Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Calvinist Reading of Romans 1:19-32?

Skull Galaxy
Weird Creation as Intelligent Design?

Some weeks ago, I questioned a Calvinist reading of Romans 1:19-20:
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."
My interlocutor, Professor Adolfo García de la Sienra, responded:
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.
I've only now had some time to reply to the professor's remark. The verse that he cites occurs within a longer passage that speaks of God allowing human beings to descend into reprobation. It does not seem to refer to a one-time event, such as the Fall, but to a process of darkening described in verses 21 through 32. But even this darkening of the heart, i.e., the understanding, does not extinguish knowledge of God, notes Paul, nor even of God's judgment concerning their sin, for verse 32 points out:
Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.
The word Greek term here for "knowing" (ἐπιγινώσκω, epiginōskō) means not only "to know" but even "to become thoroughly acquainted with, to know thoroughly." The tense of the Greek is "second aorist active participle," which I suppose could be translated as "having known," as in Young's Literal Translation, but the other eleven translations offered by the Blue Letter Bible prefer "knowing" or "know." Even the YLT, however, presupposes that those whose hearts were darkened had known of God's judgment, and given that verses 21-32 describe a process that does not seem relegated to a one-time event, then I would read this process as one that every individual might undergo.

Moreover, even if individuals "did not like (cf. οὐ, ou + δοκιμάζω, dokimazō) to retain God in [their] knowledge" (verse 28), this translation seems to imply a choice in the matter, a point that the other eleven translations offered seem to agree upon.

The natural man can therefore gaze at the form of the galaxy in the image above and see the hand of God forming a cosmic man, for the skull and brain are already visible! Okay, just kidding about the specifics there. But I would like to note that Christianity has from its inception argued for a natural theology and has developed this form of theology rather highly. Modern theologians such as William Lane Craig engage in such theological reasoning as evidence for God's existence, pointing to the so-called "fine-tuning" of the universe's fundamental constants as suggesting an intelligence designing the world. Whatever one might think of the particular arguments, the presupposition seems to be that Christianity can defend God's existence on the basis of evidence interpreted by reason and that the non-Christians are capable of following such reasoning.

I suppose that some Calvinists would disagree . . .

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At 1:59 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

Perhaps the word "accept" can come into play here in terms of the moral depravity of man: Knowing does not mean acceptance.

Reading this, I thought of Satan and the original fall. Created far superior than mankind, we wouldn't doubt that he had knowledge and understanding of God, but he was not capable (or willing?) to accept what he knew. He fought against it.

Perhaps we can say that Adam and Eve also suffered from an inability to accept restrictions that were easy enough to understand in full: Don't eat that fruit or you'll die.

(Of course, Eve had someone distorting her understanding of the original restriction by lying about it.)

Can absolute moral depravity be the inability to put full knowledge of God into action or a mode of being? Which would match the Paul's view of the Mosaic Law and man's inability to achieve salvation through it...

At 4:39 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

After reading the comments from the original post, I thought to add to the last paragraph of my first comment...

Knowledge does not necessitate acceptance. And acceptance does not necessitate an ability to follow through. And the inability to follow through fully does not preclude free will.

Romans 7:18-19 has Paul saying nothing good lives in him - in his sinful nature. "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I can't carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing."

Paul recognized good and evil and made a free choice to do the good (rather than the evil), but his ability to achieve the good was inadequate due to man's nature (and oddly enough, ended up with him doing the evil - which is a significant further step than just being unable to do the good...).

Here, if total moral depravity is defined as the inability to be good/do good/follow the law, it does not interfere with free will. (It would if MD is defined as being an unwillingness to be good.)

Romans 8:7 can add to this: "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering..."

For Christians, then, the inability to put knowledge into practice does not mean a man is destined to condemnation. They have an alternative - God's sacrifice given through grace - IF they accept it.

Which brings up back to the start of the original post: Do the "invisible [attributes] clearly seen" include Christ and the sacrifice? If so, how? If not, how is God just?

At 7:03 PM, Blogger dhr said...

What I recently ruminated on is: When we deal with God's "existence" -- what do we mean by "existence"?

* If the term refers to our condition, then it does not apply to God, by definition.
* If it refers to something else, then we don't (we cannot) know what we are talking about.

So, does the question make any sense?

At 7:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scott A., primarily, I was focusing upon the process of darkening and arguing that the darkening is more likely intended by Paul here as a process through which anyone may pass in turning from God despite knowing him through creation.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It would have to mean noncontingent existence as well as the ground of all other existing things . . . I guess. That would be both different than and similar so us.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:10 PM, Blogger dhr said...

the ground of all other existing things

In fact, that is the half-solution I also came to (except the word "other"). But the problem just shifts a bit, because: Is "noncontingent existence" an oxymoron?

Medieval Scholastic theologians, after Aristotle, distinguished between "ens" (existing thing) and "Esse" (pure act), but, again: What should this Esse supposed to "be"? How can we know it?

On the other hand, if we can have no idea about something transcendent, how can we simply formulate this sentence: "We can have no idea about something transcendent"?

All of it may just look like wordplays, but, metaphysically speaking, the issue is intriguing.

At 8:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You should read my friend Bill Vallicella's book, A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:29 PM, Blogger dhr said...

"Onto-Theology Vindicated" eh? The enemies of Heidegger are my friends

At 9:55 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It's a great book.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:08 AM, Blogger dhr said...

While reading St Gregory of Nyssa's Sermons on the Beatitudes, just come across this beautiful definition: "Human nature is the image of transcendent bliss" (εικων ουσα της υπερκειμενης μακαριοτετος). And, after sin, Jesus becomes "he who repictures our soul in the likeness of the Only Blissful One." --Sermons on the Beatitudes, I, 3.

At 2:44 AM, Blogger dhr said...

P.S. St Gregory interestingly forewarns that "anything we may suppose It (αυτο = the divine being, realm, etc.) is..."

At 3:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

St. Gregory sounds influenced by negative theology.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:45 AM, Blogger dhr said...

Affirmative, Sir.

At 4:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Better than a negative, which can never be proven . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:18 AM, Blogger dhr said...

Anyway, the book is definitely worth reading! By reading on, we find that Gregory practically turns Paul's sentence upside down: "All other features" i.e. except Jesus' humbleness, “that can be seen [καθοραται] of the divine nature (or, essence) go beyond the measure of human smallness," meaning that they are unconceivable.

Furthermore, a sentence about a subject you love, "Eating Death." Gregory says: Η ζωη θανατου γευεται, "Life tastes death," referring to the Lord dying on the cross.

Plus the devil's and Man's Fall, etc. etc., but not now.

At 7:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sounds like food for the mind that I'd like to digest . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:50 AM, Blogger dhr said...

Just finished reading Gregory's work. Really a 'must,' dealing with all of your / our favorite theological and philosophical issues in a brilliant, paradoxical, deep, wonderful way.

English edition: HR Drobner / A. Viciano (ed.), "Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Beatitudes. An English version...", supplements to "Vigiliae Christianae" 52, Leiden / Boston 2000.

At 6:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Vigiliae Christianae, eh? Must be expensive.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:16 PM, Blogger dhr said...

Well, since you can read ancient Greek, you could purchase the 'pocket' Italian version, including the original text.

Gregorio di Nissa, "Omelie sulle Beatitudini," Milan: Paoline, 2011, some 20 to 30 euro (excuse me, currently off home, with a slow pc, otherwise would check it more carefully)

At 5:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Read ancient Greek? I'm flattered, but I don't. I decipher Koine Greek.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:17 PM, Blogger dhr said...

oh, yes, I meant "ancient" in comparison to now, but the koiné / Fathers' one, not Homer's, etc.
The main concepts, at least, are the same as in the New Testament.

At 5:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Koine's certainly easier than Classical Greek, but I still only decipher the stuff.

Jeffery Hodges

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