Our Phlegmatic Façade

Scott Oliphint

As we move now half-way through our Ten Tenets, the next tenet we want to keep in mind in our apologetic is, in some significant ways, central. So, it is fitting that it appears at the "center" of our list. Tenet 5 is this:

All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.

It will be obvious to routine readers of these articles, but, just in case someone is coming into this discussion de novo, we should remember the relevant text of this tenet:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth 1in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident 1within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not 1honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened (Rom. 1:18-21, NASB).

I was speaking about this recently to a group of people and one from the group approached me afterwords with the following objection, "It just doesn't seem like people really know God. If they did, wouldn't we see obvious evidence of it all around us?" There are two principles in this objection that may help clarify why this tenet is so important for us, not only in thinking about apologetics, but in thinking about anything in God's creation.

The first principle is this: our "filter" through which we are to view ourselves, other people, and the world around us is the truth of Scripture itself. For example, when Peter is encouraging his readers to be ready to engage in apologetics (1 Peter 3:15), the first and primary thing he commands them to do is to "sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts," (NASB). Why begin with this command? Why highlight the reality of the Lordship of Christ for apologetics? One of the reasons surely includes the fact that the Christians to whom Peter writes were in the midst of suffering and persecution for their faith. When everything around them looked as though it was falling apart, when the evils of the world seemed to predominate in their day-to-day existence, when suffering was the norm rather than the exception, these Christians needed to set their minds on the things above, where Christ is (Col. 3:2). They needed to "see" the invisible in order properly to understand the visible (cf. 1 Peter 1:8f.). So, as persecutions were coming, sometimes swiftly and frequently, they were not to be surprised (1 Peter 4:12), but were to remember the reason for their suffering. In other words, it was incumbent on them to see everything around them, as Calvin put it, through the spectacles of Scripture (Institutes 1.14.1). In order for Christians properly to do apologetics, they have to remember, recognize and affirm the fact, even if it appears otherwise, that Christ is Lord of all. In spite of prima facie appearances, we are to believe and confess  that Christ is Lord; he alone is in charge of the universe. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, and nothing happens in this sin-saturated world without first passing through the golden scepter of his absolute and sovereign reign. The things that appear around us, then, must be properly interpreted, and that interpretation begins with the 20/20 vision that God's Word supplies.

In our fifth tenet, Paul tells us, in clear and striking terms, that there is no person on the face of the earth, since the beginning of creation and into eternity future, who, by virtue of being the image of God, does not know the One in whose image he is made and by whose providence he lives. For anyone who has followed previous articles up to this point, this will be obvious by now. All people truly and culpably know the true God. That knowledge renders us all without excuse before God. No one will stand before God at the judgment and say, "I never knew you." No one will say to God on that day, "If only you had made yourself known to me, I would have acknowledged you." The clear teaching of Scripture is that God has made, is making, and will always make himself known to every person, all the time, in and through all of creation. In order to be who we are, as image of God, we must be those who know God, always and everywhere. So, though it may not "seem" to us like all people know God, since Scripture tells us that we all do, we are to view all people, first of all, through the "spectacles" of Scripture and affirm that their lives are defined, centrally, in terms of their true knowledge of the true God. This is where all human beings begin in their self-consciousness. They begin with knowledge of God that comes in and through our knowledge of creation.

Second, the objection above supposes that if all people do, in fact, know God, evidence of that knowledge would be all around us and its acknowledgement would be universal. Our response to this aspect of the objection is dependent on the first principle above. We need to evaluate the world around us, including those who are outside of Christ, with the mono-focal lenses of biblical truth. Too often, it seems, the spectacles through which we see and evaluate the world around us are bi-, tri-, or multi-focal lenses. If we trade in our multi-focal lenses for the mono-focal lenses of Scripture, we find out that, as a matter of fact, there is an abundance of evidence that people know the true God truly.

A philosopher by the name of J. L. Schellenberg has offered an argument for the nonexistence of God based on (what he sees as) the reasonableness of unbelief.  And the reasonableness of unbelief is based on Schellenberg's notion that a loving God would make himself clearly known. Since he hasn't made himself clearly known, he argues, unbelief is reasonable and, thus, it must be the case that God doesn't exist.

The question that has to be addressed to Schellenberg and those like him is, "What would evidence of God look like?" This question has a host of notions surrounding it, without which the question could not be answered. Maybe one suspects, like Schellenberg, that evidence for God's existence would show forth God's character in such a way that everyone would acknowledge it as obvious. If God did exist, in other words, there would be near-universal affirmation of his existence, given the evidence. It would be the kind of evidence that would so obviously show us what God is like that most would be compelled to see it. 

Not only would the evidence be abundant and compelling, but it would be known immediately (i.e., without the need for inference). Its affirmation would not depend on the intellectual capacity or inferential sequence of the beholder. It would be evidence that would look like the sweetness of honey, or the blackness of a crow, or the sound of the wind, or the feel of the sun's warmth. One would know it just by the experience of it, and, since God is loving, he would guarantee that such experiences would obtain for all of us.

But there is a problem with this kind of thinking. It is not a small problem at all but is a universal problem that runs as deeply as human nature itself. The problem is that with all of our tasting and seeing and listening and feeling, we have donned a phlegmatic façade. That façade has a cover over us that is just thick enough so that in tasting, we do not really taste; in seeing, we do not really see; in listening, we do not really hear; and in feeling, we do not really feel. We have covered ourselves, from head to toe, in a costume, a costume that not only masks who we really are, so that it deceives from the outside in. But it also deceives from the inside out, in that it ensures that we will not experience reality as it really is. We'll get just enough of it, on some superficial level, to function, but never enough of it to flourish in our understanding. The problem is the phlegmatic façade of sin, and it permeates every aspect of our being.

This turns Schellenberg's argument, and every objection about the evidence for God's existence, on its head. The problem is not that a loving God has not sufficiently made himself known, the problem is that those to whom he always and everywhere makes himself known, work night and day, fully dressed in their costume-façades, to make sure that what they truly know they will refuse to believe in, and that what they truly experience they will not acknowledge. In other words, the problem is not God's hiddenness, but it is man's on-going attempt, like Adam and Eve in the Garden, to hide himself from God's perpetual, covenantal and ever-present gaze.

This true knowledge of the true God is, as a matter of fact, immediate. It does not depend on one's intellectual or inferential capacity. It is known (because God makes it known) simply by the experience of it. And the experience of it is as ever-present as our own self-consciousness. Not only so, but this knowledge is personal. It is not simply knowledge of a fact. Knowledge of the existence of God is not simply knowing the statement, "God exists." Instead, it is personal knowledge -- more like knowing your father, or a sibling. And because this personal knowledge is knowledge of God, it brings with it God-initiated requirements. In other words, the knowledge of God that we all have is covenantal.

In Romans 1:32, Paul includes the knowledge of God's requirements with the knowledge that we all have of God. Included with the knowledge of God's requirements is the knowledge that our transgression of those requirements is a capital offense; it rightly carries with it the death penalty. Instead of following those requirements, however, we choose to violate them. More than that, we gather around ourselves others who make the same choices and we encourage the very rebellion against those known requirements that brings certain death. The point Paul is making about the problem of sin in this verse is that our sin against God known by each one of us; it comes included with God's natural revelation. Each of us knows we abide as sinners in the presence of God, we know our sin will bring a just penalty, and yet we raise three cheers for those who choose to live in the same foolish filth that we have chosen for ourselves.

Once we view the world, and the people in it through the perfect lenses of Scripture, we begin to recognize, not simply how weak Schellenberg's argument is, but that his very argument is an explicit example of the deep and deceptive sin that motivates us to try to hide from God. Schellenberg's argument assumes that people are OK, and that God is the problem. The God who is "the problem" is a god of Schellenberg's own making, however, a god whose love is supposed to overlook our constant and cosmic rebellion against him. On this point Schellenberg is correct -- no such god exists.

The God who does exist is the God Schellenberg (and the rest of us) knows. He is the God whose love motivated Him to send His Son to die for the sins of His people. He is the God who, if he overlooked our sin, even if for "loving" reasons, would not be God at all. He would not be good, just or holy. The hiddenness of God, like Schellenberg's god, is nothing but an apparition, and like belief in such ghosts, it is rooted in a foolish refusal to acknowledge the obvious. Only the gospel can shine the light on such foolishness, vanquishing it like a mist, and replacing it with the wisdom of God in the foolishness of the cross.

Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).


1. J. L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 1993).