The Romans’ Exchange

When I was struggling with my sexuality and my faith the most difficult, and probably obvious, text that I wrestled with was the Romans 1 text. Now that I have read it maybe hundreds of times, if not more, it becomes less and less frightening and less and less about homosexuality; especially when Paul’s discourse in Romans 2 comes into play.

To be frank, it’s really not about homosexuality at all. It’s about pagan idolatry. And what has happened, unfortunately for homosexuals, is that conservatives have taken a microscope and focused their little lenses on two specific verses in chapter 1; verses 26 and 27. It’s important to point out that the word, “homosexual,” wasn’t even in the English lexicon until the 19th century. It began to replace words already translated from the Greek NT. This is a whole different blog topic that may eventually pop up, but it’s important that people understand that this term wasn’t even understood properly in the 19th century, as it was directly related to a form of medical insanity. The understanding has since been changed and no longer considered a mental illness needing to be treated. Clearly, the broad understanding of what the homosexual actually experiences has evolved and become clearer; as does any unknown or misunderstood thing. The homosexual cannot change their feeling just like the heterosexual can’t. And their feeling is for legitimate companionship, affection, and intimacy with a partner. It has little to do with, just simply, sex. Yes, sex is a component to that intimacy, but it is a desire for bonding and companionship, just as it is for the heterosexual-this includes sex, but does not revolve around it.

Now, pause for a moment and think of what comes directly before and after these 2 verses…can you remember? If you can’t, then that is a major problem. That means that these two verses stand out without their historical background or contextual components to go with them; or it means you just don’t read the Bible at all or, perhaps in the way it’s intended to be read; for discipleship… and not devotionally… so that you can have a nice thought for the day. This is a typical harvesting of like texts within Scripture (the Clobber texts) and a common, yet poorly performed tactic by traditionalists and conservatives.

I went on my earlier tangent about homosexual desire to set this up for your understanding. The kind of “exchanges” and sex that Paul refers to in Romans 1 is hardly anything like what I just described above for the homosexual desiring monogamous, committed companionship under God. No, this is much more severe. The kind of people described in Romans one have made a total of two major, and I mean major, “exchanges” directly prior to the third and last one; the Clobber text.

For the verses, I will use Mounce’s interlinear text translated directly from the Greek language. First, some background, this is a diverse mix of people who Paul is addressing, not to mention a very large one. The letter to the Romans is a mix up of both Jews and Gentiles. Chapter 1 specifically references Gentiles, and he is purposely working the Jewish Christian audience up into a frenzy; and we will see how he throws it back in their face in chapter 2. 

After Paul’s initial theological discourse in chapter 1, he kicks it off with wrath for “… those who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness…” (V18). He then goes into God’s “eternal power and divine nature (take note of this)” and how it is “clearly seen” (V20). This leaves no room for speculation as to who or what created that which is seen. Paul states that God’s “invisible attributes” (V20) are clear through visible creation. For Gentiles, who practiced pagan, polytheism, tying directly into Greek and Roman gods, this is a poignant statement. This is not new information to the Jews. This information does leave all, however, “without excuse” (V20). 

Now for the first exchange and processes of idolatry: Paul declares that idolatry begins with a conscious decision to turn away from God, even while knowing He exists and is the creator of all things, “Even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give him thanks…” (V21). When this happened, these people consciously, “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God (take note of this) for images resembling corruptible man and birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures…” (V23). This is an obvious reference to anthropomorphic pantheon deities and polytheism. 

As a result of this first exchange, God hands them over to the consequences of it, ” Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts, to impurity so that they dishonored their bodies among themselves” (V24). As a result of this, we now enter the second exchange: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator…” (V25). 

Here, we see idolatry escalate in gradients. It begins with a conscious and purposeful decision to not acknowledge the known God. The consequence is impurity which dishonors the body (the created being by God); the result of this begins another exchange deeper into the sin by willingly trading the truth about God for a lie; directly leading to worship of the creature and not the creator God. 

The third exchange is a consequence of the second exchange: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those contrary to nature; (ESV With Strong’s, V26). Let’s stop here… this exchange is two-fold; it’s both a trading  of the natural for what goes against nature and it is a consequence of the second exchange. Additionally, it does not state how women do this; it could be in any number of ways; orgies, multiple partners, prostitution, bestiality, etc. And remember when I said to take note on some verses above? The standard of worship is the “incorruptible God”, but this is traded for the “corruptible man”. And God’s “divine nature” and our recognition of it is our natural state as creatures created in His likeness. So, to exchange (trade) what is natural for the unnatural, is to trade the known Divine for what is corrupt in corruptible humanity. Clearly, these gradients of idolatry lead to a final trading in and with the physical body (manifesting itself from conscious trade and exchange, mentioned previously, but in the heart and mind). 

Verse 27: “…and likewise the men also abandoned the natural relation with women and burned in their passion for one another-men committing shameless acts with other men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (V27). Many will argue that this verse clearly indicates what the women were doing in the verse directly prior to this, but that is not true. Paul doesn’t say that. And we shouldn’t put words into his mouth. “And likewise” is synonymous with words like “similarly” or “in the same way”, this does not point to the act itself, but the state or condition that leads to the actual behavior. Because of their idolatrous practices, the men, like the women who are also idolatrous give up their natural (to them) relation with women, and burn in (excessive) lust for other men. Excessiveness is the key here. These men are already naturally attracted to women and may even be married to them, but in their excessive, idolatrous and illicit behavior, they aren’t satisfied with just what they are attracted to naturally; they burn for and take more. This is a common practice in Greco-Roman pederasty, where married men would have sex with young boys and commonly have boy lovers. This was for the upper-echelon of men and it was held in high regard to do this. I’m not saying that Paul is referring to pederasty, but he could be. It would’ve been practiced, it would’ve been well known behavior for pagan Gentiles in the community he is referring to. The people mentioned above are clearly not seeking monogamous, committed, and loving relationships. This is purely physically based and done solely in order to satiate excessive and out of control lust; a product of their blatant idolatry.

The next verses seem to quickly shift gears and if Paul is simply referring broadly to the homosexual audience then the next mentioning of sins are a problem; they are a problem because then we would have to assume that every homosexual is also what Paul begins to describe; “And as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a debased mind to do things that ought not to be done. They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, meanness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to their parents, foolish, covenant breakers, unloving, ruthless. Though they understand the righteous requirement of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only continue to do them but also heartily approve of others who practice them” (V28-32).

Whoa! That means that even gay brothers and sisters who choose to be celibate are these things? Or that all homosexuals are these things and have committed acts like murder? Is that what Paul is saying? NO! Like I said earlier, homosexuality is not a choice. Idolatry, especially in the way that Paul is going off about it in here, is. Idolatry is a conscious choice. It is blatant and glaring that this is what Paul is emphasizing and it is also used to work up his Jewish audience, which he addresses in Chapter 2.

Harshly, Paul states to them, “Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself for you who judge are practicing the same things” (V1). I’m sure this was deflating for them. After all, Gentile inclusion was a pretty huge deal in the New Covenant. Paul is saying that the Jews, in and by their judgement of Gentiles who do this, are just as guilty as those described in Chapter 1-something to be noted.

In the words of Oliver O’Donovan, a scholar in Christian ethics in his book, Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion, “A seriously meant inquiry into what the Bible means and how it may apply to us can never be out of place in the church. We must not, then, in the defense of a supposed “Biblical” ethic, try to close down moral discussions prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and forbidding further examination. It is the characteristic “conservative” temptation to erect a moment in Scriptural interpretation into an unrevisable norm that will substitute, conveniently and less ambiguously, for Scripture itself. The word “authority” means, quite simply, that we have to keep looking back to this source if we are to stay on the right track. Anything else is unbelief—a refusal to open ourselves to the question; what is God saying to us through His word?”

 

Scientists and philosophers cannot answer Jim Holt’s question in his best selling book, “Why Does the World Exist?”

Philosopher, Jim Holt, published his book, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, in 2012. The book reached the LA Times bestseller list. This is not a surpise since so many people seem to not know! In his novel, Holt embarks on a quest to reach the answer to the question posed in his title. To achieve this, he interviews several famous scientists, philosophers, and one theologian. It’s obvious within the novel that Holt is serious about his personal mission to find the answer. Additionally, he admits to having a bad taste in his mouth regarding religion and the creation view, but he also ackowledges,however, that it must be considered as an option in answering and explaining what caused the creation of the universe and all things in it. Fast forward to the end of the book and after all of his efforts in fact-finding, he discovers that there is no answer. There is no scientific proof that answers the question: Why does the world exist?

What is particularly interesting about this book are the several opposing opinions and conjectures given by the various scientists and philosophers that Holt interviews. None of them think the same way about the universe, nor are they in unison scientifically or philosophically, with their ideas on how the universe got here; how we got here. We’re talking about heavy hitters in the scientific arena like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. Holt even refers back to famous logicians in their own personal journeys to obtain this answer; people like Bertrand Russel and Ludwig Wittgenstein. What is clear is that there is and has been a huge drive within us as humans to  seek and know the answer to this question. What is also clear is that these experts within the field of science and philosophy are completely unable to explain exactly why the universe is here and why we exist. They are also unable to stand in unison on an explanation, which differs greatly from the unity of the creation belief. Given the vast amount of scientific resources and thinkers that we have, how can this be so? One would think or hope that, by now, we should have a scientific explanation for this, but, we just don’t. Scientists do not have the answer via the scientific method. They only have conjectures or guesses and several different ones at that!

This fact does a couple of things; it validates the limitations of science, the scientific method and deductive reasoning, while simultaneously validating the possibility of a Creator God. This places humankind in a sort of dilemma. It is impossible to deny the existence a Creator God by using science as a foundation and a platform since science has no way of explaining or proving otherwise. The dilemma is that the door is wide open to the Creator God explanation as a fact. Where scientific method fails, reason and logic can overcome. By simply viewing our world and everything in it, it is common knowledge that most things we see are created by something or someone. Art pieces are created by artists. Buildings are created by architects and engineers. Practically everything we see is a creation. If humankind, by its nature is creative, it makes logical sense that humankind, made in God’s image, would be endowed with the same aspects. It makes logical sense that everything we see; mountains, oceans, animals, humans, and the universe are a creation and design with an imprint of a Creator. And what blatantly and contrastingly stands out about science is that science does not create anything; it discovers things that are already there. Science didn’t create gravity or the law of gravity. Science discovered that gravity just is. It was pre-existing. Similarly, biology, can only study and discover what already occurs within living organisms. It never created the biological functions themselves.

Science is a means by which we can see God the Creator and discover how He works. And because of this; because of Him, we can find our purpose and cause. We can find that there is an answer to the question: Why does the world exist?

Job and Ecclesiastes

I am currently working on a Romans blog post which is taking me more time than expected. In the interim, I came across an old paper/examination I did on Job and Ecclesiastes; their similarities and differences as well as how they compared to God in Deuteronomistic texts. In other words, this is a full on Bible nerd essay. Enjoy…

The representations of God in the books of Ecclesiastes and Job seem to be coinciding understandings, or lack thereof, of God’s mysterious rationale. There are obvious intertextualities between the main themes of both books and even thematic similarities with other books located in the Writings or Ketuvim category of the Hebrew Bible, such as Psalms and Jonah; Jonah reels from God’s decisions to spare his and Israel’s mortal enemies in the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and David’s often excruciating pleas for justice in Psalms are reminiscent of similar queries by both Solomon and Job.

In comparison and on their surface, Job and Ecclesiastes can leave the reader feeling despairingly devoid of social justice or reason. Both seem to characterize God as remotely and clandestinely exacting His purpose at the expense of the very feeble human. These circumstances and their outcomes justifiably pang the believing and non-believing audience and questions abound as a result. They seem to contradict the Deuteronomistic and prophet’s presuppositions that God punishes the idolatrous and those who disobey His covenant while rewarding those who are obedient to His law. In fact, according to Ecclesiastes and Job, reward and disaster befall both the wicked and the one who belongs to God.

The resulting question is age old: Why do bad things happen to good people? I would argue that God cannot and does not cause evil or suffering, but instead He wields it for a purpose that is sometimes beyond the scope of human understanding. The how and the why is simply rendered unattainable until the entire story is woven; an example made undeniably clear in the story of Joseph in Genesis. Sometimes the weaving process lasts throughout generations of people and transcends centuries of time. Like a giant tapestry, each thread is interwoven with another, affecting another, and only its designer knows the outcome rendering it impossible to predict details or understand the intricacy and complexity of circumstances that are set in motion, even intentionally, to influence a circumstance, someone, or something in the future.

Ecclesiastes declares practically all human endeavors to be meaningless, that it is prudent to fear God, and our only consolation in life is to “Eat, drink, and be merry” (NRSV, Eccl 8:15). This seems to come off as a very superficial deduction from the wisdom-endowed king, Solomon. In Job, we see Satan personally requesting permission from God to crush Job, who is a righteous and faithful man, hoping that Job will curse God to His face. As if life weren’t challenging enough, we are now introduced to diabolical forces working purposefully against God’s people. Frighteningly, God grants permission to Satan with one exception; that he cannot kill Job.

In both books, and in contrast to what seems to be common Deuteronomistic way, the seemingly innocent law abiders may receive initial protection from God only until they’re later abandoned presumably because of their sin. In addition, evil people can be successful in their lifetime and are capable of sidestepping and averting justice. Even the Ecclesiastes author demonstrates a sense of bewilderment in his attempt to understand how God could allow this to happen. Both Job and the Ecclesiastes author have essentially the same question for God. The difference between the two books is that only Job gets a response, although not a direct answer to his specific plight.

After losing his children, wife, home, livestock, and being inflicted with painful sores to the point of being unrecognizable to his friends, Job, who views himself as an innocent man asks God, “why”? God never directly answers the question, but in a Theophany He explains His immeasurable power to Job and His ultimate authority and control over all things. God’s knowledge and wisdom undermine Job’s insufficient understanding and God reminds him that his grasp and observations are ignorant compared to God’s unsurpassable power and wisdom. In the end Job is humbled and admits that he did not fully understand. Job says of God, “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (NRSV, Job 42:2-3). God doubles Job’s possessions from that which he had before and replaces his children.

The themes within Job and Ecclesiastes; the human inability to fully fathom the immeasurable wisdom of God, is echoed in Psalms and Isaiah. David states in Psalms, “You have enclosed me in behind and before, and laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (NRSV, Psalms 139:6). And Isaiah says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the Lord” (NRSV, Is 55:8). These texts combined with Job and Ecclesiastes reflect God’s exactingness despite our blindness in the chaos of the unknown. Whether the Law is broken or abided by, nothing will thwart God’s purpose. This idea is present throughout the wisdom writings as well as in the stories of Deuteronomistic History. Therefore, they neither contradict nor compliment Deuteronomistic History, but rather, unveil a deeper level of understanding God.

Paul Verses James?

 

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Paul’s core theology described within his letters in the New Testament may appear to disagree with the theology of James. Where Paul contends that justification comes to the person of faith only through the faithfulness of Christ and not by their works, James affirms rather harshly that, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (NRSV, James 2:17). Paul is emphasizing within his theology that actions in observance of or obedience to Mosaic Law hold absolutely no power in justifying the Jew or the Gentile to God. When we examine James, however, the believer is forced to reconcile the concept of a faith alone and apart from action or works as being completely empty and barren. If action in obedience holds no saving power, is it still relevant in faith and is it still relevant to God? I would argue that the two teachers are highlighting different facets of what faith encompasses. Upon first glance, James, an advocate of action, and Paul, an advocate of faith, may seem to be in conflict, but they are not. They are complimentary theological components reflecting an overall embodiment of faith in Christ to the believer.

A simple understanding is that when we claim to have a faith in Christ, there must be an external reflection or action produced by that faith. In other words, a genuine faith will result in action in obedience to God. Both Paul and James use Abraham as a model conveying this notion, although the two writers are clearly underscoring two individual segments of faith. James uses the Abraham model to highlight that Abraham’s belief in what God said combined with his action in obedience to that belief brought his faith into full completion (NRSV, James 2:22-24).

Paul, in both Romans and Galatians uses the Abraham model to concentrate on the believer’s inability to justify themselves through their mere observance of Mosaic Law. He argues instead for faith and belief in Christ’s faithfulness and points to Christ’s obedient action on the cross as the only action worthy of reconciling us to God. When Paul says, “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (NRSV, Rom 4:5), he means that true trust and belief in Christ’s faithful action (not ours), in his death for our sins and by his resurrection; this is our justification. Otherwise, if redemption were obtainable through our own obedience to the Law, we’d be relying on ourselves and our abilities; a pretentious exaltation of self that renders Christ’s obedient act useless.

When James emphasizes deeds or works, he is not referring to works that we accomplish for the sake of redeeming ourselves, or acts which put us in a better standing with God. He is referring to an action in obedience initially produced by faith. Faith should always accompany an action; and that action is love. Faith and action in love go hand in hand. Paul confirms this in Galatians when he says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith made effective through love” (NRSV, Gal 5:6). Obeying Mosaic Law to gain a self-obtained justification is what Paul argues against. James is not disputing Paul’s claim, but is instead pointing to a faith which is refined and tested, producing right works and good deeds toward others; an expression of love. Supporting Paul, James proclaims, “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” (NRSV, James 1:25). The “law of liberty” that James refers to is not the Law handed down to Moses. It is the Gospel of Christ.

Essentially, James and Paul are both reiterating Jesus’ summation of the greatest commandment: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (NRSV, Mark 12:30-32). A faith in Christ exhibits action in love. Love, in the context expressed by Christ and reaffirmed by Paul and James, is a verb. A lack of action would point to a misdirected understanding of Christ’s command to love one another; “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (NRSV, James 2:15-17).

James’ strongest argument defending his claim is: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (NRSV, James 2:18-20). Similarly, Paul implores the church in Corinth to obey, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (NRSV, 1 Cor 11:1). And coupled alongside his theological argument, Paul states in unison with James, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right. . .” and “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all…” (NRSV, Gal 6:9-11).

Although there is unique diversity among these two key New Testament writers in their focus and expressions, their unity is built and formed upon the foundation of Christ and the Gospel. There is no opposition in their theologies. The centers of Paul and James’ teaching, although different, work in tandem to further mature the believer’s relationship to Christ. They both hold the believing community accountable to their active response in their faith and their sanctification; to grow and to persevere; to love, encourage, and show humility; to display their faith in action. This response in faith to Christ is what validates us and effectively transmits the message of the Gospel to the rest of the world.