Inflammatory Words in Romans 1:24-27

Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 18

by Reta Halteman Finger 

Detail of a statue of Eros, Piccadilly, London
Detail of a statue of Eros, Piccadilly, London

24Wherefore God delivered them to the desires of their hearts for the purpose of impurity, for their bodies to be dishonored among them—25they who exchanged the truth of God for a lie and reverenced and worshiped the creation rather than the creator, who is blessed forever, amen. 26Because of this, God delivered them to dishonoring passions. Their females exchanged natural use for that which is beyond nature. 27Likewise, the males left off the natural use of the female and were inflamed for one another in their appetite, males among males producing disgrace and receiving back in themselves the punishment which was necessary from their error.”

Translation by David E. Fredrickson in “Natural and Unnatural Use in Romans 1:24-27: Paul and the Philosophic Critique of Eros.” Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (edited by David L. Balch. Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 197-222). 

In the previous lessons, we have been considering a very different interpretation of Romans 1:24-27. Instead of male-female sexual relations being “natural” and same-sex relations being “against nature,” we have tried to hear these words as ancient Greco-Romans would have heard them. In this culture, any human sex act was “natural” so long as (1) a dominant male used a socially inferior person of either gender to satisfy his erotic desire, and (2) so long as the dominant male could control eros with a minimum of passion.  (That last restraint came from philosophers, who functioned as ethical guardians in Greco-Roman society.) Using other persons for sex was “against nature” if the user lost his self-control.

Forceful language

Here we will examine the strong language Paul employs to demonstrate that his concern was the loss of self-control by the user, not the gender of the person being used. Fredrickson’s essay (referred to in the previous lesson) discusses five Greek terms related to eros that Paul uses in this paragraph:

epithumia (desire, 1:24)

pathos (passion, 1:26)

ekkaiō (inflame, 1:27)

orexis (appetite, 1:27)

planē (error, 1:27)

Although Paul never uses the term eros, Fredrickson provides evidence that these five terms together provide “a rough outline of the philosophic critique of eros” (p. 208). Here he refers to the works of various Greek and Roman philosophers such as Plato, Musonius Rufus, Xenophon, Galen, Plutarch, Diogenes Laertius, Dio Chrysostom, and others.  Thus, Fredrickson concludes that “Romans 1:24-27 is not an attack on homosexuality as a violation of divine law but a description of the human condition informed by the philosophic rejection of passionate love” (p. 208).

Desire and passion

In 1:24, Paul speaks of “the desires of their hearts” (NRSV, “lusts”). Desire (epithumia) was one of the four major types of passion, along with fear, grief, and pleasure. Erotic love was thought to be a kind of epithumia. It begins with desire, regardless of the gender of the one desired. Paul follows Zeno, Galen, and other philosophers who located desire in the heart (kardia, p 209).

The next term is passion (pathos) in 1:26. In Paul’s eyes, both desire and passion are equally negative terms that imply excessive sexual lust. They are parallel terms in the same phrase, “God handed them over…” in verses 24 and 26. The philosophers agreed. By definition, pathos is “against nature,” says Diogenes Laertius (Fredrickson, p. 206, n. 42). Paul ups the ante by describing passion as “dishonorable” (“degrading,” NRSV).

The flaming arrows of Eros

In 1:27, Paul uses a word typically associated with eros among the literary writers and philosophers of his day—“inflame” (ekkaiō). “They were inflamed for one another” (NRSV, “consumed”). “Fire,” says Fredrickson, “was the principal metaphor of sexual love in a broad range of literary genres and in philosophy.” The metaphor of fire “emphasized the misery of the lover, his perpetually unsatisfied state, and the loss of self-control” (p. 210). The imagery of fire describes the constant battle between reason and passion when it comes to sex. None of these ancient writers restrict the object inflaming the male’s passion to women. The fire of eros is indifferent to the gender of the beloved.

Although today we tend to see sexual attraction as something deep within the individual, these ancient writers used fire imagery to show that “sexual passion is a force which invades the lover from the outside” (Fredrickson, p. 211). Thus Paul uses ekkaiō in the passive voice—“to be inflamed.” This is illustrated by the god Eros shooting his burning arrows into the hearts of hapless lovers. Fire is also insubstantial and fleeting. Thus the lover is never satisfied with sexual consummation, but keeps seeking more and more exotic experiences (p. 212), like drinking salty water that only makes one thirstier.

Misused appetites result in error

Stoic philosophers would often use the term orexis (“appetite,” 1:27; or as the NRSV has it, “passion”) in relation to sexual desire. Though orexis is a neutral term in itself, eros is an appetite which has become irrational and excessive, according to both Plutarch and the Epicureans (Fredrickson, p. 213, n. 86). The final term is planē (“error”) in 1:27—when a normal appetite has been inflamed to a constant state of unsatisfied frustration.

This error has far-reaching implications. At the heart of Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-32 is that the basic temptation and sin of the Gentiles is idolatry. They dishonor God by lusting after and worshiping the creation and not giving God the honor and gratitude that is due their Creator.

But their misplaced and out-of-control passions backfire upon themselves as well. “God gives them up” to the consequences of their behavior (1:24, 26, 28). Not only do they bring public dishonor upon themselves (in a society which values male honor above all else), but they are so inflamed that they cannot be satisfied with normal pleasures of life. They are like the young men today who feast so voraciously on pornography that they cannot enjoy normal sexual relations with a partner (see Lesson 15). Such addictions, then, can easily lead into the rest of the sinful behavior that Paul describes in 1:29-32:  envy, murder, deceit, and much more.

Questions for discussion or reflection

1.  Is it appropriate for Paul to use the ethical writings of Greek and Roman philosophers to make his case?

2.  Explain why Romans 1:24-27 has nothing to do with same-sex marriage.

3.  If Fredrickson’s interpretation is correct, should Christians today be as concerned about dealing with heterosexual misconduct as homosexual misconduct? Cite examples.

4.  As Christian feminists who support gender equality, how should we reinterpret the ancient Roman concept of “natural” or “unnatural” sex?

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Reta Halteman Finger

Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University.

Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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