Praising the Audience, Blaming the Outsiders (Romans 1:14-32)

Throws in Judo rely on the more aggressive opponent overextending themselves across a leverage point; all the judoka does is translate that leverage into a different kind of motion than the opponent intended. There are two general steps to this process, which are served by the footwork and body contact: first, move the leverage point in, and second, induce rotation.

I like this as an analogy for what Paul does to the Romans in chapter 1. I like it especially because, when done well, the basic hip throw in Judo looks like three steps: I put my arm around your back, I turn to face the same way you're going, and then I land you on the floor. It's a bit more complicated in standing demonstration, but when done to someone already in motion, this throw is quick, and it can be totally unexpected and disorienting—and if the grip is wide enough and the circumstances are good, only the ego needs to be bruised. Paul's use of the language of praise and blame, what we call "epideictic rhetoric," here looks exactly like the first two steps: make positive contact, and turn to face the same direction.

What the audience doesn't see is the hip motion and footwork that, in chapter 2, will see them looking up at Paul from the floor. What we don't usually see is that, by "agreeing" with them, Paul is luring the audience into overextending themselves across his hip to put themselves on the floor. Romans 1 encourages the audience to do something not-at-all unusual to them, for the sake of producing an outcome that is quite unexpected. Paul is using this rhetoric, praising the audience and blaming outsiders, to create a teachable moment that will let him demonstrate what they are doing wrong.

Tactical Rhetoric

There's a distinction commonly made in Marxist theory between strategy and tactics. Put briefly: strategy is the luxury of power and advantage. Tactics are the necessities of the powerless and disadvantaged. As I tried to show in the last post, flattery is a tactic here. Paul and Phoebe and company may well have had significant opportunities to consider the trip to Rome strategically, but that strategy was designed for an approach from a position of disadvantage, which involves creating advantage using tactics.

Paul/Phoebe has granted to the Roman audience their position of advantage, and encouraged them to be comfortable in it. They have set up for the audience a positive persona that is worth encouraging: beloved of God, called to service, and set apart in devotion to God. But they've also married that to the audience's own cultural self-assertion: sophisticated, cultured, wise, belonging to the imperial Greco-Roman world, and Jewish to boot.

It's that self-assertion that carries the audience forward here, especially because it belongs to a binary of inside/outside. Their collective good is contrasted with the "senseless barbarians" outside. Romans 1 indulges this contrast, following the logic of praise for the audience with the logic of blame for the outsiders—but without granting either logic the dignity of first-person endorsement. Paul only endorses the gospel, not the audience or their sense of moral superiority.

Chapter 2 will serve as the throw itself, revealing the tactics of chapter 1 by shifting into a mocking denunciation of the audience, rather than the "senseless barbarians." The sudden shift in the language of blame will serve the same function as juridical parables do elsewhere. The teacher presents a general case, urges the audience to assign blame, and reveals in the end that they have blamed themselves. In the words of Nathan, "You are the man."

While this only serves as a form of tu quoque, and so does not defeat the accusations in 1:18-32 as claims of moral wrong, the point is to begin by pushing the button on the audience's hypocrisy and hubris. Hypocrisy, because they are just as vicious, and outsiders are no less virtuous; hubris, because they have invoked God's judgment as the enforcement of their bias.

Beyond this, it is neither necessary nor advantageous for Paul/Phoebe to engage in point-by-point refutation of the rhetoric of blame applied to the outsiders in 1:18-32. Romans is not a textual argument, and rhetorical points are not scored by pedantry. Think Impressionism here. Change the light, and the whole scene changes. It is enough, in this mode of argumentation, for Paul/Phoebe to conclusively deny the legitimacy of these accusations as claims of God's judgment. Deprived of the false light of presumed divine justice, the condemnations we are about to see stand as human injustices themselves.

The audience will be left with a sour taste in their mouths, hearing what they've just "said" in these verses. They will grab at the correction, because their desire for self-justification will keep them going. Surely something of what they believe about themselves—something about their special qualifications as a group of the elect—is still true! If the ball is rolling, that just makes it a bit more challenging to stay on top, but they'll do it.

But for all of that to work, chapter 1 must proceed without the audience twigging to the game just yet. Romans 1 must feel genuine and continuous as Paul/Phoebe moves from praise to blame with the audience. And it should! Right now, the audience feels pretty good about themselves. They're stable and confident, and Paul is approaching them on the terms of their own confidence. And what he's doing, pushing them to reveal their own over-confidence, is among the most effective tactics for revealing problems that one generally hides in polite society.

Things one hides in public can safely be revealed in private, among like-minded friends. Public shame, enforced by external norms, can mask the private pride of the in-group. An effective simulation of in-group identity is necessary to reveal that pride, before it can be corrected. This is the dominant tactic of Romans 1, the reason the flattery of the first half is there. This is what epideictic rhetoric does. Paul and Phoebe have to uncover the audience's pride in something shameful—and the best way to do it is, ironically, to let them denounce the shameful pride of the outsiders.

The Pride of the Audience

Because Romans 1:18-32 isn't really separate from 1:14-17, I'm going to include those earlier verses here. But I'm going to explain them differently from the last post, to flesh them out further. These verses are the hinge of this chapter, the point at which praise swings into blame. Identity and ego are the fulcrum that gives Paul leverage on the audience. We often look at 1:16-17 as a statement of gospel, but that gospel is twisted here, and twisted intentionally. It is just as important to see these verses as part of the coming blame, as it was to see them as part of the earlier praise.

  • Romans 1:14-32: Praise and blame with the audience
    1. 1:14-17: Wise Cultured Judeans
      1. 1:14-15: Paul's obligation to the cultured Romans
      2. 1:16a: Shared pride in the proclamation
      3. 1:16b: God's power for all who trust God, insiders first
      4. 1:17: God's justice for those who trust God, insiders first
    2. 1:18-32: Senseless Barbarian Pagans
      1. 1:18-23: Conviction: idolatry
        1. 1:18-19: God's wrath against those who deny the obvious truth
        2. 1:20-21: The obviousness of God, and pagan denial
        3. 1:22-23: The foolishness of idolatry
      2. 1:24-32: Sentencing: poetic justice
        1. 1:24-25: The dishonor of bodily impurity
        2. 1:26-27: The dishonor of pathological sexuality
        3. 1:28-32: The vices of improper sensibilities

For the sake of rhetorical effect, I'm going to go through the text playing it as straight as possible. If I had your forbearance, I'd do it twice: once straight and once explaining the footwork. And if this were a lecture, I'd certainly do that. As it is, I've already told you what you should be expecting, so I expect you to read for the footwork in the first place.

If you know this text at all, you've already read it naïvely at least once. It's not my job to clean up anything Paul says here, to make him say anything more or less than the text says. I get to say to you exactly what Paul and Phoebe said to the Roman audience, and I get to expect you to react appropriately to the rhetoric used. And only then do I get to work with that reaction.

Still, the first move is the most telling, and it's the one we never see, so I'm going to point at it: Paul stepping just out of the way. Watch as the first-person activity here disappears. Paul states his obligation to all parties for the sake of the gospel, uses litotes to declare his own pride in the gospel—and then everything goes third-person. All the work is done implicitly, from here on, by the unity created between Paul/Phoebe and the audience as people with the most important things in common—including that insider identity.

God's Just Reward for Faith: Romans 1:14-17

Ἕλλησίν τε καὶ βαρβάροις, σοφοῖς τε καὶ ἀνοήτοις ὀφειλέτης εἰμί· οὕτως τὸ κατ’ ἐμὲ πρόθυμον καὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς ἐν Ῥώμῃ εὐαγγελίσασθαι. I am indebted to the Hellenes, as well as the barbarians; to the wise, as well as the senseless—hence the eagerness on my part to preach also to you who are in Rome.
οὐ γὰρ ἐπαισχύνομαι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον For I am not ashamed of the proclamation;
δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι, Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι. indeed, it is the power of God for the salvation of all who trust—of the Judean first, and also the Hellene.
δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται. For the justice of God is revealed in it, by faith and for faith, just as it is written, "The just will live by faith."

That is what this is, isn't it? Salvation as God's just reward for faith. The proclamation of the gospel as the power of God itself, saving those who receive it. The proclamation of the gospel as the demonstration of the justice of God, saving those who hear and trust what it says. It is the faithful who preach it, and the faithful who receive it. It ripples outward into the world, this faith that began in Abraham and was established in Israel.

And Israel and Judah have been dispersed out into the world themselves, but from every scattered tribe it still ripples outward, making converts among those who hear and trust the word of God that they proclaim. This God has power, and rewards those who trust. He is One, the same in desert as in city, the same for the uncultured barbarians as for the civilized people of the world, the same for the gentiles as He has always been for Israel.

And we are proud of this, proud of our faith and confident in our reward. Both native Judeans and converts—but especially converts—carry this pride as the justification of their difference from the world. It becomes pride in that difference very easily—and after that it gets very difficult to distinguish the lines between our pride in our faith and our pride in our culture.

Oh, but there is a distinction that's much easier to make, one that's so much more important than splitting hairs as to what defines who we are as God's people. All those little internal differences pale in comparison to the one really big external one. We live by our faith. But for them...

God's Just Wrath Against the Faithless: Romans 1:18-23

Ἀποκαλύπτεται γὰρ ὀργὴ θεοῦ ἀπ’ οὐρανοῦ ἐπὶ πᾶσαν ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν ἀνθρώπων τῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἐν ἀδικίᾳ κατεχόντων, Indeed, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven upon every impiety and injustice of people who unjustly obstruct the truth,
διότι τὸ γνωστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ φανερόν ἐστιν ἐν αὐτοῖς· since the facts about God are apparent to them;
ὁ θεὸς γὰρ αὐτοῖς ἐφανέρωσεν. for God made these things apparent to them.

What is the truth? God is god. There is no god but God. And this truth is obvious! It is obvious because God has demonstrated it. That God is rightfully god is manifestly the case. To oppose this truth, to have it and deny it, to seek to control it and prevent its free dissemination into the world—such acts are not only acts of irreverence, but patently unjust.

Such acts of impiety and injustice inspire the wrath of the One who rules from the heavens. This, too, God has made obvious, demonstrating His wrath upon people who do such things. We'll get there, of course, but let's start by elaborating the facts of the case.

τὰ γὰρ ἀόρατα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου τοῖς ποιήμασιν νοούμενα καθορᾶται, Indeed, God's invisible attributes may be clearly seen to be knowable in God's deeds from the creation of the world—
ἥ τε ἀΐδιος αὐτοῦ δύναμις καὶ θειότης, namely, God's eternal power and divinity.
εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτοὺς ἀναπολογήτους, Consequently, they are inexcusable,
διότι γνόντες τὸν θεὸν οὐχ ὡς θεὸν ἐδόξασαν ἢ ηὐχαρίστησαν, since while they knew God they neither glorified nor thanked God as god;
ἀλλ’ ἐματαιώθησαν ἐν τοῖς διαλογισμοῖς αὐτῶν καὶ ἐσκοτίσθη ἡ ἀσύνετος αὐτῶν καρδία. rather, they were negligent in their consideration of God, and their imprudent hearts were cast into shadow.

Let's restate that truth: God is god. There is no god so capable as God. There is no god whose power in this world dates even to the creation of the world—except God, whose power is manifest in the act of creating the world, and in every act of which scripture speaks thereafter. Whose power and divinity are therefore timeless, ageless, eternal. Of course, the power and divinity of God cannot themselves be seen, any more than God can be seen. But God has made His power and divinity manifest in these acts in history, and they are the evidence that demonstrates that God is god beyond all others.

With such evidence, there can be no excuse for ignorance! There can be no excuse for failure to praise, thank, and glorify God. Everyone has seen the work of God's hands. It is sheer negligence, imprudence, folly, to deny it. If you can argue and reason about gods in this world without acknowledging God as god—as not only the true god, but as also therefore your god—you are simply not in the light. You are standing in some form of shadow, cast by your own denial.

φάσκοντες εἶναι σοφοὶ ἐμωράνθησαν, Professing to be wise, they became fools,
καὶ ἤλλαξαν τὴν δόξαν τοῦ ἀφθάρτου θεοῦ ἐν ὁμοιώματι εἰκόνος φθαρτοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ πετεινῶν καὶ τετραπόδων καὶ ἑρπετῶν. and confused the likeness of the image of destructible people, birds, cattle, and reptiles with the glory of the indestructible God.

Such people are fooled by their own claims to wisdom and sophistication. Reasoning in the dark, they seize upon things they can see as images of God, whom they cannot see.

Once upon a time, we also tried to worship a cow. Giant golden cow. No kidding. And do you know what happened? God made us grind it up and eat it! Did it have any power? Only to cause us indigestion! Was it god? Of course not. So who brought us out of Egypt? God.

Once upon a time, we also tried to worship little things shaped like people. Women, specifically. Called them "asherah," consorts of God. That one was a bit harder. It took us hundreds of years to learn from that mistake—in fact, it finally took God kicking us out of the land! We spent generations in exile in Babylon learning to worship God alone. And in the end, it was God who returned us to the land so that we could worship Him faithfully.

Moral of the story: stuff like that really pisses God off. It's stupid. Don't do it. Only God is god, and God saves the faithful. We know that, even if the rest of the world denies it. And that denial has consequences.

God's Just Punishment of the Faithless: Romans 1:24-32

διὸ παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς ἐν ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις τῶν καρδιῶν αὐτῶν εἰς ἀκαθαρσίαν τοῦ ἀτιμάζεσθαι τὰ σώματα αὐτῶν ἐν αὐτοῖς, Because of this, God handed them over, in the covetousness of their hearts, to impurity, so that their bodies should be dishonored among them:
οἵτινες μετήλλαξαν τὴν ἀλήθειαν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν τῷ ψεύδει, those who replaced God's truth with falsehood
καὶ ἐσεβάσθησαν καὶ ἐλάτρευσαν τῇ κτίσει παρὰ τὸν κτίσαντα, and revered and served the creature rather than the Creator,
ὅς ἐστιν εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας· ἀμήν. who is blessed forever—amen!

God is god, may His name be blessed! And it's bad enough when people deny that truth—but it's far worse when they turn to worship other things. When they replace that truth with lies. The golden calf was a lie—and we were punished for it. The asherah were lies—and we were punished for them. The idols of the pagans are also lies, claims that some created thing is god in place of the One who created all things. And they will be punished.

And, in fact, they are being punished! People who worship their fellow creatures are likely to have other problems. God compounds their sins, demonstrating the errors of their ways to everyone with eyes to see. God has abandoned them to their covetousness, to their greed, to their depraved desires. Such things can only lead to impurity and dishonor—and so we see!

διὰ τοῦτο παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς εἰς πάθη ἀτιμίας· Because of this, God handed them over to the experience of dishonor.
αἵ τε γὰρ θήλειαι αὐτῶν μετήλλαξαν τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν εἰς τὴν παρὰ φύσιν, Indeed, their females changed the natural use of their bodies to one contrary to nature,
ὁμοίως τε καὶ οἱ ἄρρενες ἀφέντες τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν τῆς θηλείας and likewise the males also abandoned the natural use of the female body,
ἐξεκαύθησαν ἐν τῇ ὀρέξει αὐτῶν εἰς ἀλλήλους, being kindled in their appetites for one another,
ἄρρενες ἐν ἄρρεσιν τὴν ἀσχημοσύνην κατεργαζόμενοι males performing obscenity with other males,
καὶ τὴν ἀντιμισθίαν ἣν ἔδει τῆς πλάνης αὐτῶν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἀπολαμβάνοντες. and receiving among themselves the compensation merited by their straying from God.

Where does covetousness lead? It doesn't stop at the desire for things—it reaches out and twists our relationships. It destroys our families. The obscenity of men "plowing" other men! Yes, katergazomai is used for intensive agriculture, and by extension, sex. Putting seed into a fertile field and waiting for it to grow. But nothing will grow from this kind of plowing! And shall the field seed itself? Nature shows us otherwise!

This is the dishonor of those who falsely honor bodies. Greed, appetite, unrestrained desire—God has allowed these things to multiply around us to show the evils that come from the denial of God. It is a perversion of nature, and yields no good fruit.

καὶ καθὼς οὐκ ἐδοκίμασαν τὸν θεὸν ἔχειν ἐν ἐπιγνώσει, And just as they did not deem God worthy of recognition,
παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς εἰς ἀδόκιμον νοῦν ποιεῖν τὰ μὴ καθήκοντα, God handed them over to an unworthy mind, to do what is not proper.
πεπληρωμένους πάσῃ ἀδικίᾳ πονηρίᾳ πλεονεξίᾳ κακίᾳ, They have been filled with every injustice, wickedness, arrogance, and vice;
μεστοὺς φθόνου φόνου ἔριδος δόλου κακοηθείας, they are full of envy, bloodshed, conflict, deceit, and malice;
ψιθυριστάς, καταλάλους, θεοστυγεῖς, ὑβριστάς, ὑπερηφάνους, ἀλαζόνας, they are whisperers, slanderers, people who hate and usurp the place of God, pompous braggarts, and impostors;
ἐφευρετὰς κακῶν, γονεῦσιν ἀπειθεῖς, they invent new evils, and they do not listen to their parents;
ἀσυνέτους, ἀσυνθέτους, ἀστόργους, ἀνελεήμονας· they are senseless, faithless, heartless, and merciless.
οἵτινες τὸ δικαίωμα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπιγνόντες, These people recognize the decree of God,
ὅτι οἱ τὰ τοιαῦτα πράσσοντες ἄξιοι θανάτου εἰσίν, that those who engage in such practices are worthy of death,
οὐ μόνον αὐτὰ ποιοῦσιν ἀλλὰ καὶ συνευδοκοῦσιν τοῖς πράσσουσιν. and they not only do them, but also agree with others who engage in these practices!

There is a whole, vast, ugly pagan world out there, my friends. They're not just covetous idolaters. They are nasty, evil people. And for their denial of God, God has permitted their sins to multiply, so that one evil might be repaid with another.

There will be two fates, on the day of God's righteous judgment. The wrath of God has been revealed against all of these things, and the ultimate sentence will be death. Only the faithful shall inherit eternal life. This is the power and the justice of God.

…and perhaps we might go on to say something like this, because we are a missionary community: God has set before you life and blessings, on the one hand, and death and curses, on the other. Choose this day what god you will serve, knowing the consequences of that choice.

But most certainly, since we are a missionary community, we will say of ourselves that we have chosen life, and that as those who trust God we therefore strive to live a moral life. This speech has been a masterwork of Hellenistic Jewish rhetoric, outfitting the topics of the Decalogue in rhetoric designed to appeal to the conscience of the cultured Hellene. It is what we believe, isn't it? We have made the right choice, the obvious choice, and we invite you all to do the same.

All right, friends. I've told you what's coming. Romans 1:14-32 is one massive system of moral theology. They believe it. You might believe some or even all of it yourselves. But Paul is about to negate the whole thing, and condemn you for believing it. So you have to ask yourselves, what parts of it are true? What grounds this theology? What presumptions guide it? Is anything here salvageable?

And above all: what is the gospel? If you are going to rebuild out of this rubble, you must begin there. There is no other foundation. Remember what Paul said to the Corinthians, because it may be the article of faith upon which this whole thing is built:
Each one of you must be careful how you build. No one can lay another foundation beside the one that has already been laid: Jesus Christ. So if anyone builds up gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw on this foundation, the work of each one will be made clear—indeed, the day will show, because it will be revealed in fire, and the fire itself will test the work of each. Those whose work in building up survives, will receive a reward. Those whose work is consumed will be penalized, though they will be saved—but on the other side of the fire.
Theology demands humility. It demands that we hold lightly to our systems, and be willing to see them destroyed for the sake of better ones. If we are being good theologians, we will not busy ourselves with shoring up what we know to be unworthy points. We cannot defend against the fire of judgment except by building in ways thoroughly and solidly grounded in Christ.

Fortunately, our salvation is not at stake because of dogma or doctrine. Unfortunately, bad dogma and bad doctrine can cause others to cry out for salvation from us. And God will certainly answer them!


  1. I've been binging on these articles on Romans. Thank you for doing them. They are well written and accessible. I appreciate your hard work.

    1. Thanks, Joel; I'm glad they meet my intention for them! Happy to be of service.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts