Does Paul Teach “Natural Revelation”?

 

“Paul clearly does believe that when humans look at creation they are aware, at some level, of the power and divinity of the creator.” N. T. Wright, “Romans,” 432.

Although it is tempting to find some kind of Stoicism in Paul’s thought here, he is clearly consistent with Second Temple Judaism. Wisdom 13:1-5 has a similar argument from creation:

Wisdom of Solomon 13:1–5 (NRSV) For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works; 2 but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world. 3 If through delight in the beauty of these things people assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. 4 And if people were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is the one who formed them. 5 For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.

Neither Paul nor Wisdom of Solomon advocate a “natural theology” in the sense that individuals can obtain salvation only through observation of nature (Schreiner, Romans, 86-7). But as James Dunn says, “it is scarcely possible that Paul did not intend his audience to think in terms of some kind of rational perception of the fuller reality in and behind the created cosmos” (Dunn, Romans 1-8, 58). Both Romans and Wisdom say a person is held responsible for their response to the revelation of a creator from “what has been made.”

pillars_of_creationFor Paul, this revelation is God’s “invisible qualities,” the qualities both Greek philosophy and Jewish theology would have understood as essential elements of a divine being. God is both eternal and powerful, although the Jews also understood that God as also personal (Kruse, Romans, 92).

A god that has “eternal power” is common to both Jewish and Greek philosophy. The adjective ἀΐδιος is used often in Philo to describe God (“being durable, eternal, and unchangeable” (Alleg. Interp. III 101).

Divine nature (θειότης) also is a word common to Jewish or Greek philosophy. For example, the word is used to describe Artemis, “who made Ephesus famous διὰ τῆς ἰδίας θειότητος, i.e. through manifestations of her power” (SIG 867, 31 ln. 35; BDAG).

Since this revelation is clear and understood, people are without excuse. Although the truth is out there, people “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1:18), they prevent the truth from having any effect on the way they think. This is a willful disregard for evidence which does not fit into the system of this world’s way of thinking.  “Not having an excuse” (ἀναπολόγητος, here and in in 2:1) is used when someone cannot defend themselves against an accusation, so (Plutarch, Brutus 46.2).

Does God’s revelation in creation provide enough knowledge of God to justly punish those who reject it? Although this may have been an adequate argument in the first century, does Paul’s assertion that God has “clearly revealed himself” work as part of a Christian apologetic today?

11 thoughts on “Does Paul Teach “Natural Revelation”?

  1. I have thought about this topic a lot before, especially in regard to those who have not heard the gospel before. I think of all the unreached people groups out on an island that has never had a Bible translated to their native tongue, or even a missionary step foot on their shore. I believe that creation provides a lot of knowledge about how grand, magnificent, and large our God is. One night, if they focus on a beautiful sunset, they would be able to see the beauty and imagination of God at work. On the contrary, I also think of this topic from the point of view of someone who has gone through a tragedy. What if these people who have never heard the gospel suffered a tsunami or natural disaster that wiped out their family? Does that natural disaster give them a good connotation of creation, and would they see God in creation after the devastation they just endured? These are tough questions. God is just and each case may be different, but I believe that natural revelation is not enough for salvation. Moo states,

    “People have enough information about God in the world around them to be justly condemned, but not enough to discover the good news that is the only path to salvation. To be sure, God can graciously use natural revelation as a means of stimulating people to look for further information about the God who created the world around them (Moo, p. 57-58).”

    Natural revelation can become a stepping stone to the gospel, it cannot take the place of it. Paul addresses this in later verses stating that Christ is the only way to be saved. Romans 6:23 reads, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And Romans 10:9 states, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

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  2. Reflecting on Psalm 19, the reader could come to a conclusion that based on the fact that “the Heavens declare the glory of the Lord” and Romans 1:20 both speak about creation pointing towards a creator, then creation definitely has enough substance to determine the existence of God. The human body points to a creator because of how every piece of it works smoothly and perfectly together. If the sun was a little further away from Earth, the planet would freeze and life would cease. Through examples such as these, it seems logical that a creator-type deity would exist.

    If we believe the Word today is still relevant, then I would have to say the argument about God being revealed through nature still holds power. The more scientists study the universe, human anatomy and everything else in between, the greater evidence pointing to the Lord will be discovered. God’s Word never changes so those who have never heard or acknowledged the Gospel will still have no excuse.

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  3. This is an interesting topic, and I believe that there is much debate over it lately in the postmodern Christianity that has been uprooted in todays day and age. With people like Rob Bell saying that everyone gets to heaven, and everybody else that is just riding the feel-good-Christianity train. The truth of the matter is that the Bible specifically says that the only way to the Father is through Jesus Christ. It makes me feel bad for those who die without accepting the salvation found in Jesus, but the reality is that the Bible clearly dictates that there are rules, and rule are made for a reason.

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  4. Does God’s revelation in creation provide enough knowledge of God to justly punish those who reject it? Although this may have been an adequate argument in the first century, does Paul’s assertion that God has “clearly revealed himself” work as part of a Christian apologetic today?

    I remember sitting in my bed as a young high schooler thinking about this same topic. I still wrestle with a lot of these questions. Things like, why does God create people who will never get to know His name? Are those people just fueled to fire the flames of hell? What about people in North America before the Eastern world converted them, were they able to be saved? Or are all of them destined to spend eternity in hell? If God’s creation provides salvation without the knowledge of Jesus Christ, then why do we bother with people from unsaved people groups who have their own beliefs? Does this verse contrast with Jesus’ words when He said, “No one comes to the father but through me”?

    Although these questions seem to have endless conclusions, I’m content with not knowing the answer. I just have to believe that my ways are not even close to HIs ways, and my understanding of life is minuscule compared to God’s expansive knowledge.

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  5. I think that, in general, our modern American society isn’t as aware of the natural things. We are so obsessed with checking the latest radar image on our smartphones that we fail to stop and think of what kind of power could have caused a storm (or stilled one). I think within our culture the church is a more visible presence of God than “the things that have been made.” Of course, the Church is not perfect – but neither is the natural revelation of creation. Either way, man is without excuse and can justly be punished by God. How far his grace reaches in this matter isn’t super clear but I personally think that once someone realizes that there is a creator God out there, it is up to them to make the choice to honor this God or turn to something else. I don’t know if you have to know His name or the story of His Son. If salvation comes through faith, than maybe one of the deepest faiths possible is for someone to believe in a God they see evidence of but are never told about. I don’t know (who does?) but it really is interesting to think about.

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  6. I really like the word that N.T Wright uses in regards to someone who just looks at creation. He uses the word aware and I believe it is what they do with that awareness that could have a greater weight in their salvation. Would a person who has never heard the gospel be able to be saved because they were made aware, on some level, of a creator and chose to discover as much as possible about Him? As opposed to someone who sees creation and is aware of the existence of God but does not develop that awareness nor does he grow in any way from the knowledge that he has. I think it is what a person tries to do with the awareness that they have. People can have the same information but information doesn’t save, it is the direction their heart takes with that information.

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  7. This topic has been on my mind a lot in the past. Is the knowledge of a ‘god’ or at least ‘higher power’ attainable by looking at the world we live in? i would like to see some beautiful scenery and say yes it is, but there’s just no telling i think. We all grow up with our preconceived notions or the values that our parents, school, and culture plant in our heads. It would be very hard to test if we could, having no knowledge of God or theology or any of this, somehow be able to tell that it had to be created. Of course i believe in God so i think i do look at bugs and mountains and space and technology and everything else and conclude, “wow. someone out there has to know a LOT more than i do.” but to the 4th child born to a Muslim family in Egypt, who is taught such radically different things (no pun intended) than i am in America, is it possible for him to conclude that there is a God but get EVERY other detail wrong because of his upbringing? Yes i think that is possible too. It has been hard to deal with this for me because the Bible plainly says, “people have no excuse to not believe in God because you can tell something had to create the whole world because its so complicated.” (my paraphrase). I don’t know where to go from here. i acknowledge the Bible is true but i don’t know what to do with the information.

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  8. Romans 1:20 clearly says that God’s qualities are shown and are understood through what has been made. The qualities listed specifically in the verse are God’s eternal power and divine nature. An apologetic argument I have come to know as the pocket watch argument is an example of what Paul was talking about. The argument has a person imagine a pocket watch and all of the cogs, screws, and other tiny parts that are required to make the watch run correctly. Those pieces did not just happen to be, someone had to create the pocket watch, otherwise it would just be a mess of metal bits. The same goes for the earth. The tilt of the axis, the exact distance from the sun, the makeup of the atmosphere, all things that had to be precise in order to have life on earth. Had one thing been off by one degree, life would not be possible. There are many things involved in the creation of the earth that made it possible to bear life. All of those things could not have just happened, someone had to have made it.

    Paul’s argument of general revelation is relevant in today’s society because many people are interested in how the earth runs and the history of how the earth came to be. If someone were to look at every single thing that involves having life on earth, it would be clear to them that there is a creator. There are those that suppress the truth, saying that it did indeed just happen that way, and those are the people God will judge because they have suppressed the truth.

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