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Romans Ch 1 verse 26-27


This document it heavily dependent upon material previously posted to the Net by Gregory Jordan.

Phusis: Nature or Behaviour?

In an article on the use of the word 'phusis', nature, in Paul [J of Rel Ethics 14 (1986)] Richard Hays argued that the word should be understood to refer to "an intuitive conception of what ought to be, the world as designed by God". Hays relates the word to the Edenic situation in Genesis and implies that it should be understood to relate to God's providential intention for creation. The use of 'phusis' and its related forms in the New Testament, however, does not bear out this conception. Most often the word is used in the New Testament in the form 'phusei', by nature. Hays considers that its "anarthrous dative singular form . . . actually functions in a quasi-adverbial manner . . .; its nominal character is largely dissipated in this construction". This seems like back-pedaling; Hays doesn't give an example in which even a dissipated sense of "providential intention" is meant in the form 'phusei'. Nor does he give an example (other than Romans 1) in which even the noun form 'phusis' could easily be interpreted as "providential design."
The central contention of this article is that: "in the New Testament, 'phusis' generally signifies manifest behaviour rather than internal constitution and has no connotations of ought to be".
Only in [Jas 3:7] "For every species (phusis) of beast....." is it better to translate 'phusis' as species (with a connotation of internal constitution) rather than outward characteristics and observable behaviour, and even then (in the context), the two meanings are closely related.

Physics, Form and Pattern

It is perhaps worth noting that the tension between a meaning of internal constitution and external functioning is present in three related words. The first of these is the english word physics, which is obviously directly derivative of the Greek 'phusis'. Physics can be regarded as the study of the nature of things: the core of Natural Science, a delving into the heart of reality. This was, arguably, the programme followed by Newton and Einstein among others. More recently, in the context of Quantum Mechanics, the metaphysics of Logical Positivism has been very influential, with an overwhelming emphasis on externally observable (manifest) behaviour as opposed to internal constitution. Hence, Physics can ambiguously be read as either the study of the heart of (the) matter, or just matter's behaviour.

The second word of interest is form. In normal English usage this has strong connotations of external characteristics, so: "What form did this triangle take? Did it have scroll-work? Was it green or blue? Did it consist of icing sugar?" Compare this with the technical use of this word in Platonist theory. Here the form of an object (perhaps a physical thing) is (an aspect of) its definitive constitution, an internal principal of cohesion, its information content: an abstraction with more reality than the thing itself. The object is just an imperfect and partial expression or realization of the form, so: "What is this tool that imperfectly participates in the ideal form of the triangle? Is it a trowel, is it a knife or is it a wedge?"

My final word is pattern. This is closely related to form. Once more, it can signify a superficiality, as in a pattern that decorates or is imposed upon a pre-existing reality. On the other hand, it can also signify the information content that defines the constitution of a thing. A pattern can be a plan according to which something is constructed: as the pattern of nucleotides in the DNA of a cell codes, specifies and determines the structure (and so observable behaviour) of the cell. When one has grasped the pattern of a thing or situation (e.g. a sequence of numbers such as : 1, 4, 9, 25, 49, 121 ... ) then one understands its constitution and can predict its outcome. Confusingly, some superficial patterns can themselves have an internal meaning, granted by their context: as the pattern of a seal imposed on wax may signify something entirely beyond its manifest form.

'Phusis' as used by Peter and Jude.

First let us look at two non Pauline texts.
"His [God's] divine power has given us everything we need for life and piety through our knowledge of him who called us to his own magnificence and virtue. Through these he has given us his great and precious promise, so that through them you might become sharers of a divine nature (theias koinOnoi phuseOs) and escape the corruption of the world by greed."  [2Pet 1:3,4]
Here it is barely possible that the word 'phusis' could refer to a providential design. One sense of the word given in reference dictionaries is "Outward form, stature, look: Latin species." This meaning makes more sense here, allowing 'theias koinOnoi phuseOs' to be rendered sharers of a divine life-style. Christians are now living a pious life, one of glorious honour/virtue, unlike the corrupt greediness of the world. It is in this way that Christians share the evident characteristics of God. It is God's 'phusis' which is being imparted to humans.
"And these people blaspheme what they don't know about (oidasin), and whatever things they have experience of (episantai), being naturally (phusikOs), like irrational animals, by these things they are destroyed."  [Jd 10]
It is sensible to say that since here the behaviour of these people is being discussed, 'phusikOs' refers to that behaviour, rather than to any unchanging personal nature. Although they may be acting like animals, God does not wish them to act that way. Yet here it is plainly said that their behaviour is 'phusikOs'. This cannot be God's providential design! They don't know God, so all they know is what they experience sensually. Their evident characteristics are those of animals.

'Phusis' as used by Paul.

Now let us consider five significant texts from St. Paul.
".... when you did not know God you served as slaves those who were not by nature (phusei) gods." [Gal 4:8]
Paul is referring to idols. Idols were not, of course, part of God's providential design, nor could they have any "nature" in the sense of being the way they ought to have been. Idols, as artificial creations, also couldn't have had an inherent character or essence. In fact, the English translation "those who were not by nature gods" introduces a pleonasm: if the idols weren't gods, of course they couldn't have the natures of gods. What does 'phusei' add to the sense? In their evident characteristics and apparent behaviour the idols certainly were not gods: they weren't even alive! This sense of 'phusei' fits the sense very well.
".... Is it proper for a wife to pray to God uncovered? Does not nature (phusis) itself teach you that if her husband has long hair, it is dishonourable? But if his wife has long hair, it is her magnificence. For her hair is given to her for a covering." [1Co 11:13-15]
Hays admits this use of 'phusis' plausibly means "the character of some person or group of persons, a character which was largely ethnic and entirely human". Why keep shifting the sense of the word? What if it means the same thing here as it does in [Gal 4:8]? It may be that neither universal nature or even particular human nature are at issue. This passage is controversial: both as to what the problem was and as to what solution Paul was suggesting, but if 'phusis' here means evident characteristics and behaviour, then Paul may be referring to contemporary fashion! He is, in fact, defending the right of women to cover themselves (with their hair) since they normally liked to "glory" in their long hair, just as men liked to go "uncovered" (cropped) since they would be socially embarrassed by long hair. It may be that some men were demanding that the women also cropped their hair, perhaps based on the notion that in Christ there was neither male nor female. This rendering has the distinct advantage of freeing St Paul from the appearance of condemning men for not cropping their hair, in direct contradiction with Jewish tradition.
"You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it then that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? ... We who are Jews by nature (phusei) and not Gentile sinners..." [Gal 2:15]
The context is Paul rebuking Peter and Barnabas for separating from Gentiles at meals. Hays assumes 'phusei' should here be  translated as by birth, the idea of Jewish nature being somewhat extravagant; but why change the sense of the word? Behaviour and outward characteristics are manifestly at issue here. Those who are Jews by 'phusei' are contrasted with Gentile "sinners". It is entirely plausible that 'phusei' once more means outward characteristics: in the case of Jews, minimally circumcision; in the case of Gentiles, their uncircumcision and ritual impurity.
"As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were children, by nature (phusei), of wrath."  [Eph 2:1-3]
Here Paul is saying that he himself, with the rest of them, was a "child of wrath". The form 'phusei' is inserted into the middle of a genitive construction in a way that closely ties it to the phrase: "children by nature of wrath". Paul cannot be referring to any providential plan, since God did not preordain him for damnation, but for salvation. Neither is he referring to some essential characteristic either, since he had by this point changed his manner of life. 'Phusei' must be understood to refer directly to that former manner of life: children of wrath, as was manifest in our behaviour. Here Paul is using a form similar to "son of perdition" as used by Jesus, to refer to someone who by their actions demonstrated that they, at that moment, would be damned if they were to be judged. Thus 'phusei' makes most sense if it is taken to have exactly the same meaning as elsewhere in the New Testament.
"Indeed when Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature (phusei) things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show the practice of the law that is written in their hearts, their consciences also testifying, and their thoughts now accusing, now defending them." [Rm 2:14]
In Stoic usage, which Hays sees reflected in Paul, 'nomos' (meaning custom) was contrasted with and distinguished from 'phusis' (meaning nature). However, there is no particular reason to believe that Paul is here using 'phusis' in this technical sense. After all, elsewhere he frequently uses 'phusis' without contrasting it with 'nomos'. Reading providential design into this passage makes nonsense of it. Hays would have us believe 'phusis' here might mean birth, but not all Gentiles were righteous by birth. Moreover God intended for both Jews and Gentiles to follow the Natural Law, "written in their hearts". 'Phusei' does not itself refer to the Natural Law, rather it is its manifestation. The observation  that good pagans could fulfil the Law of love of neighbour by decent behaviour: their 'phusis', shows that they have a law "written on their hearts".
"For if you have been cut from what is by nature (phusei) a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature (para phusin), into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree." [Rm 11:24]
Here, St Paul says that God acts para phusin for a gracious purpose. Clearly, the phrase cannot be seen as automatically derogatory. Grafting is certainly un-natural, or better beyond what would occur without human intervention, but it is in no sence wrong or immoral or even in opposition to nature. The RSV translation "contrary to nature" is peculiarly un-necessary.

Exegesis of Romans Ch 1 verses 26-27

Boswell has argued that the passage is not mistranslated, but merely misunderstood: Richard Hays [J of Rel Ethics 14 (1986)] took issue with the interpretation of nature in this passage. However, his argument had little foundation in the Greek language of the text. Here I shall argue, against Boswell, that the passage is mistranslated as well as misinterpreted. I think that a correct translation casts much light on the issues involved.

Our passage is:

"Dia touto paredOken autous ho theos eis pathE atimias, hai te gar thEleiai autOn metEllaksan tEn phusikEn khrEsin eis tEn para phusin; homoiOs te kai hoi arsenes aphentes tEn phusikEn khrEsin tEs thEleias eksekauthEsan en tEi oreksei autOn eis allElous, arsenes en arsesin tEn askhEmosunEn katergazomenoi kai tEn antimisthian hEn edei tEs planEs autOn en heautois apolambanontes."

"Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion."  [Rm 1:26,27] (NIV)

The first phrase is 'Dia touto paredOken autous ho theos' On account of this God handed them over. The "this" refers to the Gentiles' idolatry. The word 'paredOken' seems to have been almost a legal term, for assigning someone to an officer of the court to be taken to their punishment, see [John 19:16 & Matt. 5:25-26]. It does not refer to the punishment itself, which is a mistake that leads Hays to assume that the following sins are themselves God's punishment and judgement. In any case, to say such a thing smacks of Calvinism! The present tense in [Rom 1:18] "God's wrath is being revealed" is actually referring to the storing up of God's wrath for the day of wrath [Rom. 2:5], that is, the future Judgement Day, when God's actual punishment will be administered. Until then, the sinners are simply in remanded in custody, having been handed over to their own devices.

The NIV takes a liberty, rendering 'pathE atimias' as shameful lusts. Lusts, or covetings, are a favourite subject of Paul's, as 'epithumia', a kind of Ten Commandments style greediness with an entirely optional sexual dimension. Here though we have 'pathE' which refers to passion alone. 'PathE' both in etymology and usage are passive feelings, feelings that happen to one: an urge or appetite, not feelings one can set out to induce arouse or excite. In more general Greek usage 'pathE' can refer to events that happen to one. Boswell has convincingly argued  that 'tim' and 'atim'  in New Testament usage are also passive: they are the dishonour given to a person by a community, regardless of the reason (Paul once refers to Christianity as dishonourable in this sense: that it outrages the community.) The phrase might be rendered: embarrassing emotional reactions or dishonourable urges. The English word passion implies too much volition and deliberation. It is quite proper to say in English that someone developed a passion for gardening, whereas 'pathE' in Greek more routinely refer to things like outbursts of rage.

'PathE atimias'; might also mean "passions for dishonour" that is, an urge to do something (anything!) dishonourable just because it was dishonourable: for the sake of the dishonour involved.

Whatever the exact interpretation, it is pretty clear that Paul is arguing that Gentiles rejected what they could see of God and turned to idolatry. In response, God handed them over to their own devices, and that the life-style choices they made demonstrated just how in need of God's grace fallen humanity is. What those choices were, in detail, remains to be determined.

Based on the usage of  'phusis' in the NT, the phrase 'tEn phusikEn khrEsin' can be rendered as their characteristic practice or their manifest sexuality. 'Phusis' refers to an observable property. This supports and emphasizes Boswell's thesis that the people mentioned here engaged in heterosexual behaviour of some sort before exchanging it for something else. The real trouble is with 'khrEsis', practice. In ordinary Greek it could refer to any custom or habit; on the other hand, it could be so specific as to refer to the pattern of sexual behaviour which distinguished homosexuality from heterosexuality. The use in Pseudo-Lucian's ErOtes is late but telling for its context; the "khrEsis" with women is contrasted to the "khrEsis" with "paides" (boys/men) in a debate between homosexuals and heterosexuals.

The second part of the phrase 'tEn [khrEsin understood] para phusin' should then be rendered as that sexuality which was not characteristic of them or that practice which was not typical of their [previous] behaviour. "Para" means beyond or additional to, so "para phusin", literally means paranormal, or unusual. As we have already seen, it does not mean contray-to-nature. If ESP or Ghosts or PsycoKinesis turn out to be parts of objective reality, they will inevitably be (super-)natural. "Super" is, of course, the rough latin equivalent of the Greek "Para".

"The Greek word para usually means 'beside', 'more than', 'over and above', 'beyond'. We retain this meaning in many English words. A paraprofessional is someone who is not trained in a particular field but who assists those working in that field. For example, 'paralegal' refers to people who are not lawyers but who work with lawyers and other legal professionals."
[Dr. D. A. Helminiak: "What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality", Chapter 6]
Paul seems to be going to a lot of trouble to avoid the misunderstanding that he is talking about ordinary homosexuals. That he used Stoic terms which were misunderstood almost from the start is unfortunate. It parallels his unsuccessful attempt to forestall antisemitism in this same letter: Paul's very words were used to reinforce the exact kind of antisemitic "boasting" which he condemned, see for example, St Ignatius of Antioch.

The first part of the passage:

"Dia touto paredOken autous ho theos eis pathE atimias, hai te gar thEleiai autOn metEllaksan tEn phusikEn khrEsin eis tEn para phusin ...."

should thus be rendered:

"On account of this God handed them over to dishonourable urges, for in addition their females put aside their habitual sexual practice in exchange for that which was beside it ...."

'PathE' as passive emotions may not be significant since all emotions may be viewed as passive, but it might be part of an overall alternation between passive and active senses in this passage. The males set aside 'aphentes' their characteristic behaviour with females. The verb has the sense of  "putting away", as one's wife in a divorce. Here is the active part of their sin. Just as the already believed in God was put away and exchanged for idols shaped like animals; the already practised and characteristic sexuality is set aside and exchanged for something novel, inappropriate and perversely unfulfilling. The verb 'eksekauthEsan' is aorist passive. The 'eks' is an inchoative particle here: being set on fire, kindled, ignited. The subject is unexpressed: some agent caused them to start burning. The verb 'oreksei', translated by the NIV as lust is much more neutral than this. It is often used in the New Testament to signify a noble aspiration after or esteem for something. Equally it could signify a lust for money! The translation yearning or longing is much better. The construction 'autOn eis allElous' is slightly awkward. I would render it "themselves among each other" rather than "for one another", though "themselves towards each other" is also possible.

The phrase 'tEn askhEmosunEn katergazomenoi' is troublesome. The etymological sense of 'askhEmosunEn', is incongruity.  It is used in the LXX to render the nakedness referring to sexual behaviour. In the New Testament, it usually refers to dishonour, embarrassment, shame. The last word, 'katergazomenoi' means earning by labour, or producing. So we have dishonour being earned by labour, and this part of the passage:

 ".... homoiOs te kai hoi arsenes aphentes tEn phusikEn khrEsin tEs thEleias eksekauthEsan en tEi oreksei autOn eis allElous, arsenes en arsesin tEn askhEmosunEn katergazomenoi"

should be rendered:

".... likewise and also the males set aside their characteristic practice with their females, being kindled with longing themselves among each other, males among males their embarrassment earning ..."

Various commentators (including Boswell) have interpreted this passage as referring to heterosexuals who had abandoned their characteristic behaviour in favour of homosexual looking behaviour, rather than  homosexuals, who would have no heterosexual natural practice to "exchange" or "give up." No one has ever asked: "Why would a heterosexual want to give up his natural practice in exchange for homosexual style behaviour?" The answer to this question was perhaps more obvious to ancients than it is to us.

'Antimisthian' means payment for services rendered; it is the object of the participle 'apolambanontes': taking, receiving. It is also the object of 'edei', usually rendered in this passage as what was due or proper. This is a mistranslation. Its use elsewhere as an agentless imperfect signifies requirement and  necessity. The reason it is not usually translated as it was required or necessary here is because the context has not been seen to support it, as it does elsewhere.

Moreover, the word “penalty” offers a loaded translation; it carries a negative connotation that is not in the Greek. The Greek word simply means “recompense,” “reward” or “payment,” which could be positive, negative or neutral.  [Dr. D. A. Helminiak: "What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality", Chapter 6]
'PlanEs' is usually rendered error but its use in the New Testament rather requires the meaning deception, it is a deliberate act of deluding or misleading someone. When used of the person deceived, it is usually in a passive construction (where someone else, perhaps not named, can be taken to have deceived or tricked the person in question). Here it is ambivalent, perhaps deliberately so: are the persons in question deceiving others by their behaviour or are they themselves tricked into behaviour not characteristic of them? The "en heautois" not to mention the "en oreksei autOn" strongly implies they were the ones being deceived. So the final part of the passage:
"...kai tEn antimisthianhEn edei tEs planEs autOn en heautois apolambanontes."

should be rendered:

"...and the payment which required that deception they in person receiving."

Another possibility, favoured by Dr Helminiak is that the "error" is idoloatory:
"The error Paul refers to is not homosexuality but Gentile idolatry. Idolatry is his concern throughout the whole of that chapter: they knew God but did not worship God. And the recompense that comes to the Gentiles because of their not worshipping God is the uncleanness that is a regular part of their culture. Paul is saying that, in addition to committing real sin, the Gentiles are also soiled. Their culture is filled with unclean practices. Both sin and impurities abound among the Gentiles.

Paul’s reasoning differs from what we generally think. We would say that, because people sin, they are idolaters, they distancethemselves from God. But Paul’s Jewish heritage leads him to see this matter in reverse. Because people abandon God, wickedness abounds among them. For Paul the root of all evil is disregard for God. This idolatry, this turning from God, is the gravest of all human faults. For Paul and the Jewish religion, this is sin - and all the things we would call sins are merely expressions of this core fault.

So wrongdoings and impurity are the result of Gentile idolatry, the result of their not worshipping God as the Jews do. Not acknowledging the Jewish God, they do not acknowledge the Jewish Law, so they do not share the Jewish purity rules. Therefore, they are unclean. The dirtiness of the Gentiles comes from their idolatry."
[Dr. D. A. Helminiak: "What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality", Chapter 6]


All together, we have (rendering the flow more even):
"On account of this, God handed them over to dishonourable urges: for in addition their females put aside their habitual sexual practice in exchange for that which was uncharacteristic; moreover the males also set aside their characteristic practice with their females, being kindled with longing themselves among each other: males among males earning social disapproval, and receiving among themselves the payment that was only possible because of  the deception involved."
These visibly heterosexual males then would be changing their behaviour in order to make money, as prostitutes. Their longing is indeed avarice. It may be that this is fact what the females are likewise guilty of, in which case their "exchange" might not even involve lesbian activity of any sort, but only prostitution. If this is true, it would put Paul back in line with almost every other ancient writer in not criticizing lesbianism. Commentators have often puzzled over why Paul alone should have condemned the phenomenon of lesbianism, especially so prominently.

Of course, even with this translation, it is still possible to conclude that Paul is referring to all of those people we would now consider homosexuals. However, this "all homosexuals" interpretation implies that St Paul clearly understood that the individuals he is discussing receive gratification and reward for their behaviour. This makes him a more sophisticated interpreter of homosexuality than St John Chrysostom! St John was genuinely mystified about why homosexuals did what they did. He thought (much along the lines of the analysis offered in the official teaching of the contemporary Catholic Church) that they were just confused heterosexuals who did not really enjoy homosexual behaviour, and couldn't tell the difference between pain and pleasure, dishonour and honour. If our passage was understood to refer to all homosexuals, why hadn't Chrysostom learned the simple truth from St Paul? Hence, I prefer the reading which makes out Paul's concern to be with prostitution.

That he was misunderstood is ironic. Paul's informal use of words which accidentally had special meanings in pagan Greek and Jewish Hellenistic philosophy resulted in misunderstandings of this passage almost from the beginning of the Patristic writers.

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