Fundamentalist De(con)struction of Romans

Fundamentalist De(con)struction of Romans June 28, 2008

In my class on Paul and the Early Church, we worked through several of Paul’s letters, including Romans. As I worked through this famous epistle once again, it seemed to me that the most popular passages for quotation from the letter are not the parts most central to Paul’s argument. Could it be that those who “quote-mine” the letter have, unwittingly, been engaged in a deconstructionist reading of Romans, focusing on tangential elements in a way that allows them to read “against the grain” of the letter?

I’ve long wanted to write a blogmentary (blog commentary) on Romans, to work through these and other issues. Since a blogmentary doesn’t need to be written in order, I’m pondering the possibility of working through Romans backwards: starting where Paul ends up, and then figuring out how he got there. So perhaps it should be called a “Romans Blog Memento“.

Flipping through channels about two months ago, I encountered a typically offensive example of the fundamentalist misuse of Romans. There was a discussion of homosexuality, and which passages in the Bible to read on the subject. The speaker recommended Romans 1, with the assumption that the meaning and application will be clear as long as one prays before reading – no need for a commentary, articles, a comparison of translations to make onself aware of ways in which any given English translation may render the underlying Greek in a way that is not the only possible way, or anything else that recognizes that this is translated literature which reflects a different historical, cultural, and linguistic context and assumptions.

The most offensive part, however, was that deceitfully innocent sounding phrase, “Romans 1”. “Read Romans 1” is far from a good recommendation. There was no “Romans 1” in the letter Paul wrote – no chapter division, no versification. By recommending that one stop at the end of chapter 1, it is pretty much guaranteed that the reader will miss the point of Paul’s stereotypical denunciation of Gentile sins in that part of his letter. It wasn’t to condemn the Gentiles, but to get Jewish readers to join in the condemnation and then find themselves condemned in “chapter 2”. But that is how fundamentalist de(con)struction of Romans and other parts of the Bible works. What was a tool Paul used to bring about self-criticism and repentance becomes a weapon to be wielded against others.

As I think about it, fundamentalists tend to focus on the marginal voices in the Bible rather than the mainstream of early Christianity. Of the epistles, it is Hebrews, which made it into the canon on false pretenses, that provides the most support for their particular doctrine of the atonement (even though their most popular one, penal substitution, isn’t found even there). Of the Gospels, it is John, which again did not get into the canon without dispute, which gives the realized eschatology and thus the focus on faith determining one’s eternal status in the here and now.

But that’s another issue. The main point that needs to be made in this post is this: If you think “Romans 1” can be used as a weapon against homosexuals, you’ve fallen into Paul’s trap. If you use “Romans 1” in this way, you aren’t condemning homosexuals. You are condemning yourself. I can only hope that the power of Paul’s message (which your way of chopping it up in pieces undermines) may one day challenge you in the way its author seems to have intended. But for that to happen, you’ll probably have to keep reading past the end of “Romans 1″…

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