A Biblical Teleological Argument for Identity, Sex, and Sexuality, Part 3

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Moral Prohibitive View (Legality Theology)

For the Roman Catholic thinker, the Moral Prohibitive View is a good fit. Historical tradition is clear about the moral illegality of homosexual activity:

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents acts of homosexuality as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law…19

Commendably, the Catechism calls those who might consider themselves homosexuals to chastity.20 As the appeal to historical theology implies, there is a longstanding prohibition, about which, there has been little debate until more recently, as the RCC seeks to maintain cultural relevance. For the Reformed/Covenant thinker, the Moral Prohibitive View is the most natural fit, consistent with the theological hermeneutic that governs Reformed/Covenant understanding of the applicability of the Mosaic Law for the church today. In this view, because God legislates from His character, His legislation cannot change (as His character is immutable). Consequently, the Law must remain in effect.

Whereas advocates of the Moral Permissive View read the Bible through the lens of culture, proponents of the Moral Prohibitive View focus on several passages of Scripture through the lens of theology and tradition (or at least certain philosophical pre-commitments). While some of the several references are not definitive, it is the Mosaic legal references that are usually given the most weight in this approach.

Setting the context, and perhaps providing precedent, Genesis 19 records the judgment of Sodom, and while 19:5 records an attempted homosexual gang rape, homosexuality is not identified in the context as the reason for the impending judgment. In fact, it is obvious that the judgment was already on its way before the citizens of Sodom sought to commit that particular offense. Further, God Himself attributes the guilt of Sodom as “arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.”21 While He adds that also “they committed abominations,”22 He does not specify the nature of those abominations. Jude 7 gets closer to directly addressing Sodom’s homosexuality, citing “gross immorality” and going after strange flesh (sarkos heteras), but arguably the latter reference could be speaking of the angelic nature of the would-be victims. Still, Genesis 19 seems to set a clear precedent for the negativity of homosexual activity, but the passage is not definitive for that purpose.

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 contain the only clear Biblical prohibitions of or direct mandates against same-sex sexual activity. This context is part of the Law of Moses, and the Mosaic Covenant which was made with “the house of Jacob and the sons of Israel.”23 The question is whether or not mandates found within a conditional, targeted covenant are broadly applicable and ethically binding today. Advocates of the Moral Prohibitive View are generally clear that these mandates are binding. The essential premise here is that because the Law emanates from the character of God, the Law can’t change, and is thus still in effect. This premise reads these legal passages through the lens of the theological conclusion regarding the nature of authority and God’s immutability.

Greg Bahnsen, for example, speaks of the “abiding validity of the Law,”24 suggesting the threefold division of the Law (moral, ceremonial, civil), and arguing that all three parts are equally binding, as evidenced by Matthew 5:17. Bahnsen holds to a strong Reformed/Covenant perspective that authority is law. God legislates from His character and can do no other. Because God’s character is immutable, so must His law be also. Consequently, Christians today are under the Law, otherwise, God has violated His own character. Bahnsen’s strong version of continuity25 has been referred to as theonomy. He explains the applicability of the Law in a way consistent with his methodology: “The accomplishment of redemption changes the way in which we observe the ceremonial law, and the change of culture and times alters the specific ways in which we observe the case laws. The cases are different but the same moral principles remain.”26

David Jones elucidates a semi-continuity27 understanding that he recognizes as the prevailing sentiment of the church.28 Because Acts 15 ruled the ceremonial law not applicable to New Testament believer, and because the New Testament voices approval of non-theocratic governments, thus rendering the civil law non applicable,29 the believer is only under the moral law for sanctification.30 Jones’ version, like Bahnsen’s is rooted in the idea that authority is law, but Jones’ is a weaker or gentler version that allows for two of the three divisions of the Mosaic Law to have been fulfilled, with the immutability of God reflected in the unchanging moral law of the Ten Commandments: “Since the Decalogue is a reflection of God’s moral character, the norms codified in the Ten Commandments are universally applicable and demonstrable both before and after their issuance on Mount Sinai.”31

The implications of this commonly held Reformed/Covenant perspective of the Law are illustrated well by Samuel Bolton, who suggests that “The law sends us to the gospel that we may be justified, and the gospel sends us to the law again to enquire what is our duty in being justified.”32 Bolton’s comments underscore the importance of the Law as the believer’s moral duty. As the Gospel is applied, its impact is universal, as Jones notes, “As the kingdom of God grows, then the gospel gradually counteracts and corrects the effects of sin in the world through the process of restoration and reconciliation…the gospel is no less comprehensive than the fall…”33 So both Bolton and Jones (along with the majority of Reformed/Covenant thinkers) recognize the broad societal responsibility and impact of the Gospel applied in sanctification, that is through obedience to the Decalogue. Yet, there are two significant flaws with this approach.

First, how can the threefold division of the Law be justified? That division is not a textual one, but rather a theological device. How can it be said that the other two alleged aspects of the Law (ceremonial and civil) do not have moral components and are not equally as binding? In fact, this inconsistency is evident when advocates of this understanding appeal to Leviticus 18 and 20 as a lasting basis for rejection of same-sex activity. If that section is part of the civil law, or even the ceremonial, then upon what basis can it be justified that these principles remain? This creates a dilemma for the “authority is law” argument. If God legislates from His character, then how can He cleanse what He once declared unclean? If He does so, then His legislation can change. If He does not, then stay away from pork, shellfish, and mixing cloths carelessly!34 Hays observes the problem:

The Old Testament…makes no distinction between ritual law and moral law. The same section of the holiness code also contains, for instance, the prohibition of incest (Lev. 18:6-18). Is that a purity law or a moral law? Leviticus makes no distinction in principle. In each case, the church is tasked with discerning whether Israel’s traditional norms remain in force for the new community of Jesus’ followers. In order to see what decisions the early church made about this matter, we must turn to the New Testament.35

This begs the question that highlights the second significant flaw of the semi-continuity approach: Since James 2:10 tells us that if we stumble in one point we have violated all the Law, then how can any of these laws be changed without His express written or verbal direction? For example, notice how Jones handles the Sabbath, recognizing the tension between what was originally prescribed and what is the present habit of the church:

For Christians, then, the Sabbath is a sign of redemption and, as such, it depicts the eternal rest they have received from Jesus in salvation…Keeping the Sabbath ought not to be a legalistic burden, characterized by lists of permitted and forbidden activities. Rather the Sabbath ought to be a joyous celebration and a blessing…In a specific sense the fourth commandment calls believers to observe a regular day of worship…not to observe the Sabbath, in either a broad or a specific sense, is to behave in a distinctly un-Christlike manner… in the NT… the early church moved the day of Sabbath observance to the first day of the week.36

The problems created by this statement are several. First, Jones characterizes without exegetical warrant the Sabbath as a sign of redemption for Christians, when it is expressly a sign between God and Israel.37 Who determines the meaning of the sign if there is no textual data?38 Second, he suggests the sabbath shouldn’t be a legalistic burden, but the fourth commandment was a legal burden; he argues that it shouldn’t be characterized by lists of permitted and forbidden activities, but in fact, that is exactly what the Sabbath was—and there are actually lists of forbidden activities.39 Third, he suggests that the commandment is a call to observe a regular day of worship, when the text demands that it be a day of rest. Finally, he suggests that the church moved the day of Sabbath observance. Based on what authority could the church have done that, and where in Scripture do we see that actually happen? The semi-continuity view of the Law is problematic in light of James 2:10, and without some direct prescription, if the church moved the Sabbath then the church is guilty in the James 2:10 sense.

Now, if the Law was given to Israel only, has not been divided, but has been fulfilled in whole, then the two Leviticus passages cannot be seen as presently applicable prohibitions against homosexuality. If on the other hand, the Law has been given more broadly than simply to Israel, and has been divided, and has not been completely fulfilled, then ironically Christ ultimately has little if anything to do with Christian ethics, as His church is simply bound by Mosaic Law. And in the authority is law model, Christ couldn’t change or fulfill the Law if He wanted to, lest He find Himself at odds with the character of His Father.

Besides the sticky conundrum of the applicability of the Law, there is another problem for the Moral Prohibitive View—outside of the Leviticus passages, there are simply no direct prohibitions of homosexual activity. Kevin DeYoung, recognizing the challenges such an absence creates, crafts his argument on a cumulative case:

There is nothing in the biblical text to suggest Paul or Moses or anyone else meant to limit the Scriptural condemnation of homosexual behavior. Likewise, there is no good reason to think from the thousands of homosexuality-related texts found in the Greco-Roman period that the blanket rejection of homosexual behavior found in the Bible can be redeemed by postulating an impassable cultural distance between our world and the ancient world. There is simply no positive case for homosexual practice in the Bible and no historical background that will allow us to set aside what has been the plain reading of Scripture for twenty centuries.40

While what DeYoung says here is not incorrect, it is—like the strongest argument for the Moral Permissive approach—an argument from silence. Essentially, DeYoung asserts that since the tone of Scripture is negative toward homosexuality, there is no positive case to be made favoring homosexuality. So far so good. But the implied conclusion is that there is a present day, practical prohibition in place. This argument from silence is better than that of the Moral Permissive View, because Moral Permissive has the arduous task of shedding the weight of Scripture’s negativity toward homosexuality, while at least the Moral Prohibitive View lands on the correct side of the data. Still, DeYoung’s argument is limited in that it does not provide certainty regarding what is the authentic Christian ethic for today. While both views suffer from the argument from silence as their coup de gras, the third view does not share that particular limitation.

(Next: Inherent Design View—Design Theology)

Notes

19 Catholic Catechism, Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 2, Article 6, 2357.

20 Ibid., 2359.

21 Ezekiel 16:49.

22 16:50.

23 Exodus 19:3.

24 Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002), ch. 2.

25 My term to indicate that the Law continues to be in effect and broadly applicable.

26 Greg Bahnsen, “The Faculty Discussion on Theonomy,” Question 9, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1978, viewed at http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pe192.htm.

27 My term, to indicate that some of the Law continues and is applicable for today.

28 David Jones, Introduction to Biblical Ethics (Nashville: TN, B&H Academic, 2013), 76.

29 E.g., Romans 13:1-5, 1 Peter 2:13-17.

30 Jones, 139.

31 Ibid.

32 Samuel Bolton, True Bonds of Christian Freedom (London:UK, Banner of Truth, 1964), 80.

33 Jones, 64.

34 E.g., Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 22:11.

35 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 1996), 382.

36 Jones, 166.

37 Exodus 20:12.

38 Hebrews 4 makes use of the Sabbath to illustrate a future reality for believers, but it does not at all invalidate the literal nature of the Sabbath, nor the carefully described sign component of the Sabbath for Israel (Ex 20:12, etc.), nor of the ethical requirement of the Sabbath within the Mosaic Law. Further, if the Law (even simply the moral aspect) is applicable for believers today, then the literal aspect must be upheld, regardless of any metaphorical application of the Sabbath concept.

39 Exodus 20:10, 35:2-3.

40 Kevin DeYoung, “Not That Kind of Homosexuality,” The Gospel Coalition, November 13, 2014, viewed at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/not-that-kind-of-homosexuality/.

Christopher Cone 2016


Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.

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