The unending debate over the Bible and same-sex relationships is the most troublesome one for U.S. Protestantism since the Civil War.
It first broke into the news agenda big-time 47 years ago at a conference of the large United Methodist Church. As religion specialists well know, an emergency Methodist conference that opens Saturday in St. Louis is to weigh whether the UMC will split over this.
Simultaneously, a book on sale next week has potentially explosive relevance: “The Lost World of the Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context.” Of course, “Torah” in the title refers to the Old Testament’s first five books and also the material therein normally called biblical law.
The book – nota bene -- does not emanate from liberal “mainline” Protestantism. The publisher, InterVarsity Press, is evangelical, and the authors are veteran Wheaton College (Illinois) Old Testament professor John H. Walton along with son J. Harvey, a University of St. Andrews doctoral student.
“We cannot reconstruct a moral system from the Torah or any part of it,” they contend. “That is not what it [the Torah] is designed to do.” Rather, “order in society was the goal, and it was achieved through wisdom,” not biblical “legislation” or “rules.” The Old Testament God was simply not “imposing morality or social ideals on Israel through the stipulations of the Torah.”
Writers should, of course, read the complete book to fairly grasp the argument, but chapter titles well summarize the key points.
“We cannot gain moral knowledge or build a system of ethics based on reading the Torah in context and deriving principles from it.”
“The ancient Israelites would not have understood the Torah as providing divine moral instruction.”
“Torah cannot provide proof texts for solving issues today.”
The Waltons specify that this holds for the venerated Ten Commandments, and for Leviticus 18, where God’s “statutes” abominate homosexual acts as well as adultery, incest and bestiality. Regarding same-sex activity and gender identity, the authors warn against extracting “biblical principles” to “substantiate a particular position today as if that position is thereby built on moral absolutes.”
That should provoke hot responses from traditionalists, Jews included. The book follows the shelving of Old Testament dictates proposed last year by another prominent evangelical, megachurch preacher Andy Stanley.