New Testament Words and Verses
Romans 1, Understanding the Flow
The last few days have finally given me the chance to focus on a few word lists that describe moral characteristics in the NT. What are the signs of the end times? Well, we have a list of behaviors that signal the end is near. That list tells us that people will be disobedient to parents and arrogant, among other things. Unmistakable signs to be sure. Or, as I Tim. discusses, we have all types of people who are lawless. Tons and tons of people. More than 15 words. Paul, in this Rom. 1 passage, gives us yet another list of people who no doubt are going to get clobbered by God. I like the variety of words because it at least allows me to refine my understanding of the language, even if the theological concepts are either opaque or objectionable.
The Flow of Romans 1
There is a lot at stake for Paul in Romans 1. He not only wants to give generic greetings to the people in Rome, people whom he has not yet visited, but he wants to lay out the principal features of “his” Gospel. Some of those features are laid out in 1:18-31. Interesting to me is Paul’s starting point: the “wrath of God.” One might think that if you are starting to talk about God’s work in the creation or God’s care for the world that you would begin with beneficent creation or merciful forgiveness, but not so. It is the “wrath of God.” And this makes sense for Paul. He doesn’t have all day; he has to get right to his point, and he has to show that people need to hear what he has to say. Not just any old group—like those interested in painting turtles or collecting vintage automobiles—but all people. He therefore plays for a universal audience by emphasizing the wrath of God. Since God is very big, and we are very little, the wrath of God is something that ought to concern us. Especially if it seems like it is going to be unleashed on us. . watch out! That is the tone of Romans 1:18-31. The wrath of God is on the loose and is going to get you! But the way that Paul’s argument flows only seemingly convinces people who are already committed to Paul’s theology. But still it is a bit scary and, I think, fundamentally unfair, that he should attack human ingenuity, skill, uniqueness and ability by putting it all under the broad category of sin deserving death.
Well, he does attack humans in this section. The flow of the argument is that God’s power is patently obvious and visible in the things created. People ought eagerly to have recognized this and chosen to serve God. But they didn’t. They made all kinds of idols, pursued all kinds of devious religious strategies in disobedience to God. So, in a series of “giving overs,” God just abandons these people who have spurned His gracious gifts. The way that God abandons or “gives over” people is mostly through sexual inclinations. People leave what is “natural” in order to pursue their lusts with people of their same gender. This is an argument that still has loads of adherents but has faced some rough going in the last decade or so in the West. In any case, after declaring that the way God “gives people up” is through sexual perversion (you wonder if people who are typical “heteronormative” have been “given up” according to Paul in Romans 1?) as well as some kind of damaged mind, he then lists the groups of people that God has “given up” because they do all kinds of weird things. Just listen to what these people are “full of” (Rom 1:29-32):
πεπληρωμένους πάσῃ ἀδικίᾳ πονηρίᾳ πλεονεξίᾳ κακίᾳ, μεστοὺς φθόνου φόνου ἔριδος δόλου κακοηθείας, ψιθυριστὰς καταλάλους θεοστυγεῖς ὑβριστὰς ὑπερηφάνους ἀλαζόνας, ἐφευρετὰς κακῶν, γονεῦσιν ἀπειθεῖς, ἀσυνέτους ἀσυνθέτους ἀστόργους ἀνελεήμονας· οἵτινες τὸ δικαίωμα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπιγνόντες ὅτι οἱ τὰ τοιαῦτα πράσσοντες ἄξιοι θανάτου εἰσίν, οὐ μόνον αὐτὰ ποιοῦσιν ἀλλὰ καὶ συνευδοκοῦσιν τοῖς πράσσουσιν.
This is such a breathtaking list that I only can go at it little by little.
“(They are) full of all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed/covetousness, evil. . .’
Let’s just stop there. We can tell that we are potentially going to get nowhere with this list when the first four categories are more “screaming” than helpful. People who have not recognized God’s power and glory are full of these things. For the life of me I have a hard time distinguishing among these categories. Can you have unrighteousness but not wickedness? How about evil? Well, he is just getting warmed up.
“Full (lest we forget these people are absolutely possessed by these things) of jealously, murder, strife, guile/deception, malice/malevolence. . .”
I have the feeling that I don’t want to go more than five at a time, because we need to massage these categories of pure evil. The phthonos/phonos pair at first is attractive to the ear, and that is perhaps why they are put together, but there seems little connection between jealousy and murder, though one can in fact easily understand how jealousy could lead to murder. Yet, these poor perverted people, whom God has given up to salacious desires, willingly and probably even eagerly commit murder and are jealous. But not only that, they engage in eris, which has to do with strife or contention and they also are involved with dolos. The word comes from the world of fishing and bait, but it has to do with stealthy action or subtlety or trickery or guile or cunning or deceit or treachery. We have a lot of nice English words we can use. You wonder who these people are to be practicing these things? I surely don’t want to know them. The last of the five, though, is particularly interesting: kakoetheia. It is a NT hapax, and is derived from the words “evil/vicious” and “customary behavior.” The Danker dictionary (updated BAG) talks about “a basic defect in character that leads one to be hurtful to others. . “ or ‘mean-spiritedness, malice, malignity, craftiness.” We just have to ransack the English lexicon to come up with a list of words to capture the absolute baseness of these folk!