Picking and choosing biblical texts

Very often in debates about the meaning of the Bible, one person charges another with being selective. The basic point of the accusation is that a teaching or interpretation is invalid if it does not account for all of the biblical evidence. Certainly one could argue on the face of it that this is evident enough, but with the Bible this argument takes on greater importance because of its very nature. The simple fact that there are two major sections to the Bible, the Old and the New Testament, should clue us is that something is different, something changes, between the testaments. The question is exactly what changes, and what is the underlying principle which governs the change. This particular charge about selectivity is quite common in the debate about homosexuality. I read a pro-homosexuality sermon recently by W. S. Coffin that argues this way. The argument is in full view in this line:

And for God's sake let's be done with the hypocrisy of claiming "I am a biblical literalist" when everyone is a selective literalist, especially those who swear by the anti-homosexual laws in the book of Leviticus and then feast on barbecued ribs and delight in Monday night football for it is toecap, an abomination, not only to eat but merely to touch the skin of a dead pig.

Coffin points out essentially that many people argue selectively from the book of Leviticus, namely, they accept the prohibition of homosexuality in Leviticus 20:13 but they ignore the prohibition against pigs and other animals in Leviticus 11:1-8. But the danger here is that everyone is selective in some way. The hard part is deciding which selectivity has legitimacy and which does not.

This can be demonstrated well from the previous sermon. After making the statement quoted above, Coffin turns right around and says this:

Homosexuality was not a big issue for biblical writers. Nowhere in the four Gospels is it even mentioned. In fact, in all of Scripture only seven verses refer to homosexual behavior. Although all these verses forbid or deplore homosexual behavior, nevertheless, in many discussions of texts, thinking is woefully slack.

We could quibble about the details, such as the number of verses which mention homosexual behavior, but the main point is there plainly: Anywhere the Bible mentions homosexuality, it was forbidden or deplored. How does Coffin get around this? By an exegetical principle which allows him to be selective. Coffin's point later in the sermon is that biblical interpretation, exegesis, and the application of biblical truth should be governed by love. So for his exegesis, love is the overarching principle which governs in what way one is selective. My argument in response would be simply that of course Christians are to be guided by love, but that in no way negates the consistent teaching within both the Old and New Testaments that homosexuality is counter to God's design and indeed a rebellion against God himself. The Bible consistently upholds sexual fidelity within marriage between a man and woman as God's plan and ideal. Any interpretive principle which argues otherwise will struggle dearly with much of the biblical evidence.

The broader exegetical point is that all interpreters of the Bible must wrestle with the selectivity principle for our interpretations to have validity. My own interpretive tradition of dispensationalism exists largely to help explain that difference. One work in recent memory that discusses this issue in depth is William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. We have to wrestle with this principle to be better exegetes and to understand more clearly why we interpret the way we do.