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Proof of what is unseen

The Story of Ἀρσενοκοίτης according to BDAG

Mark Ward

The following is a paper I delivered at the Bible Faculty Summit.

The “Puritan canopy” that once overarched our city-on-a-hill began to fray and tear apart long ago—though that canopy always had its gaps (and its cotton-poly blends with American civil religion).1 The morality Christendom bequeathed to the Western world more generally still covers many areas of U.S. culture, and by God’s common grace the stitching is often quite strong. But Christian sexual morality is clearly in tatters.

It was exactly twenty years ago that a Democratic U.S. president signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). He did so between the eighth and ninth of ten sexual encounters with a White House intern; national acceptance of his philandering soon radically undercut DOMA, if anyone noticed.2 And in two decades same-sex marriage went from a radically unthinkable idea to a popular digital ornament for Facebook profile pictures. And in spring 2016 an entire nation wasted approximately 4.3% of GDP arguing online over transgender bathrooms.

As Charles Taylor would say, the “social imaginary” has been reshaped for all of us—it is striking how quickly even my own sensibilities have shifted: I admit I am simply not shocked by the open displays of homosexuality and transgenderism that occur daily in the city where I work.3 The librarian who helped me get some books for this paper noticed their content and cheerily told me that she was a lesbian who sought Washington state as a refuge from the harassment she had received in a more conservative part of the country.4 She made that move twenty years ago, and one wonders whether she would feel it necessary to do so today.

Maintaining the Canopy

We have no direct access to the strategies, the “wiles,” of the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience. But it is not difficult to see that those children have focused their canopy-ripping efforts on certain weak spots: American heterosexual immorality and hypocrisy, the honored banners of “freedom” and “equality,” our value-free scientistic modernism, even our guilt over past civil rights abuses against racial minorities.

It is a mark of the success of those strategies that attacks are being levied more and more publicly against what once appeared to be an impregnable section of the Puritan canopy: scriptural statements about homosexuality. The opening salvos were probably fired by James Nelson5, John Boswell6, and Robin Scroggs7 in the late 1970s and early 1980s, who tended to argue that Paul’s references to homosexuality only proscribed specific, exploitative forms of the practice.

Mainline Protestantism (and to a lesser degree, liberal Catholicism) was hit first—indeed, its scholars were the ones firing. The fact that the mainline did not capitulate immediately, and still has not done so completely, is testimony to the strength of the traditional interpretation of biblical prohibitions of homosexual acts.8 (The laggard among the mainline is the United Methodist Church: though its Western jurisdiction elected its first openly homosexual bishop just days ago as of this writing9, the national leadership of the denomination has not affirmed the decision.10) But no observers have predicted a conservative resurgence in the mainline akin to that of the Southern Baptist Convention. The trend line is clear.

And evangelicals are next. Every time a self-described evangelical institution such as World Vision,11 an evangelical church such as City Church San Francisco,12 or an evangelical individual such as Jen Hatmaker13 affirms homosexual sex, more weight is added to the argument that only bigotry and animus can explain conservatives’ continued refusal to take up the remaining empty seats on the bandwagon.

For the good of our Christian neighbors who face increasing pressure to affirm the goodness of every sexual desire, for the spiritual health of Christians who find themselves with unwanted same-sex attraction, for the good of children who need their mothers and fathers,14 and for the sake of lesbian librarians—we must attend to the maintenance of the portions of the canopy under which we are still permitted to huddle. Perhaps we can be God’s means fof strengthening and even expanding it in our Western culture.

BDAG and the story of ἀρσενοκοίτης

This paper has a definite polemical purpose but a scholarly angle: it offers a two-part counteroffensive strategy for Christian conservatives: 1) learn the major outlines of the debate over ἀρσενοκοίτης so you can speak knowledgeably and persuasively about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality, and 2) use the “as-one-of-your-own-poets-hath-said” strategy by appealing to the authority of an honest and respected mainline liberal Protestant, namely Frederick W. Danker, the D in BDAG.

Danker’s BDAG entry for ἀρσενοκοίτης is not just presenting “the facts”; it is summarizing and even making an argument. It is telling something of a story, a story which begins with Paul—the first writer we know of to use the word—and stops at the time of the Defense of Marriage Act (the entry’s most recent citation is to an article published in 1996). It is my opinion that the passage of time has not materially altered the debate over ἀρσενοκοίτης. In fact, the basic shape of the debate was in place by 1984,15 after which time the sloganeering could begin in earnest for all sides.

I will structure this paper according to the outline of the BDAG entry for ἀρσενοκοίτης.

The etymology of ἀρσενοκοίτης

Danker begins with the etymology, as he commonly does: ἀρσην + κοίτης = male + bed.

“Bed” is potentially misleading; Danker’s own entry for the word shows that “sexual intercourse” was an established figurative extension of the literal sense of κοίτης, not unlike “bed” in English. But while the English words “bed” and “sleep” often require specific phrasal-verb “helping” words, to bring out a sexual sense16 (“He bedded her down,” “She was sleeping with him”), κοίτη could stand on its own as a euphemism for sexual relations (Rom. 13:13; Heb. 13:4).17 Danker also chose not to reflect the suffix in his etymology: -ης is equivalent to -er. Etymologically, an ἀρσενοκοίτης is a male-bedder(-downer).

When a word is well attested, appeals to etymology may be of intellectual interest but are irrelevant to—or even misleading for—the work of discovering its semantic value. So Yale’s Dale Martin is generally correct to say, in a book chapter Danker later cites, that it is “linguistically invalid” and “highly precarious” to attempt to discover

the meaning of a word by taking it apart, getting the meanings of its component parts, and then assuming, with no supporting evidence, that the meaning of the longer word is a simple combination of its component parts. To “understand” does not mean to “stand under.”18

Understand, like butterfly, is not a transparent compound but an opaque one.

But Martin errs when he goes on to enlist the authority of James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language to argue that

all definitions of arsenokoités that derive its meaning from its components are naive and indefensible. Furthermore, the claim that arsenokoités came from a combination of these two words and therefore means “men who have sex with men” makes the additional error of defining a word by its (assumed) etymology. The etymology of a word is its history, not its meaning.19

Martin uses Barr too confidently, and a lexicographer of the stature of Frederick W. Danker, no less, disagrees with Martin’s dismissal of etymology from the discussion. When synchronic usage fails us, all we have left is diachrony. Because ἀρσενοκοίτης is not attested prior to Paul, its etymology takes on a much greater importance than it otherwise would. Etymology joins both the literary cotext and the theological/historical context to provide the only evidences we have for the meaning of this contested New Testament word.

Etymology is not always misleading in the work of understanding compounds (see playground, rattlesnake, and campfire). It was one of the only tools first-century readers would have had at their disposal for understanding the word ἀρσενοκοίτης. A Koine Greek speaker hearing the word for the first time would have reacted, linguistically and perhaps emotionally, the same way you reacted the first time you heard the lexeme “motherf***er.”20 You would never have put those two words together, but once someone else did the compound was all too transparent.

Various citations

And indeed, this is precisely Danker’s argument with regard to Greek. He offers two citations, one very early, of a form comparable to ἀρσενοκοίτης: μητροκοίτης [μήτηρ + κοίτη], which he renders as “one who has intercourse w. his mother.” Another article Danker cites, David F. Wright’s definitive response to John Boswell, offers other examples of combining forms using -κοίτης:

  • δουλοκοίτης – sleeping with slaves
  • πολυκοῖτος – sleeping with many others
  • ἀδελφοκοιτία – sleeping with a sibling21

In none of these cases, Wright argues, does the first portion of the compound refer to the person doing the “sleeping” but rather to the object, the person being slept with: δουλοκοίτης is one who sleeps with slaves, not a slave sleeping with others.

This list is important, because though Boswell admits that “in this and other compounds [-κοιται] corresponds to the vulgar English word ‘f[***]er,’ a person who, by insertion, takes the ‘active’ role in intercourse,”22 he argues that the relationship of ἀρσεν- to -κοίτης is “ambiguous.” He argues that, “in bald English the compound means ‘male f[***]ers,’ but it is not clear whether ‘male’ designates the object or the gender of the second half.”23

Boswell makes an analogy to “ladykiller.” Does it refer to a man who charms women easily, a ladykiller, or to a female assassin, a lady killer? Boswell adduces examples of Greek compounds in which the first and second halfs bear different relationships. But he never mentions any using -κοίτης, -κοιτέω, or -κοιτία. By citing μητροκοίτης as a parallel and mentioning Wright’s article, Danker is disagreeing with Boswell, one of the major revisionist players in the debate over Christian views of homosexuality.24

An analogy to English—a strategy Boswell uses—is worthwhile, because in a language in which motherbedder, slavebedder, and brotherbedder are known lexemes—if hopefully uncommon ones—then the coinage of unclebedder is semantically constrained. It is unlikely to mean, an uncle who, by insertion, takes the active role in intercourse. The uncle in this case is the object, not the subject, of the bedding. At the very least, the latter sense would have to be demonstrated by usage—and a neologism, by definition, has none.

Other citations

The citations section in BDAG’s entry for ἀρσενοκοίτης is otherwise thin, not mainly in length but in depth. Simply put, it appears that early users of this word assumed their readers’ knowledge of its meaning, offering little help by way of contextual redundancies. It appears in several vice lists beyond the New Testament, Danker notes, including the obscure Jewish-Christian (?) Sibylene Oracles of the second- to third-centuries A.D. and the Acts of John.

Even when Bardesanes (in a series of fragments reported by Eusebius) uses the word, he does not provide much context. In the middle of a long list of observations about different cultures, he says,

From the river Euphrates, and as far as the Ocean towards the East, he who is reviled as a murderer, or a thief, is not at all indignant: but he who is reviled for sodomy [ἀρσενοκοίτια] avenges himself even to the death: among the Greeks, however, even their wise men are not blamed for having favourites.25

Such a citation is of little help to any “side” in the debate over ἀρσενοκοίτης. If “having favourites” means (as it appears) some sort of pederasty, then this citation still leaves unclear whether ἀρσενοκοίτια equals pederasty or includes it.

Leviticus 20:13

Martin thinks the etymology of ἀρσενοκοίτης is irrelevant; Boswell’s view, in contrast, is that “the first half of the compound (ἀρσενο-) denotes not the object but the gender of the second half (-κοῖται).”26 Danker disagrees with both of them for different reasons, making precisely the argument Wright does27: he cites Leviticus: “Compare the association of ἄρσην and κοίτη in Lev 20:13.”

This is a key plot movement in the story of this much-fought-over Greek word, because if there is a genuine connection between Leviticus 20 and Paul’s usage of ἀρσενοκοίτης, we receive important added information about the word’s meaning.

This is how Leviticus 20:13 reads in the Septuagint (cf. Lev. 18:22, which is quite similar),

ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός, βδέλυγμα ἐποίησαν ἀμφότεροι, θανατούσθωσαν, ἔνοχοί εἰσιν

Whoever lies with a male in sexual intercourse as with a woman, they have both committed an abomination; let them be executed; they are guilty.28

The slightly difficult Hebrew explains the slightly awkward Greek at the beginning of the sentence: the syntactic relationship the words κοίτην γυναικός bear with the foregoing is hard to ferret out. The seventy appear to have translated very literally29:

In painfully literal English, that could be translated,

And a man which lies with a male [as in] beds of a woman, he has done abomination.

But the semantic relationship here is clear (cf. similar usage of the Hebrew phrase in Judges 21:12), and the modern translations get it right: “if a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman…

This brief foray into the intricacies of LXX translation serves a purpose, namely to suggest that that slightly awkward Greek—including a noun form of κοίτη—may make it more likely that Paul was alluding to or echoing Leviticus when he coined/used the word ἀρσενοκοίτης. Ἀρσενος and κοίτην are right there in the verse, right next to each other. Paul—or, again, some other early Jewish and/or Christian writer—put them together.

The connection between Paul’s new word and Leviticus 20 has been observed for at least 150 years. Danker also cites E. A. Sophocles’ Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods,30 which defines ἀρσενοκοίτης using the language of Leviticus 20:13:

See Sophocles Lex.: ἀ.= ὁ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοιμώμενος κοίτην γυναικείαν= “one who has intercourse w. a man as w. a woman”31

What possible reason would a former Pharisee—who still called himself a Pharisee after his conversion (Acts 23:6)—have for coining/using a brand new word that narrowed the OT proscription of homosexuality to apply to only exploitative forms of the practice? If he expected to introduce a hint, or start a trajectory, or command a full-blown reversal of the OT laws he called “holy, just, and good,” he would owe us a great deal more explanation.

Definition, gloss and scriptural citation

Danker now turns to a definition of ἀρσενοκοίτης. He writes,

a male who engages in sexual activity w. a pers. of his own sex, pederast 1 Cor 6:9

There are three major pieces of information in this line: 1) the definition, 2) the gloss, and 3) the scriptural citation—the first and primary one Danker offers.


The definition is perfectly consistent with Danker’s argument up to this point. It is general, applying to all homosexual sexual contact between males, whether exploitative or consensual.


But the gloss is a bit of a surprise. Pederast is in one sense an artful choice, because it is ambiguous in English (as in French and German): it can mean “male homosexual” or it can mean what its etymology points toward: a “boy-lover” (παῖδος + ἐράστης).

Pederast is an appealing glosS, both because there is a little room in it for the generic sense of “homosexual” (one not involving boys), and because the pederast is always the active partner in a homosexual encounter. But in contemporary American English the boy-lover sense has almost completely taken over.32 Pederast is not, then, a good gloss given the rest of Danker’s argument.

Scriptural citation

And that fact, in turn, points to the first mention of another key argument in Danker’s entry for ἀρσενοκοίτης, namely his prominent citation of 1 Corinthians 6:9. Yes, it is possible that the only other use of ἀρσενοκοίτης in the NT—1 Tim. 1:10—was left for later because it is generally regarded as deutero- or pseudo-Pauline; but there is a more significant reason why 1 Cor 6:9 is cited here in the main, bolded, definition line.

That is that 1 Tim 1:10 provides little in the way of contextual clues—semantic redundancies or antonymies—by which to discern what ἀρσενοκοίτης means. Danker is indicating here (as he will make explicit in a moment) that the pairing with μαλακός in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is a clue to the meaning of ἀρσενοκοίτης.

Dealing with objections

We will return as Danker does to this important point from 1 Cor. 6:9. First, however, Danker deals with an implicit objection to his view as expressed so far:

On the impropriety of RSV’s ‘homosexuals’ [altered to ‘sodomites’ in the NRSV] see [the following two articles]…

Why would Danker not only choose “pederast” but object to “homosexuals” as a gloss for ἀρσενοκοίτης? The two major article citations here reveal why: Danker thinks “homosexual” is an anachronism, that “sexual orientation” is a comparatively recent invention whose (psychologized? medicalized?) overtones do not belong in the New Testament.

He first cites an article by William Petersen, who takes issue with John Boswell’s definition of ἀρσενοκοίται as “active male prostitutes”—but who doesn’t like David F. Wright’s “imprecise” suggestion of “homosexuals” either. He says “homosexuals” is “unacceptable.”

Petersen proposes instead an etymological/literal rendering of ἀρσενοκοῖται: “the ones (masc.) who lie/sleep with men.” He argues,

Both in Classical and Roman antiquity, male sexuality was regarded as polyvalent. There were an infinite number of options, any number of which might be pursued serially or simultaneously. A man might be, variously, a husband (ανηρ), a frequenter of prostitutes (πορνοκοπος), a lover of another man or young man (εραστης), a lover of youths (παιδεραστης), and/or an adulterer (μοιχος). While individual tastes might vary, virtually the total spectrum of known sexual behaviour, with the exception of transvestism, was acceptable (with varying degrees of enthusiasm on the part of the chronicler, of course). Thus, a man could be characterized sexually only by describing his sexual acts: man A is ανηρ και πορνοκοπος; man B is ανηρ και πορνοκοπος και εραστης; man C is πορνοκοπος και εραστης.33

Christianity, Petersen says, took over Jewish moral categories but split sexual behavior into “natural” and “unnatural.” But Petersen insists that

these new labels were, perforce, applied on the basis of acts, just as the earlier Greco-Roman labels had been. Thus, within both pagan and Christian antiquity, no categories of “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals” existed; indeed, such categories would not have made sense.34

Petersen approvingly quotes Kenneth Dover’s classic work on Greek homosexuality,

The Greeks were aware…that individuals differ in their sexual preferences, but their language has no nouns corresponding to the English nouns “a homosexual” and “a heterosexual,” since they assumed that virtually everyone responds at different times to both homosexual and to heterosexual stimuli.35

It was only in 1869 that a Hungarian physician coined the term “homosexual” to describe someone who is “erotically oriented to their own sex” (Petersen’s summary) from birth.

“Homosexuals,” then, Petersen says,

fails as a translation for it violates historical and linguistic fact by attempting to read a modern concept back into antiquity, where no equivalent concept existed. Once that error has been committed, the inaccuracies multiply exponentially: e.g., (1) the translation is inaccurate because it includes celibate homophiles; (2) it incorrectly excludes heterosexuals who engage in homosexual acts; (3) it incorrectly includes female homosexuals.36

I think Petersen is basically correct (except for his point about celibate homophiles: even desires for sin are sinful37); his point about incorrectly including lesbians in the scope of ἀρσενοκοίται is especially well taken.

But I think Petersen and Danker are both wrong to reject—and Wright is right to accept—the rendering of “homosexuals” in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10.

Danker gives space in his entry to allow Wright to respond to Petersen, and Wright makes what is for me the decisive point: that while “homosexual” may have been coined to speak of an orientation, it is now commonly used to refer to the category of people who both have the orientation and engage in the acts, a usage that “combines the references to propensity and activity.”38 Contemporary English does not have a word which specifies the act as opposed to the desire. The difference between the two, if a Bible teacher or translator feels it necessary to communicate that distinction, is better left for a footnote, an article, a lecture, or a sermon.

Using the word “homosexual” in an English Bible translation could possibly be misleading, but I believe that for the purposes for which most Bible translations exist, the benefits of perspicuity—everybody knows the word “homosexual”—outweigh the risks of anachronism.3940

Back to the scriptural citation

Danker needed to defend his choice of the gloss pederast, and for that he looked to Petersen—though he let Wright have his say, too.

Now he can get back to the main flow of his discussion; its next step is to elucidate the role of 1 Cor 6:9. Danker writes,

Of one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity, opposite μαλακός

This, again, is an argument, not merely a citation. Danker believes that the fact that ἀρσενοκοίτης is set next to (and apparently opposite to) μαλακός actually indicates that the former word refers to the man taking the dominant role in a homosexual encounter, the latter to the man in the passive role.

Μαλακός, as opposed to ἀρσενοκοίτης, is a well attested word outside and before the NT—though, like ἀρσενοκοίτης, it occurs in this sense only in an NT vice list. It means “soft,” and, by extension, it developed the well-established sense of “effeminate.” The LXX has only the one sense: “A soft tongue breaks a bone” (Prov 25:15). The NT has both: “a man dressed in soft clothing” (Matt 11:8; Luke 7:25) and 1 Cor. 6:9. Danker and other lexicographers (Louw-Nida, Swanson, Moulton-Milligan, Balz-Schneider, Thayer, etc.) all agree, and many offer the added specific word catamite as a possible gloss.

But Dale Martin does not agree, and Danker respectfully gives him a protest vote by citing his influential chapter, “Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences,” in the book Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality.41

Martin argues that setting ἀρσενοκοίτης against μαλακός does not demand that ἀρσενοκοίτης mean “homosexual.” He alleges that μαλακός means “effeminate”—that all passive partners in homosexual acts were considered μαλακοὶ in the ancient Hellenistic world, but that not all people who were μαλακοὶ allowed themselves to become the passive partners in homosexual acts. In other words, “effeminate” is a broad cultural category of which catamites were only one member.

I find this portion of Martin’s argument compelling; not so the next portion, for Martin tries to to have his cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, he says,

We have very few uses of arsenokoités and most of those occur in simple lists of sins, mostly in quotations of the biblical lists, thus providing no explanation of the term, no independent usage, and few clues from the context about the term’s meaning.42

But Martin actually leans very heavily—too heavily—on the place of ἀρσενοκοῖται precisely within vice lists. He says it is more likely to be grouped with sins of economic exploitation than to be grouped with sexual sins.

We should assume that arsenokoitein here refers to some kind of economic exploitation, probably by sexual means: rape or sex by economic coercion, prostitution, pimping, or something of the sort.43

However, even going by just the evidence he adduces, his readings are unconvincing. In every case, the meaning “homosexuals” fits quite well. There is never a moment of “linguistic anomaly,” such as when someone says, “That’s a great bicycle, but it has only two wheels.”

For example, the first citation he gives is to a Sibylene Oracle (in a translation by J. J. Collins):

(Never accept in your hand a gift which derives from unjust deeds.)

Do not steal seeds. Whoever takes for himself is accursed (to generations of generations, to the scattering of life.

Do not arsenokoitein, do not betray information, do not murder.) Give one who has labored his wage. Do not oppress a poor man. Take heed of your speech. Keep a secret matter in your heart. (Make provision for orphans and widows and those in need.)

Do not be willing to act unjustly, and therefore do not give leave to one who is acting unjustly.44

In order to make this citation fit his hypothesis that arsenokoitein is economically exploitative sex, he has to posit that “do not betray information” and “do not murder” deal with economic exploitation, too. This is patent special pleading. And every example he gives is like this one. Martin did serious enough work to merit a mention in BDAG, but his work simply fails to convince.

Biblical and other early Christian citations

The main course of Danker’s argument is done. He dutifully notes the appearance of ἀρσενοκοίτης in Polycarp to the Philippians 5:3 , but since Polycarp is merely quoting 1 Corinthians 6, he is of little help.

Danker does believe that Romans 1:27, though it never uses the word ἀρσενοκοίτης, is relevant to the discussion of the word as it appears in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, but he makes no comment other than “compare Romans 1:27.”

He also presents a cultural note which is of uncertain relevance to the interpretation of ἀρσενοκοίτης in the NT: “Romans forbade pederasty with free boys in the Lex Scantinia, pre-Cicero.”45

He also offers some final cultural comments before closing out the piece with a bibliography:

Paul’s strictures against same-sex activity cannot be satisfactorily explained on the basis of alleged temple prostitution.

In other words, that would be too narrow a way to understand ἀρσενοκοίτης.

Neither, Danker says, can Paul’s words be “limited to contract with boys for homoerotic service.” He cites a substantive article by David F. Wright which we have already discussed.46

Then Danker coasts to a stop by reiterating the very first citation in this entry, the Bardesanes quotation which shows “condemnation of the practice [of pederasty] in the Euphrates region.”

I will not canvas the discussion in all the books Danker lists; that would stretch this article beyond all reasonable limits. Suffice it to say that Danker cites the major influential books then available on the debate, but because conservatives have only recently been forced to view biblical proscriptions of homosexuality as debatable, they did not write book-length treatments of the topic and therefore do not appear in Danker’s list (Gagnon’s landmark work came out just after BDAG itself did).47


One of the reasons that Danker’s work is so beloved by conservatives48 is actually that Danker worked like a modernist: his work shows that he believed that you could get truth out of the proper application of linguistic method. The books and articles that Danker cites are largely modernist as well. And he makes an empirical argument (which mirrors perfectly that of conservatives elsewhere):

  1. If ἀρσενοκοίτης is a neologism, a Pauline coinage, then it is appropriate to look in part to etymology to discover its meaning.
  2. If it is appropriate to look to etymology then it is appropriate to enter Paul’s Jewish, Pharisaic worldview and appeal to the use of ἀρσην and κοίτη in Lev 20:13.
  3. Ἀρσενοκοίτης is set in contradistinction to μαλακός in one of its two NT uses, namely that of 1 Cor 6, so it means “men-bedders,” the active partner in a male homosexual encounter.

The one exception to the modernism club in Danker’s entry was the chapter by gay Yale religion professor Dale Martin. He tried gamely to offer a modernist argument, but perhaps (?) even he sensed its weakness, its special pleading. For he soon pulled out his postmodern sword. And he swung right for the conservative jugular (and the remainder of the Puritan canopy):

My goal is not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts but to highlight the ideological contexts in which such discussions have taken place. My goal is to dispute appeals to “what the Bible says” as a foundation for Christian ethical arguments. It really is time to cut the Gordian knot of fundamentalism. And do not be fooled: any argument that tries to defend its ethical position by an appeal to “what the Bible says” without explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter is fundamentalism, whether it comes from a right-wing Southern Baptist or a moderate Presbyterian.49

I appreciate it when people think clearly enough to advert to their epistemological controls, their critical foundations. I think it is a rare gift in a world in which most educated people seem to hold tightly to moral relativism and scientistic absolutism at the same time, but fail ever to look down at what they’re standing on. I genuinely admire Martin’s clarity of thought:

The test for whether an interpretation is Christian or not does not hang on whether it is historically accurate or exegetically nuanced. The touchstone is not the historically reconstructed meaning in the past, nor is it the fancifully imagined, modernly constructed intentions of the biblical writers. Nor can any responsible Christian—after the revolutionary changes in Christian thought in the past twenty years, much less in the past three hundred—maintain that Christian interpretations are those conforming to Christian tradition. The traditions, all of them, have changed too much and are far too open to cynical manipulation to be taken as foundations for gauging the ethical value of a reading of scripture.50

Frequently when I hear people speak this way, they fail to offer anything in the place of the fundamentalism against which they’re inveighing—which generally means they’re trying to misdirect your attention from the particular fundamentalism they’re trying to sneak in through the back door (a fundamentalism they themselves, again, don’t see). But Martin is too good a thinker to let this happen (yet):

The only recourse in our radical contingency is to accept our contingency and look for guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves. The best place to find criteria for talking about ethics and interpretation will be in Christian discourse itself, which includes scripture and tradition but not in a “foundational” sense. Nor do I mean that Christian discourse can itself furnish a stable base on which to secure ethical positions; it is merely the context in which those positions are formed and discussed. Conscious of this precarious contingency, and looking for guiding lights within the discourse, I take my stand with a quotation from an impeccably traditional witness, Augustine, who wrote: “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all” (Christian Doctrine 1.35.40).51

This is what can only be called pulpit-pounding. Martin is aware of contingencies aplenty, but he still takes his stand! And who can complain when he takes his stand with Augustine and, by extension, with Jesus’ Great Commandments in Matthew 22? Augustine’s quote is justly famous; his are world-important words. Reading is a moral activity in which our loves for God and neighbor need to be right if we hope to read responsibly and faithfully. Making love one’s fundamental is good, not bad.

But Martin, having thus far thought carefully, still cannot help sneaking in a more expansive fundamentalism than the one he just adverted to. He assumes a very controvertible view of love:

By this light, any interpretation of scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable. There can be no debate about the fact that the church’s stand on homosexuality has caused oppression, loneliness, self-hatred, violence, sickness, and suicide for millions of people. If the church wishes to continue with its traditional interpretation it must demonstrate, not just claim, that it is more loving to condemn homosexuality than to affirm homosexuals. Can the church show that same-sex loving relationships damage those involved in them? Can the church give compelling reasons to believe that it really would be better for all lesbian and gay Christians to live alone, without the joy of intimate touch, without hearing a lover’s voice when they go to sleep or awake? Is it really better for lesbian and gay teenagers to despise themselves and endlessly pray that their very personalities be reconstructed so that they may experience romance like their straight friends? Is it really more loving for the church to continue its worship of “heterosexual fulfillment” (a “nonbiblical” concept, by the way) while consigning thousands of its members to a life of either celibacy or endless psychological manipulations that masquerade as “healing”?52

Martin scores some points here: “heterosexual fulfillment” is not the calling of every Christian, and there are indeed psychological manipulations which masquerade as healing. I also, along with all the serious evangelical writers on this topic, weep with those with weep: I feel the pain of the teenager who struggles against desires that part of him wishes he didn’t have. I have several friends who have lived Christian lives of celibacy for this reason, and they carry a heavy cross. And Christians ought to show very practical love to AIDS sufferers.

But Martin begs the question: what, indeed, counts as “hurt,” “oppression,” or “destruction”? Our society disagrees, so who decides? Sometimes the lizard on your shoulder whispering sweet, lustful nothings has to be killed—and boy does it hurt—in order for you to ride further up and further into Aslan’s kingdom. (Sorry for mixing up two C.S. Lewis stories; the images of heaven in The Great Divorce and Narnia are clearly related.) We are a whole society of people who have decided not only to listen to the lizard and follow his dictates, but to let the lizard speak for us, to let him constitute our respective (“expressive-individualistic”) identities.

We are forced to go back to our Bibles to discover what counts as love and what counts as hurt.

When Robert Gagnon responds to postmodern, moralistic-therapeutic-deist thinking like Martin’s, he answered with the supreme proof text which needs to be ready on the lips of every Christian from now till our society picks a different self-destructive sin to lionize:

In contemporary society the command to love is often misconstrued as tolerance and acceptance. The concept is richer than that. True love “does not rejoice over unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor 13: 6)53

If you love God as he truly is and your neighbors as they truly are before God, you won’t rejoice in the sin that is harming those neighbors. If you wish for a good society protected by a strong moral canopy, you will love your neighbor enough to humbly call him to repentance. You will use the truthful rhetorical tools at your disposal, including the arguments of one harmless drudge, a mainline lexicographer.54


  1. Mark Noll, America’s God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 31–52.
  2. As Shelby Steele trenchantly observed, “It was the good luck of [President Clinton] to sin into the moral relativism of his era rather than into its Puritanism.” White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 6.
  3. James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 26.
  4. The harassment was indeed indefensible. Vigilante moralism via crudities shouted out car windows at stoplights is not a validly Christian method of maintaining a national moral canopy.
  5. Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1978).
  6. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
  7. The New Testament and Homosexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).
  8. Homosexuality has achieved differing levels of acceptance in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA), the Episcopal Church (TEC), the American Baptist Churches (ABCUSA), the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the Disciples of Christ.
  9. Kathy L. Gilbert, “Western Jurisdiction elects openly gay United Methodist bishop,” United Methodist News, July 15, 2016.
  10. “COB President Addresses Western Jurisdiction Episcopal Election Results,” Press Release, United Methodist News, July 15, 2016.
  11. Celeste Gracey and Jeremy Weber, “World Vision: Why We’re Hiring Gay Christians in Same-Sex Marriages,” Christianity Today online, March 24, 2014.
  12. City Church was an evangelical megachurch originally modeled after Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. See also Robert Gagnon, “Why San Francisco’s City Church is Wrong about Sex,” First Things Web Exclusives, March 17, 2o15 ( (
  13. Jen Hatmaker, for example, who first opines that good Christians can differ over homosexuality ( and then expresses ambiguous support for it (
  14. See the work of Mark Regnerus at Public Discourse, for example:
  15. Writers today still cite David F. Wright’s response to John Boswell in Vigiliae Christianae, “Homosexuals of Prostitutes? The Meaning of ἀρσενοκοίται” (Vol. 38, No. 2, June 1984) as a definitive contribution to the debate.
  16. “Waiting on” someone is different than “waiting for” someone—“waiting on” is a phrasal verb.
  17. One measure of how established he figurative, sexual senses of “bed” and “sleep” are is whether people reliably snicker when “They went to bed together” and “They slept together” are used in clearly non-sexual contexts.
  18. Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences,” in Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality, edited by Robert L. Brawley (Louisville: WJK, 1996), 117-36.
  19. Ibid.
  20. It is not to English speakers’ credit that “motherf***er” is now common enough to mean “buddy.” It has lost its shock and, arguably, its etymological meaning. But we know this because the lexeme is well attested, because we hear it and read it contexts in which it simply could not be taken literally. This is not true of the two appearances of ἀρσενοκοίτης in the NT, both of which are in vice lists. Etymology must be given its due weight here.
  21. “Homosexuals or Prostitutes? The Meaning of ἀρσενοκοίται,” Vigiliae Christiane, Vol. 38, No. 2 (June, 1984), 130.
  22. Boswell, op. cit. 342.
  23. Ibid.
  24. I use the word “revisionist” advisedly; it is the term used by James Brownson in his influential book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).
  25. Eusebius of Caesarea, Evangelicae Praeparationis Libri XV, ed. E. H. Gifford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1903), 298–299.
  26. Boswell, 342.
  27. Wright says of Boswell’s statement, “This is patently not the case if the LXX of the verses in Leviticus lies behind ἀρσενοκοῖται, whether in encouraging the formation of the word itself or in informing its meaning.” “Homosexuals or Prostitutes?”, 129.
  28. Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), Le 20:13.
  29. Though, interestingly, the LXX gives a “dynamic” rendering of “their blood will be on them”: “they are guilty.”
  30. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1870.
  31. This intertextual connection is also one of the major planks in the argument of Robert A. Gagnon, the current champion of the traditional viewpoint on homosexuality in Scripture. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001). Gagnon observes, “What kind of same-sex intercourse would have hurdled the obstacle of Lev 18: 22 and 20: 13 in Paul’s mind? Surely none since these prohibitions speak generically of all men who have sexual intercourse with any and every kind of male.” (Kindle loc. 5644) Gagnon also argues that ἀρσενοκοίτης must be defined consistently with Paul’s discussion of “men with men burning with lust for one another” in Romans 1:24–27. David F. Wright, in an article cited in the BDAG entry for ἀρσενοκοίτης, says, “The heart of my argument is that the inspiration for the neologism αρσενοκοιτης lies in the Greek of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 LXX.” “Translating APΣENOKOITAI (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10),” Vigiliae Christiane 41:4, 1987, 396. The argument is used throughout conservative and popular level literature on the topic. See Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 64.
  32. The Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, and New Oxford American dictionaries all agree. They do not even offer a sense two for generic “homosexual.” The (British) Oxford English Dictionary does, however, acknowledge an additional, “wider sense (chiefly derogatory): a man who practises anal intercourse; a male homosexual.” It does adduce at least one use in which “Ppaedarast” is set in contradistinction to “Sapphist,” as well as a few other historical uses which support their conclusion. But those tend to be older, and given that the term “homosexual” is first adduced (in the OED) in 1892, it makes sense that “pederast” would have been used before then to fill a space later filled by “homosexual.”
  33. William Petersen, “Can Αρσενοκοιται Be Translated by ‘Homosexuals’?” Vigiliae Christianae 40:2, 1986, 188.
  34. Petersen, 188.
  35. Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1978), 1 n.1.
  36. Petersen, 189.
  37. See Denny Burk, “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 58:1 (2015), 95–115.
  38. Wright, op. cit., 396.
  39. More specialized translations such as the NET Bible can be a little more prolix and intellectually demanding, translating μαλακοι και αρσενοκοιται as “passive homosexual partners [and] practicing homosexuals.”
  40. Danker also comments that the “REB’s rendering of μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται with the single term ‘sexual pervert’ is lexically unacceptable.” I have no access to the REB’s explanations for this translation choice, so I cannot reflect on it. Dale Martin, however, places the REB’s rendering among those translations which “combine both [μαλακοι and αρσενοκοιται] and offer the modern medicalized categories of sexual, or particularly homosexual, ‘perversion’ (RSV 1946, TEV 1966, NEB 1970, REB 1992).” He sees the REB as guilty of a specific kind of anachronism.
  41. Ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 117-36.
  42. Martin, op. cit., no page nos.
  43. Martin, op. cit., no page nos.
  44. In The Old Testament Pseudoepigrapha, by James H. Charlesworth (New York: Doubleday, 1983), no page nos.
  45. I cannot discern the function this point plays in Danker’s argument.
  46. “Homosexuals or Prostitutes,” Vigiliae Christianae 38:2, 1984, 125-53.
  47. Danker also cites the Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, as he always does, pointing raeders to the ἄρσην entry, which defines ἀρσενοκοίτης as “pederaste”—which in French can mean either “homosexual” or (the more specific) “pederast.”
  48. See Rod Decker’s effusive praise at “Short Notice: BDAG3,” n.d.,
  49. Martin, op. cit., no page nos.
  50. Martin, op. cit., no page nos.
  51. Martin, op. cit., no page nos.
  52. Martin, op. cit., no page nos.
  53. Gagnon, op. cit., x.
  54. Cf. Samuel Johnson’s famous definition of “lexicographer.”
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The Original Pronunciation for Shakespeare’s Plays

Mark Ward

Well isn’t this fascinating. Shakespeare’s plays were pronounced significantly differently when they were originally performed. And we miss some humor and rhyming because of it. It is more than possible—and this video argues that it is pretty well universal—that contemporary actors have solemnly intoned 16th century sex jokes to audiences who all nod sagely while, along with the actors themselves, totally missing the point.

Phonology is, for me, an almost entirely unexplored dimension of English language change. Boy, I don’t know if I have the energy to learn “OP” just in order to catch euphonies or assonances that the KJV translators employed that we today miss… The video—which I can’t believe no one has sent me before!—simply demonstrates one more dimension of language which has changed in the last 400 years in ways modern readers just cannot be expected to know without specialized training. I’m tired. Do I have to do it?

And now let me note for my own benefit, and maybe for yours, the three ways that the main linguist in this video says we use to reconstruct OP:

  1. We read what writers of the time said about the way their words were pronounced. People were prolix in print in those days, just as they are today. You pick up things.
  2. We look at spelling, which was far less fixed than it is today. If someone wrote film as philome, there’s a good chance it was a two-syllable word in that day.
  3. We look at rhymes and puns. If “we never can prove the delights of his love” (that, of course, is not Shakespeare, but a hymn only a century-plus old), there’s a good chance that one or both of those words was pronounced differently in a previous era.

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A Nerdy Post about Writing: An Excerpt from My Sent Folder

Mark Ward

A non-Christian friend I talked to many times on the bus asked me a question about whether or not he should take an online fiction-writing opportunity he’d been handed. I appreciated being asked. He’s a neat guy with real talent. I replied, and it gave me an opportunity to talk a little about writing in a way readers and writers might find helpful…

I have always felt averse to writerly self-promotion, partly because Jesus warned against putting myself forward pridefully (Luke 14:7–11) and partly because it always just seemed gauche when someone would have a giveaway that required people to subscribe to his blog for entry. I wanted my writing itself to attract readers. So for over ten years on my personal blog, I have just written things I hoped would be helpful and have hoped that readers would find me. But when my new job at Faithlife in Bellingham gave me the opportunity to stand on a higher platform and reach more people, I didn’t hesitate. Don’t put a bushel on your lamp. I jumped into serving them in just the way I had tried to serve my personal blog audience. And the results (I think!) were positive, for my readers and for my employer and for me. It sounds like you are being handed a platform that other writers would love to have—a motivated readership that is already a community of friends (right?).

Now, I can’t answer any question as if Christianity is irrelevant, and so my mind goes back as it always does to the most important commands in the Bible: love God and love neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). If you don’t believe in God, you can’t obey the greatest command. But if you love the fictional characters and the community of people they have created, you can still benefit from the wisdom in the second greatest command. When you really love something, it comes out. I have little doubt, knowing you, that your love for and interest in that world will be evident to readers. You will pass the most important test of good writing: love. It simply remains to be seen (right?)—and you are the one who needs to know this more than anyone—whether what you write will end up pleasing and serving the community of readers. Take this chance now, and you may find that you simply don’t get results. Readers drop off. But I bet they won’t. I bet they’ll stay, and readership will grow. And that you’ll be glad you got and took this neat opportunity. It seems to me you’re perfectly poised to grab it. And you may never get a chance like this again.

There are many fictional characters who have been taken up by subsequent authors, or who were created in the first place by a team and not an individual. My son loves the Warriors books, and they are a team effort—though plots apparently come from the same mind. The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew—readers don’t seem to mind that Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene are just as fictional as their characters. In fact, I’d say that you should set out to both honor the characters as they are and invest them and their subsequent adventures with your own personality. I was taught that Christian preaching is “truth through personality.” And I have found that writing is the same. I HATE writing that pretends to lack a writer. I just read, or tried to read, several journal articles which were like this. They affected an objectivity that essentially denied the existence of a subject at the keyboard, they really did. And the result was truth, in a way, but uninteresting and uncompelling truth—because it didn’t come through a personality. My favorite writers, even when I disagree with them profoundly, care deeply about truth and have distinctive voices. I think of Stanley Fish, Nick Kristoff, and Marilynne Robinson. There is really nothing quite like the feeling you get when you get to know a person merely through words on a page. The other day I clicked on the title of what looked like an interesting article, and I started reading before I thought to look at who wrote the piece. Within the first paragraph, I just knew. That’s what I aim for in my own writing.

I hope that helps! Thanks for the opportunity to expatiate on a few themes dear to me!


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Is the CSB Suitable for Expository Preaching? An Excerpt from my Sent Folder

Mark Ward

A reader who attends Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

I’m not going to keep you, this is the only question I will ask and then I’ll simply follow you via social media; can I trust the CSB as an expository preacher? Interested in your thoughts (which will remain here). Thanks, Mark.

A writer who doesn’t wish his thoughts to remain there:

Great question. I would say two things:

  1. You have to trust someone, or a group of someones, until you can read Greek and Hebrew yourself. Even if that does happen, you’ll still be trusting scholars who’ve done specific work you haven’t done. In other words: you’re never going to get out of the situation in which you must trust someone else’s judgment when it comes to certain questions about the Bible, particularly Bible translation. And that’s not bad, it’s good. God made it this way. He gave us pastors and Schreiners 😊 to edify and instruct us.
  2. Look at the work people like Schreiner (the major leader over the CSB) have done on the Bible. Is it careful? Is it faithful? Is it humble and godly? Is it rich and deep? I think the answer with him has got to be a resounding yes. In other words, he is worthy of your trust. And—without claiming that the CSB, or any translation, is perfect—that means the CSB is worthy of your trust. What I’ve said about Schreiner could be said about multiple other people on the CSB committee. I believe that I could be a faithful expository preacher using any of the major modern English evangelical Bible translations. And I’ve done it.

Now for my blog audience I will add that I follow the buzz on major translations, and the CSB has gotten mostly good buzz with a mix of I-liked-its-predecessor-the-HCSB-better. But a good review of a Bible translation takes so much work, and I must confess that though I’ve read through the CSB and found it to be—generally speaking, which is all the speaking I can do—just fine, I haven’t read it with the closeness and depth required to form an independent or scholarly opinion. I’m content, for my needs, to outsource my opinion to trusted authorities—the way we all do on so, so many important things.

I really think the above is the kind of answer most pastors who are asked this question—about any translation—should give. Unless a given pastor has done intensive work in the Greek and Hebrew and worked through hundreds of sample passages in a given translation, his opinion should self-consciously rely on the experts. I think we get in a lot of trouble when we pretend to others, and even to ourselves, that we have formed our opinions firsthand when in reality we haven’t. A good clue: if you can’t read Greek or Hebrew, you don’t have a firsthand opinion on the quality of a translation (except perhaps on the matter of English style). If you can only read one and not the other, you don’t have a firsthand opinion on the quality of a translation in both testaments. The sheer number of fine-grained decisions that goes into the making of any Bible translation says to me that people are in special danger of committing the “insufficient sampling” fallacy when evaluating them. Have an opinion, yes, but get your epistemology straight. It will help keep you humble—which is how I feel when I am asked a question about the CSB. I hope my answer reflects that humility!

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A Must-Read Piece Featuring a Number of My Favorite Writers

Mark Ward

I read pretty much everything Alan Jacobs writes. This piece is at the top of the list of must-reads. It’s his assessment of the major storm between two conservatives: Sohrab Ahmari and David French.

Let me try to spin Jacobs’ basic argument into the way I would put it.

Insofar as liberal proceduralism is indeed on the rocks, and is serving mainly as an impolite fiction, a fig leaf covering progressive illiberalism, it’s bad and should be rejected along the Stanley Fishian why-we-can’t-all-just-get-along lines I’ve described on this blog many times before. (I loved Jacobs’ description of the backstory to one of the greatest essays in the history of the form—and the paragraph he quoted is the one I have practically memorized, I’ve repeated it to myself so often.)

Insofar as liberal proceduralism is the result of specifically Christian convictions about the inviolability of the conscience, and maybe even Reformed convictions about the necessity of the Holy Spirit in conversion; and certainly many biblical commands about gracious speech, love of neighbor, impartiality, and the Golden Rule; then liberal proceduralism should live on.

Don’t miss Jacobs’ follow-up post, either. I thank God for Jacobs and for French (I had not till now known of Ahmari). Over and over I have found them to be helpful assessors of contemporary arguments. Ross Douthat is the only other person I could put in their category. David Brooks is close.

Update: sure enough, Douthat weighed in helpfully. He sees issues beyond those I’ve mentioned, which is appropriate to his height above me on the pundit pole.

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Ron Horton: A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements

Mark Ward

I had only one class with Ron Horton, Aesthetics—and I had to drop it when my little daughter was born. But I listened to enough lectures to know that the man was brilliant, and I read and enjoyed his book, Mood Tides. I respected him greatly. He died—into new life—yesterday. And the greatest honor I can do him is to try to give his words another hearing.

I read the following essay as a freshman, I think, and didn’t get it. I read it much later, as an adult, and found it to be full of wisdom. I post it with permission from BJU Press in honor of Dr. Ronald Horton (1937–2019).

A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements

Christian Educational Censorship

This selection, used by permission, is an excerpt from Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission.

Censorship in education is a controversial topic in both Christian schools and public schools. A Christian teacher has the Bible as a guide and example for making wise choices about objectionable elements students will encounter in literature.


Educational censorship remains one of the most controversial issues in public life, linked as it is to political censorship and freedom of the press. The issue is sometimes posed as if it were only religious conservatives who insist on moral controls and apply arbitrary standards in excluding uncongenial elements. Nothing could be further from the truth. Secularist educators, no less than Christian, censor according to their educational aims.

These aims are moral and religious in nature as much as intellectual. To exclude racism, sexism, and all religious coloration from secular teaching and materials is as serious a goal and as holy a cause in the progressive agenda as to develop the child in the image of God is in the Christian educational program. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is censored in some school districts today for its alleged racism whereas it was censored in conservative schools a century ago for its religious cynicism. The reason is obvious. The shape of the curriculum will affect the shape of society in a nation with universal compulsory education.

Censorship, therefore, whether in Christian or secular schools, is inescapable. Every thoughtful teacher makes choices according to criteria devised to implement specific course objectives, which in turn reflect general educational goals. More and more in public schools, these choices are being made for him. The general goals of public education reflect a liberal social agenda that has moral content antagonistic to Christian belief and traditional values. Recent textbook controversies make clear the determination of the liberal educational establishment not to relax its grip on the content of public education. The issue is not whether to censor but what.

The issue of what to censor not only separates Christian educators from secular but also divides Christian educators themselves. Though united in purpose, they may differ in what they deem appropriate methods and materials for accomplishing their purpose. Is the traditional curriculum in literature compatible with or a betrayal of Christian educational goals and standards? Can Christian students be rendered “culturally literate” without compromising the spiritual objectives of Christian education? These are questions that conscientious Christian teachers and administrators wrestle with. Not only must they justify their decisions to themselves; they must be able to defend them to inquiring parents, pastors, and lay leaders of the church and, perhaps eventually, to civil authorities.

Beleaguered by doubts and conflicting advice, the Christian teacher or administrator turns to Scripture for standards he can confidently apply and uphold. The Bible itself is the most important textbook in the Christian educational curriculum. It not only contains the most important information for the student but also provides a pattern for the instruction. Other textbooks are Christian to the extent they reflect and conform to this spiritual and pedagogical model. Classroom teaching is Christian to the extent that it emulates the objectives, approaches, and methods of the Scriptures.

The Bible speaks of itself when it says, “Every word of God is pure” (Prov. 30:5) and “Thy word is very pure” (Ps. 119:140). Every part of Scripture is free of that which is in conflict with or extraneous to its purpose. The Christian teacher, led by the same Spirit that inspired God’s Holy Word, will scrutinize prayerfully his methods and materials to ensure that they likewise are free of that which hinders and diverts from his purpose: the conforming of his students to the image of God in Christ. He will censor for the sake of his students and, in the case of the materials he uses, ascertain whether the necessary censoring has been done by the authors or may otherwise be done by himself.

Censorable elements

In order to do his job of censoring in a Biblical way, the teacher will need to be aware of the common categories of censorable elements.

  1. Profanity (blasphemy whether in statements or epithets; all sacrilege)
  2. Scatological realism (specific references to excrement or to the excremental functions)
  3. Erotic realism (specific references to physical love between the sexes)
  4. Sexual perversion (the portrayal of any sexual relationship or activity—such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, or incest—other than that which is sanctified by God in marriage)
  5. Lurid violence
  6. Occultism (Satanism, witchcraft, necromancy, astrology, fortunetelling, and the like; a representation of the supernatural powers that oppose God in a way that fascinates the reader or implies the existence of a supernatural order other than the Biblical one)
  7. Erroneous religious or philosophical assumptions (un-Biblical root ideas or attitudes expressed overtly or covertly, explicitly or implicitly, in theme, tone, or atmosphere; these appear, for example, when a writer invents a fictional world in which no divine presence is felt or in which no moral order is perceptible.)

It is not difficult to spot the censorable elements of categories 1-6 and to miss the often subtler and more dangerous elements of category 7. The practical atheism and antiestablish-mentarian attitude of Mark Twain’s character Huck Finn, the pantheistic mysticism of Wordsworth and Thoreau, the naturalistic thesis of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” and the melancholy pessimism of A. E. Housman’s lyric poems would appear safe enough in terms of criteria based on only the first six categories. Unfortunately, it is the un-Biblical premises of a work that are taken least seriously in discussions of censorable elements and in the formulation of policy concerning them. This category, like the others, requires serious attention.

Positions on censorable elements

Those who discuss classroom censorship tend to adopt either of two diametrically opposed positions. Each position, by its deficiencies, fortifies the other. A third position results from the first two. All require examination in the light of the Biblical standard.

The permissivist view is common among evangelical intellectuals. It is what one might expect to find in an article in Christianity Today or in booklets published by InterVarsity Press. Those who hold this view allow at least a degree of the censorable on either of two bases: (1) the existence in a work of compensating aesthetic qualities; (2) the necessity in art of an honest view of life. These constitute what the courts have called “redeeming social value.” The weakness of the first criterion is apparent in the uncertainty that has characterized the history of court rulings on censorship. It is too subjective and utilitarian to be an adequate guide for Christians. It requires a judge who, though ignorant himself concerning the aesthetic merits of a work, is competent to identify expert witnesses who are knowledgeable and impartial. His problem is complicated by the circumstance that aesthetic values nowadays tend to be subjective and relativistic, easily affected by extraneous considerations. The aesthetic criterion in censorship rests not on absolute moral principles, which Biblical ethics requires, but on the toleration of the social community.

The second criterion—the necessity in literature of an honest imitation of life—is the standard defense by modern writers of the sordid and salacious elements in their fiction. But ideas of the world and of life vary widely. Every serious secular novelist invents fictional worlds that vindicate his moral and religious preferences. Moral libertines nurture private world views that justify and reinforce their licentious lifestyles. Even were there an accurate, Biblical consensus of the nature of life and the world, it could hardly be maintained that literature, while imitating reality, need include all of reality. The Bible speaks of some realities we are to flee (I Tim. 6:11; II Tim. 2:22). Moral considerations must override the aesthetic and mimetic in a Christian’s perspective on literature and life. That which threatens the moral and spiritual life cannot be justified on other grounds. Permissivism arrogantly elevates human wisdom above divine.

The exclusivist view is held by conscientious pastors, Christian educators, and laymen concerned for the moral preservation of their children and for the moral wholesomeness of their communities. They reason that, because evil is evil, any avoidable exposure to it is wrong for even the most praiseworthy of purposes. It follows, they argue, that one should avoid any work of literature or discard any element of the curriculum that contains any amount of any of these elements. A few hold as a corollary that, since the Bible is a sufficient guide in all important matters of life and since there is peril in other reading, we ought not to read anything else.

Our spiritual affinities are with these who hold the exclusivist position, and our sympathies must be also. They are the ones with the sensitive consciences, the zeal for what is pleasing to God, the vigilance toward the moral erosion of society. But they should consider the implications of their position. To reject a work of literature or subject of study because of the presence of any amount of these elements within it is, first, to apply a standard that precludes the possibility of a liberal arts education. We forego the major works of Shakespeare, Spenser, Pope, Swift, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Hawthorne, Melville, Clemens, Frost, and almost every other standard writer. We do not teach the Declaration of Independence, for its arguments are based on the secularist idea of natural rights. Even Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is suspect, for the key to the outer gate (the iron gate) of Doubting Castle, Bunyan tells us, turned “damnable hard.” (Bunyan, of course, meant “able to damn,” but he must also have been punning.)

Now if eschewing evil requires foregoing a liberal arts education even in a Christian educational environment, then so be it. No human educational values should be allowed to compete with spiritual. However, we recall that “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). Paul, we know, had the learning of the Greeks, for quotations and echoes of pagan writers appear here and there in his epistles. He knew Greek poetry well enough to quote from memory the minor poets Aratus and Epimenides of Crete on Mars Hill. Furthermore, of Daniel and his three friends we are told that “God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom” (Dan. 1:17). Evidently, in these cases, the divine preparation for leadership included familiarization with the writings not only of the inspired authors of the Scriptures but also of the poets, scientists, and philosophers of pagan intellectual and literary traditions. The exclusivist view, if consistently held, condemns the manner in which God conducted the preparation of these great men of Scripture or implies that God did not approve of it.

An even more serious implication of the exclusivist position is that it precludes the reading of some portions of the Scriptures themselves. Elements of all seven categories of censorable elements appear in certain ways and to certain degrees in the Bible. The following list is illustrative, by no means exhaustive:

  1. Profanity: “Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?” (John 8:48)
  2. Scatological realism: Rabshakeh’s coarse language (Isa. 36:12)
  3. Erotic realism: Proverbs 5:18-19; Ezekiel 23:20-21; and passages in the Song of Solomon
  4. Sexual perversion: the sin of Sodom (Gen. 19); the seduction of Joseph (Gen. 39); the rape of Tamar (II Sam. 13); the liaison in Proverbs 7
  5. Lurid violence: Joab’s murder of Amasa (II Sam. 20)
  6. Occultism: Saul’s dealing in necromancy (I Sam. 28:7-25)
  7. Religious and philosophical assumptions: the misrepresentation of God by Job’s three friends (though in no pervasive sense can such assumptions affect any large portion of Scripture)

Obviously the exclusivist view, consistently held, puts the Bible in conflict with itself and lays its advocates open to charges of self-contradiction.

The exclusivist position is based on a misconstruction or misapplication of certain passages of Scripture. We need to deal briefly with each one.

  1. “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes” (Ps. 101:3). This resolution of David may refer to an idol or to some evil device or scheme. It certainly does not refer to all representation of evil, for David read the stories of moral failure in the Pentateuch and, in his capacity as judge, had to scrutinize wrongdoing continually. The sins described in the Bible—for example, David’s own adultery with Bathsheba—are wicked, but the descriptions of them in Scripture are not wicked. The examples of Scripture, both positive and negative, are good in the sense that they are “written for our learning” (Rom. 15:4). “All scripture . . . is profitable” (II Tim. 3:16), even the parts that reveal most vividly the depths of human degradation. What is represented is evil, but the representation of the evil is valuable for Christian moral understanding and is, therefore, good.
  2. “I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil” (Rom. 16:19). The Greek word here translated “simple” is translated “harmless” in Matthew 10:16 (“Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves”) and in Philippians 2:14-15 (“Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation”). Paul’s command echoes a passage in Jeremiah in which the prophet complains of Israel, “They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge” (4:22). Elsewhere Paul admonishes believers, “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men” (I Cor. 14:20). The meaning of these passages is clearly that the believer should be clever in ways to do good rather than cunning in ways to do harm. On the other hand, believers should not be “children . . . , in understanding.” One of the meanings of simple at the time the KJV was translated was, in fact, “harmless,” and the KJV translators followed Wycliffe in using it in this sense in this verse. The Bible puts no premium on moral ignorance.
  3. “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks” (Eph. 5:3-4). Evidently Paul does not mean that such sins as fornication and covetousness should never be mentioned at all, for he has just spoken of them himself, as do the other writers of the Scripture. Mentioning these and other sins is necessary if the preacher is to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (II Tim. 4:2). Every pastor or parent must mention specific sins by name if he is to fulfill his responsibility to God for those under his care. Paul here, as in Romans 2:24, is insisting that the conduct of God’s people give no occasion for these sins to be named as existing among them. Their conduct should give cause for thanksgiving rather than for gossip and reproach.
  4. “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (I Thess. 5:22). The commandment has been interpreted in two ways. The first is that one avoid giving any appearance or impression of evil doing. The believer’s conduct must be above suspicion and give no occasion to those who would wish to find fault. Paul gives the same command in Romans 12:17 (“Provide things honest in the sight of all men”) and in II Corinthians 8:21. Daniel’s life was such that his enemies could find no pretext for condemning him in any way to the king. The Bible stresses the importance of reputation as well as of moral character. The more likely interpretation, however, is that one abstain from every form or manifestation of evil. The commandment completes the preceding verse. We are to “prove all things,” adhering to “that which is good” and abstaining from all that is evil. One must encounter a phenomenon before he can test it and distinguish the good from the bad.
  5. “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Phil. 4:8). This grand prescription for mental, moral, and spiritual health expresses the principle that dwelling on good will help to drive out evil. The believer’s main subject of meditation should be the Scriptures—for blessing (Ps. 1:2) but also for protection (Prov. 6:20-24). The Biblical commands to center one’s mental life on the Scriptures do not exclude those passages in which evil is described, often graphically. On the contrary, those passages, Paul says, were intended to be pondered as negative examples (I Cor. 10:1-14). The Bible uses both positive and negative examples to enforce its message. Good literature does also. A person whose mind has been fortified by such examples against the evil in his moral environment will be better able to live in that environment with his mind focused on the things of God.

More than four centuries ago, William Tyndale, arguing for the common man’s ability to make use of Scripture, addressed the issue of the questionable elements in Scripture:

All the Scripture is either the promises and testament of God in Christ, and stories pertaining thereunto, to strengthen thy faith; either the law, and stories pertaining thereto, to fear thee from evil doing. There is no story nor gest [narrative account], seem it never so simple or so vile unto the world, but that thou shalt find therein spirit and life and edifying in the literal sense: for it is God’s Scripture, written for thy learning and comfort. There is no clout or rag there, that hath not precious relics wrapt therein of faith, hope, patience and long suffering, and of the truth of God, and also of his righteousness. Set before thee the story of Reuben, which defiled his father’s bed. Mark what a cross God suffered to fall on the neck of his elect Jacob. Consider first the shame among the heathen, when as yet there was no more of the whole world within the testament of God, but he and his household. . . . Look what ado he had at the defiling of his daughter Dinah. . . . Mark what followed Reuben, to fear other, that they shame not their fathers and mothers. He was cursed and lost the kingdom, and also the priestdom, and his tribe or generation was ever few in number, as it appeareth in the stories of the Bible.

The adultery of David with Bathsheba is an ensample, not to move us to evil; but, if (while we follow the way of righteousness) any chance drive us aside, that we despair not. For if we saw not such infirmities in God’s elect, we, which are so weak and fall so oft, should utterly despair, and think that God had clean forsaken us. It is therefore a sure and an undoubted conclusion, whether we be holy or unholy, we are all sinners. But the difference is, that God’s sinners consent not to their sin. They consent unto the law that is both holy and righteous, and mourn to have their sin taken away….

Likewise in the homely gest of Noe, when he was drunk, and lay in his tent with his privy members open, hast thou great edifying in the literal sense. Thou seest what became of the cursed children of wicked Ham, which saw his father’s privy members, and jested thereof unto his brethren. Thou seest also what blessing fell on Shem and Japhet, which went backward and covered their father’s members, and saw them not. And thirdly, thou seest what infirmity accompanieth God’s elect, be they never so holy, which yet is not imputed unto them: for the faith and trust they have in God swalloweth up all their sins. (Obedience of a Christian Man)

The pragmatic position is held by those who, acknowledging God’s standards to be absolute, consider some compromise to be necessary if one is to get along in a fallen world with flawed human beings. Misapplying Paul’s concession in I Corinthians 5:10, they allow some degree of exposure to the evil of this world, but not “too much.” It is inevitable, they maintain, that passing on our way through the world we would pick up some dust. The pragmatist, seeing the bankruptcy of the permissive view and the impossibility of the exclusivist view, falls back on a rule-of-thumb utilitarianism that makes Christian evaluation entirely subjective. Each person must decide for himself how much evil is too much to be tolerable in a literary work or in material used in teaching. This view is perhaps theologically the weakest of all, for it implies that it is impossible to order our lives according to the will of a holy God or that God will accept from us less than His standards require. In the issue of a Christian response to the censorable in literature or in life, adopting a mean between extremes or a policy of convenience is no solution. Genuine Biblical morality is not a matter of expediency or of proportion and degree, but a matter of principle based on moral absolutes.

Fortunately there is another position, the Biblical, which takes the Bible itself as the supreme literary and pedagogical model. It accepts the Biblical purpose of moral education as stated in Proverbs 1:4: “To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.” It recognizes that the image of God in redeemed man—Christ-likeness—includes moral understanding and that moral understanding requires an awareness of both good and evil and “the end thereof” (Prov. 14:12). It identifies as spiritually “of full age,” or mature, “those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5:14).

The Biblical position adopts the pedagogical method of the Scriptures in teaching moral understanding. The Bible teaches by means of precept and example. Its examples are both positive and negative. The writers of the Old Testament enunciate emphatically the commandments of God and reinforce them with many examples of right behavior and many more of behavior to be shunned. They associate good or evil consequences with good or evil behavior. New Testament writers draw on these examples, positive and negative, for encouragement and warning.

The Lord Himself made full use of negative examples in His teaching and preaching, citing the degeneracy of Sodom (Matt. 11:23), Cain’s slaying of Abel (Matt. 23:35), the debauchery of Noah’s generation (Matt. 24:38), and many other instances of wickedness. Paul’s warnings to the Corinthians run nearly the full gamut of human depravity, including incest (I Cor. 5:1) and homosexuality (I Cor. 6:9), referring to active homosexuals in “abusers of themselves with mankind,” passive in “effeminate.” We regard these accounts of wickedness in the same way that the New Testament writers regarded those recorded in the Old Testament: as “ensamples” given to us for our profit (I Cor. 10:11; II Pet. 2:6). Clearly, to exclude the negative example from the Christian educational experience is to depart from the pedagogical method of Scripture.

Does this mean that we must accept in our reading and include in our teaching the full range and extent of the censorable that the permissivist would allow? Not at all. Following the standard of Scripture controls our choice and handling of material in a way that most pragmatists, let alone permissivists, would find overrestrictive. Though defense attorneys in pornography cases can point to portions of the English Bible that seem to violate the Bible’s own admonitions concerning preserving the purity of the mind, the Bible is in reality completely self-consistent and purposeful in its presentation of evil. Evil is represented in the Bible in certain ways, for certain purposes, and with certain effects. Understanding the Biblical manner of representing evil is a far surer and more workable guide for the conscientious Christian parent or educator than the subjective criteria and arbitrary lists conceived by some conservative moralists, well-intentioned as they may be.

The basis of a truly Biblical position concerning censorable elements is the following distinction. If a work of literature or other element of the curriculum treats evil in the same way that it is treated in the Scriptures, we regard it as not only acceptable but also desirable reading, listening, or viewing for someone of sufficient maturity as to benefit from comparable portions of the Scriptures (with the qualification that visual or auditory effects are more potent than those of reading). If it does not treat evil in the way evil is handled in the Scriptures, its content is not good. Evil in the Bible appears dangerous and repulsive. Reflections of evil appear in the Bible in the form of negative examples so as to create a defense against what they represent or to give hope to the fallen for forgiveness and recovery from sin.

Criteria of worth

We may draw three criteria from the Scriptures for judging literary and other works with respect to their content.

Is the representation of evil purposeful or is it present for its own sake? This is the criterion of gratuitousness. We know that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:16-17). Nothing in the Scriptures is superfluous or irrelevant to this high spiritual purpose.

  1. Is the representation of evil, if purposeful, present in an acceptable degree? Or is it more conspicuous or vivid than the purpose warrants? This is the criterion of explicitness. No one with a high view of Scripture would charge it with inappropriateness or excessiveness in its representation of evil. The presentation of evil in the Bible is realistic enough to convince us of its threat as a temptation but not so realistic as to become for us a temptation. Some sins are referred to but not enacted in the text.
  2. Is evil presented from a condemning perspective? Is it made to appear both dangerous and repulsive? What is the attitude of the work toward it? This is the criterion of moral tone. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,” says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 5:20). A good work of literature does not glorify human weakness or encourage tolerance of sin. It allows evil to appear in a controlled way in order to develop in the reader or hearer a resistance against it. In literature, “vice,” wrote Samuel Johnson, “must always disgust.” Its purpose is to initiate the reader through “mock encounters” with evil so that evil cannot later deceive him—so that he will be better able to maintain a pure life in a fallen world.
  3. These three criteria are complementary. None is alone sufficient to justify the censorable in a work of literature or another element of the curriculum. Together they work powerfully, because they work Biblically, to preserve moral purity while providing for a developing moral understanding and judgment.

Let us consider how some censorable elements in Shakespeare’s plays appear in the light of these criteria. One of the most violent scenes in English Renaissance drama, and one of the most violent in all dramatic literature, occurs in act three of King Lear, when the duke of Gloucester, loyal to King Lear, is charged with helping him escape and is cruelly punished. The cruelty takes place on stage in full view of the audience. Gloucester is tied to a chair, and hair from his beard and scalp is torn out by Lear’s daughter Regan. Then her husband, the duke of Cornwall, tips the chair backward onto the floor and with his tall, narrow heel gouges out one eye and afterward the other. The scene, acted realistically, would scarcely survive the liberal television censors of today and, if so, would raise an outcry among conservative viewers. Why did Shakespeare bring this action before the audience and not at least have it reported by a messenger as most other dramatists of his day and before would have done?

In King Lear Shakespeare uses parallel plots, the stories of two old men who undergo severe ordeals because of their moral imperception. Each wrongs his loyal child and favors his disloyal child or children, learning too late that he has misread their characters. Lear’s moral blindness is the consequence of his pride. He involves his loyal daughter in a contest of flattery with her two sisters. When she refuses to participate, he disinherits her, leaving himself at the mercy of his two faithless daughters and their husbands, to whom he has ceded the kingdom. Gloucester’s moral and later physical blindness derives, ultimately, from a sin of lechery. He has begotten an illegitimate son, who deceives him into disinheriting his legitimate son and eventually betrays him to the enemies of King Lear. Lear’s sin is mental, the arch-sin of pride; and his punishment is fittingly mental: he loses, temporarily, his mind. Gloucester’s sin is physical, sensuality, and his punishment appropriately is physical: he loses, permanently, his eyes. In the last scene, the loyal son remarks to his disloyal brother, whom he has mortally wounded:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.

Both plots depict the unforeseen consequences of a casual, thoughtless immoral act. The audience takes the moral tally as the chickens come home to roost.

The punishment of Lear recalls God’s dealing with Nebuchadnezzar, who because of his self-exaltation lost his reason and was, like Lear, turned out-of-doors to live as a beast until purged of his pride. Gloucester’s punishment also has strong Biblical warrant. The aged duke has been ruled by the lust of the eyes. As he approaches the hovel in the darkness with his lantern, the fool exclaims, with double meaning, “Look, here comes a walking fire.” Though the process of Gloucester’s punishment is horrible, we may construe the effect as beneficent; for the Scriptures counsel, “If thy right eye offend thee [i.e., cause thee to offend], pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matt. 5:29). Indeed Gloucester seems to understand his ordeal in this light when he acknowledges, “I stumbled when I saw.” Like Samson’s blinding, Gloucester’s is not gratuitous, nor is it, in relation to what Shakespeare means to emphasize, overly explicit. It is part of a scheme of moral consequences, and the moral tone is clear.

In the comedy Twelfth Night, there is some questionable humor associated with the foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Sir Andrew, unwelcome suitor of the countess Olivia, is a companion of the countess’s freeloading uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and Feste, her court jester. Their enemy is Olivia’s vain steward, Malvolio. Sir Andrew’s surname, like Belch and Malvolio, has moral meaning. Aguecheek indicates the effects of syphilis, known as the pox or the French disease. Andrew’s face is evidently pocked and otherwise deformed from lechery. Andrew also has the thinness of hair and the mental debility associated with the later stages of this disease. When Maria reveals her plan to humiliate Malvolio, Sir Toby exclaims, “Excellent. I smell a device.” Andrew, understanding as usual only in part, sighs, “I have’t in my nose too.” His mental debility (evident in his construing of “device” as “vice”) and physical deformity (indicated in his reference to the effects of the pox on his nasal cartilage) produce humor, but humor for a moral purpose.

For Sir Andrew is ruled by the lust of the eyes. When he first appears, he stands transfixed by the sight of Maria, Olivia’s fair lady in waiting. Sir Toby, reading his mind, encourages him to “accost” her (“Accost, Sir Andrew! Accost!”), knowing full well that the word accost is beyond the narrow bounds of Andrew’s comprehension. Andrew then addresses her, “Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance.” Maria corrects him: “My name is Mary, sir.” Andrew replies, “Good Mistress Mary Accost.” In these passages and others, the lust of the eyes is associated, by the intermediate cause of social disease, with physical deformity and mental debility.

The vice of the rotund Sir Toby Belch, as both his name and his amplitude of girth indicate, is gluttony. This vice, one of the seven deadly sins of medieval theology, included drunkenness. Sir Toby detests moral restraints as much as he hates “an unfilled cannikin of ale.” He is ruled by the lust of the flesh.

Malvolio’s vice is ambition. His name, mal volio, means “bad volition”—that is, “inordinate ambition.” As Olivia’s steward, Malvolio has risen as high in the household order as a commoner legitimately can. He is the chief servant, manager of Olivia’s house, answerable only to the countess herself. But he is not content. He aspires to marry Olivia, to be Count Malvolio. Malvolio is ruled by the pride of life.

Each of the three characters is humorously yet purposefully degraded in the play. Each is made a fool by his vice and is punished according to the nature of his vice. The sin of Malvolio is, like Lear’s, of the mind, and, like Lear, he is punished mentally. His household enemies expose him to the laughter of the court and, having confined him in a dark room, taunt him to desperation. Sir Toby’s and Sir Andrew’s sins, like Gloucester’s are physical, and they, like Gloucester, are punished physically. At the end of the play they have been thoroughly pummeled and appear before Olivia in humiliation with bloody heads. They have themselves become the court spectacle they delighted in rendering the hapless Malvolio.

The humor of Twelfth Night is morally targeted. The references to Sir Andrew’s licentiousness, like those to Sir Toby’s gluttony and Malvolio’s pride, are not gratuitous or, one might argue, improperly explicit, but part of a scheme of moral consequences. Furthermore, they are qualified by moral tone. We are not allowed to admire these characters. The bullying nature of Sir Toby shows itself in the last scene in his ugly repudiation of Sir Andrew’s offer of assistance: “Will you help? An ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull.” Olivia, indignant, orders the drunken Sir Toby away.

In both King Lear and Twelfth Night, the censorable elements are not gratuitous but instrumental to moral purpose. They condemn evil and uphold a Biblical standard of virtue. The pitiable Gloucester and the silly Andrew Aguecheek appear aberrational and absurd in relation to the morally normative Edgar in King Lear and Viola in Twelfth Night. Reflections of evil in the two plays are a function of their morality rather than of their immorality or amorality. Both plays condemn and enact judgments upon evil character.

Criteria of use

There remains the issue of whether works that do not fulfill the criteria of gratuitousness, explicitness, and moral tone have a place in the curriculum. The same criteria apply to evaluating the censorable as literature that pertain to judging the censorable in literature. Can a censorable work or part of a work function effectively as a negative example? We can put the questions in this way:

Is the teacher’s or textbook’s use of the censorable material purposeful, or is it presented only for its own sake? This is the criterion of gratuitousness.

  1. Is the censorable material too potent to serve well as a negative example in the classroom in which it is to be used? This is the criterion of explicitness.
  2. Will the censorable material be presented emphatically as a negative example? That is, will what it portrays appear dangerous and repulsive, regardless of the author’s intentions? This is the criterion of moral tone.
  3. If so, including this material is justifiable and desirable, for in the hands of a wise and skillful teacher it will create a defense against that which it represents.

There is therefore a place in the Christian English curriculum for a paganistic poem by Robert Herrick or William Blake or a pessimistic novel by Thomas Hardy or Joseph Conrad, if these are taught within a proper context, for a proper purpose, and in a proper way. There is a place in the American-literature curriculum for an essay of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau or a story by the naturalists Stephen Crane or Theodore Dreiser, if it is intended to show, for example, the result of religious unbelief in nineteenth-century American thought.

We must recognize, of course, that the shocking indecencies of much twentieth-century fiction disqualify it for use as negative examples; for the censorable language and description are often too potently explicit to be offset by a supplied moral tone. For instance, whereas a conscientious Christian teacher might assign a Willa Cather novel to a Christian high school class, he would not assign John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel for the profanity of the one and the sexual explicitness of the other. There are, indeed, many modern fiction works more objectionable than these, not to speak of poetry. The field of choice narrows progressively and drastically as we apply our Biblical criteria to the writings of recent times.

We also must realize that all literary works assigned as negative examples must be taught rather than just listed for class reading. It is the teacher rather than the student who must supply the necessary moral tone. Furthermore, the teaching should precede and accompany the reading of such works by the students, rather than just follow it the next day. Finally, class discussion must be carefully planned and controlled. Only then can the students be certain to experience a censorable work in a way that will ensure their moral and spiritual benefit rather than harm. (See Chapter 6, pp. 94, 101-6, for an account of how such material can be handled in the classroom.)

A useful analogy for explaining the proper handling of censorable materials is inoculation. The moral purpose of Christian teaching is, minimally, to enable the young to escape the infection of evil. There are two ways of escaping an infectious disease: (1) avoiding contact with it, which of course should be done whenever possible, and (2) developing a resistance. There are two ways of developing a resistance: (1) inoculation and (2) having a nonfatal case. Developing resistance is certainly more desirable than assuming one can avoid contact with infection in a world where contagion constantly threatens. Of the two ways of developing resistance, having a nonfatal case is not the sort of experience that one can plan; and even if one happens to be successful, it may leave him scarred and disabled. Clearly inoculation is superior.

The process, and the advantage, of inoculation is familiar to almost everyone today. Inoculation takes place in a disease-free environment. There the recipient receives a controlled exposure to the disease along with the resistance of the donor so as to fortify the recipient against future infection. The sterile environment and controlled dosage ensure present safety. The resistance of the donor ensures both present and future safety.

The factors determining the success of inoculation are three: (1) the strength of the dosage, analogous to the amount of exposure to evil; (2) the resistance of the donor, analogous to the condemning perspective supplied by the teacher; and (3) the strength of the recipient, analogous to the readiness of the student to benefit from the negative example. Inoculation is inappropriate for a recipient who is weak—either too young (the maturity consideration) or too sick (the background consideration). Factors one and three have to do with explicitness; factor two, with moral tone. The very purpose of moral inoculation satisfies the criterion of gratuitousness.

The book of Proverbs inoculates the reader against sexual immorality by a vivid account of an adulterous liaison (7:6-27). The reader’s ability to profit from this account depends on his maturity. But such instruction is an important part of the young man’s defense against one of the most dangerous temptations he will face in the world. The story of the strange woman and the young fool illustrates the method of Scripture, which offers vivid accounts of sin and its consequences not for titillation of the imagination but “to the intent we should not lust after evil things” (I Cor. 10:6).


We need always to distinguish between the educational and recreative purposes of reading and viewing. The Christian cannot read for pleasure works or parts of works whose censorable elements do not pass the Scriptural test. The Christian’s enjoyment of a work must be determined by the degree to which its form and content approach the Biblical standard. However, the educational purpose requires at times a greater latitude than the recreative. If we are to obey the Lord’s commandment to be “wise as serpents” as well as “harmless as doves,” we need to know what we are to be wary of. We need to be conscious of events and developments that have a bearing on our service for the Lord and on the well-being of ourselves and those under our care. One cannot read far in even National Geographic or U.S. News & World Report without encountering censorable elements. We are justified, indeed obligated, to expose ourselves to some material that is repugnant to our Christian morality and theology so that Satan may not take advantage of us and ours. This latitude does not extend to idle curiosity; it stops where the recreative interest begins.

Genuine moral education

Christian moral education aims at the moral preservation and development of Christian students. This aim entails teaching them to discern and desire good and to recognize and abhor evil, before they encounter the crucial and often subtle moral choices of adulthood. Most often, in literature as in life, good and evil are intertwined. The older the student, the more easily he can separate the strands, categorizing his responses. Christian education, in home and school, has not accomplished its purpose in the mind of the student and prepared him for life until he has learned to discriminate between the good and bad elements of his experience with the world and to choose the one rather than the other. The Christian educator must not only judge but also teach judging if he is to engage in Biblical moral education.

Education, then, is preparation, and preparation implies a process. There are two notions of moral education that are not really education at all, for they involve no process:

  1. Immediate immersion (immediate exposure to the evils of the world). The permissivist secular view assumes there exist from the beginning the capabilities it undertakes to teach.
  2. Ignorant innocence (complete seclusion from the evils of the world). The exclusivist view provides for no development of discernment and resistance to the evils of the world. This view is what Christian educators are often charged with holding and what, in fact, some of them actually think they hold.

Neither concept of moral education allows for any process of preparation for confronting and resisting the deceptions of the world. In reality these conceptions are not moral education at all, but moral noneducation. If we wish to educate a person to survive in water over his head, we may, of course, push him in suddenly (the method of immediate immersion) and trust his innate swimmer’s intelligence. We can, on the other hand, try to keep him away from the water (the method of ignorant innocence), though we cannot be sure that he may not someday be trapped in a flood or on a sinking vessel. The better way, we think, is to teach him to swim. We will introduce him to the water gradually with someone present to instruct him so that someday he can survive on his own.

Two Special Problems

In order not to leave doubts unanswered, we need to give special attention to the two censorable elements that are most flagrantly prevalent in the modern moral environment and yet that are not absolutely condemned in the Scriptures: erotic and scatological realism. Occurrences of these elements in the Bible suggest two mutually qualifying principles in the divine attitude toward them: (1) the goodness of nature as God created it and (2) the propriety of concealment because of the fall. The human bodily functions are part of the divine creation that God approved and blessed: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Since the fall, the body has shared the corruption of the fallen nature even in redeemed man, and the redemption of the body will be the last step in God’s restoration of man to what he has lost. However, it is clear that the human physiology itself and the physical desires created in man by God are not to be despised but to be regarded with respect as part of His handiwork. “I will praise thee,” wrote David, “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well” (Ps. 139:14).

Both the procreative and excremental functions are recognized in the Scriptures and are mentioned without any sense of shame. They are, however, regarded as private: in the case of the marriage union, to preserve its meaning to those involved; in the case of the excremental processes, to prevent offense to others. Modern thinking typically supposes, on the one hand, that the goodness of nature justifies the flaunting of nature and, on the other, that the impulse for concealment implies shame. The divine view combines high respect and secrecy. Upon those parts that fallen nature regards as uncomely—those kept clothed—God, says Paul, has bestowed “more abundant honour” (I Cor. 12:23-24).

Erotic realism

Eroticism in the Scriptures is both fervently approved and vehemently condemned. Physical intimacy within marriage is not only tolerated (as in Roman Catholic theology) but also commanded and celebrated (I Cor. 7:3-5; Song of Solomon, passim). Physical intimacy between the sexes outside marriage is fiercely denounced and threatened. “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4). The measure of the divine approval of the sexual relationship in marriage is the measure of the divine disapproval of its perversion outside of marriage. Also, in the command to “flee . . . youthful lusts” (II Tim. 2:22; I Cor. 6:18) is a recognition of the power of perverse sexual desire to destroy the spiritual life. “Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned?” asks Solomon (Prov. 6:27-28). Divine wisdom in Proverbs juxtaposes accounts of licit and illicit eroticism with exhortations to enjoy the one and shun the other (chapters 5-7).

The Biblical view of the marriage union is both more idealistic and more realistic than the common view today even among Christians. In both Old and New Testaments, the marriage union images the relationship between God and His people. Christians throughout the ages have seen in the celebration of the physical loveliness of the bride and the fervent desire for physical consummation in the Song of Solomon a picture of Christ’s love for His Church. The prophets depict the love of Jehovah for Israel and His grieving over Israel’s rebellion in terms of the marriage relationship. Ezekiel represents the broken relationship in strikingly erotic terms (chapters 16 and 23). Spiritual infidelity is represented as harlotry from the prophetic books to the Revelation. The defilement of the temple in Jerusalem by the heathen, a consequence of Jehovah’s abandonment of Israel to her lovers, is described as a sexual violation of a once-holy sanctuary (Lam. 1-2). The use of this imagery to express the relationship of God and His people indicates the high value He places upon the marriage union, including the physical experience, and the favor with which He regards those who preserve it undefiled.

But combined with the idealistic perspective of the Scriptures is also the realistic. The Scriptures speak matter-of-factly about the “duty of marriage” (Exod. 21:10), “the natural use of the woman” (Rom. 1:27), and the need to “come together” regularly to avoid the temptation of the devil (I Cor. 7:5). Discussions of marriage today tend to be either idealistic or realistic rather than both. The result tends to be either sentimental or coldly practical. Both the highest idealism and the most practical realism combine in the Biblical view of the marriage union, whose purpose is severalfold: human happiness, the replenishing of the species, and a defense against incontinency. A fourth purpose, often neglected, is to produce “a godly seed” (Mal. 2:15)—in the words of the poet, “Of blessed saints for to increase the count” (Edmund Spenser, Epithalamion, l. 423). The function of the erotic in each of these purposes is obvious.

The representation of the erotic in the Scriptures exceeds what in literature would be the tolerance threshold of many moral conservatives but is less obtrusive and graphic than its manifestation in modern literature generally. Its level of explicitness in the Scriptures varies somewhat according to whether the Holy Spirit is depicting virtuous or vicious love, whether (in the case of virtuous love) the perspective is ideal or practical, and whether the eroticism is being rendered metaphorically or is the metaphoric vehicle of another idea—namely, the relationship of God to His people.

In the case of virtuous love in particular, the privacy associated by the Scriptures with the physical union is reflected in a certain tact with which manifestations of it appear in the sacred text. This privacy, as indicated above, is not because of shame but for the protection and honor of an exclusive relationship. The purpose of figurative expression in the Song of Solomon is both to protect from profanation and to glorify the reality to which it refers. There is frank description to a certain degree and figurative representation thereafter. In its affirming the goodness of the marriage union, this description is the very antithesis of the pornographic in purpose and effect.

As the metaphoric vehicle, rather than what is rendered metaphorically, eroticism appears with greater explicitness, particularly in the prophets’ denunciation of Israel’s disloyalty to Jehovah. Israel, charged Ezekiel, “doted upon their paramours [the Babylonians], whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.” This Israel did as in “the lewdness of thy youth, in bruising thy teats by the Egyptians for the paps of thy youth” (23:20-21). The loftiness of the ideal of virtuous love in the Song of Solomon permits less explicitness than the searing scorn of Ezekiel toward the profaned relationship of Israel with Jehovah. Idolatrous Israel had nothing left to conceal.

The explicitness of the practical perspective in the Scriptures appears in Paul’s commands concerning the physical obligations of the marriage relationship in I Corinthians 7. Paul is straightforward and specific in answering the questions of the Corinthians. The passage is a model of spiritual advice. An even bolder explicitness appears in Paul’s discussion of circumcision in Galatians. Angered by the Judaizers’ insistence upon circumcising the Gentiles, Paul exclaims that castration might quickly allay their concerns: “I would they were even cut off which trouble you” (Gal. 5:12).

The Christian turns to the Bible for his standard in evaluating erotic realism in literature. Is the Biblical moral perspective present? Is there an affirmation of the good and the true and a condemnation of the evil and the false? If so, is there also a mutually qualifying idealism and realism in the presentation of the good? Is there a controlled and purposeful explicitness? On this basis the Christian can reject the overwhelming majority of instances of explicit erotic description without condemning those instances, rare as they be, that conform to the practice of Scripture.

Scatological realism

Scatological realism, like erotic, is more apparent in the Scriptures than most moral conservatives would find tolerable in literature but less apparent than in much of modern literature. References to excrement or to the excremental functions appear usually in passages implying divine contempt or disgust. Divine indignation appears in the language with which the Lord has the prophet Ahijah address the disguised wife of Jeroboam in I Kings 14:7-10.Go, tell Jeroboam, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Forasmuch as I exalted thee from among the people, and made thee prince over my people Israel, And rent the kingdom away from the house of David, and gave it thee: and yet thou hast not been as my servant David, who kept my commandments, and who followed me with all his heart, to do that only which was right in mine eyes; But hast done evil above all that were before thee: for thou hast gone and made thee other gods, and molten images, to provoke me to anger, and hast cast me behind thy back: Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.

A similar contempt appears in the Lord’s message to the wicked priests through Malachi (2:1-3).

And now, O ye priests, this commandment is for you. If ye will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart, to give glory unto my name, saith the Lord of hosts, I will even send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings: yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it.

Paul, comparing the acquired capabilities and credentials which he once valued so highly (and which, by the way, the Lord continued to use after Paul’s conversion) to his present concerns and goals, said that he counted them “but dung” that he might “win Christ.” He used some of the strongest available language to express contempt for his former values. Expressing God’s contempt for Israel’s facade of respectability, Isaiah wrote, “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (64:6). The reference is to discarded menstrual napkins. To the Laodicean church, the Lord Jesus has John write, “Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).These and other references assume the obnoxiousness of excrement to civilized man. They also associate moral and spiritual purity with physical cleanliness. To leave human excrement uncovered in the camp of Israel was to offend the sensibilities not only of man but also of Jehovah (Deut. 23:12-14). This offensiveness exists presumably when excremental references gratuitously cover the pages of literature or appear in conversation. Both speaking and writing are social acts liable to moral censure. The most naturalistic of writers have not considered descriptions of urination and defecation necessary, in fiction or nonfiction, to ensure realism. Gratuitous scatological references are quite properly regarded as defilement in verbal communication—all the more so when they are used to degrade and desecrate the pure and noble. By most of today’s writers they are not used to portray the vileness of a thing as it appears in the eyes of God.

Should Christians judge acceptable the kind of rough language used by God in the Old Testament in response to Israel’s degeneracy? The criteria of gratuitousness, explicitness, and moral tone apply here as elsewhere. Is the occasion analogous to those that elicited this language in the Scriptures? Is the target of the language spiritually and morally detestable to a degree that would be equally disgusting to God and His people and incur a similar rebuke? Is such expression similarly motivated? Will it be similarly received? Are social sensibilities today such that similar expressions will have a similar effect, or will they complicate the impact in a way that will cause confusion? Advanced societies with sanitary conveniences live farther from “nature” than do less well-developed societies and become more fastidious about such matters. The Biblical model together with a sensitivity to social norms will be a sufficient guide for judging instances of this type of the censorable.

These considerations must also control our own practice. Nature, as God created it, is not evil, but neither is concealment, whether for protection of the precious or for accommodation of others’ sensitivities. Extreme wickedness merits strong but not reckless language. The believer’s speech should be “seasoned with salt,” not salty; it should communicate “alway with grace” (Col. 4:6). The enemies of Jesus tried but failed to “catch him in his words” (Mark 12:13)—words that had keen edge but also graciousness (Luke 4:22). The Biblical standard, today as then, is “sound speech, that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:8).


The Christian concept and practice of censorship is an outgrowth of the Christian philosophy of education. (See Chapters 1 and 2.) All non-Christian material in the Christian classroom functions to make a Christian point. It is godly to present ungodliness in a Biblical manner, for a Biblical purpose, and to a Biblical effect. It is ungodly to use what might seem the freedom of Scripture as a cloak of licentiousness (cf. I Pet. 2:16). Genuinely Christian teaching, permeated with Scripture and directed by the Spirit of God, remains morally and spiritually well-targeted in its choice and use of materials. It meanwhile does not deny accountability to the trustees, administrators, principals, and parents it serves.

Chapter four of Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission, ©1992. Used with permission of BJU Press. For permission to reproduce this article, please write

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