Virgin Birth / God in Creation / Human Rebelliousness / Paul’s Loving Tolerance / God’s Forgiveness / Paul on Sex & Marriage / God’s Just Judgment
This is an installment of my replies to a series of articles on the epistle to the Romans (written by St. Paul) by Dr. David Madison: an atheist who was a Methodist minister for nine years: with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His summary article is called, “Bad Bible Theology: Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Let me count the ways…that Paul got it wrong” (2-26-18). He devotes a paper to each chapter. Unless he repeats himself (a bad habit of his) or descends to sheer biblical skepticism (which I have less than no interest in), I will reply to all.
The introduction is basically a catalogue of rank insults, where he calls St. Paul “a crank” and a “delusional cult fanatic” and “the prototype for Christian crazies” and “an obsessive-compulsive mediocre thinker and bad theologian” and “an embarrassment.” He adds: “how can anyone take this guy seriously?” That about covers the “content” there. Bears poop in the woods, brats throw fits, squirrels walk telephone lines, and the prevalent anti-theist brand of atheists insult Christians. Ho hum. What else is new?
Dr. Madison’s words will be in blue below.
Dr. Madison calls his critique of Romans chapter 1 “Maybe It’s Not the Worst Book in the Bible: …But It’s a Contender” (1-26-17).
There is little doubt that Paul belonged to the school of thought that Jesus had been conceived/born the same way everyone else is.
Dr. James Tabor thinks quite otherwise:
Paul never explicitly refers to Jesus’ virgin birth nor does he ever name either Mary or Joseph. What he does affirm is that Jesus pre-existed before his human birth and subsequently gave up his divine glory through his birth as a human being. He writes that Jesus “though existing in the form of God” emptied himself and took on human form, “being made in the likeness of humankind” (Philippians 2:6-7). He says further “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). He is likely referring here, metaphorically, to the “riches” of Jesus’ pre-existence with God, since we have no evidence Jesus came from a wealthy family background. Paul also writes “In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, made of a woman …” (Galatians 4:4). Although this verse is often translated “born of a woman,” Paul avoids the Greek verb gennao (γεννάω), which means “to beget, to give birth to,” referring to either the mother or the father. The implication of these texts is that Jesus’ mother was merely the human receptacle for bringing Jesus into the world. It is not a far step from these ideas about Jesus’ pre-existence to the notion of Jesus as the first-begotten Son of God–eliminating any necessity for a human father. (“Did Paul Invent the Virgin Birth?”, Taborblog, 8-20-16)
No, God is not obvious by looking around at nature
In verse 20, Paul lays the groundwork for condemning unbelievers: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.” So God’s power and nature can be “understood” through what he has made? Actually, precisely because God’s nature and power are invisible, they are not understood. Presumably Paul had the natural world in mind, but theologians with a couple thousand years of practice know that this is feeble: indifferent nature shows no mercy to humans. I suspect Paul didn’t give enough thought to this, because in his letters he explains endlessly what God expects and demands. So rules of conduct to convict sinners aren’t at all so obvious from the “things that God has made.”
Albert Einstein would disagree:
My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend about the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God. (To a banker in Colorado, 1927. Cited in the New York Times obituary, April 19, 1955)
Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man . . . In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort . . . (To student Phyllis Right, who asked if scientists pray; January 24, 1936)
In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. (to German anti-Nazi diplomat and author Hubertus zu Lowenstein around 1941)
My comprehension of God comes from the deeply felt conviction of a superior intelligence that reveals itself in the knowable world. In common terms, one can describe it as ‘pantheistic’ (Spinoza). (Answer to the question, “What is your understanding of God?” Kaizo, 5, no. 2, 1923, 197; in Alice Calaprice, editor, The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 2000, 203)
Likewise, philosopher David Hume (often mistakenly regarded as an atheist):
The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind. (Treatise, 633n)
Wherever I see order, I infer from experience that there, there hath been Design and Contrivance . . . the same principle obliges me to infer an infinitely perfect Architect from the Infinite Art and Contrivance which is displayed in the whole fabric of the universe. (Letters, 25-26)
The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion . . .
Were men led into the apprehension of invisible, intelligent power by a contemplation of the works of nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine, and adjusted all its parts, according to one regular plan or connected system . . .
All things of the universe are evidently of a piece. Every thing is adjusted to every thing. One design prevails throughout the whole. And this uniformity leads the mind to acknowledge one author. (Natural History of Religion, 1757, edited by H. E. Root, London: 1956, 21, 26)
Yeah, I know: just because Einstein and Hume thought like this, isn’t proof that it’s true. But it is proof that some brilliantly intelligent, scientific and philosophical people who aren’t even Christians (a pantheist and a deist) — who don’t even believe that the Bible is inspired revelation — essentially agree with what Romans 1 is expressing, and that, conversely, not only idiots and simpletons and “delusional cult fanatics” think in this way.
God can’t wait to get even
Because people resorted to other gods, especially idol worship, God kicks them to the curb. In verses 24, 26 and 28 Paul states explicitly that God “gave them up”—and we get insights into Paul’s tormented personality by his list of things that God gave people up to: (1) the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies; (2) to degrading passions; (3) to a debased mind and things that should not be done. Hmmmm…obsessed about sex much? More about that on the next point. Suffice it to say here that Paul’s concept of God is weighted heavily toward revenge and punishment: God himself gives people up to sin. All this because people did not see fit to “acknowledge God.”
This is an aspect of biblical teaching that Dr. Madison doesn’t get at all, and I think he is certainly capable of learning it: with his doctorate in biblical studies and all. He’s out to sea. I covered it in a previous critique of his diatribes (this time against Jesus Himself): “Madison vs. Jesus #7: God Prohibits Some Folks’ Repentance?“. I wrote there:
Note that the onus lies upon the people who “suppress the truth” and are engaged in “all ungodliness and wickedness” (1:18). They choose in their own free will to disobey God, then the text says that “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (1:24). In other words, He didn’t cause their rebellion; He only allowed them in their free choices, to rebel.
The same dynamic is seen in the juxtaposition between Pharaoh freely hardening his heart, which is then applied to God (in a limited sense) doing it (which means that He allowed it, in His providence; He didn’t ordain it). I explain this at length, in two papers.
No slack given here to folks who didn’t see eye-to-eye with Paul on religion, those who—and this was the big no-no for Paul—cheerfully embraced lust (we’d all be better off if Paul had given it a try). Paul doesn’t seem to have heard the stories about Jesus hanging out with sinners.
Quite the contrary: Paul is eminently tolerant of those who believe differently, and say that they can possibly be saved, in the next chapter:
Romans 2:13-16 (RSV) For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.  When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them  on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
It’ll be fun to hear Dr. Madison’s take on this passage when he gets to it in his next article. Maybe he’ll say it couldn’t possibly have been written by Paul the “obsessive-compulsive mediocre thinker and bad theologian” and so must have been added later by one of those unscrupulous and deceptive early Christians. We’ll see! I haven’t read that article yet, so I may be a prophet. I do know that this sort of silly game with the biblical text is often played by atheists with nothing better to do with their time.
The Bible teaches from cover to cover that if a person rejects God and His grace: which God gives them the freedom to do, then they will be condemned forever by that same choice. God allows them to go to hell. St. Paul is no different. He’s not some ruthless, unforgiving ogre, out of touch with the rest of Holy Scripture. This is Christian teaching, and Jewish before it; and it is Pauline teaching. C. S. Lewis famously wrote that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” Paul teaches forgiveness of sin and repentance and a possible better life by His power after that, just as Jesus did:
Ephesians 1:7-8 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace  which he lavished upon us.
Colossians 1:13-14 He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.Colossians 2:13-14 And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,  having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Colossians 3:12-14 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience,  forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
In the epistle to the Romans, Paul also uses the wonderful word “grace” (the cause of our salvation and any good that we do and similar to forgiveness and mercy) 21 times, and many other times in his other letters. He also uses the word “mercy” (usually referring to God) 23 times in his letters: eleven of these in Romans alone. But I don’t expect Dr. Madison to notice any of that. He’s too busy tearing down and mythmaking.
Knee-jerk disgust about women loving women, men loving me
Now, full disclosure before I get into this one: I am gay, so it’s no surprise that I have no patience with Paul’s rant against same-sex love.
That’s correct. No surprise at all.
Sure, we can cut him some slack since his thinking was influenced by severe teaching in the Old Testament—and he lived centuries before human sexuality had been studied. What would we expect?
We would expect the same teaching that was before his time, and taught ever since in historic Christianity.
But the folks who want to point to these verses in Romans 1 (vv. 26-27) as binding “word of God”—because “saint” Paul said them—are blind to their own hypocrisy: they don’t notice that Paul shuddered at heterosexuality as well! Everything in his writings about sexuality screams dysfunction! And we have the impulse to scream at Paul, “Get a life!”
Paul disdained men loving women: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-2) You read that right: marriage is okay because liability to immortality should drive you to it. Or how about this gem: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). And this: To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am” (I Corinthians 7:8). True enough, Paul’s delusions about Jesus returning soon warped his thinking: “…the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none” (I Corinthians. 7:29).
He’s not against permissible, moral sex at all. His position is “let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him . . . Every one should remain in the state in which he was called.” (1 Cor 7:17, 20; cf. 24). If one is called to be married, Paul says they should get married:
1 Corinthians 7:2 But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.
1 Corinthians 7:9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
1 Corinthians 7:28 But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. . . .
1 Corinthians 7:36, 38 If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry — it is no sin. . . .  So that he who marries his betrothed does well; . . .
For those called to be single (and celibate) in order to devote themselves more fully to the Lord, and to heroically renounce things that are good, for the sake of the kingdom (as the Catholic Church has taught ever since), Paul says this is even better:
1 Corinthians 7:7-8 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.  To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.
1 Corinthians 7:25-27, 32-35, 38 Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.  I think that in view of the present distress it is well for a person to remain as he is.  Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. . . .  I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord;  but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife,  and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.  I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. . . .  . . . and he who refrains from marriage will do better.
None of this is “anti-sex.” None of what Dr. Madison cites that I did not, is anti-sex. It is anti-not doing what God has called one to do. It’s anti-disobedience to God and His guidance. And this is exactly what Jesus taught as well:
Matthew 19:9-12 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”  The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.”  But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”
Outside of the most pathetic cults, you will never find a marriage counselor who urges couples to follow Paul’s advice.
Really? How about the following advice?:
Ephesians 5:25, 28-29 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, . . .  Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church,
How about having a husband who would die for his wife? Do you think that is a man that a woman would want to marry? Is that good advice to the husband? Would marriage counselors agree? Or would they say, “whatever you do, don’t marry a man who treats you like Jesus Christ treated people, and who would die for you, if necessary. We can’t have that!”
Full stop, Christians. How can anyone read the ending of Romans 1 and say, with a straight face, that Paul should be called a saint? Or that this text merits inclusion in “the good book”? Here he shows us his full venom: “… they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die…”
In Christianity, there is such a thing called “judgment.” God offers every human being a chance to be saved and to escape such final judgment and condemnation. It’s our choice what we do with His free offer of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. If we spurn that, then yes, we do deserve to die. There’s no other choice. It’s either follow God and go to a paradise-heaven for eternity, in blissful union with God, or willful separation from Him for eternity.
It’s not hatred to simply condemn sins and wrong and evil behavior. But in today’s crazy postmodern world, one mustn’t ever say anything is wrong, I guess. To do so is to be a “hater.” It’s ludicrous. The radically secular mindset and mentality can’t seem to imagine or conceptualize any other scenario.
It’s a common Christian dodge that the nasty god of the Old Testament gave way to the loving God of the New Testament. But Paul does his best to keep the wrathful god alive and hovering over hapless humans.
God is the same in both testaments. He is merciful, loving, and forgiving. But He’s also not mocked and He will judge human behavior at the end of the age; just as human judges or juries make decisions about punishing those who have done wrong and have broken laws.
Hildegard of Bingen is a saint with far more appeal than Paul: “”God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”
Before the Comet comes, many nations, the good excepted, will be scoured with want and famine. The great nation in the ocean that is inhabited by people of different tribes and descent by an earthquake, storm and tidal waves will be devastated. It will be divided, and in great part submerged. That nation will also have many misfortunes at sea, and lose its colonies in the east through a Tiger and a Lion. The Comet by its tremendous pressure, will force much out of the ocean and flood many countries, causing much want and many plagues. All coastal cities will be fearful and many of them will be destroyed by tidal waves, and most living creatures will be killed and even those who escape will die from a horrible disease. For in none of these cities does a person live according to the laws of God.
Thus, we see that she is just like every other renowned Christian theologian (Dr. Madison might consider not citing her again; it didn’t work well for him), and teaches that God is benevolent, but also that He is the judge of the world. It doesn’t follow that He somehow becomes wicked, because He judges wickedness, as the Creator of the universe. The two things do not contradict at all. The judges at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals were not wicked, when they handed down life sentences and some death sentences. The Nazis were wicked. Dr. Madison would have it that the judges were wicked and the Nazis were the good guys (if we analogously follow the reasoning he applies to God as Judge).
People who argue in these absurd ways ought to become consistent and become anarchists: opposed to any laws whatever. As soon as one recognizes any legal system or schema of right and wrong, then there will be folks who violate both, and hence are punished: by society and ultimately (in the theist and Christian conception) by God (minus repentance and redemption). Anyone who accepts human law and systems of justice can certainly comprehend (whether they believe it or not) cosmic justice, presided over by God. If there is a God, this makes perfect sense and is exactly what we would expect.
Photo credit: Saint Paul, by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]