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Why Robert Gagnon is misguided

September 29, 2018

Gagnon’s primary fields are Pauline theology and sexuality. Gagnon has focused on the issue of The Bible and homosexuality. Gagnon has been described by theologian James V. Brownson as “the foremost traditionalist interpreter” on this topic, and has published several books and articles about the subject

Gagnon’s arguments are based on reproductive biology and gender complementarity.

Gagnon is no push-over. He is not the typical Fundamentalist. He knows his stuff inside and out, and he has worked out a fully rationalized (eisegetical) argument for his position. He claims to be, and is, the leader of a “new wave” of “Bible-believers” who continue to condemn homosexuality in the face of the recent historical and scientific research. He actually knows and uses the historical evidence, and formidably so.

“On my reading, however, he is not genuinely historical-critical but has moved only half way from outright literalism to historical-critical method. He represents the dangerous thrust of the Evangelical tradition, which rests on insistence that the Bible has the first and last word on everything and which reaches its blatantly irrational epitome in the magic-like literalism of Fundamentalism. He only uses those aspects of the historical evidence that suit his argument and rejects, discredits, demeans, or otherwise argues away the rest—which, to be fair, perhaps is only typical of scholarly argument. Of course, I don’t find his reasoning convincing, but rather contrived and gratuitous. In addition, he retains Fundamentalist styles of interpretation that are completely incompatible with historical-critical method.

For example, Romans 11:24 has God acting para physin (usually translated “unnatural”). There Paul explicitly toys with the Stoic terms para physin (contrary to nature) and kata physin (according to nature) and dismisses them before God, who will not be bound by cultural expectations, human standards, or ordinary practices. In this case, Paul obviously holds the popular, not the technical, Stoic meaning of these terms, which has mistakenly controlled the discussion for centuries. Paul intends, not unnatural, but atypical. This usage, because it is applied to God, can carry no ethical condemnation. It must refer to varying cultures and their taboos and mores, not to genuine ethics. This weighty fact provides an important view into Paul’s own mind, but it has no relevance to Gagnon for interpreting para physin about same-sex acts in 1:26. There Gagnon imports the prevalent cultural usage—both the standard reference to same-sex acts and their condemnation—colored by the sexual decadence of the Roman Empire and the Jewish-Gentile rivalry of the day, and he insists that very condemnation is what Paul must have had in mind. In contrast, I and others would leave room for Paul’s being radical vis-à-vis his culture. But no, simply put, Gagnon’s is the same argument via begging the question that I once got from a Fundamentalist preacher: “Oh, but in chapter 1 the topic is homosexuality, so the terms must be condemning there.” Most telling is that Gagnon, the self-proclaimed historical-critical scholar, will admit not even a shadow of a doubt despite this weighty evidence about Paul’s own usage.

Gagnon also excuses the litteralist’s way of freely combining any biblical text with any other text, a practice completely at odds with historical-critical method—because, as the Fundamentalists insist with unnuanced uniformity, “The Bible is all the word of one author, God.” This argument forgets that God would have had to use varying individuals, situations, and human languages to covey any divine word to humans. Therefore, interpretation must take these differences into account. To get to God’s intended meaning, interpretation must pass through the meaning of the human authors in the particularity of every individual statement. The multitudinous parts of the Bible cannot be homogenized as if the Bible is a single book produced in a single writing by a single author. Gagnon pushes his homogenizing interpretation to outlandish limits. I called it “six degrees of separation” in reference to the trivia game whose aim is to link Kevin Bacon to any other actor or actress whatsoever through a chain of associations with others in various movies. In one remarkably creative example, Gagnon gets Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) 16:8, an outright and absolutely non-sexual statement about the sin of Sodom, namely, arrogance, to mean homosexuality. Gagnon’s circuitous argument is summarized at the end of this report.

Giving it respectability, Gagnon names his method “intertextuality.” I’d never heard this term and thought it was the latest hermeneutical angle in biblical studies. But no (Wikipedia has a useful entry on it), the term comes from postmodern literary criticism, is decades old, was recognized immediately by my English-major boyfriend, and allows that interpretatively one can associate anything with anything else as long as one can propose some reason, any reason, distant, speculative, or innovative, to support the connection.

Of course, the upshot of this postmodern method and a staple of postmodernism is that texts supposedly have no inherent meaning but acquire changing meanings from shifting cultural interpretations—a position that is diametrically opposed to the Bible believers’ insistence that the Bible is God’s unchanging word. However, as seems typical of Fundamentalism, supposedly any tack can be taken if it would support one’s argument and other implications can just be ignored. Again this approach reminded me, a Catholic priest, of being faulted by a “Bible believer” on another occasion for not toeing the line on Vatican teaching although the person faulting me held the pope to be the antichrist.

“Gagnon’s core argument rests on the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. As I see it, he holds a philosophical opinion about human sexuality—the Stoic and Vatican notion that sex is for procreation and, thus, allowed only for a married heterosexual couple—and creatively he finds support for it in the biblical texts.

“According to standard historical-critical method, there is nothing in those texts of Genesis to suggest that homosexuality was a concern of the author. That the Bible uses the standard case of a man and woman to illustrate God’s goodness in creation says nothing about the never considered question of sexual orientation. At bottom, Gagnon’s is the ad ignorantiam argument, the argument based on what was not said: “It must be condemned because it wasn’t even mentioned!”

“With unbelievable conviction, Gagnon argues that man and woman are two halves (he actually used these words), which need to come together in complementarity to constitute a complete human, “an adam.” He goes so far as to say that the image of God in us (Genesis 1:27 : “God created humankind in his image”) is not complete without these two halves. I wonder how Jesus, a mere male, could qualify as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).

“Gagnon insists this teaching, an ethical one, is at the heart of biblical revelation. It could never be dismissed or qualified as other blatant cultural errors in the Bible have needed to be—for example, slavery (an ethical issues), usury (an ethical issue), a flat earth and a stunningly short geological age (scientific issues), or women’s rights and roles (another ethical issue). In this latter case, I’m not sure what Gagnon would hold since the creation accounts supposedly fix woman’s relationship to man, yet Gagnon insists this teaching is not related to the patriarchy of ancient Jewish society and does not support it.”


Gagnon deems recent awareness of sexual diversities negligible. They involve “less than 1% of the population,” according to his grossly mistaken statistics, which he proclaimed with dismissive confidence. The biological fact that about 2% of babies are not even born simply as either male or female, but intersex (hermaphrodite), has no bearing on Gagnon’s position, nor does the fact that in transsexual people brain and genitals do not match.

Gagnon reads the Bible with scholastic hermeneutics, the same hermeneutics of those who declared the Augsburg Confessors heretics Those scholastics critiqued the Augsburg Confessors for “ignoring the Bible” — especially in those places where the Bible clearly commends “works.” Their hermeneutic reads the Bible as a codex, a canon of God’s teaching — what to believe, how to behave, how to worship. Apology IV calls that hermeneutic destructive of the Gospel. If that’s right, then Gagnon is wrong. “Augsburg” hermeneutics reads the Bible as God’s X-ray pictures and God’s therapy for the patients. In its particulars it’s a “patient chart.”

Thus Luther can say that Leviticus — all of Leviticus — is irrelevant for Christians. It’s the chart of some other patient. It’s no more relevant for a Christian than the chart of the person lying next to you in the hospital. ML’s word for that was “Juden SachsenSpiegel.” Civil ordinances that had jurisdiction for Jews, but with no jurisdiction in Saxony.

Gagnon’s notion of sin ignores the new definition for sin that came with Jesus. “Sin is that they do not believe in me,” says Jesus in John. Or in Paul’s words: “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” He seems to have no clue on this. Or that with the coming of Jesus anything cosmic has changed.

Even if the key terms Paul uses in “those” passages were “perfectly clear” (and it is hard to make that case), even so, the Augsburg Confessors (Art.28) also apply a “patient-chart” perspective to the rules and regulations laid down by the apostles. “Thus even the apostles ordained many things that were changed by time, and they did not set them down as though they could not be changed.” The Confessors’ overarching rubrics are: “not to burden Christian conscience” and “to preserve Christian freedom,” and above all (when revising the “rules”) “one must consider what the perpetual aim of the Gospel is.”

Paul was wrong about women — that they were created by God to be subordinate to males. He thought that God’s Left Hand operated that way, though in the new creation women were not inferior, he said. Paul was also wrong about chattel slavery. He thought God’s old creation worked that way, that people could own people as property, although in the new creation chattel slavery was passé’. If Paul actually did understand homosexuality as an “abomination” (Gagnon’s favoured term) in God’s old creation, he could have been wrong here too. Namely, that homosexuals and heterosexuals are different but equal, just as men and women, slaves and masters are different, but equal. If Paul’s view of “old creation” is subject to change concerning women and chattel slaves, then homosexuals might be on the same list. They do have a common bond with women and slaves in that they were, and/or are still are, the oppressed in many societies.

Gagnon demeans and discredits other scholars as “self-identified homosexuals.”

Gagnon dismisses Jewish sources on Hebrew as opinions of “the local rabbi down the street.” A key question of Hebrew-language usage regarded Ezekiel 16:49. It outright describes the sin of Sodom, and it is not sexual. But the next verse mentions “abomination,” and Gagnon insists this “abomination” qualifies Ezekiel’s description of Sodom and makes the sin include same-sex acts. In the Hebrew the word is a singular with an indefinite article. Gagnon insists it translates “an abomination” and takes this to be a specific biblical reference to the not-to-be-named sin of Leviticus 18:22: “man lying with man.” Hebrew rabbis and even the most respected of Jewish translations hold that, according to standard Hebrew usage, this singular noun with an indefinite article can be, and in this case is, generic and in English means simply “they committed abomination,” not some specific one in particular. In this case, as Jewish scholars and most others understand the matter, “abomination” in verse 50 refers to the list of sins Ezekiel just mentioned, not to something additional, not to homosexuality or any other specific abomination, so Ezekiel does not see homosexuality as the sin of Sodom. But Gagnon prefers his own reading of the Hebrew.

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