimed) such is a modern idea unknown to Paul. In fact, Hays was agreeing with Boswell that Paul allegedly understood homosexual behavior to be the result of insatiable lust seeking novel forms of self-gratification. Not realizing it, Hays was undermining his own attempt to support Paul’s view by giving the Left a “new knowledge” argument for dismissing Paul’s witness. Hays failed to understand that rudimentary but real notions of “sexual orientation” already existed in the ancient world, including by some Greco-Roman moralists and physicians who still rejected the behavior arising from said orientation.

(3) He asserted that active unrepentant homosexual sin should be no bar to church membership: “If [practicing, self-affirming homosexual persons] are not welcome, I will have to walk out the door along with them, leaving in the sanctuary only those entitled to cast the first stone” (Moral Vision, 400). The argument was untenable since (a) the early church clearly made abstinence from egregious sexual immorality (of which homosexual practice is the most extreme form so far as consensual sexual relationships are concerned) a condition of church membership (see the Apostolic Decree); and (b) Paul’s words regarding the incestuous man in 1 Cor 5 clearly show that a self-professed believer engaged in serial, unrepentant, egregious sexual sin had to be put out of the community pending repentance.

(4) Hays already leaned toward accepting the ordination of homosexually active candidates for ministry. “It is arbitrary to single out homosexuality as a special sin that precludes ordination…. The church has no analogous special rules to exclude from ordination the greedy or self-righteous” (Moral Vision, 407). That was an untenable argument, since the church would certainly have excluded from ordination someone who exhibited extreme forms of these near-universal sins like extortion, theft, and claims to deserve eternal life.

(5) These positions underscore that already for Hays back in the 1980s and 1990s, self-affirmed, serial-unrepentant homosexual practice was a relatively minor sin. Instead of comparing it to adult-consensual incest as he should have (again, 1 Cor 5), he argued that it was less severe than any form of “materialism,” “greed,” or “self-righteousness” (all near-universal sins). Hays was equating serial-unrepentant egregious acts of sexual immorality to impulses that nearly everyone struggles with, without any regard for differentiating extreme versions from milder forms. He would not have taken the same approach to a man being in a consensual sexual relationship with his mother, as his commentary on 1 Corinthians shows (underscoring his inconsistency).

In conclusion, Hays was already in a position of holding significant anti-scriptural views about homosexual practice back in the 1980s and 1990s. No wonder that he has now caved so completely on the issue.

I look forward to critiquing their book in depth when it is released in late September. But this isn’t the first time I have been to the dance. I have been researching this issue for thirty years, and have encountered similar arguments before. Some additional considerations:

1. Jesus didn’t “widen God’s mercy” on sexual ethics by approving of egregious sin and canceling the need for repentance. He intensified God’s demand for sexual purity and reached out to the biggest violators of that demand to call people to repentance.

2. Most importantly, Jesus viewed a male-female prerequisite for sexual ethics as the foundation for all sexual ethics, including the limitation of two persons to a sexual bond (monogamy). In this his witness was consistent with the witness of his Hebrew Scriptures and carried forward by the faithful apostolic witness to Christ.

3. The widening of the sphere of God’s mercy to include Gentiles is a poor analogical basis for widening it to include homosexual practice and transgenderism, which (unlike being a Gentiles) are direct moral offenses. Nor do analogies to slavery, women, and divorce justify an embrace of homosexual practice and transgenderism, as I have repeatedly shown (and as Hays once knew).

4. Sooner should the church embrace adult-consensual polyamory and adult-consensual incest, both of which are prohibited on the basis of a male-female foundation for sexual ethics grounded in creation. Homosexual practice is worse because it is an attack on the very foundation of sexual ethics at creation.

5. Some will ask, “What is your case for claiming that promotion of LGBTQ behavior in the church is ‘heretical’?” Advocating a position that is the exact opposite of what Jesus himself regarded as the very foundation of marriage, grounded in creation and on the basis of which all other sexual ethics standards are predicated (including the limitation of two persons to a sexual union, monogamy), is a reasonably good definition of “heresy.” This is a disruption of the most important social institution ordained by God. Think whether it would be heretical for a Christian scholar to promote the embrace of adultery and adult-committed incest and polyamory (all lesser offenses than homosexual practice and transgenderism from a biblical perspective). Heresy doesn’t have to do just with theoretical theology but also with theology that leads to a way or course of life.

God hasn’t changed his mind. Hays and son have changed their minds. They are now swimming in the sea of heresy, rejecting the clear and overwhelming witness of Scripture (including Jesus) for its antithesis in today’s misguided world, and in the process encouraging the embrace of behavior that leads to exclusion from the Kingdom of God.

That can’t be loving by any stretch of the imagination.


Distinguished Theologian Robert Gagnon Critiques Richard Hays over his Changed Views on Homosexuality

Submitted by David W. Virtue, DD
April 17, 2024

Sadly, Richard Hays (professor emeritus of Duke Divinity School) has backslidden into heresy, reneging on his decades-old published rejection of homosexual practice as immoral. From 1986 thru 2000, he was the main go-to person on the issue for those seeking a biblical defense of the orthodox scriptural position, until his work (a journal article and a chapter in his Moral Vision book) was (I think it is fair to say) eclipsed by my work (with a 500-page book, a co-authored “Two Views” book, a 140-page contribution in an edited book, and many published articles in journals or edited books, encyclopedia entries, and internet resources). For deficiencies and cracks in his prior work, see below.

In late September Yale University Press will be publishing a book entitled, The Widening of God’s Mercy: Sexuality Within the Biblical Story (272 pgs.), written by Hays and by his son Christopher, who is an OT scholar and chair at supposedly evangelical Fuller Seminary.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Friday, May 17, 2024


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