What Roman 1 tells us about man’s knowledge of God

judgementI recently had a nearly 2 hour discussion on the subject of apologetic methodology with Adam Tucker, the director of missions and evangelism at Southern Evangelical Seminary. Our conversation highlighted the key differences between classical apologetics of the Thomistic stripe and presuppositionalism, or what I like to call biblical apologetics. The discussion can be downloaded HERE.

Probably one of the more significantly important distinctions between our positions has to do with what we believe about the knowledge man has of God. Adam insists man’s knowledge of God is mediate, whereas I believe it is immediate.

An article I noted during the discussion explains the difference.

The 24 Fundamental Theses of Official Catholic Philosophy

Under theses 22, the first sentence reads,

That God exists we do not know by immediate intuition, nor do we demonstrate it a priori, but certainly a posteriori, that is, by things which are made, arguing from effect to cause.

The commentary for this point states in part,

Since the proper object of our intellect is the essences of material things, it is clear we have no immediate intuition of God’s spiritual essence, and, consequently, neither of His existence. Since the notion we have of His essence is an abstract notion, the existence implied in that notion belongs to the essential order and in no way to the actual. Still, we can demonstrate His existence with a rigorous demonstration, which goes from the effects to their ultimate cause.

The commentator seems to suggest that human intellect can only gain knowledge about material things, or things that are experienced with our senses. That would then exclude spiritual things because they are not perceived by our senses, or so I guess. Thus the classic apologist believes unbelievers are born as blank slates as it pertains to God. They learn and acquire knowledge about reality through sense experience overtime.

In order to prove God to the unbeliever, an apologist must build an accumulative case for God beginning with what he knows about reality, and moving from the experienced effects of that reality back to the ultimate cause, the God of the Bible Who is the only logical ultimate cause.

I, on the other hand, believe the exact opposite. I believe man’s knowledge of God is immediate and by intuition. I believe that because that is exactly what the Scriptures teach. In other words, all men are born as the image bearers of God, because they are His creatures. The apologist does not have to prove God’s existence to an unbeliever. He already knows God exists. It is a matter of the unbeliever turning from his sin and submitting to his creator as Lord and Savior as the Gospel truth is brought to bear upon the person.

One of our points of contention during our discussion had to do with Romans 1:18 ff. and whether or not Paul is teaching that man’s knowledge of God is mediate or immediate.

I am not entirely sure how Adam would exegete the passage, but from what I gather from our conversation, if I am understanding him correctly, he seems to take the position that when Paul writes that God’s attributes and eternal power is understood through what has been made, he is saying unbelievers take in knowledge about God with their sense experience. It goes back to what that theses point stated above: we learn about God from things which are made arguing from effect to cause.

I don’t think that is at all what Paul has in mind. In fact, I believe he is quite clear that men understand God’s attributes and divine power because when they see the world and how it operates, they know intuitively God is their creator. The problem is they refuse to have anything to do with him and thus rebel against what it is they clearly understand. That is the whole idea of them actively suppressing the truth in unrighteousness as it says in Romans 1:18.

Let me show you what I mean.

Romans 1:19 states, “because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.” Notice the word “within.” What is known about God is evident within them. That is knowledge internally known, not experienced and learned over time. Notice it further states the reason they know about God is the fact God has made it evident to them. He actively created man with that knowledge.

Now, some translations have a footnote by the word “within” that claims “within” can also be rendered “among” or “in the midst of.” That would lean the interpretation of the phrase to suggesting that the knowledge of God is knowable or obtainable from external sense perception if the unbeliever just considers the evidence rationally as the classical apologist insists. However, there is no exegetical warrant in the overall context of Romans that affirms that understanding of the text. In fact, the context stands against it.

For example, consider Romans 2:14-15 as Paul continues arguing his case for the purpose of the Gospel,

14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves,
15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them

Notice the word instinctively, which can also be translated naturally. It is by nature that unbelieving gentiles live according to God’s moral law. Additionally, Paul says they show or demonstrate the work of the Law written where? In their hearts. In other words, their knowledge of God’s moral law is already stamped upon their hearts. They act upon it instinctively and intuitively contrary to what that Roman Catholic theses statement claims. All humanity have both material sense perception as well as spiritual perception. That is why all men without exception are religiously devoted to something, whatever it may be.

If men have to learn about God by their sense observation and remain uncertain of His existence UNTIL AFTER He is proven to them through a presentation that is built upon an accumulative case for His existence arguing from effect back to cause, then what exactly does Paul mean when he talks about instinct and knowing God within? At what point did unbelieving men have the law of God stamped upon their hearts and consciences? After they had enough “proof” so that now they could reject it? And would this mean there could potentially be people out in the world who will have an excuse as to why they can’t be held accountable because they never heard those arguments? They just didn’t know enough?

On the contrary, Paul clearly implies that men are born with that law upon their hearts. It isn’t stamped on there when the person realizes God exists so that now he can actively suppress God’s truth. He is held accountable to the truth he knows about God in his heart that he clearly sees in reality, what would be God’s creation.

Now certainly I would agree that the special revelation of Scripture provides us with the clearest understanding of who God is and provides the fullest knowledge of God than what men know from living as God’s creatures in His created world. Men learn about God through revelation as the Holy Spirit provides illumination. But that does not mean they do not know our God in their fallen, unbelieving state. Their intuitive knowledge of God, their understanding as image bearers of God living in His world, are those first principles that we use to call men to repentance and submission to the Gospel.


8 thoughts on “What Roman 1 tells us about man’s knowledge of God

  1. Pingback: Late February 2015 Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links | The Domain for Truth

  2. How does my unbelieving neighbour knows God exists? Revelation from God. How do I, constrained as I am by my subjectivity, know that my neighbour knows? The same way he does, revelation from God? How can I trust my subjective understanding of these matters? Because an all powerful, all knowing God is perfectly capable of enabling fallen and flawed men to know things for certain. And furthermore, he gave us His word in order to reinforce that which he has revealed to us in creation and conscience.

  3. Pingback: Romans 1 and Man’s Knowledge of God: A Response to Fred Butler

  4. For what it’s worth, Fred, here is my response: http://whydoyoubelieve.org/2016/03/21/romans-1-and-mans-knowledge-of-god-a-response-to-fred-butler/

    creditaction, your view is straight up from Rene Descartes. Once again, another example of why good philosophy is needed to inform our theology. I would argue, as I have elsewhere, that Descartes is very bad philosophy (in fact, he’s the father of modern philosophy and his thinking has led to many of the philosophical problems we battle today).

  5. Interesting. I was drawing my understanding from Psalm 19:1-6, John 1:1-4, Romans 1:18-20, Colossians 2:3.Colossians 1:16. I posit that God is the necessary precondition for intelligibility thereby Descartes couldn’t have his philosophical convictions apart from God’s general revelation. Descartes was a rationalist who argued for the existence of God from his Roman Catholic worldview and believed mankind had free will as opposed to being enslaved to their nature, John 8:34, 8:44, Proverbs 28:26 . Are not the similarities between my position and Descartes because we both reference the same Scriptures?

  6. Superb Fred!!!!

    Understood through what has been made. What is the crowning achievement of God’s creation, about which alone he said it was VERY good? Man is that crowning achievement.

    v19. (NASB) “because that which is known about God is evident WITHIN them; for God made it evident to them.(emphasis mine)”

    The NASB nails the preposition “nu.” Yes, the heavens declare the glory of the Lord, but nowhere is He more inescapably evident than within divine image bearing man himself.

    GOD made it evident. if man were the Lord’s only creation, he still would be confronted every second by the God who created him in His own image and likeness. Man’s own sentient consciousness alone screams at him that he did not create himself. Not only that he did not create himself, but that THE one true and living God is his creator.

    We know this because Yahweh’s “invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, [ESPECIALLY in man himself who alone bears the image and likeness of this God], so that they are without excuse.”

    God’s fingerprint and signature is emblazoned upon every particle of His creation. Man can only miss it if he really REALLY tries and boy does he ever by suppressing this most foundational of all truths in his depraved unrighteousness.

    Thomas addiction to Aristotle was his undoing. Why any protestant would follow him is baffling enough. That some claiming to be Calvinists do so is utterly mystifying.

  7. Pingback: Sinners and Their Knowledge of God – A Rejoinder | hipandthigh

  8. Pingback: Articles on Apologetics and Evangelism | hipandthigh

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