Feb 122013
This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Innate Knowledge In Romans 1:18-23

This series of posts is intended to be a progression from The Johannine Logos which deals with the Christian God as the necessary precondition to epistemology and will naturally presume much of that content. Those posts are linked here so that they may be referenced as needed.

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
— Jeremiah 17:9, ESV

The Epistle to the Romans is considered to be Paul’s statement of Christian doctrine.  The entire epistle is written with the Gospel in mind from start to finish.  It deals with the human condition leaving no one exempt and offers the only solution to our predicament, Jesus, the Messiah.  This series of posts is going to look at our innate knowledge of God and the concept of self-deception as discussed in Romans 1:18-23.  The passage reads:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 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. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.1

There are a few key points that we can surmise from Paul’s remarks here that really help to define not just the rest of the epistle for us, but the predicament of the world around us.  The first is that man can and does suppress the truth which can simply be called self-deception.  By that we would mean that man on some level literally deceives himself from trusting things which would otherwise be plainly known.  The second is that there are things which can and should be known about God by man, which is often called general revelation or natural theology.  Often in systematic theology, the idea of general revelation deals with those things that can be understood about God by looking at the world around us.  Taken together and in the context of the passage quoted above, we can say that man has within himself an innate knowledge of God but suppresses, or holds down that knowledge in order to avoid its conclusions.

Of course, this idea creates all sorts of conflict for those interpreting the passage.  Do people really intentionally deceive themselves in some way so as to avoid certain outcomes without knowing that they are doing so?  Paul seems to clearly state that this is the case.  The argument really centers around the question of to what extent this is done and accomplished.

Sense of Deity

In Book 1, Chapter 3 of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin mentions the sensus Deitatis or sense of Deity which he notes must come from natural instinct.  He writes:

THAT there exists in the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service.2

Further, Calvin goes on to state that this is evident just by looking at all cultures in the world around us.  Even the farthest removed from civilization have some form of a god whom they worship and so he concludes “that a sense of Deity is inscribed on every heart.”  Calvin even states that it is absurd to suggest that religion is simply the invention of man in order to subdue society because man would not so easily go against what is natural to him and so man must be “previously imbued with that uniform belief in God” in order for him to succumb to those who would devise such things.  And this is the point: that the knowledge of God, the sense of Deity, that Paul is speaking of here is innate, it is natural, it is inborn in every human being.

We don’t always think of belief in God as a natural instinct but the Bible plainly does.  The Bible simply doesn’t bother to give an accounting or argument for the existence of God, but instead, it hints at the impossibility of the contrary, that without the Christian God knowledge would be impossible.  And this is the real starting point that I think determines how we live, preach, teach and defend the Christian faith.  Where apologetics has largely attempted to reason man towards a belief in the Christian God as though the non-Christian is starting with a blank slate in his mind and our reasoning from looking at the universe around us eventually makes it plainly obvious, the Bible rather presumes that by nature the non-Christian actually already has an innate knowledge of God and that Creation, the universe, rather attests to that innate knowledge.  Indeed, the very attempt to ‘reason’ by way of argument wouldn’t even be possible without God.  It is with this idea in mind that I think R.H. Mounce is correct in stating that “[d]isbelief requires an act of rebellion against common sense.”  He continues:

It displays fallen humanity’s fatal bias against God. Although the created order cannot force a person to believe, it does leave the recipient responsible for not believing.3

And this is why Paul can proclaim in Romans 1:20 that they are without excuse.  The Greek word, anapologetos (ἀναπολόγητος ), is actually from the same word that gives us apologetics, which connotes a legal defense, however, the alpha privative negates the legal defense so the person is stripped of any legal standing.4  It is in this sense that the non-believer cannot be reasoned to believe in God.  The non-believer already has built within him an innate knowledge of God which he has suppressed.  This is not to discredit reasoned arguments for the existence of God since they are incredibly valuable for the believer in his own life and the preaching, teaching and defense of the faith.  I would only submit that arguments for the existence of God should be used with the desire to awaken the knowledge of God that is already there.

Invisible Attributes

In Romans 1:20, Paul states that God’s invisible attributes have been clearly perceived since the creation of the universe.  The clearly perceived has the sense of receiving both sensual and mental impressions.  In other words, the perceiving going on is through common sense.5  We might say that through Creation, God’s existence and subsequent invisible attributes are inescapable.  But what are these attributes?  Specifically, they are His eternal power (ἀΐδιος αὐτοῦ δύναμις) and divine nature (θειότης).

In Part 1 of The Johannine Logos I discussed Stoicism as one of the competing worldviews in the first century.  For the Stoic philosophers, the universal law that guided and controlled everything was called the divine logos and they saw that this logos was expressed through nature.  Because of this they understood that they should live in accordance with what they were perceiving.  Why is this important?  Because Paul is making use of what appears to be Stoic thought in these invisible attributes, which his readers would probably be familiar with.6  Paul is by no means advancing Stoic thought, but rather pointing to the fact that even they not only understand to some degree, these attributes that God has revealed, but it has pointed them in such a direction that it influences how they live.  Contrast that to the man who denies what he innately knows and lives contrary to what is clearly perceived.


The innate knowledge of God in every man is not something that is learned by using human reasoning faculties.  Rather, it is a part of the light that is given to every man in John 1:9, the Wisdom of God.  It is only through the use of human reasoning that man can hold down or suppress the knowledge that is inborn.  Doing so is contrary to the natural order which Paul will illustrate further in Romans 1.  In the next post I will look at man’s relationship to God regardless of whether he is a believer or not.

  1. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, use: English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
  2. Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1845). Vol. 1: Institutes of the Christian religion (55). Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society.
  3. Mounce, R. H. (1995). Vol. 27: Romans. The New American Commentary (78). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
  4. The alpha privitive is the pre-fixed ‘a’ or ‘α’ added to a word in order to show negation.  Perhaps one of the most familiar examples is theist verses atheist where the theist believes in God and the a-theist does not believe in God.
  5. Vol. 4: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (948). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  6. Seeley, David. (1994). Vol. 5. Deconstructing the New Testament. (130). Leiden: Brill.


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