The unanimous theological conclusion of the four day 2014 Cape Town Summit ‘In God’s Image’: Scripture, Sexuality, And Society, on Biblical hermeneutical grounds, was that not only does the Bible clearly speak about sex, but it also speaks with eternal, exhaustive and clear principles for all ages without distinction. We just need to diligently apply those principles and all sex problems should be resolved, homosexuality included.
Based on the same Biblical, but heterogeneous, principles, we can easily resist and contest this over-simplified conclusion. In a generic sense sure, the Bible speaks about sex. But in a more specific sense, not only doesn’t the Bible speak of today’s “legal adult consensual homosexuality” but it doesn’t speak of today’s “romantic heterosexuality” either. This is because the concept of romantic love is only a couple of centuries old – a relatively recent phenomenon (A. Giddens). In other words the Summit’s theological conclusions on homosexuality and on Biblical hermeneutics are misled and misleading because they completely lack of a serious socio-cultural analysis of today’s world. Let’s articulate the Biblical question on homosexuality in this larger socio-cultural context by trying to answer three questions.
First, is “Biblical Hermeneutics” identifiable with and reducible to “traditional Hermeneutics”? This is the main thesis ofKwabena Donkor, of the Biblical Research Institute, in his Cape Town paper on theological hermeneutics in relation to homosexuality. He said the main point of contention is the differing interpretations of scripture – “traditional” versus “contemporary” hermeneutics. While “traditional hermeneutics” is text-centered, deals with a fixed meaning of the text (what the text meant) and tries to reach the author’s intention, “Contemporary hermeneutics” instead, is reader-centered, presupposes a fluid and flexible meaning of the text (what the text means today) and the author’s intention is only one ingredient of the final process of interpretation. The distinction between what the text meant and what it means today marks the shift from traditional to contemporary hermeneutics. The goal of contemporary hermeneutics is to set in motion the so-called ‘extra linguistic world’ – the projection of new worlds of meaning, to take seriously into account the actual and real situation of the reader.
K. Donkor’s historical presentation lost its neutrality and wisdom when in the application of this rather acceptable historical description of hermeneutics he went on, with a mix of ingenuity and “holy” presumption, to identify “Biblical Hermeneutics” with “traditional Hermeneutics”. That may be true for the BRI people and for a decreasing part of the African culture Dr. Donkor represents. But this identification is definitely not applicable for Adventists in Italy or more broadly in Europe where I live and work. Donkor’s position is biased because on one side he mentions only the strengths but not the short-circuits and anomalies of “traditional hermeneutics” while on the other side he just mentions the short-circuits and anomalies of “contemporary hermeneutics” but not its strengths and advantages. But Dr. Donkor’s main and unforgivable theological mistake is to have gone only half way from the concrete topic of homosexuality to the presupposed hermeneutical problem behind it but not continue from hermeneutics to the larger socio-cultural analysis of homosexuality. A socio-cultural analysis clearly would show that – with all the advantages and disadvantages of our current historical environment, modern and post-modern – we have irreversibly passed from a medieval, hierarchical, fixed and stable society (as presupposed by traditional hermeneutics) to an egalitarian, individualistic and fluid society (as presupposed by contemporary hermeneutics).
For example, hardly any contemporary Adventist young boy or lady, whether theologically progressive or conservative, would ever accept an arranged marriage. This simple fact shows that, culturally and theologically (and despite all pious resistances), we have historically passed from a corporative society with its presupposed “traditional hermeneutics” to an egalitarian society with its presupposed “contemporary hermeneutics”. And with this, LGBT Adventist people are not a “sexual problem” – an ethical threat for heterosexual Adventists or theological danger for the Adventist orthodoxy – but rather a theological opportunity and a hermeneutical invitation to assume our time, with its challenges, paradoxes and limitations.
Second, if these are the disappointing theological conclusions of the summit, was it then a total failure? Categorically, the answer is no. We need to thank GC president Ted Wilson and its organizers for this excellent initiative. From another perspective this summit represents success because it shows that theology is not done only by theologians, but the church, in its heterogeneous and trans-cultural membership, has additional and tremendous resources. The Cape Town theological presentations (ethical, Biblical, dogmatic, hermeneutical) were rather disappointing and confirmed the fact that, on one side, Adventist official theology is more interested in preserving the status quo rather than in trying to understand new challenges and situations. But on the other side, it showed that changes within the church are not coming solely from theology but may also be from elsewhere.
In fact, that is what actually happened in the Summit. To my surprise this has been a positive Summit on sexuality because various non-theological initiatives have started. And they think less ideologically and more pragmatically, led by common sense and in dialogue with non-Adventist scientific institutions. Among these progressive, non-theological presentations at the summit we had refreshing psychological, legal, sociological and pastoral perspectives. Let’s consider just one of them as an example.
“We tend to see things in terms of black and white. The shades of gray between them provoke a lot of anxiety,” said Curtis Fox, professor and department chair of Counseling and Family Sciences at Loma Linda University. Fox’s presentation offered a social science perspective on the challenges facing the Adventist Church’s approach to the gay and lesbian community.
“Reality is complex,” Fox said. “Simple explanations will not suffice, and will be seen as less than helpful by those who are dealing with this nature”.
So-called “reparative therapy”, Fox continued, assumes that sexual orientation for every individual is exclusively a matter of choice that can be reversed through the exercise of willpower in a supportive, Christian environment. While some people say they have found personal transformation through such therapy, others report no change in same-sex attraction and, in many cases, rather exacerbated psychological and emotional trauma. Such outcomes have raised “serious concerns” and prompted major health and mental organizations in the United States to “denounce” reparative therapy. Fox also outlined the effects of “societal prejudice” against LGBT youth. Marginalized gay and lesbian young people are more likely, he said, to attempt suicide, have high levels of depression and drug abuse and are more vulnerable to HIV and STIs.
He went on to counter widespread myths about members of the gay and lesbian community, among them that most pedophiles are gay; that gay relationships are transient; and that gay parents typically raise gay children.
“My role as a behavioral scientist is to get people to think, inspire dialogue and be inquisitive in the pursuit of knowledge,” Fox said, acknowledging that he brings his own “set of assumptions” to the discussion table.
“My Biblical worldview takes into account creation by God and the fall. Hence chance, variation, anomaly and degeneration are now part of human reality,” he said. “God works with humans in their imperfections, but the [Adventist] Church needs not be apologetic for its stance on [gay and lesbian] relationships.”
The church’s approach, then, Fox said, “should be characterized by humility – not bigotry, hatred and marginalization. We must adopt not just the message of Jesus, but the ministry methods of Jesus as well. It is the high calling of the church to love homosexuals as our neighbors, no less than we do our heterosexual neighbors.”
Third, should Adventist Biblical hermeneutics today be identifiable with “traditional hermeneutics” or with “contemporary hermeneutics”? My answer is we should be nearer to “contemporary hermeneutics” for the reasons presented and explained in this essay. But Adventist hermeneutics, as well as Adventist theology, shouldn’t be reduced completely to today’s theology and hermeneutics otherwise we would be culturally determined and would lose the prophetic voice our church has always had and should preserve. Our Biblical hermeneutics should be a revisited and revised type of the current contemporary hermeneutics. But this hermeneutics doesn’t exist yet, we need to create it. And for reaching this we need to overcome some understandable but illogical resistances.
We still keep clinging to a simplistic and linear model of relationship to the Bible. This linear model, justified with a reductive and culturally biased call to “Sola Scriptura”, has become, among our members, pastors and some theologians, a kind of magical amulet that by itself gives the imprimatur of unquestionable orthodoxy. But the relationship is not linear but circular (see the hermeneutic circle). The Bible influences us and we influence the Bible. Our reading is never culturally neutral but rather charged with our specific, and limited, cultural baggage. And that is true for the defenders of “traditional hermeneutics” as much as for supporters of “contemporary hermeneutics”.
What then is hermeneutics? First, it’s the difficult journey that leads us from concrete rules to the underlying principles. At this level hermeneutics is an intra-Biblical process. Second, hermeneutics is also, in a successive stage, the difficult journey of confronting, facing, dialoguing and applying these discovered principles within the challenging concrete space determined by external reality. At this level the hermeneutics becomes an extra-Biblical process.
Finding limits to a Biblical model of sexuality is happening today within Adventism. Many modern situations are just unknown to the Bible. That’s also true for other topics such as women’s ordination, lifestyle issues, etc. In other words, the Bible will not do what we ourselves are called to do, i.e. invent a new articulation of sexuality, personal identity and religious experience. We must take the best ingredients from Biblical testimony, from a realistic reading of ourselves as a multicultural religious community and from an accurate and intelligent perception of today’s society that represents the historical arena where every theology is rooted and articulated.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department, Dean of the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.