CNews book review

January 6, 2022

“In my conversations with people at The LOFT I have encountered a great deal of hostility toward the Christian Scriptures, particularly those passages in the New Testament that address sexual behavior. These conversations led me to pick up Sexual Ethics and the New Testament: Behavior and Belief by Raymond F. Collins, from which I hoped to gain some insights into the intentions of the New Testament writers’ words about sexuality. Perhaps I even hoped to find evidence clearly instigating the hostility I’ve encountered, because then I might even feel justified in tossing the Bible away as an outmoded, irrelevant collection of ancient myths and tirades. This book, however, left me with no easy answers. Although it proved difficult to read, it suggested holding on to the New Testament for the way those Scriptures challenge how I relate, sexually and otherwise, to myself, to others, and to God.

From the outset, the author makes the following promise: ‘The study that is offered in these pages makes no claim to be a systematic presentation of Christian sexual ethics. Rather it seeks to allow the texts of the New Testament themselves to speak their piece . . . Using a historical-critical method of exegesis [critical interpretation], it looks to the meaning of the relevant New Testament texts in their own historical and literary contexts.’ In this sense, the book delivers, for the author provides a thoroughly exhaustive look into the possible meanings of the relevant passages. At the same time, the going is very heavy, requiring from the reader a great deal of effort to struggle through the author‘s presentation of various shades of meaning and innuendo and even lack of definitiveness. Readers should be aware going in that this is a scholarly treatise seeking to provide a comprehensive treatment of its subject.

Nevertheless, no one should feel too daunted to jump in, for many of Collins’s conclusions are fascinating—and perhaps belie the traditional expectations of his own religion (he is a Roman Catholic priest). To paraphrase his ‘food for thought’:

1. The New Testament texts were written in Greek, and every translation is an ‘interpretation.’

2. Several terms pertaining to sexuality are difficult, if not impossible, to translate because they are used so infrequently that there is no context for determining their meaning.

3. The New Testament contains several different literary genres, and the particular genre colors what the text has to say about sexuality.

4. The books of the New Testament were written in response to particular situations and so must be studied within their historical contexts.

5. The New Testament authors did not have the benefit of modern science’s insights into human sexuality. Unfamiliar with the idea of sexual orientation, they were concerned only with conduct.

6. The New Testament is not one coherent text and does not provide a systematic sexual ethic. Rather, it reflects the various sexual expectations of its many authors.

One thing that the New Testament authors do agree upon, according to Collins, is that human sexuality has a relational dimension. Sexual relationships can be sanctifying or defiling, and people can choose whether their sexual behaviors sanctify or defile themselves and their partners. This, then, is perhaps the most important message of the New Testament and of Collins’s book: God calls people to put aside slavish adherence to various codes of conduct and instead to enter into relationships—with self, with others, and with God—that embody the holy spirit of Love.”

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