It’s gone genuinely viral: the Rev. Dr. Phil Snider’s message to the Springfield City Council. Unfortunately it’s a great example of truth tanked by theatrics, reason steamrolled by emotion.
It leaves a powerful impression, but what’s his argument? What would go in the following blanks, to express his point in rational, logical form?
“X, therefore Y, therefore it’s wrong to oppose gay marriage.”
Dr. Snider’s Argument (Such As It Is)
Let’s start with X. Dr. Snider brings forth a series of quotes from white preachers sometime during the civil rights struggles of half a century ago. These statements were obviously wrong, and yet they are similar to some arguments being brought forth against gay “marriage” today.
That’s it. That’s all we have for X. It’s all he asserted. It’s not much, is it? Think with me how sketchy it is: We don’t know who spoke these things originally, we don’t know the context in which they said them, we don’t know any of the surrounding reasoning, we don’t know how widely accepted their opinions were. I’ll bet most people who saw his show haven’t thought that through, though: His surprise ending served effectively to evoke emotion and derail rational reflection. But a little thought reveals what shaky factual ground his argument stands on: unattributed quotes taken out of all context, and that’s it.
It gets worse with Y. Dr. Snider obviously wants us to conclude something from this spotty information, but precisely what we should conclude and how we should get there are as vague as can be. Still it seems at least likely that he wants us to follow a line of reasoning that goes like this.
- Some white preachers misused the Bible to argue in favor of racism.
- People today are using the Bible to argue against homosexuality and gay marriage.
- Therefore the people who use the Bible today to argue against homosexuality and gay marriage are misusing the Bible.
Now, does 3 follow from 1 and 2? Certainly not. From 1 and 2 we can conclude that it’s possible to get the Bible wrong. Even that’s ambiguous, though: we could get the Bible wrong either by misinterpreting it, or by paying it any attention in the first place. Dr. Snider doesn’t say which of those he thinks is the real problem. It’s fuzzy, just like the rest of his argument.
Unstated, Unargued, Unsupportable Premises
Let’s keep working the question, though. Dr. Snider’s conclusion 3 could conceivably follow from 1 and 2, but only if we accept some additional unstated premises, for example:
- A. The gay rights struggle is relevantly parallel to the civil rights struggle, and either B or C:
- B. Christians relying on the Bible in this decade are misinterpreting it in the same way preachers in the mid-20th century misinterpreted it, or
- C. Christians were, and are, interpreting the Bible according to what it says, but the Bible is wrong on these matters.
But the gay rights issue is not relevantly parallel to the civil rights struggle. In a word, the preachers he quoted from the 50s and 60s got the Bible wrong. It does not support oppression—quite the opposite, in fact: read Isaiah, or Jesus’ first public sermon in Luke 4. It does not support racism. Instead it teaches God’s global blessing reaching all peoples. That message first appears in Genesis 12, but its roots go back further than that, to the very beginning: God created all humans in his image (Genesis 1:26). The theme carries through all way to the end in the book of Revelation. It’s also in Jesus’ Luke 4 sermon, and in his last words, Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8. It’s expressed succinctly in Galatians 3:28.
So we can agree with 1: some white preachers misused the Bible to argue for racism. We don’t know who, or in what context, or with what credibility or authority, but undoubtedly some white preachers did that, and when they did, they were clearly wrong.
Yes, It’s Possible To Get the Bible Wrong
At this point I must pause for an important digression. I doubt that every reader knows it’s possible to be clearly wrong in handling Scripture. I suspect some readers think the Bible’s meaning is malleable, that what it means depends on what the reader wants it to mean. That’s a misconception. There are agreed standards for interpreting the Bible. Generally speaking, they’re just what common sense would suggest: the sentences and paragraphs mean what they mean, taking literary and historical context and genre properly into account. Apart from some very difficult and rather abstruse doctrines (predestination, for example), what the Bible says on its main points is quite clear. Sure, the Bible is open to interpretation, but interpretations can be wrong. Only a limited range of interpretations are supportable; only a limited range can be correct.
It’s Also Possible To Get It Right
The racist interpretation was outside the range of possible correct interpretations. What about homosexuality?
First consider the larger context of sexual morality. The Bible does not stutter on this: sex is intended for marriage, and only for marriage. The Western world left that standard behind long ago. There could hardly be any doubt that the rise in homosexual activism—and the permission our society grants it—has been made possible only by our culture’s abandonment of that principle.
Second, the Bible is perfectly clear that God created marriage.
Third, the Bible is perfectly clear that God created marriage for a man and a woman. (The ancients were polygamous, following a widely accepted social norm; but their multiple marriages never turned out very well, as Timothy Keller points out somewhere. You can’t read these stories and conclude that God treated such marriages with favor.)
Fourth, the Bible is perfectly clear from front to back that homosexual relationships are immoral—ignorant misinterpretations of Leviticus notwithstanding. (Those of you who have tried that tactic know what I’m referring to.)
These first four points add up to a crucial fifth one: the Bible claims moral authority. When Christians speak out against homosexuality we do so from within a biblically-informed moral framework. Western culture doesn’t like the Bible’s claim of moral authority, but it can’t change it, it can only reject that authority—which it has done.
The Unstated Premises Are False
So gay “rights” are not relevantly parallel to civil rights; unstated Premise A is false. Race has nothing to do with moral duties or values; homosexual behavior does. The Bible supports and applauds racial diversity but abhors moral diversity (in the relevant sense. Premise A does not apply. Frankly I think it was dishonest of him to act out his little play as if the parallel was real.
Further, there is hardly any possibility that it’s a misinterpretation to conclude the Bible condemns homosexual behavior or precludes homosexual “marriage.” Premise B does not apply.
Sixth, the Bible’s moral standards are not arbitrary, but reflect what is essentially good for us as God created us. Homosexual relationships violate the created order. That’s more a natural-law argument than a biblical one, but it’s a case that can certainly be made, and it has been. On that basis, Premise C does not apply.
Dramatic Effect Play-Acting As Reasoned Discussion
Of course not everyone agrees with that. What did Dr. Snider say about it, though? Not much. I can’t tell whether he meant for us to conclude (a) that Christians opposing homosexuality are interpreting the Bible wrong, or (b) that the Bible itself is wrong. If he intended us to conclude (a), he’s wrong, as I have briefly outlined. What about (b)? That question could be approached from either of two perspectives. One is that of divine authority: if God inspired the Bible, and if God is true, then the Bible cannot be wrong. Dr. Snider didn’t bring that up for discussion, and it would have been inappropriate for him to do so there at that council meeting. The other perspective from which the Bible could be assessed is that of natural law, or (in more philosophically neutral terms) its effect on human flourishing.
Dr. Snider could have argued that point. It would have been relevant and it could have been helpful. But he didn’t. He didn’t offer an argument; he only produced an effect. Take him one way and he’s wrong, take him the other way and he didn’t say anything, so why would anyone conclude anything?
I wish he had been more honest. I wish he hadn’t implied the existence of a parallelism in the Bible that isn’t there, for one thing. And I wish he hadn’t called his skit an argument. It wasn’t one. It was a play, a set piece with a surprise ending that generated emotion where reason is called for; a drama play-acting as reasoned discussion. It had a powerful effect, but that’s a poor substitute for honest communication.
Reasons for God: A Response to Phil Snider
Another Ascending Lark: A Response to Phil Snider: Spotlighting a Secular Response