(Or: What Rob Gagnon Doesn't Know Might Hurt You)
Years ago I presented, in my book Liberating Paul, the argument that what Paul says in Romans 1:24-27 should not be read as a theological indictment of homosexuals or as a theological analysis of “the homosexual condition.” The argument didn’t get much attention from other scholars (in fact, I’ve never seen any discussion of that part of the book). I’ve now repeated much the same argument, with greater detail, in The Arrogance of Nations, and have received enthusiastic words of approval from three different scholars (to quote them: “I think you’re right”; “you convinced everyone in my graduate seminar on Romans”; “you blew my socks off”). But no one has given sustained attention to the argument in either book.
Which means that Robert Gagnon’s online critique of my argument—or at least of the condensed, more popular version of the argument that I posted several years ago at The Witness online—remains the most attention my argument has received. That also means that anyone wanting to find out what my argument is (for example, if they’d seen it referred to in Newsweek) and Googling my name would reach Gagnon’s critique before they struck on my original argument.
That is, I think, unfortunate, mainly because Rob misrepresents my argument in several important ways. I don’t know whether that’s because he simply doesn’t understand it (which I doubt—Rob is a bright enough guy) or because given his own assumptions, my argument just doesn’t make sense to him (a possibility I explore below). I think his assumptions are wrong. Or, put another way, we disagree because I don’t know as much as Rob thinks he knows. But then, I don't think he does, either.
In what follows I won't repeat my larger argument; it's available in fuller form in the two books mentioned above (and summarized in the Witness piece). I do want to address Rob's criticisms, however, as fairly as I can.
Off to a Bad Start
Rob begins by summarizing my argument--badly. He sees it as my attempt at reductionism: that I read what Paul says as applying "only" to Roman emperors. (He repeats this allegation in a number of rhetorical questions throughout his essay, but because he's misrepresented my argument, they're all off the mark.) So, he alleges, I contend that "Paul in Rom 1:18-32 was thinking only of the emperor Nero and a predecessor, Gaius 'Caligula' . . ." But I never wrote "only." My argument is that Nero and Caligula are splendid examples, "Exhibit A and B," of the arrogance, immorality, and injustice that Paul excoriates, but the whole point--I argue--is that they are examples of a larger immorality especially exemplified in the Roman imperial house. This has nothing to do with individuals, it has everything to do with the morally corrosive effect of power.
So I don't for a minute think that this is a question of just how extensive emperor worship was, or whether Caligula might have settled down and been acceptable to Paul if he'd just met the right guy. For their surface cleverness, those really are rather dumb objections that have nothing to do with my argument but do show that Rob is obsessed with this text being about homosexuality.
Rob continues, "Elliott believes that his new reading makes sense of Paul’s argument [in Romans 1--3]—an argument that otherwise 'disintegrates' into the 'incoherence' of 'prejudiced exaggeration,' 'stereotype,' and 'caricature.'" That's right, I do contend that, but it's worth noting that I'm not making up those characterizations. Scholars wiser than me have pointed to the rhetorical and logical problems in Romans 1--3: E. P. Sanders, Ernst Käsemann, Heikki Räisänen, among others (full footnotes in my books). Rob may not want to deal with the problems they've identified--they are, after all, remarkably inconvenient to traditional Reformed theology's appropriation of Romans--but ignoring the problems doesn't make them go away, and it certainly doesn't make them figments of my imagination. For Rob to ignore the problems just reflects Rob's prior commitments.
Rob believes he already knows something that I don't know. As he writes, "Neil creates a problem of his own making and then attempts to solve it with a proposal that does not speak to the concerns of Scripture." Well, as I've just suggested, the "problem" isn't of my own making; this is a set of problems widely recognized by Romans scholars--the sort of problem that theologically minded interpreters actually have to work hard to get around, as Rob ought to know if he's done his homework. But the larger point here is that Rob writes as though he already knows what "the concerns of Scripture" are, so mere details like the troublesome text of Romans needn't bother him.
What I Don't Know about the Bible (and Rob Doesn't, Either)
What Rob thinks he knows, specifically (and this is the part that can hurt you if you happen to be the sort of person who loves another person of your own gender), is that "the critique of same-sex intercourse is not limited to Paul but extends to the whole canon of Scripture, to say nothing of the univocal perspective against all same-sex intercourse that existed in the Judaisms of the Second Temple and rabbinic periods."
Wow. That's a lot of ground to cover. It's the sort of sweeping generalization you might make if you believed that the Bible was a single, theologically coherent fabric, coming in effect from a single author, so that what appears in one place (say, Leviticus 19) applies to every other writing and to the "whole canon," whether other parts of the Bible (say, the Gospels) mention it or (as a matter of fact) don't.
That's a lot to know. Or rather, it's a lot to believe: it's a theological assumption Rob makes about the Bible. Fundamentalists (and I use the term to describe a way of interpreting the Bible, whether or not Rob chooses to use the term for himself) like to imagine that they're just recognizing "what the Bible says" about itself (in places like 2 Tim. 3:16) when they make this sort of claim. But the Bible is not a self-explaining text. The historical record is clear that this collection of books (ta biblia in Greek, plural) was assembled over time. Of course some people (like Rob) read it as if it all spoke with the single voice of God, and of course some people have read it that way for centuries, although I note that the effort requires a lot more hermeneutical acrobatics (allegorical method in the early church; nowadays, doctrines of verbal inspiration "in the original autographs," etc., etc.) than is required, for example, for Muslims to read the Qur'an as the voice of God (after all, the Qur'an has the prima facie advantages of having been written in a single language, over the course of a few decades, and wholly in the first-person voice of God).
But that's not the only way to read the Bible. It's not the most reasonable way to read the Bible. And it's not the only Christian way to read the Bible.
If it were, we'd have to work really hard (and I concede that Rob does work really, really hard, in his big book) to explain, for example, why all those biblical passages telling slaves to keep a stiff upper lip don't really represent the single authoritative voice of God justifying slavery for all time. I'm just astonished that people like Rob don't see the fundamental methodological inconsistency here. Some of them will actually admit that yes, okay, whatever the Bible says about slavery was culturally conditioned, but go on to insist that that's not the case with sex. What God said about sex (not the parts about stoning women to death or having sex with your slave, of course, you know, the other stuff about how Adam and Eve had an ideal marriage, just like Joseph and Mary did) is absolute, transcendent, eternally valid. So--it follows naturally, at least for them--the hard work other scholars do to pay close attention to cultural contexts and what words actually meant in those contexts is a lot of unnecessary bother.
What I Don't Know (and Rob Doesn't, Either) about Romans
Rob also knows what Romans 1--3 is there for. Again, I quote him:
The whole point of the discussion in 1:18-3:20 is to “charge” that “both Jews and Greeks—all—are under sin” (3:9), that “no one is righteous, not even one” (3:10 . . .), and that “the whole world” is “under God’s judgment” (3:19), “for all have sinned and are lacking in the glory of God” (3:23). A critique limited to a couple of emperors would not establish this point.
The last line is correct, though irrelevant, since I don't see Paul's critique as "limited to a couple of emperors." But "the whole point" of Romans 1:18--3:20 is not what Rob says it is. Sure, I know, he sure sounds authoritative (after all, he's quoting the text). And sure, what he says sure sounds familiar (after all, most commentaries on our shelves repeat this argument over and over again). But the problems I mentioned before inhere right here. This supposed "argument" doesn't work as advertised; it wouldn't have moved anyone to accept Paul's conclusion if they weren't already convinced of it. That's why scholars like Sanders describe Paul's argument as working "backward."
Even Rob admits Paul is writing to convinced Christians. He also thinks that "later in Romans 6:15-23, Paul looks back on the discussion in 1:18-32" and "reminds [the Roman Christians] about their own behavior at the time that they were unbelievers." I note, first, that Paul says no such thing. He doesn't refer back to chap. 1 in chap. 6, nor does anything in chap. 6 "remind" the Romans that they used to commit murder and rob temples (crimes mentioned in chap. 1).
To be fair, this isn't just Rob's problem. How we get from the indictment in chap. 1 of people against whom the wrath of God is "being revealed," people worthy of death, to the assurance in chap. 6 that Paul's readers have been justified in Christ though they used to serve sin, is one of the chief puzzles of the letter. It's important to bear in mind that there really is a puzzle here. The conventional answer--the stuff of all the evangelistic sermons we've ever heard and all the "four spiritual laws" tracts we've ever picked up on the bus seat--is that Paul is simply explaining just how lost everyone is before Christ comes along to save them. The puzzle at the heart of the letter is why Paul spends time rehearsing that argument in a letter to people who have already accepted Christ. The leading answer, still printed in commentaries in the twenty-first century, is that Paul is trying to gain respect and support from the Roman church by showing a sample of the kind of initial preaching he would normally present to other people.
I find that answer maddeningly unsatisfying. Sure, it's comfortable and familiar for Evangelical Christians because it reassures them of what they already know--Jesus died for our sins, we're saved, hallelujah. But this answer implies that the Roman church was made up of people like modern Evangelical readers: that is, people who already know Paul's gospel so the first chapters aren't really meant to impress them, just to reassure them of their status. I think that's a gigantic misreading of Romans.
I've argued, at length, in two books now, for a different reading of Romans, based on the sort of rhetorical criticism that other scholars have found useful (I name Nils Dahl, Ben Witherington, and Stanley Stowers, from all of whom I've learned a great deal, though I don't want to imply that they would agree with me on all of my conclusions!). I think my reading of Romans 1 makes sense within the larger argument of those books; at least, it's meant to.
I wouldn't mind if Rob didn't find those arguments convincing; but he doesn't address them. He misrepresents, and then rejects one part of my reading of Romans--the part that really annoys him because it's opposed to his reading of Romans 1 and, more largely, of "the concerns of Scripture" regarding homosexuality--by insisting that I just don't understand what Romans is about.
It's more accurate to say that I don't accept the conventional reading of Romans that he assumes. That doesn't mean, automatically, that he's right and I'm wrong (or vice versa). It means, I suggest, that Romans still presents a puzzle (or set of puzzles) to be explored. I've tried to explore them in my work; that exploration has led me to a different understanding of Romans 1. Rob hasn't engaged those puzzles or that exploration because his concern has been to demonstrate that the whole Bible has just one view of homosexuality, from beginning to end. And that, again, is more than I know.
 Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994; Fortress Press edition, 2006), pp. 192-94.
 Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 75-83.