Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Romans 1:18-21)
In Romans 1, Paul masterfully explains the human condition that is common to us all. That while God’s power and divinity may be comprehended by the things that are made, we became “vain in our imaginations” – we imagined that the world is a different way – and we rejected God. We changed the truth into a lie (v.25) and became idolatrous.
So, what is it that man knows about God? This is a matter of some debate amongst Christians. Thomas Aquinas, Roman Catholic scholastic theologian, said this regarding our knowledge of God by reason:
Our natural knowledge begins from sense. Hence our natural knowledge can go as far as it can be led by sensible things. But our mind cannot be led by sense so far as to see the essence of God; because the sensible effects of God do not equal the power of God as their cause. Hence from the knowledge of sensible things the whole power of God cannot be known; nor therefore can His essence be seen. But because they are His effects and depend on their cause, we can be led from them so far as toknow of God “whether He exists,” and to know of Him what must necessarily belong to Him, as the first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by Him. (Summa, I.12.xxii)
Aquinas believed we could know “that God is” by our natural knowledge, though it takes grace to know “who he is” . Calvin famously struggled with our knowledge of God in the opening of the Institutes. He states while “a sense of diety is inscribed on every heart” (Inst., I.3.i) still this is a corrupted reason by nature, such that:
instead of ascending higher than themselves as they ought to do, they measure him by their own carnal stupidity, and neglecting solid inquiry, fly off to indulge their curiosity in vain speculation…they do not conceive of him in the character in which he is manifested, but imagine him to be whatever their own rashness has devised.
Thus, he distinguishes himself from Aquinas in that even those principles which can be seen are not seen as they are but instead corrupted by sin. Franciscus Junius, Reformed scholastic theologian, followed Calvin in this and said that while man can acquire some knowledge of the divine naturally, this knowledge is veiled and imperfect. As a result of the fall, “[it was] rendered even far more veiled” and “collapsed altogether into a far more serious imperfection” (A Treatise on True Theology, p.155).
Cornelius Van Til, 20th century Reformed theologian, agreed with Calvin as well. Van Til’s own position can – at times – be difficult to understand (as many of his own interpreters will attest) but here’s one quote that is especially helpful on this subject:
With Calvin I find the point of contact for the presentation of the gospel to non-Christians in the fact that they are made in the image of God and as such have the ineradicable sense of deity within them. Their own consciousness is inherently and exclusively revelational of God to themselves. No man can help knowing God for in knowing himself he knows God. His self-consciousness is totally devoid of content unless, as Calvin puts it at the beginning of his Institutes, man knows himself as a creature before God” (DOF 257).
Van Till stressed the importance of the idea that God is known prior to any other knowledge (in other words, he is presupposed). God is not a conclusion to arrive at; rather, he is a known prior to all things. Man’s knowledge of Him is immediate.
While these different views at times argue the finer points – as they should – here’s some common ground. We must recognize that God has revealed himself in the things that are made. What he has revealed is by no means perfect – meaning, unless he were to graciously condescend to reveal himself, we would not know him. In fact, this is precisely the language of Westminster 7.1 (take a look today if you get time). Moreover, because man is sinful by nature and totally depraved, he has turned to idols and thus bankrupted himself of even that imperfect knowledge of God that nature gives.
Thus, when talking with an unbeliever, it is necessary to point out to him that God will not be “proved” as a conclusion from facts given. God, as a principle, is prior to all our conclusions. And, what we see in nature confirms this though this knowledge is not salvific or sufficient. What is required is the kind of knowledge that is saving: a gracious condescension on God’s part, revealed through covenant and given in special revelation: God’s holy word.
Today, I encourage you to read through Psalm 19 and considered its implications. When I read it, I see a glorious declaration of God’s revelation of Himself in nature (v.1-6) and in his Word (7-14). All of our knowledge begins from and proceeds to Him.
Soli Deo Gloria.