Book Review: Dirt, Greed & Sex by Countryman

Countryman, L. William. Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today, Revised Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007 (Amazon Link).

Thank you Fortress Press for the review copy!

I confess that my original interest in this book was a curiosity to see if the author, L. William Countryman, would have anything to say about Ephesians 5. Thus, I was rather disappointed to find that the only discussion of the entire letter of Ephesians consists of eight sentences found on a total of four pages (106-7, 134, & 213). With that revelation, my interest in reading the book waned.

But I pressed on. What helped in this was the preface to the revised edition, particularly, when Countryman wrote, “My hope that the book might also serve as an opportunity for discussion between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ in the Christian communities has been largely disappointed” (IX). That statement saddened me because I am one of those so-called “conservatives” – one who has friends living a homosexual lifestyle.

Instead of presenting the various “sections” of the book as I have before, I want to focus on a couple themes that run through it. These mostly relate to the way I responded to the book as a whole and they were thoughts that came to mind early on and continued through the end of part two. These thoughts could easily be summarized simply in the words “Yes” and “No.” But for your sake, readers, I will elaborate a bit more on those two words.

The “Yes” is the thought I had regularly through the majority of both parts one and two as in, “YES! He is completely right on that point. Old Testament Sexual ethics were focused on the question of purity more than anything else.” Or, “Yes! Women and children were viewed as property and the concept of greed is a very helpful picture for describing sexual ethics.”  Both these points are completely true and the majority of the book seeks to provide evidence for these facts. As a whole, I enjoyed the vast majority of his discussion of Old Testament texts. It wasn’t until I arrived in the New Testament (and specifically Paul) that I became increasingly frustrated.

The “No” came in to the picture generally toward the end in a chapter or section where Countryman would attempt to reign in the issues and draw some conclusions and implications for the contemporary church. In both sections on purity and property, my thought was regularly something like, “No, I don’t know if you can make such a hard distinction between what is an issue of purity/property and what is an issue of sin.” By clearly making certain sexual acts only issues of purity, Countryman is able to argue that the emphasis on purity of the heart over physical purity is now the focus in the New Testament. The fact that sexuality is generally not discussed in the gospels gives him the opportunity to lump it in with those purity issues that Jesus and the gospel writers rejected, such as leprosy.

When it comes to Paul & homosexuality, Countryman presents a highly complex argument. He attempts to dismiss Romans 1, the vice lists throughout Paul’s letters and also the mysterious word, ἀρσενοκοίτης, as having a valid contribution to the discussion. This involves a lengthy discussion of Romans 1 and the argument that ἀρσενοκοίτης is too rare of a word to be defined with any kind of confidence.

With regard to Romans 1, Countryman contends that no word in the passage functions in a manner related to sin.

“Instead, [Paul] treated homosexual behavior as an integral if filthy aspect of Gentile culture. It was not in itself sinful, but had been visited upon the Gentiles as recompense for sins–first and foremost the sin of idolatry, but also those additional sins of social disruption listed in verses 29-31” (116).

He rejects the “conservative” understanding of the phrase παρα φύσιν arguing that viewing the word as a synonym for sin makes little sense in relation to Paul use of the phrase in Romans 11.24.

If we take the phrase para physin here as equivalent to “sinful,” it makes Paul’s reuse of it, later in Romans, in the image of God grafting Gentiles para physin into the olive tree of Israel intolerably strange (114).

This, I would consider to be an “unwarranted restriction of the semantic field” (cf. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 57). Surely Paul can use a phrase in different ways! Countryman is confusing the sense of the phrase and the referent of the phrase. The sense of the phrase is simply “contrary to nature.” And this sense can have several referents – including both Romans 1.26 and 11.24.

But regardless of the referent of the phrase in 1.26, Countryman does not adequately deal with the word ἀρσενοκοίτης in the vice list of 1 Corinthians 6. This is an important issue. If the word refers to homosexual practice then whether Paul uses  παρὰ φύσιν in terms of sin is a moot point because he has already described homosexuality as sinful elsewhere.

Countryman’s argument for basically ignoring the word consists of two points: 1) etymology is not a valid guide for the meaning of words and 2) this particular word does not occur in adequately clear contexts in Greek literature to accurately determine its meaning

The way Countryman presents both these issues gives the appearance to his readers that the meaning of the word is nearly a complete mystery. This is blatantly false.

As for point two, Countryman is relatively correct. The contexts in which the word occurs and its rarity create a level of uncertainty, but the issues surrounding point #1 suggest that meaning should not be considered as uncertain as claimed.

Its etymology could suggest some such meaning as “a man who has intercourse with another man,” but etymology is a notoriously bad guide to the actual, living meaning of words (117).

In general this is true (which is ironic considering his own use of etymologies on page 279), but this also ignores some important facts. First of all, “the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components” (Carson, 28). The key word here is “every,” which presupposes that there are some words that can be defined based on etymology, which Carson points out a few pages later:

The meaning of a word may reflect its etymology; and it must be admitted that this is more common in synthetic languages like Greek or German, with their relatively high percentages of transparent words (words that have some kind of natural relation to their meaning) than in a language like English, where words are opaque (i.e., without any natural relation to their meaning) (32).

So what do we know? For one we know that Greek is a synthetic languages. Often times word meanings are clear from their parts. This is clear when we think about English words derived from Greek, such as homosexual, whose meaning is quite clear from its etymology.

The etymology of the word consists of ἄρσην ‘male’ + κοίτη ‘bed.’ Many have argued a connection between the word and Leviticus 18.22 (or 20.13) where the words ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην (or ἄρσενος κοίτην) appear.

This fact in combination with the fact that six of the other terms in the 1 Corinthians 6 vice list also have Old Testament backgrounds (cf. Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 445) as well as potential connections to other Rabbinic sources (Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality, 107-108). Thus the question is not one of meaning, as much as Countryman would like. Thiselton puts its well:

The issue does not turn in fact on whether a link can be traced between Lev 18:22 (and 20:13) and 1 Cor 6:9–10, but on whether Paul sees the OT origins entirely through the lenses of hellenistic Jewish recontextualizations in terms of Graeco-Roman society, or whether he interprets the OT as Christian scripture offering direct paradigms for the habituated lifestyle and ethics of God’s holy people as a corporate identity (Thiselton, 450).

But Countryman does very little in his discussion of the words other than to say, “We don’t know, but I do not think it means that homosexuality is wrong” (cf. pages 128 & 196). He simply sides with the side of the debate that fits his purposes and continues to “talk past” the other side (as Thiselton puts it, pg 450 of his commentary). This is not a conclusion at all, especially since his entire argument depends on the fact that Paul never describes homosexuality as sin. Ignoring the issue only weakens his case. That is not in any way a helpful position to take for his readers, particularly considering how much is at stake in this passage, especially since it would provide clear evidence for understanding Romans 1 in the same way – that homosexuality is sin.

Through all of this, I did not become overwhelmingly frustrated. No, that did not begin until chapter 12, when Countryman began to discuss the possibility of a “creation ethic” that rejects  homosexuality. My frustration resulted from Countryman’s words in his preface which I referred to above. “My hope that the book might also serve as an opportunity for discussion between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ in the Christian communities has been largely disappointed” (IX). Simply put, the way he skews evangelical interpretation by poorly representing their views and referring to only a few publications written by conservative scholars, does more to close the doors of dialogue between “liberals” and “conservatives” than open it. For example Countryman spends little time actually quoting authors who espouse a “creation ethic,” preferring instead to summarize their position, something that is bound to skew the author’s perspective. When providing correction, I was disappointed to find only assertions and no exegesis – appeals to “the plain or literal reading” (243), a phrase notoriously missing in the previous sections of the book. He gives no explanation of what makes his own reading of Genesis 1-2 the plain one, other than the fact that he views it as the traditional reading – interestingly, it was a traditional reading I had never even heard before.

[Genesis 2.24] has traditionally been heard . . . as an etiological story, serving to explain why young men experience sexual desire as they grow up (243).

With that said, I agree with Countryman that it is not a command – but it is a fact, a fact that is described in relationship to marriage in my Genesis commentaries (UBS Handbook, WBC, Calvin). There is also the fact the Genesis is descriptive of God making one man and one woman. If the Garden of Eden is intended to portray an ideal world (something the descriptions of Song of Songs consistently suggest as well), heterosexual relationships are the ideal.

But most frustrating, in light of Countryman’s desire for dialogue, is that there are no references to the numerous pieces of evangelical and conservative scholarship published between these two editions of his book. These include commentaries on Romans (esp. Thomas Schreiner, BECNT; Douglas Moo, NICNT) , 1 Corinthians (Gordon Fee, NICNT; Anthony Thiselton, NIGTC; David Garland, BECNT), and 1 Timothy (George  Knight, NIGTC; I Howard Marshall, ICC; Philip Towner, NICNT; William Mounce, WBC), not to mention several books and journal articles that have also been published on the subject, including William Webb’s Slaves Women and Homosexuals. Ignored Articles include “The Meaning of ‘Nature’ in Romans 1 and its Implications for Biblical proscriptions of Homosexual Behavior” (JETS 31:429) and “The Contributions of the Septuagint to Biblical Sanctions Against Homosexuality” (JETS 34:157) by James Deyoung.

An interesting example is that of Thomas E. Schmidt, whose book entitled The Straight and Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate, does actually get referenced (but not quoted) for the first sentence in a summary of the creation ethic, described and criticized in chapter 12. He receives one footnote with no interaction. And yet, a good size part of Schmidt’s book sought to respond to Countryman’s first edition discussion of Romans 1. That section of this revised edition rejects the possibility of dialogue between sides.

To conclude, Countryman, assuming that he still hoped for such dialogue between “conservatives” and “liberals,” has successfully slammed the door in “conservative’s” faces by ignoring much of what has been written – and he probably jammed the fingers of those who might have been interested as well.

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