Tuesday, 4 August 2015

A brief commentary on Romans 1:16-2:5

There are a few aspects I wish to highlight from the beginning of Paul's letter to the Roman Christians. After saying he desires to see them and preach the gospel in Rome he discusses the importance of the gospel to both the Jews and the Gentiles. Romans 1:16-2:5 reads,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.
Paul introduces this passage with a quote from Habakkuk summing up the necessity of faith. The focus in Paul's letters is that salvation comes from Christ and we need to have faith in him. Paul sets up the Jewish believers by showing that the pagans are lost. He demonstrates this convincingly yet at the moment the Jews agree with Paul's conclusion he reminds them that they are in the same predicament. Not only are the Gentiles gossips, haughty, faithless; so are they. And while the Jews may condemn the Gentiles for certain actions, they behave similarly. Later Paul argues that they can't condemn Gentile adultery and theft when they do likewise.

Paul ends the discussion of Gentile sin with a vice list that he says is obvious to all: they know God's righteous decree; they know the just punishment is death; yet they both practice such sin and approve of others. This is particularly damning judgment as Paul is saying that such behaviour is not ignorant sin, it is defiant sin.

But the prelude to the vice list is to describe the depths of depravity of the Gentiles. Paul discusses serious pagan sin and argues his case indirectly from Genesis. His discussion concerns the pagan rejection of the Creator and throughout Paul repeatedly alludes to creation.
  • God's invisible attributes, eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world (Gen 1:1), in the things that have been made (Gen 1).
  • God (Gen 1:1) is rejected for man (Gen 1:27), birds (Gen 1:21), animals (Gen 1:25), and creeping things (Gen 1:25).
  • They exchanged the truth for a lie (Gen 3:4).
  • [They served the creature rather than the Creator (Gen 3:6).]
  • Women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature (Gen 2:24; 4:1).
  • Men gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another (Gen 2:24; 4:1).
Paul writes that the Gentiles have rejected God and God has given them over to their rebellion. This concept is repeated in the passage.
  1. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
  2. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator
Paul is repeating the same concept here. Exchanging immortal God for images of mortal creatures is exchanging truth about God for a lie. Thus God gives them over to their own desires. But Paul notes that idolatry leads to serious sexual sin; and again Paul repeats this.
  1. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,
  2. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.
The second statement is a repeat of the first, and Paul expands the second statement: he describes the nature of the sexual sin.
  1. For their women (θήλειαι) exchanged natural (φυσικὴν) relations (χρῆσιν) for those that are contrary to nature (φύσιν); and
  2. the men (ἄρσενες) likewise gave up natural (φυσικὴν) relations (χρῆσιν) with women (θηλείας) and were consumed [burning] with passion [desire] for one another, men (ἄρσενες) in men (ἄρσεσιν) committing shameless (ἀσχημοσύνην) acts and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
The usual interpretation is that these are lesbian acts and sodomy respectively. The term relations (χρησις, chresis) in both clauses carries the connotation of sexual relations, especially sexual relations with a female. The actions of men imply sodomy as they exchange natural relations with women for those with men. The actions of women are less clear. They have exchanged natural relations for those [relations] that are contrary to nature. Leviticus has strictures against several sexual acts:
  1. Acts between men and women when the relationship is inappropriate
  2. Acts between men and men
  3. Acts between men and animals
  4. Acts between women and animals
There are no strictures against women being with women. Now I do not think that lesbian behaviour was therefore sanctioned. This is because the strictures are against sex acts and sex acts are viewed as penetrative. Thus it seems more likely that Paul is saying that women are exchanging natural sexual relations—coitus—with unnatural sex acts. Because the unnatural acts are penetrative it seems that Paul is referring to heterosexual anal sex. God gives the ungodly over to their wickedness so women start to perform unnatural sex acts with men and the men turn away from women to other men.

Following this Paul again states that God gives people over to their wickedness.
  • God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
And this third statement by Paul leads into the extensive vice list.
  1. all manner of unrighteousness
  2. evil
  3. covetousness
  4. malice
  5. envy
  6. murder
  7. strife
  8. deceit
  9. maliciousness
  10. gossips
  11. slanderers
  12. haters of God
  13. insolent
  14. haughty
  15. boastful
  16. inventors of evil
  17. disobedient to parents
  18. foolish
  19. faithless
  20. heartless
  21. ruthless
These actions are not done in ignorance. Men know what God wants but they follow their own desires. This is why God's wrath is against them: they suppress truth and choose unrighteousness.

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