Maybe It’s Not the Worst Book in the Bible…

…But It’s a Contender

It would be such a relief—such a gift to the cause of compassionate religion—if Christians (especially of the paid-apologist variety, e.g., theologians, priests, ministers) could get over Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In my post on this blog 14 October 2016, I characterized this 16-chapter patch of scripture as a ‘toxic brew of bad theology,’ and stated my reasons for doing so. I also announced my plan to write analyses of each the 16 chapters, my atheist critique to be wrapped by January. I fell short of that goal: here I am starting in January. So, here goes, my take on Romans 1.

Scholars suspect that Paul’s opening paragraph was based on a liturgical formula current at the time (1:2-5), more or less summing up basic Christian thought, one key point being that Jesus Christ was a descendant of King David. So I begin with a digression: There is little doubt that Paul belonged to the school of thought that Jesus had been conceived/born the same way everyone else is. We search in vain throughout his letters for any mention of the virgin birth (which would have canceled “descended from David”). Matthew’s famous proof text, Isaiah 7:14, “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” was the furthest thing from his mind. He would have laughed it off.

Notice how explicit he is in 1:4: Jesus was declared son of God by his resurrection. That is Paul’s obsession; virgin birth would have diluted resurrection as the only credential that mattered. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke (representing the minority school of thought in the New Testament) indulged this fantasy that seeped into Christian thought decades after Paul wrote; some of the pious assumed it would be cool to graft the pagan his-mother-was-a-virgin idea onto the Jesus story. Those who want to adore Mary will not find an ally in Paul—who never so much as mentions her.

Matthew, by the way, insults our intelligence in the first chapter of his gospel. He begins by tediously listing Jesus’ ancestors back to King David (gotta have that pedigree!) then drops the story of the virgin birth on us: Nope, Jesus didn’t have a father. How come the original readers didn’t catch this glaring non sequitur? And how come this is not the point that Christians today realize that Matthew was a fraud and toss the New Testament into the trash?

End of digression.

If I ever get around to writing a secular commentary on this dreadful epistle, I have the title ready: Paul’s Letter to the Romans: God Is Wrath. After his unctuous flattery of the Roman congregation (1:8-15), he gets down to business, to his flawed, ugly theology.

I want to mention four points.

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.”

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.” 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.

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. 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? 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).

Outside of the most pathetic cults, you will never find a marriage counselor who urges couples to follow Paul’s advice. So please don’t quote him as an expert on love, marriage or sexuality—hetero or homo. And since he was so wrong about so many things (see my 14 October 2016 post), don’t credit him with being tuned into God’s thoughts—about anything. Yet Paul remains the default authority on homosexuality for so many today. No doubt with Romans 1 in mind, the Catholic Church cannot budge from its official position that gay people are “disordered.”

Paul’s long list of those who “deserve to die”

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…”

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. He includes gossips and rebellious children among those who deserve to die—according to God’s own decree. I guess it’s actually a good thing that—apart from obsessive scholars—the Letter to the Romans is pretty much ignored by the faithful, for whom The Man Upstairs is a benevolent figure, a cosmic buddy. 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.”

One of those obsessive scholars was C. H. Dodd, who wrote in 1939 that The Letter to the Romans is “the first great work of Christian theology.” Please, say it ain’t so.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years. He has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.