This afternoon I had the privilege of studying Romans 1 with two friends. Paul’s epistle to the Romans is probably the most theologically stimulating (and challenging) book in the Bible, addressing issues ranging from predestination (soteriology) to the deity of Christ (Christology), from the righteous wrath of God to homosexuality – and all within the first chapter alone! This post, however, merely concerns my thoughts on one verse, Romans 1:20, set out with its context, below:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23 (ESV))
Verse 20 is the fulcrum of Paul’s argument. In this section (from 1:18 to 3:20) he seeks to argue that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23); and therefore all are fallen and in need of God’s saving grace in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross – the Gospel. By “fulcrum”, therefore, I mean that his argument turns on this premise: all man is “without excuse” for we have “clearly perceived” God’s “invisible attributes… ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made”.
This is a bold claim. But let us resist our inclination to leap to moral objections and unpack the text a little. V.18 talks about “suppress[ing] the truth”. V.25 confirms that this “truth” is about God – it is his “God-ness”, viz. His status as Creator, immortal, glorious. This “truth”, according to Paul, is self-evident – “for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (v.19). Indeed, God’s invisible attributes have been “clearly perceived” (v.20), and we knew Him, but did not honor Him as God (v.21).
The question, therefore, can be formulated as such: are these attributes of God (his “God-ness”) truly “clearly perceived”? Are they really as self-evident as Paul suggests, such that it is enough to condemn us as “without excuse” (v.20)? Looking at the verses 19-20 again, we can see a few characteristics of this “truth”:
- It is plain to us, because He has shown it to us. How has he shown it to us?
- His invisible attributes … have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. It is apparent that these attributes of God have been revealed to us in creation, as they have been perceived since the creation of the world, and in the things that have been made (viz. creation itself). In other words, we have been able to perceive God’s invisible attributes from His creation, or from observable phenomena.
- These attributes are invisible – his eternal power and divine nature. Since these attributes of God are “invisible” and must be “perceived”, there must be an intervening step here of surmising or inference. In other words, the observable phenomena (or factual evidence) points us in a certain direction by which we can make a theological conclusion – that there is a God.
Theologians refer to this as the doctrine of ‘general’ revelation, as opposed to ‘special’ revelation. In summary, this revelation is ‘general’ as it is made to everybody everywhere (as opposed to ‘special’ which is revelation only to God’s covenant people at certain times through certain people); it is ‘natural’ as it is made through the natural order (as opposed to ‘supernatural’ revelation through the incarnation of Jesus and inspiration of Scripture); and it is ‘creational’ in revealing God’s glory in creation (as opposed to ‘salvific’ in revealing God’s grace in Christ).
I found this passage in John Stott’s Commentary on Romans helpful in understanding v.20:
“For example, after the satellite detection of the birthpangs of the universe was announced to the American Physical Society in April 1992, an anonymous Guardian contributor wrote: ‘It is difficult to know what the appropriate reaction to such mind-expanding discoveries should be, except to get down on one’s knees in total humility and give thanks to God or Big Bang or both, for cunningly contriving to allow this infinitesimal part of the universe called Earth to be bestowed with something called Air.’ At the opposite end of the size scale, a consultant surgeon wrote to me a few years ago: ‘I am filled with the same awe and humility when I contemplate something of what goes on in a single cell as when I contemplate the sky on a clear night. The coordination of the complex activities of the cell in a common purpose hits the scientific part of me as the best evidence for an Ultimate Purpose.’ Anthropologists have also found a worldwide moral sense in human beings so that, although conscience is of course to some extent conditioned by a culture, it still testifies to everybody everywhere both that there is a difference between right and wrong and that evil deserves to be punished.”
Now, I find the last sentence in the above quotation helpful in dealing with a certain objection, couched as follows: “What about the primitive tribesman in Africa who has no access to the Gospel, and has no access to modern scientific thought? (e.g. knowledge that the universe had a beginning; also known as the “cosmological argument”) How is it fair that he be condemned as well, for his ignorance?” Put another way, what is the lowest common denominator between all people groups throughout all human history which is enough to condemn us? In my humble opinion, the existence of an objective moral standard is the key – the “worldwide moral sense in human beings”, to use the language of the passage above. As humans, we bear the imago Dei, which separates us from the other animals. The human capacity for Reason and a conscience is common to the entire human race, and this, perhaps more than other factors, gives us the biggest clue as to the existence of God. I commend Part I of C.S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity – ‘Right and Wrong as the Clue to the Meaning of the Universe’ – as an illuminating illustration of this point.
v.20 also has important consequences for apologetics (and therefore, evangelism). In an earlier paragraph I drew a distinction between factual evidence and theological conclusions. I find this distinction rather helpful. (You may not.) There are many observable phenomena that point towards the possible conclusion that there is a God. For example, the theory of relativity shows us that the universe is expanding, and consequently that the universe had a beginning or starting point (this is also known as the “cosmological argument”). One theological conclusion (and the most plausible one, in my opinion) is that since the universe had a beginning, it must have been created; “something” does not come from “nothing”. However, there are many who will try as best to come to an alternative theological conclusion. Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design is such an example; it attempts to reach a different theological conclusion based on the same factual evidence, running into philosophical difficulties in the process (see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/stephen-hawking-and-god).
Indeed, there will always be those who choose to resist the conclusion that there is a God. And we shouldn’t be surprised; Scripture tells us that fallen human beings “suppress the truth” despite God’s showing it to us. In apologetics, we are called to always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). The theological conclusion which comes afterthe factual evidence presented is the result of faith; and it is a gift of God, so that none may boast (Eph 2:8-9).