THE TRADITIONAL UNDERSTANDING OF “NATURAL” AND “UNNATURAL”
It is interesting to note Professor Brownson advocates in his book to one extent or another, multiple definitions of the words, natural and unnatural (the same root word). For the Greek word that appears three times in Romans 1:26-27, Professor Brownson has no less than five definitions that he claims are all relevant to the passage.[i] In fact, the three instances of the word are even found in the same sentence (as in the ESV, KJV, NASB and RSV). Brownson’s definitions of natural/unnatural are:
1. natural - what is true of a given individual
2. natural - common knowledge, cultural norms
3. natural – procreation, biological complementarity
4. unnatural – extreme/excessive
5. unnatural for females – non-procreative heterosexual acts
The first definition has been dealt with in the section NATURE AS ONE’S INDIVIDUAL NATURE. That section takes the position that when the synonyms for that definition are inserted in place of the terms “nature” and “contrary to nature” one runs into an irreconcilable conflict in the wording of verse 27.
The second and third definitions have been dealt with above as well and do not necessarily pose complications as far as the aspects of the tension between being natural and contrary to nature are concerned.
The fourth definition, excessive, is also a difficult definition to fit into Romans 1 as far as “nature” and “contrary to nature” is concerned. The sections above have presented five reasons “extreme” cannot be taken as the definition of “contrary to nature.” In addition, in specifying nature and what is contrary to it the passage is dealing with two concepts that are opposites of each other. What is the opposite of excessive? It is not something that is “normal.” According to Thesaurus.com the antonyms of excess are insufficiency, lack, need, want, scarcity, deficiency, deprivation etc. Substituting then excessive and its opposite in Romans 1:26 we have, “For their women exchanged deficient relations for those that are excessive . . .” Does this make any sense? The word excessive expresses more quantity rather than type. What is natural and what is unnatural are concepts that differ in type, not quantity. Natural as heterosexual and unnatural as same-sex are two concepts that differ in type. In the above section, FOURTH: UNNATURAL AS EXTREME, the case was made that Dr. Brownson’s table containing the words “exchange” and “were consumed” etc. does not present a full, balanced assessment of Romans 1. If this is correct, it also removes key evidence which would support Dr. Brownson’s definition of unnatural as excessive.
The fifth definition of unnatural as heterosexual non-procreative acts has had five reasons given in the section by that same name which, if correct, would show that definition to not be correct. Once again, if we consider what the opposite of heterosexual non-procreative acts would be we run into difficulties with this definition. The only opposite of that would be procreative same-sex acts. Does that make any sense?
With respect to the use of the term nature in Romans 1:26, Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker provides the definition of “the regular natural order.”[ii] As Dr. Gagnon has pointed out, the Greek word chresin in those verses carries with it sexual overtones.[iii] Therefore, a very reasonable meaning of “the regular natural order,” which has sexual overtones is “heterosexual.” And the opposite of that, a reasonable definition of that which is “contrary to nature” would be “same-sex erotic activity.” Substituting those meanings for the relevant words we have:
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged heterosexual relations for those that are same-sex erotic activity; 27 and the men likewise gave up heterosexual relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
One will note that there is no logical contradiction, no incompatibility in these verses once that has been done. There is no problem as was the case with the five reasons against “heterosexual non-procreative acts.” With respect to Professor Berkhof’s statement, with these two meanings the words natural and contrary to nature are consistent in meaning throughout these two verses. And these two meanings are in fact opposites of each other. These two meanings do not conflict with other Scripture passages such as I Corinthians 7:9.
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[i] Brownson, page 245.
[ii] Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker, page 869.
[iii] Gagnon, page 236.