Hays on Homosexuality (I): Reading the Texts (Rom 1), cont’d

In his exposition of Rom 1:18-32, Hays notes that this is the only place in the NT (I would add “and in the whole Bible”) where homosexuality is not just mentioned or prohibited, but explicitly theologized about. (383) There is, in a sense, a “theology of homosexuality” here in Paul’s thought, and this is especially true in light of the fact that, as Hays points, out, “this is the only passage in the whole Bible that refers to lesbian sexual relations.” (384)

Situating Paul’s teaching on this particular issue within the larger context of the letter, Hays rightly stresses that Paul’s initial main point in chapter one is that “the Gospel” is God’s demonstration of righteousness, that is, his demonstration of eschatological power (it is “the instrument through which God is working out his purpose in the world … reaching out graciously to deliver humanity from bondage to sin and death”), and thus it serves in Paul’s argument as the vindication of God.

“Having sounded this keynote,” Paul not only adopts a contrasting key by contrasting God’s righteousness to humanity’s unrighteousness, but he also actually grounds God’s righteousness in his response to humanity’s unrighteousness. When it comes to man’s sin (which, note carefully, is not here any individual or specific sin including anything having to do with homosexuality, but rather the more primal sin of replacing God and the worship due him with creation and idolatry), God does something about it.

And what does he do? He “gives humanity over” to themselves and their own devices. He gives them over to the dark futility of ignorance (1:21; cf 2 Thes 2:10b – 12). He gives them over to a debased mind. And, more to the point for our purposes, he gives them over “in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (v24), to the “dishonorable passions” which result in erotic homosexual behavior. (vv26-27)

Hays thinks that Paul’s rhetoric about homosexuality serves to make two points (I list these in reverse order): evidence and consequence. First, given the centrality (at least in Pual’s and his hearers’ minds) of the sexual difference of the creation narratives of Adam and Eve, homosexual activity in particular would have been regarded as a “particularly vivid” illustration of how God has poured out his wrath against primal human idolatry. Second, this particular sin, along with the others mentioned in the next paragraph of chapter one (slander, haughtiness, disobedience, etc.) are not the cause of God’s wrath, but, rather (much like the plagues upon Egypt) the result of it.

(Note: Hays’ point, for which he enlists John Calvin, that Paul’s audience would have unequivocally shared in his assumption that homosexual acts are “obviously” depraved raises a question in my mind. It is, perhaps, a question about Paul’s intended audience. I can totally see how a Jewish audience would share in this assumption, of course, but would a Greek / Roman audience? It don’t think so. This is particularly interesting / troubling in light of the fact that many commentators, including NT Wright, think that Romans was intended for a primarily Gentile audience.)

Hays shows how the connection between homosexuality in particular on the one hand and (the) creation (narratives) on the other runs especially deep. He points out that when Paul writes that people “exchanged natural relations for those contrary to nature” (v26) this is in fact Paul’s third use of “exchange” (and its cognates) in this context. First Paul states that rebellious humans have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” of created things (v23), then that “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie (v25).” Writes Hays: “The deliberate repetition of [this verb] forges a powerful rhetorical link between the rebellion against God and the ‘shameless deeds’ (v27) that are themselves both evidence and consequence of that rebellion.

Hays summarizes Paul’s teaching in this chapter by stressing that “the aim of Romans 1 is not to teach a code of sexual ethics, nor is it a warning of God’s judgment against those who are guilty of particular sins. Rather, Paul is offering a diagnosis of the disordered human condition. He adduces the fact of widespread homosexual behavior as evidence that humans are indeed in rebellion against their creator…. Homosexual activity provokes the wrath of God…. The unrighteous behavior cataloged in Romans 1:26-31 is a list of symptoms: the underlying sickness of humanity as a whole, Jews and Gentiles alike, is that they have turned away from God and fallen under the pattern of sin (cf Rom 3:9)…. Homosexual activity will not incur God’s punishment; it is its own punishment, an “antireward.” (387 – 88)

Finally, Hays points out that, since this particular sin (here as everywhere else it is mentioned in the NT) is cataloged alongside other sins, it is not an “especially reprehensible” sin. It is in principle “no worse than covetousness or gossip or disrespect for parents (338). “Consequently, for Paul, self-righteous judgment of homosexuality is just as sinful as the homosexual behavior itself” (389).

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