In light of recent postings about the genetic causes of homosexuality, I received a helpful note from David Powlison. In the book, Psychology and Christianity: Four Views (IVP, 2000), one of the contributors to that volume, David Myers (professor of psychology at Hope College), advocates a genetic basis for homosexuality. Powlison addresses that issue in the course of his response to Myers’s essay. With Powlison’s permission I’ll reprint below the section from his response, preceded by my restatement of some of the points in his correspondence.

Powlison’s perspective both broadens and nuances the discussion. For example, he discusses biological predisposition to homosexuality in the context of biological predispositions that we all have. He also digs a bit deeper into the motivational patterns for lesbianism.

He also speculates as to what sort of genetic ratio we might see if an “H-gene” is every discovered behind homosexuality (though the ratio, he says in personal correspondence, is probably stronger than anything that will be discovered). But genetic findings won’t be determinative–they will only slide a bell curve one direction or the other.

Powlison often talks about his three children, and that within 10 minutes of their birth he and his wife could see instinctive qualities that showed a continuity with what would prove to be their characteristic gifts and typical tendencies.

The point is that our various “tendencies” are part of a complex picture of the way in which all of us–not just homosexuals–work.

Here’s the relevant section from Powlison’s essay:

[Myers's] case study of homosexuality . . . illustrated how a scientist’s interpretive grid can introduce biases, propelling him to do hard thinking with frail data in order to contradict the mind of Christ. The facts that “prove” the legitimacy of homosexual orientation – chiefly the experience of ongoing struggle and cases of recidivism among those who attempt to change – equally “prove” the legitimacy of the historic Christian view that homosexuality is a typical sin from which God progressively redeems his children.

It is no surprise that people being redeemed out of homosexual lust still battle with temptations – and that some fall back. This is true of every pattern of sexual lust, not only homosexuality: a woman whose romantic-erotic fantasies are energized by reading romance novels and watching Tom Cruise in Top Gun; a man whose eyes rove for a voyeuristic glimpse down a blouse; a woman aroused by sadomasochistic activities and implements; a man obsessed with young girls. In each of these cases, lust has been patterned around a characteristic object; love will learn a different pattern in Christ’s lifelong school for reorienting the disoriented.

But there is no reason that an energetic, ideologically committed researcher could not find some data that might suggest that each of these sexual disorientations might arise from some biological predisposition. What if future research suggests that a particular personality characteristic, brain structure, hormone level, and perceptual style correlates to adult-to-child homosexuality? To bestiality? To heterosexual promiscuity? The last mentioned might even prove the strong case for the style of argument Myers makes. Would his argument generalize to these cases? He would have to say Yes, if the statistics seemed to tilt that way. If any of the above persons continue to struggle, or at some point slid back into old patterns, then it might mean that their particular morph of sexuality is innate and valid.

I’m not familiar with the studies of female homosexuality, but let me offer an “unscientific” observation arising from pastoral experience. I’ve known many lesbians driven more by “intimacy lusts” than by the unvarnished eroticism of many heterosexual or homosexual males. In fact, most of them had once been actively heterosexual, unsuccessfully looking for love from a man or men. They eventually found that other women were similarly wired to intimacy and companionship as the context for erotic feelings. An emotional closeness initially developed that was progressively sexualized during the process of redefining oneself as a lesbian. Such a process makes lucid sense on the Faith’s analysis of the outworking and inworking of sin. And I’ve seen the fiercely tender grace of God break in, progressively rewiring some of these women. Statistics might give definition to words such as “most,” “many,” and “some.” But statistics could neither confirm nor disconfirm the point of view whose plausibility is established theologically, anecdotally, and pastorally.

Myers’s biological data on homosexuality was admittedly rather dim light, not something that could drag a researcher along who was not otherwise willing. But let me offer another “unscientific” comment about data that might yet be discovered. When or if the “homosexuality gene” is discovered, I predict that the facts will be of the following kind. Among people without the H-gene, say 1.5% are oriented towards homosexuality, while among people with the H-gene, say 15% are oriented towards homosexuality. That would be a very significant statistical difference. But what would it prove? Only that characteristic temptations differ, that our bodies are one locus of temptation, that nothing is deterministic either way. It will be analogous to finding any other “gene for sin.” Those with the “worry gene,” the “anger gene,” the “addictive pleasure gene,” or the “kleptomania gene” will be prone to the respective sins. Such findings cause no problem for the Faith. They do trouble a Pelagian view that defines sin only as conscious “choice.” But sin is an unsearchable morass of disposition, drift, willful choice, unwitting impulse, obsession, compulsion, seeming happenstance, the devil’s appetite for souls, the world’s shaping influence, and God’s hardening of hard hearts. Of course biological factors are at work: we are embodied sinners and saints. That some people may be more prone to homosexuality is no more significant that that some may be more prone to worry.

Grace is similarly personalized. Some of God’s children find Phillipians 4:4-9 breathes particular comfort amid their besetting temptation to anxiety. Others find the Spirit pacifying their fierce temper and writing James 3:1-4:12 on their hearts. Still others find Proverbs 23:29-35 clobbers them about the madness of their heavy drinking, and that they grow wiser as they quit hanging out with old drinking buddies and spend time with new, wiser companions (Prov. 13:20). Still others experience a keen-edged joy in earning a pay check, paying for things they once stole, and sharing money with people in need (Eph 4:28). Others find that Christ’s comprehensive vision for rearranging everyone’s sexuality – in the whole Bible, not just “a half dozen verses” – reaches into their particular form of disorientation, teaching them to love people, not lust after them. One and all, former neurotics, rageaholics, drunks, thieves, and gays find that truth rings true and rings with hope.

Each of us deals with what Richard Lovelace termed “characteristic flesh” (Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p. 110). Repeat temptations and instances of recidivism do not change the rules. Strugglers with indwelling sin genuinely grow in grace, but often the generic issue remains on stage in some manner throughout a person’s lifetime. Abiding struggles are no reason to throw over the Christian life which is defined as growth amid struggle unto a future perfection (1 John 3:1-3). Those being redeemed out of homosexualized lust are examples of the rule, not exceptions granted license to give up the fight and rationalize their sin.

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15 thoughts on “Powlison on Biological Tendencies, Homosexual and Beyond”

  1. donsands says:

    Powlison is very balanced, and very good stuff to read.

    I have a brother in the Lord who was a homosexual, and repented of his sin.
    He says it is a powerful sin that rages within.
    The Holy Spirit is however, more powerful.

  2. MichaelJJ says:

    Ed Welch is equally balanced on this topic (and related issues) in his two books, “Blame It on the Brain” and “Additions – A Banquet in the Grave.”

  3. Clark says:

    I like the article and I like your blog too. Quite interesting.

  4. Nate says:

    Powlison makes some good points, but I’ll be more encouraged when he, and Welch, and others in the biblical counseling movement, can actually come out and say, as Mohler did, that the homosexual orientation is quite often not chosen. Mohler’s article was groundbreaking, in a sense, because he calls evangelicals to “stop confusing the issues of moral responsiblity and moral choice.” As a happily married man who attends Southern Seminary, and yet struggles with experiences of same-sex attraction, I applaud my president for his courage in challening evangelicals in such a manner.

    -Nate Collins

  5. jc says:

    Nate,
    Is there a link to what Mohler has said?

  6. Shane Trammel says:

    Nate,

    I have not read Mohler’s article yet but I will.

    Do you think you agree with him more because it may sit well with you or do you think the thought of Mohler’s are centered on biblical truths. I am sure the later is true for you.

    Do you think the thoughts you have although maybe not of you choosing, are sin none the less. What kind of direct Godly counsel have you received with regard to this strugle you have.

    I am really interested. I think we all strugle with things, so, I am not trying to focus on this issue specifically, but I am curious what kind of advise you have received.

    Shane

  7. shane trammel says:

    I think this is the correct link to the Mohler article that is mentioned.

    http://www.albertmohler.com/blog_read.php?id=891

  8. QNormal says:

    This is a fascinating, and very significant issue. This strengthens the doctrine of Grace. If there is a biological predisposition to sin (of any kind), then God’s Grace is what we desperately need. We have no choice but to sin, and only God can give us a new choice.

  9. shane says:

    How would proof of biological predispostion contribute any to the Doctrine of Grace. This doctrine stands on its own merits, regardless of any thing we may do scientifically to try and explain human behavior. I think it is fair to say that all ‘negative’ or sinful behavior is already understood to be out natural disposition because of our sin nature that comes from Adam.

    Yes we need grace, we can not be saved without it. But we can not use it as an excuse to sin or rationalize our sinful acts and desires. Deliverance is what is needed. In Christ we are new creatures, old things past away.

    We are told in scripture that through the work of the Holy Spirit we have the power to overcome sin.

    Now I am not talking about perfection here, so don’t try and go down that path.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Excellent piece!

  11. Nate says:

    Shane,

    I agree with Mohler for two reasons: it makes sense of my experience, and it is compatible with Scripture. I happen to believe that Scripture is more or less silent on the issue of sexual orientation. Obviously it refers to sexual behavior in general, and speaks against homosexual behavior in particular, but I see no verse that explicitly refers to homosexuality as an orientation. That doesn’t give us warrant, however, to make up our own thoughts about sexual orientation. It simply means that we need to be that much more careful when we venture where Scripture doesn’t explicitly lead. Some would suggest that this must mean that there must be no such thing as a homosexual orientation, and that it is a notion that has crept in from the ranks of secular psychology. My opinion is that this viewpoint cannot be sustained either biblically or experientially, which means that it has problems. I’ve met plenty of Christians (friends of mine) who swing too far in either direction, claiming on the one hand that a homosexual orientation is God-given because they don’t ever remember choosing it, and on the other hand rejecting out of hand the very notion of a homosexual orientation. Surely the balance is somewhere in the middle, whether we call it an orientation, a sexual “profile,” or whatever.

    Your question regarding specific advice I have received that has been helpful is a difficult one to answer, because in a very real sense, I never really received any advice. The first Christians I confided in regarding my personal battle were first and foremost eager to minister the love, grace, and acceptance of Christ to my wounded sexual identity. Perhaps they didn’t offer any advice because they knew they couldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. In fact, the Christians who were most helpful to me were the ones who welcomed me into their Christian community, struggles and all, and who committed to learn from me just as I was learning from them. One strike against the Christian community in their attempt to reach the homosexuality community is the seemingly prevalent attitude that they know enough about homosexuality to address it appropriately. It is not enough to know how to condemn homosexuality. We must press on and do the hard work of learning how to be agents of redemption within the lives of individual homosexuals. I believe that God is sovereign over the salvation of souls, but I find little reason to expect the Spirit to continually make up for our lack of effort in ministering the gospel in meaningful ways to homosexuals.

    But to answer your question (!), I think the most important thing I was continually reminded of was to not despair over the depravity within my soul. Depravity is like pregnancy… either you’re depraved or you’re not, it’s just that the depravity of some people is more evident than the depravity of others… and even then, looks can still be deceiving. I was continually encouraged to look to Christ, who nailed my depravity (orientation and all) to the cross, and by his life gave me His divine power which grants me “everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.”

    Thanks for the opportunity to have this discussion, and I hope my thoughts were beneficial. Blessings…

    Nate

  12. Prov 14:31 says:

    Nate,your truthful and full of heart response to Shane was so encouraging. I am sure Shane does not mean to have the “tone” he did in his words to you but it does show the “total depravity” we all have. I am always reminded in the Word that I am certainly more sinful than I could have ever imagined and yet more loved, more graced and given more mercy from God than I could ever dream true. It is all about Christ, all about His Word and all about Him in our salvation and in our sanctification. Blessing brother!!

  13. Nate says:

    Prov. 14:31,

    Thanks for the kind word. Homosexuality is such a dicey subject, and often it’s hard to respond to questions without getting a bit edgy. Blessings in your ministry…

    -Nate

  14. J. K. Jones says:

    This is a great post on a relevant topic.

    As an old-fashioned guy, I do not see how one can sin without making a moral choice. If there is no act of the will, there is no choice and hence no sin. We always chose according to our greatest desires (the greatest inclination of our heart), and we are therefore always responsible for our chosen actions, whether our actions are sinful or commendable. If we chose to do what we want, we are responsible.

    That is much different than saying that there is no choice in orientation. In a real sense, all of us have a genetic pre-disposition to sin (Romans 5:12-20). Why would it be an issue for debate if an individual person was pre-disposed toward one sin or another? It seems to me we are all in the same boat.

    J. K.

  15. Shane Trammel says:

    I just posted the following Rowan Williams: gay relationships ‘comparable to marriage’ on my blog and was looking for some good links to include in it. As I was searching, I found myself back at this discussion.

    Now that I am back an have had time to read the thread again, I want to say something to Nate.

    Nate: Thank you for your transparency here. And to a point from one of those commenting here, I did not intentionally write with a harsh tone. Like many, I am a work in progress and I know I need to balance everything with the love of Christ. So, thank you brother again for all you have contributed to this conversation.

    In Christ love,

    Shane

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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