On the “wrath of God” Romans 1:18-32

This text is an excerpt from from my article On the Ethics of St. Paul, viz. the final section regarding Paul’s “wrath of God” speech in Romans 1:18-32. I’ve decided to present this section as a separate piece due to the depth of the subject matter. This is a revised and expanded version of the original text. The speech is referred to here as the “sermon”.

In the main article I argued that Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and Galatians 3:28 (see below) cannot be reconciled with the message in Romans 1:18-32. In the main article I stated my conclusion that Paul did not condemn homosexuality, but only the open expression in the form of indiscreet or indecent behavior which in turn confused the Gospel ministry and exposed the ministry to accusations of scandal. I believe that Paul’s position on homosexuality was the same as his position on idol meats in 1 Corinthians 8: that the liberty of “gnosis” is not to be displayed in front of the weaker brother. But in order for my conclusion to stand I must also account for the passage in Romans, which appears to be a condemnation of homosexuality itself. Here is a quote from the passage:

“For this cause God gave them up to vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature. And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust toward one another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was due.” (Rom. 1:26-27)

The typical “orthodox” Christian will point to this passage as evidence that Paul condemned the act of homosexuality itself. But I would like to raise the question of whether this passage is interpreted in its correct context? The passages I have already presented elsewhere suggest that Paul was not condemning homosexuality in and of itself, hence “All things are lawful” (1 Cor. 6:12)[1]. Furthermore, Paul spoke of a social order where traditional structures no longer existed; hence in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The question is: is there a relationship between the concept in Romans 1:26f. and the concepts in 1 Cor. 6:12 and Gal. 3:28? I believe that we cannot simply ignore some concepts in favor of others.

And regarding the overall passage, verses 18-32, there is the question of whether this passage reflects Paul’s theology and worldview as stated in his other letters. For example, in Romans 1:20 it is stated that “For the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; even his eternal power and Godhead…” Whereas in 1 Corinthians 2:14 it is said that the spiritual nature of God cannot be grasped by the “natural” man. And in another passage Paul wrote: “We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things that are not seen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18) Note that in the latter passages Paul does not affirm that the invisible things of God can be seen through the physical creation. The latter passages state the opposite

Again I question whether these passages can be reconciled—and that we can’t just ignore some concepts in favor of others.

I think the cause behind this conflict of ideas is that “orthodox” Christians have misrepresented Paul’s words in Romans. The traditional interpretation is to the effect that Paul’s sermon refers to pagans who have rejected the true God, and God in response gave them over to “vile affections.” However I believe there is evidence in the sermon which shows that it reflects a conflict between Christian sects, and never referred to pagans at all. And, the words in Romans 1:26-27, et al. do not refer to pagans, but are a repetition of slanderous rumors that circulated between sects.

To word this in another way: I would like to propose is that what we really have here is an apology by Paul against other, more conservative Jewish Christians who have misrepresented and slandered Paul’s ministry and doctrine. And, that Paul’s words in Romans 1:26f. are part of the list of accusations that he proposes to defend himself against. I know this seems far-fetched, but please bear with me as I explain the problems and set forth the evidence.

To begin with: It must be understood that Paul’s letter to the Romans is a letter of introduction (A. Schweitzer, Mysticism of Paul., pg. 44f. W. Kummel, Introduction to the NT, pg. 312). Paul had never been to Rome, and he sent this letter as an explanation of his doctrine in advance of his arrival. Now it is important to understand that a proper letter of introduction is a note of endorsement that is provided by a higher authority. In early Christianity a letter of introduction (or “commendation”) was a letter that the Apostolic leaders sent with an individual who was traveling among the churches. The letter confirmed that the man was authorized by the church leadership, and was not simply out on his own. In 2 Corinthians 3:1–5, Paul actually mentions the fact that he had no such letter to show to the churches in Greece (Kummel, ibid., pg. 284). In this context it is highly significant that Paul actually admits, in 2 Cor. 3:1–5, that he has no such letter. Paul also had no letter to take with him to Rome (note that Paul conveys no greetings from the Apostles at Jerusalem). Paul’s letter to the Romans is his own introduction, and it represents a defense of his doctrine. Paul even refers to his critics:

“For if the truth of God has abounded more through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I judged as a sinner? And not rather–as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say–let us do evil, that good may come?” (Rom. 3:7–8)

My point here is that the letter to Romans was written in the context of a conflict over Paul’s teaching on the Law, viz. his Liberation doctrine (2 Cor. 3:17, Gal. 4:1-9). Paul’s “wrath of God” sermon is actually in reference to this conflict, and the accusations in the sermon are those of Paul’s enemies, which are set forth as the starting place for his defense; his apology. Moreover, the passage may be quoted from another letter that was circulated against Paul, and was the source of the statements in Romans 1:18-32.

In “orthodox” tradition Paul’s sermon is represented as an attack on pagans who are immoral and have a wrong view of God. This is supposedly represented in Paul’s words: “Because when they knew God, they glorified him not as God…And changed the glory of God into an image made like to corruptible man, and birds and four-footed beasts and creeping things… And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind… Being filled with all unrighteousness… Backbiters, haters of God…covenant breakers…” (Rom. 1:21, 23, 28, 30)

Supposedly this speech is an indictment against the pagans; but I would like to point out a number of details here which are inconsistent with a proper description of pagan religion. For one thing, Paul never actually mentions the issue of polytheism or idolatry. The words “idol” and “gods” do not appear here at all as compared with the other letters (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:4–5, “eidolon”/“theoi”). The entire sermon is couched in the context of monotheism. The passage reads that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). The problem here is that pagans had no truth of “God” to “suppress in unrighteousness.” Again, the pagans were polytheistic idolaters who worshipped false gods. There was no truth for them to suppress. The pagans never knew God as Paul described: “Because when they knew God, they glorified him not as God…” I believe these words refer to a heresy, and not to (supposed) pagan, polytheistic idolatry.

The sermon also says that “when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things”. (Romans 1:21-23)

One central tenet of early heresy is that the Lawgiver Jehovah was really just an angel in rebellion against the Good Father above (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.24.2, 1.25.4). There is language in Paul’s letters that reflects the same doctrine, e.g. Galatians 3:19 & 4:1-10, 2 Cor. 3:12-4:4; cf. also Colossians 2:13-18. In these passages observing the Law is equated with worshipping angels (cf. Hebrews 2:2f.). In context of the sermon, in the Bible the angels in question, viz. the Seraphim and Cherubim, are described as having both human and animal traits, having the forms of man, serpents, birds and four-footed animals (Isaiah 6:2-6, Ezekiel 1 & 10). This could also be the context of the passage in Romans 1:23, that the heretics have reduced the supreme Deity & Lawgiver to the inferior status of an angel which has the corruptible form of man and various animals. (Note: In later classic Gnosticism the biblical creator was portrayed with animal traits, e.g. in Sethian myth Yaldabaoth is portrayed as having the body of a serpent and the face of a lion.)

The conflict of ideas here regarding the pagans can also be seen when the sermon is compared to what follows in Romans 2:14-15,

“For when the Gentiles (ethne), which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another…” (Note: the Greek word for “gentiles” ethne is found nowhere in Romans 1:18-32.)

Can the above passages be reconciled? In the wrath of God sermon it is supposedly said that the gentiles, the pagans, have rejected the true knowledge of God, even after knowing him, and are therefore in a state of mental & moral corruption. Whereas in Romans 2 it is said that gentiles who don’t know God or the Law still follow a “law written in their hearts”. Again, I propose the solution that Romans 1 doesn’t refer to pagans, but to another party altogether.

Paul also asserts that the sinners in question are “backbiters” and “haters of God…without understanding, covenant breakers…” (1:30). These words do not match clearly and neatly with the notion of an indictment against pagans. In reference to pagans, these words lack context. The simple fact is that not all pagans are “backbiters” or “covenant breakers.” If this were true then the Roman system of government could not exist. The Pax Romana would not exist. What Paul’s words really refer to is the rivalry and acrimony among Christian factions (read: heresies, cf. 1 Cor. 1:10–12, 11:18–19). The words “backbiters” and “covenant breakers”, etc., refer to accusations that rival Christians made against each other. Indeed these words only make sense in reference to parties who know each other, and who accuse each other of being backbiters, God haters and covenant breakers.

Again, I think Paul’s sermon is a characterization of an attack made by his Jewish Christian adversaries. According to them, Paul is a backbiter (read: betrayer), a covenant breaker (Paul teaches against the Law, viz. the Mosaic Covenant) and a God hater (Paul disparages the Law of God and teaches that the Law was “ordained by angels”; Gal. 3:10-13, 19).

There is also the accusation that the truth of God is “suppressed in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18b). Of note is that Paul actually accused Moses of this very offense in a polemic in 2 Corinthians 4:1–2, “Therefore seeing that we have this ministry…we do not fail; but have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking around in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully…” These words follow Paul’s statement that “Moses” blinded the eyes of the Israelites to the death oriented nature of the Law: “Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech: and not as Moses, who placed a veil over his face, so that the children of Israel could not steadily behold that which was fading away. But their minds were blinded: for unto this day the same veil remaineth in the reading of the old testament…even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart” (2 Cor. 3:12–15).

Paul wrote the words above in reference to Jewish Christians who denounced his teaching on the Law. We should also note that this passage actually begins with the problem in that the Church leadership, presumably the Apostles at Jerusalem, refused to give Paul a letter of commendation, showing that Paul was sent by the Apostles. In 2 Corinthians 3:1–2 Paul writes to his readers that “Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men.” Paul goes on to explain that his Jewish Christian adversaries fail to understand that the Law of Moses represents the “ministry of death” and that the true redemption comes through the “Spirit” alone (2 Cor. 3:6–7, cf. Mt. 19:16–17). Paul believed that Moses misrepresented the word of God, which was symbolized by placing a veil over his face. Paul writes that this veil concealed the “fading glory” that radiated from Moses’ face after he spent forty days in the presence of the Lawgiver (i.e. Ex. 34:27–35). The meaning is that, according to Paul, Moses blinded the Israelites to the truth, which is that there is no salvation through the Law, and that this Law was given by lower angels, not God (Gal. 3:19, cf. Col. 2:13–18, Acts 7:38, 53; Hebrews 2:2).

In Paul’s letters the “truth suppressed in unrighteousness” is a theme that has context and reflects an accusation that he made against Jews, and which Paul and his adversaries probably traded back and forth. In Galatians Paul argued that the Law of Moses was not from the supreme Being, but was given by lesser powers which were described as “angels”, “guardians” and “stewards” (Gal. 3:19, 4:1–2). Paul actually believed, and taught his followers, that observance of the Law had nothing to do with worshipping God: “But now, after ye have known God…why turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage?” (Gal. 4:9) This was Paul’s warning to the Galatians against Jewish Christians who were attacking Paul, and were demanding that the Galatian Christians observe the Law of Moses. Paul’s warning is as follows: “Christ is become of no effect unto you: whosoever of you are justified by the Law; ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:4) In these words it is obvious that Paul did not believe that the Law represented the righteous commands or worship of God. This theological position is reflected further in 1 Corinthians 10:18–19, “Behold Israel after the flesh: are they which eat of the sacrifices not partakers of the altar? What say I then? That the idol (eidolon) is anything, or that which is sacrificed to idols is anything?”

In the preceding passage Paul denounces temple rites at Jerusalem as mandated by the Law. Note that Paul refers to the God that Jews worshipped in the Temple as a false god or “idol” (cf. Acts 2:46, 21:20–26!). When we consider these passages above it is possible to understand how Jewish Christians would accuse Paul of “changing the truth of God into a lie” (Rom. 1:25).

The sermon also reflects the accusation that there is homosexuality among Paul’s followers, because they do not retain a proper concept of God, as Lawgiver, in their minds (Rom. 1:25–27). It must be noted again that Paul does not exactly condemn homosexuality; he only condemns those who are enslaved by sexual desire. In reference to the sexual act itself, Paul states that “All things are lawful.” Paul means that under some circumstances it is lawful to engage in homosexual sex. Paul also states that in the new spiritual order, in Christ, that there is no longer any distinction between Jews and Greeks, slave and free, or male and female (Gal. 3:28) Among Paul’s attackers this means that Paul and his followers lead lives of homosexual confusion. They break the covenant, and they revile (read: backbite) other Christians who adhere to traditional Jewish principles. Paul and his followers are God haters because they do not acknowledge the Godhead of the Lawgiver. Instead, they have reduced the Lawgiver to the level of the creation, i.e. an angel, and to the likeness of a man or animal. (Note: Again, this latter point would be in reference to Paul’s rejection of biblical anthropomorphic descriptions of God, which he viewed as a lower angelic being, in context of the biblical descriptions of the angelic Seraphim which were said to resemble winged serpents, e.g. Isaiah 6:2-6, or to the description of the Cherubim in Ezekiel chapters 1 & 10, which were said have the four-fold features of a man, lion, eagle & ox. Herein may lay the true context of Romans 1:23.)

Thus what the “wrath of God” sermon actually describes is the lawless doctrine and lifestyle that Paul’s accusers claim that he leads along with his followers. Paul repeats these accusations in their exaggerated and libelous context, and was probably quoting from another letter. Paul is not out to openly attack respected Apostolic leaders, which may back-fire; his purpose is to answer the charges against himself and his followers. For this reason he sets forth the sermon like a riddle. Paul doesn’t make clear who the accusers and the accused are: he leaves it for his readers to make the connection. And in that time and circumstance the readers in Rome might have known right-away what those words referred to, whereas the immediate context of the passage would be lost to readers of later centuries who were, inevitably, reading someone else’s mail, just as we are today. 

(Note: The Uncial Manuscripts are the only extant sources for the text of Romans that we have today. These manuscripts were prepared by the Catholic clergy under the direction of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The possibility cannot be ruled out that the Catholic scribes subtly altered the text of Romans 1 in order to blunt the context of the sermon, so that it appears to be a positive statement of Paul’s doctrine, and to obscure the acrimony and conflict that actually existed among the earliest church leaders, as described by Paul in Galatians 1 & 2.[2] For example, I think it’s entirely possible that Romans 1:18 might have began with the words It has been written: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven…etc. The simple act of striking those words in preparing the uncial texts alters the context of the entire passage, thus making it appear that Paul was speaking his own affirmative opinion rather than quoting someone he disagreed with. And while this cannot be proven it also cannot be entirely ruled out. There is no question that the uncial texts contain heavily redacted copies of manuscripts, comprised of parts of the Pauline letters and not the letters in their original forms and original entirety. Galatians and Philemon are the only letters that exist in their entirety, but even then not without editing or interpolation, e.g. Gal. 2:6-9.)

Moreover, it is entirely possible that the sermon could be from a letter circulated by the Jewish Apostles and could be the very words of Peter himself, or James, reflecting the conflict as described in Galatians 1 & 2. (Note: Paul’s historic conflict with the Jewish Christians, including the Apostles at Jerusalem, has been addressed in my three-part series St. Paul and the Apostolic Tradition.)

Another clue that Paul’s speech doesn’t refer to pagans can be seen in Romans 2:1. Here, Paul’s speech, supposedly against pagans, all of a sudden refers to Jews without a break or change in theme. In Romans 2 Paul warns Jews against judging other people when they sin against the Law themselves (Rom. 2:1ff, 17–23). In Romans 3 Paul admits to being a liar–in the same breath that he refers to God as the Lawgiver–but he denies teaching that Christians should practice “evil” so that “good” may come (Rom. 3:8). The balance of Romans is a diplomatic treatise in which Paul defends his teaching against the Law. Thus Romans 1:32 marks the end of the quotation and 2:1 marks the beginning of Paul’s rebuttal and apology.

If the evidence I have presented above is correct then it must be recognized that Paul was not condemning homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27 and that this passage was part of a slanderous speech, a letter, that was aimed at Paul, in which he and his followers were accused of being homosexuals who embrace a wrong theology. If the reader follows the train of Paul’s ideas from Romans 1:18 to 2:29, it becomes obvious that Paul’s speech is actually an apology against Jewish Christian prudes who judge others by the Law, but can’t keep the Law themselves–and will not acknowledge the grace (that Paul says) comes through Christ. Paul insists throughout Romans that the grace of Christ has supplanted the Law, and that this is the truth that all Jews should accept. But among conservative Jewish Christians and traditional devout Jews, this amounts to treason (cf. Mt. 5:17-19). Paul is accused of teaching his followers “Let us do evil, that good may come” (Romans 3:8). Personally I have no doubt that Romans 3:8 is a direct reference to the statements in the “wrath of God” sermon; that in the original context this passage was quoted from a letter circulated against Paul.

One last issue before concluding is regarding the opening of the sermon in Romans 1:18-20. In light of the information presented above we may reflect on the following themes: The suppression of the truth in unrighteousness, in verse 18, refers to Paul’s suppression of the Law. The statement in verse 20 that the invisible God and attributes can be seen through the visible creation means that even apart from the Law, Paul and his followers are condemned by nature, so that “they are without excuse”. As I pointed out at the beginning of this treatise, Paul does not affirm that God can be seen or understood through the natural creation (e.g. 1 Cor 2:14, 2 Cor. 4:18). To the contrary Paul can be quoted as teaching the opposite. Given the passages cited, Romans 1:18-20 could be seen as a rebuke of Paul’s doctrine.

Considering the evidence I have presented, I believe it is wrong to assume that Romans 1:18-32 is a positive statement of Paul’s doctrine. It should, rather, be considered as the quotation of a letter that was circulated by Paul’s Jewish Christian adversaries (cf. Romans 3:8). Paul quoted from this letter as the original setting for explaining and justifying his own teaching on the Law. Note also that Paul made no appeal to Peter or any of the other Apostles in support of his teaching. In this context Romans 1:18-32 may be the earliest extant example of a (proto) Gnostic sect being condemned and slandered by an early Apostolic faction. –jw


1) Note the paradox between these passages:

From Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:12, “All things are lawful, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”

From the Law of Moses, Leviticus 20:13, “If a man also lie with mankind…both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death…”

2) Eusebius preserved a letter from the Emperor Constantine ordering the production of 50 standardized bibles (Life of Constantine, 4:36 & 37). Some scholars believe that two of the oldest uncial texts, the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, are surviving copies. Or, they may be copies derived from those 50 bibles, reflecting a standard uncial style text and editions of the biblical texts. The uncial texts that still exist today are the oldest known manuscripts of the Christian Bible and especially the New Testament. Yet the uncial texts are far removed from the original writings of Paul and show that his letters were heavily edited and re-organized. See my article Was Paul a Misogynist? for details on this issue.

By Jim West. Copyright © 2012, 2014; revised on Sept. 28, 2014.

All Rights Reserved.

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