The Means of Knowing Truth About God Part Two
Previously we examined the biblical claim that God has demonstrated the reality of His existence and uncovered other knowledge about Himself by giving revelation to human beings during the course of history. We noted that God has used several means to reveal these truths to mankind.
One means is nature—the heavens of the universe—as seen in Psalm 19:1–4, which make the following claims: (1) The heavens testify concerning the existence and incredible wisdom and power of their Creator God. (2) Since the beginning of time, the heavens have been gushing forth a flood of knowledge about God that cannot be restrained. Thus people in every generation have been exposed to this revelation. (3) No language barriers hinder the effective communication of this revelation. People of all languages can understand it. (4) This revelation of knowledge concerning God is worldwide in scope. It comes to people in every geographical area. (5) This knowledge revealed from the heavens is the foundation for a world-life view. That foundation is the standard for evaluating the foundations of all other world-life views. Any foundations that disagree with this standard are contrary to reality. Consequently, all world-life views based on those foundations also are contrary to reality.
This article continues to examine the revelation of knowledge concerning God through nature.
As a result of the apostle Paul’s miraculous healing of a lame man, the pagan people of the city of Lystra concluded that Paul and Barnabas were gods and prepared to worship them (vv. 8–13). Paul and Barnabas prevented such worship by asserting that they were only human. They exhorted the people to reject their idolatry, which is contrary to reality, and to turn to the God who actually exists, the God who created the universe and everything in it (vv. 14–15).
Paul and Barnabas informed these people that, in time past, the true God did not force the Gentiles to walk in His ways. He did not put them under the restraint of the Mosaic Law as He did the nation of Israel (Dt. 4:6–8; Rom. 2:14). Instead, He let them live according to their own customs (v. 16).
Paul and Barnabas hastened to add that, although God dealt that way with the Gentiles in the past, He did not leave them without a witness concerning Himself. God provided evidence of His benevolent existence by doing good things for all mankind, including pagan Gentiles, through nature. For example, He gave them rain for their crops, fruitful seasons, and abundant food and gladness (v. 17). The word translated “gladness” sometimes referred to “the joy of the festive meal” and “can be gratefully understood as the gift of God by which even the heathen may discern His providential rule.”1
This passage concerns God’s revelation of knowledge about Himself through nature. Paul declared that God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (v. 18). The word translated “ungodliness” refers to the religious condition of individuals involved in false worship.2 Paul equated this ungodliness with the “despising of God,” which prompted the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians to develop idolatrous religions (Rom. 1:21–23, 25).3 He also equated the word translated “unrighteousness” with the “sexual and social perversion” of unlawful conduct toward others, described in Romans 1:24, 26–32.4 Scholar A. T. Robertson pointed out that lack of belief in or reverence for God is the ultimate cause of man’s unlawful conduct: “The basis of ethical conduct rests on the nature of God and our attitude toward him, otherwise the law of the jungle.”5
The apostle Paul indicated that bias against the true God constituted the underlying cause of false worship and perverted conduct. People guilty of these actions possessed knowledge concerning God, but “they did not like to retain God in their knowledge” (v. 28), nor did they glorify Him as God or feel grateful to Him for His blessings to them (v. 21). The verb translated “did like” (v. 28) means “approve” and is comparable to “intend, wish.”6 Thus Paul said these people did not approve of having God in their knowledge; therefore, they willfully intended to exclude His existence from their perception of reality. They did so, not because intellectually they could not believe in His existence but because volitionally they did not want to believe in His existence. Their problem was their will, not their intellect. Despite this fact, they tried to make it appear that they had to reject God’s existence for intellectual reasons. They asserted that they were wise to do so (v. 22) and thereby used the issue of intellect as a smoke screen to hide the real motive behind their action.
Their willful rejection of God’s existence prompted them to “hold the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18). The word translated “hold” means “suppress”7 or “holding in prison.”8 In this passage, the word “truth” refers to “the ‘revealed reality’ of God.”9 Thus they suppressed, or held in prison, the reality of God that had been revealed to them. Just as a criminal is put in prison so he cannot affect society and society does not have to be concerned about him, so these people imprisoned the revealed reality of God. They locked it out of their perception of reality so it could not affect them and they would not have to be concerned about it. Robertson described this action as follows: “Truth is out in the open, but the wicked men, so to speak, put it in a box and sit on the lid and ‘hold it down in unrighteousness.’”10
The word translated “in” in the expression in unrighteousness (v. 18) means “with, by means of.”11 These people used unrighteousness as their instrument, or means, to imprison the revealed reality of God. This fact indicates that the basis of their bias against God was their unrighteous world-life view, lifestyle, and values. It was not that the reality of God’s existence was intellectually unacceptable. They willfully rejected His existence, however, because it had serious implications concerning those areas of their lives; and they did not want to change those areas. R. C. H. Lenski wrote,
Whenever the truth starts to exert itself and makes them feel uneasy in their moral nature, they hold it down, suppress it. Some drown its voice by rushing into their immoralities; others strangle the disturbing voice by argument and by denial.12
The word translated “because” at the beginning of verse 19 implies strong, “causal force.”13 Paul used it to introduce the major reason God’s wrath is revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of the rejecters of His existence: They had no legitimate excuse for rejecting His existence because He had clearly revealed it to them. Paul wrote, “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shown it unto them” (v. 19). The word translated “known” in the phrase that which may be known of God refers to what is “capable of being known, intelligible”14 or “recognizable.”15 It is singular. Therefore, it refers to a body of knowledge concerning God that is intelligible to humans and capable of being known or recognized by them.
Paul declared that this body of knowledge “is manifest in them.” The word translated “manifest” means “visible, clear, plainly to be seen, open, plain, evident, known.”16 It refers to “what can be perceived by the senses but in such a way that the perception involves understanding.”17 This body of knowledge was evident to its rejecters. They could see it plainly or perceive it by their senses to the extent that they could understand it and its implications.
The reason this body of knowledge could be seen plainly was because “God hath shown it unto them.” The verb translated “hath shown” has “causative significance” and means “to make visible what is invisible.”18 God took the initiative. He Himself is invisible to mortal beings (Jn. 1:18; Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17); but He wanted His human creatures to know that He exists. Consequently, He devised a visible way to reveal His existence to mankind.
Paul explained how God revealed His existence to the rejecters: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (v. 20). God revealed knowledge concerning His invisible self through nature—the visible universe that He created. Paul made it clear that this revelation has been taking place since the beginning of time.
The combination of the verb “are clearly seen” with the expression “being understood” indicates that the seeing involved “an intellectual process.”19 The word translated “being understood” refers to “attentive thought which takes note of what is seen and by means of which the observer apprehends what is before him.”20 Thus Paul said God’s “invisible nature is perceived with the eye of reason in the things that have been made.”21 In other words, as they observed nature, the rejecters intellectually perceived and understood the knowledge that God revealed about Himself through that means. Their problem was not an intellectual one.
Paul identified two invisible truths concerning God that are revealed and seen clearly through nature—“his eternal power and Godhead” (v. 20). The word translated “Godhead” means “divinity, divine nature,”22 or “that which shows God to be God.”23 Thus nature reveals the existence of a being with a divine nature (in other words, the existence of God). In addition, nature reveals God’s eternal power. He had to have incredible power before the creation of the universe in order to bring it into existence.
Johannes Behm wrote the following comments concerning the apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 1:20:
In R. 1:20 Paul explains the fact of a revelation of God accessible to all men. . . . God’s invisible being, his eternal power and divine majesty, may be apprehended from the beginning of the world in His works. The rule of the Creator God in nature and history reflects His eternal being, His almightiness and transcendence. The invisible God is seen. . . as contemplation of His works directs the mind to their author. From that which is before him, the meaningful order of the universe and its course, man can and should work back to Him who gives it meaning and recognize not only His existence but also His nature.24
Paul ended verse 20 with the following assertion concerning individuals who reject the knowledge concerning God, which nature reveals: “They are without excuse.” The root of the word translated “without excuse” means “defense.”25 All who reject the truth of God’s existence and eternal power, which are revealed so clearly through nature, will have no defense when they stand before Him for judgment.
Next we will explore other means of revelation of truth concerning God to mankind.