I’ve decided to review this book, having appreciated the feedback and pushback to my recent post ‘An Inadequate Image: An Initial Response to Matthew Vines‘, where I engaged the authors usage of the Image of God in his argument.
For those who are not aware, Matthew Vines’ new book ‘God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships‘ [henceforth, ‘GatGC’] is the latest reasonably-high-profile book to come out, aimed at changing or engaging the conversation about sexuality and Christianity. Vines’ is currently unique in that it is written by someone of a similar age to myself, who dropped out of university (USA – College) to write and research it, and who makes every claim to be evangelical. My understanding is that this book is essentially the extended write-up of his video addressing the topic, which apparently went viral a year or so ago. I must have missed it!
Regular readers will know that I have devoted a reasonable amount of time and energy to this topic, and so have an inherent interest in considering new approaches, books and angles on this incredibly important set of questions. Further, I’m reviewing ‘GatGC’ because of the impact it seems to be having, and because I feel it is a well-written, readable book, even if it is also perhaps not-as-well-researched-as-it-needed, grounded on some faulty assumptions, and essentially disingenuous in its ‘evangelicalism’. That aside, the way Vines’ writes makes ‘GatGC’ much more easy on the eye than many Christian books!
Vines’ introductory parts make for important reading. Wherever you land on this issue, you must as a Christian take seriously the stories of individuals, and especially their negative experiences of church and Christians. Vines really takes the church to task in his first full chapter, ‘A Tree and Its Fruit’. I am, as someone who has been bullied, sympathetic to what he is saying here, but I think he is guilty of absolutising his own experience. The question of the fruit of a theology – in this case the so-called traditional view on sexuality – is a vital one, but it is one that we have to be very careful about. I recently shared a guest post on Charismatic issues, and my friend observed that ‘miracles do not prove orthodoxy‘. I think a similar point can be made here – fruit is not the only defining way of judging a theological approach. I would point to Sam Allberry, Wesley Hill, Sean Doherty, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield and the Living Out team as examples of stories that don’t fit Vines’ argument at all.
In his second chapter, ‘Telescopes, Tradition, and Sexual Orientation’, Vines discusses some issues about which, as the church has had more information, theology has changed its mind regarding. This is a key chapter for Vines’ overall argument – which is unfortunate, as it is here that he makes some of his biggest assumptions. While I appreciated the care that Vines takes to define his terms, I believe he is deliberately excluding some of the key elements of the discussion, particularly in his examination of sexual orientation. For Vines, it seems as though he has bought into our culture’s view of sexuality and orientation, rather than trying to peel back the centuries and theories to discover what the Bible has to say about sex and identity. Vines is making the classic mistake – which is, incidentally, the mirror image of those people who propagate the terrible idea that you have to ‘be’ heterosexual to enter heaven – that there is such a thing as a ‘gay person’. By defining someone on their sexuality (which is, of course, a vitally important constitutive part of who someone is) he is closing down a discussion. I fail to see how his argument can go beyond sexuality – because it makes sex and sexuality more important to identity than is the case in reality. Vines’ claim that ‘non-affirming’ Christians who acknowledge the existence of orientation “point to a handful of ancient texts to support that claim” is inaccurate, ignoring the work of Davidson, Loader, Dover, Brooten, and others. The close of this chapter – which I found quite frustrating, if I’m honest, raises the important and sensitive question of celibacy.
I should start my discussion of Vines’ third chapter, ‘The Gift of Celibacy’ with the recognition that I am married, and so need to be very careful about discussing celibacy in relation to someone who a) is not married and b) thinks they cannot get married (in the traditional, male-female sense). Briefly, though, I want to just challenge Vines’ throwaway comment – under his discussion of it being bad for Adam to be alone – that regarding Eve, “her gender is relevant to the story“: I would argue that her gender, and Adam’s gender, are more than relevant, but deeply rooted in the meaning of the story. Now I don’t want to get too deep into this, but that sort of statement is incredibly problematic. Vines simply doesn’t engage with the vast swathes of discussion about the importance of ‘sexual difference’ between male and female in the context of the passage he is using. Vines’ argument here is very weak, but I want to move on to celibacy. Celibacy is a complex topic, and I’m unconvinced by Vines’ treatment of it – it seems to further the lie that true intimacy can only take place in the context of a sexual relationship. Vaughan Roberts, himself a celibate SSA Christian, has written a powerful book on this topic of friendship.
Chapters 4-7 in this book retread ground I have covered elsewhere, for example in part 2 of my review of Ken Wilson’s recent, similar book, where I examined his treatment of the Biblical texts. Regarding Sodom, examined in ‘The Real Sin of Sodom’, Vines’ engagement is perfectly adequate, but hardly presents a slam-dunk case. The simple fact is that, whilst the primary sin of Sodom likely was inhospitality and sexual violence, a range of other issues are present in the text, including a condemnation of same-sex behaviour. Regarding ‘The Abominations of Leviticus’, I refer readers to the first page of my friend Don Bromley’s response to Ken Wilson‘s treatment of the biblical texts, where he demonstrates that revisionist approaches are not doing their exegesis in responsible way, unless they also support incest and bestiality. I also refer readers to Sam Allberry’s excellent treatment of this over at Living Out, and the linked article by Tim Keller. Regarding Vines’ treatment of Romans 1, I genuinely found this one of the weakest approaches I’ve seen. I refer again to Bromley’s brief, linked engagement, but also to commentaries by evangelical scholars like N. T. Wright and Douglas Moo.
Vines seventh chapter, ‘Will Gay People’ Inhereit the Kingdom of God?’ continues his fundamental ontological error, echoing the evil played out by folk like the protestors of Westboro Baptist Church. But the traditional position (Which I believe is correct) doesn’t have to look like that. See the stories I’ve linked to at the bottom of this post, and check out the Evangelical Alliance’s guide to pastoral and biblical responses. Vines focuses here on two key greek words, ‘malakoi’ and ‘arsenokoites’, and claims that the majority of biblical scholars and the vast majority of evangelicals have misunderstood them. Translation issues here are important – ‘sodomites’ is a totally innappropriate translation of arsenokoites, for example, but at the end of the day, Vines’ arguments just don’t add up. Among other things, he misuses sources, such as the academic-standard Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (I have a copy, checked as I was reading his book, and was further frustrated), and I refer readers to my friend Peter Ould’s excellent treatment of ‘malakoi‘ and ‘arsenokoites‘. The simple reality is of course people can inherit the kingdom of God, but only through repenting and believing in Jesus. Wesley Hill’s book title, ‘Washed and Waiting’, is a reference to the verse that Vines is referencing in 1 Corinthians.
As we come to a close, I expect that you will sense my disappointment and frustration with this book. Chapter 8, ‘The Biblical Argument for Marriage Equality’, is nothing but a rehash of the same arguments seen in Jeffrey John’s book, for example, and the exact opposite of what marriage is actually about. In his discussion of Ephesians 5:21-33 (Mind the Gap!), Vines is partially right, but ignores the fundamental imagery of the Bible here – Christ is the bridegroom, the Church is the bride, and this difference is what makes the marriage imagery of the eschaton so powerful. The Church cannot save the Church, and Christ cannot save Christ! Vines unfortunately turns to rhetoric rather than argument, and singularly fails to engage with one of the best treatments of this topic, Christopher Roberts’ ‘Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Theology of Marriage’. I have dealt in detail before with what I think are the dangerous deficiencies in Vines’ 9th chapter, ‘What the Image of God Teaches us About Gay Christians’, and don’t want to re-hash old ground again. Suffice to say, Vines’ conception of the Image of God is dangerously inadequate, worryingly Western, and problematically bound up in his context and culture.
Finally, then, Vines’ 10th Chapter, ‘Seeds of a Modern Reformation’. The author uses the language of reformation here because of the charity he has founded, the so-called ‘Reformation Project’, which you can read about here. For all Vines’ claims to be evangelical – and his usage of evangelical doyens such as Tim Keller and John Piper – this is incredibly disingenuous, and the notion of a ‘reformation’ here is concerning. The Church must be semper reformanda, always reforming, always going back to the sources and thinking again what God says. Vines’ project seeks only to revise teaching on one area, in an inadequate way, and should not be seen as a reformation, but rather something else. One of the things that frustrated me most, whilst reading this book (cover to cover, three times and then slowly for this review) is that Vines simply doesn’t do what he sets out to do. Claiming to make an evangelical case, he simply popularises and utilises liberal scholarship, making the same arguments that have been made elsewhere. I personally found Ken Wilson’s ‘A Letter to My Congregation’ more compelling, in that Ken is humble enough to admit that the tide of evangelical scholarship is against him.
In conclusion, then, this book really is just a thicker, more orange version of Jeffrey John’s ‘Permanent, Faithful, Stable, which I have reviewed, and others have debunked. Vines steamrollers over things that contradict his argument, which is based in a faulty ontological starting point, and full of the mirror-image errors that characterise some of those folk who do (unfortunately) take the traditional view. His treatment of the biblical texts, whilst it appears novel, is actually not new, and not necessarily correct. I have said at the start of this review, and in numerous other places/posts/media that we must listen to the experiences of everyone, and it is for that reason that I read Vines’ book. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really add anything new to the theological conversation, and fails to engage with several key texts and concepts.