N.T. Wright on Romans, Homosexuality, Culture, and Ethics

You really need to read the whole post here: Communion and Koinonia: Pauline Reflections on Tolerance and Boundaries by N. T. Wright. But if you don’t, here’s a pertinent quote on Paul’s treatment of homosexuality in Romans and what the culture was like at that time.

So to our three issues; and first, the issue of homosexual behaviour. It is, of course open to anyone to say, on the basis of my argument so far, that they regard the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual behaviour as one of those cultural distinctives which are irrelevant in the gospel; that homosexual behaviour simply is part of some cultures today, and that the church must respect, honour and bless it. You will not be surprised to know that I do not share this view. I am not an expert on current debates, and defer to two splendid books: Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, and Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. But I may perhaps, as a long-time specialist on the letter to the Romans, put in my small contribution.

Paul’s denunciation of homosexual practice in Romans 1 is well known but not so well understood, particularly in relation to its place in the argument as a whole. It is too often dismissed as simply firing some Jewish-style thunderbolts against typical pagan targets; and it is regularly thought to be dealing only with the deliberate choice of heterosexual individuals to abandon normal usage and indulge in alternative passions. It is often said that Paul is describing something quite different from the phenomenon we know today, e.g. in large western cities.

This is misleading. First, Paul is not primarily talking about individuals at this point, but about the entire human race. He is expounding Genesis 1-3, and looking at the human race as whole, so here he is categorizing the large sweep of human history as a whole – not, of course, that any individuals escape this judgement, as 3.19f makes clear. Second, the point of his highlighting of female and male turning away from natural usage to unnatural grows directly out of the text which is his subtext, here and often elsewhere: for in Genesis 1 it is of course male plus female that is created to bear God’s image. The male-plus-female factor is not of course specific to humanity; the principle of ‘male plus female’ runs through a great deal of creation. But humans were created to bear God’s image, and given a task, to be fruitful and multiply, to tend the garden and name the animals. The point of Romans 1 as a whole is that when humans refuse to worship or honour God, the God in whose image they are made, their humanness goes into self-destruct mode; and Paul clearly sees homosexual behaviour as ultimately a form of human deconstruction. He is not saying that everyone who discovers homosexual instincts has chosen to commit idolatry and has chosen homosexual behaviour as a part of that; rather, he is saying that in a world where men and women have refused to honour God this is the kind of thing you will find.

The fascinating thing is what Paul then does with this analysis of the plight of humankind. In Romans 4.18-22, when describing the way in which Abraham believed God and so was reckoned as righteous, Paul carefully reverses what has happened in Romans 1.18-23. Abraham believed that God had power to give life to the dead; he honoured God and did not waver in unbelief. That is why he is reckoned within the covenant, as ‘righteous’. And the result, of course, is that Abraham and Sarah become fruitful. Romans 1 is not a detached denunciation of wickedness in general. It is carefully integrated into the flow of thought of the letter. (See too 7.4-6 for the contrast between sinful lives which do not bear fruit, and life under the new covenant which does.) In particular, we may note the strong ethical imperatives of chapters 6, 8 and 12, in each of which, but particularly in 6.1-11 and 12.1-2, there are echoes both of Romans 1 and Genesis 1-3 which underlies it. Paul clearly believes that the application of the gospel to human lives produces new behaviour, renewed-human behaviour, newly imagebearing behaviour. It is not using Romans 1 as a prooftext, but as part of the tightly woven fabric of Paul’s greatest letter, to say that he certainly regards same-sex genital behaviour as dehumanized and dehumanizing.

A footnote on sexual behaviour in Paul’s world. If one looks at the ancient world there is of course evidence of same-sex behaviour in many contexts and settings. But it is noticeable that the best-known evidence comes from the high imperial days of Athens on the one hand and the high imperial days of Rome on the other (think of Nero, and indeed Paul may have been thinking of Nero). I have argued elsewhere, against the view that Paul was quiescent politically, that he held a strong implicit and sometimes explicit critique of pagan empire in general and of Rome in particularly; and clearly denunciation of pagan sexual behaviour was part of that (e.g. Philippians 3.19-21). I just wonder if there is any mileage in cultural analysis of homosexual behaviour as a feature of cultures which themselves multiply and degenerate in the way that great empires are multiply degenerate, with money flowing in, arrogance and power flowing out, systemic violence on the borders and systematic luxury at the centre. Part of that imperial arrogance in our own day, I believe, is the insistence that we, the empire, the West, America, or wherever, are in a position to tell the societies that we are already exploiting in a thousand different ways that they should alter their deep-rooted moralities to accommodate our newly invented ones. There is something worryingly imperial about the practice itself and about the insistence on everybody else endorsing it. It is often said that the poor want justice while the rich want peace. We now have a situation where two-thirds of the world wants debt relief and one-third wants sex. That is, I think, a tell-tale sign that something is wrong at a deep structural level.

© 2014, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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