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Evangelicals, Homosexuality, and the Bible: What Is at Stake in the Hayses’ New Book?

Social media exploded recently with the news that retired Duke University professor Richard B. Hays has teamed up with his son, Fuller Theological Seminary professor Christopher B. Hays, to write a new book: The Widening of God's Mercy: Sexuality within the Biblical Story (Yale: forthcoming in September).


What has evangelicals reaching for top-drawer expressions of dismay is the loss of a big gun in their campaign against the ecclesiastical acceptance of same-sex relationships. Richard Hays, a New Testament scholar of considerable repute, published his widely used textbook, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, a generation ago. And it has done doughty service for evangelicals (and Catholics and Orthodox) because its chapter on homosexuality took a generally traditional line.

Photo of book as discussed by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

“See? Even a Duke professor agrees with us!” And now, alas, he doesn’t.


It isn’t only evangelicals, moreover, who are making noise. Jonathan Merritt, ex-vangelical and now “out” columnist for Religion News Service, crows that “Conservative Christians just lost their scholarly trump card on same-sex relationships.” In undisguised Schadenfreude, Merritt quotes a range of conservatives immediately bemoaning the loss of Hays from their ranks.


What makes the situation more interesting, and complicated, is that Hays fils is a professor of Old Testament at evangelical Fuller Seminary.  This is a school that has not yet tolerated someone on the faculty who will defend the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, and only recently fired a director over the issue.


What makes the situation most interesting to some observers, however, is that evangelicals are—to use the appropriate scholarly expression—freaking out about a book that isn’t yet published. At least two intriguing points come to mind.


First, the publisher’s summary outlines the basic dynamic of the book’s argument, and it’s not obvious why evangelicals should be bothered by it:


“[The authors] remind us of a dynamic and gracious God who is willing to change his mind, consistently broadening his grace to include more and more people. Those who were once outsiders find themselves surprisingly embraced within the people of God, while those who sought to enforce exclusive boundaries are challenged to rethink their understanding of God’s ways. . . . God has already gone on ahead of our debates and expanded his grace to people of different sexualities. If the Bible shows us a God who changes his mind, they say, perhaps today’s Christians should do the same.”


If indeed the thrust of the Hayses’ argument is that God has changed his mind, precious few evangelicals (and Catholics and Orthodox) will be persuaded to change theirs. Only Open Theists among evangelicals—a small minority—entertain the idea that Scripture ever depicts God truly changing his mind. The few expressions along those lines have been interpreted for two millennia by the vast majority of Christians as anthropomorphic (or, better, anthropopathic) accommodations to human sensibilities. And even the Open Theists don’t generally argue that God has changed God’s mind on matters as basic as this one.


In fact, if the best the Hayses can argue is that God has changed his mind, then they might well play into the hands of the traditionalists. “The only way you can justify your position is to say that the Bible generally agrees with us and that somehow you think God has changed his mind—which God doesn’t, so we’re still right.”


So why be so alarmed?


Second, if in fact the Hayses can convincingly demonstrate that the Bible does provide solid grounds to endorse same-sex marriage today, then evangelicals, of all people, should welcome the enlightenment. Catholics, Orthodox, and other Christians who lean hard on tradition will have a tougher time with such an approach. But evangelicals’ staunch Biblicism should prompt them to a “wait and see” stance just in case, in the words of John Robinson’s benediction over the Mayflower Pilgrims, “the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.”

(On evangelical Biblicism, please take a look at Evangelicalism: A Very Short Introduction.)


Indeed, it isn’t consistent with evangelical Biblicism to fret about whether this or that scholar changes his or her mind. Yes, it has been polemically helpful to have a prominent scholar agree. The late Larry Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh (and a longtime friend) took the same stance as Hays did back in the 1990s, and lots of other worthy scholars have done so as well. The only thing that ought to decide the matter for evangelicals, however, is what the Bible says, regardless of who says what the Bible says.


Orthodox Christians once excommunicated each other for holding different views of baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, or ecclesiastical polity. Eventually, though, evangelicals saw that serious theological work grounded in Scripture underlay each other’s views, and fellowship was extended on the basis of a common faith in God and common submission to the Bible.


In the last century, Pentecostals were excluded from evangelical fellowship for a while until it became evident that solid Biblical arguments justified each other’s positions regarding spiritual gifts. Evangelicals since then have likewise, if painfully, grown to accept differing views of women in pastoral ministry as genuinely evangelical because Biblically argued.


To be sure, not just any view argued just any way from the Bible has met with general evangelical acceptance. Evangelical arguments for slavery—mooted as recently as 160 years ago—wouldn’t get traction today. There are complicated reasons for this consensus, but among them would be a lack of respect for the Biblical reasoning offered on slavery’s behalf.

The doctrine of universalism—the teaching that everyone will eventually be reconciled to God and hell will be left empty—is a current test case among evangelicals. More and more attempts are being made to place it among acceptable options by way of Biblical argumentation.


So far, few arguments among evangelicals for same-sex marriage and related LGB issues have been offered in anything approaching a rigorously exegetical way. Even those that have emerged have not passed the standard of “good enough to be taken seriously.” (Jim Brownson’s volume, Bible, Gender Sexuality [Eerdmans, 2011], is perhaps the best to date, and it doesn’t elude the fusillade of arguments presented in, say, Robert Gagnon’s work.)


What has to surface is an argument so thickly and properly Biblical as to command respect from those who see things differently—as evangelicals have agreed that the other side makes good points, if not finally convincing ones, about baptism, communion, or bishops. If such an argument does arise, my point is that evangelicals will be duty-bound to honour it as such, as we (often grudgingly) have done in the past with arguments for positions we didn’t heretofore acknowledge as evangelically admissible.


It remains to be seen, therefore, whether the Hayses’ argument will convince—or even impress evangelicals as worthy of serious consideration. Until it is published, we evangelicals might simply calm down and look forward to reading the book.


That’s what I’m doing.

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