On the Importance of Philosophical Reasoning for Biblical Exegesis: Edward Feser and Romans 1:18-23

Introduction
In my mind, the ability to engage in philosophical reasoning in order to tease out the implications of particular interpretations of the Bible and other truths is indispensable for reading the Bible and teaching it to others.

Example

Edward Feser, in a post titled, “Repressed Knowledge of God?” comments that the common interpretation of Romans 1:18-23 is mistaken. Here is the passage in question from the ESV, I would translate it differently, but this translation reflects the most common interpretation:

Romans 1:18-23 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) 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. (21) 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. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

The common interpretation is that the atheist is the person to whom these verses refer. This can be seen in the writings of many schools of Christian apologetics. The idea is that atheism is always a matter of intellectual dishonesty because the Bible teaches that knowledge of the God of the Bible is so obvious that it can only be suppressed by sheer force of will. I think that some people are atheists because they accept bad arguments just like some people believe in God for silly reasons.

Without thinking about Christian theology, the psychology of all atheists, and broader philosophical conclusions, the text of Romans 1:18-23 itself militates against seeing atheists in this passage. The passage is not about people who believe in no gods, but rather those who have good reason to worship the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, but choose to worship idols.(See the footnote of this post about the passage in question for an alternative interpretation). The passage gives good insight into the results of idolatry, which is related to atheism, but it is not about atheism at all.

Feser, without attempting to exegete the Bible passage in question, refutes the view that God’s existence is so obvious as to only be denied on purpose rather handily. Here is the relevant portion of his argument:

Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God? Yes, but in something like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or for art. You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education and sustained practice.  And without cultivating your interest in music or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability might even atrophy altogether.

Or consider moral virtue.  It is natural to us, but only in the sense that we have a natural capacity for it.  Actually to acquire the virtues still requires considerable effort.  As Aquinas writes: “[V]irtue is natural to man inchoatively…both intellectual and moral virtues are in us by way of a natural aptitude, inchoatively, but not perfectly…(Summa Theologiae I-II.63.1, emphasis added), and “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training” (Summa Theologiae I-II.95.1).

Now, knowledge of God is like this. We are indeed naturally inclined to infer from the natural order of things to the existence of some cause beyond it.  But the tendency is not a psychologically overwhelming one like our inclination to eat or to breathe is. It can be dulled.  Furthermore, the inclination is not by itself sufficient to generate a very clear conception of God.  As Aquinas writes:

To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude… This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching… (Summa Theologiae I.2.1, emphasis added)

In other words, from a philosophical point of view, to claim that God’s existence is only and ever obvious, is simply untrue. And if it is a false claim, then a passage about a merely tangentially related topic in order to proof-text it obscures the Bible and contradicts sound philosophy simultaneously.

Conclusion
While pastors do not need to be arm-chair philosophers. I think it is important for those engaged in the pastoral task to skilled in logic and to be aware of the best arguments concerning philosophies most important topics. One of those would obviously be whether or not God exists.

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4 Comments

  1. I am curious, why is it that most, if not all religions, make the same claim as in Romans 1 about how that one can see the evidence of their god in the universe? Which religion should be believed if you all make the same claim and have no evidence for it?

      • That is understood, you are claiming to have the right “interpretation” as all Christians do, without having any more evidence than the next that you don’t agree with. I am still asking the question, reading your post again, there is nothing to indicate that these verses only mean those that already supposedly have a good reason to believe. There is nothing that indicates this at all, indeed, all the verse refers to is the “ungodly” which isn’t limited to the worship of other gods.

        I am curious to what you think the bad reasons to be an atheist are and what an atheist’s psychology is and how idolatry has anything to do with atheism.

  2. I’ll start with your last paragraph:
    1. Bad reasons to be an atheist include things like, “I’ve known a lot of bad Christians, so it just makes sense that Christianity is false, so that’s why I’m an atheist.” This is a common reason I’ve encountered in coffee shops and when I was in college. Do you think that there are no bad reasons to be an atheist?
    2. I never claimed to know an atheists psychology. Other Christians claim that all atheists are suppressing obvious truths. I disputed that claim because I’m claiming not to be making claims about the psychology of all atheists. I’m not a psychologist nor do I know what most people of any sort are thinking.
    3. Idolatry is related in atheism in the sense that you mentioned. Broader definitions of idolatry in the Christian tradition have included anything that any individual Christian or not, treats as ultimate reality which is not, properly, ultimate. Christians do this with sacraments, themselves, and other things. Similarly, if Christianity is true, then atheists who treat things as ultimate reality that are not properly ultimate reality are idolators in this broadened sense.

    I your first paragraph you said that “all the verse refers to is the “ungodly” which isn’t limited to the worship of other gods.” But the text actually never mentions “the ungodly.” The text mentions ungodliness as a trait of people who “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” The idea in the text is that people who had seen the works of God (Paul here is talking about the Hebrew people in Exodus) still made idols. The ungodliness is about theists engaging in a particular form of idol worship. The text, despite common Christian interpretations to the contrary, is about the possibility of those who are aware of divine revelation still being committing idolatry, not about people who fail to discern God’s existence (or the existence of a supernatural realm at all) for any particular reason.

    I really don’t know what you mean by the first sentence. My evidence for my reading of the text is that I read Greek, but even an English text provides enough evidence to the careful reader that atheists aren’t implied or even mentioned in the text.

    What do you mean by evidence? I take that word to mean, “a reason for accepting a proposition as true whether provisionally or absolutely.” And I think the different forms of evidence are of the sort contained in the modernized list of the common topics. See here: https://shallowthoughtswithgeoff.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/end-writers-block/

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