Brief note on Paul and para-physicality

After reading James DeYoung's article, "The Meaning of 'Nature' in Romans 1 and Its Implications for Biblical Proscriptions of Homosexual Behavior" (JETS 31 no. 4, 1988), and mindful of the rhetoric being thrown around in my own denomination about sexuality, I'm stuck using the phrase "missing the point" once again. It's becoming an unintentional trademark of mine.

DeYoung did his homework, and it's a decent article for either side trying to interpret Paul's comments about exchanging kata-physical usage for para-physical usage. Beyond the evident bias of the frame, in which he is trying to discredit the interpretation of this passage as allowing certain kinds of homosexuality (and therefore discredit ecclesial proponents of homosexuality), he hits physis in its lexical and contextual senses with what seems to me reasonable accuracy. He also hits the efforts to shade Paul's point pretty hard.

Now, I'm willing to do this last bit myself -- Paul meant what Paul meant, and co-authored a text to convey that to a solidly Roman audience. While it is self-evident that Paul didn't mean what we mean, that point doesn't automatically give us the wiggle room that has sometimes been claimed. If Paul is talking about some sort of homosexuality, or any sort of homosexual relationship, it doesn't follow necessarily from the context difference that our forms fall outside of first-century distaste and moral opprobrium. That has to be proved in its own very detailed fashion, and it's a very fuzzy argument because we must construct both our forms and their forms in profound detail. So I'll fall on DeYoung's side as far as shooting down ideas that this is a pederasty-only condemnation.

The further trouble with shaving down Paul's meaning to one particular point is that the wording in Romans 1 is incredibly broad! I part company with DeYoung on the point of shading ten physiken chresin and ten para physin and framing them to fit our forms at all. Paul's rhetoric is good preaching here: specific enough to get the point into the hearer's mind, and generic enough to make it appear however the hearer constructs it. Pejorative framing context, use of para physin as a broad but acknowledged topos covering deviant sexual behavior, and beyond that, characterization of it as misdirected excessive desire. Paul need say no more. No age terms, no status markers, no specification of the kind of people involved, just genders. Let 'em color in their own picture! And it works with us just as well as I'm sure it worked with the Roman churches. We point just as surely at "those sinners over there," whose image we have painted in our own minds. If Paul is condemning homosexuality here, he's doing it as broadly as possible. And as briefly -- you can't possibly tell me this is a theme of the letter.

Now: is he condemning homosexuals? Does the religious context, the idolatry point, help -- is he condemning faithful, baptized Christians with same-gender orientations? And what if he is, in this passage? What if these two verses really are as broad as the most exclusive normative moralist among us wants to draw them? How much does it matter? How much, when you read the whole argument? How much, if it's designed to set the audience up for a fall?

Would you take the opening line, especially if it were an exceptionally juicy rhetorical bit, out of a two-page newspaper article and cite it as the author's true and honest opinion? Would you call it eternal divine truth, when the author is really leaning on some other ethos? Is this "sound bite" what Paul is saying in Romans? Is it even what he's saying in Romans 1-4? Are you going to tell me that Kierkegaard believes as his own opinion any given line of Either/Or? Especially the strong opinions? Let alone that God does!

What really interests me is coming. Use according to nature and contrary to nature is only sexual here, but Paul uses it as a motif in the larger scheme. You cannot escape the sexuality reference as a component of the condemnation of "all of the impiety and injustice of those people who are covering over the truth with injustice" in chapter 1. (I've been trying!) But watch the rhetoric invert the audience's condemnation upon themselves. Watch this hypothetical story of unjust and idolatrous people bite them in the ass as they cheer for God's judgment ... upon themselves. And watch Paul point out what God has done rather than do what Luther called "his opus alienum." Good Greek is a brilliant tool for long, rhetorically moving argument -- so much more capable than English, but therefore so much less useful for a Strunk and White world.

All right, so I'm absolutely incapable of writing a 'brief note'.


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