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'Nature' and ‘Against Nature’ in Romans 1:26-27: A Study in the Primary Sources


In Romans 1:26-27, Paul distinguishes ‘unnatural’ from ‘natural’, saying that homosexual acts among both women and men are ‘unnatural’. 

Romans 1:26-27 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse [physikēn chrēsin, natural use] for unnatural [para physin, against nature],  27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse [physikēn chrēsin, natural use] with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

This understanding, however, has been questioned, and the debate centres around what Paul means by ‘natural’ (physikon and kata physin) and ‘unnatural’ (para physin).  Those questioning this understanding in recent years (it was not questioned in the history of the church until now)[1] focus on the notion of ‘natural’ rather than the Greek phrases, but both are pertinent to the discussion, as we shall see.

Three scholars—two theologians and a New Testament scholar—may suffice to illustrate the alternative reading by revisionists.  Quite recently, a prominent theologian at Yale University, Nicholas Wolterstorff, gave a lecture in which he stated that no Biblical text is relevant to the present discussion of homosexuality in the Christian Church.[2]  The lecture was strikingly bereft of actual argument, not least Wolterstorff’s claims regarding Romans 1.24-28.  Without the slightest attempt at interpreting texts in their context, he claimed, first, that Paul could not have meant homosexuals when speaking of what is ‘against nature’ because same-sex relationships are natural for them.  

Second, he argued that Paul means what was considered common when he used the word ‘natural,’ given 1 Corinthians 11.14.  One suspects he is here dependent on Dan Via, discussed below—and it is rather amazing how scholars are willing to pass along academic ‘hearsay’ instead of doing actual research.  Wolterstorff concluded that the persons about whom Paul is speaking in Romans 1.24-28 are ‘an appallingly wicked group of idolaters’.  He appears to have relied upon some cursory reading of a few contemporary scholars who support his convictions to reach these conclusions.  He engages with no scholar arguing a contrary view.  And—to the point of this essay—he certainly shows no evidence of actually reading Biblical texts in the context of other ancient literature.  How a scholar can argue against the teaching of the Church through 2,000 years of history about the meaning of Biblical texts with little to no serious research is simply an amazing feature of this sensitive issue for the West in our current time.

Dan Via suggests that 1 Corinthians 11:14 shows that ‘nature’ can mean “conventional”:[2] 

1 Corinthians 11:14 Does not nature [physis] itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him…. (NRSV and throughout, unless otherwise noted)

Surely, the argument goes, a man’s short hair is not natural but a matter of cultural convention.  Indeed, men in several cultures even in Paul’s day wore their hair long (male Germans, Scythians, Persians, etc.).  We shall return to this passage at the end of the essay, but the reader should note first that this argument appears regularly today (as in Wolterstorff’s lecture) and that scholars stand behind it.  By the end of the essay, however, the reader will realise not only that the argument has no merit but that scholars making the argument are guilty of not putting out the slightest effort to research their claim.

Jack Rogers, another theologian, also wrote on the subject of the Bible and homosexuality without doing his own primary source research.  His arguments—produced in a short book—do not demonstrate even basic research necessary to speak to the meaning of texts.  They are rather dependent largely upon cobbling together arguments from other recent authors and offering his own thoughts on the English text of Scripture.  This is not academic scholarship.  Regarding Romans 1.26-27, Rogers, following Martti Nissinen, suggested that ‘contrary to nature’ meant an event or practice that is not ordinary.[3]  If ‘against nature’ means ‘out of the ordinary’, the argument continues, then Paul may have meant in Romans 1:26-27 that heterosexual women and men should not engage in out-of-the-ordinary, homosexual sex.  In this way, he thought to exempt the passage from a reference to persons with a homosexual orientation.  For his proof, he appeals Romans 11.24:

Romans 11:24: For if you have been cut from what is by nature [kata physin] a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature [para physin], into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural [kata physin] branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.

As can be seen, the relevant Greek phrases are present in Romans 11.24 and 1.26-27, but it is the normal use of the phrases in both passages: Paul is certainly speaking of how things work in nature, not what is merely ordinary.  Reading Romans 1:26-27 in this way, moreover, simply makes no sense in context—why on earth would Paul be making this sort of argument at this point in Romans?

At this point, note several things about how these arguments are regularly conducted:
  •       Correctly, persons pay special attention to how the same author (Paul) used the word.
  •     Yet a thorough word study is not conducted to see if ‘natural’ ever means ‘conventional’ or ‘ordinary’: this suggestion is based on a single text (whether Romans 11.24 or 1 Corinthians 11.14) that is, frankly, misinterpreted.
  •      The argument does not include a phrase study, which is relevant in this case.  The phrases ‘para physin’ and ‘kata physin’ are common in the literature.  This will turn out to be a fatal flaw for these arguments.
  •      The lack of careful attention to the literary context also misses the fact that ancient philosophies gave considerable attention to ideas about ‘nature’.
  •      The discussions omit research that we should expect from scholars. Churchmen should not be duped by scholars who do not engage primary sources in their work when making claims about antiquity or the interpretation of ancient texts.
  •     Some scholars speak to issues without any research that comprises quality scholarship; they rather cite other scholars and give the appearance to popular audiences of academic research and integrity.

The present study will give attention to how the word ‘physis’ and the phrase ‘para physin’ are used in Paul’s literary context.  Because the evidence is immense in antiquity, we are in a position to draw firm conclusions.  We are in a position to be clear on what Paul meant in Romans 1.24-28.

The Opposite of What is ‘Natural’ May Be Due to Convention, Conditions, Habits, Compulsion, and a Lack of Intelligence or Understanding

Ancient sources offer several contrasts to what is ‘natural’.  The opposite of natural may, first, be conventional, for which the Greek word ‘nomos’ (usually translated ‘law’) is used.  Plutarch (Whether Beasts are Rational 7), e.g., says,
Not even Nature [physis], with Law [nomos] for her ally, can keep within bounds the unchastened vice of your hearts ; but as though swept by the current of their lusts beyond the barrier at many points, men do such deeds as wantonly outrage Nature, upset her order, and confuse her distinctions.[4]
In Gorgias, Plato speaks of how the stronger person’s rule over the weaker is natural.  Then he refers to the opposite, as when a slave revolts and becomes master, which is ‘contrary to nature’ (483e-484a).  (This would be like Charles Darwin finding an island on which the weaker survived instead of the fittest—it goes against what we know of nature.)  Were slaves to revolt and rule masters, this would be a convention contrary to nature.

Second, the opposite of ‘natural’ may be what is the result of conditions.  Diogenes Laertius (Lives of the Philosophers 9.82) argues that different people may have conditions that account for their differences: people who are healthy or ill, awake or asleep, hateful or loving, and so forth.  In such ways, he argues, we can account for different behaviours or perspectives.  A madman, then, is not acting ‘against nature’ but is simply looking at the world differently due to his different condition.  This discussion demonstrates a distinction between the conditions of people from what is natural to human beings.  The example retains the idea of what is natural to human beings, and its entertaining the notion of personal alternatives requires discussion of ‘conditions,’ not simply the use of ‘nature’ terminology.  (Assuming such conditions in Romans 1.26-27 presses interpretation to a level of incredulity that all the other evidence offered here cannot endure, to say nothing of the progression of Paul’s argument since Romans 1.18.)

Third, the opposite of ‘natural’ may be what is formed by habituation.  Plato discusses altering natural proclivities through habituation (Laws 7943-795a).  For example, he suggests that we are born ambidextrous but come to be left or right-handed through habit.  Thus, treatment of one hand as weaker is not a matter of what is natural but of acting ‘against nature’.  This is essentially the same argument Paul has in Romans 1.24, 26, 27: by habituation, women or men using their genitals in homosexual relationships have, by habituation, come to view their sexual proclivities as natural; but such use is ‘against nature’.  Unlike left or right-handedness, the natural use of genitals is in heterosexual relations; i.e., we are not bi-sexual by nature.  In a passage reflecting the same point that Paul makes in Romans 1.16-17, Epictetus speaks of the natural use of sexual organs in heterosexual relations and their proper use in accordance with the Creator’s intent:

Epictetus, Discourses 1.6.9-10 And the male and the female, and the passion of each for intercourse with the other, and the faculty which makes use of the organs which have been constructed for this purpose, do these things not reveal their artificer either?[5]

The description ‘courage against nature’ (Plutarch, Sulla 18.6) also indicates that there is a distinction to be made between what is natural to human beings and a person’s character.  In this case, Plutarch is referring to people whose courage is so great that it is unnatural.  Character is something formed through habits as well as given by nature, and so unnatural courage may derive from habits rather than nature.

Fourth, ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ were discussed in terms of actions.  In his Magna Moralia, Aristotle discusses what counts as compulsion.  He says that an external force causing someone to do something is considered a compulsion and therefore is not censorious: one can hardly be blamed for acting under compulsion.  However, when something is done out of pleasure, an internal force over which someone exercises a degree of control, one is culpable (I.XIV). 

Aristotle further considers actions done without intelligence or understanding (I.XVI).  In such cases, one is not held culpable.  Note that Paul states that lesbians and homosexuals who perform same-sex acts are given over to a depraved mind (Romans 1.28): they believe their actions are natural even though they are para physin.  Yet Paul does not exonerate homosexuals any more than he does idolaters: both are culpable:

Romans 1:18-19 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.  19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.

Both act in obvious opposition to creation.  Their actions, then, are sinful and not excusable.

The Phrase ‘Para Physin’ (Against or Contrary to Nature)

In Greek, the phrase ‘para physin’ means ‘against nature, unnatural’.  What is natural and unnatural is discussed in a variety of contexts, and this gives us a strong sense that ‘nature’ really means ‘nature’—not convention.  A few examples are helpful in making this point. 

First, natural and unnatural are discussed in terms of the universe and physics.  Aristotle’s On the Heavens discusses the movement of bodies ‘according to nature’ and ‘against nature’.  In this brief work, there are 47 passages using the phrase para physin.  Similarly, his Physics contrasts kata physin (according to nature) and para physin (against nature) in discussing the world, and the latter phrase is found 38 times.

Second, natural and unnatural are discussed in terms of biology and medicine.  Aristotle discusses biology in terms of what is natural and what is para physin (On the Generation of Animals 745b.11, 13).  The ‘against nature mating of a horse and an ass result in an infertile mule (748b.16-18).  He discusses an animal that is born with both male and female sexual organs and says that, in such cases, one is operative and the other—which he calls para physin—is inoperative (772b.13). 
Aristotle’s pupil, Theophrastus, regularly (23 times) uses the terminology in On the Causes of Plants.  Similarly, Paul, for that matter, says

Romans 11:24 For if you have been cut from what is by nature [kata physin] a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature [para physin], into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural [kata physin] branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.
In On the Generation of Animals, Philo, no doubt following Aristotle, explains the mixture of a horse with an ass to produce a mule as something Moses opposed on account of the fact that a mule is ‘contrary to nature’ (Special Laws 3.47).  Notably, for our purposes, he then applies this point to sexual ethics, arguing that bestiality is sinful (3.49). Philo says that birds, given their wings, fly—and it is ‘contrary to nature’ for them not to do so (Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit 1.237).

Third, natural and unnatural are discussed with reference to diseases. The 2nd century physician, Galen, frequently uses the phrase para physin in reference to diseases of the body: anthrax, gangrene, phagedinic ulcers, herpes, elephantiasis, erysipelas, oedema, cancer, and phlegmon.[6]

Fourth, natural and unnatural are discussed with reference to birth normalities and abnormalities and character differences from one’s parents in Plato’s Cratylus.  Socrates asks Hermogenes whether a child ‘born contrary to nature’ should not be deigned a different class from his parents, as when an impious son is born to a good and pious father (Cratylus 394d).  He also says that it is natural for a horse to give birth to its own kind, but ‘contrary to nature’ were it to produce a calf (Cratylus 393c).  Elsewhere, the question is asked, ‘“Can the one have come into being contrary to its own nature, or is that impossible?” “It is impossible” (Plato, Parmenides 152b).[7]

Fifth, the distinction between natural and unnatural is used of character.  Plutarch speaks of a haughty person acting ‘contrary to his nature’ (Marcius Coriolanus 18.2).

Sixth, what is ‘natural’ for life after death is that the body does not accompany the soul to heaven (Plutarch, Romulus 28.10).  Rather, their souls naturally ascend to heaven without their bodies. 
Seventh (and closer to the concern of this essay), the distinction is used in ethics: one should live according to nature, not against it (e.g., Plato, Philebus 22b).  Aristotle says, ‘Nothing contrary to nature [para physin] is noble’ (Politics 7.1325b).  Epictetus, a Stoic affirming the teaching of Chrysippus, says, ‘… convince me of this that you acted naturally, and I will convince you that everything which takes place according to nature takes place rightly’ (Discourses 1.11).  Living ‘conformably to nature’ is a fundamental principle of Stoicism.  Also, the Jewish philosopher, Philo, mentions a society that did not practice slavery on the grounds that possession of other people was thought to be ‘contrary to nature’ (On the Contemplative Life 1:70). 

Nature, Gender, and Astrology: Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos

In his Tetrabiblos, Ptolemy explores the causal relationship of the movement of heavenly bodies with human orientations and behaviours—astrology.  Fundamental to this is his conviction that there are two primary kinds of nature, male and female (Tetrabiblos I.6.16-17).  He says,

Again, in the same way they assigned six of the signs to the masculine and diurnal nature and an equal number to the feminine and nocturnal. An alternating order was assigned to them because day is always yoked to night and close to it, and female to male (I.12).[8]

The arrangement of certain planets when someone is born, avers the astrologer, will account for his or her characteristics, including character, diseases, personality, and sexual orientation.  In discussing this, Ptolemy is exploring the causes and characteristics of orientation.  Astrology is but one of a number of arguments in antiquity to speak of sexual orientation.  Several passages in Ptolemy are worth quoting in regard to sexual orientation.  The reader will note—and this is of prime significance—that, even though homosexual orientation is discussed as the fate of persons born under certain cosmic circumstances, the condition is still referred to as ‘against nature’ (para physin) over against a heterosexual orientation, ‘according to nature’ (kata physin).  A homosexual is someone for whom ‘against nature’ is ‘natural’.

·    However, because of the occidental aspect of Jupiter and Mars, and furthermore because the first parts of the aforesaid triangle are masculine and the latter parts feminine, they are without passion for women and look down upon the pleasures of love, but are better satisfied with and more desirous of association with men. And they do not regard the act as a disgrace to the paramour, nor indeed do they actually become effeminate and soft thereby, because their disposition is not perverted, but they retain in their souls manliness, helpfulness, good faith, love of kinsmen, and benevolence (II.61-73).

·    As in what precedes we have presented the theory of universal events, because this comes first and for the most part has power to control the predictions which concern the special nature of any individual, the prognostic part of which we call the genethlialogical art, we must believe that the two divisions have one and the same power both practically and theoretically. For the cause both of universal and of particular events is the motion of the planets, sun, and moon; and the prognostic art is the scientific observation of precisely the change in the subject natures which corresponds to parallel movements of the heavenly bodies through the surrounding heavens, except that universal conditions are greater and independent, and particular ones not similarly so (III. Introduction).

·  Allied with Venus in honourable positions Saturn makes his subjects haters of women, lovers of antiquity, solitary, unpleasant to meet, unambitious, hating the beautiful, envious, stern in social relations, not companionable, of fixed opinions, prophetic, given to the practice of religious rites, lovers of mysteries and initiations, performers of sacrificial rites, mystics, religious addicts, but dignified and reverent, modest, philosophical, faithful in marriage, self-controlled, calculating, cautious, quick to take offence, and easily led by jealousy to be suspicious of their wives. In positions of the opposite kind he makes them loose, lascivious, doers of base acts, undiscriminating and unclean in sexual relations, impure, deceivers of women and particularly their own kin, unsound, censorious, depraved, hating the beautiful, fault-finders, evil-speakers, drunken, servile, adulterators, lawless in sexual relations, both active and passive, both natural [kata physin] and unnatural [para physin], and willing to seek them with those barred by age, station, or law, or with animals, impious, contemptuous of the gods, deriding mysteries and sacred rites, entirely faithless, slanderous, poisoners, rogues who will stop at nothing (III.159-160).

·   Jupiter, allied with Venus, in honourable positions makes his subjects…. In the opposite positions he renders them luxurious, soft-livers, effeminate, fond of the dance, womanly in spirit, lavish in expenditure, evil in relations with women, erotic, lascivious, lecherous, slanderous, adulterous, lovers of ornament, rather soft, lazy, profligate, given to fault-finding, passionate, adorners of their persons, womanly minded… (III.162-163).

·    If Venus alone takes the domination of the soul, in an honourable position she makes her subjects … In the opposite position she makes them careless, erotic, effeminate, womanish, timid, indifferent, depraved, censorious, insignificant, meriting reproach (III.165-166).

·    But if likewise Mars or Venus as well, either one or both of them, is made masculine, the males become addicted to natural sexual intercourse, and are adulterous, insatiate, and ready on every occasion for base and lawless acts of sexual passion, while the females are lustful for unnatural congresses, cast inviting glances of the eye, and are what we call tribades; for they deal with females and perform the functions of males. If Venus alone is constituted in a masculine manner, they do these things secretly and not openly. But if Mars likewise is so constituted, without reserve, so that sometimes they even designate the women with whom they are on such terms as their lawful “wives”.

·    But on the other hand, when the luminaries in the aforesaid configuration are unattended in feminine signs, the females exceed in the natural [kata physin], and the males in unnatural practice [tou para physin], with the result that their souls become soft and effeminate. If Venus too is made feminine, the women become depraved, adulterous, and lustful, with the result that they may be dealt with in the natural manner [kata physin] on any occasion and by any one soever, and so that they refuse absolutely no sexual act, though it be base or unlawful. The men, on the contrary, become effeminate [malakoi, ‘soft men’ (cf. 1 Cor. 6.9] and unsound with respect to unnatural congresses [pros tas para physin] and the functions of women, and are dealt with as pathics, though privately and secretly. But if Mars also is constituted in a feminine manner, their shamelessness is outright and frank and they perform the aforesaid acts of either kind, assuming the guise of common bawds who submit to general abuse and to every baseness until they are stamped with the reproach and insult that attend such usages (III.171-172).

·   But if both [Jupiter and Saturn] are evening stars, they will be inclined toward the females alone, and if the signs of the zodiac are feminine, they themselves will be pathics. If both are morning stars, they will be infected only with love of boys, and if the signs of the zodiac are masculine, with males of any age. If Venus is further to the west, they will have to do with women of low degree, slaves, or foreigners; if Mars is further west, with superiors, or married women, or ladies of high station (IV.188).

·   … but if the planets [Venus and Mars] are made masculine they are so depraved as actively to have commerce with women (IV.189).

‘Against Nature’ Is Used to Mean ‘Not Heterosexual’ = ‘Homosexual’

As noted, Ptolemy’s discussion of sexual orientation and other characteristics due to the location of the planets included use of the terms ‘according to nature’ and ‘against nature’ (cf. Tetrabiblos III.171-172).  Five centuries earlier, Plato had several things to say about nature and ‘against nature,’ using the same terminology.  The language was in place long before and after Paul.

In Laws (1.636c), Plato says,

And whether one makes the observation in earnest or in jest, one certainly should not fail to observe that when male unites with female for procreation the pleasure experienced is held to be due to nature [kata physin], but contrary to nature [para physin] when male mates with male or female with female, and that those first guilty of such enormities were impelled by their slavery to pleasure.[9]

In Phaedrus (251a), Plato speaks of pederasty as ‘contrary to nature’.  Yet. in this passage, he defends such an act if it entails the older man’s appreciation of the universal or ideal of Beauty manifest in the particular teenager (an application of his metaphysics of universals and particulars).  He further describes this in terms of romantic attraction (shuddering, becoming hot, throbbing soul, feverish, etc.).  Thus, the language ‘against nature’ does not necessarily imply a negative assessment for Plato, but it is standard language for non-heterosexual, socially permissible, sexuality.

Aeschines (4th century BC) contrasts adultery with homosexuality.  Both are accepted as wrong (we might say ‘sin’), but there is a difference.  The former is natural, whereas the latter is contrary to nature:

Aeschines, Speeches, “Against Timarchus” 1.185: Or what man will not be regarded as lacking intelligence who is angry with her who errs by an impulse of nature [kata physin, in reference here to adultery], while he treats as adviser the man who in despite of nature [para physin] has sinned against his own body [homosexuality]?[10]

The phrase ‘contrary to nature’ is often used specifically in regard to sex that is against the natural intercourse between a male and a female because it is sex between two persons of the same sex.  Paul’s younger contemporary, the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus in Rome, for example, says,

Musonius Rufus, Fragment 2 But of all sexual relations those involving adultery are most unlawful, and no more tolerable are those of men with men, because it is a monstrous thing and contrary to nature.[11]

Plutarch (1st/2nd century) compares two different cultures’ approaches to the question of when a female might be considered of marriageable age.  He describes the practice of marrying girls who are too young as ‘para physin’, against nature, and he describes the opposite as when brides are ‘fully ripe and eager’ for intercourse (Comparison of Lycurgus and Numa 4.1).  This use of ‘against nature’ demonstrates the use of the phrase with respect to sexuality.  He also describes homosexual unions as para physin and, of great interest to our purposes in understanding ‘malakoi’ in 1 Corinthians 6.9, he does so with reference to ‘soft men’:

Plutarch, Dialogue on Love 751C-E If union contrary to nature [para physin] with males does not destroy or curtail a lover’s tenderness, it stands to reason that the love between men and women, being natural will be conducive to friendship developing in due course from favor.... But the union with males, either unwillingly with force and plunder, or willingly with, weakness [or softness, malakia] and effeminacy [thēlytēs], surrendering themselves, as Plato says, “to be mounted in the custom of four-footed animals and to be sowed with seed contrary to nature”—this is an entirely ill-favored favor, shameful and contrary to Aphrodite [goddess of love].[12]

The first century, Jewish historian, Josephus, discusses same-sex relations among certain Greek tribes using ‘para physin’:

Josephus, Against Apion 2:273-275 And why do not the Lacedemonians think of abolishing that form of their government which suffers them not to associate with any others, as well as their contempt of matrimony? And why do not the Eleans and Thebans abolish that unnatural [para physin] and impudent lust, which makes them lie with males?  274 For they will not show a sufficient sign of their repentance of what they of old thought to be very excellent, and very advantageous in their practices, unless they entirely avoid all such actions for the time to come:  275 nay, such things are inserted into the body of their laws, and had once such a power among the Greeks, that they ascribed these sodomitical practices [tas tōn arrenōn mixeis, the mixing of men] to the gods themselves, as a part of their good character; and, indeed, it was according to the same manner that the gods married their own sisters [adelphōn, better translated ‘brothers’ in this context]. This the Greeks contrived as an apology for their own absurd and unnatural [para physin] pleasures.[13]

Similarly, the first century, Jewish philosopher, Philo, also used the same language of homosexuality (pederasty being one form of what is against nature):
  •      Philo, Special Laws 3:39 And let the man who is devoted to the love of boys submit to the same punishment, since he pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature, and since, as far as depends upon him, he would make the cities desolate, and void, and empty of all inhabitants, wasting his power of propagating his species, and moreover, being a guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and effeminate lust, stripping young men of the flower of their beauty, and wasting their prime of life in effeminacy, which he ought rather on the other hand to train to vigor and acts of courage; and last of all, because, like a worthless husbandman, he allows fertile and productive lands to lie fallow, contriving that they shall continue barren, and labors night and day at cultivating that soil from which he never expects any produce at all.[14]

Jews saw homosexual sin as unnatural.  For example:[15]

    2 Enoch A 10:4 “Woe, woe, how very terrible is this place,” and those men said to me: This place, O Enoch, is prepared for those who dishonour God, who on earth practice sin against nature, which is child-corruption after the sodomitic fashion, magic-making, enchantments and devilish witch-crafts, and who boast of their wicked deeds, lies, calumnies, envy, rancour, fornication, murder….[16]
  •    Philo, Special Laws 1.325 He previously excludes all who are unworthy from the sacred assembly, beginning in the first instance with those who are afflicted with the disease of effeminacy [thēleian noson], men-women [androgynōn], who, having adulterated the coinage of nature [physeōs], are willingly driven into the appearance and treatment of licentious women. He also banishes all those who have suffered any injury or mutilation in their most important members, and those who, seeking to preserve the flower of their beauty so that it may not speedily wither away, have altered the impression of their natural manly appearance into the resemblance of a woman [thēlymorphon].

The language of ‘against nature’ is, therefore, perfectly clear.  The evidence is overwhelming, in fact.  The terminology was, in general, used to refer to whatever was not natural and, specifically, to homosexual relations.  It was not used to refer to acting against one’s own inclinations or orientation.  To the point, Paul was not speaking about heterosexual persons acting against their heterosexual orientation in homosexual acts in Romans 1.26-27.  The union of a male and a female was said to be in accordance with nature; that between two of the same biological gender was said to be against nature.

The Laws of Nature

Some further evidence along the same lines, though lacking the phrase ‘against nature’, is worth citing as the point is driven home.  Pseudo-Lucian speaks of homosexuality as a transgression of the ‘laws of nature’:

Pseudo-Lucian Amores 20 [Aphrodite, the goddess of love] linked them [males and females] to each other, ordaining as a sacred law of necessity that each should retain its own nature and that neither should the female grow unnaturally masculine nor the male be unbecomingly soft…. (19) But gradually the passing years degenerated from such nobility to the lowest depths of hedonism and cut out strange and extraordinary paths to enjoyment. Then luxury, daring all, transgressed the laws of nature herself. And who ever was the first to look at the male as though at a female after using violence like a tyrant or else shameless persuasion? The same sex entered the same bed. Though they saw themselves embracing each other, they were ashamed neither at what they did nor at what they had done to them, and, sowing their seed, to quote the proverb, on barren rocks they bought a little pleasure at the cost of great disgrace.[17]

Pseudo-Lucian, Amores 22: If each man abided by the ordinances prescribed for us by Providence, we should be satisfied with intercourse with women and life would be uncorrupted by anything shameful. Certainly, among animals incapable of debasing anything through depravity of disposition the laws of nature are preserved undefiled. Lions have no passion for lions but love in due season evokes in them desire for the females of their kind. The bull, monarch of the herd, mounts cows, and the ram fills the whole flock with seed from the male. Furthermore do not boars seek to lie with sows? Do not wolves mate with she-wolves? And, to speak in general terms, neither the birds whose wings whir on high, nor the creatures whose lot is a wet one beneath the water nor yet any creatures upon land strive for intercourse with fellow males, but the decisions of Providence remain unchanged. But you who are wrongly praised for wisdom, you beasts truly contemptible, you humans, by what strange infection have you been brought to lawlessness and incited to outrage each other? With what blind insensibility have you engulfed your souls that you have missed the mark in both directions, avoiding what you ought to pursue, and pursuing what you ought to avoid? If each and every man should choose to emulate such conduct, the human race will come to a complete end.[18]
Jewish authors also speak of the laws of nature and homosexuality:

    Pseudo-Phocylides, Sentences 190-192 Do not transgress with unlawful sex the limits set by nature. For even animals are not pleased by intercourse of male with male. And let women not imitate the sexual role of men.[19]

    Naphtali 3:4 But you will not be so, my children: you have recognized in the vault of heaven, in the earth, and in the sea, and in all created things, the Lord who made them all, so that you should not become like Sodom which changed the order of its nature.[20]

    Philo, On Abraham 1:134, 135-136 [Regarding Sodom] 134 And the cause of its excessive and immoderate intemperance was the unlimited abundance of supplies of all kinds which its inhabitants enjoyed…. And he was a wise man and spoke truly who said-- "The greatest cause of all iniquity is found in overmuch prosperity." 135 As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire; 136 and so, by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, an intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy, became like women in their persons, but they made also their souls most ignoble, corrupting in this way the whole race of man, as far as depended on them. At all events, if the Greeks and barbarians were to have agreed together, and to have adopted the commerce of the citizens of this city, their cities one after another would have become desolate, as if they had been emptied by a pestilence.

    Philo, On Abraham 1:137 XXVII But God, having taken pity on mankind, as being a Savior and full of love for mankind, increased, as far as possible, the natural desire of men and women for a connection together, for the sake of producing children, and detesting the unnatural and unlawful commerce of the people of Sodom, he extinguished it, and destroyed those who were inclined to these things, and that not by any ordinary chastisement, but he inflicted on them an astonishing novelty, and unheard of rarity of vengeance.

    Philo, On Flight and Finding 1:144 Nor did the inhabitants of Sodom, blind in their minds, who were insanely eager to defile the holy and unpolluted reasonings, "find the road which led to this” [Genesis 29.11] object; but, as the sacred scriptures tell us, they were wearied with their exertions to find the door, although they ran in a circle all round the house, and left no stone unturned for the accomplishment of their unnatural and impious desires [tēs ekphylou kai asebous epithymias].

Philo could speak of desires in accordance with nature, as opposed to excessive desire, such as gluttony or being oversexed, even in marriage.
  • Philo, Special Laws 3:9 Therefore, even that pleasure which is in accordance with nature is often open to blame, when any one indulges in it immoderately and insatiably, as men who are unappeasably voracious in respect of eating, even if they take no kind of forbidden or unwholesome food; and as men who are madly devoted to association with women, and who commit themselves to an immoderate degree not with other men's wives, but with their own.
  • Philo, On the Posterity of Cain 53 gives a sin list that ends with ‘immoderate indulgence in pleasure, and innumerable appetites in despite of nature.’
  • Philo, Abraham 1:46 When such numbers then of such mighty evils had burst forth which that time poured out - for all the portions of the world, except the heaven itself, were moved in an unnatural manner - as if they were stricken with a terrible and deadly disease.  [This reference has to do with the time of the flood in Noah’s day.]

‘Nature’ in 1 Corinthians 11:14

Having reviewed all this evidence, we must conclude what might have been thought obvious were it not for recent scholars who have sought a way to make Romans 1.26-27 mean something other than what the Church has always thought it to mean: that female and male homosexual acts are unnatural, contrary to God’s purposes in creation, and sinful.  It yet remains to explain Paul’s use of ‘nature’ in 1 Corinthians 11.14. 

First Corinthians 11.14 reads,

Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him.

Paul really does mean ‘nature’ in this passage and is not using the term in reference to ‘custom’.  Note the contrasting language of ‘nature’ [physis] and ‘custom’ [nomos] in Aristotle: had Paul meant to say ‘custom’ instead of ‘nature’, he would have had other language to say so:

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics I.3.3 The subjects studied by political science are Moral Nobility and Justice; but these conceptions involve much difference of opinion and uncertainty, so that they are sometimes believed to be mere conventions [dokein nomō(i) monon] and to have no real existence in the nature of things [physei de mē].[21]

Paul is not saying that it is customary for men to wear their hair short and that it is uncustomary for them to wear their hair long.  So, why does Paul use the term ‘nature’ in 1 Cor. 11.14?  It is because he has in mind what long hair symbolizes in his culture: an effeminate man, a ‘man-woman’, a ‘soft man’—or other such descriptions of a man acting against his natural (biological) gender.

This might be compared to our saying that it is ‘unnatural’ for a man to dress up in women’s clothing and walk with a sway to his hips in high heels carrying a hand bag.  None of us would dispute the use of the word ‘unnatural’ on the basis that the description is a cultural definition of womanly dress as we would understand it.  Such cultural dress points to a man behaving like a woman, which is unnatural for a man.

This very point is equally made by Epictetus—even with reference to the length of hair.
Epictetus, Discourses 3.1 You are a human being; that is, a mortal animal, capable of a rational use of things as they appear. And what is this rational use? A perfect conformity to Nature. What have you, then, particularly excellent? Is it the animal part? No. The mortal? No. That which is capable of the mere use of these things? No. The excellence lies in the rational part. Adorn and beautify this; but leave your hair to him who formed it as he thought good.[22]
Well, what other appellations have you? Are you a man or a woman? A man. Then adorn yourself as a man, not as a woman. A woman is naturally smooth and delicate, and if hairy, is a monster, and shown among the monsters at Rome. It is the same thing in a man not to be hairy; and if he is by nature not so, he is a monster. But if he depilates himself, what shall we do with him? Where shall we show him, and how shall we advertise him? "A man to be seen, who would rather be a woman." What a scandalous show! Who would not wonder at such an advertisement? I believe, indeed, that these very persons themselves would; not apprehending that it is the very thing of which they are guilty.
Of what have you to accuse your nature, sir, that it has made you a man? Why, were all to be born women, then? In that case what would have been the use of your finery? For whom would you have made yourself fine, if all were women? But the whole affair displeases you. Go to work upon the whole, then. Remove your manhood itself and make yourself a woman entirely, that we may be no longer deceived, nor you be half man, half woman. To whom would you be agreeable, to the women? Be agreeable to them as a man.


This study is offered in response to the notion that Paul does not mean ‘natural’ but ‘normal,’ ‘conventional,’ ‘customary,’ or ‘ordinary’ in Romans 1:26-27—that he is saying that heterosexual persons should not act abnormally and have homosexual sex.  This neither fits the purpose of Paul’s argument in Romans nor the meaning of ‘natural’.  The essay has scoured a number of primary texts, and the following conclusions are justified:

  • The Greek notion and word for ‘natural’ are as we use them in English.
  • ‘Natural’ never means ‘customary’ or ‘normal’.  It has to do with nature and God’s purposes in creation.
  • 1 Corinthians 11.14, Paul’s comment that short hair on a man is ‘natural,’ is not an example of his using the term to mean ‘normal’.  He has in view the implication of long hair on a man in his culture: that the person is homosexual or transsexual.  This, not long hair per se, is what is deemed unnatural.
  • The phrase ‘para physin’, ‘against nature’, fits a standard use from centuries before Paul to well after Paul.  One of its very common uses is for homosexuality, which is against nature.
A final point needs to be made, even if it is difficult to do so.  The willingness of some scholars to make unsubstantiated claims while foregoing the sort of study offered here is very troubling.  They lend their voices to a sexual, revolutionary movement and to revisionist readings of Scripture as scholars, and therefore they might be expected to speak on the basis of serious research.  Instead, however, they speak without any serious academic work at all.  Yet they are not ashamed to affirm a radical revision of 2,000 years of Church teaching as though they have conducted serious study.  They speak out of their perceived authority as scholars rather than on the basis of their actual scholarship.  In an effort to challenge this irresponsible scholarship sooner than later, I have offered some important research here in the primary sources. One can only hope that Christians, pastors, or bishops hoping to learn from scholars will no longer be misled by their chicanery but actually spend time with the primary source material—something these politically correct scholars have been unwilling to do.  The data is, in my view, incontrovertible: Romans 1.24-28 is speaking of the sex of female and male homosexuals using their body parts in sinful, unnatural ways, in ways God did not intend in creation.[23]

This is but the beginning of Romans. Paul's message in the rest of the letter from 3.21ff is really one of hope: although all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23), we can find redemption in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, reconciled us to God, and has made it possible to live transformed lives in the power of the Holy Spirit.  While we find in our day a pastoral obligation to correct false teachers who say homosexuality is no sin, the Christian message is good news; it is a message of forgiveness and transformation for all who repent of their sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] Cf. S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville: B&H Press, 2016).
[2] Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis,
MN: Fortress, 2003), 15.
[3] Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 76–78.  See Martti Missinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historicaal Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1998), p. 105.
[4] Plutarch, Moralia, trans. Harold Cherniss and William C. Hembold (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957).
[5] Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus in Four Books, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Loeb Classical Library 131; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925).
[6] I have counted 753 passages where the term ‘para physin’ is found in Galen.  See a discussion in Elsa Garcia Novo, Galen on the Anomalous Dyskrasia (De Inaequali Intemperie) (Madrid: Donoso Cortés, 2010), pp. 177-178.
[7] Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by Harold N. Fowler (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925).
[8] Manetho Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, trans. W. G. Waddell and F. E. Robbins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940).
[9] Plato in Twelve Volumes, trans. Harold N. Fowler (Loeb Classical Library 9; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925).
[10] The Speeches of Aeschines, trans. C. D. Adams (Loeb Classical Library 6; Cambridge: Harvard University Press).  One might note with interest that Paul sees all fornication as a sin ‘against one’s own body’: ‘Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself (1 Corinthians 6.19).
[11] Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Fragments, trans. Cora Lutz, Yale Classical Studies (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1947).
[12]Plutarch: Moralia, vol. IX, ed.G. P. Goold, trans. E. L. Minar, F. H. Sandbach, W. C. Helmbold (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961).
[13] William Whiston The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus (Bridgeport, CT: M. Sherman, 1828).
[14] All translations of Philo are taken from The Works of Philo Judaeus, the Contemporary of Josephus, trans. C. D. Yonge, 4 vols. (London, England: Henry G. Bohn, 1854–55).
[15] See further, Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, chs. 9, 10, and 12.
[16] 2 Enoch, or the Book of the Secrets of Enoch,” trans. Nevill Forbes and R. H. Charles,
in Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, vol. 2, ed. R. H. Charles (New York: Clarendon, 1913).
[17] Lucian, Vol. 8, Amores, trans. A. M. Harmon (Loeb Classical Library; (Harvard: Harvard Press, 1967).
[18] Pseudo-Lucian, Affairs of the Heart, trans. A. M. Harmon (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925).
[19] P. W. van der Horst, The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1978), 101.
[20], The Apocryphal Old Testament, ed. H. Sparks, trans. M. DeJonge (New York: Clarendon, 1984),
[21] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham (Loeb Classical Library 73; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926).
[22] The Works of Epictetus: His Discourses, in Four Books, the Enchiridion, and Fragments, trans. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1890).
[23] Further discussion of the primary texts is offered in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness.