Romans 1:20 – Thinking it through…

On October 17th 2010, My pastor preached a sermon entitled Thomas (The Exclusivity of Christ for Salvation) which is part of a series entitled: “People Jesus Met.” In the sermon, he poses a hypothetical objection to the exclusivity of Christ for salvation then proceeds to answer the objection. I have included an excerpt below:

“What about people who have never heard about Jesus Christ? Hmm? …Romans 1:20, says for since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities — what are they? Namely His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly on display so that people are without excuse. The Bible says that there is enough about God revealed in the natural world, revealed in creation, the stars, the moon, the trees, the human body, that any thinking person should be able to recognize and should be able to acknowledge that there is a mighty creator God out there.”

This view of Romans 1:20 is actually quite common. In fact, apparently, Thomas Aquinas thought that this verse was a proof text for his cosmological argument for the existence of God.  I had never encountered a different interpretation until I heard Dr. John Robbins (of the Trinity Foundation) speak about this verse during one of his lectures. After some serious thought, I’m convinced that the common view of this verse is in error for the following reasons:

Paul’s procedure in Romans, later followed by Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae, was to raise a series of questions, and then answer them, both incorrectly and correctly. Paul, however, derived all his answers from revelation. His opening chapters have been much misunderstood by Thomas the Aristotelian, and by his many followers, both Romanist and Protestant. But Paul does not add any source of truth to Scripture. A careful reading of Romans 1:18-21 indicates that it has nothing to do with the so-called Thomistic proofs for the existence of God. Let us examine it line by line.

”For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven. . . .” Taking off one’s Aristotelian glasses, one might be surprised to note that Paul says the wrath, not the existence, of God is revealed from Heaven. Apparently our evidentialist friends have misread the verse. (Likewise, the Psalmist says the heavens declare the glory, not the existence, of God. Funny how the empiricism of Aristotle can make people hallucinate.) I have yet to come across an evidentialist argument proving the wrath of God on empirical grounds. This is a curious inconsistency. Evidentialists like to argue from experience and observation to the goodness, benevolence, or intelligence of some sort of god, but they are strangely silent about the rest of experience, which seems to imply, on their assumptions, the irrationality or wickedness of a god. If they are going to appeal to experience as proof of God, they must appeal to all experience, including the experience of Nazism, Communism, and Romanism.

Verse 19 says, “What may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.” This, of course, is obviously a denial of empiricism, and an assertion of direct revelation in their minds. It is manifest in them. Calvin said that men are born with a sense of God. They do not learn about God’s existence through observation; when they are conceived they possess knowledge of God and his wrath. It is this immediately revealed knowledge that renders all men inexcusable. If our guilt depended on our knowledge (as it does), and our knowledge in turn depended on our senses, or on our ability to follow an intricate cosmological argument, then virtually all the human race would be innocent. Those whose senses are impaired are obviously excused, and those who cannot follow an argument, especially one that stretches for a thousand steps, are excused as well. Helen Keller and Forrest Gump get free passes to Heaven. Given the assumptions of evidentialist apologetics, their lack of senses or intelligence gives them a Get Out of Hell Free card. Paul, of course, was not endorsing the cosmological or teleological arguments. He taught that the rudimentary knowledge which renders men inexcusable is manifest in them because God has shown it to them; it is not something they gain by observation or discursive reasoning.

Verse 20 says, “For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen. . . .” Obviously, invisible attributes cannot be seen with the eyes, so Paul was not teaching some form of empiricism.

Paul continues: “being understood”: “see” it seems, was a metaphor for “understand,” as it usually is in Scripture. “By the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” In this portion of the verse, Paul is simply repeating his statement: The things that are made include men. He is not teaching a novelty-that seeing trees (if one could, in fact, see trees) logically compels one to infer wrath, eternal power, and judgment in the Godhead. Thomas himself denied that creation could be inferred from observation. It was a truth he said, that must be obtained by revelation. Paul is no more an evidentialist than Christ. Instead, he defends revelation, both here and in other letters, such as 1 Corinthians and Colossians, as the only source of knowledge. – Dr. Robbins, The Apologetics of Jesus and Paul

In conclusion, I think a critical reexamination of Romans 1:20 would lead to the anti-empirical view that men are without excuse, not because of their ability to observe God’s creation, but rather because those “invisible” attributes which may be known of God (i.e. His existence, His Power, His Godhead) are manifested in every human being (for John 1 says that Christ lights every man that comes into the world). It is this innate knowledge of God, this truth, that man suppresses (from birth) in unrighteousness, and allows everyone to be deemed inexcusable.