Not all readers are as hopeful about Matthew Vines’ work as I am:
First, as a faithful member of an LGBT-affirming Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation, I wish Matthew Vines well; I’ve read what he has to say, and am impressed with his passion, his rigor, and his own faithfulness. But I have to say that it is not “extremely persuasive in utterly orthodox terms.” His most critical argument, about the passages in Paul’s letter to the Romans, relies critically on the proposition that Paul didn’t understand same-sex orientation the way we understand it now — that he saw gay sex as a simple failure of self-control, not as the product of a fundamental aspect of one’s personal identity. In other words, he was a man of his time speaking to people of his time. The problem is, that approach conflicts fundamentally with conservative evangelical understanding of scripture as I imbibed it during my Southern Baptist upbringing.
Central to conservative evangelical understanding of scripture is the proposition that the text speaks with divine authority — that is, that it isn’t Paul who’s speaking, it’s God, and God is not a Being of His time speaking to people of his time, but stands outside of history and speaks to all time.
Scripture is also transparent; one doesn’t need to be a historical scholar to read the words on the page, because God intended His Word to speak directly to any believer without mediation from the learned. I’ve long since walked away from that view myself; indeed, I’m Presbyterian in part because Presbyterianism values an educated clergy and understands that the text is not transparent, but needs prayerful interpretation (Before reading the scripture in worship, we pray for illumination). I note that Vines is also a Presbie, albeit of a far more conservative congregation than mine. But I dare say that in his congregation most members understand scriptural authority in the way I’ve just outlined.
I don’t think that damages the usefulness of what Vines is doing; evangelicals have actually been capable of accommodating cultural shifts even while loudly denying that they’re doing anything of the sort. And I hope his strategy works, since the anti-gay obsessions of evangelicals are carrying not only them, but all Christians, into a cul-de-sac. I want the faith to survive. But don’t underestimate the Sisyphean character of his project; it requires a different hermeneutic than most conservative evangelicals accept.
That point is well-taken. But perhaps Matthew’s challenge is really to his own evangelical generation, less attached to this hermeneutic than their predecessors. After all, there is a distinction between the evangelical generations on marriage equality, for example, and, while it shouldn’t be exaggerated, it’s hard to see how that could happen without some theological shift behind it:
A 2014 Public Religion Research Institute survey suggested that white evangelical Protestant millennials are more than twice as likely to favor same-sex marriage as the oldest generation of white evangelical Protestants (43% compared to 19%).
We’ll see, won’t we? And that’s why Ehrman’s work and the mounting scholarship that effectively debunks the idea of an infallible, God-uttered scripture is such a threat to the old form of conservative Christianity. Matthew doesn’t go anywhere near that far, but his attempt merely to understand where the Bible is really coming from is not one, I’d wager, that will strike many young evangelicals as verboten. Or at least I can hope so.