Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Engaging the Text: Paul's Theology in Romans

Ok, I've discovered that if I don't try to do this simply, I'm going to just continue to sit here and gape at the difficult questions that will be dredged up by a discussion of the Romans passage. So here we go. Let's start with a snippet of the text in question, beginning in Romans 1:18:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment?

I call this a snippet because it's just a part of Paul's larger discussion of the Jews and Gentiles in Romans.

Now it's fairly obvious which part of this text lights up the sin-o-meter (and, not incidentally, the sex-o-meter):

God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

As we read this text within our discussion, I think that we need to separate the questions that need answering.

The first question is, how does this comment fit into Paul's argument in Romans? Given the surrounding context and what we know about Paul (accepting at face value that this letter, and other letters, were actually written by Paul), what did he mean to communicate when he wrote the previous paragraph? What did he not mean to communicate?

The second question is, what are the theological implications of this statement? In other words, does it teach us anything about God? And if so, what?

The third question is, what are the moral implications of this statement? Once we understand what Paul meant, and what it tells us about God, how do we apply it to ourselves? Should this passage affect our behavior? And if so, how?


Darius said...

Maybe this is simplistic, but given the surrounding context, homosexuality seems lumped in with a list that St. Paul might have called, "More Than a Few of My Least Favorite Things..."

"The second question is, what are the theological implications of this statement?" - I have trouble connecting anybody's specific points of view on issues of the day, whether now or in the first century, with God's view on the issues of the day. I don't see the Bible as "God's Book of Micromanagement."

"The third question is, what are the moral implications of this statement?" - Returning to the specific issues theme, The New Testament just isn't a thoroughgoing treatise on homosexuality, despite the fact that we can extract a few verses that condemn it. We can mine the text for verses supporting our opinions, but to me it seems disingenuous.

So with issues like homosexuality, birth control, pacificsm, the status of women in society, etc. etc., I think there's no escape from having to use the hearts and minds God gave us.

Things end up shaking out that way anyway. I would bet that in the past, the church cited scripture in support of the sun going around the earth, slavery, the crusades, and any number of other things we've since thunk our way through...

scoots said...

As I understand Romans, Paul uses 1:18 thru 3:20 to establish that all of humanity –– both Jew and Gentile –– stands sinful and helpless before God. The idea is that humans are simply unable to be righteous on their own, which sets up Paul's proclamation of justification of both Jew and Gentile through faith (3:30).

Roughly speaking, the section consists of three moves.

The first move (which Matt has quoted) describes the thorough sinfulness of Gentiles. The idea is probably to catch the Jews in the audience thinking, "Yeah, those Gentiles really are awful."

But Paul goes on, in his second move (2:1ff), to say that those standing in judgment (perhaps Jews) are sinful as well. Finally, in a third move, (3:9ff) Paul throws out a litany of verses claiming that all of humanity is helplessly sinful.

So I would argue that Paul wants to paint the most negative picture possible of the Gentiles. What he describes in 1:18-32, then, is a portrait of total depravity. It starts with an indefensible refusal to acknowledge God (1:21), manifested in idolatry. This leads to a corrupting of their hearts and their reason (1:21), because of which God gives them over to a corrupting of their bodies (1:24). Paul concludes by describing perhaps every kind of wickedness he can think of (1:29-30).

So one way to read it is that Paul wants to show how humans' corruption of their own minds (by refusing God) leads God to hand them over to the corruption of their bodies (through controlling desires).

So the homosexual sex Paul describes would be indicative of their corruption of their bodies, which then leads them into "every kind of wickedness."

No time to write more now; but hopefully this can be a jumping-off point for how we might interpret the passage in the context of Romans.

homo escapeons said...

Oy! Enough with the farshlugginer gaybashing! Since Saul of Tarsus was an educated Jew his upbringing and training reflects his disdain for the 'that is so gay' Romans and their la-di-da orgiastic studio 54 lifestyles. Bloody Romans(Life of Brian) stole everything from the Greeks anyway.

The austere homophobia of all of the Desert Trbal Monotheists stands in stark contrast to the 'lighten up/everything is beautiful' creations of the Mediterranean and Indian.

Unlike Mr. Falwel and his ilk I tend to believe that homosexuality is not exactly a curable disease like the measles. Oddly enough I believe that there are genetic implications governing sexual orientation. Weird eh?

Regardless, dogmaholics cannot resist searching for 101 reasons to do as I say and not as I do.

scoots said...

Noting the playfulness in homo escapeons' post, I don't want to sound overly-serious. But, I would like to suggest a couple of things.

First, my aim was to trace Paul's argument, not claim how we should apply it today (though I may post on that later). So I would suggest that to call my post "gay-bashing" is to misread what I was doing. Of course, maybe h.e. just wants Paul to be quiet.

Which brings me to my second point. Once we've understood him, we may well decide that Paul was wrong, or right, or that he was talking about something different than modern homosexuality.

But even for readers who aren't Christians, to blow off a text that hundreds of millions of people call Scripture simply because one thinks it's silly or wrong . . . well, in my opinion, that's approximately what Americans have done with the Koran, and it hasn't done much to help anyone.

Matthew said...

Darius -

Whew. I didn't expect for you to hit all three at once. =)

This bit, I think, is something to remember later:

[The New Testament just isn't a thoroughgoing treatise on homosexuality, despite the fact that we can extract a few verses that condemn it.]

Scoots -

Gracias for the summary. I hope you don't mind if I insert as part of the next post. (giving you full attribution, of course.) =)

H.E. -

I think Paul's background will definitely figure into the discussion. Thanks for commenting.

And thanks for teaching me a new yiddish word. Can't ever know too many of those.

Anybody else want to say anything before we start looking at the questions in greater detail?

Little Light said...

I admit I haven't read enough of your blog to post appropriately, but isn't the Bible's admonition against homosexual acts based on the abuse of one man over another as in a slave or a young boy? Not the action of two adults of free will? I thought the Bible doesn't actually address homosexuality per se.

Matthew said...

Little Light-
Thanks for your comment. In previous posts, we've looked at some of the other passages that may refer to homosexual relationships. These posts can be found in the right-hand sidebar under the heading "Homosexuality: Examining the Text".

ConcernedEngineer said...

Paul was definately right. He was writing under the inspiration of God - and I'm using the word inspiration in the theological sense. I'm not suggesting that he saw a cool sunset and then wrote Romans.

I recently realized the etymology of the word faggot. Previously, I had not referred to gays as fags, because it seemed rude. But now, understanding the etymology of the word, it is entirely theologically accurate to say that unless gays repent and turn to Jesus Christ, they are faggots.

With malice toward none.

Matthew said...

"With malice toward none."

I find that unlikely.

ConcernedEngineer said...

Do you think I'm concerned about the opinions of men? If I were, then I wouldn't post much of what I do. So, clearly, I care not what other people think of me. So, if I had malice toward people, wouldn't I publicly proclaim it? Why would I cover it up or lie about it? Do you think I'm afraid that liberals will label me as a bigot or a hater? I couldn't care less if they did.

I have absolutely no reason to lie, because I have absolutely no concern what anyone thinks of me.

With malice toward none.

Matthew said...

Really, CE, I hope you haven't concluded that it's a good idea to go around calling gay men "faggots".

The word "nigger" comes from the word for "black", so while you might could find some sort of odd etymological justification for calling a black person "nigger", the fact remains that when a white person calls a black person "nigger", the word is a flat insult, a plain expression of condescension and hate.

The same is true of "fag".

ConcernedEngineer said...

It is not a sin to be black.
It is a sin to be homosexual. I don't think it is a good idea to let the godless dictate our vocabulary. But that's exactly what they do. They condemn people for being "bigoted." If they are going to call people out for bad behavior, it ought to be because people violate the sanctity of God's law, not because they violate the supposed "sanctity" of what secular humanists deem "unacceptable."

It is time for those who love God to recognize the sanctity of God's law. If we are indignant about anything, and if we believe that our indignation is justified, we ought to be able to point out the Biblical reasons for our indignation.

In other words, we have to repent for calling people out on "sexism" (just for an example). Rather, we should be calling people out on envy, lust for power, pride, arrogance, etc. You might say, "Well, the sexist is envious, lusting for power, and is arrogantly proud." Well, it depends on how the word sexism is defined and how it is applied. If a man has a Biblical view of husbandry, he might be accused of sexism and bigotry. And depending on how those words are defined, that accusation might be correct. But the real questions need to be this: Has this person violated the sanctity of God's law (or the spirit of God's law)?

See, our society says that if you don't embrace the narrow liberal vision of "multiculturalism, diversity, and tolerance" (as defined by godless people), then you are a sexist, a bigot, a racist, or something worse. Depending on how those words are defined, I might have to plead guilty to such charges - and that proudly.

The people of God need to take language back.

ConcernedEngineer said...

Really, CE, I hope you haven't concluded that it's a good idea to go around calling gay men "faggots".

What do you call a person who steals?

A thief.

What do you call a person who has sex with another man's wife?

An adulterer.

What do you call a man who murders another man?

A murderer.

What do you call a man who lies?

A liar.

What should we call a man who commits homosexual sin proudly?

See... we are indignant toward murderers, liars, thieves, and adulterers. But we say that gays should be proud of their homosexuality. This is the manifestation of depravity.

Matthew said...

I have a difficult time understanding you to be saying anything other than "we should abandon civil discourse and insult people who we perceive to be doing something bad."

Of course, you could be saying something very insightful, and I'm just missing it.

Now, just to make sure that we're actually having a discussion here and I'm not just listening to you preach a sermon: is it possible that you could be wrong about the sinfulness of homoeroticism?

ConcernedEngineer said...

Is it possible that you could be wrong that "calling a person a 'nigger' is a flat insult"?

I suggest you go reread Numbers 16.

Can you picture Matthew in Korah's band of 250? "Hey Moses, is it possible that you're wrong and Korah is right?"

Matthew said...

"Is it possible that you could be wrong that "calling a person a 'nigger' is a flat insult?"

Absolutely. I'm only human. I could be wrong.

I'll have to assume from your response that you are unwilling to admit your own limited vision, and that you are preaching a sermon rather discussing a proposition. This blog is for discussion. Any of your future comments on this topic will be deleted.

For further explanation, please re-read the one rule of this blog, here.

ConcernedEngineer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.