Marilynne Robinson’s red-letter hermeneutic

Over the weekend, I read Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s interview with Marilynne Robinson, author of the highly acclaimed novel Gilead. Among other things, the interview reveals that Robinson is no exemplar of Christian orthodoxy. She is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage even as she claims to be a Calvinist. It is an odd mix. On the issue of gay marriage in particular, she writes:

Q: For Christians who hold the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, do you think they’ll become a smaller group over time?

A: It’s hard to know. There has never been a period in world history where same-sex relationships were more routine and normal than in Hellenistic culture at the time of Christ. Does Jesus ever mention the issue? I bet it must have been all around him. You can get in a lot of trouble eating oysters if you are a literalist about Leviticus. I’m a great admirer of the Old Testament. It’s an absolute trove of goodness and richness. But I don’t think we should stone witches. And if you choose to value one or two verses in Leviticus over the enormous, passionate calls for social justice that you find right through the Old Testament, that’s primitive. There are a thousand ways that we would all be doomed for violating the Sabbath and all kinds of other things, if we were literalists.

Robinson’s remarks reflect a pervasive and popular error in biblical interpretation, and I have a whole chapter in my book challenging this kind of reading of scripture. In a blog post today Wesley Hill rightly challenges Robinson’s red-letter hermeneutic, which sets Jesus’ silence on gay marriage against Paul’s explicit prohibitions on the same. To Wesley’s observations, I would add a few more thoughts.

1. Jesus’ silence versus Paul’s explicit statements regarding homosexuality is completely understandable given their different contexts. Jesus lived and ministered in and around Judea primarily among Jews where there was basic agreement on the Torah’s prohibition of homosexual behavior. That is not to say that there were no homosexuals in Judea. It is to say that there was no great debate at the time about what the Bible taught about it. The apostle Paul, however, lived and ministered among Gentiles scattered throughout the Roman Empire. In the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s mission, the Torah was not the norm, and people by and large accepted homosexual behavior. It is no wonder, therefore, that Paul would have mentioned it explicitly (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 1:10). Jesus’ alleged “silence” on the issue is evidence of his Jewish context not of his endorsement.

2. Jesus did in fact address the issue, even if not in so many words. In Matthew 19, Jesus defines the norm of marriage as a “male and female” institution—one man and one woman in a covenanted heterosexual union. He bases his view of marriage on what scripture says in Genesis 1 and 2. That is why it is a rank error to claim that Jesus had nothing to say about gay marriage.

3. The red-letter Christians tend to be rather selective in their adherence to the red letters of scripture. Does it make sense to pit Jesus against Paul in light of what Jesus has said about Paul in the red letters? Here is what Jesus says about Paul:

He is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel (Acts 9:15).

For this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you (Acts 26:16).

Jesus appointed Paul to be his spokesman, to “bear His name before the Gentiles.” If the red letters tell us to listen to Paul, then why are the red-letter Christians trying to silence Paul? Does anyone have the right to gainsay Jesus’ selection of Paul? Shouldn’t we obey the red letters and listen to what Paul has to say on Jesus’ behalf?


  • Bob Cowgill

    At this point on the slippery slope, it seems that the only reason someone will query me on the topic of same sex relations is to identify me as a “homophobe” and a “hater” which places a brown halo on anything I might have to share.
    I do make an effort to let them know that it is MY opinion that God has expressed disapproval of such things. If they are of a different opinion, I encourage them to take up the debate with Him.
    Being as ancient as I am, I probably take the NIMBY view (Not In My Back Yard) too often.
    Ie; if someone wants to engage in (whatever) in the privacy of their own home, fine. If they are NOT aware that God frowns on it, I’ll try to find a way to show them without attacking them ( you know….the “offended brother principle). The decision to cease or continue this behavior is between them and God.
    It is quite a different matter, however when they parade the pervsrsion in my face and insist on not only my tolerance, but acceptance, or even agreement with their lifestyle.
    But surely, this could NEVER happen in America, right? 🙁

  • Andrew Orlovsky

    I have always thought the same thing, Denny. If we are not to trust the Epistles of Paul, why should we trust the Gospels themselves? Jesus himself did not write them, they are only accounts of him written by Apostles or immediate followers of Apostles. The ironic thing is that most liberal biblical scholars will expliticit deny the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John even wrote their respective gospels, attributing them to later authors who were distant from any eyewitness accounts of Jesus. At the same time, they will admit Paul actually did write most of the Epistles.

    • Chris Ryan

      Do most conservative scholars think that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually wrote their respective gospels?

      • Mitch Dean

        I’m sure they do because I can’t imagine how most of them could possibly take a break from the important business of telling the world what’s wrong with one person or another to create time for such folly as legitimate inquiry about authorship of texts written thousands of years ago that have been interpreted to serve countless personal and political agendas throughout the centuries. Plus, if you start spending time on questions like that, I would think it gets hard to stick to the party line of “we’re right and that’s all there is to it.”

        • Andrew Orlovsky

          What are you talking about Mitch? Did you ever read a conservative commentary on the Gospels, such as one written by D.A. Carson? These men take great time to address the views of liberal scholars and give very reasonable refutations to them. Sorry if you grew up in extreme Fundamentalist church where any doubts were refuted just by shouting heresy. Very few Evangelical churches are actually like that. Many of us actually become more convinced of the inerrant truth of scripture the more we hear liberal arguments. Many of these scholars are just trying to create a politically correct Jesus who would never send anyone to hell and would never say certain sex acts are wrong. There is absolutely no evidence a Jesus like that ever existing except in the fantasies of modern western liberals. Its quite clear liberal scholars who deny the traditional authorship of Gospels have even more of a “personal and political agenda”.

  • Don Johnson

    On Denny’s point 1, any argument about what Jesus thought about something he did not discuss is an argument from silence; but since Jesus was a practicing Jew, this is one of those times when an argument from silence is valid, as Jesus accepted the Tanakh as authoritative.

    On Denny’s point 2, I do not see Jesus defining marriage in Matt 19, I see Jesus correcting some false teachings of the Pharisees by using arguments they would accept.

    On Denny’s point 3, I do not like the idea of “red letters” as this is a human tradition, not found in any ancient manuscripts. For one, it is not even a well defined concept as there are some texts where it is not clear whether Jesus is speaking or not (and the author is speaking). For two, I oppose the idea of a canon within a canon as being unscriptural.

  • Esther O'Reilly

    If only her novel-writing brilliance extended to her political savvy. She clearly hasn’t the faintest idea what she’s talking about the moment she sets her mind to do anything but write a great work of fiction.

  • Garth Madden

    The red letter folks never talk about Christ’s words to the 7 churches, especially the message to Hellenistic Thyatira in Revelation 2, where homosexuality would have been much more the norm than in Judea. Here, we have “words in red” where Christ condemns “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality”. Then He says “I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways”.

    So we ought to gulp REAL HARD before endorsing ANY kind of sexual immorality, or by taking the silence of Christ on specific sins as some kind or repealing of OT guidelines. Those who are teaching that Christ would endorse or wink at sexual sin are doing precisely what the false prophetess Jezebel was doing.

  • Richard

    Robinson is a smart lady. And her novels are a treasure–“Gilead” is a perfect piece of work, beautifully written. And, contrary to what was written above in the comments, she has written some excellent non-fiction works–read her essays defending the Puritans and Calvin, among others, in her “The Death of Adam.” She just has a serious blind spot in this area.

  • Christiane Smith

    I don’t think Christ spoke just to a Jewish audience, no.
    I think His Words were directed to all mankind for all time and in all places
    . . . Jesus Christ was not just another one such as Paul, though preaching in a different place

    perhaps the problem is this:
    in order to magnify the teachings of Paul as applicable to the whole world, it was apparently necessary for Jesus’ words to be restricted to an audience of Jews . . . a ‘smaller audence’ not needing instruction concerning the ways of the wider world . . .

    but the truth is this:
    Jesus Christ spoke and acted in the very Person of God . . . everything He said and did and taught and modeled has eternal meaning for all mankind

    Orthodox Christianity stands up for the readings from the New Testament that come from the four Holy Gospels of Our Lord . . . before the Word is read, it is announced ‘This is the Word of the Lord’; and after the reading, the response is ‘Thanks be to God’

    The Church must give Christ His due respect. If it cannot do this, something is amiss.

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