The Life of Holiness, Romans 1:24-32 (pp. 160-181)
Posted by Robert C. on April 16, 2013
[Thanks to Alan Goff for the post below. Note: I’ve updated the intro page for this series with links to all the posts so far. Also, for the record, Alan sent this to me last Friday—tax day yesterday, some webpage editing glitches, and other weekend craziness are my (lame) excuses for not getting this posted sooner….]
I have to admit that doing commentary on a commentary is a strange literary genre that I have never taken up before. It makes me feel rabbinic.
Last week Joe pointed out that “As Jim notes (p. 129), the traditional reading takes Romans 1:18-32 to be an assessment of Gentile unholiness. ” In chapter 2 Paul’s focus is on Jewish unholiness. These two ways of living were presumably the most common options to a life in Christian holiness in Paul’s day. But we ought to note that the text doesn’t state that this kind of unholiness outlined in verses 24-32 is characteristic of Gentiles; the discussion of sins doesn’t even use the word Gentile. Jim begins in verse 24 with sexual impurity. This week’s passage takes up sexual sins that Paul’s audience no doubt would have connected to Hellenistic and Roman culture: especially sexual conduct between women and similar behavior between men (1:26-27). Jim has a marked tendency to abstract Paul’s discussion of sin up a level or two: “Paul presents such behavior as a type of sexual sin in general. The issue here, therefore, is not homosexual behavior itself, but homosexual behavior as a type of sexual sin in general” (p. 166). Reaching back into last week’s reading, Jim discusses the sins characteristic of Gentile behavior in a similar way: “Paul is almost certainly thinking specifically of those whose culture is fundamentally Greek, but he is using them as a type for all sinners” (p. 159). It would have been interesting if Jim had done an exegesis of Paul’s homosexuality discussion instead of immediately going up the ladder of abstraction then connecting adultery to idolatry (interesting, but it would probably have required extensive historical work to show that our contemporary view of homosexuality is considerably different from that operative in the Greco-Roman world). But Jim’s emphasis is a valid option; Paul does say at the beginning of the discussion “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18), so Paul starts from extreme abstraction while filling in later with some specific examples of sin.
Jim makes an insightful comment about how humans outside God’s grace use economics, translating God’s gifts into concepts of exchange (p. 163, not just into exchanges but concepts of exchange; money abstracts value, and treating people as economic objects is to abstract away their particularity so that instead of a person’s hand we get a lump sum payment for the value of that person’s hand over the course of a lifetime if the hand hadn’t been severed in an industrial accident, instead of a person who plays football we get an insurance premium in case the player is injured and the career cut short), a theme Jim develops later in the discussion and Joe mentioned last week. Paul uses the same word three times in this passage to underline that notion of a false economy governing the world: “And changed (allaso) the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man” (1:23). Some translations use the word exchange instead of change which conveys better the economic slant of the idea. Birds, beasts, creeping things, coins, currency, mutual funds, hedge funds: all such transactions exchange the glory of God and God’s creation for the putative security and safety the images and idols stamped on them promise. Similarly, verse 25 states that those who dishonor their bodies through sexual excess are those who “changed (metallaso) the truth of God into a lie.” These sinners give themselves over to unnatural affections “for even their women did change (metallaso) the natural use into that which is against nature” (1:26). So Jim is tracking Paul quite closely when he emphasizes this economic aspect of humans: “In the phrase and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, Paul continues to use the language of exchange. Idolaters worship what is created rather than the Creator. As the alternate translation suggests, they worship the created world ‘in place of’ its Creator” (p. 164). I think we ought to note, though, that the economic theme is thoroughly intertwined with the criticism of sexual sin by Paul, especially homosexual sin. Paul views the transformation of natural sexuality (between man and woman) as an economic exchange, trading what should be a triangular relationship between woman, man, and God into a more shallow two-dimensional relationship that—whether or not it involves a financial transfer—reduces sex to objecthood. The other becomes an object to be bartered for a one-dimensional physical pleasure rather than layered experience of sexual union. I ought not to treat my wife the way I treat my car or the vegetables at the market (perhaps I ought not to treat fruits and vegetables as objects for my utility in that way also). We dishonor our own bodies when we treat others as sex (of whatever type) objects. These three uses of what is translated “exchanged” in English starts generally (exchanged the glory into an image), then emphasizes its falsity (exchanged the truth into a lie), and then applies it to a specific context (women exchanged the use of sex against natural affection). Those who make this transaction of burning in lust for another’s body receive “that recompense of their error which was meet” (1:27) Jim notes on pages 169-170 that this word antimisthia continues the theme of economic exchange as it means “reward” or “penalty.” Transactional relationships will bring their own just desserts. Jim notes that Paul returns to this economy of sin in Romans 3, which material we won’t be covering in these sessions.
This notion Paul keeps returning to of exchange or economic transaction is quite useful for us to think about as we objectify people and nature and therefore worship the creature rather than the creator. People used to see the divine all around them: “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” This is a rarer occasion for us today because, as even the religious among us are more secular, we think of nature, people, the divine as a standing reserve that we can make use of any way that pleases us, and that use is too often selfish and short sighted. We have commodified people, nature, and God. A utilitarian calculus dominates our way of thinking because most of our actions are carried out in corporate units where our individuality is subsumed into a larger whole: the multinational companies we work for and purchase our products from, our government policy, our megachurches, our entertainment, our educational institutions. “And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” On this massified scale we are unindividuated. So especially in our closest relationships (as husbands and wives, as fathers and mothers, as children, as brothers, as sisters) we should not treat the other, the other that is closest to being ourself, as an object. Treating the other as a sexual object is to also treat our own bodies as sexual objects. Otherwise we have “exchanged the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image” (1:23).
A second interweaving of a keyword used thrice occurs in the same passage. As Jim notes on page 161 that the phrase “gave them up” (paradidomi) can be translated “abandoned” and means that sinners who abandon God are abandoned by God until those offenders are ready to reconcile (Jim also notes the three-fold repetition of the phrase). The sin is punishment itself, not requiring any further intervention from deity. “God punishes them by allowing them to be alienated from him” (p. 161). The word has a judicial context, and that is what it conveys in all three uses: “God also gave them up (paradidomi) to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts” (1:24). Similarly, two verses later Paul uses the same wording about women: “God gave them up (paradidomi) unto vile affections” (1:26). Additionally, two verses later (before Paul’s catalogue of sins) he notes that “God gave them over (paradidomi) to a reprobate mind” (1:28). This is a very useful concept that “God not only permits idolaters to sin, he gives them over to their sins, and the lust and dishonor that they feel is their just reward. He gives idolaters what they want” (p. 162) and that is their punishment. God is not in the punishment business (to slip back into economic terminology); humans are, and humans transact that punishment upon themselves. God begs for at-one-ment, for us to return the goods (or the bads in the case of sin), or at least abandon the transgressions and the fruit of sin. But God doesn’t give us cancer or have a child go astray because we commit sin; God doesn’t cause us to lose a job because we fall into viewing pornography, nor does God do things such as send hurricanes to punish societies for their sins. The punishment for sin is estrangement from God.
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