Some Thoughts on Natural Theology and Romans 1

Recently I was brainstorming about how to explain the basics of the ways in which God has revealed Himself to mankind. My thinking arose in the context of trying to clarify for some friends how the notion of Sola Scriptura relates to God’s revelation of Himself through creation apart from Scripture. It grew out of a concern that Sola Scriptura is sometimes carelessly defined as entailing an unworkable view of the “sufficiency” of Scripture. Depending upon exactly what it is about which the Scriptures are sufficient, one could invariably deny that there is any revelation from God in creation; which is to say, deny a robust Natural Theology as one would find in Classical apologetics as over against Presuppositional apologetics.

The chart seeks only to show the correlation between General Revelation and Special Revelation in their mutual contribution to Systematic Theology. My target audience is two-fold. First, I aim to show Christian thinkers in general that there are things about God’s creation that we as humans cannot fail to know even if one denies the existence of God. These truths enable us to engage the unbeliever with sound apologetics. Second, with Presuppositionalists being the more ardent critics of a sound Natural Theology, I want to ruminate on several point more or less connected with the sound reason with it attendance to creation.

There are, of course, several things missing from the chart that could warrant additional charts. First, there needs to be a label for that body knowledge we as humans are able to have about God’s creation that contain truths which, strictly speaking, wouldn’t (as conclusions) fall under the heading of “Natural Theology.” The reason is that they are truths that aren’t directly theological. One might consider them indirectly theological in as much as they can serve as premises in further arguments for God’s existence and attributes. Here I’m thinking of sound natural science (not an uncontroversial subject in its own right), logic, principles of grammar, principles of hermeneutics, human nature, and perhaps more.

I should like to think that some of these are very nearly self-evident. Before one can meaningfully maintain and proclaim that Jesus alone is the Son of God and Savior of the world and anything that contradicts this cannot be true, he must realize that contradictions cannot both be true or both be false at the same time and in the same way. My claim about human nature might not be so evident. But consider passages such as Acts 14:15; 1 Cor. 11:14; James 5:17; and Rom. 1:26-27. Note especially in the Romans passage Paul’s use of ‘natural’ and ‘nature’ in his condemnation of homosexuality. It is telling that Paul did not reference Lev. 20:13 to the Romans. I suspect it is because, as Gentile Christians, Paul knew that they had not yet come to the point of recognizing the authority of the Old Testament as God’s Word. I think Paul is a role model here for our encounter, mutatis mutandis, with our secular society.

Second, one would need to say something about the noetic effects of sin (at least in a discussion about these things, even if what is discovered wouldn’t conveniently lend itself to a chart). To what degree does the fact that the unbeliever is estranged from God hamper his ability to come to terms with the truths about God’s creation vis-à-vis their pointing to God as the Creator? These theological questions are critical to one’s understanding of the role, if any, of Natural Theology in its contribution to Systematic Theology and its role in Christian apologetics.

Having acknowledged two important issues missing from my chart, let me now treat the topic of Natural Theology and its role in our knowledge of God’s existence and attributes. It seems to me that there are numerous things about God’s creation that the unbeliever cannot fail to know. While I may not be sure whether a given physician who repairs a rotator cuff is saved, I may nevertheless be confident that he knows orthopedic medicine.

But does someone’s lostness preclude any attempt on our part as apologists to show him how some of these truths point to the existence and nature of the God of the Bible? In my hearing, many contemporary evangelicals say yes. They maintain that such an attempt is unbiblical. First Corinthians 2:14 to some seems to say so. But listening closely to the polemic out there, one will hear the expression “neutral ground.” There is a firm rejection by many of the notion that there exists any neutral ground between the believer and unbeliever. Point taken. But it would seem to me that there is a difference between neutral ground and common ground. Whether any ground between us is neutral seems to me to be a moral issue—an affliction in the unbeliever that only the Holy Spirit can remedy. But common ground is based on the fact that all humans possess a human nature[1] with faculties of knowing the world around us, all of which are, to be sure, the creation of God whether one recognizes it or not. There has to be oxygen in the air for us to breathe. But one does not have to know or assume or presuppose the oxygen in order to be able to breathe. Indeed, one can even fervently argue against the existence of oxygen, all the while completely unaware that the existence of the very oxygen he denies is a necessary condition for him to give his argument in the first place, given that he would need to breathe to give any argument at all.

To confuse these is sometimes called “confusing epistemology with ontology.” The mistake is thinking that one has proven that the oxygen must be presupposed to exist (epistemology) in order to breathe when he has only shown that the oxygen must exist (ontology) in order to breathe. The criticism is sometimes leveled by Classical apologists against Presuppositional apologists. It is a charge they categorical deny. Let the reader decide. Cornelius Van Til says “The existence of the God of Christian theism and the conception of his counsel as controlling all things in the universe is the only presupposition which can account for the uniformity of nature which the scientist needs. But the best and only possible proof for the existence of such a God is that his existence is required for the uniformity of nature and for the coherence of all things in the world.”[2]

Van Til illicitly moves from the presupposition of the existence of God to the existence of God. The former is epistemological while the latter is ontological. But the truth of the latter ontological point does not require the truth of the former epistemological point. Yet every Presuppositionalist with whom I am familiar seems to think that the obvious truth of the ontological point is ipso facto the truth of the epistemological point. They consistently fail to see the difference between to two.

Everyone in this debate between the Classical apologists and the Presuppositional apologists grants that the existence of God is “required for the uniformity of nature” since, if God did not exist, nothing would exist, including any nature to be uniform. Showing why this is true is one form of the cosmological argument—the stock-in-trade of Classical apologetics. Anyone who seeks to make such argument is doing Classical apologetics and building a Natural Theology.

Van Til’s bulldog, Greg Bahnsen, follows suit. In his debate with R. C. Sproul, he helps me make my point even clearer by explicitly juxtaposing the epistemology with the ontology. Remarkably, right in the same context of acknowledging that distinction, he goes on to illicitly confuse the two. Sproul had made a point about starting with the platform of the law of non-contradiction, the basic reliability of sense perception and the law of causality in order to move on to the metaphysics and to God. Bahnsen counters first with “What I want to say is you can’t begin even with that platform if you don’t already have the existence of God. And that’s not an ontological statement because we would agree ontologically that there wouldn’t be any logic or sense experience if God hadn’t created the world and was a coherent God.”[3]

So far so good. Bahnsen correctly points out that the notion that God is the ontological pre-condition (in later talks and writings Bahnsen uses the expression “pre-condition of intelligibility” regarding the epistemology) for logic and sense experience is a point that doesn’t distinguish the two apologetic methods. “We would all agree” Bahnsen insists. I think he’s right. But what he gives with one ontological hand, he takes away with the other epistemological hand when he says “I am making an epistemological point— that it doesn’t even make sense to use mathematics or empiricism or natural science of any sort without already knowing that there is a God that is the context in which interpretation and predication is possible.”[4]

His subsequent epistemological point simply does not follow from his initial ontological point. Granted if God did not exist, then nothing would exist. But it does not follow that the “already knowing that there is a God” (an epistemological point) amounts to the same pre-condition. But it’s the epistemological point that is the sine qua non of the Transcendental argument and the Presuppositional apologetic method. Further, every attempt by the Presuppositionalist to demonstrate that the existence of God is necessary for any aspect of creation is just to do Classical Apologetics. Other examples of the same non-sequitur could be given.[5]

It is often said that Rom. 1:18-19 shows that everyone already knows that God exists. It’s just that (the argument goes on) they “hold down” or “suppress” this knowledge. Given this suppression, there is no need for theistic arguments. Classical apologetics (at least at this point) is disqualified. This is a conclusion many Presuppositionalists with whom I’m familiar come to with this reasoning.

I recently discovered why it is that two translations (KJV and NKJV) translate the expression to gnōston tou theou (το γνωστον του Θεου) as “that which may be known of God.” To bolster the argument before I try to counter it at another level, it has puzzled me for some time because it seemed clear to me (and, admittedly, I am not a Greek scholar) that the expression, more specifically the adjective gnōston (γνωστον), is not “subjunctive” (granted, substantive adjectives do not have moods as verbs do) as if this knowledge of God was possible but not necessarily actual. Instead, the phrase is better translated something like “that which is known of God” or (somewhat awkwardly in English) “the known of God.” Most other English translations that I’ve consulted translate it this way. In researching the expression, I found some interesting comments from a few Greek sources regarding the two ways of taking the adjective.[6]

I’m comfortable with going with the more definitive ‘know’ rather than the more tentative (or subjunctive) ‘knowable’ or ‘may know’ even if ‘know’ fortifies an interpretation on vv. 18-19 with which I will now dispute.

I have never found anyone today who fails to take vv. 18-19 to mean anything other than all men know there is the God of the Bible but that all men in their fallen state suppress that knowledge in their unrighteousness. I find this to be an interpretation among both Classical apologists as well as Presuppositional apologists. Undoubtedly the latter push this interpretation in order to argue against the legitimacy of the Classical apologists’ efforts to demonstrate the existence of God by their appeal to the creation; mainly in the form of cosmological and teleological arguments to the end, again, of building a Natural Theology.

I’m leaning towards a different interpretation. The standard view is predicated upon taking the phrase “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” to be in apposition to the word ‘men’. Apposition is when a phrase restates in different words the same referent or meaning. For example, take the sentence:

“Mammals, which are warm blooded, almost always give birth to live young.”

Here the expression “which are warm blooded” is another way of saying ‘mammals’. In English, apposition is usually (but not always) set off by commas (when written) or by intonation (when spoken). Contrast this with the sentence:

“People in Atlanta who are not Atlanta Falcons fans often find themselves engaging in fun rivalries at Sunday evening church.”

Notice that with the second sentence, the phrase “who are not Atlanta Falcons fans” is not set off by commas. If you say the two sentences out loud, you should notice the two different ways you intonate them. Not being set off by commas makes it clear that the phrase “who are not Atlanta Falcons fans” is not restating the referent or meaning of “people in Atlanta.” It is not by virtue of being in Atlanta that makes one not be an Atlanta Falcons fan. Thus, because it is not in apposition, the phrase “who are not Atlanta Falcons fans” is picking out a subset of “people in Atlanta.” It is not a universal statement of people in Atlanta. Some in Atlanta are Atlanta Falcons fans and some are not.

Contrast this with the first sentence. It would not make sense to write it as:

“Mammals which are warm blooded almost always give birth to live young.”

With the commas removed, it could erroneously imply that there are some mammals that are not warm blooded. In other words, it could be meaning the same thing as:

“Mammals which are warm blooded (as opposed to those mammals which are not warm blooded) almost always give birth to live young.”

Again, you should be able to notice how you would intonate the sentence about mammals (which has commas) in contrast to the sentence about Atlanta Falcons fans (which lacks commas).

With this explanation of apposition, consider Rom. 1:18. If one takes the phrase “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” as not being in apposition to ‘men’ (as I am inclined to do), then the meaning would be that there are some men other than the ones to whom Paul is referring who do not suppress the truth in unrighteousness. In other words, it would allow for the verse to be meaning:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, as opposed to those men who do not suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”

More to the issue at hand, to interpret Paul as not making a universal statement about all men allows one to take his argument to be about a particular group he has in mind, i.e., those who actually do suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Perhaps the best option for who these men are that Paul has in mind is the Corinthians. Paul was likely in Corinth when he wrote his epistle to the Romans.

There are several reasons that are pushing me in this direction. First, the nearly unanimous interpretation is not a definitive reason to take it in apposition. Since there is no punctuation in the Greek, one cannot decide the issue grammatically. It has to be done by other means. The exegesis of the context might be a good place to start. To that end, what got this ball rolling for me was noticing that Paul’s characterization of these people later on in Romans 1 could not possibly be taken as universal of all fallen men. Surely no one would say that all lost people are homosexual, though vv. 26-27 says that they are. I can see no reason not to take the ‘them’ of v. 26 to be referring to the ‘men’ of v. 18. The challenge, then, is how can one go from taking ‘who suppress the truth in unrighteousness’ describing ‘men’ of v. 18 as universal and not taking the homosexuality describing ‘they’ of vv. 26-27 as not universal? What hermeneutical or grammatical or syntactical or exegetical or theological or philosophical principle or principles could warrant taking one as universal and not the other? So far, I can think of none, though I’ve not stopped looking. Any insights from others would be most welcome.

Second, it would seem that there are counterexamples in the New Testament to “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” being universal among the lost. Later in the same epistle, Paul characterizes the unbelieving Israelites as having “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” (Rom. 10:2) Their zeal was misplaced because it was without faith (Rom. 9:30-32), not because they were suppressing the knowledge of God. We find another example in Acts 10 regarding Cornelius, an unbeliever, who is characterized as “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always.” (v. 2) Later in the chapter, Peter concludes: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.” (vv. 34-35) Clearly no one has eternal life by fearing God and doing works of righteousness. This was already true of Cornelius before he was saved. Thus, in his lost state, he is described very differently than those of Romans 1. A third example is in Acts 17:23. Paul described the “very religious” men of Athens as worshiping the true God “without knowing.” He equates their “unknown God” whom they were worshiping with the same God he goes on to preach. His entire sermon (vv. 22-31) is telling. Again, it sounds different than a universal suppression of the knowledge of God.

Last, consider the remainder of Paul’s argument in Romans 1. (This is what made me notice the point about homosexuality in vv. 26-27.) In addition to suppressing (v. 18), these people whom Paul had in mind also “knew God” (v. 21; another reason, by the way, of taking gnōston (γνωστον) in v. 18 as definitive rather than merely possible); “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man” (v. 23); “exchanged the truth of God for the lie” (v. 25); and “did not like to retain God in their knowledge.” (v. 28) What is especially telling about this last verse is that, whatever argument a Presuppositionalist might make against Classical apologetics based on the Presuppositionalist’s take on vv. 18-19, it is evacuated of all force when one gets to v. 28. Before the chapter ends, even if it was the case that the suppression of the knowledge of God was universal, any knowledge of God that was there to be suppressed is now no longer retained. It would seem, therefore, that there are atheists after all!

Given that, then it becomes all the more crucial for apologists to explore what “sound reason’s attendance to creation” looks like. That, God willing, I will take up later.

[1] Nota bene: the term ‘nature’ here is a different usage than the same term in the expression ‘the sin nature’.

[2] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 103, emphasis added.

[3] The debate between Greg Bahnsen and R. C. Sproul can be found in numerous places on the internet, including, accessed 09/13/22.

[4] emphasis added.

[5] Consider: “It is certainly true that if God has any significance for any object of knowledge at all, the relation of God to that object of knowledge [ontological] must be taken into consideration [epistemological] from the outset. It is this fact that the transcendental method seeks to recognize.” [Cornelius Van Til, In Defense of the Faith, Vol. II: A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 201, emphasis added].
            “The only ‘proof’ of the Christian position is that unless its truth is presupposed [epistemological] there is no possibility of ‘proving’ anything at all. The actual state of affairs [ontological] as preached by Christianity is the necessary foundation of ‘proof’ itself.” [Cornelius Van Til, “My Credo” in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 21, emphasis added].
            “The transcendental argument preserves the logically primitive and absolute character of God’s existence by starting with the premise that God’s existence is a necessary precondition for argument itself [epistemological]. In this way argument is made to depend upon God, rather than vice versa, since argument is possible if and only if God’s existence is true [ontological] from the outset of the argument itself.” [Don Collett, “Van Til and Transcendental Argument,” in Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics, eds. K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2007), 261, emphasis added].

[6] Henry Alford says “the objective knowledge patent and recognized in Creation” and then cites several sources who take it this way. He then says “not ‘that which may be known’” again citing several sources that take it this way. Clearly Alford favors the former over the latter. [Henry Alford, Alford’s Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Guardian Press, 1976), vol. II: Acts-2 Corinthians, pp. 321-322; originally published jointly by Rivingtons: London and Deighton, Bell, and Co.: Cambridge, 1844-1877)]
            More to the point, A. T. Robertson observes that taking the verbal adjective gnōston (γνωστoν) as “the known” is what one finds elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 1:19; 15:18) while taking it more subjunctive (my word) was more usual in Ancient Greek. [Archibald Thomas Robertson Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Nashville: Broadman, 1931), vol. IV, p. 328.] John Albert Bengel makes the same point. [John Albert Bengel, New Testament Word Studies, trans. Charlton T. Lewis and Marvin R. Vincent (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1971), 23; originally published Gnomen of the New Testament, (Philadelphia: Perkinpine & Higgins, 1864). R. J. Knowling makes the point, but somewhat more tentatively: “There is no indisputable way of deciding whether γνωστoν [gnōston] here means ‘known’ (the usual N.T. sense) or ‘knowable’ (the usual classic sense).” [The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans’s 1974), vol. 2, p. 592.


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