Review: Seeing Black and White in a Gray World by Bill Arnold


I recently finished Dr. Bill Arnold’s new book, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality (Franklin: Seedbed 2014).  Dr. Arnold, a professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written this book in response to Adam Hamilton’s popular book (of a similar name) Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.  Professor Arnold is going to be one of my conversation partners at an upcoming forum in New York, and I thought reading his recent book would be helpful preparation for that discussion.

In short, I found much to appreciate in Arnold’s work. His purpose is fairly straightforward.  As he describes in the preface, Arnold read Hamilton’s book in advance of his service as a delegate to the (now infamous) 2012 General Conference in Tampa.  His initial description hints at many of the critiques he develops later in the book:

“I was not disappointed in Adam’s honest and straightforward book seeking a ‘third way’ through and beyond the controversies confronting the church today. I was disappointed, however by other features of the book.  I was surprised by the number of unsupported assumptions, errors of reasoning, and flawed arguments running throughout the book.  I also had questions about some of the theological assumptions, and Adam’s reliance on pragmatism, sometimes at the expense of theology.” (xv-xvi)

If you’ve never before studied logic, you are in for a crash-course. Arnold offers a helpful introduction to logical fallacies at the outset.  When reading, it is critical to catch these as he describes them because Arnold refers to them throughout.  Especially helpful is Dr. Arnold’s discussion of Scripture from a Wesleyan point of view, including his critique of the rampant misappropriation of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral and the need for a canonical reading of the Bible (what Wesley referred to as the “whole tenor” of Scripture).

Furthermore, I found Arnold’s discussion of the “myths” (as he calls them) that hinder our debate about same-sex relationships in the church quite helpful; these include “orientation” as determinative, liberation as a desired telos, and civil rights as an analogy for the current church struggles over same-sex relationships.  For my own part, I would grant that these would have a great deal more purchase on questions our society faces vis-a-vis civil unions and rights of visitation, inheritance, etc., but they are not adequately theological categories to ground discussion within the church.

There are some difficulties in consistency with Arnold’s work.  He accuses Adam Hamilton of the fallacy of “false dilemma” for asking, “Are John Shelby Spong and Jerry Falwell our only options?” but then goes on to hammer the extent to which (using a Yogi Berra quote) questions about same-sex practice leave us two paths.  “Sometimes we simply stand at a fork in the road. There is no sense complaining or crying over it. We have only two choices before us.” (86)

Similarly, he frequently disparages the search for a middle way (and of course I take this a bit personally), but yet approvingly observes in the preface that the current UM position already is a third or middle way:

“The current UMC approach is already a balanced and healthy third-way alternative…between those who simply accept and celebrate same-sex practices on the one hand, and those who condemn both the practices and the people who experience same-sex attraction on the other.” (xvii)

Later, Arnold will also stringently critique Adam and others like him who seek a compromise or middle way between any two alternatives for falling to a logical fallacy called begging the question: “Instead of asking whether or not such a middle way is possible, this time Adam has failed to consider whether such a middle way is preferable.” (97)  It appears, though, as if middle ways are preferable when he likes them, or can picture them, but to be avoided when he cannot envision them.

This is important because Arnold is not always accurate when deciding which questions are black and white (“fork-in-the-road”) or when compromises are possible.  For instance, he discusses Adam’s reflections on just war and Christian pacifism, concluding: “His is no gray area position. He has effectively taken a position on the side of justifiable warfare.” (166)  This overlooks that Just War is itself a middle or alternative way between the extremes of pacifism and realism, and that there are many construals of Just War theory, some of which would agree with Hamilton’s position (supporting the first Gulf War but not the second), and some of which would not.  Of course, this could be something overlooked by Hamilton as much as Arnold.

It’s worth pointing out, and it is to his credit, that Dr. Arnold is very complimentary of Adam Hamilton and says he counts him as a friend (though he seems to be making a cottage industry of critiquing Church of the Resurrection’s pastor).  By and large his reading of Hamilton is thorough and when he is critical, he is fair.  I wonder, though, about Hamilton as the conversation partner for this particular book.  It is not often that books are written that so directly refute another book, and in this case we have a very odd dichotomy: Arnold, an Old Testament scholar who was heretofore not written much at all in the popular vein (as he admits from the outset), taking on a popular and successful pastor whose work is more practical than scholarly.  Moreover, while Arnold says (on xvi) that he is only “using Adam’s book as representative of others in the same vein,” he never names who those others might be.

This leads to perhaps my most significant question about Arnold’s work: he has few conversation partners, to judge from the footnotes, who would disagree with him.  That is, a large number of his interlocutors are folks of similar conviction: names like Billy Abraham, Kenneth Collins, Joy Moore, and Maxie Dunnam come up regularly, but critics from the other end of the spectrum, or even from the middle, are largely absent – though Richard Hays might be a noticeable exception.  All that to say, it seems a somewhat problematic to write a book about the virtues of “seeing black and white” if the footnotes indicate one mostly only consulted those who already agree from the outset.   Arriving at the promised land of “black and white” is a cheap victory if it is done by not engaging opposing voices.

Lastly, I am not as convinced as Arnold in his conclusion that, “the problem with the church today isn’t that there is too much black and white, but not enough.  What we really need is less gray, not more.” (198)  Many things, even great and central matters of the faith, are not all that “black and white.”  At our best, Wesleyans, similar to the Christian East, have not shied away from mystery when it comes to the things of God.  The two foundational doctrines of the church’s faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are mysteries at their very heart.  Moreover, in a few short days Christians will observe Good Friday, and remember the affliction of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity; the Fathers of the Church would remind us, however, that somehow he suffered “impassibly.”  Finally, the Eucharist is described in our own liturgy as a “holy mystery,” which harkens back to the Wesleys, who had little interest in delving into the quagmire of sacramental mechanics that occupied previous generations.  Thus Charles, showing a distinct lack of concern for “black and white” understandings of Chris’s presence at the Table, would have us sing,

How can heavenly spirits rise,
By earthly matter fed,
Drink herewith Divine supplies,
And eat immortal bread?
Ask the Father’s Wisdom how;
Him that did the means ordain!
Angels round our altars bow
To search it out in vain.

Sure and real is the grace,
The manner be unknown…

(Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, #57)

Gray, it turns out, is not something from which God’s people should flee.  In fact, it is impossible.  Nevertheless, Professor Arnold’s new book has given us some helpful paths forward and named some of the major problems with how we are going about our most pressing conversations.  I am not convinced that dialogue is dead, mostly because we have not been doing dialogue well at all.  Bill Arnold’s book, if read and received by many across the ideological divides in the UMC, would help us all be more charitable, clear, and effective conversationalists.

3 thoughts on “Review: Seeing Black and White in a Gray World by Bill Arnold”

  1. Interesting review, thank you. I am now of a mind to read both books. I do wonder if a mystery is best defined as a gray area. Perhaps our attempts to define it can be a bit gray, but I would not call the sacraments themselves to be a gray area.

  2. Thanks, Drew, for the review, which I believe is generous and fair in several respects. I appreciate your careful reading of my work, and consider your positive comments a general agreement with the salient features of the argument. So thank you.

    My comments here will address a few queries you raise in the review. I’ve gone straight through your article, and offer here a few responses in the order in which they occur.

    I am grateful you like my discussion of the three “myths” of chapter 6, at least as they relate to our theological discussion. For my part, I agree that the discussion is not transferrable to the societal questions of civil unions, rights of visitation, inheritance, etc. In fact, I think our Social Principles give us reason to fight on the side of fairness and equality for all, including those who self-identify as same-sex couples, and ask our government for equal rights in view of the law. Of course, these are not the questions before the church, nor the ones I’m addressing in this book. While these issues cause controversy in the society at large, The United Methodist Church is threatened by schism because of the call on the part of many to embrace same-sex practices as normative, to allow same-sex weddings as God-blessed and equal to traditional marriage, and to ordain ministers who self-identify as LGBTQ. I’m grateful you agree that the myths I’ve identified in chapter 6 “are not adequately theological categories to ground discussion within the church.” That is essentially the reaction I hoped to achieve.

    You have identified as an inconsistency my rejection of Adam’s false dilemma while arguing for a fork in the road on the question of same-sex practices. But you have unfairly moved from chapters 1-2 to chapter 3 to combine separate discussions. I’ll own a lack of clarity on my part. But essentially your criticism makes the point for me. I reject the false dilemma when combining all the controversial issues of Adam’s book (hermeneutics, science vs. religion, universalism vs. particularism, problem of evil, abortion, homosexuality, war, etc.). Lumping these together and assuming we should all seek gray between extremes on each debated issue is wrong because (1) such reasoning involves a fallacy of ambiguity or composition, and (2) it wrongly sets up a false dilemma. So much chapters 1-2. On the other hand, on the singular issue of same-sex practices, I argue there is no middle-ground, at least none that will get us out of our current conflict (chapter 3). I don’t think this is an inconsistency in my discussion so much as an honest appraisal of where we are in our church’s debates.

    I regret that my book seemed to speak disparagingly of the search for the middle way in general. Again, this is probably a lack of clarity on my part. I applaud your work and that of all who seek for reasonable solutions to difficult questions, whatever metaphor we choose (“gray” or “black-white” are just metaphors). And as I tried to say, the UMC already offers healthy and balanced solutions to many controverted theological questions. My book is trying to make the case that we arrived at those solutions through rigorous theological reasoning, and sometimes by taking firm positions that appeared black-&-white. We don’t always find preferable and progressive solutions by combining the best of the extremes, and sometimes such middle-way solutions aren’t possible. So in those cases, it’s a futile proposal.

    It’s a bit unfair to say a middle way seems preferable to me when I like them. Honestly, we all take theological positions, we read and study the question before us, consider the scriptural and traditional evidence, and make a decision. In our discussion, I would hope we can avoid what sounds like ad hominem charges that I am taking one solution over another because I like it. I hope in future you’ll give me and others credit for make hard decisions on these most difficult questions with love and care for the church. In fact, I may be making theological decisions I don’t like or prefer at all, but I’m driven to make those decisions by what I believe is irrefutable evidence from scripture.

    Along these lines, I also wonder about your assertion that I am not always “accurate” when deciding which are black-and-white and which are gray. Of course, there are times when this simple metaphor breaks down in the discussion. But on your specific example of just war theory, I agree with you that justifiable warfare is itself a via media, and have argued for that position myself (1 and 2 Samuel, NIV Application Commentary, 2003, 102-104). You and I can agree, I think, that justifiable warfare is a middle-ground between crusaderism and pacifism. But my discussion was analyzing Adam’s approach, which sets up just war versus pacifism as the two extremes. Then he simply takes the former as the best approach. I don’t think my critique of him on this question is inaccurate at all.

    As an aside, I don’t think two publications on Adam’s approach constitutes a “cottage industry” which sounds a bit condescending. As I said in the book, I haven’t really wanted to speak out on these topics, and I do so even now reluctantly. I have a primary calling as a UM professor of biblical studies. These discussions and modest publications (so far) are something of a distraction, and I’m certainly not trying to make money doing this.

    I’m not quite sure what to do with the oddity of my interaction with Adam. You’re right, of course, in your observation that it might be an odd interchange. But it almost sounds like an Old Testament scholar shouldn’t be stepping out into the popular arena to speak into the discussion with pastoral-theologians like Adam. I think I would merely have to disagree with that. I believe we in the academy are probably guilty of not doing this enough.

    This leads to what you consider the “most significant question” about my work. You object that I haven’t adequately interacted with authors who disagree with me, and have relied too much on people of “similar conviction.” Fair criticism, to a certain degree. In my defense, please remember that the whole book is devoted to critiquing someone who disagrees with me. And it isn’t that I didn’t consult folks on the other side of the debate; I did, to a limited degree. But this little book is written on a popular level specifically to persuade, and therefore I chose to point my readership to arguments and resources that I hope will lead the reader to agree with my conclusions. I wasn’t dependent upon the resources in the footnotes so much as I was directing the readership to more reading. In my scholarship on Old Testament topics, I certainly read everything, and cite all positions. But this is a completely different type of writing. I acknowledge you are right to a degree, but I’m not sure I would have written it differently.

    On this point, you might be interested to know that I am finishing an academic paper just now, in which I engage Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Luke Timothy Johnson on the significance of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) for our debates. In that case, I might be accused of citing too much only those who disagree with me.

    Finally, I’m sorry I have not convinced you. On the other hand, when I read your last paragraphs, I could only conclude it is because I was not clear enough. I agree with essentially everything in your last two paragraphs. My statement about needing more black-&-white and less gray was attempting to make the case for more theological reasoning in the church (note my subtitle), against an overreliance on sentimentality and experience. I agree that there is great mystery in Christian theology, and your appeal of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Eucharist are apt examples. I was trying to make the case that the church arrived at these great truths through rigorous examination of scripture and tradition, and at times the church simply had to choose between competing theories to arrive a doctrine. My book is arguing that on the debate that threatens to divide Methodism, we need precisely that kind of robust work, while acknowledging that we can’t all be right. Sometimes we stand at a fork in the road, and must decide.

    Thanks again for your review. I hope my responses here aren’t too defensive, but will add clarity to the discussions.

    Blessings, Bill

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