Christian brothers and sisters often read Scripture in very different ways. I suspect it goes back to two things; (1) what theologians call “prolegomena”—how we “do” theology, and (2) what Scripture is—its nature. The latter will often inform the former.
Is Scripture a yet-to-be systematized “code book of theological ordinances?”1 A “store-house of facts”2 or a “transcript from God”3 waiting to be classified by inductive reasoning? Christian Smith calls this the “handbook model” of interpretation,4 where the Scriptures are a compendium of teachings on an endless array of subjects—romance, politics, the 2nd Amendment, economics, and even dieting.
Did God give us the Bible so we could distill from it advice for dieting? Alternative medicine? Cooking? Gardening with biblical plants? Politics? I hope we can agree not. Still, some interpreters insist we can cull disparate facts from our store-house of Scripture and discern God’s thoughts on various topics.
This is an unwise approach. At best, it makes God “say” things out of context. At worst, it makes God “say” things He actually never said—like tips on “biblical strategies” for financial freedom.
This article will provide one example—is Romans 1 “about” homosexuality? To be sure, it discusses and condemns sexual deviancy, but is that what it’s “about”? Surely not. Yet, many Christians disagree because they have an implicit “handbook” or “store-house” view of Scripture. So, Romans 1 is “about” homosexuality, and 1 John 2:2 is “about” the atonement!
What Romans 1 is really about
Take a stroll through Romans 1-3 with me, and I’ll show you what I mean. I’ll begin at Romans 1:18 …
God is upset at everyone who rejects Him, no matter who they are—we all “silence the truth with injustice” (Rom 1:18). Why the anger? Because we ought to know God is there, that He exists, and that must mean He holds us responsible for ignoring the markers in nature that point us to Him. Who made this? Who sustains it? How did this all get here? God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and Godhead—“have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made,” (Rom 1:20). We can catch glimmers of God from creation. So, we’re all without excuse.
The problem is that we don’t care, and so our “foolish hearts were darkened,” (Rom 1:21). Just like Fleetwood Mac, we go our own way. A spiritual incompetence and degeneracy sets in, growing ever worse with the passage of time. We worship other things—absurd things (Rom 1:23). “So, God abandoned them to their heart’s desires,” which results in a further spiral down the moral abyss (Rom 1:24).
God made us to be a certain way—to find purpose and solace in (1) our vertical relationship with Him and then, as the fruit of this communion, (2) in proper relationship with one another. The problem is that, when our vertical relationship with God is twisted (the most basic foundation for reality), then our most precious horizontal relationships with one another will be twisted, too (Rom 1:24).
This is why God abandons us to our “degrading lust” (Rom 1:26, restating v. 24)—because we chose to worship things of this world rather than God (Rom 1:25). What happens is that we twist even our closest, most precious relationships—love and sexual union—out of all bounds (Rom 1:26b-27). Just as we didn’t acknowledge God, so God chooses in some circumstances to not acknowledge us (Rom 1:28)—to stop restraining our evil impulses, to walk away and leave us to destroy ourselves, as it were.
What results is akin to abandoning a garden for two seasons—a real mess (Rom 1:29-31). In all this, Paul has been describing the same consequence (not a compounding one)—we ignore God, so He lets us go our own way. Sexual deviancy is the penultimate fruit of that sad equation. There are others—all of which damage or destroy our relationships with one another. This is a knowing and willful insurgency, at least on some level (Rom 1:32; cf. Psalm 2:1-3).
So much for the “outsiders,” those who weren’t entrusted with God’s revelation. Surely “insiders” are in a much better state?
This is where Paul launches a broadside against proud externalism—against the same kind of glib smugness that Jesus criticized so powerfully (Lk 18:9-14). Gentiles are so awful, so degenerate, so messy in their sin—who can stand it? Some might be tempted to say (in their hearts, even if not aloud), “Thank God we Christians aren’t like those LGBTQ kooks!”
Well, Paul says, we so-called “insiders” aren’t necessarily better off at all. Don’t judge others when you commit some of the same crimes (Rom 2:1). See, for example, Ted Haggard. God’s love is meant to lead to repentance—to a real change in heart and life (Rom 2:4). After all, God will repay everyone according to their works (Rom 2:6; cf. Ps 62:12). This is the same warning John the Baptist gave (Lk 3:1-14). God can make even stones into children of Abraham—He wants loving obedience, not dead externalism.
Being an insider, being an Israelite, is meaningless in and of itself (Rom 2:7-10). “God does not have favorites,” (Rom 2:11). It’s the ones who actually do the law who are counted as righteous (Rom 2:13), and that means merely being “an insider” gets you no points. In fact, Paul suggests “insiders” will be judged more severely in the end because they had more information (Rom 2:12).
So, he declares, if you’re an “insider” who is an awful hypocrite and an embarrassment to God, you actually have nothing (Rom 2:17-23). “As it is written, ‘The name of God is discredited by the Gentiles because of you,’” (Rom 2:24; cf. Isa 52:5 LXX). The external marks of “membership” in God’s family are pointless in and of themselves—“circumcision is an advantage if you do what the law says,” (Rom 2:25; emphasis mine). In fact, if an ethnic “outsider” loves God by doing what He says, he is a truer believer than a fake “insider” (Rom 2:26).
Paul says being “in the family” has nothing at all to do with being an Israelite. An “outward circumcision” that doesn’t touch the heart, the spirit, the affections, is nothing (Rom 2:28). “Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside, who is circumcised in spirit, not literally” (Rom 2:29) who is a true “Jew,” that is, a true member of God’s family, a true child of Abraham (Gal 3:26-29).
“So, what’s the advantage of being a Jew? Or what’s the benefit of circumcision?” (Rom 3:1). Paul knows Israelites will be tempted to scoff and demand answers. What’s the advantage, then? Well, plenty! Jews were trusted to be custodians of God’s truth (Rom 3:2). But, God’s faithfulness doesn’t evaporate because of an insider’s unfaithfulness (Rom 3:3-4). This doesn’t mean our faithfulness doesn’t matter, of course (Rom 3:5-9).
“So, what are we saying?” Paul asks (Rom 3:9). This is the heart of his message—the destination he’s been working towards since the first chapter of the letter—“both Jews and Greeks are all under the power of sin,” (Rom 3:9). Romans 1 isn’t “about” sexual deviancy. Romans 2 isn’t “about” pride and externalism. The letter condemns both in the strongest terms. But, Romans 1-3 is about something much simpler—no matter who you are (a homosexual, a trans individual, a proud Baptist, or an adulterous hypocrite), you’re a slave to sin right now unless you trust in Jesus. There is no “inside track” to salvation. No such thing as a “beyond the pale” outsider. We’re all born as outsiders (homosexuals, trans people, proud Methodists, and angry drunks alike), and we each need Jesus to rescue us from our own private hells.
Paul then produces a catena of quotations from Psalm 14 and 53 to show this to us—“there is no righteous person, not even one,” (Rom 3:10). The law shows this to us, it unveils who we really are, it breaks us and makes us admit to ourselves (if nobody else) that we cannot be good enough (Rom 3:19-20).
So, we’re left with a problem—how shall this breach between us and God be reconciled? As the Dread Pirate Roberts once remarked, “if there can be no arrangement, then we are at an impasse …” But, God has made an arrangement. Righteousness doesn’t come from the law at all. It comes “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in Him. There’s no distinction,” (Rom 3:22).
This is the context for those famous words so many believers memorize: “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus,” (Rom 3:23-24). Most English translations have “redemption” for the CEB’s “ransom,” but that’s a word choice that’s lost its power and become “churchy” and safe. The word means liberation from slavery, from a kidnapper, after a price has been paid. In this way, through the liberation Jesus effects, God both demonstrates He didn’t “forgive and forget” about all the sins we committed in times past (cf. Heb 9:15), or the one’s we commit now. Thus “he treats the one who has faith in Jesus as righteous,” (Rom 3:25-26).
Bragging has no place among God’s children, because our righteousness is predicated on faith in Jesus, not on “keeping” the law (Rom 3:27-28). Adoption into God’s family isn’t a Jewish thing—it’s for any and everyone. “Yes, God is also the God of the Gentiles,” (Rom 3:29). Whether you’re an “insider” or an “outsider,” God can make you righteous if you have faith in Jesus (Rom 3:30). Whoever you are, your only hope is to trust in Jesus. Not in your ancestry. Not in your head knowledge of the Scriptures. But, in Jesus.
This is what Romans 1:18-3:30 is “about.” Not sexual deviancy. It contains a discussion on sexual deviancy, but only in service of a more basic point—we’ve all (every one of us—“insider” or “outsider”) sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and only Jesus can make us righteous. Ironically, when Christians cry “Romans 1” in frustration and disgust, and shake their heads sadly at “what’s happening to our country,” they may well run afoul of Paul’s warnings from Romans 2—our own sins of hypocrisy or priggish self-righteousness may render us just as guilty.
Can we do better than this?
This article is not a veiled proclamation of my own “deconstruction.” It’s an example of what I believe is a better way to read Scripture. It considers the text in its context, not as a repository of data to be molded according to taste into an a la carte buffet of categories. There are other examples:
- 1 Corinthians 7 isn’t “about” how wives must give their husbands sex.
- John 5:26 isn’t “about” eternal generation.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 isn’t “about” the rapture.
- Genesis 10 isn’t “about” how mankind “failed” a “test,” making it necessary for God to initiate a new “dispensation” with Abraham.
You may sincerely believe the texts contain these things, but in no conceivable world are they “about” those subjects. And, if that’s true, then should we wrench these passages out of Hodge’s “store-house” to add them to a systematic casserole we’re cooking up to answer a question the writer wasn’t addressing, in that context?
No, we should not.
Space is fleeting, so I’ll toss out some grenades for thought and retire into the night.
- It seems to me that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a more fruitful approach to doing theology. It guards against the frigid scholasticism Horace Bushnell warned about so passionately in his 1848 address “Dogma and Spirit.”5 The Quadrilateral tempers a frigid rationalism and dogmatism with spiritual experience, reason, and historical theology. It promotes an evangelical catholicity, which I well know is not always reckoned as a virtue.
- Donald Bloesch is representative of a method which sees revelation as “truth + event.” We cognitively receive truth from Scripture, then God communicates and confronts us by the Spirit. “Revelation happened in a final and definitive form in the apostolic encounter with Jesus Christ. But revelation [in the sense of truth + Spirit-directed encounter-event] happens again and again in the experience of the Spirit in Christ.”6 There is a conjunction between (1) the Word of God, and (2) sacred Scripture, (3) by the action of the Spirit.7
- In contrast, Hodge declares the Spirit has no true revelatory role; He only illuminates the bible.8 Revelation is only static—an objective truth that is “there” on the page. There is no dynamic interplay of “truth + event,” where Scripture is the channel for God to speak.
- Many evangelical systematics follow Hodge’s “store-house” approach (e.g. Millard Erickson).9 For example, Carl F.H. Henry declares that revelation is the (sole?) source for all truth, that we can only recognize that truth by exercising reason, that “logical consistency” and “coherence” (which I take together to basically mean “credible systemization”) are our truth tests, and that “[t]he task of Christian theology is to exhibit the content of biblical revelation as an orderly whole.”10
The “store-house” view of Scripture will produce a “Romans 1 is about homosexuality!” result. As you ponder that, remember this—Acts 15 is “about” Baptist polity, too!
1 Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), p. 170. Quoted in Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), p. 632. McGrath was criticizing Carl F.H. Henry.
2 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:10.
3 Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), p. 65.
4 Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012), p. 5.
5 See the anthology titled Horace Bushnell, ed. H. Shelton Smith (New York: Oxford, 1965), pp. 43-68.
6 Bloesch, Holy Scripture, p. 50.
7 Bloesch, Holy Scripture, p. 58.
8 “Although the inward teaching of the Spirit, or religious experience, is no substitute for an external revelation, and is no part of the rule of faith, it is, nevertheless, an invaluable guide in determining what the rule of faith teaches,” (Hodge, Systematic, 1:16).
9 Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 53-65.
10 Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 215.