Paul, Homosexuality, and “Nature”

Paul, Homosexuality, and “Nature” April 16, 2012

I’m contributing to a forthcoming book on Scripture and Homosexuality (a response to this one). There is a whole host of complex biblical, theological, and pastoral issues here for consideration.

Specifically, I’m wrestling with Paul’s argument in Rom 1:26-27, a key text, and thinking especially about Paul and “nature.”

Central to Paul’s critique of female and male homosexuality is its unnaturalness as indicated by his use of the word phusikos for “nature/natural.” Paul’s phrase para physin is best translated as “contrary to nature” since the natural use of sex organs is exchanged for something else. He says that women exchanged “the natural use [of men] for what is contrary to nature [i.e. lesbianism]” and that men left the “natural use of women [i.e. in the sexual act]” and instead become inflamed with lust for one another. As Robert Gagnon points out, Paul, minimally, is referring to the anatomical and procreative complementarity of men and women as their sexual organs are designed for each other, something not true of gay sex.[1]

Paul was not alone in this judgment of the unnaturalness of homosexuality as such views were widespread in Greek, Roman, and Jewish literature. Plato spoke of sexual relations between men and between women as “contrary to nature.”[2] Diodorus Siculus called homoerotic relationships “a marriage against nature”.[3] Ovid had a girl involved in a same sex relationship say “nature does not will it.”[4] Pseudo–Lucian wrote about “a sacred law of necessity that each should retain its own nature and that neither should the female grow unnaturally masculine nor the male be unbecomingly soft.”[5] Josephus rhetorically asked, “Why do not the Eleans and Thebans unleash that unnatural desire, which makes men engage in sexual intercourse?” and he argues that the sexual habits of Greek gods was simply a mythic story used to justify “unnatural pleasures.”[6] In the ethically rigorous 2 Enoch we read: “This place [i.e. hell], O Enoch, is prepared for those who dishonour God, who on earth practice sin against nature, which is child-corruption after the sodomitic fashion.”[7] Philo says of the men of Sodom that not only did they engage in adultery, but “men mounted men, suffering defilement, and not respecting nature.” As a result God, in his mercy, increased “the natural desire of men and women for a union together, for the sake of producing children, and detesting the unnatural and unlawful deeds of the people of Sodom.”[8] In the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the audience is exhorted not to be like the people of Sodom who, when it came to sex, “exchanged the order of its nature.”[9] Finally, in Pseudo-Phocylides, roughly contemporary with Paul, one reads the injunction: “Do not transgress with unlawful sex the limits set by nature. For even animals are not pleased by intercourse of male with male. And let women not imitate the sexual role of men.”[10] The same perspective continued into the early church.[11] John Chrysostom, commenting on Rom 1:26-27, says that perpetrators of homosexual acts “dishonored that which was natural, they ran after that which was contrary to nature,” and he does not mince his words when he avers the reason why, “their doctrine [was] Satanical, and their life too was diabolical.”[12]

The appeal to nature in this literature requires some earnest reflection. The realm and experience that is called “nature” is not a neutral sphere. What is regarded as “nature” and “natural” is very much constructed on the basis of a particular cultural framework. For instance, those of us with access to the Discovery Channel may think of “nature” as a thing of wonder and beauty to behold. Yet for those who are forced to etch out a pre-industrial living in the Amazonian rainforest, they may regard “nature” as an enemy of one’s mortal existence and something that is savage as it is inescapable. In Stoic philosophy the natural world is divine, so that natura was a virtual god, known by common instinct, and ingrained within the very fabric of one’s own being. For the Stoics, natural law directs people to select what is natural and to reject what is contrary to nature. Virtue consists of acting in accordance with the law of nature. Moreover, people have tried to argue that all sorts of things are authoritative, normative, and true because they accord with nature, ranging from Capitalism to Marxism, from egalitarianism to patriarchy. In fact, the argument against homosexual practices from nature can be turned on its head. Many today will argue that homosexuality is natural because it is programmed into people’s genetic make-up and that gay dolphins and gay penguins somehow legitimate homosexual behavior for homosapiens. In all of these appeals to nature we must be cognizant of the fact that “nature” is a culturally constructed and linguistically freighted entity; not a self-evident and universal norm known immediately to all. What is more, we should also heed various logical fallacies in applying nature to ethics. First, the deontic fallacy in that it is logically impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is,” so that the gayness or straightness of dolphins proves only that dolphins have certain sexual habits; it does not thereby condemn or legitimate human gayness or straightness. Second, the naturalistic fallacy entails that the qualities of “right” and “wrong” are themselves non-natural entities and are derived from other beliefs, and not deduced from observing empirical phenomena. In other words, it is impossible to derive an ethical prescription from a mere description of natural processes.

That caveat about nature aside, we have to remember that for Paul and for Jewish thought more broadly, “nature” stands for the created order of things designed and put into effect by God and which showcases God’s very own glory.[13] For Paul, then, “nature” is divine architecture and doxological theatre. If we take Rom 1:26-28, 1 Cor 7:1-40, 11:1-16 together, then it is clear that sexuality was intrinsic to human bodily existence and that heterosexuality was part of the divinely created order for humanity. Departures from the norm of God’s creation represent defiance against the Creator and foreshadow the divine wrath soon to follow. To suppress the truth about the one God who made the heavens and the earth invariably leads to a rejection of God’s design for sex as a means of partnership and procreation between men and women. Paul’s appeal to nature is not based on the pantheism and natural law theory of Stoic philosophy, but rests squarely in his creational monotheism. Richard Hays puts it well: “The understanding of ‘nature’ in this conventional language does not rest on an empirical observation of what actually exists; instead, it appeals to an intuitive conception of what ought to be, of the world as designed by God. Those who indulge in sexual practices para physin are defying the creator and demonstrating their own alienation from him.”[14]


[1] Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 254.

[2] Plato, Laws 1.2 (636 B-C).

[3] Diodorus Siculus, Hist.

[4] Ovid, Metamorpheses 9.758.

[5] Ps.-Lucian, Erotes 19.

[6] Josephus, Apion 2.273-75 (own trans.).

[7] 2 Enoch 10.4.

[8] Philo, Abraham 135, 137 (own trans.).

[9] T.Naph. 3.4

[10] Ps.-Phocylides, Sentences 190-93.

[11] Cf. Polycarp, Phil. 5.3; Aristides, Apology 17; Acts of Thomas 6.55; Tertullian, Resurrection of the Flesh 16.6; Clement of Alexandria, Padogogos;

[12] John Chrysostom, Hom. Rom.

[13] Cf. discussion in Samuel H. Dresner, “Homosexuality and the Order of Creation,” Judaism 40 (1991): 309-21.

[14] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation (New York: Harper One, 1996), 194.


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