Romans 1 and Man’s Knowledge of God: A Response to Fred Butler

posted by Adam Tucker

By Adam Tucker,

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of participating in a cordial dialog with Fred Butler, of Grace to You Ministries, on the merits of classical vs. presuppositional apologetics. The original discussion can be found here.

I appreciated the respectful nature of the discussion, and I think a lot of important ground was covered. Fred has recently written a blog post regarding a portion of our discussion related to Romans 1 and whether man has “mediate” or “immediate” knowledge of God’s existence. The blog post in question can be read here.Open Bible with the wind of God's word

I wish to briefly respond to Fred’s comments and hopefully clear up a few misconceptions and misunderstandings. 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.” [1] Of course, that is the very thing in question. 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).

Fred’s main contention in the post is that I insist “man’s knowledge of God is mediate [known via sensible reality], whereas [Fred] believe[s] it is immediate [known in some innate sense].” Commenting on thesis 22 of the 24 Thomistic Theses, Fred says, “The commentator seems to suggest that human intellect can only gain knowledge about material things, or things that are experienced with our senses. That would then exclude spiritual things because they are not perceived by our senses, or so I guess.” And Fred would guess correctly in a certain respect but not in another.

cause and effect concept

Causes lead to effects, but we reason from effects to cause.

Given the kind of being man is, we gain knowledge about reality, at least initially, by sensing, and forming judgements about, sensible things. Thus, we do not have the divine essence of God as something we can directly know. That does not mean, however, that we are incapable of knowing truths about spiritual things, including the existence and nature of God. As Etienne Gilson says, “The human mind cannot have God as its natural and proper object. As a creature, it is directly proportioned only to created being, so much so that instead of being able to deduce the existence of things from God, it must, on the contrary, of necessity rest on things in order to ascend to God.” [2]

 

In other words, just as the Scriptures attest (cf., John 1:18, 6:46; 1 Tim. 6:16; 1 John 4:12), we do not have direct knowledge of the divine essence. We reason from effect to cause resulting in finite, but true, knowledge of God via things (1 Cor. 13:12). That finite knowledge of God provides us the tools with which we are able to accurately understand what God has further revealed about Himself via the special revelation we call the Bible. As Frederick Wilhelmsen says, “I do not know God’s Being [or the Divine Nature in itself] as a result of having demonstrated that He is; all I know is the being-true of the proposition which states that ‘God is’ (emphasis mine).” [3] And from this knowledge we can reason to many of the classical attributes of God and how to properly understand God’s self-revelation.

The fact that we reason in this effect-to-cause type manner should be obvious to anyone with children. Even Fred has eluded to this in his other writings and in our discussion. Children do not come out of the womb knowing that the trinitarian God of the Bible exists. They come out of the womb sensing things, and, given that they have human natures, their intellects are capable of being written upon in certain ways so that they can know things, learn about the world around them, and reason to the truth of immaterial realities.

Fred disagrees and says, “I believe man’s knowledge of God is immediate and by intuition.…[The unbeliever] already knows God exists.” He then attempts to use Paul’s words in Rom. 1:18-20 to support his assertion. Fred says, “Notice the word “within” [in Rom. 1:19]. What is known about God is evident within them. That is knowledge internally known, not experienced and learned over time. Notice it further states the reason they know about God is the fact God has made it evident to them. He actively created man with that knowledge (emphasis in original).” 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.

Adam Tucker's Response.001

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. 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. [4] That does not make his view wrong. It simply illustrates how philosophy informs one’s theology, and it must, which is precisely why good philosophy is critical for doing good theology. For more on the problems with innate knowledge and how it leads to a troubling representational epistemology (i.e. how man knows things), I refer the reader to here.

Be that as it may, from a strictly grammatical standpoint, Fred’s understanding of this
passage seems amiss. Romans 1:19 says, “Since what can be known about God is evident among them [or within them], because God has shown it to them” (HCSB). [5] 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 iAdam Tucker's Response.002n the sense of something being made clearly known. [6] Since Fred is intent on highlighting the word “within,” let us note that it is obviously the case that if something is clearly known, or known at all, it is known “within” given that it is the man who knows via his senses and his intellect. 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. Fred is reading that into the text based on his particular views of epistemology. In fact, the word used for God making His existence evident via creation is the same word Jesus used in John 17:6 when He said, “I have revealed Your name to the men You gave Me from the world.” Jesus obviously taught these men, performed miracles as signs for these men, etc. and did not reference some innate knowledge of Himself these men were supposed to have. Furthermore, we see an appeal to creation as it relates to knowing God’s existence and nature in many places throughout Scripture (cf., Ps. 19:1-4; Acts 14:16-17, 17:24-29). We also see this demonstrated with the plagues God sent on Pharaoh, the fire on the mountain called down by Elijah, and elsewhere when God performed signs (i.e. effects) that resulted in people concluding the cause was the one true God (there were no appeals to innate knowledge).

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.Adam Tucker's Response.003

Once again we see certain philosophical and theological positions pushing Fred towards eisegesis rather than exegesis. These misunderstandings continue to fuel his other incorrect assumptions that conclude his blog post. The above should suffice to show that given what Fred has argued thus far, there is no reason to conclude that man has some innate or “immediate” knowledge of God. That is not to say that everyone will believe in God because they have studied the arguments of Thomas Aquinas or anyone else. They may simply blindly believe or believe because a trusted authority taught them to believe. They may even believe the right things about God for very bad reasons! Even Aquinas acknowledges that most people do not believe on the basis of argument and investigation. That does not mean, however, that one cannot believe in God’s existence on the basis of argument and investigation or that argument and investigation are never needed because man has innate knowledge.

Moreover, it does no good to repeatedly say “man already knows God exists.” For this conversation, it it is irrelevant whether, how much, and for what reason man suppresses his knowledge of God. The question here is how does man know God’s existence and nature? As we have seen, philosophy and Scripture confirm that man knows God’s existence and nature via sensible reality. And much like many today need reasoning and argument to remind them of the things every person is naturally able to know via
abstraction from their interaction with physical reality, like the law of noncontradiction for example, many also need reasoning and argument to show them that the existence of God (including most of the classical attributes like eternality, omnipotence, goodness, etc.) is necessarily true given the evident fact that any part of sensible reality exists.

Ironically, I think Fred actually agrees with me in practice even if he disagrees elsewhere Classical Apologetics .001(as was evidenced in our debate as well). For he says, “In fact, I believe [Paul] is quite clear that men understand God’s attributes and divine power because when they see the world and how it operates, they know intuitively God is their creator.” Aside from some minor differences, as a classical apologist this is essentially my position! Because we are human beings our minds are able to be written upon in certain ways such that we can know reality. From our knowledge of “the world and how it operates” our minds naturally reason to the fact that there must be an uncaused cause that simply is Being/Existence itself sustaining everything else in existence. There is more work to be done from this truth in order to show that this is the God of the Bible and that Christianity as a whole is true, but on this point at least, I am glad I can welcome Fred to my side of the debate in practice even if not in principle. For, once one actually starts doing apologetics, it is very difficult to do anything other than classical apologetics even as one verbally denies its merits.

NOTE: For a good discussion between two classical apologists on the Romans 1 passage see here and here.

http://percolate.blogtalkradio.com/offsiteplayer?hostId=206845&episodeId=8323697


ENDNOTES

1. The poisoning the well fallacy occurs when one attempts to influence in a negative way how the audience perceives one’s opponent prior to any argumentation. The begging the question fallacy occurs when one assumes one’s conclusion from the outset or as a premise in an argument as opposed to the conclusion of a valid argument.

2. Etienne Gilson. Methodical Realism (Kindle Locations 578-580). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

3. Frederick D. Wilhelmsen. Being and Knowing: Reflections of a Thomist (Library of Conservative Thought) (Kindle Locations 4884-4885). Transaction Publishers. Kindle Edition.

4. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/

5. The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009), Ro 1:19.

6. Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000.

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