500 years ago the Roman Catholic Church had developed a number of theological positions and practices which were accepted by the population simply because the authority of the church was unquestioned.
Martin Luther studied the Bible where he found teaching that clearly contradicted church practices. He and many others developed and taught what came to be known as Reformed Theology.
This theology was in such contrast to the customary church teaching that a very clear division followed with supporters from both sides prepared to die for, and kill for, their beliefs.
The principal beliefs of the new theology were that the only way to become friends with God was to accept the gift of faith in Jesus that he grants us through his Holy Spirit and that all we need to believe and to obey is in the Bible.
We are saved by grace alone, by faith alone, through Christ alone, guided by the Bible alone.
It was in the first chapter of the book of Romans where Luther found this teaching:
“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:17 NIVUK)
Regrettably, differences of interpretation of the same chapter are a source of division today, fortunately without recourse to physical violence.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome in order to explain to them what had been revealed to him by the Lord, Jesus Christ, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (V 16)
He pointed out to them that the reality of Almighty God, the creator and what humans can understand about him has been made clearly evident to humans in his creation and that a failure to recognise and acknowledge his power and nature makes people at least needing a warning; there is no excuse for failing to acknowledge and honour him.
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (V 18-20)
In the light of this inexcusable, illogical, prideful, even stupid rebellion God’s response is awesomely gracious, merciful and patient. He held back the wrath he could reasonably pour out on these rebels; indeed, he went further and allowed them to go their independent way, to do what they wanted. He “gave them over”.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. (V 24)
God gave them over to shameful lusts. (V 25)
God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. (V 28)
The result was “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is for ever praised” (V 25) “Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (V 21,22)
The consequences of such pride, arrogance, idolatry and rebellion are extensive:
“They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.” (V 29-32)
When people decide to ignore and to deny God his response is, “OK, do it your way; live and die with the consequences but don’t expect my approval”.
The truth of these words is seen in our world and, in part, answers the question as to why so many bad things happen in this world. Humans are behaving badly just as God, and therefore we, expect them to.
But we don’t expect people who claim to be Christians to be like this.
There is a sizeable group of Christians whose understanding of Christianity is described as Liberal or Progressive. I have sought to understand this approach and come to my own conclusions at http://poweringon.com/convictions/
Progressive Christians interpret the verses in Romans chapter 1 to allow for and approve homosexual sexual activities. An example can be found at https://lgbtqconversations.wordpress.com/2017/04/03/best-progressive-arguments-on-romans-1-part-3/
In summary, the main arguments are:
- Paul Critiqued the Same-Sex Cultural Climate of His Day, Not of Ours
- Paul is Addressing Sexual Exploitation Pastorally
- The New Testament Moves from External Sins to the Heart
- Church History Has Gotten It Wrong Before
- Christians Have Not Always Read This Text the Same Way
The first argument require us to accept that the strong words in Romans 1 are descriptive of the Jewish cultural attitude of Paul’s day which forbade homosexuality (as it still does) but with our modern culture’s acceptance of such behaviour we would expect that Paul would also be more accepting. However, we must ask whether God has also changed his attitude – an extraordinary thing to expect.
This interpretation is also selective.
The list in Romans 1 (there are other lists elsewhere) is of “wicked” things. Sexual immorality is included as a “wicked” thing but it is only one item. If we can excise this item and can approve of it in our culture then what of the other items? Some of them are approved of and practiced by some in our culture, too. With the same logic as can be applied to this one item we can argue approval for others, including evil, greed and depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice, gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, boastful, disobedience to parents.
The result of such acceptance would be that throughout the community people would have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
Alternatively take Romans 1 on face value and read that God allows these things along with their consequences but that Christians should not indulge in the ways described in the passage.
The second point suggests Paul is not addressing mutual consensual sex but exploitation – concluding the former is acceptable, the latter not. There is nothing in the Bible which would hint at such an interpretation, convenient though it might be. Elsewhere it has been suggested that the biblical condemnation only applies to specific actions such as anal sex but not other homosexual activities.
The third point argues that what is in the heart is what matters; that the action of homosexuality in itself is not wrong but the impurity of lustful actions. Jesus taught in Matthew 5:28, “But I tell you that anyone looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”. His teaching is that we should keep our heart pure but he does not condone adultery (or homosexual sex) as long as we avoid the impurity of lust. In reality, if our heart is pure our way of life will show that and we avoid all items on the “wicked” list.
The fourth and fifth points may be correct but that does not mean the Reformed understanding of these verses has made another mistake.
In addition, it applies methods of criticism used when studying literature academically, methods that can lead to false, presumptuous and unreasonable conclusions. CS Lewis explained this clearly in his 1959 paper, “Fern-seed and Elephants”. In it he made three bleats, criticisms of Liberal/Progressive theologians.
“First then, whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. they seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading.”
“Now for my second bleat. all theology of the liberal type involves at some point — and often involves throughout — the claim that the real behaviour and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars.”
“Thirdly, I find in these theologians a constant use of the principle that the miraculous does not occur. Thus any statement put into our lord’s mouth by the old texts, which, if he had really made it, would constitute a prediction of the future, is taken to have been put in after the occurrence which it seemed to predict.”
“But my fourth bleat — which is also my loudest and longest — is still to come. All this sort of criticism attempts to reconstruct the genesis of the texts it studies; what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences…
What forearms me against all these reconstructions is the fact that I have seen it all from the other end of the stick. I have watched reviewers reconstructing the genesis of my own books in just this way. Until you come to be reviewed yourself you would never believe how little of an ordinary review is taken up by criticism in the strict sense; by evaluation, praise, or censure, of the book actually written. Most of it is taken up with imaginary histories of the process by which you wrote it. The very terms which the reviewers use in praising or dispraising often imply such a history. They praise a passage as ‘spontaneous’ and censure another as ‘laboured’; that is, they think they know that you wrote the one currenete calamo [without deep reflection] and the other invita Minerva [without inspiration].”
CS Lewis, the highly regarded academic, a professor of English Literature, concluded that standard critical methodology may be faulty when applied academically to the study, analysis and criticism of literature can lead to false conclusions and conclusions which are really merely an opinion of the critic. When this critical methodology is applied to the Bible as in Liberal theology the conclusions cannot be trusted either and lead to false conclusions or, at least, uncertainty.
The Liberal/Progressive approach to the Bible achieves interpretations that are convenient to the interpreter and which are more acceptable to and accepting of people who do not follow the Reformed/Evangelical (conservative) approach.
Progressive theology is also selective.
The list in Romans 1 (there are other lists elsewhere) is of “wicked” things. Sexual immorality is included as a “wicked” thing but it is only one item. If we can excise this item and can approve of it in our culture then what of the other items? With the same logic as can be applied to this one item we can argue for approval for others, including evil, greed and depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice, gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, boastful, disobedience to parents.
As people come to accept these “wicked” things the result would be that they would have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
In very straightforward language Romans 1 explains that God has made himself sufficiently understandable and has made plain behaviours his followers should avoid. If we find people who still do not understand and submit to God and indulge in actions this passage calls “wicked” then we should respond as God does. He and we can “give them over” to their actions and their consequences. Neither God nor we can give approval of such things.
It is sad that after 500 years during which Christians who appreciate and study the Bible as did the Reformers now find themselves with fundamental differences with people who follow “Progressive” theology.
But the saddest thing is what Progressive Christians lose.
If some passages of the Bible are simply to be disbelieved or regarded as having some message and meaning but not taken literally, or be put aside as mythical folklore, or reinterpreted to suit the culture of our times then one person can have an interpretation while another person can hold a different one.
So, if one person takes the Bible on face value while several others have their own interpretations and yet others dismiss the Bible altogether perhaps one of these is correct; perhaps none of them. We all live in a state of uncertainty, variety and of division.
Even the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross becomes a matter of conjecture when the straightforward meanings of the Bible passages are opened for dismissal or interpretation. Perhaps it never happened. Perhaps we are not forgiven. Perhaps we are lost. Perhaps we might as well be atheists. The least we can say is that our faith is futile and we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)
I wonder at many of the stories and events in the Bible and cannot explain them or persuade others to believe them but also I cannot be confident of any of the many interpretations that can be applied. Which, if any of them, is correct? Rather than abandon all hope or to wander in a morass of options and interpretations and meanings I simply accept the Bible as is, on face value, even “literally”. This is, after all, one of the many approaches and at least it is just as likely as the others to be correct.
In any case, there will come a day when I expect I will know whether I got it right and in the meantime it seems to me I lose nothing by taking this approach. Indeed, with it much is to be gained! Without it so much is lost and I am adrift!
With the Bible I have assurance of forgiveness and cleansing and an understanding of my relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All I can know about my God and Saviour is shown to me in the Bible and I love to have it.