Monday, February 06, 2006

Rom 1:18-21 and the NA thesis

This is the scripture passage used to defend the claim that there are no atheists.

18
The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
19
For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them.
20
Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse;
21
for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened.

Some key questions about this passage:
1) The passage does not say that there are no atheists. That result would have be inferred exegetically. I've never heard it claimed that exegesis by human beings possesses inerrancy.

2) Is this about the human race individually or collectively? It seems to me to be more defensible as a claim about the human race collectively than it is about each person individually.

3) If we are saying that this is true of individuals, what is says is that every individual at one point in their life knew God. It does not follow from that they these persons now know God. There is such a thing as forgetting.

4) We need an analysis of what the term "knew" means in the context of the passage. Does it mean that at some point in their life they formed the belief that God exists? Or that they had an awareness of something which, had they followed up on it, would have resulted in the belief that God exists?

5) The awareness of God is presumably to be found in the things God has made. From this it would seem that the passage is implying that the design argument is obviously a good one.

From this I conclude that this passage in Romans falls far short of supporting the claim that there are no atheists. Even if all atheists are suppressing the truth, it is still a mistake to say that they really believe that God exists.

3 comments:

Randy said...

"For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them....

As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened."


Looks like Paul is saying it is impossible for an atheist to be intellectually honest.

Victor Reppert said...

I think that's the claim that they have a biblical argument for. Though it is possible to argue that people who reject a monotheistic conception of God are as a group intellectually dishonest (being influenced by intellectually dishonest people) but there may be intellectually honest people amongst them.

Jason said...

There's actually much more (and less, in some ways) going on in those particular chapters than 'all atheists are intellectually dishonest.'. (I started drafting up an exegetical analysis, and what I suspect is the _halfway_ point runs 20K text-file.)

The most relevant point for the immediate discussion, perhaps, is that St. Paul is _NOT_ talking about 'all atheists in general'. He makes no statement on that at all. Strictly speaking, he isn't even talking about people who _claim_ atheism. (Consider: how likely is it that a group of Roman "Greeks and barbarians" would go around claiming 'we do not believe in a divinity at all'? Not surprisingly, St. Paul continues on to talk about the gods they _do_ worship.)

It's entirely possible (as St. Paul knows, as a rabbi familiar with, and working within, the story of Israel) for people who profess a belief even in God Himself to not accord Him glory or give Him thanks. Indeed, Paul doesn't stay very long on the topic of these Greeks and barbarians (to whom he says he owes a real debt which he is eager to repay!); but rather cleverly segues from a condemnation of what they are doing, into a condemnation of the tendency among his _Christian_ readers to _be_ condemning!

And that's only a few of the things going on. The total picture doesn't lend itself at all to a use of, say, verses 18-21 as a witness that all atheists are without excuse and culpable as such.

Jason