Examination of Romans 1:18–32
Although there are many excellent and fitting texts of Scripture to guide us at this point, an examination of Romans 1:18–32 will serve us in our thinking about the epistemological crisis—the crisis of thinking and knowing. The apostle Paul writes:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 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. So they are without excuse. 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. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.
They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, and insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, and ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
In the context of this opening chapter of the book of Romans, the apostle Paul informs not only a first-century Roman congregation of Christians, but he also, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, teaches Christians throughout all the ages. Paul’s story of universal human sinfulness and depravity is our story. In these words, we discover the explanation of how it is that we find ourselves in this condition of sinfulness. Furthermore, Paul explains that the great epistemological crisis is not as new and recent as we might think in our modern conceit; the knowledge crisis is ancient.
Paul speaks of the crisis as emerging and residing in the mind, but he also speaks as one armed with a confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (v. 18).
This is information we desperately need to know. Paul tells us that sinful humanity is involved in a conspiracy, not of the few but of the many. Every single human being is part of the intellectual activity described here. All descendants of Adam are involved in the suppression of “truth in unrighteousness.”
We do not like to think of ourselves as suppressors of truth, however. This is conveyed by the very name we have given ourselves: Homo sapiens, meaning “the wise thinking creature.”
Humans rightly view ourselves as set apart from the rest of creation because of intellectual capacity, but we also see ourselves as fair-minded people who think rightly. We tend to associate with people who think as we do because nothing reinforces the way we think as being with people who think like us.
The apostle Paul argues that the intellectual bent and ambition of human beings operate as mechanisms to suppress the truth. Granted, some people believe their great ambition is to find the truth. The Latin word for truth, veritas, is even placed on the seal of our great universities. Yet, despite our living in an age in which massive universities, educational upward mobility, post-Enlightenment science, and modern approaches to liberal arts masquerade as parts of a great quest for truth, Paul claims that humans do not merely suppress the truth; mankind suppresses the truth in unrighteousness.
We do not suppress the truth simply because we do not want to deal with it. Instead, we work out the truth suppression conspiracy in a great cloud of unrighteousness.
Despite all of the rationalization, theorizing, and self-justification that derive from truth suppression, human beings remain accountable.
Paul states, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (v. 19).
The real knowledge crisis is not merely what people do not know; it is also what they will not know. It is a disposition of the will. Some modern schools of philosophy are even now catching onto this truth that the Bible had already made clear—the will is the great engine of the intellect.
The conceit of the modern age was the belief that the intellect is neutral because human beings were viewed as basically good or morally neutral. That worldview saw ignorance as the great enemy and enlightenment as the answer. Enlightenment cannot be the answer, however, because the will drives the intellect. Paul unfolds what theologians call natural, or general, revelation.
He points to the fact that “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (v. 19). How is this so? “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” (v. 20).
The knowledge of God is embedded in creation. Even his invisible attributes are made visible in creation. No one will be able to say, “I did not know.” No one will have an excuse.
It is not just in the outer world of nature that the knowledge of God is apprehended, however. It is also in the inner world of the conscience. In the second chapter of Romans, Paul will deal with the reality of the conscience.
The problem with our consciences is not that they are there; we should be thankful for that. Instead, the problem is that our will does not allow the conscience to operate as it was intended. We can make our conscience do what we want our conscience to do.
Under-guiding all of this is an understanding of the imago Dei, knowing what it means to be made in the image of God. Our ability to know of God through general revelation is reflective of the imago Dei. The fact that we have a conscience is also reflective of the fact that we are made in the image of God. Indeed, we are set apart from creation and distinct from the other creatures.
-thinking Loving Doing