Peter Gomes, Harvard’s longtime professor of Christian morals and preacher at its on-campus Memorial Church, died at 68 on February 28. An elegant writer and passionate preacher, he acknowledged in 1991 that he was a homosexual and spent much of the next two decades arguing that homosexuality is condemned in Scripture not because of divine revelation but cultural bigotry.
Gomes’ had a low view of biblical authority, believing Scripture is composed of the well-intended but often bumbling efforts of men whose personal biases overrode divine inspiration. “You need an ongoing context and a community of interpretation to keep the Bible current and to keep yourself honest,” he said in an interview. “Forget the thought that the Bible is an absolute pronouncement.” So much for “Thus saith the Lord” or Jesus’ “I am the truth.”
To Stephen Colbert, he made the comment that gospels are “a dime a dozen,” evidently meaning that the four New Testament Gospels have no more authority than the fictional life-of-Christ narratives rejected by the early church as false.
Subsequent to his announcement of his homosexuality in 1992, Gomes – who said he was celibate – wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that “I now have an unambiguous vocation – a mission – to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia. I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the ‘religious case’ against gays.”
Jettisoning the authority of Scripture is the first step of heterodoxy. Allowing one’s personal desires, however acute, to justify rejecting biblical authority is to replicate the original sin: to assert one’s own will over his Creator’s. When Satan tempted Eve in the Garden, he wooed her with the promise, “You shall be like God.”
Surrender to that temptation – to spurn the text and teaching of the Bible for the false comfort of believing that what we want is not just allowable but good – means that we place ourselves above the One who said to His Father, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:3). If what Jesus said is true, then by choosing to elevate our own truth-claims above God, we become not gods but fools.
Gomes’ rejection of biblical inspiration allowed him to move away from anything he did not wish to accept. Most publicly, this included the Bible’s teaching that homosexuality is immoral. “There is no mention of homosexuality in the four Gospels of the New Testament,” wrote Gomes in 1992. “The moral teachings of Jesus are not concerned with the subject.” There – neat as a pin.
But not quite.
Jesus did not condemn homosexuality, explicitly, any more than he condemned incest, pedophilia, or other forms of deviant sexual immorality. To do so would have been to state what was, in His time, so obvious that such condemnation would have been perceived as bizarre: Why publicly condemn something everyone knew and understood as wrong? T remark upon them would have had the same impact as saying, “I say unto you, men must breathe to live.” In other words, a restatement of the starkly obvious would invoke ridicule, not reflection.
Rather, Jesus set forth clear teaching on the only accepted expression of human sexuality, which is marriage.
In Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:6-9, quoting from Genesis 1 and 2, Jesus affirmed God’s plan for marriage as only between a man and a woman. It follows logically that marriage cannot be between two men or two women. In affirming God’s pattern for marriage, Jesus rejected all sexual behaviors and arrangements outside of the marriage bond, including homosexual behavior.
Instead, Jesus preached on the great issues of His day, those that most touched the lives of His hearers: Legalism and externalism, hypocrisy and greed, hedonism and sexual immorality. In doing so, He only intensified the meaning of the Mosaic code (“If a man looks on a woman in lust, he has committed adultery”), not diminished it.
Jesus continually affirmed the teaching of the Mosaic code and all of the Hebrew Scriptures, which from Genesis onward condemn homosexual behavior. “For truly I say to you,” said Jesus, “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the (Mosaic) law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). He affirmed the authority of the Mosaic Law repeatedly (e.g., Matthew 23:2-3) and referred to it as “the word of God” that “cannot be broken” (Mark 7:13, John 10:35).
Try as they might, those who use Jesus to justify their allegiance to an unbiblical moral agenda cannot get away from what He actually said. He was a son of the Torah Who preached in the synagogues. He believed homosexual behavior was immoral. He should know; if one accepts His divinity, then He inspired the very Law its opponents say He ignored.
In the same Washington Post op-ed referenced above, Gomes used the same tired rationale that opponents of biblical morality use: The Bible condemns tattoos and eating uncooked meat, so one cannot take its moral injunctions about sexuality too seriously.
He knew better. Christian theologians have for many centuries understood that the Mosaic law has three components: (1) those dealing with religious ceremonial rules, which Thomas Aquinas noted were “ordained to the Divine worship for that particular time and to the foreshadowing of Christ” (Summa Theologica 1-II, q.102); (2) Israel’s own judicial laws; and (3) the moral law, which is iterated time and again throughout the Bible, and includes specific instructions on human sexuality.
These instructions are not obscure or hard to determine. The Bible teaches, as moral standards for all people at all times, abstinence before marriage, fidelity within in it, and the union of one man and one woman as the only place where sexual intimacy is countenanced (and then, with God’s great blessing).
In 1992, a group of Anglican pastors in Canada, fighting against the tide of their church’s growing heterodoxy, issued an articulate statement that includes this declaration: “We affirm that heterosexual marriage is upheld in Scripture and Christian Tradition to be the only appropriate context for acts of physical sexual intimacy” (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2102.htm#2). That says it.
In sum, Gomes had no case, biblically. His “mission” was terribly flawed and sadly desperate.
Yet ironically, even as he dismissed biblical authority, Gomes labored hard to squeeze Scripture into the mold of his insistent demand that the Bible conform to his standards, not he to them.
His writings make clear that he knew the Bible well. He rejected much of it, even as he labored to conform it to his own professed beliefs.
But why? Since he didn’t seem to care what the Bible taught, why did he work so hard to reinterpret its meaning?
Perhaps, like Paul the Apostle, Gomes was “kicking against the goads” (Acts 9:5), a goad in this context being a wooden stick with a metal point attached by a farmer to his plow. If the reluctant animal doing the tilling tried to kick its way out of its yoke or harness, it would injure itself by kicking into the goad.
Peter Gomes spent many years on a wrong-headed mission. It was a waste of a fine mind and great energy, amounting to little more than a protracted effort to kick against goads from which he could not shake free.