Saturday, December 14, 2013


I recently was forwarded an article entitled "Romans 1:26-27:  A Clobber PassageThat Should Lose its Wallop" by Don M. Barrows, 10/1/2013.  In this article the author tells us that when he is debating with someone who quotes Romans 1:26-27, as proof that the Bible condemns homosexuality, he comments, "What do you make of the vocative at the beginning of Romans 2?"

The author admits that the question is pretentious, but is effective, especially against those who are "eager to wield the Bible as an authoritative weapon" and especially "those who have read it only in translation."

Well, I have to admit that I felt it was pretentious, even pompous, the sort of trick that someone with a knowledge of Greek (no matter how little) would use to show his readers or hearers how smart he is, and to tell them to submit to his authority.  I've heard preachers and debaters do this many times:  throw out a few Greek words, and even better, references to Greek grammar which make little if any sense to the uneducated.  (I confess that I've even done it myself a few times.)

[By the way any reader of an English translation would understand that Paul was speaking directly to the person referred to as "O Man."  One need not be a grammarian to understand the address or the use of the vocative or the second person, though he might not understand the labels.  The English does just fine.]

After reading the challenge at the beginning of the article, I immediately scrolled down to the blurb giving us the author's qualifications.  Among other things, he's "a former Christian fundamentalist" who is "completing his Ph.D. in classical studies."

So, as one who has a bit of working knowledge of the Greek New Testament, I felt I needed to say a few things about Dr. Burrows' argument.  I feel that I may be qualified for this task as one who has been reading the Bible "in translation" for nearly 60 years and as one who has been reading and studying it in the original languages for 40 years.  I, however, only have a Master's degree in theology with a major in New Testament.  I also am, as he is, "a former Christian fundamentalist," though I still consider myself an evangelical and I like to think of myself as a fundamentalist in recovery.

The argument of the article is that Romans 1:18-32, with its offending verses (26, 27) about homosexuality is not original with Paul, but rather "boilerplate"; Paul is here simply presenting standard "Hellenistic Jewish material" attacking Gentiles.  We're told it "does not represent Paul's views and doesn't fit well here as part of Paul's argument, except as some sort of lead-in to his address to his (self-righteous Jewish?) readers in chapter 2, whom he addresses in the vocative case.

I would concur with Dr. Burrows that what Paul is saying in Romans 1:18-32 would be agreeable to a Hellenistic Jew of his day, and I suppose that similar thoughts can be found in contemporary Jewish writings.  But I can't see where Paul in any way disagrees with these thoughts.

Paul and other New Testament writers frequently used the "straw man" tactic, putting words in the mouths of their readers, so that they could refute thinking with which they disagreed.  But usually they give us some indication that they are doing so, often using "but" or some other adversative ("All things are lawful to me, but not all things are profitable" - 1 Corinthians 6:12).  There is no adversative, however, at either end of Romans 1:18-32.  In fact, Paul introduces the section with "for" (gar), which is a conjunction used to indicate cause.

Paul tells his readers earlier in chapter 1, that he is "eager to preach the gospel in Rome" (1:15).  This statement is followed by a series of statements, each introduced by the word "for" (gar).
          "For I am not ashamed of the gospel," (verse 16a)
          "for it is God's power ... " (verse 16b)
          "for God's righteousness is revealed in it ... " (verse 17)
          "for God's anger is revealed from heaven ... " (verse 18)

There is a smooth flow of argument here.  He continues with a "because" (dioti) and a "for" (verse 20) and a "because" (verse 21).

And then we come to 2:1, the passage that has that scary "vocative."  However, it does not begin with the vocative, but with a "therefore" (dio), an inferential conjunction.  The implication would be something like, "what I just said in the previous applies to you" (the person addressed in the vocative).

We should notice that Paul uses the word translated "without excuse" (anapologetos) in both 1:20 and in 2:1.  If I may paraphrase, "these heathen are without excuse for their behavior, and you 'O Man' are also without excuse," because as Paul says, " ... you who judge do the same things!" (2:1b)

Dr. Burrows points to Paul's "similar conclusion" in Romans 14:13, in which he finds similarities to 2:1.  I'll agree that there is a similarity, but 14:13 is near the close of Paul's argument, while 2:1 is near the beginning.  Romans 14:13 is not in the vocative case, but in the subjunctive mood.  It is an exhortation, which includes Paul himself ("let us").  And there's a lot of argument in between.

Paul's argument in the first chapters of Romans is a blanket condemnation of the whole human race, Jew and Gentile.  He wants all to recognize their need so that they can freely receive God's free gift of His righteousness in Christ.  He states in 3:9:

"When then; do we (Jews) excel?  Not at all!  For we have previously accused (proaitiaomai) both Jews and Greeks to be under sin."

But it is in 1:18-32 that Paul had "previously accused" the Gentiles!  If we omit this passage from his argument than he has not accused the Gentiles as he claims.  1:18-32 is a necessary part of his argument.

So I suspect that not only would most of Paul's 21st century English readers see 1:26 and 27 as a condemnation of homosexual behavior, but his first century Greek readers would as well.

But I do also believe that this passage (1:26, 27) is not meant to be a "clobber passage."  A few points need to be made:
·       First, Paul speaks of homosexual sex as an "exchange," as an act that is "contrary to nature."  As such it is used as an illustration or metaphor for man's "exchange" of the revelation of God in nature for something else - idolatry.  The word "exchanged" is used in this way in verses 23 and 25.
·       Homosexual acts are not singled out as the most degraded acts, as many of my conservative friends seem to believe.  They are seen as only one manner of behavior that results from God's giving humankind over to the consequences of their rejection of Him!  See the phrase "God gave them over" in verses 24, 26 and 28.
·       The list of condemned behaviors does not include sexual acts only; there are enough listed here to hit every one of us:  lust, impurity, dishonoring of bodies, a debased mind, greed, envy, murder, gossip, slander, etc., etc.  We all find ourselves here!  We are all "without excuse."

Paul does not give this list in order to condemn any one particular group of sinners, but to point out that we "all have sinned and are falling short of God's glory" (3:23).

And he tells us this to show us our need for a right relationship with God through simple faith in Christ.  " ... even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who believe; for there is no distinction" (3:22).

And I agree, that "Paul goes on to offer advice on healing the rifts between Jew and Gentile," as he finally attempts in chapters 14 and 15.  But this is only after his readers have recognized their needs for faith and commitment, which occupies much of Paul's argument in the intervening chapters.

I suppose the above thoughts will not be satisfactory to those on either side of the issue of homosexuality.  I make no apologies.


Bob McCollum said...

Hey, Bill,

You go for what seems like weeks with no post and then three in a row. All are interesting and deserve comment, but I'd better reread each of them carefully before putting my foot in my mouth.

Btw, Judy and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary last month. We know you and Uni are headed toward 60.

The march of time is inexorable, ain't it? J and I have now decided to stop talking about divorce and to tough it out till the end.

Hope you and all you love are fine and happy.


Trent said...

It makes sense to me.

Daniel Lee said...

My central concern with your repeating/reaffirming a traditionalist reading of these passages mainly involves the complete omission of what we now know from careful, best practice human sciences about people who happen not to be heterosexual. I cannot even simplistically summarize all that six to seven decades of published empirical hypothesis testing, but perhaps I can at least point in the direction where the science is.

Basically, we can more or less boil down all or most of the legacy negatives about non-straight folks, so that we repeatedly end up with three dominant themes. People who are not straight, i.e., sexual orientation variant folks are: 1) dirty, plus 2) damaged, plus 3) pose some kind of risk or danger, to themselves, to others, or to both self and others.

Simply put, none of these three major negative clusters of ideas or belief stands up to best practices of empirical hypothesis testing. Variant folks can be just as good, just as bad, and even far better in daily life than everybody and anybody else might happen to be.

While of course, a particular religious or faith or cultural community has its own leeway to wrestle with and sort out its own legacies and received wisdoms about how to live life, any wider public square consideration and commentary must sooner or later grapple honestly with the surprise sea change in how we now construe people who are bisexual or predominantly same sex oriented. Leaving out the human science work only isolates and distances the 'insider' religious or faith community discernments. I suspect this gap will increase over time as law, public policy, and everyday life hew more to what we know empirically.

Bill Ball said...

Daniel: Thank you. I appreciate your comments and have little problem with them. My concern was with what I saw as incorrect exegesis of the passages. We who regard the Scriptures as inspired and authoritative struggle with much of the matter you brought up. However this does not allow us to attempt to bring them into agreement with our own opinions or desires.

Anonymous said...

"We who regard the Scriptures as inspired and authoritative struggle with much of the matter you brought up."

Then perhaps it's time to re-examine that premise? Jesus said HE was the word of God, not words on paper. Every single word in the bible was written by fallible humans. The books that were designated as canon were selected by fallible humans. The idea that they are authoritative is baseless...on whose "authority"?

Jesus' message was clear, regardless of author, regardless of translation. Love God. Love others. Everything else hangs on these two. Concise, comprehensible, but profound and challenging. People go to great lengths to sidestep the simplicity of the unambiguous teachings he bestowed upon us in his short time in ministry.

Taking any fallible human's opinions and analyzing them to death in order to justify something that Christ himself never even bothered to address is fruitless at best, and actively harmful at worst. It certainly has no place in the spirituality of someone calling themselves a "Christian". A Paulian, perhaps? Maybe a Nicene?

But I believe Jesus' message was clear and needn't be augmented by academics and middlemen who presume to "interpret" the word of God for common folk. Jesus was common folk.

Just how I feel about it...*shrug

Patrick8200 said...

As a bisexual having been raised in the Catholic church, I read these types of blogs and thoughts with great interest. Although I knew at a very young age that I was different than the other boys in that I liked both girls and boys equally, I never ever voiced it to anyone. Growing up in Nebraska in the 60's was not any place to have that kind of conversation. I just always thought I was the only one like me and according to the bible, I was broken and an abomination in God's eyes. By the time I was in my late 30's I'd had all I could take of living my life in a lie, hiding the "true" me from everyone. I was always told that if my faith was strong enough and if I prayed hard enough, God would answer my prayers. After 30 years my prayers were never answered. I really didn't ask for much, just to be straight and normal like everyone else. To have this "curse" lifted from my life. No matter how long or how many times I prayed, my God had forsaken me.
But why? Wasn't I created in His image? Did He not already know who I was? It was thoroughly confusing to me but I finally accepted what I thought was the truth and that I would spend eternity burning in hell.
Don't get me wrong, I tried to ignore and shake all the feelings, but as I grew older, so did the intensity...and the misery. By the time I was 38, I hit a wall. I finally had had enough and realized that I could not live one day longer with the misery that I felt. Since I figured I was doomed to eternal hell anyway, I felt it was ok to just off myself and be done with this. That day, I just walked out of work in the middle of the day. I didn't say a word to anyone, just walked out, got in my car and drove home. I had a bottle of pain killers left over from a previous injury and with bottle in hand, laid on the floor crying hysterically. I didn't want to kill myself, but I couldn't face another day of this earthly torture either, I just wanted to be "right". Before downing any pills I decided I'd pray one more time, only this time I didn't asked to be cured or be straight or normal, all I asked was to have the path God wanted me to walk shown to me.
In an instant, my tears of misery were transformed into tears of sheer joy. My heart was filled with in incredible sense of love and my head was all of a sudden filled with knowledge.
I tell people that it was divine intervention and fully believe it. God did not talk to me, I didn't hear any voices but at the same time I knew in my heart that I was *exactly* the person God had intended me to be. I was exactly who I was supposed to be and no longer did I see my bisexuality as a curse, but a gift. That was 15 years ago and my life has never been better.
It's all well and good to debate these things, but something you should bear in mind is that unless you've ever struggled with same sex attractions, you have no way of understanding what we go through. None of us pick this, it's who we are born to be, just as you are born heterosexual. You can't change that simply because it's who you are....same thing with us.
Unfortunately, way too many people in this country use the bible and several passages as a license to denigrate and dehumanize those that are LGBT, and doing it in the name of God and Jesus. I for one can't think of anything more dishonorable to do to a deity you purport to worship and love.
One of the best pieces I've read and something that really helped me in my journey was written by Pastor Bruce W. Lowe. He spent years researching this very subject, spurred on by one of his congregation. It's titled simply, "A Letter to Louise". Please take some time and read it if you haven't already.

Bill Ball said...

Anonymous: Thank you for your comments. A few thoughts in response:
The things that Jesus said and did only come to us by means of "words on paper", so if we choose to ignore these words we have no way of knowing anything of him or his claims.
Jesus himself claimed that not one iota or stroke of the Mosaic Law would pass away, so apparently he had regard for those "words on paper." While you may choose to ignore Paul's words, we can't ignore Jesus endorsement of the OT.
I agree that Jesus never addressed the issue of homosexual behavior, but he did have a lot to say about other matters of sexual behavior and he seemed pretty rigid about these.

Bill Ball said...

Patrick: Thank you for your honest remarks.
I hope you don't feel that I was attempting to denigrate or dehumanize you; that was not my aim. I ask you to forgive if you can, any offense I have given.
As I said earlier, I wrestle with reconciling Scripture with concerns for those who are really struggling. I admit that I have no idea of the struggles you have gone through. I am glad though that in your struggles you have found God and that we are both members of His family.