At Variance: The Church’s Argument Against Homosexual Conduct by Kevin Scott

At Variance: The Church’s Argument Against Homosexual Conduct by Kevin Scott ( Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2004).

Kevin Scott is Rector of a Church in Edinburgh, and this book is commended by David Torrance and the Scottish Order of Christian Unity.  Yet, it does not seek unity at the expense of truth, being indeed a cogent defence and articulation of the traditional biblical teaching that homosexual conduct is wrong.  I was a little sceptical at first about the need for yet another treatment of this thorny and controversial topic: hasn’t it been done to death recently?  However, if Dr. Scott is right, a short book like this is crucial in the educative process in our churches.  He writes: “what is really necessary is a recovery of the will to argue the Christian case within the church, so that Church members hold their faith with confidence in what stands behind it and with a critical recognition of the arguments against it” (page 2).  Since the time really has come when “the Christian case” needs to be argued for “within the church”, books such as these are essential for bolstering the confidence of clergy and laity alike, as well as useful in persuading the waverers.

Scott begins with chapters on Old Testament Judaism, Jesus and the Gospels, and the Letters of Paul, examining what these texts have to say on the subject of homosexual conduct.  There is no “heavy” exegesis here to deter the unskilled and uninitiated, and yet the arguments are profound and well put for thinking people.  There is some significant influence from the New Perspective on Paul (mediated through N.T. Wright), and a  slightly superficial treatment of the debate surrounding the continuance of the Old Testament Law for Christians.  It is good, however, that a chapter on Jesus was included, as the argument is often employed by proponents of the new sexual ethic that “Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality” (the implication being that it is OK then, since other parts of Scripture can be ruled out on various grounds).  Rather, Scott turns the argument around, concluding, “there is no sign whatever that Jesus relaxed, by the slightest degree, the obligations of Old Testament law with respect to sexual conduct”; indeed when he lists the evil things which come from within that defile a person (Mark 7:14ff) and uses words such as sexual immorality and licentiousness, “it is inconceivable that either speaker or hearer would ascribe anything but Old Testament sexual vices to these terms” (page 29).  I wouldn’t personally have used the (uncanonical) story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8 later in the chapter, but this is a small point of disagreement in an otherwise very useful chapter.

The chapter on Paul has much to commend it, clearly outlining what Paul says and answering clearly (and concisely) the major objections to and “softenings” of his teaching.  It suffers a little from an unbiblical view of marriage as a sacrament, although the suggestion that homosexual conduct is the “anti-sacrament of unbelief” is stimulating and worthy of some consideration.  The chapter on the Patristic period of the first five centuries of Christian history is useful in giving a broad overview of how the early church thought and wrote about this subject.  “{I]t is self-evident to the Ancient Church,” he writes, “that these practices are vile, degenerate and absolutely inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture and the logic of the Judaeo-Christian tradition” and the Fathers “would find the modern world absurdly timid in dealing with it” (page 49).  This is a short but helpful chapter as it gives those with little knowledge of ante-Nicene and Nicene Christianity at least a brief acquaintance with the thought-world of our forefathers in the faith on a subject of contemporary controversy, which only highlights further the distance between their faith and that of modern liberals.

The remaining chapters remind us that “those who concede such space [to homosexuality in the Church] have usually already conceded much else, especially in the fields of Scriptural hermeneutics and authority, and, even further back, in the whole nature of Christian belief” and consequently “[t]he Church has a much greater problem facing it than simply the challenge of homosexual conduct (page 56).”  The author ends, however, on a confident note, boldly declaring that “there can be no compromise, no ‘third way’ by which both sides of the argument can co-exist in one communion” (page 64).  This may seem strident, but it is persuasive and well-founded confidence in the light of the previous chapters, and Scott goes on to outline further implications – pragmatic, soteriological, sociological, ecclesiological – of accepting homosexual conduct within the Church.

This would, therefore, make a good recommendation for a thoughtful layperson who is already familiar with some of the arguments against this practice and will not be unduly shaken or distracted by this book’s small number of blind alleys.  It will strengthen confidence in PCC members and Deanery Synod reps as the conflict in the wider Anglican Communion begins to creep into local church life more and more.

This review was first published in Churchman 121/2 (2007).

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