The homosexual influence in America has spread to theological circles and gay ministers and scholars have begun to re-evaluate Scripture in the light of a “homosexual hermeneutic.” Chief among these is John Boswell’s work, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980).
In his exegesis of Romans 1:26-27 Boswell uses three arguments to trivialize the sexual aspect of these verses. (1) One, that idolatry (which he associates with temple prostitution) is not the point of this passage. Secondly, that Paul simply rebukes Gentile behavior. They could have seen evidences of God in the powers of nature, yet, they turned to idols (1:19-23). Therefore, Boswell posits, “the reference to homosexuality is simply a mundane analogy to this theological sin.” (2) Thirdly, Boswell argues that Paul is condemning “homosexual acts by apparently heterosexual persons.” (3)
Many scholars do feel that idolatry is the point of this passage. Moo cites the Wisdom of Solomon as saying, “the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication” (14:12). Their idolatry was the progenitor of their homosexual and lesbian tendencies.
Morris says that the flow of the reading requires that idolatry be the antecedent of the punishment. (4) Bahnsen adds that “in this context Paul was teaching the wrath of God as revealed…against those who turn from this proper relationship to the Creator…(and) various forms of idolatry.” (5)
Contextually, Boswell falls short of his goal. If we accept the background of the Roman Church being torn apart by the Claudian expulsion of 47-49 AD then his argument become even more tenuous. (6) Under this scenario Jews and some non-Jewish Christians were expelled leaving an exclusively Gentile congregation. Upon the return of the Jews, problems concerning the history and birthright of the Israelite nation arose. If the first chapter is received in this light it appears to develop a more accessible line of reasoning.
After addressing the church as a body in 1:8, Paul breaks them into separate groups of Jews and Gentiles. Gentiles were separate from God as a race but close to God as human beings. By viewing the power of nature, God should have been evident. Yet, they turned to idols and “professing to be wise, they became fools” (1:22). Assimilating the sin of idolatry into their culture brought uncleanness, lust and the misuse of sexuality.
Having then made this progression, Paul turns to an example to verify his statements. It had to be depraved and shocking enough to elicit the proper response. Gentiles had even turned to gay/lesbian sex for fulfillment and happiness. In doing so, they had committed what was “debased” (1:28) and “shameful” (1:27). Because they had turned from Jehovah they had found degradation.
An understanding of the word “natural” in this passage is imperative. Scripture says, “God gave them up to ‘vile passions’ (Rom. 1:26, NKJV); ‘dishonorable passions’ (RSV); ‘degrading passions’ (NEB, NASB, NRSB, NAB); ‘vile affections’ (KJV, Amplified Bible); ’shameful lusts’ (NIV); ’shameful affections’ (Rheims). Thayer defines it as “base lusts, vile passions.” (7) Bauer translates it as “shameful passions.” (8)
Scroggs suggests that Paul’s knowledge of homosexuality was less than extensive and ostensibly from the rumor mill. (9) This denies Paul’s expansive education, natural intelligence and inspiration as a writer. Paul studied with the esteemed Gamaliel (Acts 22:30), was cognizant of the arts (Acts 17:16-34) and even was a lecturer in the school of Tyranus (Acts 19:9). Obviously, he was astute enough to know something about homosexuality, especially if it were as prominent as Boswell claims.
Romans 1:26 says, “for even their women exchanged the natural use for what was against nature.” The word “exchanged” plays a crucial part in this passage, “emphasizing the direct parallelism between the rejection of God and the rejection of created sexual roles.” (10) Back in 1:23 Paul said the Gentiles “exchanged” idols for God and in 1:25 they “exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” Hays notes that the deliberate repetition of the verb, metexallan, forges a powerful rhetorical link between the rebellion against God and the ’shameless acts’ (1:27, RSV) which are themselves both evidence and consequence of that rebellion.” (11) The women ‘exchanged,” Thayer says, “one thing for another,” meaning the sacred sexual union between the husband and wife. (12) Bauer defines it as “an exchange of natural sex relations for those that are contrary to nature.” (13)
“What does the word “natural” here mean? Boswell claims that it means what is natural to each person. More precisely, that some are born homosexual and some heterosexual and the abandoning of that natural inclination would be “unnatural” and sinful. (14)
Furnish seeks to provide a historical context for Paul’s teachings here. These statements are a result of the beliefs of the day, and as he sees it, anti-Biblical. (15) First, it was universally believed that homosexual intercourse was “overriding their natural desire for the opposite sex.” Second, homoerotic acts were intrinsically lustful and a result of an “insatiable sexual appetite.” Third, that intercourse requires a passive and active participant. These roles have by nature been assigned to the husband and wife so homosexual intercourse is a violation of this “law.” Fourth, that homosexuality could lead to the extinction of the human species.
These prejudices, Furnish thinks, that clouded Paul’s mind and tainted his teachings were a result of his innate bigotry. However, if that were true then Paul’s writings were not inspired and Scripture is erroneous and argument from it is superfluous anyway. If Paul’s writings were not inspired -as he claimed (2 Tim. 3:16-17)- then he was a liar and a deceiver (cf. Acts 9:1-9; 2 Pet. 3:14-16) and he was setting out to destroy the church through clandestine methods.
Paul was a man of esteemed intelligence and training through a privileged upbringing (Acts 22:3). Therefore, Paul knew the Old Testament Scriptures and sought them as his source of contention against those who would purport homosexuality. Furnish’s points are such that they can be easily dismissed with a fundamental perspective on Scripture (Gen. 2:20-25; 19; Lev. 18:22; 20:13). Paul did have in mind that homosexuality was intrinsically sinful and wholly unnatural but it was due to the teachings of Scripture rather than petty prejudices.
Boswell sees “nature” as a “matter of character” rather than a “moral force.” (16) It should be understood as the “personal nature of the pagans in question.” He calls into question the accepted definition of the word “against” in 1:26 since in other places it does not mean “in opposition to” citing Romans 11:23-24 he asks if it means “moral turpitude” then how could it be applied to God? Rather, “it signifies behavior which is unexpected, unusual or different from which would occur in the normal order of things: beyond nature, perhaps, but not immoral.” (17)
Hays discusses Boswell’s use of para physin in other contexts. Boswell, in a footnote, acknowledges that “in certain stock phrases such as para doxan ‘contrary’ may be the best rendering of para with the accusative.” (18) Hays responds by pointing out that para physin is just such a stock phrase, but Boswell gives no hint of this fact to his readers.” (19) Hays continues, “whether intentionally or not (Boswell) leaves the impression that Paul’s turn of phrase ought to be interpreted in light of various other Pauline constructions using the preposition para, without reference to the occurrence of the stereotypical para physin throughout Hellenistic literature.” (20)
DeYoung gives these possible meanings for physis in Romans 1:26-27. (21) First, “origin, including birth and growth.” Second, “the natural form or constitution of a person, animal or thing.” Third, the regular order of nature.” Fourth, “philosophically, nature as an originating power.” Fifth, “creature or mankind.” Sixth, “kind or sort.” Seventh, “sex.” Eighth, “approximately equal to nomos. In the third example kata physin and para physin are included.
Helmut Koester translates physis as one’s tendency.(22) Their nature is given and not one”dependent on conscious direction or education.” It was often tied to the universal nature of God and the adjectival form often refers to “natural law” and that which cannot be changed. In Stoic thought physis was a universal divine principle. (23) Of Romans 1:26-27 Koester says, “the stress on sexual faults corresponds to the so-called Noahic commandments of Rabbinic Judaism but in tenor and formulation it is in every way Greek in Paul, the idea being that of a violation of the natural order.” (24)
DeYoung goes as far as saying, “never does the term physis mean ‘what is natural to me,’ in Greek literature or Biblical contexts.” (25) Meye says it is translated as the “forces or laws which govern the world and its inhabitants.” (26) Moo translates it as a “violation of God’s created order.” (27) Holter thinks Paul is purposefully providing a contrast with the creation of male and female in Genesis 1:26-28. (28) There it was “natural” and here it is “unnatural.” Cranfield points out that it must refer to “unnatural sexual relations.” (29) Hays notes of the meaning of para physin that in the area of horticultural it can have the “relatively neutral meaning of para physin that in the area of horticultural it can have the :relatively neutral meaning of artificial.” (30) In 1:17-24 Paul “artfully plays this meaning in counterpoint with the phrase’s lingering connotations of unseemliness.” But, in 1:26-27 it is the very context, supposedly which denies its sinfulness, that “insures that sexual acts are contrary to nature and are given a negative moral evaluation.” (31)
Boswell, while providing the scholarly community with a worthy discussion on the homosexual hermeneutics, nevertheless falls short of his goal. The evidence is against him in diluting the sinfulness of homosexuality in Scripture because it is clearly taught throughout God’s Word. However, this argument is far from over because to gain widespread acceptance in American culture gays must prove their behavior is natural. If so proven then they can justifiably classify themselves as victims and the game will be lost. But, even if that occurs God’s Word will still be just as adamant against the gay lifestyle.
1. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 108.
4. Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 92.
5. Greg L. Bahnsen, Homosexuality: A Biblical View (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), 48.
6. Donald G. Miller, “The Epistle to the Romans,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. and trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:225.
7. Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer”™s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Broadman: Nashville, 1977), 660.
8. Walter Bauer, William F. Ardnt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 869.
9. Robin Scruggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate (Philadephia: Fortress, 1983), 43.
10. Richard B. Hays, “Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell”™s Exegesis of Romans 1, Journal of Religious Ethics 14/1 (Spring 1986), 192.
12. Thayer, 405.
13. Bauer, 511.
14. Boswell, 109.
15. Victor Paul Furnish, “The Bible and Homosexuality: Reading the Texts in Context,” In Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate. ed. by Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville: Westminister/John Knox Press, 1994), 26-28.
16. Boswell, 109.
18. Boswell, 111-112.
19. Hays, 198.
21. James De Young, “The Meaning of “˜Nature”™ in Romans 1 and Its Implications for the Biblical Proscriptions of Homosexual Behavior,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31/4 (December 1988), 430.
22. Helmut Koester, “Physis, Physikos,” in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. and trans. Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 251.
23. Ibid, 263-266.
24. Ibid, 273.
25. DeYoung, 438.
26. Robert P. Meye, “˜Nature, Natural,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 3:486-487.
27. Moo, 109.
28. Knut Holter, “A Note on the Old Testament Background of Romans 1:23-27,” Biblische Notizen 69 (Muchen 1993) 21-23.
29. C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Limited, 1975), 1:126.
30. Hays, 199.