I am currently researching and writing a chapter for an upcoming book on sexual ethics, to be entitled Venus and Virtue (edited by Jerry Walls, Jeremy Neill, and David Baggett and published by Wipf and Stock). The aim of the book is, in the editors’ words, to “recover Christian wisdom about sexuality by exploring again the biblical and theological foundations that teach us how to celebrate sex while seeking sanctification.”
My own chapter, entitled “The Sexual Pluralist Revolution: Reasons to be Skeptical,” will discuss the dramatic shift of perspective that has occurred in the West within the last generation regarding sexual morality—a shift away from the traditional Judeo-Christian ethic of sex as appropriate only within heterosexual marriage and in the direction of affirming any sexual relationship so long as it takes place between consenting adults. I dub this view “sexual pluralism.” I think there are several reasons to be skeptical of sexual pluralism, not the least of which is the fact that there appear to be no gay-affirming Christian scholars (theologians, philosophers, ethicists, etc.) in history until the latter part of the twentieth century. So with this post I am beckoning our readers to help me out here. Can anyone give me a plausible example of such a scholar?
This matter of historical precedent is quite germane to the question of a Christian’s skepticism about sexual pluralism, and here’s why. As Christians we should take seriously the wealth of moral and theological wisdom that has preceded us historically, and where there is strong consensus among our best thinkers about an issue, as there is on the sexual conduct question, then that forms a strong presumption in favor of the prevailing view. Now since sexual pluralism constitutes a rejection of the Christian consensus about sexual ethics, then, to say the least, we ought to be rather skeptical of this view. In fact, it seems to me, to dismiss the strong consensus of all of the greatest Christian minds who have written on the subject down through history is actually quite arrogant or else historically myopic (or perhaps, to a degree, both).
Now it is very clear that there is, as I have said, a strong historical consensus among Christian scholars on sexual ethics until the last few decades. (This point is strongly confirmed in Fortson and Grams’ new book Unchanging Witness.) But what I want to know is whether there is actual unanimity—agreement without exception—among Christian scholars regarding the traditional sexual ethic until the mid-twentieth century. Not that my argument depends on such, of course. One would expect at least a few historical exceptions, given the many thousands of Christian scholars who have weighed in on the issue over nearly twenty millennia. Identifying a few outliers would not undermine the argument. But I am intrigued by the possibility that there are no such outliers and that there really was complete unanimity on the issue among Christian scholars until recently. So again, I beseech your help in identifying an example for me. This would then confirm that I should avoid use of the term “unanimous” in my chapter in describing the Christian scholarly consensus on the issue prior to the mid-twentieth century.
Now, a couple of caveats. First, it will not do to point to a given scholar in history who might appear to have engaged in same-sex practices or to cite historical innuendo in that direction. Not only is this potentially slanderous regarding the scholar in question but it misses the point of my argument, which regards the studied views of Christian scholars down through history, for it is this which carries some epistemic authority for Christians today.
Also, it won’t do to appeal to the dangers of being a sexual pluralist or gay affirming in past times, thus ostensibly explaining the silence of dissenting Christian scholars on the subject. This is because down through history thousands of Christians—scholars and lay people alike—have suffered severely for rejecting other doctrines, even those as relatively minor as particular views on communion and baptism, as well as the doctrine of salvation and creedal matters. (Here is one partial list.) So if some Christian scholars were gay affirming in such dangerous contexts, surely at least a few would have been willing to make this known despite the damaging consequences. Also, the threat of execution or even severe prosecution would not apply to all Christian contexts in all countries down through history. In some places and times, the ramifications for affirming sexual pluralism would be less severe, thus making the supposed “silence” of all sexual pluralist Christian scholars less plausible.