Who Knows?

Scott Oliphint
We finished our previous discussion by noting that there were elements of formal truth that the Skepchick attributed to Richard Dawkins. Because the Skepchick was not able to account either for her own outrage, or Dawkins' near-apathy toward the same, she was forced to move outside of her basic principles and attribute Dawkins' assessment to his gender, race and age. The point that I concluded with was that there was a formal truth to what the Skepchick supposed. The formal truth was that she located Dawkins' dismissive diatribe in aspects of Dawkins' character that were and are beyond his control. If what Dawkins delineated in his discussion concerning the Duchess of Dubieties and her disastrous dalliance is de facto despicable, it is so by virtue of factors outside Dawkins' own determinations; this is just the way he is.

But the Skepchick's analysis is a boo/hooray. 'Hooray' that the Skepchick was able to pinpoint factors outside of Dawkins' control, factors that are what they are in spite of what Dawkins might choose or hope to be. 'Boo' that she thought those factors to be simply and only of natural origin.

The passage in 1 Peter 3:15 provides the mandate for our apologetic endeavors; now it is time to look at the matter of apologetics. In other words, if 1 Peter 3:15 gives us the formal principle of apologetics, providing for its authority, what is the material principle, providing its content?

It is impossible  to understand the object of apologetics, i.e., unbelief, without meditating on the implications of Romans 1:18ff. We'll look at a few salient points in that passage and hope the meditative aspects will be applied by the reader. One note by way of preface to this passage - just exactly how one goes about the apologetic task is as varied as there are positions and people. What must be the case in all such tasks, however, is that biblical principles cannot be transgressed, sacrificed, undermined or subverted. The Bible gives us, we could say, apologetic boundaries within which we are bound to stay. Within those boundaries, however, there is a good bit of elbow room; we needn't feel constrained. On the contrary, understanding these principles will liberate us to address the root cause(s) of the clear and present danger of the position(s) and people with whom we interact.

As Paul begins his epistle to the Roman church, he sets his focus in explicit and unambiguous terms. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek," (1:16). There are those things, as Paul will remind his readers (Ro. 6:21), of which we ought to be ashamed, those things that will bring death. But the gospel, the good news, is life eternal, and of that no one should be ashamed. So Paul makes clear that the engine that will drive his exposition in this epistle is the euangelion, the good news of Jesus Christ.

But the bad news has to be understood before the good news can be seen for what it is. So Paul moves from God's righteousness revealed, in 1:17, to a discussion of God's wrath revealed, in vv. 1:18ff. There is so much packed into these verses, from 1:18 through chapter 2, that we can only highlights parts of it. One could profit greatly from hitting the "lowlights" as well in order to fill out the bigger picture:
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. (Rom. 1:18-23)
As Paul begins his discussion of the revelation of God's wrath from heaven, he has two primary aspects of that wrath in view -- the cause and the effects. He gives the universal scope of the cause itself in v. 18. God's wrath is revealed from heaven "against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." It is ungodliness, and unrighteousness, against which God's wrath is revealed. But Paul goes on to define, in a striking way, just what it is that motivates God's wrath toward all who are in Adam, all who are covenant-breakers. He introduces a specificity to this unrighteousness; it is an unrighteousness that is defined essentially as a suppression of the truth.

Verse 18, then, is a general announcement of the fact that God's wrath is revealed, and of the reason for that wrath. The cause of God's wrath toward us is our unrighteous suppression of the truth. In other words, God's wrath is revealed from heaven because, in our wickedness and unrighteousness (in Adam), we hold down (in our souls) that which we know to be the case. Within the context of this general announcement, however, Paul knows that he has introduced two concepts, suppression and truth, that will need further clarification. In vv. 19-23 (and, to some extent, v. 25 as well), Paul develops and amplifies these two notions of 'suppression' and of 'truth.'

In v. 19, Paul tells us that by 'truth' he means "that which is known about God." The truth that is suppressed, therefore, is specifically truth about God. The way in which we come to know this truth is two-fold. We come to know it, in the first place, because it is evident among us. Paul will expand this idea in the next verse. Before that, however, he wants us to understand just how this truth, this knowledge of God is evident, or clear, among us.

This is a vitally important point to keep in mind. It is vitally important because Paul is concerned with God's activity in revealing Himself (more specifically, His wrath), and, in tandem with that, because Paul wants to highlight the contrast between what God is doing in this revelation, on the one hand, and what we (in Adam) do with it, on the other.So, Paul says immediately (even before he explains the sweeping scope of that which is evident among us) that the reason that God's revelation is evident among us is that God has made it evident to us. 

We should be clear about the emphasis of Scripture here. What the Lord is concerned to deny is that we, in our sins, as covenant-breakers in Adam, would ever, or could ever, produce or properly infer the knowledge of God that we have; we have it only because God gives it to us. We could not reason our way to it, nor could we properly conclude for this truth. This passage ensures that we are not tempted to think that the truth of God, as evident among us, is evident because we have marshaled the right arguments or have set our minds in the proper direction. The Lord reminds us here of the devastating effects sin continues to have on our thinking (in Adam). The truth that we know, that we retain, possess and suppress, therefore, is truth that is, fundamentally and essentially, given by God to us. God is the One who ensures that this truth will get through to us. It is His action, not ours, that guarantees our possession of this truth. The fact that God gives it guarantees its universality; if it were dependent on us, it could not be affirmed as universal.

The truth which we all, as creatures in Adam, know and suppress is a truth about God. Even more specifically (v. 20), it is a truth concerning the 'invisible things' of God, i.e., his eternal power and deity. What might Paul mean by these two categories? It seems that Charles Hodge is right in his assertion that what Paul has in mind here are "all the divine perfections," (See his commentary on Romans 1:20). Had Paul wanted to limit his description to only a few attributes of God that we know, he would more likely have delineated just exactly what characteristics of God were known through creation. Instead he uses two broad and general terms - "eternal power" and "divine nature."

This truth that we all know, then, is the truth of God's existence, infinity, eternity, immutability, glory, wisdom, etc. As Paul is developing this thought in v. 23, he speaks of this knowledge of the truth as "the glory of the incorruptible God." It is this that we all know as creatures of God. It is this that God gives, and that we necessarily 'take' as knowledge, that comes to us by virtue of His natural revelation.  God does this; He gets the truth through to us. This is part of what it means to be image of God.
There are two important aspects to this knowledge of God which are crucial to see. First, it is not knowledge in the abstract that is in view here. The Lord is speaking here of a knowledge that ensues on the basis of a real relationship. It is not the kind of knowledge we might get through reading about someone or something in a book or in the newspaper. Rather, it is relational, covenantal, knowledge. It is knowledge that comes to us because, as creatures of God, we are, always and everywhere, from the beginning and into eternity, confronted with God Himself. We are, even as we live in God's world every day, set squarely before the face of the God who made us, and in whom we live, and move and exist. This, then, is decidedly personal knowledge. It is knowledge of a person, of the Person, whom we have come to know by virtue of His constant and consistent revealing of Himself to us. This is why we are all left without excuse (v. 20).
This personal aspect of the knowledge that we have is made all the more prominent in verse 32. This verse serves as a transition between Paul's discussion of God's wrath revealed in chapter 1, and the revelation of God's law in chapter 2. Notice that Scripture can affirm that those who are in Adam "know God's righteous decree." This knowledge of the righteous requirements of God is included with our knowledge of God. To know God is to know (at least something of) His requirements. Along with the knowledge of God, in other words, comes the knowledge "that those who practice such things deserve to die." Instead of repenting, however, we, in Adam, rejoice in our disobedience and attempt to gather together others who share in our rebellion. Therefore, because this knowledge is a relational knowledge, and because the relationship is between God and the sinner, God ensures that we all know that the violations of His law in which we willingly and happily participate are capital offenses; they place us under the penalty of death. Our knowledge of God is a responsible, covenantal, knowledge which brings with it certain demands of obedience.
Here is the point to ponder, and which we will take up in our next article. Scripture says clearly that all people - from the beginning of time to eternity - because made in God's image, know the true God. Think about the implications of that for apologetics, evangelism and for daily life.