Romans and epistemology

I have been fascinated with the 1st Chapter of Romans for some time; while it serves as an introduction to the rest of the book, Paul says an awful lot in just a few verses.  Paul was, of course, writing to the church in Rome – that is, those in Rome who have been already converted to Christianity, which included both Jews and Gentiles. If I had been a member of that church, I think this line might have caught my attention:

14I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.

Just what is he getting at here?  I would think that this would have sparked some discussion, especially since the Jewish and Greek (gentile) Christians often had trouble getting along, especially as the early Jewish Christians had trouble giving up Jewish practices such as the dietary laws (see Chapter 14).  Paul’s purpose, I think, in writing this letter was at least in part to emphasize and confirm the basic truth of the Gospel, and that it was the same for both Jews and Gentiles. He was probably speaking to the Jewish Christians specifically when he wrote,

16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

While I don’t know that this was Paul’s intent, in this next section, Paul gets to the heart of his thoughts on epistemology. Many tend to focus on the subject of God’s wrath and sexual immorality, but that’s not my point here; let’s look at this passage and see what it tells us about Paul’s epistemology:

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Verses 18 and 19 clearly are directed to contemporaries, who Paul accuses of suppressing the truth, which Paul maintains is plainly evident; not that the presence of God is something they had to deduce based on vague clues. No, Paul is clear here: “God has made it plain to them.”  Continuing on, Paul goes on further, stating that from the time of Creation, God’s nature has been clearly seen.  He then develops what has happened historically; at least, verse 21 starts what appears in NIV to paint an historical picture of man’s fall from knowing God – not just being aware of God – to choosing to worship material objects. The story of the golden calf comes to mind here, as one example. More currently, we see the rise of philosophical materialism, which of course is simply exchanging belief in a Creator for a self-creating (or eternal) material world. As I’ve argued before, materialism is the philosophical foundation to much of modern science.  As Nietzsche said in On the Genealogy of Morals:

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as science ‘without any presuppositions’; this thought does not bear thinking through since it is paralogical: a philosophy, a ‘faith,’ must always be there first of all, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit, a method, a right to exist.

But, that’s a bit of a side-track, as interesting a quote as that is.

What stands out to me in the Romans passage is that the knowledge of God is not simply inferred by Creation; the knowledge of God comes initially by God as He reveals himself. This thinking parallels Jesus’ statement in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” As I said in a recent post, God is not an explanation, a belief derived from natural observation. This reduces the belief in God to a construct rooted in naturalism, which of course is fitting for those who wish to argue it away.  Rather, I am unapologetically a presuppositionalist as I view the world, having first had revelation of God. In other words, I need no further proof, although I see it all around me.

The knowledge of God, whether we look to nature, or logic, or science, or even the Bible, originates with God. This is, of course, theology, just in case you were wondering. But, if the knowledge of God only comes from God, then theology is where it’s at.

Now, this raises some very interesting questions, for which I don’t have answers.  One such question, which I would expect at least some atheists to ask, is “Why hasn’t God revealed himself to me?”  Just earlier this evening I read an interesting account of someone who tried for 20 years to believe, but finally had to admit he simply couldn’t.  Does God reveal himself to all?  Romans 1 would seem to indicate a “yes” answer. Then, why do so many claim to have never found him?  As I said, I don’t necessarily have the answer. It’s something to think about…

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