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Rethinking Paul’s Clobber Passages

Saint Paul

Rethinking 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is fairly standard now:

women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

A regular interpretation now is to understand that in these two verses Paul is not giving his own position but that he is quoting a saying and that in fact he disagrees with this saying, responding to it with a rebuke:

Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?

Another “clobber passage” that regularly does the rounds is Romans 1:26-27

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

Again there are various interpretations of this text, including understanding sin to be going against one’s nature. If one questions whether females have one nature, and males another, then are homosexuals going against their nature in trying to fit into a heterosexual relationship? Not to mention that there is obviously no mention of female same-sex sexual activity in the Old Testament from which Paul can draw – why is it referred to here?

But there may be a simpler way forward, akin to the insight followed above for 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

This interpretation hinges on your answer to, “What do you make of the vocative at the beginning of Romans 2?

The condemnatory nature of Romans 1:18-32 fits awkwardly, if at all, with the the rest of the epistle. Contrasting with the rest of the letter, the third person plural occurs here with striking concentration, with repetition of the third-person pronoun αὐτός thirteen times, the reflexive (“themselves”) once, and third-person plural verbs over and over.

And then there is that vocative in Romans 2:1 ὦ ἄνθρωπε “Oh man”.

Professor Roy Bowen Ward in Why Unnatural? The Tradition behind Romans 1:26–27 states “It is still open to question whether these two verses represent Paul’s voice or the voice of a rhetorical spokesperson in Rom 1:18-32, whom the apostle criticizes beginning in Rom 2:1.” Calvin Porter concludes Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, is arguing against! “In 2:1-16, as well as through Romans as a whole, Paul, as part of his Gentile mission, challenges, argues against, and refutes both the content of the discourse and the practice of using such discourses. If that is the case then the ideas in Rom. 1.18-32 are not Paul’s. They are ideas which obstruct Paul’s Gentile mission theology and practice.”

This approach of Paul’s leads ultimately to Romans 14:13 where he uses language strikingly similar to Romans 2:1

Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another.

image: St. Paul the Apostle by Claude Vignon

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49 Responses to Rethinking Paul’s Clobber Passages

  1. Interesting exegesis, Bosco. I suggest one matter the exegesis does not yet overcome is the simple question of whether Paul as a Jew could write Romans 1:26-27 consonant with Jewish thinking on such matters. To which question the answer is ‘Yes, he could’ if, for instance, we take the writings of a contemporary Jew, Philo of Alexander in On Abraham 135-136 and Special Laws 3:37-42. That is, there is no need to suppose the best explanation of the passage is Paul citing Gentile rhetoric.

    • Thanks, Peter. The passages you point to obviously also make no mention of female same-sex sexual activity, so they stand in the OT tradition from which this section in Romans differs. So whilst you take it as arguing against this possible exegesis, it could more strongly argue in its favour. Blessings.

    • Peter, Special Laws reads as child abuse or pedophilia, not homosexuality. Gay men are as disgusted by it as straight men. However, if the norms were as true in ancient time as today, the major portion of pedophiles identify as heterosexual, for pedophilia, which is not a sexual orientation, is about power, not about love and affection.

      • Hi David, I am away from my Philo set so cannot engage with the content of his writings (not to disagree with you re what you say but I would like to reread Special Laws to see if other things are being said). In any case my point still stands which is not whether Paul is saying the same things as Philo precisely but whether he could have written Romans as a Jew without citing Gentile rhetoric. Quite a bit of Romans 1 could have been written out of his knowledge of the OT and apocrypha; the general tenor of R1 is consonant with contemporary Jewish writing even if we debate whether content was precisely the same as other Jewish writing of the day.

        • Thanks, Peter. Just so we don’t drift too far away from the thread – the contention of this exegesis points out there is no mention of female same-sex sexual activity in the Old Testament from which Paul can draw. To point to Philo only reinforces rather than disagrees with this exegetical approach as Philo also makes no mention of female same-sex sexual activity. Blessings.

          • Er, to bring back a point made earlier, is Paul allowed no original thinking in your view?

        • Go back and read the post again Peter, what is being suggested isn’t that Paul was quoting Gentile rhetoric, but Jewish rhetoric. And a explanation for a passage that doesn’t grammatically fit with what came before and after it.

          The whole of the epistle is Paul’s original thinking, why are you so attached to this odd passage out having to be from Paul?

          • Hi David
            You are right! I have misread what Bosco wrote, the argument there being that Paul in R1 is citing a piece of Jewish rhetoric about Gentiles.

            That now clarified in my mind, I do not find it clarified that Paul is criticising the content of what, ex hypothesi, he cites. In R2:1 he criticises the person making the claims in R1:18-32. But does he criticise the content? Is there anything in Paul’s other writings, for instance, which leads us to think that he would have disagreed in whole or in part with R1:18-32? If he did disagree, why is this not clearer, e.g. through taking care to show that he was citing another (as he is well able to do in R2:2)? Is anything in R1:18-32 and 2:1-11 out of sync with R2:12?

            What is my concern here? That we read Paul well.

    • Peter, why must Paul personally agree with the position held by an author whom he then criticizes? That seems to be a grasp on your part to continue to force the outcome of this reading to still conform to your preconceived idea of it’s meaning, that Paul was anti-gay.

      • Hi David
        I hope that reasonable discussion of Paul can avoid allegations of forcing outcomes of readings to fit with preconceived ideas of the meaning of a passage. I am not alleging that a reading along the lines discussed in the post above is forced in order to fit a preconceived pro-gay view. Why should you allege the opposite of me? In what way does that forward a discussion aimed at genuine engagement with the meaning of the text?

        It is quite reasonable to raise questions about the proposal being made because it is a new reading and implies that Paul has been misread for millennia. The new reading may be correct. If it is, it should withstand some questions.

        Further, your response says nothing about the possibility that Paul is agreeing with the content of R1:18-32 because it is coherent with what Paul writes elsewhere.

        • And yet you didn’t answer my question, but tried a side step, by hoping to shame me of my behavior. Again, how does it logically follow that Paul would personally agree with a position that he criticizes? What would be that shape of that argument on the part of Paul in this text?

          Is it not an assumption that Paul has been misread for millennia? Perhaps Paul has only been misread by some and not by others. Or perhaps Paul has mostly been misread since the late Middle Ages when the historian John Boswell points out a dramatic rise in the persecution of women and sexual minorities in the Christian West.

          I take it that your reference is to 1 Cor 6:9 & 1 Tim 1:10? How do those combines with Romans make a coherent Pauline anti-gay concept?

          • Hi David,
            I did not mean to sidestep your question.
            I am distinguishing between Paul citing content he agrees with while criticising the person he is citing for engaging in one way judgment without realising he is also under judgement, hence the vocative of R2:1.

            One reason for considering that Paul agrees with the content is that he does not introduce the citation with any words which imply any kind of distancing between his own thinking and the thinking represented in R1:18-32.

            There are many assumptions about readings of Scripture. If there is evidence for readings of R1:18-22 varying through the centuries, it would be good to have that evidence to consider.

            Do 1 Cor 6:9-10 and 1 Tim 1:10 cohere with Romans 1:18-32. Yes, if we see a line running through all three which is negative about men engaging in sex with other men. There is much debate about these passages and not all exegetes would agree with the previous sentence, but I suggest that is a plausible and has been a popular reading of the three passages. [I mention this to respond to the question of a possible coherency in Paul’s thought, not to restart debate over homosexuality per se, which I am sure our host does not want to moderate). Importantly, in other parts of Pauline literature, there is concern about idolatry, bad behaviour and poor attitudes.

            On the other hand, we do not find Paul speaking elsewhere about what later theologians would call ‘general revelation’ (=R 1:19-20). I suggest that whether Paul is citing the words of another or putting out his own words, he is in agreement with at least this part of Romans 1:18-32 as it fits well with where his argument will go in succeeding chapters, especially 2:9-12, 3:9-18.

        • The official note published in the New American Bible (the official translation of the U.S. Catholic Bishops) on 1:Cor6:9 is:

          * [6:9] The Greek word translated as boy prostitutes may refer to catamites, i.e., boys or young men who were kept for purposes of prostitution, a practice not uncommon in the Greco-Roman world. In Greek mythology this was the function of Ganymede, the “cupbearer of the gods,” whose Latin name was Catamitus. The term translated sodomites refers to adult males who indulged in homosexual practices with such boys. See similar condemnations of such practices in Rom 1:26–27; 1 Tm 1:10.

          http://www.usccb.org/bible/1cor/6

          If Paul in Romans1 is listing the abominable sins of the gentiles, wouldn’t it make more sense for him to be speaking of really serious sins, sexual abuse of children, often slaves, rather than consenting relationships between adults ?

          The interpretation that Rom 1:26 refers to lesbianism seems to go well beyond what the text actually says.

          The ancients believed that the sperm was a seed planted in the “soil” of the womb. Hence the male seed was considered akin to a fertilized egg ie a human being. Hence “spilling seed” was considered almost as evil as abortion. This concern did not apply to lesbian acts, which may be why scripture does not mention them.

          God Bless

  2. ” If one questions whether females have one nature, and males another, then are homosexuals going against their nature in trying to fit into a heterosexual relationship? ” – Fr. Bosco Peters –

    I have long thought this to be a true assessment of what Saint Paul was writing about in Romans 1:26-27. If, in fact, the innate primary sexual orientation of a person is their homosexuality; to then persist in heterosexual sexual exploration may surely be accounted as ‘going against their (intrinsic) nature’.

    The sad history of attitudes towards homosexuals is that some innately homosexual persons have been persuaded – by society and the Church – to act in conflict with their given sexual human nature.

    The sooner the Church accepts this reality – that for intrinsically homosexual persons to have to prove their social and moral acceptability by
    going against their natural sexual instincts – to enter into a heterosexual relationship – is, in itself, a social and theological ill.

    This reality is sometimes proved by the fact that homosexuals who feel duty-bound to enter into a heterosexual marriage situation, often find themselves at odds with their given nature. This can cause problems, not only for the Gay partner in the marriage, but for their partner and any children who could be abandoned by the marriage breakup.

    Sometimes, a homosexual person can enter into a heterosexual marriage successfully, on the strict understanding of the partner that there will be no possibility of children being conceived between them. Such a marriage, however, can only become a successful partnership when both parties agree – beforehand – to the situation of a non-connubial relationship.

    Such marriages are not unknown in New Zealand.

  3. I am strongly swayed by the arguments made by Don M. Burrows and his use of the Calvin Porter paper. Thanks for the links. The idea sits well with me that Paul is making use of words from a Jewish tract that is harshly derogatory of Gentiles. I think we can indeed remove any sense of “clobber” from Romans 1:26-27 at least in regards to Paul’s own thinking. However, I think it’s a step too far to infer from this that Paul was indifferent to homosexuality and thought it was an acceptable lifestyle. That may be able to be argued from other evidence, but not from here.

    Here’s why I believe so. Everything from Romans 1:16 to Romans 3:20 is designed to support the assertion Paul makes in 3:21-23, and, in particular, “…there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” The “all” here are of course Jews and Gentiles. In the structure of Paul’s argument, chapter 1:21-32 establishes the point that the Gentile world has fallen short of the glory of God, and chapter 2 and the first part of chapter 3 shows that the Jewish world has, too.

    It would be a great ploy to get any Jewish readers nodding along in agreement with him by using their own words in chapter 1, only then to convict them, too, in chapters 2 and 3. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that Paul intends to convict the Gentile world, too, not just the Jewish one. If he had used totally his own words in chapter 1, his prose might have been less purple, but it would still somehow have been condemnatory. We just can’t know whether he would or would not have chosen to make reference to “unnatural relationships”, and if he did, what he would have written.

    Nevertheless, we can confidently say, when we set chapter 1 alongside chapter 2 and remember the climax that Paul is building towards in the second part of chapter 3, that entering into “unnatural relationships” was no bigger a transgression (if a transgression at all in Paul’s mind) than any of the sins with which Paul charges the Jews in the 49 verses that follow chapter 1. We can safely disarm the clobbering machine!

    By the way, none of the above addresses one way or another the question you ask, and which Father Ron Smith speaks to in his comment, the question being ”…are homosexuals going against their nature in trying to fit into a heterosexual relationship? ”. That’s a different debate and I won’t enter into it here.

    • Thanks, Trevor. And I can concur with all you say. And particularly appreciate that you don’t take the thread off into some direction beyond its focus – this particular text of Paul’s. Blessings.

  4. I can’t claim to have reached a particular understanding of the passage.

    Certainly I like the idea that there are missing citation-marks around some of it, an external reference of some kind, but that brings it back to my perennial problem trying to interpret it: the whole thing daisy-chains with verses starting `For’ and `Therefore’ back to 1:16. So the context is “not ashamed of the gospel” and “God’s invisible attributes have been plainly seen” (always worth boggling slightly at that)… leaving the deterioration into 1:26,27 still uncomprehended.

  5. I would posit that tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of Christians in the world today cannot read, a prayerbook, a missal or the scriptures. And they have little to no comprehension that when scripture is read to them that it is a translation, let alone from ancient manuscripts with little to no punctuation or formatting. millions also have no comprehension as to the advent of chapters and verses.

    As a visual learner, I could better appreciate and comprehend such ideas, as presented here, if someone could actually print the idea which these scholars are proposing, to be taking place in the ancient manuscript, in modern manuscript style sans chapters and verses! Or superscript chapters and verses, if necessary.

    • Ah…if only we had access to Paul’s original manuscript, we might be able to tell from it’s layout whether he was quoting or not.

      Bro David’s point about what is lost/added in textual transmission and translation is an excellent one. I’m reminded of the variety of 1st Century translations of the Hebrew scriptures into Aramaic, and the earlier Septuagint, which both saw fit to modify the text according to the translators understanding.

      God Bless

      • Thanks, Chris. Can you explain the sort of layout conventions for quoting that you are aware of in first century Greek, please. I’m not aware of such conventions. Blessings.

        • The Jewish Annotated New Testament has a section on Diatribe in Romans 2:1 :

          The original letter was probably delivered by a letter carrier (Phoebe) in a way that included acting out the parts

          Which is another interesting take on how much of the context of Paul’s epistles have not been handed down to us.

          God Bless

          • Thanks, Chris. To expand on your quote: “Paul employs the rhetorical technique of diatribe here and throughout Romans…. Thus, Paul may be asking the questions, or putting them in the mouth of the interlocutor (or interlocutors), or some of each. The diatribe form presents the interpreter with several problems, including separating Paul’s views from those he attributes to his interlocutors. The original letter…etc”

            Blessings.

      • Bosco,

        Good point ! No I can’t – I’d just assumed that the original letter might have had some indication of what was quoted, but it seems that wasn’t the way ancient Greek was written, punctuation having appeared a few centuries later.

        God Bless

  6. I find the above interpretations plausible but speculative. I’m reminded of 2Pet3:16 “Some things in his letters are hard to understand.”

    A more solid approach seems to be to argue that the human author necessarily interprets the divine will in line with his presuppositions, social conditioning, and necessarily limited theological outlook. (The “old view of Paul” !). It’s always the Word of God mediated thru the human limitations of the human author. To what extent was the human author limited by his social conditioning ?

    EG St Francis of Assisi famously misinterpreted God’s command “rebuild my Church” to mean repair a building rather than the Church as the body of Christ. Even great saints can get a simple 3 word sentence completely wrong !

    In the Catholic Church, the 1973 CDF document Mysterium Ecclesiae recognised that even the expression of dogma is historically conditioned.

    Another approach is to read scripture in line with accepted doctrine or practice. EG 1Cor14:34-35 would need to be read in line with the Church’s constant practice of having Women speak in Church, proclaim the sacred scriptures, teach etc. Romans 1:26-27 is not specific about lesbianism and could be read as about women engaging in heterosexual acts not open to conception; that such acts are (technically) morally acceptable in Catholic doctrine as part of foreplay may provide a helpful context.

    Scripture is supposed to be understood in the light of Church doctrine. But it’s interesting how it also works the other way around: particular doctrinal understandings have very much colored our understanding of these passages. As doctrine develops, so does the way we understand scripture.

    God Bless

    • Thanks, Chris. I’m fascinated by your assertion that “1Cor14:34-35 would need to be read in line with the Church’s constant practice of having Women speak in Church, proclaim the sacred scriptures, teach etc” What evidence do you have that this has been “the Church’s constant practice”? I would have thought that the opposite is true. Blessings.

    • I’m using “constant” in the sense of a very long standing tradition rather than majority practice everywhere at all times.

      In “Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future”, Phyllis Zagano quotes evidence that ancient women deacons read the gospel at Mass and certainly taught other women.

      Acts 18:26 has Aquila and Priscilla teaching a man.

      David Alenxader writes

      By the 11th or 12th century … the practice continued for some time of the leader in a community of women being made a deaconess, so that she could lead the divine office, read the Gospel, and administer Communion to her sisters when no bishop, priest, or deacon was available.

      Early in the century, the Orthodox Church in Greece initiated a brief revival of the deaconess; in the absence of a priest, they were to read the Gospel and administer Communion.

      https://www.ewtn.com/library/LITURGY/AROSEBY.TXT

      God Bless

      • The problem with the alternative exegesis presented regarding Romans 1:26-27, from an Orthodox standpoint, at any rate, is that this approach is not in accord with the ancient tradition of the church. A sola scriptura Protestant could hypothetically be defeated with this line of argument (a progressive Protestant, or indeed a Progressive Catholic, wouldn’t care, because they generally reject sola scriptura altogether), however, it would not fly in the Eastern churches. The ancient canons, the homilies of St. John Chrysostom, and indeed the living tradition of the Church attest that the relevant portion of Romans is to be taken literally.

        In contrast to the literal interpretation of Romans 1:26-27 favored by John Chrysostom, the canons of the early church, and the living tradition alive in Eastern Christianity today, such evidence of a historic literal interpretation does not exist for Corinthians 14:34-35. On the contrary, evidence suggests that for most of its history, the Church has had female choirs, and indeed in its first few centuries, maintained the office of deaconess, which later fell into abeyance. However, Paul’s other injunction against women, in 1 Tim. 2:12-13, was interpreted at least semi-literally, in terms of the traditional prohibition of the ordination of women to the presbyteriate and episcopate.

        What can we take away from this? Ultimately, that, as Irenaeus pointed out as early as the late second century, sola scriptura really doesn’t work. Even if you leave the text intact, you can still, with a bit of casuistry, get the texts to say anything you want them to say. This underscores, at a minimum, the usefulness of the Anglican recourse-to-Patristics approach, but it also illustrates the usefulness of the Orthodox approach of living tradition. It is a stretch to say that we, removed by nearly 2,000 years from the Apostle Paul, are more qualified to interpret him than the early Church Fathers, and its even more of a stretch to say that we are uniquely qualified to interpret Paul in a novel way that differs from how everyone else in the preceding nineteen centuries interpreted him.

        The most fruitful approach for Christians wanting to discard the Pauline moral injunctions isn’t to attempt novel exegesis of the “clobber passages”, but really, to deprecate Paul altogether, and include in the canon alternative material, such as the Gnostic gospels. The reason for this is simply that if you really think you can reinterpret Paul in such a radical way, in a way not really obviously indicated by the text, and furthermore in a way that is completely at variance with the canons of the early church, and the exegesis of virtually everyone who preceded you, you really are not being entirely honest with yourself. And that’s dangerous when it comes to religion, where a clean conscience is at its most important.

        Of course there are some, especially among the clergy and other “professionals”, who will cynically try to shoehorn Holy Scripture, and indeed Patristic commentary, into saying whatever they need it to say, for the sake of expediency, but these people have, as a rule, lack viable faith, in my experience. To keep the faith requires that we interpret in good faith, true to the tradition, true to logic, and true to ourselves, and if we can’t do that, maybe its time to find another religion.

        • Well said! “The most fruitful approach for Christians wanting to discard the Pauline moral injunctions isn’t to attempt novel exegesis of the “clobber passages”, but really, to deprecate Paul altogether, and include in the canon alternative material, such as the Gnostic gospels. The reason for this is simply that if you really think you can reinterpret Paul in such a radical way, in a way not really obviously indicated by the text, and furthermore in a way that is completely at variance with the canons of the early church, and the exegesis of virtually everyone who preceded you, you really are not being entirely honest with yourself. And that’s dangerous when it comes to religion, where a clean conscience is at its most important. “

  7. That could depend Bosco, on the logic, on the state of John Walton’s conscience. Otherwise I would like to read his book (which I have ordered) and do some comparison with whether his approach meets all the criteria listed above, especially the bit about ‘not obviously indicated by the text’ as that is where I think a difference might lie. But I will need to read the book before commenting further.

  8. Criticism that “this approach is not in accord with the ancient tradition of the church” needs to distinguish between what the human Pauline author intended and the interpretation taken a few centuries later.

    I am very much in favour of listening to the views of the patristic fathers, but they are not all unanimous as, for example, Brooten documents some patristic fathers reading Rom1:26 as meaning unnatural heterosexual intercourse and others as lesbianism.

    http://people.brandeis.edu/~brooten/Articles/Patrisitc_Interpretations_of_Romans_1_26.pdf

    Other patristic fathers are mostly focused on pederasty rather than consenting adult homosexuality:

    http://www.catholic.com/tracts/early-teachings-on-homosexuality

    It would seem that the patristic fathers support Bosco’s line of thinking.

    God Bless

  9. I would say that Walton is clearly in error on this point, and isn’t being entirely honest with himself. I would certainly prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt in so far as having cynically contrived a hermeneutic of convenience. There is certainly no reason however to hate the man; to avoid patronizing a library that contains his works would be an act of insane fundamentalism.

    My point is simply that if you’re going to tear up the entire 2,000 year history of how the church has interpreted a particular passage, you should perhaps consider whether Christianity in its Orthodox form is the right religion for you. Unitarian Universalism allows one to sidestep such scriptures, as does embracing, for example, Gnostic Christianity, and these approaches are becoming increasingly popular, and strike me as being much more earnest and authentic expressions of personal faith than that which Walton presently professes.

    That is not to say that in any respect Walton should be regarded in any dehumanizing light; embracing the freedom to make mistakes as a necessary cost of the freedom of conscience is what separates us from such disagreeable men in the history of our faith as John Calvin and Caiaphas (and at the same time unites us with such ancient saints as Ambrose of Milan, who was vehemently opposed to the execution of Priscillian).

  10. Thanks Bosco for outlining the views of recent interpreters of Romans 1.

    I’d like now to set these views of Roy Bowen Ward and Calvin Porter (derived to some extent from Robin Scroggs, of whom I am also aware) alongside two other contemporary NT scholars who strongly favour the sorts of conclusions Paul Anthony Preussler is offering us here. I am referring to Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996), and Robert Gagnon’s paper to be found at http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/faulty-orientation-argument-of-alan-harper/

    The latter is especially interesting as it drives home the point about the links among a due Jewish creation theology and idolatry, false worship, and ensuing behaviours, via a set of direct links between Gen 1:26-27 and Rom 1:23, 26-27. Now; such links may – just may – be the rationale of an anti Gentile Jewish pro forma tract, as suggested (possibly derived from Wisdom ch.13ff). Or rather, they may be far more likely, given Paul’s own exegesis discernable overall (see Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith), Paul’s own creation to “clobber” both Gentile and Jew in their respective unrighteousness – cf. Rom 11:32 via 3:9,22-23, the entire rationale of Romans, Paul’s “own Gospel” (16:25).

    PS as for poor John Walton’s supposed “novelty”. I am familiar with key parts of his oeuvre re ANE cosmologies, and frankly find his views as compelling as those of say Basil of Caesarea or Augustine in Confessions – even though of course they differ profoundly and yet are complementary to one another (but not necessarily contradictory!). But so what?! Each are addressing rather different questions, seeking differing forms of argument, and so conclusions. And it is the form of argument that is crucial, both re Gen 1 and Rom 1, and the conclusions reached. For at bottom: can we live with two very contradictory conclusions? I take it that is the point of Preussler’s wise suggestion of opting to follow another religion than Orthodox Christianity.

  11. Even within the Eastern churches, a degree of variance is allowed on those items deemed to be matters of theological opinion rather than dogma; in fact, one could say Orthodoxy is defined apophatically; its easier to say what Orthodoxy is not than to say precisely what it is. Within Anglicanism, the broad church latitudinarianism provides an even greater degree of freedom.

    That said however, that’s not quite my point. My argument is really that interpreting Paul in this manner is really a stretch when you look both at what he actually said, and also how the church always interpreted his remarks. Within Orthodoxy at least, its that historic interpretation that is binding upon us; no matter how compelling Walton’s interpretation is, we cannot use it simply because it does differ from that of Basil, Augustine, and the general consensus of Patristic opinion, as reinforced by ancient canon law and the historic praxis of the church.

    However, even outside of Orthodoxy, within the relatively more free-form environment of say, contemporary liberal Anglicanism, I would still caution against this approach. If one desires a liberal church, I would say its advantageous if one is as authentic about that liberalism as possible. Its much better, and more honest, both to yourself and to everyone else, to simply say that, in your opinion, Paul and the fathers were simply wrong, misinterpreting the Gospel in the light of the primitive aspects of ancient culture, which our society has now moved past, versus attempting to get Paul to say something he either didn’t say, or if he did say it, no one actually understood it for nearly 2,000 years (and if Paul is really that arcane, and such a poor communicator, one then has to ask how he managed to be so successful in spreading the Christian faith).

    I have seen many cogent arguments made to the extent that Paul actually was wrong on these points, and I’ve seen these arguments from a diverse range of figures in the realm of “Progressive Christianity.” You can, adopting this position, either say Paul was wrong on these specific points, but what he has to say is still highly valuable on other points, or you can deprecate him altogether. In both cases, its possible to articulate a theological narrative that works; I don’t personally agree with it and I don’t want to believe that myself, but freedom of religion is vitally important, and I can’t object to anyone having that view.

    However, I am concerned about this alternative approach, which seems to me a bit like saying 2 + 2 = 5. Yes, freedom of religion, which I respect absolutely, requires me to grant that you can hold this view, but in this case, its really manifestly wrong. I don’t think its spiritually or even psychologically healthy to believe in religious dogma that is obviously false, and it seems to me that taking Walton’s view regarding Paul is roughly on a par with the Mormon belief in the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, or for that matter the specifics of the view taken by Ken Ham regarding six day creation.

    Within the Eastern church, we have a major concern over the risks of delusion (plani in Greek, or prelest in Russian), and probably worry more about delusion than most other Christians, and to this end we generally take a dim view of a lot of things that are accepted elsewhere, such as stigmata, dreams, and even personal interpretations contrary to the generally accepted approach. In this case here, I can honestly say I’m more troubled by the idea of so obviously stretching the interpretation of Paul than I am by what you’re actually trying to do, which is of course to take a more progressive approach on gender issues. While I don’t agree with what you’re trying to do, I can’t object to your freedom to do it; I am however seriously alarmed at the possible risk of severe prelest that stems from this extremely marginal hermeneutic.

    In other words, if you can talk yourself into believing this, you might well be at risk for falling into the belief of a lot of other things, not just in the religious realm, but even in daily life, and this can cause quite a bit of personal misery; losing touch with reality can ultimately ruin your career, your relationships, even your health, and it just seems to me that admitting any belief as obviously shaky as this is a dangerously long step down that road.

  12. I am going to contradict myself above re not commenting before reading Walton’s book! With appreciative noting of several (varying) comments above, it strikes me that two slightly different interpretative approaches may be under the microscope here.

    (1) How do we understand a text like Genesis 1ff in the light of widely agreed scientific explanation of origins – science not available to the Fathers?

    (2) What was Paul’s view on homosexuality with specific reference to Romans 1:18-32? Or, in this context, does R1:18-32 reflect Paul’s view, whether or not he was citing something originally said by another? My sense is that the ability to answer these questions was just as available to the Fathers and to other experts in Greek through the centuries as it is to us today.

    (2) is distinguishable from a further question (3) which concerns whether the consistent negativity of the biblical writers re homosexuality bears scrutiny in the light of modern understandings of homosexuality? For question (3) the Fathers and others through the history of exegesis have nothing to say as the question has a specific modern context in which it arises. To the degree to which ‘modern understandings’ includes ‘science’, perhaps Walton’s approach has something to say.

    But my hunch, prior to reading Walton, is that Walton’s approach will not assist in the determination of question (2).

    • Thanks, Peter.

      We differ.

      I am not interested, and nor is Walton (as I understand him), in your approach of reviewing our understanding of Genesis 1 in the light of current scientific theories. I am interested in what Genesis 1 actually means – in the light of what the author(s) understood to be saying at the time and of the readers/hearers at the time.

      Similarly, this particular exegesis is interested in what Paul and his first readers/hearers may have understood that these texts were saying. This exegesis is parallel to the similar approach with the 1 Cor 14:34-35 text arguing that Paul was not trying to shut women up in church, but rather was quoting that and then arguing against the position of the quote.

      Just as big bang and evolution doesn’t affect the Genesis 1 exegesis, the contemporary slowly-growing-but-still-not-there-yet scientific understanding of sexual orientation does not bear on exegesis of the Romans text. Paul presents no view on homosexuality; to suggest that is being anachronistic. He may be presenting a view on male-male/female-female sexual activity, but that is the very issue that this particular exegesis is examining.

      That Walton’s exegesis is not reflected in the Fathers, or that this exegesis of Romans 1 is not reflected in the Fathers badly muddies the water. That God created everything is not being disputed – but Walton contends that Genesis 1 cannot be used to support that position. Maybe homosexual activity is sinful; but this exegesis argues that Romans 1 cannot be used to support that position – and more strongly, that it argues against that.

      Blessings.

  13. The problem with what you’re saying though, Bosco, at least from an Orthodox perspective, is that if Paul actually meant to say what you’re saying he said, then the early church would have received it that way. We cannot dismiss the interpretation of Paul by those very persons who compiled the collection of Pauline epistles they deemed authentic into the new testament.

    Now, if the interpretation pf Paul you’re trying to refute had originated in say, sixteenth century Calvinism, with no prior Patristic support, and was not backed by the ancient canon law of the Church, that would be another matter entirely. However, because the early church interpreted Paul in the manner they did, and this fact is reflected in the ancient canons, the homilies of St. John Chrysostom (his fourth homily on Romans is particularly germane), et cetera, we can say with certainty that Walton’s interpretation is erroneous.

    Let us look at this another way: do you or Walton really want to say that you are better equipped and more qualified to interpret Paul than St. John Chrysostom? Because if so, from an Orthodox standpoint at least, we would be very concerned by that.

    • Thanks, Paul.

      Let’s just be crystal clear here.

      This is not what “I am saying Paul actually meant to say”. My blog post is presenting an exegesis I read; I have provided the links to that exegesis for people to follow up should they so wish. Hence, nor am I “trying to refute an interpretation of Paul”.

      Please note, Walton is not commenting on Paul but, as indicated, on Genesis 1. And yes, I think that Walton would say that he is more “equipped and more qualified to interpret [Genesis 1] than St. John Chrysostom”.

      Blessings.

    • Paul, I think that your argument in favor of your position has become fill-in-the-blank boilerplate and you just drop folk’s names in the blanks without being clear about that of which you are speaking. Carefully read Father B’s original post and then the comments made by others and you will perhaps understand you false assumption here.

      Then you might be better prepared to comment.

  14. Admittedly when it comes to science, the fathers can be hit or miss, St. Basil the Great for example rejected the idea that atoms exist (although admittedly, at the time it was an unproven philosophical idea), although St. Athanasius in De Incarnatione anticipated one of the major headaches physicists have run into with the origin of the universe, that being the non-uniform distribution of matter and energy (attempting to solve that problem without recourse to the existence of God is fiendishly hard, perhaps impossible).

    However, the Apostle Paul is in a bit of a different boat, because the early church was directly connected to him, and was in a position to have received an oral tradition as to what he really meant. This tradition in turn shaped the canons and the theology of the fathers, and where these sources are in alignment with each other, and with the historic praxis of the church, Orthodoxy at least recognizes this as part of authoritative tradition.

    Thus, because Ss. Athanasius, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, et al, took a dim view of homosexuality, and Chrysostom among others cited Paul in supporting that view (and it was of course Athanasius who first enumerated the entire canon of New Testament books that we now accept) we are obliged within the Orthodox Church to regard that view as binding upon us even now, while at the same time rejecting outright the hatred associated with, for example, the Westboro Baptist Church.

    Within Anglicanism however the option does clearly exist of saying that the early church got it wrong, but its a lot harder to say that the early church screwed up on Paul than it is to say that the early church failed to properly grasp the message of the Gospel. Some Protestants (Peter J. Leithart comes to mind as an example) advocate a view that as human civilization has advanced, our understanding of the Gospel has necessarily changed, and this is part of God’s plan; however, given the ordinary status of Paul, and indeed of John, Peter and the other apostles, this implies that their understanding of Christ was in error, due to the limitations of human society at that juncture.

    However, if you do go down that road, it seems to make this entire exercise futile, because there’s simply no reason to regard Paul as authoritative or binding in that case. If one regards Paul as authoritative, one must say that human society did not preclude Paul from understanding the Gospel message. One must then go on to say that, by extension, the Fathers were not precluded from understanding Paul, especially insofar as they were responsible for compiling the authoritative canon of Pauline epistles we now use. On this basis, arguing against their interpretation of the relevant “clobber passages” then becomes impossible.

    So really, if you don’t agree with what St. John Chrysostom says St. Paul is saying, its very hard to go down this road at all, and much easier to instead take the alternate path of viewing Paul as helpful, but non-authoritative.

    By the way, on a lighter note, I must apologize for my given name, which for me at least, is wreaking havoc with parsing portions of this thread. Feel free to refer to me by my last name if that helps. :-p

  15. Paul Anthony, because in the 21st Century we have established the perfect infallibility of the human mind and can trust that even 3 or 4 folks who have actually been present and witnessed the same event all reliably tell the exact same account of the event that occurred, we can likewise rely on the oral tradition passed through two or three generations to have been accurately handed to the blessed saints you mention in spite of the fact that they lived 200 years or so after the death of Paul, the Apostle.

    • The telephone game argument doesn’t really fly with patristics for two reasons: firstly, these are not minor details that tend to get distorted (and indeed in the New Testament, we can see such minor details being distorted, as is witnessed by the variations between the Synoptics in their handling of common events); even in Patristic times this phenomena was known. Rather, these are important questions of faith, and the opinions of Ss. Athanasius, John Chrysostom, and the other leaders of the Church that actually gave us the Bible had a definite view of them.

      Secondly, and more importantly from an Orthodox standpoint, such a view is incompatible with our ecclesiology. We hold that the Church is literally the Body of Christ, guided in its decision making by the Holy Spirit, and the historic interpretation of Paul is, for us at least, as a part of sacred tradition, more or less infallible. For classical Anglicanism, it is at least important, given the status of tradition as one of the three pillars of Anglicanism.

      This of course all rests on a premise that Paul’s writing is somewhat ambiguous and easy to misunderstand on these points, something I am not prepared to agree with. From a purely literary standpoint I would say the interpretation of the “clobber passages” offered here is at best wishful thinking; when combined with the witness of the early church, there can be no doubt that Paul actually did intend to “clobber” in the so called “clobber passages.” As it stands, even if a John Chrysostom had agreed with the hermeneutic advocated here, his view would have been rejected by the Church in this instance; Chrysostom was not originating a novel view, but rather merely restating the point already taken by the Church in existing canon law (see, for example, the canons of Ss. Basil the Great and John the Faster, both of which address the question of sodomy) and by other theologians, such as St. Athanasius in De Incarnatione.

      Note that in my absolute respect for freedom of religion, I am not seeking to tell you you can’t believe that Paul said this, if you so desire, rather, I merely wish to demonstrate that this hypothesis is untenable. From an Orthodox perspective, it would not be a stretch to propose that interpreting a passage without regard to, or in a manner different from, the historical interpretation of the Fathers and the church through the centuries is inherently a case of eisegesis, and the famous parable of the mosaic given by St. Irenaeus of Lyons is applicable. One of the problems within Protestantism, that is less common but not entirely absent in high church Anglicanism, is a tendency to engage in such proof-texting, predicated upon what we regard as the fallacious notion that scripture can in all cases interpret itself.

      • Paul, with respect, you are perfectly free to hold that Orthodox are provided with the correct exegesis of each and every biblical passage infallibly; I, likewise, would not be surprised if there are some people in Orthodox churches who do not hold to your level of confidence for every passage. I find your position extreme that entertaining the possibility of an alternative interpretation for these verses of necessity affects “daily life, and this can cause quite a bit of personal misery; losing touch with reality can ultimately ruin your career, your relationships, even your health” etc. As you know, I explicitly highlighted the issue of being a novel interpretation when commenting on Walton’s work. I refuse to approach a new idea with the preconception that it is wrong, however, just because it is new. Blessings.

      • The patristic fathers views on Paul can’t be infallible because those fathers interpreted Paul quite differently.

        St Augustine said that if proven science differed from our scripture interpretation then we’d have to change our interpretation.

        That Paul can be very hard to interpret correctly was affirmed by Peter in the epistle attributed to him.

        God bless

  16. Just so we’re clear on this point, its not the novelty of this idea that’s eating me, but rather the fact that its in opposition to the doctrine of the people who decided that the epistles in question were valid scripture, and the fact that even from the perspective of liberal theology, it seems to me like more convenient approaches are available.

    I do very much enjoy your site by the way; I am a somewhat of an enthusiast of the liturgy, and the only reason I’m bringing this up is because I do care, and it seems to me that you’ve painted yourself into a corner that might well be relatively unsafe to occupy, at least from how we view things in Orthodoxy. However, there is no need to go banging on about this endlessly.

    By the way, new ideas and creative thinking are not alien within Orthodoxy; you can see key moments of development within the faith, two prominent examples being the apophatic theology of Gregory of Nazianzus, and the advances in hesychasm and the essence/energies distinction of St. Gregory Palamas (it would appear that such development is assisted by the presence of highly qualified individuals by the name of Gregory). The only cases where we reject new ideas are where those ideas conflict with established doctrine.

    I should lastly mention that of course there are members of the Church who would be inclined to agree with this approach, but such views have not been espoused by any hierarch or noted theologian. The closest any official representative might come to this would be in some of the writings of Kallistos Ware, but even he stops well short of directly advocating the break in tradition that this hermeneutic would require (and indeed, the Orthodox Study Bible of which he was an editor takes a thoroughly conventional approach to the “clobber passages”). This is not to say that the idea espoused here is heresy; only a council could declare such a view to be anathema; however, such a view is definitely foreign to say the least. One might also wish to observe that within the Orthodox Church, as you probably know, we don’t really take a juridicial view of sin, but rather view it as a disease, and for this reason the passages in Paul in question take on less the form of “clobbering” and are rather received as prescriptive (or perhaps proscriptive) medicine, medicine that can admittedly be hard to swallow given the constraints of contemporary society. Thus, my remarks here should not be viewed as judgmental (far be it from me), but rather, a mere expression of loving concern at the risks of prelest I fear one might fall into by taking such an approach that, to me at least, seems to be relatively lacking in authenticity.

    At any rate, blessings to you as well, and hopefully in the near future the opportunity might arise for us to discuss some rather more interesting and less controversial aspect of liturgics on this very blog.

  17. I do want to address the concerns of Chris Sullivan and Bro David on Holy Tradition, but this should not be understood as referring to the main thrust of my earlier point, which I feel has been made sufficiently.

    Firstly, in response to Bro David, I would say from outside an Orthodox ecclesiology, such a system would appear to be self-serving, yes. However our view is that our church is, uniquely, the body of Christ, the Church referenced in the New Testament; the New Testament is understood as having been written by the Church, for the Church, and the Church alone can interpret it authoritatively. To quote a superb line of dialogue from one of my favorite films, The Land of the Pharoahs, spoken by Greek actor Alex Minotis, in his role as the High Priest, “You might not share our beliefs.”

    In response to Chris Sullivan, I would observe that the Patristic consensus approach, by itself, is rejected by the Orthodox, for essentially the reasons you cite. This idea of recourse to the common opinion of the Fathers is really a Reformation-era approach, particularly popular in Anglicanism. It doesn’t work, by itself, because to receive the fathers, even where they agree, without the context of how their teaching was received by the Church is really just an extension of sola scriptura, with the Patristic sources forming a sort of Christian Talmud.

    Rather, what is relevant is the Patristic consensus as it existed over time, the reception of this consensus by the Church as witnessed by the ancient canons, which are still generally in force in the Orthodox realm, and by the fact that the view they take in regards to Paul has continued as doctrine ever since. For these reasons, their interpretation of Paul, and its reception by the Church, can be said to have the status of Tradition, which in Orthodoxy is held to be infallible (interestingly the Bible is not infallible by itself, but only as a vital component of the Tradition that produced it).

    One might lastly observe that while St. Augustine’s sainthood is generally accepted in the Orthodox church, he is generally viewed as a relatively minor saint, and his theology has not been generally accepted; in particular, the Orthodox emphatically reject the notion of imputed guilt, and monergist approach to salvation, which he espoused in his rebuttal of Pelagius. A far more important role in shaping the Orthodox conception of original sin was played by St. John Cassian. Thus, in the grand scheme of things, Augustine is relatively insignificant in Eastern theology; his views are not held with the same esteem as those of Ss. Irenaeus, Athanasius, the three holy hierarchs, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory of Palamas, et al. This stands in marked contrast to the West, where Augustine is generally regarded as essentially the most important of the ancient post-Nicene Fathers.




About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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