Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Will and Grace are Pauline Theological Concepts

Romans, Romans, Romans. It's the very pinnacle of Paul's theology, a complicated and passionate letter that establishes how we as Christ's people understand what it is that Christ has done for us. Here Paul lays the foundation of our understanding grace as triumphing over the condemnation of the law. Here Paul *defines* the saving power of faith. This essential book also contains--in Romans 1--the most explicit condemnation of homosexual behavior in all of scripture.

In a speech given several years ago to a group of evangelicals, conservative Bible scholar Paul Achtemeier asserted that if the church is to meaningfully wrestle with this issue, it first needs to come to terms--honestly and openly--with what Romans 1 is actually saying. So...what does it say? Here are the specific verses in question:

Romans 1:21b-27 "...although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator-- who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In 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."

There we go! Here we have Paul clearly--clearly--telling the church at Rome that being gay is a "shameful lust." Case closed. Right? That was the point Paul was trying to make, right?

But Romans is not a book that can be understood verse by verse. It isn't a series of pithy little proverbs and aphorisms. It isn't a *simple* book, to be easily grasped by a casual reader. To understand it, you have to read it as a whole, following the arguments as they develop. Then you scratch your head, pray, and read it again. And again. The whole book is a carefully assembled and complex argument for the necessity of Christ's grace, crafted by a brilliant, passionate, and Spirit-filled rhetorician.

For in addition to his rabbinic training and his part-time camping supply business, Paul was also clearly a master of the art of Greco-Roman rhetoric. Rhetoric gets a bad rap nowadays, but it was an essential part of any educated person's training in the ancient world. To succeed in life, you had to be able to persuade people with the spoken and written word. That's exactly what Paul is doing with the whole letter of Romans. He's persuading Rome--and us--of the saving grace of Christ, using all of the tools in the classical rhetorician's toolbox. In classical rhetoric, the many tools of a speaker or writer fell into three primary categories: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Ethos is, in essence, laying a common groundwork with a listener. It establishes the authority of the speaker. Ethos helps an audience understand who you are, and why you're someone to be trusted.

Logos is a particular type of argument, using data and the application of logical proofs as evidence for the rightness of your position. Understood simply, it is an argument from reason, the Mr. Spock school of persuasion.

Pathos is another type of argument, which is intended to stir an emotional response in it's listeners. You stir a crowd to laughter, you move them to tears, you goad them into anger, you cajole them into uncontrollable flatulence, and having evoked that feeling in them, you lead them to agree with your position.

The educated and erudite church in Rome would have expected--needed--Paul to approach them with a letter that showed a mastery of rhetoric, and Paul did not disappoint.

So what point is Paul making, and what place does Romans 1:21-27 have in his argument?

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