Monday, September 19, 2011

"Total Depravity" and Romans 1:20

Adolfo García de la Sienra
(Image from Metanexus Institute)

I have had a LinkedIn site for about a year now because an old Baylor friend wanted to link to me, but I did little with it until recently, when I began filling in my page with a few details, including my publications.

I decided to fill it in with more details only after I received a link request from Adolfo García de la Sienra, professor of philosophy and economic theory at Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico. I'm not sure why he wanted a link . . . though I might have had contact with him several years ago when I was doing some research concerning John Milton's views on divine grace and human free will, for his name is somehow familiar to me.

Anyway, I had a bit of time to spare when I received his link request, so I took a look at his paper on "Christian Faith as Trust" (Balkan Journal of Philosophy, Volume 2, Issue 1, 2010) and noticed that in one of his quotes from the Greek New Testament, he'd left off a verb. I therefore sent him a note on that and asked a few questions:
I read your article "Christian Faith as Trust" a few moments ago. Interesting, if a bit over my head. I happened to notice that your quote of Romans 1:19 on page 15B was missing the Greek verb "ἐφανέρωσεν" (showed [aorist]). This verb, by the way, is aorist.

The translation is not greatly affected, though I would use past (made it plain) rather than present perfect (has made it plain). Here are verses 19-20:
1:19 διότι τὸ γνωστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ φανερόν ἐστιν ἐν αὐτοῖς ὁ γὰρ θεὸς αὐτοῖς ἐφανέρωσεν

1:20 τὰ γὰρ ἀόρατα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου τοῖς ποιήμασιν νοούμενα καθορᾶται ἥ τε ἀΐδιος αὐτοῦ δύναμις καὶ θειότης εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτοὺς ἀναπολογήτους.
I have a question, however. The translation of "καθορᾶται" in verse 20 is given as "have been clearly seen" in your paper, but this is a present tense and should read "are clearly seen." Does this affect your argument, which seems to depend upon God's eternal power and divine nature to have been "originally visible, manifest and evident to all men" (emphasis mine)? The verb "καθορᾶται" would seem to imply that God's eternal power and divine nature are currently "visible, manifest and evident to all men."

I hope that this email is of some use.
I received an answer fairly quickly:
Your translation makes sense to me and I will certainly take it into account in my Spanish translation of the paper. The point is that God's eternal power and divine nature "are there" to be seen by men. The problem is that men can't see it due to a corruption of their spirit caused by sin. This is what Reformed theology calls "total depravity" (an inappropriate term for a clear concept). Spiritual regeneration removes this incapacity.
I understand his point. However, I don't see that this passage in Romans provides strong evidence for the Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) view. Look again at Romans chapter 1, verse 20, quoting this time from the Morphological Greek New Testament (though it looks to be identical this time to the Textus Receptus):
τὰ γὰρ ἀόρατα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου τοῖς ποιήμασιν νοούμενα καθορᾶται ἥ τε ἀΐδιος αὐτοῦ δύναμις καὶ θειότης εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτοὺς ἀναπολογήτους.
I'll just borrow a translation from the New King James Version:
For since the creation of the world His invisible [attributes] are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, [even] His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.
As I noted above, the translation of "καθορᾶται" in verse 20 reads "are clearly seen." The Greek verb comes from καθοράω and means "to see thoroughly, perceive clearly, understand." The sense of this verb seems to run counter to the Reformed view of "total depravity" since it appears to insist that human beings can infer the invisible attributes of God from the visible creation, and this human capacity for natural theology is precisely what leaves human beings "without excuse."

Whether or not Paul is right about this human capacity, his argument seems to assume that humans have the ability even in their sinful state, and that doesn't appear to be consistent with Reformed views on "total depravity."

But I'm no expert, and Professor Adolfo García de la Sienra may very well have an answer.

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22 Comments:

At 8:28 AM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

Does the Greek word for see have the explicit meaning of understanding as well?

If not, Jesus explaining why he talked to the people in parables would seem to apply - which connects with Isaiah. The first verse I located was Mark 4:12 which has Jesus quoting Isaiah 6:9-10:

"Seeing they may see and not perceive, And hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, And their sins be forgiven them.’"

 
At 8:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That verse seems to refer to teachings that are intentionally obscure, unlike Romans 1:20, which is about inferring a Creator from the clear evidence of creation.

If you click on the link, you can see the lexicon where I got the definition that I used.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:00 PM, Blogger dhr said...

Yeah, the very classic problem of Catholic Church vs. Reformed Churches, Erasmus' "De libero arbitrio" vs. Luther's "De servo arbitrio."

I think that, in both cases, it does not depend on the interpretation of one verse, as rather on an overall a-priori view (kathoratai!) of God and Man. Which is then followed in reading the Bible.

As to the Catholic Church, after reading a lot of authors from any century, it can be said that they obviously stress either Man's inner freedom or slavery according to the eras, moods, occasions etc.

 
At 3:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that belief in a benevolent deity can only be defended on the assumption of free will granted to persons.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:16 PM, Blogger dhr said...

This is an interesting point.

Luther & Co., poor fellas, won't be satisfied with you... after all the efforts he underwent...
:-)

 
At 4:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If humans had no free will, holding them morally responsible would be indefensible.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:27 PM, Blogger dhr said...

That is an issue I have often been pondering on. Without 'a solution,' of course.

But, as to freedom and guilt, and once more in line with Arthur Schopenhauer, it is remarkable that a criminal is sentenced NOT because he was "free" not to do it, BUT because he actually did it, therefore he is dangerous because he could do it again. - The Law providing for some exceptions (mental disability, etc.), but this is not the point.

 
At 6:30 PM, Blogger dhr said...

P.S. In fact, in some civilizations the notion of guilt is applied even when the person did not do it "on his/her will," see broken taboos. So, freedom is not necessarily a condition.

 
At 7:44 PM, Blogger dhr said...

Excuse me, just one more hint. Freedom could be seen not as a starting point of morals, but as a goal.

E.g. like in some Church Fathers, or Hegel, or Dante, who at the end of Paradiso thanks Beatrice for drawing him from spirital slavery TO freedom.

 
At 9:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Human systems of justice would only obscurely reflect divine ones, so we should also reflect with care.

Suppose God had created a world without free will but in which a 'mistake' could result in a fallen world. Conceivably, God could establish 'punishments' to shape behavior in the manner of B. F. Skinner. But there would be no need for moral condemnation except as yet another 'punishment' applied as if the malefactor had free will. Indeed, the malefactor would have to be assured that he or she had free will and thus deserved punishment. But this would be an elaborate charade, a deception unworthy of the most perfect being.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:29 AM, Blogger dhr said...

Yes, you are right: in the light of God's revelation through the Bible, Man cannot but have free will.

Just, that is not so "obvious" to perceive - say - philosophically. Dante wrote that "those who philosophically went most deep" aknowledged the existence of the free will, but he was wrong, as far as the history of philosophy is concerned.

 
At 4:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I admit that I find the Bible unclear on free will. It speaks of humanity as 'enslaved' to sin, but it insists on individual culpability and urges one to choose good over evil. Of course, the Bible isn't a philosophical text and doesn't attempt to set things out formally, which is why one has to extrapolate in the act of interpreting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:49 AM, Blogger dhr said...

I admit that I find the Bible unclear on free will

If even a careful reader of the Bible like you says this, it means that That Is The Question.

That makes things more interesting, not less.

 
At 5:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Unclear . . . but responsibility implies free will.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:05 AM, Blogger dhr said...

Maybe the episode of God giving the Law to Moses could offer a key: The people is / are called TO freedom. Which then is a divine gift, but in the sense of a personal encounter with God, rather than some "inborn" power.

The difference being more a theoretical than a pragmatical one, anyway, if God is seen as the One who creates Man in order to start a personal relationship with Himself.

 
At 6:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

There is a moment in which the children of Israel are given a choice of accepting or rejecting the commandments.

But I'm too busy (i.e., lazy) to look it up right now . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:09 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I wonder whether any of you fine folks have read the fantasy novels of Stephen R. Donaldson. His Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (First, Second and Final Chronicles) feature freedom and necessity among their central themes.

 
At 1:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've not read them, but I suppose that I should.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:09 PM, Blogger dhr said...

The Biblical quote should be Deuteronomy 30.15 ff.

I didn't know about Donaldson's novels.

 
At 8:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Dario.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:08 PM, Blogger Adolfo García de la Sienra said...

You cannot interpret Romans 1:20 leaving aside the next verse, 1:21, where it is said that "their foolish hearts were darkened". The whole passage seems to describe the condition of the human race which, at the beginning, had the capability to find God in creation.

Just in case there is still any doubt, read 1 Corinthians 2, especially 2:14, where it is said that "the natural man (i.e. the unregenerate man, without the Spirit) does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." This (and other passages) are clearly pointing out to a certain incapability of "natural" humans to understand things divine.

 
At 4:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the additional verses. I'll think about them.

Jeffery Hodges

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