In Romans 1:26-27, Paul writes of “degrading passions” and uses the concepts of “natural” and “unnatural.” These are important concepts in the cultural, philosophical, and theological context that shaped Paul's thought and that of the early Church. If what follows seems like a rabbit trail away from the topic at hand, hang with me. I will eventually show how I think it is relevant.
While “natural” and “unnatural” sexual intercourse is what Paul refers to in Romans 1:26-27, the New Testament and the early Church have a more expansive idea of what constitutes unnatural sinful passion. In the early Church, "passions" was a technical term that refers to the spiritual agitations that well up from within us that lead us from the love, joy, and peace of God and from sharing that love, joy, and peace with one another. And many in the early Church believed that things we have come to take for granted as natural were in fact unnatural passions. For example:
The love and accumulation of possessions is unnatural
The early Church theologians took seriously Jesus’ warnings regarding the accumulation and attachment to wealth (see What Jesus Commanded, Part 8: Money & Possessions). Not only did they take Jesus (and the rest of the New Testament) at his word, they actually considered the pursuit and accumulation of wealth to be contrary to nature:
Our third struggle is against the demon of avarice, a demon clearly foreign to our nature, who only gains entry into a monk because he is lacking in faith. The other passions, such as anger and desire, seem to be occasioned by the body and in some sense implanted in us at birth. Hence they are conquered only after a long time. The sickness of avarice, on the contrary, can with diligence and attention be cut off more readily, because it enters from outside. If neglected, however, it becomes even harder to get rid of and more destructive than the other passions, for according to the Apostle it is 'the root of all evil' (1Tim. 6:10).
– John Cassion, On the Eight Vices
Anger towards others is unnatural
The early Church theologians also took seriously Jesus’ warning that anger is a species of murder (cf. Matthew 5:21-22) and Paul's description of malice as a sinful pleasure and passion (cf. Titus 3:1-7). In fact, they considered anger contrary to nature:
Anger is by nature designed for waging war with the demons and for struggling with every kind of sinful pleasure. . . But the demons, enticing toward worldly lusts, make us use anger to fight against men, which is against nature, so that the mind, thus stupefied and darkened, should become a traitor to virtues.
– Evagrios, Directions on Spiritual Training 1. To Anatolius: Tests on Active Life (From the Russian Rendition)
The first virtue is detachment, that is, death in relation to every person or thing. This produces the desire for God, and this in turn gives rise to the anger that is in accordance with nature, and that flares up against all the tricks of the enemy [Satan]. Then the fear of God will establish itself within us, and through this fear love will be made manifest.
– St Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect
Anger . . . does not represent a state of health in accordance with nature, but an enfeebled condition arising from guilt.
– St. Augustine, City of God
Gluttony is unnatural
The theologians of the early Church also believed gluttony was unnatural (cf. Proverbs 23:2 & 20; Ezekiel 16:49; Philippians 3:19):
Food was created for nourishment and healing. Those who eat food for purposes other than these two are therefore to be condemned as self-indulgent, because they misuse the gifts God has given us for our use. In all things misuse is a sin.
– Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love, Third Century
All this is contrary to nature, for the Creator has ordained the same natural way of life for both us and the animals. . . . The animals remain within the boundaries of nature, not altering in any way what God has ordained; but we, who have been honored with the power of intelligence, have completely abandoned His original ordinance. Do animals demand a luxury diet?
– St Neilos, Ascetic Discourse
These passions are unnatural for several reasons. They are a deviation from the peace for which we are created. They reflect a lack of faith and trust in God’s provision and an ingratitude for what has been provided. They create sort of spiritual static that interferes with our communion with God and one another.
And they are each a surrendering to self-indulgence and a lack of self-control. Indulging in excess beyond what is necessary is unnatural and appears to be a fundamental obstacle to holiness. Thus both the New Testament and the early Church insist that self-control is the foundation of holy living, i.e., communion with God.
So, when we think of what is natural and unnatural passion, it is important to understand that we are not only talking about sex. And in the larger context neither is Paul. Still, as noted above, in Romans 1:26-27, he specifically refers to natural and unnatural sexual intercourse. But even there, it is instructive to know what the ancients, inside and outside the Church, thought was natural and unnatural when it comes to sex. We will look at that next.
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