Clarifying Robert Gagnon’s Tortured Logic

Timothy Kincaid

August 2nd, 2008

gagnon.jpgFirst a little background

The Presbyterian Church (USA), like many mainline churches, struggles with its approach to gay and lesbian parishioners. The denomination, on a whole, is fairly welcoming of gay and lesbian Christians but is sharply divided about allowing them to have positions of leadership.

The most vocal activist against gay persons in the church is Robert Gagnon, Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Gagnon has written extensively – and creatively – about how Scripture supports his theological presumptions about gay persons.

Earlier this year the church’s General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission ruled that local ordaining bodies must adhere to standards of fidelity and chastity in considering ordination thereby banning ordination of gay persons.

But in June the General Assembly met and one of the contentious issues addressed was homosexual ordination. Those who support full inclusion of gay persons in the life of the church won a number of issues including a deletion of the language that bans gay clergy. And, because a change in language requires ratification of the presbyteries, in the meanwhile the Assembly provided a reinterpretation of a provision of the Book of Order dealing with ordination.

Gagnon, fresh off the loss, declared that the intention and direction of the General Assembly could be ignored. Relying on a Christian Post article that reported his contention, I interpreted Gagnon’s argument as follows:

Not liking the vote at the General Assembly, Gagnon has decided that it doesn’t really have to be recognized. Because the vote guides ordaining bodies rather than the judicial commission directly, Gagnon thinks he’s found a loophole.

… Gagnon thinks that the church’s judicial commission can reverse the decision of the General Assembly.

Gagnon’s Response

Dr. Gagnon did not agree with my assessment of his position and wrote a rebuttal on his website (pdf) entitled, Is Box Turtle Kinkaid Logic-Challenged?

Amusing, Gagnon misspells my name, refers to our site as “homosexualist”, babbles a bit about box turtles, and rather oddly discusses my “obsessive efforts to promote [my] homosexual behavior.” But eventually he gets around to the point of his piece, declaring that I misunderstand his point.

Gagnon clarifies:

Kinkaid characterizes my view as “tortured” because, he alleges, I believe that the “vote [by the General Assembly] guides ordaining bodies rather than the judicial commission directly.” This is not my argument but Kinkaid’s own distorted view of my argument.

My point is rather that, contrary to the desire of its supporters, the precise wording of the 2008 authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 does not actually state that governing bodies have the right to ordain homosexually active candidates. [emphasis in the original]

I don’t wish to misstate Gagnon’s argument. I was incorrect in my understanding that his loophole was in the body addressed. His loophole is in the specifics of wording.

In a very exacting sense, Gagnon is correct. The words “homosexually active candidates” appear no where in Advisory Opinion # 18 Discernment in Examining Bodies – G-6.0108 (pdf).

But the heart of the opinion is found in its closing paragraph:

This means that ordaining bodies should be given the “benefit of the doubt” in making individual judgments regarding fitness for office. Correspondingly, it means that ordaining bodies are urged to not “push the limits” in making those determinations. While explicitly recognizing the right of review, the commissioners to the 217th General Assembly urged the church to exercise great restraint in utilizing that right, reserving its use to clear cases of abuse of authority by ordaining bodies. We remind the church that it is the duty of both individual Christians and Christian societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each another (G-1.0305). We pray that all ordaining bodies will exercise restraint and Christian charity.

Gagnon knows full well the intention of the Assembly. He knows that it was the intent of the church to instruct its Permanent Judicial Commission exercise great restraint in meddling in the ordination decisions of local bodies. And it was the intent of the church to advise those bodies to be charitable in considering the feelings of those who find homosexuality contrary to Christian faith.

Taken in the context of the debate and of the affirmative vote on revision to the Book of Order, Gagnon knows that it was the intention of the General Assembly to allow those local bodies who wish to ordain gay or lesbian Presbyterians the freedom to do so, provided that they do so with Christian grace and humility.

None of this matters to Gagnon.

Translating the opinion as though the Assembly had not spoken, he blathers on about “constitutional governance” and “churchwide essentials” and “precise wording of the text”. He contends that it is not the intention of the Assembly that matters, but “text of the A.I. itself, not the rationale accompanying it.”

So I am not arguing, as Kincaid confusedly claims, that the General Assembly authoritative interpretation “guides ordaining bodies rather than the judicial commission directly” but rather that:

1. The General Assembly approved only the actual text of the authoritative interpretation and not its accompanying rationale.

2. In this case the authors of the authoritative interpretation failed to word their overture in such a way as to accomplish their goal of allowing ordination of homosexually active candidates.

3. Therefore, the PCUSA high court has a right to continue to rule, and indeed should rule, as it did in its 2008 Bush decision; namely, that “it would be an obstruction of constitutional governance to permit examining bodies to ignore or waive a specific standard that has been adopted by the whole church, such as the ‘fidelity and chastity’ portion of G-6.0106b, or any other similarly specific provision.”

And this is the problem that I have with so many religious anti-gays. They care little about the spirit of the Gospel and instead look for jots and tittles. They quickly discard grace and replace it with legalism.

But regardless of Gagnon’s theology, it is his logic that I am challenging here. And having read his exposition, clarification, and argument, I return to my original conclusion: Robert Gagnon’s logic is excruciatingly tortured.

Gagnon’s position is that language technicalities are the means by which the court should ignore the intention of the Assembly.

His contention is the equivalent of a child that says, “I know Mom said to stop hitting you, but she didn’t write it down”. And just as a child finds that parents have little patience with obstinate children who look for loopholes in their parents’ wording, I think the Permanent Judicial Commission is unlikely to take shelter under the “but you didn’t use the word homosexual” defense.

UPDATE: Dr. Gagnon has corrected the spelling of my name on his site.


Dr. Gagnon has responded with a 15 page rant about Why Box Turtle Kincaid Continues to Be Logic-Challenged and Now Also Principle-Challenged. Life is a little crazy right now and my real job is demanding my focus (16 hour day yesterday) but when I have time to provide Gagnon’s article the attention it requires, I’ll address his concerns.

At the offset it appears I quoted the wrong opinion (2006 rather than 2008). Obviously, this is quite embarassing. However, it does not change my conclusions about Gagnon’s logic process. If anything, Gagnon is continuing to reaveal a very wacky way of thinking. It’s too early to give a good analysis, but he seems be arguing that the other Presbyterians were confused and didn’t know how they were voting. (more on that later)

The more I read from Gagnon, the less I respect him. There are plenty of theologians with whom I may disagree on various issues but for whom i have respect for the logic, consistency, and level-headedness of their approach. But Gagnon’s wild presumptions, obsessive desire to ascribe to others an endorsement of views they have not expressed, peculiar logic, jargonistic language, personal insults, and general hostility make him seem much more a contemporary of Peter LaBarbera or Matt Barber (he does compare himself to these individuals).

Gagnon also seems have whipped out something called Box Turtle Kincaid Peddles Distorted Orthodoxy Test While Promoting Immorality, parts 1 and 2. I don’t have time to read it right now, but I’m sure it’s a doozy. It adds up to 24 pages.

But fear not. I will get to this. It’s just too full of hyperbole, frothing indignation, laughable proclamations and self importance that I just won’t be able to resist a proper treatment (when work lets me).

See also:
Gagnon Rants On And On
My Very Favorite Gagnonism
Robert Gagnon and the Grand Box Turtle Whirl of Immorality
Gagnon Revisited
Clarifying Robert Gagnon’s Tortured Logic
Gagnon Employs Tortured Logic
Robert Gagnon’s Unorthodox Approach to Doctrine


August 2nd, 2008

My dear friend you are apparently not a Presbyterian. Gagnon and his anti-gay gang will prevail in this matter as they have for over 25 years (i.e. the measure will never be approved by the required majority of prebyteries.) Call it legalism, hypocrisy, graceless, or whatever you like but it exists in EVERY religion and EVERY denomination for the purpose of either resisting change or forcing change. Loopholes and donors matter a whole lot more than anybody expects. Those who wish to see gay ordination in the PCUSA are simply going to have to wait for a generation of lawkeepers to lose their ground, or perhaps, in the course of due time, be put under it.


August 2nd, 2008

The part I don’t quite get is the quasi-obligatory putdown preamble. I’ll guess that there are donors, colleagues, or the dean of the seminary that make this sort of thing as good as mandatory.


August 2nd, 2008

It would be a breath of fresh air if people like Gagnon would just come out and say “I hate gay people” instead of covering it up with religious legalism and dogma. But sadly that won’t happen any time soon.


August 3rd, 2008

The difference between a moralist and a legalist is that the former believes Jesus is a trial court judge whereas the latter believes Jesus is an appellate court judge. Grace is not law, unless a theologian says it is. Ipsissima verba, jure humano.

Ben in Oakland

August 3rd, 2008

The fault, my dear buffy, lies in our stars. well, actually, theirs.

I no longer believe that all of this comes from sincere religious belief, though I wouldn’t, unless i were a fundamentalist, attribute it to pure evil and the debbil workin’ on us.

Rather, the prejudice is there, it is justified by religious belief, but plain old psychology says that people like gagnon stil need to feel good aobut themselves. So, they justify and rationalize everything they do and say to validate their views that they are just fighting evil and debbil.

After all, how many people can say iwth a straight face: I’m a bigot and proud of it!


August 7th, 2008

I no longer believe that all of this comes from sincere religious belief, though I wouldn’t, unless I were a fundamentalist, attribute it to pure evil and the debbil workin’ on us.

I’ve been reading some paleocon blogs myself lately, and I think you’re right.

I think there’s a detached attitude to truth and sincerity that forms over time. I think it begins when willpower gets used to overcome doubts: eventually the whole set of beliefs is held by willpower (desire coupled to diminished cognitive analysis) rather than conscience.

That schizophrenic condition then starts working its way into behavior and other realms of life: lying becomes okay, because it serves the proper end of maintaining the eminence of the body of beliefs.


September 27th, 2008

my name is Thejes kumar.
i want to know some doubts about bible.
my question is:

PLEASE answer my questions..

Priya Lynn

September 27th, 2008

No such places Thejes, they’re imaginary.

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