Faulty Orientation Argument of Alan Harper

The Faulty Orientation Argument
of Anglican Archbishop Harper of Ireland

by Robert A J Gagnon

Photo of Robert Gagnon

Archbishop Alan Harper, Anglican Primate of Ireland, has produced a paper that misreads the rejection of homosexual practice in Romans 1:24-27 in an effort to promote a "revisionist" interpretation favorable to committed homosexual unions. The paper is entitled, "Holy Scripture and the Law of God in Contemporary Anglicanism in the Light of Richard Hooker's 'Lawes'". The first 14 pages deal with interpreting Hooker, which I will leave others to evaluate. On pages 15-18 Harper offers an interpretation of Rom 1:24-27 that determines whether his discussion of Hooker is of any relevance for establishing his case. Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent for the London Times, has written glowingly in her online blog:

Archbishop Alan Harper, Archbishop of Armagh and primate of All-Ireland, has perhaps not received the attention he has deserved since taking over from the high-profile Robin Eames, lead author of the Windsor Report. My mission today is to change that. He has this morning delivered a powerful and, I have to say, rather convincing address making the intellectual case for a new look at St Paul's texts on homosexuality. What is clever is that he has done this, not in the usual irritatingly woolly way we have come to expect from Anglican liberal bishops, but in a rigorous, faithful fashion, drawing directly on Richard Hooker's Lawes on Ecclesiastical Polity. This was of course the exact same text cited with such power by Uganda's primate Archbishop Henry Orombi at Gafcon. (4 July 2008 http://timescolumns.typepad.com/gledhill/)

With respect to Romans 1:24-27 Harper argues:

  1. Paul in Romans 1:24-27 rejected homosexual practice on the grounds that some people "appear radically and wilfully to have changed their normal sexual orientation to embrace an orientation that was not originally normal for them" and, paradoxically, to have done so by "a direct result of the operation of the power of God."
  2. Paul's "application of reason and the contemporary knowledge" of his day is in conflict with much modern understanding of homosexual orientation as congenitally based impulse. Harper hedges a bit: "it has not yet been conclusively shown that for some males and some females homosexuality and homosexual acts are natural rather than unnatural." Yet the drift of his comments suggests that he leans toward this view of things. "If, on the basis of additional knowledge and the application of human reason, [Paul's] assumptions and presuppositions are shown to be inadequate it will become an absolute requirement to re-visit the definition of what in this area may be described as 'natural' and 'unnatural.'"
  3. "Romans 1, therefore, provides no declaration of the Law of God in respect of homosexuality and homosexual acts.... It is therefore inappropriate on the basis of Romans 1:18-17 and ff [i.e., and following, to 1:27] to judge or anathematize persons on the basis of sexual orientation." "It cannot be held that what is unquestionably Holy Scripture is also a declaration of the Law of God."

Although Harper does not acknowledge it, he has basically rehashed an argument
used by the late John Boswell, what I refer to as "the orientation argument" (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980], 109-13).
The argument didn't work back then and still doesn't work now. Here's

I. Exchanging Natural Revelation of Male-Female Complementarity for the Gratification of Preexisting Unnatural Desires

Nothing in the language of Rom 1:24-27 suggests "homosexuality" is a chosen condition of constitutional heterosexuals. The "exchange" that Paul portrays is not the "willful" exchange of felt heterosexual desires for manufactured homosexual feelings, as Harper contends. Rather, the exchange is that of (1) the truth which God has revealed in creation concerning what is natural intercourse for (2) the gratification of preexisting desires for unnatural intercourse between members of the same sex. In other words, what is involved here is not a willful exchange of one set of urges for another but rather an exchange of natural revelation for unnatural urges. God's will for human sexual behavior is transparent in natural revelation by means of observation of obvious male-female complementarity (anatomical, physiological, psychological). Humans suppress the implications of this natural revelation in order to satisfy innate but unnatural sexual urges. As a consequence, they are enslaved to their own self-dishonoring impulses. In this way they suppress the truth about God's design for sexual relations so apparent in the material creation of male and female.

Certainly when Paul in Romans 1:23 and 1:25 refers to the exchange of "the glory
of the imperishable God" and of "the truth about God" respectively, he does
not mean the exchange of perceptions, as if each and every individual
human started with a conscious accurate perception of the one true God and
then, at some point in life, consciously adopted an inaccurate polytheistic
perception by idolatrously worshipping statues of gods in the likeness of
humans and (worse) animals. No, Paul is referring to an exchange of the knowledge
of God accessible in natural revelation (but which any given individual may
or may not have consciously accessed) for an inexcusable understanding that
allowed them independence from the one true God through the creation of gods
in their own image. By the same token, when Paul refers in 1:26 to people
exchanging "the natural use" of the opposite or other sex "for [a sexual
use] contrary to nature," that is, same-sex intercourse, he is not referring
to a conscious and willful exchange of innate heterosexual desires for manufactured
homosexual desires by each and every individual. He is rather referring to
the exchange of natural revelation, here manifest in the embodied sexual
congruity of male and female, for the satisfaction of innate but unnatural

Harper incorrectly construes as "natural" whatever conforms to innate biological
urges. This view fails to recognize something that even the ancients recognized;
namely, that not everything given "by nature" is necessarily "constituted
according to nature" (Pseudo-Aristotle's Problemata 4.26; cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean
1148b). The fact that some persons experience polysexual urges
or pedosexual (pedophilic) urges as a given, for example, does not make the
fulfillment of these urges "natural" in the deepest sense. People can, and
often do, have innate urges for forms of behavior that are structurally or
formally unnatural as regards the logic of the material structures of creation
or nature.

II. God's Punishment Not as the Dishonoring Passions Per Se But Being "Given Over" to the Control of Such Passions

Harper is incorrect when he claims that, for Paul, "'degrading passions' (v26),
therefore, are the punishment of God visited upon those who 'exchanged the
truth about God for a lie' (v25)." The punishment is not "degrading (lit.,
dishonorable) passions" per se but rather God handing over people to the control of
preexisting impulses to do what God does not want them to do. Enslaved by
such impulses, human beings heap up their sins, leading to God's cataclysmic
judgment at the end (1:32; 2:5). In short, the punishment of God is letting
humans engage in the self-dishonoring behavior that they want to do; that
is, not restraining them or aiding them to resist such impulses. The punishment
is not causing them to experience for the first time sinful impulses
that they had not hitherto experienced before they worshipped idols.

Harper misses the point that the whole of 1:18-32 constitutes an extended
vice list, with idolatry discussed at length in 1:20-23 (back reference
in 1:25), sexual immorality discussed at length in 1:24, 26-27, and then
other vices cited in quick succession (though with some order) in 1:29-31.
Paul is not saying that after humans engaged in idolatry God manufactured,
and humans first experienced, desires of covetousness, envy, murder,
and arrogance. Rather, God
"gave them over to an undiscerning mind" that failed to recognize the wrongness
of gratifying a number of preexisting impulses (1:28).

Romans 1:24-27 also refers to collective entities, not individuals, and
to widespread effect, not origin (for the origin of sin, see 5:12-21). The
possibility of believers who were not "idol worshippers" engaging in sexual
"uncleanness" or "impurity" (akatharsia), including same-sex intercourse
(1:24, 26-27), was something that Paul vigorously warned against elsewhere
(Rom 6:19-22; 1 Cor 6:9).

III. Greco-Roman Theories Positing Congenital Causation Factors for Some Forms of Homosexual Practice

Greco-Roman theories (Platonic, Aristotelian, Hippocratic, and even astrological)
existed that posited at least some congenital basis for some forms of
homosexual attraction, particularly on the part of males desiring to
be penetrated. These theories included: a creation splitting of male-male
or female-female binary humans; a particular mix of male and female sperm
elements at conception; a chronic disease of the mind or soul influenced
indirectly by biological factors and made hard to resist by socialization;
an inherited disease analogous to a mutated gene; sperm ducts leading
to the anus; and the particular alignment of heavenly constellations
at the time of one's birth.

Some of the ancient theories are obviously closer to modern theories than
others. What matters, though, is that many in the ancient world attributed
one or more forms of homosexual practice to an interplay of nature and
nurture. Moreover, many believed that homoerotic impulses could be very
resistant to change. Thomas K. Hubbard, a classicist from the University
of Texas (Austin) who has produced the premier sourcebook of Greco-Roman
texts on homosexuality, notes: "Homosexuality in this era [viz., of the
early imperial age of Rome] may have ceased to be merely another practice
of personal pleasure and began to be viewed as an essential and central
category of personal identity, exclusive of and antithetical to heterosexual
orientation" (Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic
[University of California Press, 2003], 386). He also points
to a series of later texts from the second to fourth centuries that "reflect
the perception that sexual orientation is something fixed and incurable" (446).
It is important to remember that many of the same Greco-Roman moralists
and physicians who held such views could still oppose the behaviors arising
from homoerotic predispositions.

As with Philo of Alexandria, Paul was probably aware of the existence of a lifelong homoerotic proclivity at least among the "soft men" (malakoi) who, even as adults, feminized their appearance to attract male sex partners (1 Corinthians 6:9). Paul also viewed sin as innate, generating impulses that people don't ask for and often wish they could get rid of (Romans 7:7-25). If some Greco-Roman moralists and physicians, operating within a culture that tolerated and at times endorsed at least some homosexual practice, could reject forms of homosexual practice committed by those with a biological predisposition, it is virtually impossible that Paul, operating out of a Jewish subculture, would have embraced homosexual unions entered into by homosexually oriented persons.

IV. Paul's Scripture-Based Opposition to Homosexual Practice

Harper mistakenly supposes that Paul in Rom 1:24-27 rejected homosexual practice solely on the grounds of what could be gathered from observation of creation in nature. Paul clearly derived his view of homosexual practice in the first instance from Scripture itself. Romans 1:24-27 contains echoes to the Genesis creation texts, to the Sodom narrative, and to the Levitical prohibitions. His use of a nature argument is simply to establish that all people are "without excuse" for suppressing the "truth about God," even if they don't have Scripture in front of them to tell them what is wrong. Those who do have Scripture in front of them, though, are even more culpable for violations of God's will because they know more (the point of Romans 2).

Paul clearly had in view the creation texts in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 behind his two main indictments of homosexual practice, Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 (cf 1 Timothy 1:10). There are eight points of correspondence, in a similar tripartite structure, between Romans 1:23, 26-27 and Genesis 1:26-27: human, image, likeness; birds, cattle, reptiles; male, female.

Genesis 1:26-27 Romans 1:23, 26-27
A. God's likeness and image in humans
(1) human (anthropos) likeness (homoioma) (3)
(2) image (eikon) image (eikon) (2)
(3) likeness (homoiosis) human (anthropos (1)
B. Dominion over the animal kingdom
(4) birds (peteina) birds (peteina) (4)
(5) cattle (ktene) quadrupeds (tetrapoda) (5)
(6) reptiles (herpeta) reptiles (herpeta) (6)
C. Male-female differentiation
(7) male (arsen) females (theleiai) (8)
(8) female (thelus) males (arsenes) (7)

This intertextual echo back to Gen 1.26-27 is further reinforced by the fact that the context for Rom 1:24, 26-27 emphasizes God's role as "Creator" (1:25) and the knowledge about God and ourselves that can be culled from observation of "nature," that is, the material structures of "creation" still intact despite the fall (1:19-20, 26-27). Those who suppress the truth about God transparent "since the creation of the world" are more likely to suppress the truth about the complementarity of the sexes, male and female, transparent in "nature."

Similarly, Paul's reference to homosexual practice in 1 Corinthians 6:9 occurs in close proximity to his citation of Genesis 2:24b ("...the two will become one flesh") in 6:16. Although the immediate point of the citation is to establish that "the man who joins himself to a prostitute is one body" with her (6:16), there can be little doubt that Paul would have understood its relevance for indicting homosexual practice (as also the vice of adultery mentioned in 6:9). Indeed, his use of Genesis 1:27 and 2:21-22 later in the same letter (11:7-12), though it has problems, clearly shows that Paul regarded Genesis 1:27 and 2:21-24 as vital for establishing the significance of male-female differentiation in the context of marriage.

Paul shows himself to be a good disciple of Jesus in taking the same two texts (Gen 1:27 and 2:24) that Jesus declared to be essential for sexual ethics and emphasizing, as Jesus apparently did, their message about the complementary duality of the sexes. Jesus clearly predicated his restriction of two persons in a sexual bond, whether serially (divorce and remarriage) or concurrently (polygamy), on the sexually dimorphic character or 'twoness' of the sexes, "male and female he made them" (Mark 10:6-9). Historical confirmation for this use of the Genesis creation texts can be found in a similar use by the Essene community at Qumran. They rejected "taking two wives in their lives" because "the foundation of creation is 'male and female he created them' [Gen 1:27]" and because "those who entered (Noah's) ark went in two by two into the ark [Genesis 7:9]" (CD 4.20-5.1).

Since Paul bases his views against homosexual practice to a large measure on Scripture itself, his views are, contrary to what Harper claims, "a declaration of the law of God" (to say nothing of the fact that we recognize Paul's own writings to be scripture).

V. What Even Homosexualist Scholars Say about the Orientation Argument

Harper appears to be unaware that even the best homosexualist scholars disagree with his conclusion that knowledge of preexisting homosexual orientation would have made a difference to Paul's indictment of homosexual practice. Bernadette J Brooten, a lesbian New Testament scholar at Brandeis University who has written the premier book on lesbianism in antiquity from a homosexualist perspective, writes:

Paul could have believed that tribades [the active female partners in a female homosexual bond], the ancient kinaidoi [the passive male partners in a male homosexual bond], and other sexually unorthodox persons were born that way and yet still condemn them as unnatural and shameful.... I believe that Paul used the word "exchanged" to indicate that people knew the natural sexual order of the universe and left it behind.... I see Paul as condemning all forms of homoeroticism as the unnatural acts of people who had turned away from God. (Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996], 244)

Martti Nissinen, a Finnish Old Testament scholar who has written the best book on homosexuality and Scripture from a homosexualist perspective, acknowledges in a particularly candid moment:

Paul does not mention tribades or kinaidoi, that is, female and male persons who were habitually involved in homoerotic relationships, but if he knew about them (and there is every reason to believe that he did), it is difficult to think that, because of their apparent 'orientation,' he would not have included them in Romans 1:24-27. . . . For him, there is no individual inversion or inclination that would make this conduct less culpable.... Presumably nothing would have made Paul approve homoerotic behavior. (Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998], 109-12)

William R Schoedel, a classics and early Christianity scholar from the University of Illinois who has written one of the most important treatments on orientation theory in antiquity as it relates to Paul, believes that "some support" exists in Philo, Abraham 135 for thinking that Paul might be speaking in Rom 1:26-27 "only of same-sex acts performed by those who are by nature heterosexual." But he then dismisses the suggestion:

But such a phenomenon does not excuse some other form of same-sex eros in the mind of a person like Philo. Moreover, we would expect Paul to make that form of the argument more explicit if he intended it. . . . Paul's wholesale attack on Greco-Roman culture makes better sense if, like Josephus and Philo, he lumps all forms of same-sex eros together as a mark of Gentile decadence. ("Same-Sex Eros: Paul and the Greco-Roman Tradition," Homosexuality, Science, and the "Plain Sense" of Scripture [ed. D. L. Balch; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], 67-68)

Schoedel also acknowledges that a "conception of a psychological disorder socially engendered or reinforced and genetically transmitted may be presupposed" for Philo (56, emphasis added).

Louis Crompton, author of the highly regarded, 500-page Homosexuality and Civilization and himself a "gay" scholar, comes to the following conclusion about Paul:

According to [one] interpretation, Paul's words were not directed at "bona fide" homosexuals in committed relationships. But such a reading, however well-intentioned, seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstance. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any other Jew or early Christian. (Homosexuality and Civilization [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003], 114)

Archbishop Harper plainly needs to read more widely when he argues that knowledge of homosexual orientation makes any hermeneutical difference to Paul's indictment of homosexual relations.


Archbishop Harper's argument that we can come to new conclusions about homosexual unions is poorly cast and shows a need for further research on his part regarding the scriptural evidence in its historical context. Much of what I have written above can be seen in a fuller discussion in my 2003 article, "Does the Bible Regard Same-Sex Intercourse as Intrinsically Sinful?"[1] Put simply, Paul was not presupposing in Rom 1:24-27 that every individual who engages in homosexual practice consciously turns aside from felt heterosexual urges.[2] Rather, they turn aside from clear natural revelation, here given in the obvious embodied complementarity of male and female. Nor is the concept of homosexual orientation wholly unknown in the Greco-Roman milieu. Nor was Paul deriving his view of homosexual practice solely from nature, as if he thought that the creation texts in Genesis 1-2 had nothing to say about homosexual practice by necessary implication. There is absolutely no evidence that modern orientation theory would have had any impact on Paul changing his strong negative valuation of homosexual practice. Indeed, all the extant evidence indicates otherwise.

Dr Robert A J Gagnon is Associate Professor of New Testament, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, USA

[1] In Christian Sexuality: Normative and Pastoral Principles (ed. R. E. Saltzman. Minneapolis: Kirk House, 2003), 106-55, especially pp140-52. (Online notes 41-67 here, pp8-14).

[2] For a rebuttal of the argument that Paul viewed all persons who engaged in homosexual practice as constitutional heterosexuals who were bored from too much heterosexual sex (for the latter argument, see my article, "A Comprehensive and Critical Review Essay of Homosexuality, Science, and the 'Plain Sense' of Scripture, Part 2" HBT 25 [2003]: 179-275, here pp206-20).

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