Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Engaging the Text: What Romans 1 Says About God

In the previous post, I asked what the Romans passage says about the nature and preferences of God. While we did talk about the issue a bit, I don't think we really came down on this question. So I'm going to answer it. Obviously, much more about this passage has been said elsewhere, and my arguments are far from perfect. Feel free to disagree.

I think the Romans passage says this, and not much more, about God:

Because the Gentile culture was rebellious, God allowed it to become even more rebellious and corrupt.

To review, here's the passage in question:

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.

First, let's observe that throughout this bit of Romans, Paul is talking about groups of people. In other words, the things that he says are about God's interaction with cultures -- Jewish and Gentile --not about God's interaction with Peter and Mary. For example, in a passage that's particularly troublesome for free-will theists, Paul speculates that God has created some vessels "for destruction". While this passage has been used to argue for predestination (basically, the idea that God has planned out precisely who will go to heaven and who won't), this is probably not what Paul intends. Instead, Paul is probably trying to figure out why the Jews, as a people, won't accept Jesus as the messiah. So any theological conclusions drawn from this argument have to be drawn about God's interaction with cultures, not God's interaction with individuals.

Second, let's observe that Paul's intent in this passage is diagnostic, and not morally prescriptive. He's trying to investigate and describe what's wrong with humanity, not prescribe a moral code that will fix the problem. Particularly telling is the order of events that Paul describes: First the pagans turned away from God, and as a result, God allowed them to slide into "unnatural" behavior. As Richard B. Hays writes*:

Homosexual activity will not incur God's punishment: it is its own punishment, an "anti-reward." Paul here simply echoes a traditional Jewish idea. The Wisdom of Solomon, an intertestamental writing that has surely influenced Paul's thinking in Romans 1, puts it like this: "Therefore those who in folly of life lived unrighteously [God] tormented through their own abominations" (Wisd. Sol. 12:1).

Paul does muddle the issue a bit by saying that men who commit indecent acts with other men "received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion". The use of the word "penalty" would seem to suggest that the indecent acts themselves are worthy of punishment. But I suspect the confusion here is just indicative of our larger confusion about free will, determinism, or whatever it is that motivates our behavior. When we step back to view Paul's whole argument, we can easily see that it is not setting out to establish a moral code. Instead, it assumes a moral code and attempts to show how the rejection of God has lead people to reject the code.

Third, although we have labeled Paul's argument in Romans "theological", this section is much more about people than it is about God. Notice that God's only action in this passage is actually inaction, as God "allows" or "gives people over" to various behaviors. In retrospect, It may have been a mistake for me to expect any firm statements about God's actions and preferences to come out of this passage in Romans.

Consequently, I think that it is problematic to portray this passage as a clear communication of what God thinks about homosexual behavior. We might be justified in doing so if we had more support from other scriptures, but as we have seen in previous posts, that support is flimsy at best. The strongest statement about homosexuality that we might be able to affirm is the narrower statement: "God disapproves of homosexual lust", but even this statement would get most of its support from other scriptures about how God views lust, homosexual or otherwise.

The only argument I can see for a broader statement would come from the adjective "unnatural", but to support such an argument one would have to show first that homoerotic behavior is indeed unnatural, and second that Paul is implying something true about God: namely, that God disapproves of all unnatural behavior. Based on Scott's earlier comments regarding the moral neutrality of our natural inclinations, I think such an argument would be very difficult to defend.

Instead, I think it's best to interpret this passage fairly conservatively: to read it as simply saying that God allowed the rebellious Gentile culture to degrade into wicked behavior. Perhaps we can even extend this as a way of understanding past and current events: if people reject the goodness of God, they slide downward into wickedness. But we are in no way obligated to affirm that all homoerotic behavior is contrary to the will of God, particularly when that behavior occurs in a committed, loving relationship.

Finally, I think it's worthwhile to note that as we have approached Paul's theology, we have been assuming that everything he says about God must be true. As a few of us have been discussing on Scott's blog (and also, here, and perpetually, on Darius's blog), this assumption is by no means universal, and it may not even be correct. If God allowed some simple numerical errors and other contradictions into the Bible, isn't it possible that there might be some incomplete or imperfect theology in there as well? Sure, it may be scary to suppose that some of the things that the Bible says about God are wrong, but as Darius suggests in earlier comments, perhaps we would be best served by admitting what seem to be errors in the text, and trusting the Holy Spirit's ability to use even this flawed text to lead us to a better understanding of God.

So. I think we're about done here. Interest on this topic seems to be waning a bit, and we're coming to the last of my original questions about the Romans passage, which was, what are the moral implications of this statement?

Feel free to discuss the theology question, and then we'll finish up in the next post.

* "Awaiting the Redemption of our Bodies", in Homosexuality in the Church, Both Sides of the Debate. Jeffrey S. Siker, ed.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Happy 6-6-6!

Just wanted to wish you all a happy 6/6/6.

If you're worried about bad things happening today, you might feel a little bit better if I let you in on a little DaVinci-code type secret: The number of the beast is really 616, and we got through January just fine.

As an interesting side note, I think this papyrus was found after Southern Hills church of Christ changed their address from 666 Buffalo Gap Rd. Oh, the waste of letterhead!