What Is “Knowledge” in Romans 1?

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When it comes to a Christian view of philosophy––and especially a Christian view of epistemology––the primary battle ground is Romans 1.

In that chapter, Paul talks about “what can be known” about God apart from Scripture. This knowledge of God apart from Scripture, Paul explains, comes “through the things that have been made.” In other words, the source of this knowledge is what most theologians call “general revelation.” This is distinguished from “special revelation” which is Scripture. So, according to Paul, the source of truth about God (outside of Scripture) is general revelation. That much is uncontested among the different epistemological and apologetic camps––there is truth, revealed by God, in general revelation. Everyone (for the most part) agrees with that.

The controversial question is: How is knowledge of that truth obtained? What is the nature of this knowledge? Some say that it is innate knowledge, implanted in us at birth (call this the innate theory). Some say that it is automatic knowledge, that we just “find ourselves believing” (call this the automatic theory). But I’m going to argue that it is inferential knowledge: i.e. knowledge obtained by reason (call this the natural theology theory).


Why Does This Matter?

Why is there so much controversy over what Paul means by “knowledge” in Romans 1? Well, the simple answer is that a lot of Christians want to claim that knowledge of God is possible apart from reason. If you can separate knowledge of God from reason, then you can cleanly separate faith and reason––and maybe even diminish the role of reason. This move allows Christians to look down upon thinking too rationally or too philosophically about God; or at the very least, to claim that such thinking isn’t necessary. So, my goal in refuting those alternative theories about this “knowledge” (i.e. the innate theory and the automatic theory) is to reassert the essential role of reason in the Christian life––by showing that reason is a necessary component of the knowledge of God. To that end, I’ll first examine the arguments for those alternative theories, and then explain why I think they should be rejected in favor of the pro-reason theory of natural theology.

 

The Innate Theory

Let’s look at the innate theory first. This theory says that the knowledge Paul is talking about in Romans 1 is knowledge innately planted in us at birth. There are two prima facie good arguments from the text supporting this theory.

Argument From Universality

The first may be called the argument from universality. Paul seems to be claiming, so the argument goes, that all human beings have this knowledge––not just those with cognitive abilities. This includes the pre-born zygote, the severely mentally disabled, the coma patient, and everyone in between. Of course, if Paul means to include all of these people as possessors of this knowledge, then the innate theory seems to have pretty good plausibility. That’s because something like the innate theory would have to be true if it included all those different types of people (think especially of the zygote!).

Since Paul’s goal is to explain the condemnation of all unbelievers, it seems fairly plausible that he is referring to all human beings––regardless of the cognitive abilities. However, upon closer investigation, you’ll find that a few things in the text indicate that Paul likely only has those people with normal cognitive function in mind. First, consider that he describes these “knowers” taking part in very adult types of action (e.g. engaging in homosexual activity, worshiping idols, etc...). This seems to indicate that the people he is referring to are adults (or mature children) with normally functioning cognitive abilities. Second, notice that one of the things Paul claims that these “knowers” know is a proposition: “that those who do such things deserve to die.” Arguably, such propositional knowledge requires normally functioning cognitive abilities. The people––the “knowers”––that Paul has in mind are people who engage in sexual activity, worship, and who have propositional knowledge about things like morality. This seems pretty strongly to exclude zygotes and the mentally disabled from the category of people to whom Paul is referring.

Written-On-The-Heart Argument

But there is one more argument for the innate theory which needs to be addressed. Call this the written-on-the-heart argument. This argument looks forward to Romans 2:15, where Paul talks about a law written on the hearts (of the gentiles), and takes that to be innate knowledge. It then reads this idea of innate knowledge back onto the content of Romans 1, claiming that all of Romans 1 is speaking of the same thing: i.e. knowledge “written on the heart”––or, innate knowledge. But even if 2:15 is referring to innate knowledge, why should we read that back onto the content of Romans 1? Romans 2:15 only references moral knowledge (i.e. “law”), and doesn’t say anything about God’s nature, attributes, power, and the sundry other things Paul talks about in Romans 1. So, even if Paul is talking about innate knowledge in 2:15, it is only innate knowledge about the moral law.

In fact, there is good reason in Romans 1 to think that the knowledge is not innate, since Paul says that this knowledge is obtained “through the things that have been made.” Innate knowledge wouldn’t depend on the things that have been made. That’s the whole point of it being innate––it would be built in, so to speak, so that we would have it whether or not we ever interacted with the things that have been made.

Further, there is good reason to think that the knowledge spoken of in 2:15 is actually not innate knowledge, but derivative of that propositional knowledge spoken of in chapter 1. That’s because, as noted above, 2:15 just references morality (ie. “law”), and Paul has already explained in 1:32 that the law is one of the many things known “through the things that have been made.” So, if anything, 2:15 should be read in light of 1:32––not the other way around. Thus, the “law written on the heart” is likely “on the heart” as a result of it being communicated “through the things that have been made.”

 

The Automatic Theory

We now turn to the automatic theory, which says that the knowledge Paul speaks of in Romans 1 is automatic––that it is obtained purely in virtue of encountering general revelation, apart from any reasoning process. The idea is that, when you encounter general revelation, you simply find yourself believing (perhaps, very strongly) true things about God. Again, the support for this position comes from the notion that Paul is referring to people who either can’t, or don’t, engage in the “deep” sorts of reasoning processes that we normally think of as arguments for the existence of God. So, the argument goes, this knowledge must be automatic, apart from reasons or arguments. But we saw above that it is very likely that the people Paul is referring to are at least capable of such reasoning, whether they engage in it or not. So the considerations which undermined the innate theory above, also undermine much of the support for this theory as well.

But there’s a stronger reason to reject this theory (along with the innate theory above), and that is the problem of discernment: Neither of these theories seems able to give an account of how a person might discern between true and false beliefs about God. Sure, you might find yourself believing true things about God––whether due to it being innately planted in you, or due to it being automatically produced by interaction with general revelation. But presumably, you also find yourself believing false things about God. And the question is: how do you discern between the true things you find yourself believing about general revelation and the false things you find yourself believing about general revelation? On the innate and automatic theories, you can’t. But if you’re unable to discern between true and false beliefs about God, do you really have knowledge about Him? Not in the common way we use that term––and as we’ll see below, likely not in the way Paul uses it, either.

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The Natural Theology Theory

This brings us to the argument for the natural theology theory. Natural theology is the application of reason to general revelation, resulting in reasons (or arguments) for true beliefs about God. The natural theology theory is the idea that the knowledge of God Paul is speaking of in Romans 1 is knowledge derived from natural theology (i.e. from reasoning about general revelation). The argument for this theory is as essentially as follows: 1) The knowledge Paul is talking about in Romans 1 includes discernibility; and 2) natural theology (i.e. reasoning about general revelation) is the only means of knowledge about general revelation which allows for discernibility.

Let’s focus in on the first premise, since that’s the one that really needs support: The knowledge Paul is talking about in Romans 1 includes discernibility. Why should we think this? Consider the flow of Paul’s argument. Paul is arguing that the unbeliever is culpable for his sin (i.e., that he is “without excuse”), in spite of the fact that he doesn’t have access to Scripture. Why is that? Because, Paul answers, the unbeliever has access to the truth of God apart from Scripture. In other words, Paul seems to be arguing that, if the unbeliever didn’t have access to the truth of God, then he might have an excuse. But since he does have access to it, he is without excuse. So, the whole point of Paul’s argument about what can be known through general revelation is to establish the culpability of the unbeliever in his failure to worship God rightly.

Now, ask yourself this: If the unbeliever is incapable of distinguishing between true and false beliefs about God, then is he really culpable? If the unbeliever finds himself believing that God deserves worship (which is true), and that God does not count homosexuality as a sin (which is false), but is incapable of discerning any difference between those two beliefs, then how is he culpable for accepting––or rejecting––one or the other? If he finds himself believing with equal strength both A) God deserves worship, and B) I can worship God in my homosexual relationship, and he has no way to discern the truthfulness of the one or the falsity of the other, then it seems that he would have a very good excuse. One must be able to discern the truth as true if one is to be held responsible for rejecting that truth. If there is no discernibility, then there is no culpability. And since Paul’s whole point in bringing up knowledge in this chapter is to establish culpability, that knowledge must include discernibility.

As pointed out above though, the other theories about knowledge in this passage can’t offer discernibility. In fact, the only way to discern between true and false beliefs is by reason––by inferring true things about God from His revelation in the things that have been made.

This means that there is no alternative to reason as a means of knowledge––even (or especially!) when it comes to knowledge of God. A lot of Christians have liked to imagine that Romans 1 supports knowledge apart from reason. But that’s just a fideistic fantasy. Knowledge always includes discernibility, which means that it always includes reason. You can’t have knowledge apart from reason in regard to anything else in life. And that much is true when it comes to knowledge of God, as well.

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Bachelor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. M.A. in Philosophy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.