Sinners and Their Knowledge of God – A Rejoinder

adamandevePrepare yourselves. This is a long, withering, geeky post. Pack a sammich.

I recently participated in a podcast discussion on the topic of apologetic methodology with Adam Tucker, the director of evangelism and missions at Southern Evangelical Seminary. The discussion was meant to highlight the key differences between classic Thomistic apologetics and presuppositionalism.

During our two hour conversation, we had a spirited exchange on the subject of man’s knowledge of God. Referencing the 24 theses of Catholic philosophy, Adam affirms the Thomist perspective that argues man’s knowledge of God is mediate, meaning mankind must learn about God through our sense perception. Thus, the goal of a Christian apologist is to build an accumulative case for the existence of God with the use of various perceptible lines of evidence that start with effect and leads back toward an ultimate cause, that of course being God.

I, however, believe man’s knowledge of God is immediate, meaning that because mankind is God’s special creation, the knowledge of God as sovereign creator is imprinted upon the hearts of all men, as it were. Human beings bear God’s image, and because we are the image bearers of God, we do not need to have God proven to us; we know intuitively that He exists. If that was not the case, men could not be held accountable for their rebellion against Him.The goal of the Christian apologist in this instance is to confront man’s active rebellion against God that they know is real, with the totality of the Christian worldview and the Gospel, and call them to repentance.

Now, I attempted to point out during our discussion that my position is derived from holy Scripture, most specifically Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18ff, particularly verse 19 which states, that which is known about God is evident within them. Meaning, that man’s knowledge of God is written on his conscience or upon his heart.

I posted a follow up blog article that marked out the differences between the mediate and immediate views of man’s knowledge of God and that explained why Paul in Romans affirms an immediate view of God’s knowledge — What Romans 1 tells us about man’s knowledge of God.

Adam has since responded with a rebuttal to my article posted over at the SES blog, Romans 1 and Man’s Knowledge of God: A Response to Fred Butler (that’d be me!)

He is insistent that my take on Romans 1 was eisegetical. In other words, I’m reading my conclusions about the immediate knowledge of God into the text of Romans. Really? In the spirit of online debate, I wanted to offer a rejoinder and prove to everyone why Adam is dead wrong.

But before I get to the heart of the article, let me set the stage with his opening remarks, he writes,

First, it is interesting that the post begins with a poisoning the well/begging the question fallacy as Fred classifies his brand of presuppositional apologetics (as opposed to my classical apologetics) as “what [he] like[s] to call biblical apologetics.” … Merely labeling one’s position as the “biblical” position from the outset is not an argument, and as our two hour dialog demonstrated, we both consider our differing views as the “biblical” view (in the sense that it is in line with what Scripture reveals about man’s knowledge of God).

Rather than subliminally manipulating my readers to think Adam’s classic apologetics are unbiblical, my primary reason I call my form of presuppositionalism, “biblical apologetics,” has to do with the foundation upon which we build our methodologies. It really has nothing to do with well poisoning.

dilbertAdam, by his own admission during our conversation, stated that he begins with philosophy in order to build his accumulative case for the Christian faith. When he provided his definition of classic apologetics in his opening remarks, he even cited Richard Howe’s methodological formula that begins with philosophy defining “reality,” moves to proving general theism, and then the viability of Christianity.

His basic position is what I have always encountered with every classic apologist I have interacted with. Rather than having the Bible and biblical Christianity as the engine driving apologetics, philosophy (of the Thomist/Aristotelian stripe) is the foundational starting point; the key presupposition, as it were. From there, a case for general, vanilla-style theism is made, and Christianity and Scripture is the caboose, coming along at the end.

When distinguishing my position as “biblical apologetics,” I am merely pointing to the approach I take when engaging in apologetics. I am not fixated upon what Aristotle has written. Nor do I care what his confused surrogates in Christendom past who assign greater importance to his work than is warranted have stated concerning the role philosophy should take with shaping our theology.

I begin with a comprehensive Christian theology derived from the exegesis of Scripture alone and move out from there. Any “philosophy” that may be intertwined in the discussion flows from the exegesis of biblical texts. Thus, the Bible and Christianity is the engine driving apologetics and any necessary philosophy is the caboose in my scheme.

boethius2Boethius has spun his wheel of fortune and he wants you to know
he thinks
Thomas Aquinas was a hack

Let me move along to Adam’s main presentation of his complaint against the thesis of my article.

Recall that I argued from Romans 1:19 that Paul tells us that what knowledge men have of God is evident within them. The language here, particularly the word within translated from en autois, means that knowledge is manifested or innate to all humanity, and is not acquired over time or discovered by reading effects back to causes as Adam insists. In fact, the reason why men can even utilize the concept of reading effects back to causes has to do because of that basic knowledge they have of their creator. God has created man so he can rationalize and understand His creation and be drawn to worship.

Sin, however, has marred that image of God so that men intentionally reject, and in nearly all cases, fight against the truth of what  that knowledge communicates to them regarding their creator God.

Additionally (and I didn’t draw this out in my article), the next clause of verse 19 tells us God’s revelation is clear and known. The gar, translated as for, connects the explanatory phrase, for God made it evident to them with the previous, that which is evident about God is known within them. God is the subject of the word “evident,” translated from ephanerothe. Thus, He is the one doing the revealing of Himself to them, meaning all humanity.

And then thirdly, I pointed out that as Paul develops his case about the culpability of sinners before God, he states in Romans 2:14-15 that gentiles do instinctively, or by nature, the requirements of God’s moral law. How exactly do they have knowledge about what it is God requires? Because, as Paul goes on in verse 15, that knowledge of the law is “written on their hearts.” In other words, all humanity have an immediate knowledge of God.

So with that overview in mind, I’ll work through the remainder of Adam’s article and respond to specific points he raises.

He writes,

I would argue this is a classic example of eisegesis, or reading a view into a text rather than extracting the meaning from the text.There is no reason to conclude from the English phrase “within them” that Paul is talking about innate (or preprogrammed if you will) knowledge of God.

To suggest that what I presented is eisegetical is laughable. If that is the case, that means John Calvin, indeed, pretty much all of the magisterial and Puritan Reformers, John Gill, Charles Hodge, James Boice, S. Lewis Johnson, Leon Morris, commentators William Sanday and Arthur Headlam, John Murray, and James White, just to name a few, are all employing eisegesis.

Moreover, given the review of the exegesis I just laid out, I find it difficult to understand how he could make such a claim. Honestly, as I work through his points in the remainder of his article, I have to confess that I was a bit disappointed he didn’t really interact at all with any of the key arguments I raised in regards to what Paul wrote in Romans 1:19 and 2:14,15.

As much as Fred chides those holding my view (built as it is from the thinking of Thomas Aquinas and thus from Aristotle) for adopting “pagan Greek philosophy,” Fred is espousing a view of innate knowledge that would be right at home in the writings of Plato and Enlightenment philosophy.

Good for Plato for acting upon his God-given cognizant abilities that come along with being made in the image of God. That knowledge helps him recognize the obvious. That doesn’t mean, however, that his views of Forms and Ideas supply a filter through which I read the Bible. Anymore than me believing in the Resurrection of Jesus means I’m right at home with Mithra cults.

Though the words for “evident” in this verse are related, they have slightly different meanings. The first means something’s ability to be clearly known, while the second is more active in the sense of something being made clearly known.

Two thoughts. First, the word phaneros, translated as “evident,” is the same in both instances. The difference being that the first occurrence, “that which is known about God is evident…” is nominative, whereas the second, “God made it evident to them” is aorist.

Then secondly, I am at a loss why he believes that difference helps his position. All that Paul is saying is that the reason all of mankind has knowledge of God evident within them is because God purposefully made in evident to them. If anything, the grammar here only continues to solidify the idea of an immediate knowledge of God.

But he continues,

Human knowing is a metaphysical, and thus immaterial, event that occurs “within” man as it were. How could man have knowledge “without,” that is, how could man’s knowing happen outside of the man? That would be incoherent. The question is, how is that something, God’s existence in this case, made clearly known? The context gives us a clear answer.  The very next verse tells us, “For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made” (Rom. 1:20). Paul essentially says that we can argue from effect to cause (via sensible reality) and reason to God’s “invisible attributes, eternal power, and divine nature.” There is no reference here to innate knowledge of God.

This is another mystifying comment. If we read carefully verse 20, Paul writes that those invisible attributes and eternal power are “clearly seen” and “understood.” Both seeing and understanding take place inside the person, not outside. The point Paul is making is that God is clearly on display for every person in the world, including in the outward created world, as well as directly within the creation, that being, within them. Men see God on display and understand that what they are seeing is their creator. In other words, they know there is a God.

That is why men are “without excuse,” as Paul goes on to write. They are all held accountable for what they know. There is never any point when men are without the knowledge of God. If they had no knowledge of God, they could potentially have an excuse as to why they didn’t submit to Him. Yet the Bible never offers that as a possibility.

Concluding my thoughts, let me interact with this paragraph, especially the last comment and pose three questions,

Fred jumps to Paul’s reference to natural law in Rom. 2:14-15 in a failed attempt to further his case for innate knowledge. Those verses are about man’s knowledge of natural law (or the basic moral law known via sensible reality) and have nothing to do with man’s knowledge of God’s existence being “immediate” or innate. In fact, this passage is precisely where classical apologists go to show that the natural moral law is known by all normally functioning men because it is based on what we are by nature, that is, human beings (Fred seems to agree with this much). Yet, this is another example of effect-to-cause reasoning regarding God’s existence. We can reason from the fact that this natural moral law exists based on human nature to the fact that God is the author of human nature and the creator and sustainer of all men. This passage is clearly about man’s knowledge of morality, not man’s knowledge of God.

Given what Paul writes in Romans 2:14,15, his comments here are amazing. The last sentence is especially perplexing, “This passage is clearly about man’s knowledge of morality, not man’s knowledge of God.” But the text specifically states that when the gentiles do instinctively, a word that means naturally, the things written in the law, you know, act morally, they show the law written in their hearts.

That raises three questions I have for Adam, What law is this? What does it mean that it is written on their hearts? and Who wrote it there? I would hope that his response is 1) God’s law, 2) it is innate, meaning it wasn’t acquired, because 3) God wrote it there. If that is the case, how can one conclude that Romans 2 is about man’s knowledge of morality apart from his knowledge of God? Seeing that God is the one who established absolute morality, it is impossible to be moral without an innate knowledge of God.

One final comment before wrapping this up. I get the impression, and I could be wrong, that maybe Adam is thinking I am conflating general revelation with special revelation. What Paul presents in Romans 1 and 2 is general revelation, revelation about God that is seen in nature and understood in men’s heart and expressed in the way people live in our world. That revelation only makes mankind culpable before God because he is without excuse to act upon what he knows to be true about God. To truly know God in a salvific way, there must be a special revelation that comes only from God’s Spirit working through the Scripture. We have to keep those categories distinct in our discussion.

Now, is this exchange an important one or is it just the equivalent of a group of geeks arguing whether the Enterprise is faster than the Millennium Falcon? I certainly would think both of us believe it is important. I know for myself, I recognize my apologetic methodology has direct bearing on what I know about the lost, what they are thinking, and how I expect them to react to our discussion. My objective is to have an apologetic methodology that is biblical and the most effective. That is why I want it to be driven by the Word of God, and not filtered through the pagan philosophy of Aristotelian scholastics.

16 thoughts on “Sinners and Their Knowledge of God – A Rejoinder

  1. Adam calls the correct understanding of Romans to be eisegesis?!?! Eisegesis would be reading it any other way. Scripture definitely says that man knows there is a God. It also says that man suppresses that knowledge — right there in Romans 1!

    Aside from the Romans passage, how does Adam explain the following?
    Job 12:7-8 Job says to asks even the animals and earth about God.
    Psalm 19:1-4 says even the heavens declare the glory of God throughout the earth
    Acts 14:17 says God has not left Himself without witness.
    Acts 17:24-28 says God created men so they will seek Him — which means man has to know God exists if they are to seek Him.

    Man’s knowledge of God is immediate – he just suppresses the truth of God because he doesn’t want to be held accountable to Him.

  2. Fred’s dependence on Scripture, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is an apologetic that a simple soul as I am can readily use. I pray I might read my Bible, believe it and do what it says.

  3. Seems simple enough to me, Eisegesis? I don’t see any way that could be.

    …and the Enterprise is definitely faster than the Millennial Falcon…though I view that as a secondary issue.

  4. Glenn asks,
    Aside from the Romans passage, how does Adam explain the following?

    In fairness to Adam, I would imagine he would say all of those passages speak of God revealing himself externally, in a manner man must discover with his senses. Of course, that assumes man is willing to examine that evidence and draw the conclusion that those external “proofs” prove God and thus they will now believe Christianity is true. The Bible, however, testifies that man will never ever make those conclusions because he hates God.

  5. I’ve had an atheist claim that there are some tribes that have zero concept of God. They have no instruments of worship, idols, etc. Although these tribes are superstitious. My answer is that this is an example of that willful ignorance or suppression. Besides when they have had Jesus preached to them, they respond that unless anyone has seen Jesus personally he doesn’t exist. And they reject the Gospel cuz they would rather carry on with their liberal sexual habits-they share partners in this tribe.

  6. I never even hinted that those passages might lead people to Christ, nor do I believe that. What they do is point out that the evidence for God is everywhere. Whether someone takes that knowledge of God any further is another topic entirely. But as Romans says, they are without excuse because they know there is a God, but they suppress that truth.

  7. Pingback: Early April 2016 Presuppositional Apologetics’ Post | The Domain for Truth

  8. Pingback: Articles on Apologetics and Evangelism | hipandthigh

  9. Language itself, being a part of the creation of man and not humanistic at all in it’s foundational, moral basis, amounts to propositional truth. Language is stuck with the meaning given it by God, not some other meaning of man’s doing. Language is inherent in thought. Not all, historically, can begin with scripture, but all can and do possess language, and even in the fallen state, as Adam was, is aware of good and evil both in thought and deed. Scripture does give us confidence that our definitions are correct and it answers all the “why” questions. It is easier to convince an unbeliever that language is a valid starting point, then, and then that language is saying the same thing as scripture says. Good has an actual meaning. Evil has an actual meaning. Similarly with core words like sin and love and creation and judgement and so forth.

  10. I agree with you that our knowledge *of* God is immediate. But do you believe there are also things we can know *about* God via general revelation mediately? In other words, I’m just wondering if there is a combination of immediate and mediate knowledge of God in creation? And if so, what things about God would fall under immediate knowledge. And which things about God would fall under mediate knowledge? Thanks!

  11. Could you help me out? I’ve been thinking about this all day. Since verse 20 says God’s attributes are clearly seen, “being understood through what has been made”, doesn’t that modify the previous verse? In other words, wouldn’t the text be saying God has “made it evident to them” by “what has been made”? So the reason that it is “evident within them” is because God has revealed it to them by “what has been made”.

    I’m presup through and through, but it seems to me this is talking about mediated revelation, but I want help understanding this.

  12. What you are saying here means there is an immediate knowledge of God. IOW, men clearly see and understand God exists because they see His attributes on display in creation. However, as the passage goes on to explain, men suppress that knowledge, excusing away their accountability to their creator.

  13. Thank you for the reply! I guess where I’m confused is that you say it’s an “immediate knowledge of God”, but you also say that men “understand God exists BECAUSE they see His attributes on display in creation”, in other words, the knowledge is mediated through creation.

    Maybe I’m not understanding mediate vs immediate revelation, but the way I understand it is immediate revelation is intrinsic (it’s men being born knowing about God), which I agree all men have, but the passage here seems to be focusing on mediate revelation (knowing God exists through the medium of creation).

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