A Response to Tim Keller’s Review

This week, Dr. Timothy Keller published a review of my book, God and the Gay Christian, and Ken Wilson’s book A Letter to My Congregation on his church’s website. First, I want to thank Dr. Keller for engaging with my book, and for doing so in a civil and respectful way. I have long appreciated Dr. Keller’s ministry, and as anyone who has read my book knows, I am also grateful for his books and writings, from which I have learned a great deal. I am honored that Dr. Keller chose to review my book, and I hope to meet him in the near future, as I am sure I have much more to learn from him.

That said, I have long known Dr. Keller’s views on same-sex relationships, so I am not surprised that he disagrees with core aspects of my book. I welcome a cordial discussion of our disagreements, so to that end, I am responding to several key areas where I believe Dr. Keller either misunderstands or misrepresents my arguments.

My response to his points follows the order in which he made them.

Knowing gay people personally.
I very much appreciate Keller’s rejection of bigotry against gay people at the outset of his review. This is an important area of agreement, and I would like to see more evangelical leaders firmly denounce animus and bigotry against LGBT people, not only in principle but also in practice, whenever LGBT people are harmed based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Consulting historical scholarship.
Keller writes that “Vines and Wilson claim that scholarly research into the historical background show that biblical authors were not forbidding all same sex relationships, but only exploitative ones — pederasty, prostitution, and rape.” I do not, in fact, make this claim in my book, and I cite numerous examples of consensual same-sex behavior in ancient literature (cf. chapters 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7). Pederasty and rape were common forms of same-sex behavior, to be sure, but consensual same-sex behavior between adults was common in antiquity as well. Consequently, I ground my historical argument not in the exploitative nature of ancient same-sex behavior, but rather in the excessive nature of such behavior.

Keller makes much of the fact that Paul’s language in Romans 1 “could not represent rape, nor prostitution, nor pederasty,” but I do not argue that Paul’s language is limited to those forms of same-sex behavior. (That said, there is no reason why prostitution could not involve “men burning with passion ‘for one another,’” and Keller does not substantiate his claim that prostitution could not be at least part of what is in view in Romans 1:27.) I argue instead that “same-sex relations in the first century…were widely understood to be the product of excessive sexual desire in general” (103-04), and I adduce dozens of texts throughout my book to support this assertion.

Keller, by contrast, cites only one ancient text in order to argue that same-sex orientation “was known in antiquity:” Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium. According to Keller’s reading of Plato, “Zeus split the original human beings in half, creating both heterosexual and homosexual humans, each of which were seeking to be reunited to their ‘lost halves’ — heterosexuals seeking the opposite sex and homosexuals the same sex.”

I discuss this specific text in detail in my book, which Keller does not acknowledge. Here is what I wrote (pp. 190-91, n. 48):

In Plato’s Symposium, for instance, Aristophanes relates a myth explaining the existence of three types of people: adulterers and adulteresses, men who exclusively pursue boys and continue to live with them after they mature, and women who actively seek other women. But as Kirk Ormand has argued in Controlling Desires, this comic speech is not describing what is normal and expected, but what is deviant and transgressive: “None of the so-called orientations described previously are exactly like ours, and more important, none of them would be considered normal by Plato’s Athenian audience. Each of them is a type of excess, and the story turns out to be not about how to produce gay or straight men and women, but how certain kinds of odd and excessive preferences came to be. When describing those preferences, Aristophanes still assumes a pederastic model for the male-male couple. The category of homosexual male, in which two men of the same age would be attracted to each other, and either at any given time could be thought of as lover or beloved, simply seems not to be thinkable.” Ormand, Controlling Desires, 98. Similar analyses can be found in Halperin, One Hundred Years, 18–21; Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, 129–32; and Jeffrey S. Carnes, “This Myth Which Is Not One: Construction of Discourse in Plato’s Symposium,” in Rethinking Sexuality: Foucault and Classical Antiquity, ed. David H. J. Larmour, Paul Allen Miller, and Charles Platter (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 104–21.

In sum, Keller’s primary evidence for his claim that same-sex orientation was known in antiquity is his reading of a single text from the fourth-century B.C., and few classicists today would support that reading. Keller shows no engagement with the influential work of David Halperin, Kirk Ormand, Marilyn Skinner, and Jeffrey Carnes on this topic.

Moreover, Keller misrepresents the views of one of the two scholars he does cite. Keller writes that “Bernadette Brooten and William Loader have presented strong evidence that homosexual orientation was known in antiquity.” But Loader is more equivocal on this question than Keller suggests. Loader writes that “we cannot know for sure” whether Paul was familiar with ideas about same-sex orientation, and that we “certainly should not read our modern theories back into his world” (Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality, p. 323-24). Further, Loader approvingly quotes the views of Andrie B. du Toit, who writes that any ancient awareness of what moderns call same-sex orientation was “so rudimentary that a sympathetic insight into its seriousness and complicated nature would not have been part of the conceptual framework even of the well-informed” (324, n. 129).

Keller is correct that Brooten argues in her book Love Between Women that same-sex orientation was known in antiquity, but he fails to mention that leading classicists such as David Halperin have rejected her claims as “anachronistic,” “bizarre,” and “tendentious.” Halperin comprehensively refutes her claims on this question in his essay “The First Homosexuality?” (published in Martha Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola’s The Sleep of Reason, pp. 229-68), and Mark D. Smith concludes that “none” of Brooten’s sources “adequately parallels the modern concept of sexual orientation” (quoted by Loader, p. 324, n. 129). (To be clear: Brooten is a capable scholar and I respect and appreciate her work, but I agree with Halperin, Smith, and others that she is wrong on this point.)

In God and the Gay Christian, I contend that “the overwhelming majority of visible same-sex behavior (in antiquity) fit easily into a paradigm of excess” (104). Rather than undermine this claim, Keller’s preferred scholar on this issue actually supports it. Loader himself writes, “Much of the same-sex activity reported in both Jewish and Greek and Roman sources was in any case engaged in by men who were also behaving immorally with women. Philo regularly depicts such mixed promiscuity, from his depiction of the men of Sodom to his portrait of wild drunken parties” (324).

I agree with both Keller and Loader that Paul condemns same-sex relations in a sweeping manner in Romans 1:26-27. But as I argue in my book, “Paul wasn’t condemning the expression of a same-sex orientation as opposed to the expression of an opposite-sex orientation. He was condemning excess as opposed to moderation” (105). Keller seeks to blur the distinctions between ancient and modern understandings of same-sex relations, but he offers no solid evidence of ancient understandings of same-sex orientation, nor does he provide any examples of lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships between social equals in ancient literature. My point here is not that Paul was anything other than negative toward same-sex relations, but that lifelong, monogamous same-sex marriages today are substantially different from the lustful same-sex behavior Paul had in view in Romans 1:26-27. Keller presents no evidence to counter that claim.

Re-categorizing same-sex relations.
In the next section, Keller states, “Vines writes, for example, that the Bible supported slavery and that most Christians used to believe that some form of slavery was condoned by the Bible, but we have now come to see that all slavery is wrong.” Nowhere do I write that the Bible supported slavery. In fact, I argue in chapter 8 that, understood through the lens of a redemptive-movement hermeneutic, the Bible opposes slavery.

I do argue, however, that most Christians throughout church history believed that at least some forms of slavery were morally acceptable. Keller counters this assertion, writing that “there was never any consensus or even a majority of churches that thought slavery and segregation were supported by the Bible.” But Keller restricts his analysis almost exclusively to the modern West, which represents only a fraction of church history on the issue of slavery.

Moreover, Keller ignores the work of Hector Avalos, whose book Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship I cite in my book. Avalos rebuts the claims of Rodney Stark (whom Keller cites) in painstaking detail, concluding that “[t]he first millennium of Christianity saw an overwhelming acceptance of slavery by significant theologians, higher clerics, Church councils, and the Pope himself” (171).

Thomas Aquinas held that “slavery itself could be acceptable, and not a sin, under some circumstances” (182), and figures as influential as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards vigorously defended the legitimacy of slavery. Calvin interpreted Paul’s statements to slaves in the New Testament as applying to those “whose slavery was perpetual…whom their masters bought with money, that they might impose upon them the most degrading employments, and might, with the full protection of the law, exercise over them the power of life and death. To such he says, obey your masters, lest they should vainly imagine that carnal freedom had been procured for them by the gospel” (quoted by Avalos, 221).

Keller badly misrepresents the church’s history on the issue of slavery. This historical revisionism whitewashes egregious sins of our past, which is especially troubling given the ongoing marginalization of people of color within the church today. Further, it undercuts Keller’s case that the church’s modern rejection of slavery represents anything other than a significant shift relative to the majority of church history.

Keller closes this section by arguing that I “largely assume” what he calls the “cultural narratives” that “‘you have to be yourself,’ that sexual desires are crucial to personal identity, that any curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage, and that individuals should be free to live as they alone see fit.” Yet he produces no evidence—not a single quote, citation, or reference—to support his claim that I believe or assume any of these narratives. I do argue that what we today call sexual orientation is core to who we are as human beings made in God’s image, but sexual orientation is a far broader category than “sexual desires,” a distinction that Keller elides. Further, I have spoken repeatedly against the notion that “be yourself” is a sufficient Christian ethic; I have never suggested that “any curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage;” and I do not make any theological arguments based on the assumption that “individuals should be free to live as they alone see fit.” Keller seems to assume that I must hold those beliefs, but I do not.

Revising biblical authority
In the next section, Keller misrepresents my argument about the Leviticus prohibitions. He writes, “Vines argues that while the Levitical code forbids homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22) it also forbids eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12). Yet, he says, Christians no longer regard eating shellfish as wrong — so why can’t we change our minds on homosexuality?”

I mention Leviticus’ prohibition of shellfish in chapter 1 of my book only as an example of “some of what I learned” early on that “seemed to undermine the traditional interpretation of those passages” (11). My actual argument for why Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 should not be understood as binding on Christians today is far more thorough than what Keller suggests. I devote an entire chapter to this issue (chapter 5), yet Keller argues against my reading of Leviticus without making a single mention of that chapter or of any of the arguments I make in it. Reading this section of his review, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Keller actually read my entire book. If so, he doesn’t demonstrate any awareness of my actual argument about Leviticus.

Being on the wrong side of history.
Keller next argues against “the common argument that history is moving toward greater freedom and equality for individuals, and so refusing to accept same-sex relationships is a futile attempt to stop inevitable historical development.” To his credit, he acknowledges that this argument is not as “explicit” in my book, but in fact, I do not make any form of this argument at all. I do not believe in “inevitable historical progress,” nor do I find commonly repeated assertions that opponents of same-sex marriage are on “the wrong side of history” to be an illuminating form of moral discourse. So Keller is simply wrong when he claims that “Enlightenment optimism about human nature and reason” is one of the “background understandings” of my book. This sounds very much like a response Keller and others have grown used to offering to LGBT advocates in general, but it is not a fair response to anything I write in my book. In fact, I forthrightly accept the doctrine of original sin, which is not easily reconcilable with naïve assumptions of inevitable historical progress.

Missing the biblical vision.
Lastly, Keller claims that “Vines and Wilson concentrated almost wholly on the biblical negatives, the prohibitions against homosexual practice, instead of giving sustained attention to the high, (yes) glorious Scriptural vision of sexuality.” But this isn’t true. I dedicate three entire chapters to a sustained analysis of what Keller calls the “glorious Scriptural vision of sexuality”—chapters 3 (on celibacy), 8 (on marriage), and 9 (on the image of God and its relationship to sexuality and human identity). In fact, I draw on Keller’s own work in The Meaning of Marriage in my discussion of marriage in chapter 8. Keller shows no engagement with any of those chapters in his review.

Moreover, Keller’s primary argument against the legitimacy of same-sex relationships in this section is that “male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories.” But while he writes that male and female represent “pairs of different but complementary things made to work together” and that “they each see and do things that the other cannot,” he remains strikingly vague on the details of divinely-ordained gender complementarity.

It is not enough to say that “male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories.” In order to make a persuasive argument from Scripture, Keller—and anyone else taking this approach—must define specifically what those “unique, non-interchangeable glories” are, and must then demonstrate that the Bible itself teaches that one or more of those aspects of gender complementarity is exclusively and universally normative. To quote New Testament scholar James Brownson, whose influential work on this exact question Keller does not mention, “What exact aspect of ‘gender complementarity’ is violated by same-sex intimate relationships? And where do you find this particular aspect of gender complementarity taught in Scripture as universally and exclusively normative?”

Keller mentions the importance of children to marriage. Does he hold that the capacity for procreation is an essential aspect of marriage, and if so, how does he sustain that argument biblically, especially in light of the fact that the Bible never regards infertile marriages as invalid? He describes male and female as each representing one “half of humanity” who are joined together in the “reunion” of marriage. Does he then believe that biological or anatomical complementarity is an essential aspect of marriage, and if so, how does he square that with Scripture, which never locates marriage’s essence in anything relating to the “fittedness” of male and female anatomies? Keller’s statement that “[m]ale and female reshape, learn from, and work together” sounds meaningful on its surface. But in the words of Jim Brownson, without elucidating what the Bible itself teaches authoritatively about male and female, “we leave the door open to each society projecting its own understandings of male and female back onto the will of God, binding people by human convention, rather than by revelation.”

In sum, while I certainly appreciate Dr. Keller’s engagement with my book, his review misrepresents my argument in numerous important ways. Namely: I do not claim that the Bible has only exploitative same-sex behavior in view; I do not argue that the Bible supports slavery; I do not believe the “cultural narratives” that Keller says I believe; I do not say that we should regard Leviticus 18:22 as non-binding because Leviticus also prohibits eating shellfish; I do not suggest that Keller or other non-affirming Christians are on the wrong side of “inevitable historical progress;” and I do in fact discuss the positive biblical vision for marriage and human sexuality extensively.

Further, Dr. Keller’s arguments about history fall short in key ways as well: He misreads Plato’s Symposium in order to argue that same-sex orientation was known in antiquity; he misrepresents the views of William Loader to support that assertion; he cites Bernadette Brooten to that same end without acknowledging the significant critiques of her work by leading scholars in the field; he fails to present any examples of lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships between social equals in antiquity; and he misrepresents church history to argue that there was never a Christian consensus in support of at least some forms of slavery.

Equally important, Dr. Keller did not engage numerous core arguments in my book. Among them: that non-affirming theology has had a devastating impact on LGBT people, which is inconsistent with Jesus’s teaching that good trees will bear good fruit; that celibacy is a gift, not a mandate, and that mandatory celibacy as a rejection of gay Christians’ sexuality corrodes the meaning of celibacy as taught by Scripture; that no Christians prior to the 20th century ever specifically prescribed lifelong celibacy for gay Christians, because same-sex orientation was not acknowledged by Christians until the 20th century; that the Bible never teaches that the sin of Sodom was same-sex behavior; that Romans 1 addresses unrestrained lust rather than sexual orientation; that Scripture moves in a liberating direction on women’s roles and, consequently, that the patriarchal norms informing much ancient antipathy toward same-sex behavior are not normative for Christians; and that condemning gay Christians’ capacity for covenantal love mars their ability to faithfully bear the image of our relational, covenant-keeping God.

Finally, while I recognize the limitations of space, given that Dr. Keller grounds much of his argument in the notion of gender complementarity, it is a significant oversight that he does not even mention the work of Jim Brownson. Brownson’s 2013 book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, is easily one of the most important scholarly works from an affirming perspective in recent years. I hope Dr. Keller will read and engage with it soon.

All that said, while I have offered pointed critiques of Dr. Keller’s review here, I hope he will receive them with the spirit of appreciation and genuine interest in dialogue with which I intend them. Although I have outlined why I believe his review of my book represents an insufficient engagement with my arguments, I would love to meet with him in person to continue the conversation, and perhaps even participate in a public dialogue on the subject. We dearly need both the kind of civil dialogue Dr. Keller has initiated here as well as robust engagement of differing theological viewpoints in order for this conversation to advance both the witness and the mission of the church.