Unchanging Witness – A Review

Reviewed by Don Johnson

Fortson, S. Donald, and Rollin Gene Grams. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2016.

Unchanging Witness addresses the white hot topic of homosexuality, one of the most important issues of our day. The authors, S. Donald Fortson and Rollin Gene Grams, come to the topic with a different focus than most. They begin with this stated purpose: “We aim to let voices from the Christian past be heard alongside the biblical witness in this critical debate.” (Foreword, p. xi.) They contend that so-called gay Christians are distorting not only the Bible, but history. They aim to address both distortions. They are writing primarily to Christians and intend for their book to be “a resource for those who hold the historic Christian position on homosexuality.” (Ibid.) Their intent is “to demonstrate that Scripture and the historic, orthodox church consistently warned that homosexual practice is a sin.” (xii.) In this review, I am going to concentrate on the first half of the book which deals with the teaching of the church on homosexuality through various stages of history. It was this feature that piqued my interest in the book and is, I suspect, new material to most readers. The exegetical half of the book is valuable also, but I will be more brief in my description of it.

Unchanging Witness is written at an academic level. As such it may not be easily accessible for every reader. Nevertheless, it provides a comprehensive resource for the Christian pastor and serious student on the subject of homosexuality. The authors contend that it is necessary for Christians to understand the gay agenda in order to combat the infiltration of the church with pro-homosexual teaching. They assert that there is substantially no difference between the secular and ‘Christian’ homosexual movements, their agenda is the same. The only difference is superficial substitution of “‘God-talk’ in an attempt to sanctify gay sex.” (22) The first chapter provides an overview of the homosexual movement and various attempts to justify homosexuality within Christianity, surveying both Protestant and Catholic supporters. In a summary statement in the chapter, they note: “The gay Christian movement is both in the world and of the world. Homoerotic behavior is ultimately a profession of atheism and a declaration of war on Western society’s heterosexual norms inherited from historic Christianity. Homosexual sex is indeed a revolutionary act seeking to overthrow all constraints imposed by traditional Christianity.” (22-23)

The next three chapters (2-4) are devoted to providing source material from Christian writers through the centuries as they address homosexuality. The authors point out that Christian tradition has always opposed homosexuality, defining Christian tradition as “the history of what God’s people have believed and how they have lived based on His Word.” (27) Thus they include not only doctrine but moral and ethical expectations in their understanding of Christian tradition. They boldly contend for this thesis: “The church of every generation from the time of the apostles has condemned sexual sin as unbecoming a disciple of Jesus. At no point have any Orthodox Christian teachers ever suggested that one’s sexual practices may deviate from biblical standards.” (27) The many quotations from the Church Fathers that follow bear this out and provide a valuable resource for research. They demonstrate that Christians from the very beginning have opposed homosexuality as a violation of the Christian sexual ethic.  For the medieval period, the authors likewise conclusively demonstrate “unequivocal condemnation” of homosexuality by the whole church: “As in the patristic era, despite the geographical separation and diverse cultures of early medieval Christians, they share a commitment to biblically defined sexual ethics.” (67) During the Renaissance and Reformation, the Church (broadly speaking, including both Catholic and Protestant forms) consistently opposed homosexuality. Apparently, opposition to flagrant homosexuality in Florence by Savonarola was a factor leading to his execution. “On the day of his execution, one of the newly elected officials in Florence was said to exclaim, ‘Praise be to God, now we can practice sodomy.’” (74, citing Roberto Ridolfi, Life of Girolamo Savonarola.) In spite of the practice of some, official Catholicism opposed homosexuality and tried to curb it by various laws and reforms. (88) Protestants and Anabaptists spoke with one voice in opposition to homosexuality, not a few blaming Roman celibacy for inciting it. “The vow of celibacy has been the cause of so much frightful and unchristian offense, so much adultery, and such terrible, shocking immorality and abominable vice that even some honest men among the cathedral clergy and some of the courtiers in Rome have often acknowledged this and have complained that such vices among the clergy would, on account of abomination and prevalence, arouse the wrath of God.” (79, The Book of Concord, prepared by Philip Melanchthon. Emphasis added by authors of Unchanging Witness.) Protestants and other non-Catholics considered homosexuality unmentionable by name, alluding to it in such terms as seen above. Their opposition to it was universal, though it appears it was not a prevalent problem within their ranks. (88-89)

The material covered in these three chapters seems painstakingly thorough and provides a substantial witness to the historical attitudes of professing Christians. Even branches of Christendom with whom we have strong doctrinal differences and much suspicion of corrupt practices nevertheless have consistently spoken against homosexuality as in contravention of the laws of God.

The next chapters (5-7) deal with The Modern Church and the Homosexual Crisis, covering Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism, and Mainline Denominations respectively. In the present era, we see a weakening of the voice of Catholicism as allowance is made for homosexual orientation in their writings, while continuing to officially affirm opposition to homosexual practice. The authors of Unchanging Witness include the Orthodox Church with the Roman Church, referring to “the two traditions collectively representing the majority of global Christianity today.” (91) They go on to say, “These faith traditions have in contemporary times reaffirmed the ancient churches stance on homosexual practice.” (91, emphasis mine) It is at this point that I might comment on two of the weaker points of the book. The same introductory paragraph to the Orthodox/RC chapter says, “The faith and practice of the church handed down through the centuries is essential to authentic Christianity for these faith traditions. On the subject of homosexuality, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions have been a beacon of light reminding Protestants that the testimony of the saints is a substantive voice to be heard alongside the authoritative voice of the Scripture.” (91) “Beacon of light” is not a term we usually associate with the corrupt churches of Rome and Orthodoxy. Further, it seems that the authors of Unchanging Witness give too much place to the value of church tradition. Church tradition is valuable for information, but it does not constitute authority. It does not stand alongside Scripture but is subservient to Scripture. The authors of the book are Protestants, but their enthusiasm for tradition is somewhat disconcerting and their acceptance of Roman integrity seems somewhat naïve. Nevertheless, as a survey of broad professing Christian tradition, their work remains valuable.

As noted, Romanists apparently are willing to “take seriously the insights of modern psychology and human experience that indicate deep-seated same-sex attraction among some individuals. While acknowledging that research has produced no agreement on either the source of same-sex attraction or the effectiveness of therapy to change it, these churches nonetheless call Christians to faithful sexual obedience as defined by Scripture and two thousand years of the church’s testimony.” (109) The juxtaposition of these ideas seem confusing and contradictory, especially in light of the exegetical section that makes up the second half of the book. To this reviewer, the authors are too soft on the Romanists on this point and too credulous of their testimony within “Christendom.”

The authors follow the work of David Bebbington in defining Evangelicals, which seems reasonable enough for the purposes of the book. They say, “When considering the topic of homosexuality, evangelicals typically make what Scripture says the deciding factor.” (113) What follows is a survey of many Evangelical groups and their statements on homosexuality. Some statements are no doubt stronger than others, but all take the same position: “the Old and New Testaments comprehensively and consistently condemn homosexual practice as sinful before God.” (140) In the conclusion of this chapter, a significant paragraph makes a strong statement that bears quotation in its entirety here:

Statements on homosexuality among evangelicals, in agreement with statements by Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers, frequently distinguish homosexual orientation from practice. Often only the practice is said to be sinful; orientation is something one should work to alter. In our view sexual ethics involves more than orientation and action. Desires of the heart can form orientation and lead to actions. Jesus recognizes this when he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28). Indeed, Jesus’s ethical challenge to Pharisaic Judaism is largely a challenge to see righteousness not just in terms of actions but also in terms of the heart. Jesus says, “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt 15:19). Further work needs to be done on applying this teaching of Christ to the issue of homosexuality. (141)

The issue of the heart and its proper affections is indeed the problem with all sexual misbehaviour and deviancy. The only possible exception would be abnormalities brought on by physical damage to the brain, although no such link to homosexuality has been demonstrated thus far. The exegetical section of the book deals with Biblical teaching on these matters in more detail.

One last comment on the historical section, however, must be made before we move to the exegetical. The last chapter of historical theology has to do with “Mainline Denominations and Revisionist Christianity.” The mainline churches, not surprisingly, have seen the greatest incursion of pro-homosexual teaching enter professing Christendom. Various denominations are surveyed, but the very struggle within those groups is testament to the fact that so-called “Christian” advocates for the legitimacy of homosexuality are indeed the innovators, they are not advocates of some kind of “back to the Bible” ethic, but indeed are introducing a new ethic into the church, besmirching the name of Christ and plunging the churches (such as they are) into turmoil and conflict. The authors of Unchanging Witness say, “Those who claim to be practicing homosexuals and ‘Christians’ delude themselves. In reality they have left historic Christianity and created a new religion. One cannot legitimately claim Christian faith and simultaneously deny essential teachings of that faith. For a Christian, it is intellectually dishonest to teach ‘gay is OK’ when Christianity has always taught that homosexual practice is sinful.” (163)

This review is already quite lengthy, so a mere summary of the last half of the book will have to suffice. The exegetical section thoroughly explains the arguments of pro-homosexual advocates and deals with each passage for which they raise novel interpretations or out and out denials. Some exceptionally outstanding work is done in this section tracing out the precise meaning of words related to homosexuality and demonstrating that the Bible both explicitly (in passages dealing directly with homosexuality) and implicitly (in passages dealing with the broad Christian sexual ethic) absolutely prohibits homosexuality in any form. They propose this question, “Why have things gone all wobbly?” (167) and, if I may paraphrase their points, offer this answer:

  1. Western culture and many churches are biblically illiterate.
  2. Theology is separated from Biblical studies in many seminaries.
  3. Some seminaries barely teach the Bible at all.
  4. Some seminaries require no Hebrew or Greek.
  5. Ministers and churches are oblivious to church history.
  6. Political correctness reigns! (Christians are easily intimidated by culture.) (167-168)

There is much to commend itself to the Bible believer in the exegetical section. The material is well worth having for pastors and theologians especially when they work with passages relating to sexuality. Some of the material in this section is not covered thoroughly in any commentary of which I am aware. In particular, I’d like to point to the discussion in Unchanging Witness of the words for homosexuality in the “sin list” of 1 Cor 6.

1 Corinthians 6:9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind (οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται)

These two words, μαλακός (malakos) and ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoites) are often distinguished as referring to the “active” and “passive” participants in homosexual acts. The authors of Unchanging Witness thoroughly examine original sources for these words and conclude that the malakoi are those who adopt a thoroughly feminine way of life (so-called transgendered or “soft men,” those with an homosexual orientation) and the arsenokoitai are those who are involved in homosexual acts whether or not they exhibit an opposite-sex orientation. (see ch. 15, and especially pp. 293-294 and 297) Their insight here suggests that we would do well to rethink the whole notion that it is acceptable to allow same-sex attraction but prohibit homosexual activity. However, for the authors (and the Bible) the issue is not simply about prohibition, but it is about transformation. The authors say, “Paul’s theology is all about the transformation of orientation.” (300) The battle for men’s souls (men and women) is too important to allow weakness in interpreting the texts. Unchanging Witness provides a valuable resource in this regard.

The authors point out, however, that the battle is not merely won by correct exegesis. Some pro-homosexual activists accept that the Bible clearly teaches against homosexuality. They simply reject Biblical authority on the matter. “Christians must realize the issue facing the church is really one of authority, not exegesis.” (168)

Overall, while there are some weak points in the book as noted, I would have to say that I recommend the book as an outstanding resource to Christians concerned with teaching the Bible in our turbulent times. The average concerned reader may also profit from it with the understanding that it is written at an academic level so some of its points may not be completely understood without help.

The author of this review gratefully acknowledges that he was provided with a free copy of this book by the publishers for the purposes of this review.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.