Mar 052013
This entry is part 4 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 Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”
— 1 Corinthians 3:20 (ESV)

One of the primary examples the Bible uses to describe a fool comes from Psalms 14:1 which says that “the fool says in his heart there is no God.”  While this comes as a surprise to many, it really shouldn’t.  As I’ve shown in the previous posts of this series, we are given an innate knowledge of God and to deny this goes against the natural order.  Even by man’s own wisdom we would consider anyone denying the natural order of the world a fool so if an innate knowledge of God is a part of the natural order, then it follows that a denial of such is foolishness.  Scripture goes on further to note that that which is wisdom in the worlds eyes is foolishness as far as God is concerned, but that which is foolishness to the world, particularly the Gospel, is the power of God.1  We can see this thought taking shape in Romans 1:21-23 which reads:

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.2

Many of the most popular English translations have done much to water down not just the message of Scripture as a whole but even specific words that are utilized in the original Greek and Hebrew.  One such word is moros (μωρός) which is the word used here in Romans 1:22 for fool.  The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament lists “stupid”3 as a suitable rendering for moros and the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon explains it as “nonsense, thoughts devoid of understanding”4 but what few tell us is that moros is actually the Greek word from which we get the English word moron.5

A Moron By Any Other Name

Vincent Cheung notes that “[a] moron by any other name is still an idiot, and there is really no reason to use other words and expressions unless it is to hide our true meaning and to reduce the offensiveness of the biblical message.”6  I agree and I don’t think we should be willing to compromise what the Scriptures say.  This is important for numerous reasons but for the sake of the topics being dealt with in these posts the problem isn’t that the unbeliever, in particular the atheist, needs more information but that the unbeliever has made the subsequent choices that has rendered his intellect inept.  In other words, his mind is broken.  This can be seen much clearer in Romans 1:22 when we translate it as “claiming to be wise, they became morons” and we are perfectly justified in doing so.

The exasperation in trying to discuss any of life’s tough questions with the atheist is due to the completely polar starting point.  In the case of the atheist the starting point “there is a God” is broken.  This is what the Scripture says and the sooner we are able to recognize that the easier our discussions with our non-Christian friends will become.  This doesn’t mean we adopt their starting point for sake of argument, but rather, we reduce their worldview to the absurdity that it is and only after it has been destroyed are we able to start putting it together in a proper fashion.

For example, when someone wants to bring about a moral accusation against the Bible, such as the typical but misguided “the Bible condones genocide”, the Christian usually wants to run to the Bible’s defense and explain in a rational manner why certain things in Scripture had to come about.  While this is perfectly acceptable and fruitful to learn about, it really is meaningless for the unbeliever.  Rather, the Christian needs to turn it around on his accuser.  He must demand a standard by which the non-Christian is bringing about the accusation to begin with.  The atheist is in a predicament; he is making a moral judgement without a standard to judge by.  Unless the accuser can show the ultimate and objective moral standard by which he is accusing Scripture, there is no reason to bother answering his accusation because the accusation itself is nonsense.  What business does anyone have claiming that someone’s moral values are wrong unless he subscribes to objective moral values?  In this instance the non-Christians accusation is as misguided as claiming that Drew Driver didn’t stop properly at a stop sign while denying that there is a proper way to stop at a stop sign.

Futile Thinking

And it is in this same manner that Paul states the pagan man has become “futile in his thinking.”  If we know God, then we are obligated to honor Him as God and give thanks to him for not only is it that we live and move through Him7 but also that He has graciously provided everything we need.8  By ignoring, or suppressing this knowledge, the pagan man is forced to come up with his own version of reality, one by which he ends up worshiping the creation instead of the Creator!  Worshiping the creation is nothing more than idolatry, no matter how the act itself eludes the atheist.  Incredibly, Paul is able to describe the modern day Epicurean with startling accuracy, indicative of the fact that even with all of the supposed knowledge modern man has, nothing has really changed in 2,000 years.

The idea of becoming futile in thinking is one that needs to be stressed.  First, the word thinking (διαλογισμός) is one that denotes deliberation, reckoning, rational thought.9  Being able to correctly perceive anything requires the capability of proper reasoning.  John 1:9 states that the Wisdom of God gave light to all man and from Genesis 1:27 we know that we were created in the image of God.  It is this light, I believe, that gives us the capability to reason or make use our senses effectively at all.  Without the light, nonsense results since we have no means by which to determine and correctly use input from sight or sound or touch if we are relegated to the senses alone.

Second, the word futile (ματαιόω) connotes worthlessness in that it serves no purpose, things are simply done in vain.  Paul is quite literally speaking of worthless rationality.  But notice that they became, that is they have fallen into futile thinking.  In other words, this worthless rationality was never the way it was supposed to be but rather, a direct result of the failure to give honor and thanks to the Creator God.  Mankind was made in the image of God and the Wisdom of God gave light to every man.  Part of that light was an innate knowledge of God but man suppressed that knowledge, refused to give thanks or honor to their Creator and subsequently became futile in their reasoning faculties as a result.10


Futile thinking is a direct result of the suppression of the innate knowledge of God in Romans 1:18-23.  Because the starting point necessary for a proper understanding of reality is wrong, the pagan man’s intellect is basically broken.  He is forced to come up with his own version of reality leading ultimately to the worship of creation rather than Creator.  All of this comes right back around to Romans 1:18 where, because of all of this, the wrath of God is being revealed.  The final post for this series will discuss the revelation of God’s wrath.

  1. See 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
  2. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, use: English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
  3. Balz, H. R., & Schneider, G. (1990-). Vol. 2: Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament (450). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
  4. Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  5. HELPS Word Studies copyright © 1987, 2011 by Helps Ministries, Inc., Entry available here.
  6. Cheung, V. (2005). A Moron By Any Other Name. Boston, MA.
  7. Acts 17:28; also see Part 2 of this series.
  8. See Matthew 5:45 and Acts 14:17.
  9. Vol. 2: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (96). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  10. Much more could be said of the contrast between light and darkness, wisdom and foolishness in Romans 1:21 leading even further into the discussions of John 1:9 but for sake of brevity I would recommend The Johannine Logos series, particularly Part 4.


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