Homosexuality Then and Now, in Theological Narrative Perspective

A lot of progressive Christians argue that the historical context of the New Testament restricts the scope of the so-called “clobber texts” about homosexuality. Jesus and the Apostles, they say, had no concept of the modern development of a loving, consensual, monogamous homosexual relationship. Therefore in places like Romans 1 where they seemed to condemn gay or lesbian practices, the condemnations were really only limited to the exploitative and/or idolatrous practices of the day, not all homosexuality. We can all agree that prostitution, pedophilia, and cultic sex are wrong, and those are basically the only kinds of homosexual practices the New Testament actually forbids.

My experiment here is to grant their argument and run with it. Let’s say that the progressives are right, that Paul and Jesus knew nothing of the kind of homosexual relationships which occur today. Let’s grant that their condemnation of homosexual practices was contingent on their historical context. In that case, our question for today can be framed as follows: in our present historical context, are the kinds of homosexuality practiced associated with something idolatrous or destructive? I think the answer to this question is still, “Yes,” so that even if the biblical condemnations of homosexuality were context-specific, applying biblical reasoning to our own historical context indicts today’s forms of homosexuality as well.

How do I arrive at this point? I place homosexuality then (Bible times) and now in narrative perspective. Where does homosexuality fit into the wider theological narrative of God, man, Israel, Christ, the Church, and the world? For all my disagreements with him, I think Andrew Perriman gets the logic of Romans 1 more or less right, so I will build from a foundation roughly corresponding to his his narrative account.

Why did Paul speak so strongly against homosexuality in Romans 1? In context, the kinds of homosexuality practiced in Greek and Roman civilization was part of the deterioration of Gentile civilization produced by idolatry. Since as early as Babel, the Gentiles had exchanged the glory of the immortal God for other gods, images of wood and stone. They served the creation rather than the Creator. By taking the Creator out of the picture in exchange for created gods, they paved the way for disorienting the use of all created things, human bodies included. They used their bodies in shameful ways to satisfy their shameful gods in open rebellion against the true Creator God. All of this became particularly acute in the Romans world as the height of pre-Christian, Gentile civilization. The Roman committment to false gods led to decadence and gross abuse of human bodies, which had been made to serve the true God. Thus they received in themselves the due penalty for their error, and God’s wrath was a-comin’.

The situation since then has changed. The pre-Christian Gentile world, the world of the pagan Roman Empire, has been destroyed. It was replaced by Christendom, a world order in which the nations confessed Christ as Lord (however imperfect and problematic this order turned out to be). The Church did its best to construct fitting new culture, new worldview, and new intellectual concepts for this order from reflection on Scripture and Christian tradition, and these came to dominate Christendom. So for a thousand years Christendom remained and the nations remained mostly submissive (at least nominally) to Christian thought and ethics.

But all this began to change around the time of the Enlightenment. The causes of the change are mostly unimportant here. What matters is that there was a new wave of rebellion. The old world rebellion began with worshipping false gods and idols, but the new rebellion was based on worship of man. It produced humanism, materialism, atheism, naturalism, and rationalism. Man no longer felt the need to serve a god, whether a true or false one. Rather, man decided he was able to accomplish all things by himself and be all things to himself. This has had to take a decidedly neo-Gnostic slant. The old pagans saw creation and nature as run by gods, Christendom saw them as the work of the one God, and modern humanism sees them either as shackles of givnenness to be broken or as raw material to be reshaped in man’s preferred image.

The transition from old Christendom worldview to the new humanistic one has been slow, but it has come, like the old pagan system, to express itself in sexual deviance. The Sexual Revolution neatly and naturally followed the rebellious, humanistic spirit of the age to assert human capacity and freedom over and against divine authority. The idea is that humanity is grown-up now: we don’t need old rules supposedly from God to tell us how to handle sexual ethics. We’re now all set to do whatever we please. This led to acceptance of contraception, divorce, sexual activity before marriage, and at this present stage the entire LGBT movement. The modern world’s neo-Gnosticism can be seen here, as well: the natural reproductive order was created before our wills, but for humanity to be all in all we must assert our wills over and against this basic physical component to human existence. Biological sex is unchosen, gifted from God, and if we are to escape God’s dominion we must be able to reconstruct and redefine gender and sex without reference to the realities of the body, or to reshape the body around our conceptions of gender and sex.

I think this narrative makes sense of what has been happening in modern history. The first rebellion put Gentiles under the dominion of false gods, and it led to the degredation of the body in idolatrous rites and decadent sexual arrangements. This new, post-Christendom rebellion puts mankind in the West under no one but himself, and thus leads to the attempt to self-transcend and redefine the body for our own ends and impulses. The old order acknowledged the givenness of reality but refused to honor God for it, and so honored false gods. The new order, in its own attempt to escape God, denies the givenness of reality and seeks to give humanity unlimited power over all things, our own bodies included. It is easy to see how the LGBT movement fits into this narrative.

If the narrative offered above is at all, the progressive argument that biblical prohibitions against homosexuality were only about the context-specific forms of homosexuality which plagued the ancient world does nothing to exonerate homosexuality today. On the contrary, a look at our context reveals how modern homosexuality can also be condemned in a context-specific way, as part of the modern rebellion of humanism, which contrasts with the rebellion condemned in Romans 1 of literal idolatry. Then and now, homosexuality is part of a larger human rebellion against the true God. And this (I think) suggests a deeper link between homosexuality and sin, so that homosexual practices would be likely only to emerge on notable scales in contexts of rebellion. But that would be another post.

Homosexuality Then and Now, in Theological Narrative Perspective

Millenniums and Mandates

One of the key differences between amillennialism and postmillennialism is how they relate the economy of redemption to the economy of consummation. To put it differently, amillenialism and postmillenialism disagree on the relationship between the Great Commission and the cultural/creation mandate. This seems more or less to be the crux of the issue, at least at the dogmatic level (not necessarily at the exegetical level).

The issue works as follows. In Scripture, there are two basic projects: creation and reconciliation, or consummation and redepmtion. The project of creation is the original setup. You could say “Plan A,” ignoring for now the fact that God always knew and planned for everything else. In creation/consummation, God creates the world and humanity good but incomplete. They are both designed to bring Him glory and receive His grace, but man as God’s image is tasked with bringing this end to its fullness. Man is to take the raw goodness of God’s creation and fashion it into something greater and more beautiful, taking the world from glory to glory. This is what has been called the cultural mandate.

Of course, man’s fulfillment of the cultural mandate was almost immediately upset by sin. The Fall represented the introduction the intrusion of a foreign element, sin, into creation. Sin is diametrically opposed to God, the darkness to His light, and thus its introduction into humanity and the rest of creation prevents the complete fulfillment of the cultural mandate. While man can still advance the creation toward God’s glory to some extent by industry, art, language, and other products, the ubiquitous taint of sin will obscure the image. There will be dark spots, stains, and structural weaknesses at nearly every point. If the cultural mandate is to be fulfilled, sin and death must be removed from the world. This is the project of redemption. The work of Christ is the means by which sin is removed, restoring man to his proper status and role as God’s image.

The division between millennial views emerges here, at the intersection of creation and redemption. If redemption solves the problem of sin which interrupted the project of creation and consummation, then when does the creation project get back on track? The world still needs to go through the process for which it was intended: being brought by humanity from glory to glory in order to display the glory of God in as much fullness as creation can. When and how will this take place?

Amillennialism and postmillenialism answer this question differently. In amillennialism, the project of consummation cannot truly get back underway until the project of redemption is complete. As long as sin and death still exist, mankind will not really be able to fulfill the cultural mandate. Until humans are fully redeemed, the unredeemed elements of human culture will so poison the project as to make its effects null. Only once Christ returns and completes our redemption will we be able to move on and fully glorify creation as intended.

Postmillennialism offers a different answer. In postmillennialism, the projects of creation and redemption operate in parallel. As God redeems, He enables and calls forth the fulfillment of the cultural mandate. This means that the cultural accomplishments of redeemed man are not going to be perfect, since redemption is not yet perfected, but this can be improving in an ongoing way, and in the end purified when Christ returns. So in the time between the first and second advents, we are able to make real progress on both the Great Commission and the cultural mandate simultaneously. The atonement has not only brought redemption to the world, but in bringing redemption has put the work of consummation back in business.

This difference is basically why theonomists and Christian Reconstructionists are nearly all postmillennial. Their project assumes a degree of temporal unity between the two great projects. Work on creation and work on redemption can overlap and interlock. By contrast, this is why so many Reformed Baptists become amillennial but few become postmillennial. Baptist ecclesiology and anthropology tend to assume that the economy of consummation is entirely separate from the economy of redemption, and thus that the cultural mandate is mostly impossible to implement on a scale of any consequence before the Great Commission is finished and Christ returns.

Millenniums and Mandates