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Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell's Exegesis of Romans I  by Richard B. Hays

Richard B. Hays is professor of New Testament at the Duke University Divinity School. Professor Hays is the author of a number of books, including The Moral Vision of the New Testament and The Faith of Jesus. Professor Hays is also an ordained United Methodist minister.
Perhaps the most crucial and controversial of Boswell's exegetical moves lies in his assertion (1980:112-13) that Paul's derogation of homosexual behavior in Romans I applies only to homosexual acts committed by "heterosexual persons":

It cannot be inferred from this that Paul considered mere homoerotic attraction or practice morally reprehensible, since the passage strongly implies that he was not discussing persons who were by inclination gay and since he carefully observed, in regard to both the women and the men, that they changed or abandoned the "natural use" to engage in homosexual activities.

Of all Boswell's reflections on the NT evidence, this is the one that seems to be most often repeated in the heated contemporary discussion of homosexuality in the church. It is also the observation which most vigorously promotes the confusion, to which I referred in my opening comments, between exegesis and hermeneutics, and it is therefore the point at which Boswell's treatment of Romans- must be most vigorously challenged.

First of all, Boswell's remarks presuppose that Paul is describing some specifiable group of heterosexually-oriented individuals whose personal life pilgrimage has led them beyond heterosexual activity into promiscuous homo sexual behavior. As I have attempted to show in my exegetical remarks on the passage, however, Paul has no such thing in mind. He is not presenting biographical sketches of individual pagans; he is offering an apocalyptic "long view" which indicts fallen humanity as a whole. Certainly Paul does not think that each and every pagan Gentile has made a personal decision at some point in his or her individual history to renounce the God of Israel and to worship idols instead! The "exchange" of truth for a lie to which Paul refers in Rom 1:18-25 is a mythico-historical event in which the whole pagan world is implicated. This "exchange" continues to find universal manifestation in the moral failings which beset human society, as exemplified by the illustrations given in 1:26-32.

In the same way, the charge that these fallen humans have "exchanged natural relations for unnatural" means nothing more nor less than that human beings, created for heterosexual companionship as the Genesis story bears witness, have distorted even so basic a truth as their sexual identity by rejecting the male and female roles which are "naturally" theirs in God's created order. The charge is a corporate indictment of pagan society, not a narrative about the "rake's progress" particulare individuals. Boswell's misinterpretation of this passage shares with much of the history of Western interpretation of Paul an unfortunate tendency to suppose that Paul is primarily concerned with developing a soteriological account of the fate of individuals before God. (For a corrective, see the provocative essays of Stendahl, 1976.)

Thus, Boswell's proposal already runs aground when we recognize that the passage has no intention of discussing the developmental history of individuals. But his proposal falls apart completely as exegesis of Paul when we recognize that the whole conception of "sexual orientation" is an anachronism when applied to this text. The idea that some individuals have an inherent disposition towards same-sex erotic attraction and are therefore constitutionally "gay" is a modern idea of which there is no trace either in the NT or in any other Jewish or Christian writings in the ancient world. As the quotations from Dio Chrysostom and Philo in part 2.3.2 of this essay illustrate, the usual supposition of writers during the Hellenistic period was that homosexual behavior was the result of insatiable lust seeking novel and more challenging forms of self- gratification. (Certainly Boswell's own account [1980: 61-87] of the sexual virtuosity of Greco-Roman society suggests that sexual switch-hitting was extremely common, certainly far more common than exclusive homoerotic practice.) As Furnish (1979: 66) comments after surveying the evidence, "The ancient writers were operating without the vaguest conception of what we have learned to call 'sexual orientation."'

In view of this situation, to suggest that Paul intends to condemn homosexual acts only when they are committed by persons who are constitutionally heterosexual is to introduce a distinction entirely foreign to Paul's thought-world and then to insist that the distinction is fundamental to Paul's position. It is, in short, a textbook case of "eisegesis," the fallacy of reading one's own agenda into a text. ...

Excerpted with permission from "Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell's Exegesis of Romans I" by Richard B. Hays in the Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 14 (1986), pp. 199-201. Footnotes omitted.

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