Thursday, August 13, 2009

'General' revelation? Suppressing the truth in Romans 1

Romans 1:18-32 is also often interpreted as affirming a broad view of revelation. Verses 19 and 20 certainly seem to point in this direction: "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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."

I feel much more tentative in advancing a contradiction of this interpretation than I did regarding Acts 17, and I would be very interested in comments.

Firstly, there is revelation going on in this passage - "the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven". However, if we ask to whom this revelation is made, the answer seems to be that it is made to Christians. If we read verses 17 and 18 together, we get: "For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith... For the wrath of God is revealed..." In other words, from the standpoint of faith in the gospel it is possible to see the wrath of God revealed in the way pagan history has played out. The pagans themselves, of course, do not see this.

Secondly, this passage is a description of pagan history. In chapter 2, Paul will go on to discuss Gentile responsibility to God, and then move to the question of whether the Jews escape condemnation through having the law. So it seems most sensible to read this second half of Romans 1 as Paul's review of how the Gentiles got into this mess in the first place. I think this view helps to explain the phrase "ever since the creation of the world", and also helps to explain Paul's description of decline from a high level of knowledge. Obviously, at the beginning there was recollection of God's personal revelation - his close personal fellowship - with Adam and Eve. But this has been gradually squandered. Knowledge had been exchanged for ignorance. (Doubtless this does also describe the general trend in societies which neglect God, but I think Paul is here describing history, not sociology).

Thirdly, this perspective on pagan history can only be delivered from the point of view of Biblical faith. I am uncomfortable in the extreme with the use of this passage to say "everyone does actually know that God exists, even if they won't admit it - they're just suppressing the truth". Paul's description of history points to the conclusion that people actually do not know that God exists, because since the creation of the world there has been systematic suppression of this truth. Only from the point of view of God's self-revelation can it be seen that this truth has been suppressed.

What then of the fact that "what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them"? And more acutely, what about the fact that this has been plain "ever since the creation of the world" - i.e. not just in the beginning, but ever since?

I think Paul is saying: the information is all still there - but without God's special self-disclosure this will inevitably lead to ignorance, due to human sin. Again, I question whether this should be called 'revelation'. A process which cannot lead to anyone knowing God, but will through sin always lead to idolatry does not seem to me to deserve the label. At the very least, we must say that Romans 1 does not teach that people actually know about God - precisely the opposite!


  1. There does seem to be something interesting going on in 1:19. Gnostos is initially described as 'phaneros en autos' (shown *in* or through the pagans), but then as 'phaneroo autos' (shown *to* the pagans).

    This grammatical shift seems to allow Paul to shift from history to nature, but it does confuse matters somewhat.

  2. One of the things that strikes me about the whole "suppressing the truth" passage is its implications for our theology of mind. According to Paul here, there is a morality to our beliefs so that "suppressing the truth" is an act of wickedness. For this to be the case, we must bear moral responsibility for what we believe... which I think leads to the conclusion that our (fallen) wills and desires influence our beliefs a lot more than we like to think they do. Humanity is prone to willed self-delusion - atheism and other false beliefs about God being Paul's particular example. What does that do for Enlightenment epistemlogy?

  3. Chris - 'en autois' could just be 'amongst them' here? I must admit my Gk is not up to the challenge of thinking this through...

    As for the effect of this passage on enlightenment epistemology - it blows it out of the water completely. No such thing as neutral reason. (We should know that from experience, but it is certainly stated in a radical and disturbing form here).

  4. I'm relying on the lexicon here, all my Greek is sourced through philosophy :) I suppose the issue at stake would be the one raised in your original post: does Paul believe the pagans can interpret their own history of abandonment (by and of God)? It seems that their own history is partially one of ignoring signs, but in doing so, it becomes a sign for others.