N. T. Wright on Homosexuality and Christian Faith

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N. T. Wright on Homosexuality and Christian Faith

The New Testament scholar N. T. Wright (and his alter-ego/more popular counterpart Tom Wright) have, apparently, not written that much on the contentious issues of homosexuality and Christian faith, particularly in terms of how they relate to each other. This, to my mind, represents more a lack of imagination on the part of the reader/’researcher’, than on the published work (at both a popular and academic level) of one of the world’s most prolific Christian writers. He’s spoken on ‘Gay Marriage’ in 2014, and wrote on one of the key texts (Romans 1:26-27) in a technical commentary, as well as some helpful comments in his ‘for Everyone’ commentary:

He [Paul] sees the practice of same-sex relations as a sign that the human world in general is out of joint.

This out-of-jointness, he says, is the result of God allowing people to follow lust wherever it leads—once they have lost their grip on God’s truth and, like Adam and Eve in the garden, listened to the voice of the creature rather than the voice of God…

As early as 2002, in a paper shared at a conference in Oxford, Wright wrote:

It is, of course open to anyone to say, on the basis of my argument so far, that they regard the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual behaviour as one of those cultural distinctives which are irrelevant in the gospel; that homosexual behaviour simply is part of some cultures today, and that the church must respect, honour and bless it. You will not be surprised to know that I do not share this view. I am not an expert on current debates, and defer to two splendid books: Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, and Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. But I may perhaps, as a long-time specialist on the letter to the Romans, put in my small contribution.

Paul’s denunciation of homosexual practice in Romans 1 is well known but not so well understood, particularly in relation to its place in the argument as a whole. It is too often dismissed as simply firing some Jewish-style thunderbolts against typical pagan targets; and it is regularly thought to be dealing only with the deliberate choice of heterosexual individuals to abandon normal usage and indulge in alternative passions. It is often said that Paul is describing something quite different from the phenomenon we know today, e.g. in large western cities.

This is misleading. First, Paul is not primarily talking about individuals at this point, but about the entire human race. He is expounding Genesis 1-3, and looking at the human race as whole, so here he is categorizing the large sweep of human history as a whole – not, of course, that any individuals escape this judgement, as 3.19f makes clear. Second, the point of his highlighting of female and male turning away from natural usage to unnatural grows directly out of the text which is his subtext, here and often elsewhere: for in Genesis 1 it is of course male plus female that is created to bear God’s image. The male-plus-female factor is not of course specific to humanity; the principle of ‘male plus female’ runs through a great deal of creation. But humans were created to bear God’s image, and given a task, to be fruitful and multiply, to tend the garden and name the animals. The point of Romans 1 as a whole is that when humans refuse to worship or honour God, the God in whose image they are made, their humanness goes into self-destruct mode; and Paul clearly sees homosexual behaviour as ultimately a form of human deconstruction. He is not saying that everyone who discovers homosexual instincts has chosen to commit idolatry and has chosen homosexual behaviour as a part of that; rather, he is saying that in a world where men and women have refused to honour God this is the kind of thing you will find.

Not for nothing, then, is it actually rather unsurprising to read Wright’s comments in his generous foreword to A War of Loves by David Bennett:

This is a brave and wise book. The territory into which it leads us – in shockingly clear detail – is perhaps the most contested moral, social, and cultural issue of our times: the question of same-sex desire and practice… David’s account of his meeting with Jesus, and the transformation that this produced in his life, his mind, his body, his imagination, and his hopes, is alone worth double the price of this book… I was struck, in particular, by the way that before his meeting with Jesus, David positively hated the Bible.

I greatly respect David’s insider viewpoint and will, I hope, continue to learn from him.

Above all, I respect and salute David’s resolute afirmation of chastity: of sexual fidelity in heterosexual marriage and sexual abstinence outside it. C. S. Lewis once remarked that when Charles Williams was lecturing in Oxford, the undergraduates were shocked because, having long supposed that the old rules about chastity were outdated, they were confronted with an author, literary critic, and lecturere who knew his texts like  the back of his hand and was able to bring them gloriously to life, and who passionately believed in chastity… David Bennett’s compassionate intelligence, his forthright tell-it-like-it-is memoir, and his rich theological understanding mean that when he advocates chastity, as he does in this book, nobody will be able to dismiss him in the way they might dismiss elderly theologians like the present writer

I hope that I have done justice to some of the words of Wright on the way that Christians are invited to think about sexuality and spirituality. These are important issues, and what we say and who we listen to are vital parts of our following of Jesus together.


Bibliography/for further reading

Foreword in A War of Loves, David Bennett (Zondervan, 2018)

Times Editorial (paid subscribers only, 2009)

Paper given in 2002 ‘Communion and Koinonia’ (Available in Print as ‘Pauline Perspectives‘)

Andrew Wilson’s blog post (2014)

Commentary on Romans, in the New Interpreters Bible (Abingdon, 2002)

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2 Responses

  1. Book Review: A War of Loves – Thomas Creedy's Blog

    […] Committed and regular readers will know that, alongside other topics (like being human, prayer, and aging) I have read quite widely and deeply about human sexuality and the relationship between that and Christian Spirituality. So, when I heard a fragment of David’s story on Emmaus Road’s brilliant podcast back in 2017, I couldn’t wait for his book to be written. David is someone who identifies as gay, and also identifies as Christian. He’s also a charismatic, passionately believing in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and an academic; currently starting Doctoral research at Oxford, following a Masters further north. A War of Loves is a powerful book, because it draws together all of those threads, and shares the story of one person, made in the image of God, who chooses Jesus above and beyond everything else. This book is both a powerful biography – ‘the unexpected story of a gay atheist activist discovering Jesus’ – and thoughtful piece of theology, hence N. T. Wright’s foreword. […]

  2. Book Review: The Lost Message of Paul – Thomas Creedy's Blog

    […] Steve’s usage of sources and engagement with scholarship is quite interesting. There are some relatively large holes – particularly in engagement with Wright’s recent work, let alone the rather important work of Oliver Barclay, for example! One place he is quite helpful, however, is in challenging us to read our Bibles more carefully. Steve rightly notes that Paul’s letters are ‘occasional’, and it is important to take the type of text seriously when engaging with the Bible. But we need to be careful not to prioritise the fact of occasionality (probably not a word!) over the even more important fact of the unity of Scripture, particularly within the Pauline corpus. Steve writes “Paul says different things to different churches in different situations at different times. So, to decontextualize a specific point that he makes to a particular church and then to try to turn it into a universal principle – applicable at all times, in all places, to all people – is to make a dangerous error, no matter how many preachers endorse it.” This seems sensible, but cannot be entirely true. One of the shocking things about Paul is his substantial and doggedly dogmatic insistence on a number of things – not least that Jesus is the only way to God, that Christians are distinctive in the way they should live, and so on. Whilst there are occasions in the writing of Paul where we have to do some hard work to understand what it means for us today, that doesn’t mean we can use the occasional nature of Paul’s writing to ignore things we don’t like. For a classic example, Paul’s view on sex is remarkably consistent with both the Old Testament and Jesus, and remarkably challenging to the culture of Paul’s day and our present culture. Tom Wright is, again, very helpful on this. […]

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