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Book Review – Jonathan Tallon, Affirmative;

Why You Can Say Yes to the Bible and Yes to People Who Are LGBTQI+, Richardson Jones Press, 2023

This is a very significant book. It has been written by the biblical studies tutor at Northern Baptist College. It has been recommended by influential Baptists and by at least one tutor in an Anglican college. They claim it is the best book to read if you want to understand how an affirming stance towards gay and lesbian people is compatible with a high view of Scripture. The writer presents himself as an evangelical seeking to understand what the Bible truly says about the relevant issues. The book is easy to read and most of its arguments are easy to follow. References to academic literature are largely confined to the appendix. The author, who is an ordained Anglican, tries to show how and why he is both evangelical and affirming. 

The book begins with some important distinctions. The Bible discusses homosexual acts, but it does not address the modern idea of being gay or lesbian as a sexual orientation. Furthermore, the writer claims that the specific acts condemned by the Bible are not, in their cultural context, to be understood as taking place within the contexts he wants to affirm, but were part of patterns of abuse, ritual prostitution and pederasty. 

The author then discusses what he calls the ‘clobber’ texts. These are verses of the Bible that are used to defend the view that homosexual behaviour is wrong. He argues that these do not apply to loving, committed, lifelong relationships. They do not necessarily mean what we have often understood them to mean. Tallon’s argument is that the Church’s objections to homosexual activity are based on these specific texts and that if he can cast sufficient doubt on their interpretation then the non-affirming position will collapse. 

Up to this point Tallon has focussed on demonstrating that the texts he discusses do not actually teach what many had thought. Towards the end of the book, he introduces a fresh argument that makes a positive case for being affirming. He claims that the Bible has a trajectory towards inclusion. He discusses the decision to recognize that Gentiles as well as Jews could be a part of the people of God and says that this is part of a movement within the Bible towards greater and greater inclusiveness. This should be understood to embrace those who identify as LGBTQI+. 

Next the author takes issue with those who might label his views ‘revisionist’. He thinks this is inappropriate because he does not think the Church has thought seriously about these issues before and thus there is nothing to revise. Then, in a final chapter, he discusses what it means to be evangelical and argues that the views he holds fall within the accepted definitions.

The author has done us a useful service in presenting the biblical case for an affirming position in an accessible way. However, from my perspective at least, he has also shown the weaknesses of the positions that he advocates. 

Firstly, while he is correct to point to pederasty as a major issue in the ancient world, there were also, as many historians have argued, examples of consensual and committed homosexual activity, and it seems unlikely that none of these were known to the apostles.

Next, Tallon treats the so-called ‘clobber’ texts as though they were the basis for the biblical case against same-sex marriage. No doubt they have occasionally been used that way. However, the biblical case does not rest on proof-texting but on the teaching of Jesus and the apostles that affirms heterosexual marriage – which is the context in which all the other texts need to be understood. The author tries to argue that the opening chapters of Genesis are intended to be descriptive rather than normative for human relationships. This might be plausibly argued if one were reading Genesis alone – though I think even this is a mistake. However, more significantly, both Jesus and Paul interpret these chapters as normative, and those of us who seek to follow Jesus and to be apostolic must surely treat them in the same way. 

Thirdly, the ‘trajectory’ argument needs to be considered carefully. The material Tallon discusses is about overcoming distinctions – between Jews and non-Jews – that have their basis in the Law. It is not about overcoming distinctions found in creation. The texts are about the restoration of God’s original intentions and purposes for creation, and this is anticipated within the Torah itself. As Paul says, the Torah includes texts that ‘declared the gospel in advance’ (Galatians 3.8). This is not to argue that there are no insights to be found in arguments based on ‘trajectory’, only to point out that they need to be grounded in the Bible’s own expectations. Any other approach runs the danger of replacing its authority with our own.

Finally, the idea that the Church has not thought seriously about these issues in the past seems something of an overstatement. It may be true that we have not previously engaged with contemporary ideas about homosexual orientation but that does not mean the Church has not thought deeply about human sexuality. Some of the ways we have chosen to articulate this teaching has been profoundly unhelpful and this needs to be acknowledged. But the Christian tradition contains deep and profound reflection on the doctrine of what it means to be human and our teaching about sex and marriage is a significant part of that. It is there in the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It is present in the Baptist Confessions of Faith. Tallon is trying to change an established, coherent, and thoroughly biblical element of the church’s teaching and is therefore fairly called revisionist. 

The Baptists emerged from a tradition that insisted both on the authority of Scripture and the conviction that God ‘has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word’. It is therefore important to remain open to the possibility that the Church needs to reform its thinking. And so, we should listen carefully to those who are making the case for change. However, having done so in this instance, I remain convinced that the argument for revision is deeply flawed. An attempt has been made to deal with a handful of texts but not to address the positive biblical doctrines about humankind, human sexuality, and marriage which are the basis for the Baptist Union’s current position. 

1 thought on “Book Review – Jonathan Tallon, Affirmative;”

  1. First of all, can I thank Stephen for a careful reading of my book – this is appreciated.

    May I address each of the four ‘weaknesses’ identified?

    First, on the issue of pederasty and whether the ancient world knew of consensual, committed same-sex relationships. Pederasty was not just a major issue, it was the dominant form of same-sex activity, shown by its appearance in vice lists in Christian writings of the first few centuries. In contrast, consensual, committed same-sex relationships are extremely rare. Hubbard edited a source book of primary texts in this area. Out of 447 texts from the graeco-Roman world, most referred to pederasty, mostly carried out by men who were also married or also using women sexually. There are just six texts that refer to a type of ‘marriage’ between two people of the same gender. Of these, two were pederastic (in one case, involving Nero, the boy was also castrated). One occurs as part of a long passage ridiculing the subject in a variety of ways. One involves an imaginary trip to the moon, where there are only men, and they give birth through their thighs (think early sci-fi). In one case the man is passed off as a bride. And in the last case, which involves women, there is no commitment or fidelity expected.
    In other words, the idea that committed consensual relationships were well known and part of the common discourse is twisting the history. In the ancient world, if people were talking about male same-sex activity, they would assume that pederasty was involved.

    Secondly, Stephen argues that Genesis is normative, rather than my description of it as descriptive. I think I would be happy to agree here – Genesis does describe the normal pattern for most people, and God blesses that. However, something being normative does not mean that it is prescriptive – that anything else is forbidden. I am sure that Stephen would agree with this too – otherwise celibacy would be forbidden.

    Thirdly, I agree that trajectory arguments need handling with care, and that the issue in Acts and Galatians is not identical with the issue at hand. However, principles can be found. If I see God at work in the marriage of people of the same-sex (and I do), I echo Peter in saying, who am I to hinder the work of God? And I further note that, while the issue may be about Torah observance, Paul’s response (Gal. 3:28) cuts across not just Torah, but society and creation itself: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’

    Fourthly, on whether the Church has addressed this issue before. Of course the Church has reflected on sex and marriage (and identified important qualities like commitment and faithfulness as being key). But sexuality (rather than sex) is a more recent area; it was only in the nineteenth century that the term ‘homosexual’ was first coined. This created (or highlighted) an area that the church had not done serious thinking in. I am therefore happy to accept the label ‘revisionist’ if it is also given to Calvin (revised thinking on usury and lending), Wilberforce and Sharpe (revised thinking on slavery), Violet Hedger (revised ministry), and Helwys (revised ecclesiology).

    I do not suppose the above will convince Stephen (though I do think he is listening carefully). But I think he would agree that I, and others, have come to our affirming position believing it to be both biblical and Godly. Therefore I also want to ask, as I do in my book, what different viewpoints can you accept, even if you personally are convinced they are wrong?

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