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Hermeneutics and Romans 1

Today's knowledge regarding sexuality as well as socio-religious situation should be taken into account when interpreting Paul’s language, the Hermeneutics Hui is told.

Vaotogo F. Smith  |  15 Jul 2010

Hermeneutics Hui: 29 June-1 July, 2010:

I am privileged to be asked to contribute to this Hui. I understand that the subject of sexuality and the issues that arise from the biblical text for the church has been an ongoing discussion and has come to head in the recent events within the Anglican Communion.  This Hui is a response to these challenges. The response is to return to the Scriptures and see how it speaks to us who live in a different context from that in which the text was formed.  The context of the text is difficult to access but we can draw inferences from the text and relate these to available historical data outside the text. However, once such a move is made in creating a point of view, we are then entering into constructed prose. All points of view are, therefore, constructions as all interpretations are constructions.

I understand the task allocated to me as a response to the question: What hermeneutical principles I use to read Romans 1?  I will discuss the principles I use before attempting to make sense of Paul’s language in Roman’s 1.  But there is another important issue that affects how we read text. As scripture, the text has authority. It is the way this authority is understood that is a problematic. For me, I understand the text as a human document expressing the experience of the church with Paul as the driver of that understanding, at least from his letters.

Romans is Paul’s letter. This means one needs to understand Paul to make some sense of what he is saying. If we are to understand Paul’s approach, it is the fact that Paul, a well educated Jew who is at home in the Hebrew tradition (v. 16 suggest he sees Jewish priority in terms of Gods Salvation) but who is now convinced that Jesus is the Christ. He seems to be attempting to convince the Christians in Rome why they should listen to him even though he had never been to Rome. In doing this, he uses rhetorical language against the background of Greco-Roman socio-cultural and religious understanding and practices.  How then shall I approach Romans 1?

Dimensions in reading and interpretation.

For me, there are three dimensions involved in any reading/interpretive act. These dimensions include the reader, our vision of the world and the text itself. Regarding the first dimension, the critical issue deals with reader bias or what is commonly known as “pre-understanding”. One should recognize that any reader will read from a position whether it be, social, cultural, economic, political, and religious and the many subcultures that influence our world views – gender, social location, age, educational background and so on. No two readers are the same.  Thus, each reader should recognize what he/she takes to the text, that is, the understandings that one has of the subject at hand before the text is read.  This aspect may be illustrated by an experience. Two weeks before this Hui, I had given the same text to a group of thirty five with ages ranging from 18-75. The forum is similar to this except for a different theme. There were different responses to the text even to the same verses. One aspect stood out. No one raised issues relating to sexuality. I did not tell the group why I gave them Romans 1 nor did I mention anything about sexuality. During our initial discussion no-one mentioned anything about sexuality. It was only after I had told them the reason why I gave them the text and after I raised the issue of sexuality that the questions about sexuality were raised. This suggests that there is some predisposition to reading this way or that way when readers are or are not made aware of the points of interest.  However, reading text that has reference to sexuality raises the question – what do I know about sexuality?

Human sexuality is a huge subject that is ill understood. There are reports of heterosexual persons who become homosexual. There are also homosexual persons who turn heterosexual. There is no clear view regarding the origins of human sexuality. Some argue for a genetic cause, others argue for an environmental one. The fact remains we do not really know much about sexuality. One thing is certain. Our sexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It therefore follows the Gaussian distribution with heterosexuals being the dominant orientation.

The other critical issue relating to readers is the fact that the text is an ancient document written in a socio-cultural milieu quite different from ours in the present.  While this is a well recognized problem, many people do not make this distinction, probably because of a particular understanding of the text as scripture. The issue of authority given scripture poses differences in the way this authority is understood but it has a lot of bearing on how the text is read.

The second dimension in interpretation and of particular importance with relation to conflicting texts is the reader’s vision of the world. Since the issues we are confronted with today is so divisive, one then needs to look at how the bible presents visions of God’s realm, that is, how the bible deal with divisions. Since Paul is a New Testament person, we need to look at visions of God’s realm in that collection. This brings to mind the visions in Galatians 3:28, Revelations 21, John 3:16. These visions project a world where human diversity is brought together. There are of course others but what stands out is that they do not differentiate between heterosexual and homosexual persons!

The third dimension in interpretation is the text itself. Romans 1 begins, what most commentators view as the most difficult of Paul’s letters. Yet there is a sense that the central theme of Romans is the worship of God. Some think it is “righteousness” but when everything is taken together, proper worship of God is honoring God- the honor of God is therefore at stake for Paul.  This seems to be the central issue in the first and last chapters. For this reason, Paul is engaged in a vigorous denunciation of false gods, and false worship, that is, idolatry.

The reader is referred to socio-rhetorical commentaries[1] for a fuller understanding of the context in which Romans was written. The context influences the language Paul uses. This language begins to appear from v. 18 onwards.  Paul is writing to convince. His language portrays this. His logic and the flow of his argument suggest that some people have returned to pagan worship. This worship involves rituals which may have involved sexual activity (vv. 24, 26-27.) Paul’s description of this group is framed in relation to his understanding of the revelation of God in Jesus (v. 17) and his understanding of who Jesus is in relation to Jesus’ Jewish heritage rooted in the “Holy Scriptures” (vv. 2-8). Scripture for him is the First Testament. It is likely the LXX is referred to.

Controversial texts

The problematic verses 26-28 are usually broken off and read as stand alone verses without references to the whole text or the context within which they appear.  I cite these from the NIV translation to guide our discussion.

24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. 28Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind; to do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. 

I follow Wittgenstein[2] who suggested that the meaning of a word is found in the context in which it appears. Paul’s language is influenced by the view that the only true God is that evidenced through the Scriptures and revealed through Jesus Christ. His choice of words is influenced by this stance. This means the language is rhetorical.  However, particular words have been used with reference to sexual activity. Orientation toward sexual activity between same sex in v 24 is termed “sinful desires”. Sexual act between same sex persons is described as “sexual impurity” and therefore “degrading”.  Similarly, in v 26 “shameful lusts” is used with reference to same sex sexual activity. It is to be noted that in the various English versions available, these words/ phrases are translated differently.[3]

It should also be noted that the context Paul is speaking to, is suggested as that of pagan worship associated with fertility rituals. Thus, the language and context seems to refer to the "frenzied state of mind that many ancient mystery cults induced in worshipers by means of wine, drugs and music."[4] The words translated “natural” and “unnatural” are used as opposites in a way so as to say that same sex relations is unnatural so that those who engage in same sex relations have abandoned their nature, that is, how God ordered  them. [5] Paul is inclined to say this, I suggest, because, his understanding of creation is rooted in the Genesis story. Thus, for Paul, sexual activity can only be “natural” when it is between a man and a woman. It is a relative position. The 19th century concept of “sexual orientation” was not known to Paul. But in order to appreciate Paul’s vigorous denunciation and the language he uses, one needs to locate Paul’s references in sexual activity associated with pagan worship. This is the most likely reason for the flow of Paul’s argument from v. 18 onwards.


All of this means that Paul’s language is rhetorical because it is speaking to a particular situation which he perceives as contrary to what he believes in. That situation explains Paul’s language. The knowledge we have today regarding sexuality as well as the socio-religious situation towards which Paul is responding should, I believe, be taken into account when interpreting Paul’s language. From this perspective, I would use imagination[6] informed by historical data and present day knowledge when reading Paul. For one to make concrete assumptions based on the language of Paul in these passages, a warning is sounded by Kwok Pui-Lan in her statement: “Biblical truth cannot be prepackaged, but must be found in the actual interaction between text and context in the concrete historical situation”[7]

I am thankful for the experience gained from this Hui. I have learned that there are major sectors of the church community who view Paul’s letters as arbiter in sexual morals. I also recognize other positions. This is surely one of the most divisive areas in our coming together as church. Yet I was comforted with the knowledge that there was a sense of oneness in worship during the HUI.

[1] For example:  Ben Witherington III and Darlene Hyatt, Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. 2nd

Edn. ed. G. E. M  Anscome and R. Rhees. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958.

[3] Thus, “shameful lusts” is translated  “vile affections and degrading passions” AB; “dishonorable passions” ESV; “evil things” LB; degrading passions” NAB, NASB, NRSV; “immoral, unnatural drives” NTPE.  

[4] R.S. Truluck, "The six Bible passages used to condemn homosexuals," Available at:  Accessed 28/04/2010.

[5] M. Nissinen describes “unnatural” as "Deviating from the ordinary order either in a good or a bad sense, as something that goes beyond the ordinary realm of experience." Quoted in: Bruce Hane, "'Natural' and 'unnatural'”  Available at:  Accessed 04/06/2010.

[6] For the process of imagination in the interpretive task, see Sharon Parks, The Critical years: the Young Adults Search for a Faith to Live By (San Francisco: Harper Row, 1986), p 17.

[7] Kwok Pui-Lan, “Discovering the Bible on the Non-biblical World,” in Voices From the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World (ed. R S Sugirtharajah, 299-315, New York: Maryknoll, 1991), 303.