Monday, November 19, 2012

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Homosexuality, and the Irresponsible Exegesis of Scripture

File this one under "Johnny-Come-Lately" for me. This story is a bit old, and I'm just now coming around to writing about it.

Near the end of May this year, CNN's BeliefNet Blog published an editorial by Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, entitled, "My Take: The Bible Condemns A Lot, But Here's Why We Focus On Homosexuality." In this piece, Mohler presents a frequent objection to the fundamentalist interpretation of scripture over the issue of homosexuality; he then refutes this objection and mounts a less-than-convincing counter-argument of his own, citing selected snippets from the Pauline epistles and even (ironically) a quote extracted from a discourse on marital divorce in the ethical teachings of Jesus.

I would typically not even resort to responding to this kind of fundamentalist silliness—I am not a fundamentalist, and therefore quite simply do not view faith or scripture in the same way as Mohler. Personal beliefs on homosexuality aside, there is no need for fruitless debate between two people who by definition see the role of the Bible in completely different ways; two cars traveling on different streets three blocks apart will never meet. However, Dr. Mohler's haphazard treatment of scripture in his editorial left me scratching my head, and I have felt compelled to address him on his own terms.

A common argument for Christian acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ individuals is that the so-called "clobber passages" which supposedly condemn homosexuality are found primarily in the Hebrew Bible, among other laws that have since become passé or culturally obsolete. Laying aside for a moment the fact that these scriptures are actually quite few in number, as well as the fact that the homosexual/trans* identity as we know it did not even exist until well into the 20th century, the point is, nevertheless, that Christians do not continue to abide by the commands to abstain from eating shellfish or pork, planting two different crops side-by-side, or wearing clothes of two different fabrics. This argument was made (in)famous by its appearance in an episode of the spectacularly written Aaron Sorkin political drama, The West Wing:

The above claim is the first argument with which Mohler takes issue in his essay.

"An honest consideration of the Bible," Mohler says, "reveals that most of the biblical laws people point to in asking this question, such as laws against eating shellfish or wearing mixed fabrics, are part of the holiness code assigned to Israel in the Old Testament." He then proceeds to cite Peter's vision in Acts 10 as evidence that Christians are no longer bound by the dietary restrictions of the holiness code. In the Acts passage, a hungry Peter sees a sheet descending from the sky with ritually unclean animals on it, accompanied by a disembodied voice commanding the disciple to "Get up; kill and eat." Peter vehemently refuses on the grounds of the Jewish holiness tradition, at which point the voice commands a second time, and then a third. Each time, Peter refuses. Finally, the sheet is whisked away into the heavens, and the voice responds, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." To Mohler, this is enough evidence to disregard the above argument.

"In other words," he says, "there is no kosher code for Christians. Christians are not concerned with eating kosher foods and avoiding all others. That part of the law is no longer binding, and Christians can enjoy shrimp and pork with no injury to conscience."

This seems a solid enough interpretation, until one considers the fact that the story does not end here. What Mohler claims to be a conclusion reached by any "honest consideration of the Bible" is in fact a gross distortion and misrepresentation of the text.

Much of the theological narrative of The Acts of the Apostles is directly aimed at bringing and accepting Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews, outsiders, foreigners) into the Church, an emerging community of Jewish believers centered on the religious teachings of Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. This context sets the backdrop for reading and properly interpreting Acts 10. Immediately following his vision, Peter is contacted by a Gentile in Caesarea Maritima named Cornelius, who requests that Peter come visit him at his home. By the time Peter arrives, it appears that he has finally worked out the meaning of his strange vision mentioned above:

And as [Peter] talked with [Cornelius], he went in[to the house] and found that many had assembled. And he said to them, "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

Peter's vision is not about food at all—it is about people. Mohler has here missed the mark quite dramatically. Somehow, Dr. Mohler—who holds a PhD in Systematic and Historical Theology—has overlooked the story's own self-explanation, and therefore broken the number one rule of biblical exegesis: If you're going to read the Bible, read the Bible. Mohler's interpretation of this passage not only does violence to the text itself by ascribing such a simplistic meaning to a complicated text (does he really think that this story was included in the Acts account for no other reason than to grant Christians the ability to chow down on shrimp and bacon?), but it also ironically opens the door to a more solid argument against the fundamentalist approach to homosexuality—that is, Christians are not called to pronounce the rejection/uncleanliness of individuals, but are to love and accept all with humility and divine reverence.

I would expect such a glaring and irresponsible exegetical error from a freshman undergrad Bible student—but from the president of the largest Christian seminary in the world? Something is amiss.

Furthermore, Mohler's interpretation addresses only the food-based portion of the argument. Several more questions remain, even without fully reading the Acts story: What about wearing clothes of two different fabrics, or planting two different crops next to one another? If Peter's vision was indeed intended as a lukewarm rescission of Jewish kosher law, how then does Mohler explain our lack of adherence to these non-food-related laws?

Such is the problem with the fundamentalist approach to scripture—in their tyrannical quest to accept the unilateral truth of the "whole Bible," fundamentalists are quite often led to the scriptural cherry-picking that they so fearfully and publicly decry.


  1. Looking at you Blog you appear to be seeking understanding. So my question is, "Is there any such thing as sin and if so how are we to know what it is? What are we to depend on as a guide?

    1. Good questions, CB.

      They're also difficult questions. I do believe sin exists, but I also think that sin is something that can shift and change with time and space. As a Christian, I typically rely on the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels as a guide. Love, justice, peace, mercy, and humility—the way of Christ—can be depended upon as a guide.

      However, for a much more extensive answer, you'd need to do some reading in hamartiology. I'm not well-read in the subject, but I'm sure if you did some digging you could find a decent book.