They Just Keep Missing the Point
In my view those currently attacking Van Til and presuppositionalism are engaged in a gigantic enterprise of missing the point. They keep interpreting Romans 1:18-23 wrongly, over and over and again and again! To put it differently, they keep making the same exegetical mistake over and over again. They keep affirming that Romans 1 teaches that we can demonstrate the existence of God to men. They keep saying that men can know that God exists. But that is emphatically not what the passage says. It does not say that men can know God. It does not say that we can demonstrate to men who do not know God that God exists. It says that men do know God and that they do not need this demonstrated to them. It will probably do no good to quote the passage—since this false understanding is so deeply embedded in the thinking of Classical Apologists—, but let me do so one more time. Here is what Paul actually says: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”
Men according to Paul not only may know God, they do know God. They know God because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They know God because that which is known about God is evident within them. They know God because since the creation of the world His eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen and understood. They know God because they are without excuse. (Paul grounds their accountability on the fact that they know God. They are not simply potentially without excuse because they may come to know God. They are without excuse because they do know God.) Finally, they know God, because they sinfully refused to honor Him or give thanks.
The passage is clear. Men do not merely have the capability of knowing God after a theistic proof is presented. They know God before such a proof is presented. Yes, this knowledge is through the things that are made, but this does not mean that their knowledge of God is the result of a properly constructed theistic proof. Their knowledge of God is both mediated to them through creation and implanted in them by creation.
It should not be surprising that his modern followers misinterpret Romans 1. They are simply following in the footsteps of the identical mistake made by Thomas Aquinas.
Listen to his argument in Summa Theologica Question 2, Article 2: “The Apostle says: “The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rm. 1:20). But this would not be unless the existence of God could be demonstrated through the things that are made; for the first thing we must know of anything is whether it exists.” Thomas takes (and the surrounding context of his assertion simply emphasizes this) Romans 1:20 to mean that the existence of God is not self-evident or implanted in man, but can be demonstrated.
Listen to Thomas in Summa Contra Gentiles, Chapter 12, which is entitled: “THE OPINION OF THOSE WHO SAY THAT THE EXISTENCE OF GOD CANNOT BE DEMONSTRATED BUT IS HELD BY FAITH ALONE.” Once more in proving that the existence of God can be demonstrated, he brings up Romans 1:20. He says: “The falsity of this opinion is shown to us, first, from the art of demonstration which teaches us to arrive at causes from their effects. Then, it is shown to us from the order of the sciences. For, as it is said in the Metaphysics [IV, 3], if there is no knowable substance higher than sensible substance, there will be no science higher than physics. It is shown, thirdly, from the pursuit of the philosophers, who have striven to demonstrate that God exists. Finally, it is shown to us by the truth in the words of the Apostle Paul: “For the invisible things of God… are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom. 1:20).” Once more, it is clear that Thomas has misunderstood Romans 1. He thinks it means that one can “arrive at” and “demonstrate” that God exists. I have to say it again. This is not what Romans 1:20 teaches. It teaches men do know God. It is not something that they “arrive at” after it has been demonstrated to them. To echo Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-21, if the knowledge of God is something to be arrived at, then their being without excuse is something to be arrived at. According to Paul, all men are without excuse precisely because they do know God without the necessity of demonstration.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.