Tuesday, March 17, 2009


So what’s Paul doing rhetorically in Romans 1? In terms of ethos, logos, and pathos, Paul starts, appropriately, with ethos. Remember, Paul hadn’t yet visited Rome. This letter was his best foot forward, a sincere effort to establish himself and his authority in a church that didn’t really know him yet. It was like that sermon a pastor preaches the very first Sunday in their new church. You pull out the stops. Read through Romans 1:1-17, and you see him establishing common ground, and presenting his spiritual credentials.

When we reach verse 18-32, Paul moves to pathos. He’s trying to evoke a sense of indignation at the sin of idolatry, which is the root sin expressed in Romans 1:22-23. It is idolatry that drives human beings to fall from God. The link between idolatry and the practices that Paul cites is cemented by his use of the Greek word dio, which we see translated as “therefore.” One thing happens, therefore another follows on.

According to Paul, what follows on from idolatry is twofold. First, there is degradation of desire (Romans 1:24-25), and second, the degradation of the mind (Romans 1:28). As an example of the first, Paul cites the giving up of phusiken kresin, or the “natural function” between men and women. As an example of the second, Paul runs through another one of his naughty lists, in verses 29-30.

Let’s set aside for a moment the argument about the root cause of homosexuality. Most people who are so inclined will tell you that they knew they felt same-sex attraction from childhood. Very few of them—at least in the survey and scientific data I’ve seen—indicate that they began feeling same sex attraction after they set up a small shrine to Regis Philbin in their basement. The causal link between worshipping idols and gayness is, shall we say, tenuous.

But I’m willing to spot Paul that point of fact, for two reasons. First, he’s using this as an example of fallenness—and idolatry as a concept, not a practice--based on his own observations of Roman Imperial culture. Second, it’s not his purpose. This section isn’t the point of his message. It serves much the same function as that cheesy canned anecdote your preacher uses to get you laughing before he gets around to the real message. The clear effect of Paul’s use of pathos is to make his listeners nod their heads at these wretched, godforsaken souls. They lived in Rome. They knew what went on. It would have lead some of his hearers, perhaps, feel a little more sure of their own righteousness under the law.

So when Paul continues on to the point of his argument in chapter two—an argument that will be sustained through to Romans 8:39—his listeners may well expect the “Therefore..” that begins chapter 2, verse one to lead to more of the same. They’re expecting Paul to lay in to a familiar list of known sinners in a way that would do Ann Coulter proud. Instead, having used pathos to stir that feeling, Paul switches to a formal rhetorical style known as diatribe, and they get this:

Romans 2:1-5 Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, "We know that God's judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth." Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.

Paul's point--and a core theme of Romans--is that all of us are sinners, and that all fall short of the demands of the law. If we only nod along to the pathos, and fail to hear the sharpness of Paul's challenge to our graceless judgments that this pathos establishes, then we've missed that point.

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