I am taking the liberty of republishing here an extremely important article from Touchstone. The writer, James Spiegel, documents in painstaking detail the various church leaders, theologians and authoritative Christian documents that had spoken against homosexual practice since the second century. He emphasizes that all these were absolutely unanimous in opposition. I am placing in bold those parts of the article that are particularly significant:
During the last generation there has been a dramatic shift of perspective in the West regarding sexual morality—a shift away from the traditional Judeo-Christian ethic of sex as appropriate only within heterosexual marriage and in the direction of affirming any sexual relationship so long as it takes place between consenting adults. In the North American churches, many people are embracing one aspect of this movement, specifically, to be gay-affirming, in the sense that they believe homosexual activity is morally permissible so long as it involves two committed adults. Now, there are many reasons to be skeptical of this movement, but one reason rarely noted among traditionalists is that there appear to have been no gay-affirming Christian scholars (theologians, philosophers, ethicists, and the like) in history until the latter part of the twentieth century.
This is germane to the question of a Christian's skepticism about the gay-affirming position, and here's why. As Christians, we should take seriously the wealth of moral and theological wisdom that has preceded us historically, and where there is a strong consensus among our best thinkers about an issue, we should grant a strong presumption in favor of that view.
It is clear that there is a historical consensus among Christian scholars regarding homosexual practice. Strong condemnations of it appear as early as the second century among the apostolic fathers, such as Athenagoras, who was outraged by "those who have set up a market for fornication, and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure—who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations." Two decades later, Tertullian declared "the coupling of two males to be a very shameful thing," and Clement of Alexandria decried various forms of sexual immorality commonly practiced in his time, including when "men play the part of women, and women that of men, contrary to nature; women are at once wives and husbands: no passage is closed against libidinousness; and their promiscuous lechery is a public institution."
Such censures of homosexual practice were unexceptional among the early church fathers, including Origen, Cyprian, Hippolytus, Novatian, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrosiaster, and John Chrysostom. In the early fifth century this stance was reaffirmed repeatedly by Augustine in his Epistle 211, The City of God, and Confessions. In the latter he declared that such activities "are abominable and deserve punishment wherever and whenever they are committed." The view was also affirmed in the church councils of the period (e.g., Elvira in a.d. 306 and Ancyra in 314) and in imperial statutes (e.g., that of Constantinius and Constans in 342 and of Valentinian, Theodosius, and Arcadius in 390).
Moving ahead to the early Middle Ages, we find homosexual behavior firmly and repeatedly condemned, in the Welsh Synod (ca. 550) for instance, and in numerous penitential handbooks, including the Penitential of Columban (ca. 600), the Penitential of Cummean (ca. 650), the Burgundian Penitential (ca. 715), the Canons of Theodore (ca. 740), Ecgbert's Penitential (ca. 750), and the Roman Penitential (ca. 830).
In the late Medieval period we find the same uniformly condemnatory attitude, perhaps most stridently in the works of Gratian, who declared the "perverted lust" of those who commit such "acts against nature" to be "always illicit and, without a doubt, disgraceful and criminal." In the late twelfth century, the German mystic Hildegard of Bingen similarly declared that
a man who sins with another man as if with a woman sins bitterly against God and against the union with which God united male and female. . . . And a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile.
This opinion was confirmed by other scholars in this period, such as Alan of Lille, Anselm of Laon, Nicholas of Lyre, Paul of Hungary, and Pope Innocent III, as well as in church councils, including the Council of Nablus (1120), the Third Lateran Council (1179), and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Later in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas reinforced this Christian teaching in equally emphatic terms, asserting that among the "sins against nature," sodomy is, except for the sin of bestiality, the "most grievous."
During the Renaissance, Christian condemnations of homosexual practice remained as strong as ever, even in cities like Florence, where it was widespread. Bernardino of Siena, a Franciscan priest and missionary, bemoaned the "cursed sodomites who are so blind in this wickedness of theirs that no matter how beautiful a woman may be, to him she stinks and is displeasing." Bernardino's attitude toward the vice was sufficiently prevalent among the political leaders in Florence that stringent anti-sodomy laws were established throughout the fifteenth century, leading to thousands of convictions and harsh punishments.
The sixteenth century brought the Protestant Reformation and a significant doctrinal split within the Western church. But Protestants remained firmly united with Roman Catholics regarding the immorality of same-sex intimacy. Martin Luther, commenting on the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, explained that the men of those cities "departed from the natural passion and longing of the male for the female, which is implanted into nature by God, and desired what is altogether contrary to nature. Whence comes this perversity? Undoubtedly from Satan."
Similar denunciations of homosexual practice were made by Philip Melanchthon in the Augsburg Confession (1530) and the Loci Communes (1543), as well as by Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin, the latter in both his Commentary on Romans (1540) and his Institutes (1559). The same stance was formalized in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) and in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), which asserted, "No fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God."
In the next century, the Westminster divines continued the traditional stance against homosexual activity, listing this sin among the violations of the seventh commandment in the Larger Catechism: "What particular sins does the seventh commandment forbid? The answer: In addition to failing to do what is required, the seventh commandment forbids: adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy and all unnatural desires." And in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Puritans and other influential Christians in colonial America, including William Ames, Thomas Shepard, John Cotton, William Bradford, and William Penn, fervently condemned same-sex activity.
Such attitudes remained constant and uniform among Christian theologians and church leaders well into the twentieth century. Karl Barth called homosexuality an "obvious" form of disobedience, describing the practice as "physical, psychological and social sickness, the phenomenon of perversion, decadence and decay, which can emerge when man refuses to admit the validity of the divine command."
Implications & Conclusions
This sampling of major theologians and other Christian leaders illustrates the historical consensus of Christian scholars on the issue of homosexual practice. This consensus is powerfully confirmed by Donald Fortson III and Rollin Grams in their recent book, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Fortson and Grams mined scores of texts by Christian writers who have addressed the issue since ancient times. They conclude from all their research that merely to say there was a consensus on the matter is probably an understatement, for there appears to have been actual unanimity—agreement without exception—on the issue until the mid-twentieth century.
This is startling, for one would naturally expect at least a few scholars to have taken a disparate view, considering the many thousands who have weighed in on the issue over the past twenty centuries. A few outliers here and there wouldn't effectively undermine the argument anyway. But, amazingly, there appear to have been no such outliers; the written record indicates that there has always been complete consistency on the issue among Christian scholars until recently.
What are the implications of this fact? Clearly, it shows that the position of today's gay-affirming Christians constitutes a rejection of uniform Christian scholarly opinion over the course of nearly 2,000 years. Affirmers of homosexuality must commit themselves to claiming that, for two millennia, all Christian scholars who weighed in on the subject were wrong. From Augustine to Aquinas to Luther to Barth, every theologian and moral philosopher of whom we have a published record was mistaken in upholding the traditional view. Not just some or most of them, but, as far as we can tell, all of them. Let that sink in.
What might anti-traditionalist critics say to this? Some might remind us that even the greatest Christian scholars are fallible and bound to make mistakes on certain issues along the way. This is true, of course, but it misses the point. The key here is the unanimity of opinion. Yes, scholars err, and sometimes a large proportion of them may even get an important issue wrong, such as a doctrine related to, say, baptism, eschatology, or the nature of divine providence. But it is quite another thing to suggest that the unwavering conviction of nearly two millennia of Christian scholars on an essential moral issue has been fundamentally mistaken.
Even such core Christian doctrines as the Trinity and the deity of Christ have seen numerous detractors throughout church history, yet the general historical consensus of scholarly opinion has so decisively supported orthodoxy on these issues that the ordinary Christian can take it as authoritative. How much more authoritative, then, can he regard scholarly opinion in the matter of sexual ethics, where it has been unanimous?
Others may argue that the dangers of being gay-affirming in the past can explain the silence of Christian scholars who might otherwise have dissented from orthodoxy on the subject. But this response ignores the fact that throughout history, thousands of Christians—scholars and lay people alike—have been willing to suffer severely for declaring their disparate views on soteriology, the divine nature, baptism and communion, and other matters. So if there were indeed some gay-affirming Christian scholars in earlier eras, surely at least a few of them would have been willing to make their views known despite the danger.
It should also be noted that the danger of being prosecuted or executed for heresy was not equally acute in all places and at all times throughout Christendom. In some contexts, the risks of publicly affirming homosexual behavior would have been fairly small, making the idea that fear accounts for the "silence" of every putatively gay-affirming Christian scholar even less plausible.
What can we conclude from all this? The implication appears to be that gay-affirming Christians are either ignorant or arrogant. Those who are unaware of the overwhelming historical consensus of Christian scholars on the issue display simple, though culpable, ignorance. Those who are aware of the consensus, and who nevertheless consciously reject the collective judgment of all the great Christian minds that have examined the subject, display profound arrogance. But whether due to ignorance or arrogance, any Christian's rejection of the Church's traditional stance on human sexuality is inexcusable apostasy.
Sources (in order cited)
• Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Hendrickson Publishers, 1994).
• Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, op. cit.
• Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, op. cit.
• Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (Penguin, 1961).
• Gratian, Marriage Canons from the Decretum of Gratian, cited in Donald Fortson III and Rollin Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (B&H, 2016).
• Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, in The Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1990).
• Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 2, trans. English Dominican Fathers (Benziger Brothers, 1947).
• Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (Oxford University Press, 1996).
• Martin Luther, "Lecture on Genesis," in Luther's Works, vol. 3, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Concordia Press, 1961).
• Heidelberg Confession, in Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation, ed. Mark A. Noll (Baker, 1991).
• The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 139.
• Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, part 4, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Hendrickson Publishers, 2010).