By Shane Wilkins
Let's begin our investigation with a few quick definitions and distinctions. Revelation means either an act whereby God gives someone knowledge of himself or the knowledge so given. On the view I defend, revelation comes in two varieties, special and general. Special revelation involves God taking a special direct act different from his normal activity as the creator and sustainer of the cosmos. In general revelation God acts simply in his normal way as the creator and sustainer of the cosmos. Corresponding to the two kinds of revelation are the two kinds of knowledge which they produce. When God specially reveals himself we call the result special knowledge. Knowledge of God produced by general revelation is called natural knowledge of God because God reveals it indirectly by means of the created world. In both cases God brings revelation about: either directly by his own activity or indirectly by means of creaturely reality. Hence, both kinds of knowledge of God are properly understood as manifestations of God's grace or God's unmerited favor towards us.
Thomas Aquinas, following a venerable tradition, appeals to Romans 1 as the explicit theological authorization of the possibility of natural knowledge of God. Among modern biblical scholars Dunn, Black, Bayne and Fitzmeyer agree with Thomas that this text endorses the possibility of natural knowledge of God. Karl Barth, Cranfield, Barrett and Douglass Campbell endorse the opposite view that the text absolutely prohibits the possibility of natural knowledge of God.
I think there are three major pieces of evidence that show the tradition is correct and Barth and his followers are wrong. The first is purely exegetical. Reading Romans 1 in the context of the OT and intertestamental literature to which it alludes and also within its context in the first three chapters of the epistle strongly suggests that Paul believes the gentiles could have had knowledge of God without the benefit of special revelation. The second piece of evidence is the theological rationale behind the position Paul is adopting. How could God justly punish the gentiles for violating his law if it were impossible for them to know God's law or indeed whether God existed at all? The third piece of evidence for my view is the serious difficulties and inconsistencies that face the opposite interpretation. Since Paul either endorses the possibility of natural knowledge of God in this text or he does not, every difficulty in the latter interpretation strengthens the case for the former.
- Exegetical Evidence
The first piece of exegetical evidence in favor of my position is the literary context of the passage. The OT wisdom literature assumes that it is justifiable to blame people for not knowing that God exists. Psalm 14 calls one who denies God's existence a fool (aphron). (Cf. also Isaiah 32:6.) Furthermore, Wisdom 13, to which Paul is directly alluding in Romans 1, links the ideas of foolishness and ignorance of God even more closely:
 For all men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan;  But either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods.  Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them.  Or if they were struck by their might and energy, let them from these things realize how much more powerful is he who made them.  For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.  But yet, for these the blame is less; For they indeed have gone astray perhaps, though they seek God and wish to find him.  For they search busily among his works, but are distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair.  But again, not even these are pardonable.  For if they so far succeeded in knowledge that they could speculate about the world, how did they not more quickly find its LORD?The writer of Wisdom seems almost astonished. Given that the pagans (presumably he has in mind the Greek philosophers) have “so far succeeded in knowledge that they could speculate about the world,” one would assume they would continue thinking and discover the Lord. But, in fact, despite their successful study into the principles and causes of the natural world, they foolishly remained ignorant of the God who created it. Since Paul is alluding to this passage, it is very likely that he agrees with the conclusion of its author that those who do not know God are fools (cf. also Rom 2:20, where Paul says that Israel was supposed to be a instructor to the foolish, aphron again.) Further, the context of the remark in Wisdom and the parallel passage in Romans indicates that it is gentiles here who are being blamed for failing to know God.3 But of course no one is a fool for not knowing what cannot be known. There is no greatest prime number. Hence, I cannot be said to be foolish for failing to know what the greatest prime number is, just because that would be impossible for me to know. On the other hand, I may be a fool for having lost my keys precisely because I could have known where my keys were if only I had been a little more thoughtful and careful. One could scarcely blame the pagan philosophers for being ignorant of God if it were simply a priori impossible for them to have been otherwise. On the other hand, it makes a lot of sense to censure the pagans for their foolishness if it were possible for them to have had knowledge of God, which they failed to attain simply through lack of care or because they were led astray by their wicked desires. Two further clues tell us the kind of knowledge of God which the gentiles could have possessed is natural knowledge rather than special knowledge. First, the people being blamed are gentiles and so they do not possess special revelation. Second, the people singled out for censure are those who investigate the natural world most closely and so should be expected most easily to find out its creator.
The second piece of important exegetical evidence is the context of Romans 1 in the first three chapters of Romans as a whole. A very simple and natural way to read these texts is to see 1:18ff. as a proclamation of divine wrath against the gentiles. Then in 2:2, Paul turns to condemning the sinfulness of Jews, which is, if anything, more inexcusable since they have direct revelation from God through the Law of Moses. The stunning conclusion comes in 3:10: “there is no one righteous, not one.” The point to which Paul is driving is that neither the Jews, nor the Gentiles are innocent before God, and so everyone stands in need of salvation by grace through faith. The theological point Paul is trying to make here requires that natural knowledge of God be possible in order to vindicate the righteousness of God's calling the gentiles to account for their sin, as we shall see in the next section.
- Theological Evidence
It is unjust to punish someone for doing something they could not possibly have avoided doing. Further, we acknowledge that honest ignorance excuses: Suppose I buy a brand new car and ten minutes down the highway the brake lines snap resulting in a fatal accident. I say that in that case I am innocent; I had an honest ignorance of the tragedy that was going to take place, hence there wasn't anything I could have reasonable been expected to do to avoid it; hence I am not guilty for it. (The case might have been different if the car were old and generally unreliable, in which case one might think that I did have a reasonable ability to know that it was dangerous and therefore a duty to have it thoroughly inspected.)
God condemns the gentiles and will punish them for their sins according to Paul. The theological problem here is how God can justly do so; for the gentiles might quite plausibly claim that their actions were undertaken in honest ignorance of God's commands since, after all, the law of Moses was not given to them and indeed they did not possess any special revelation by which to know whether God even exists! However, Paul responds that God is just to condemn the gentiles because God's law is already written on their hearts by nature (Rom 2:12-15). Indeed, in our passage in Romans 1 Paul says that “God's invisible qualities are manifest” and follows it with a result clause: “ . . . with the result that people are without excuse.” In other words, since the gentiles could have known about God's existence and his qualities because they were made manifest, and because they could have known his law since it was written on their hearts by nature (or more properly by the Author of nature), then it is perfectly just for God to punish them for failing in their duties.
Paul's argument in Romans absolutely demands the possibility of natural knowledge of God. If it were Paul's position that natural knowledge of God were impossible, then God could not justly condemn the gentiles, and hence the conclusion would not follow in chapter 3 that everyone is guilty and liable to divine punishment and therefore in need of grace. Further, I think the possibility of natural knowledge of God is perfectly compatible with the Pauline emphasis upon the necessity of grace for knowledge of God, since as we have seen, according to Paul it is God himself who makes himself known through creation (v. 19). Further, the possibility of natural knowledge of God poses no threat to the notion that it is salvific faith requires special revelation by the direct action of the holy spirit, since there is no suggestion whatsoever in Paul that the possibility of natural knowledge of God suffices for salvific faith, so there is no backdoor for pelagianism here.
I think these two pieces of evidence I've presented give a pretty strong reason to think that Paul is indeed holding out the possibility of natural knowledge of God here in Romans 1. The text demands it and it seems perfectly consistent with Paul's other theological commitments. But my case can be bolstered even further by briefly pointing out some of the enormous difficulties that face the contrary interpretation.
Barth's exegesis of this passage in both his Romans commentary and in Church Dogmatics II/1 strikes me as vague and obscure. I don't see any good argument exegetical or otherwise in either of those texts for saying that natural knowledge of God isn't possible. All I see is Barth repeatedly asserting what he thinks about the matter. But what is asserted without proof can be denied without proof. Therefore natural knowledge of God is possible. QED.
Cranfield and Douglass Campbell both accept Barth's interpretation, but they each also try to actually provide an exegetical argument to support that interpretation, so they deserve (slightly) more mention. Cranfield admits that Paul's text requires that we say that the pagans have knowledge of God, but he tries to save Barth's position by distinguishing between objective and subjective knowledge. (p. 113) Cranfield thinks that everyone has objective knowledge of God, but because of original sin, no one is capable of being subjectively aware of this knowledge. This is nonsense. Knowledge you cannot even in principle be aware of is not knowledge. Presumably the concern that leads Cranfield into holding this awkward conclusion is the worry about pelagianism. But I've already shown that my position does not entail pelagianism, so Cranfield's worry is beside the point.
Campbell tries to save Barth's position in an entirely different way. He admits that all of the things Paul says in Romans 1 add up to an endorsement of the possibility of natural theology, but say that Paul is employing the literary device of prosopopeia, namely speaking not in his own voice but in the voice of his opponents to refute their position. This is an extremely unlikely interpretation for two reasons. First, simply because prosopopoeia is a fairly rare literary device in the NT, so we would need some fairly compelling reason to think Romans 1 is an instance of it. And we don't have any such compelling evidence. In fact, we've got a fairly strong lack of evidence. In prosopopoeia, usually we have a short pithy sentence expressing the opponent's position and then immediately a contradictory claim in the author's own voice refuting it. Cf. 1 Cor 8: “We all have knowledege. But knowledge puffs up, whereas love builds the church.” If you read these passages straight, they sound contradictory. You only punt to prosopopoeia to make the contradictions disappear. However, there is nothing contradictory about reading Romans 1 straight, as I have suggested above. So there's no good textual reason to postulate the existence of a very rare literary form like prosopopoeia. Second, there's no good theological reason to postulate it either, since, as I have tried to show above, the possibility of natural theology is broadly consistent with Paul's theology as a whole and his emphasis upon the necessity of grace. If my interpretation above was correct, then the things Paul says in Romans 1 about natural knowledge of God are broadly consistent with the rest of his theology and indeed are demanded by the overall argument of the first half of the book of Romans. Campbell thinks that Paul is saying all of this in the voice of his opponent. But that simply doesn't make any sense. Why would Paul say things that he agrees with and that serve to make his own point in the voice of his opponent?
Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind when reading Romans is that Paul presents the work of Christ to two groups, the Jews and the gentiles. He notes right up front that the gospel is for the Jew first and then the gentile (1:16). Why does he express it thus? Because the two groups know God or about God differently. The Jew, as Paul will state in chapters three and nine, has advantages which we would classify as special revelation: the promises, the Law, the prophets, the covenants, the Temple, the adoption, and the Messiah (according to the flesh). The gentile as a human bears God’s image, but does not live out God’s truth. The contrast between Jew and gentile is not only what they know or do not know, but also what they choose to do with that knowledge. For Paul, the gentile has knowledge of God but refuses to live according to it – that is, the gentile does not glorify the one true God or acknowledge his power and blessing.
Paul assumes in his argument the ancient institution of benefaction, wherein the gift giver expects honor from the one receiving the gift. Failure to thank a benefactor was unpardonable. In fact, Seneca remarks about a movement afoot to make it illegal to fail to publically honor or praise one’s benefactor (On Benefits 3:15-16). Seneca is against the measure, in part because he’s afraid that once a number of people are charged with such malfeasance, others will become numb to the gravity of the offense and follow suit. Seneca’s response reveals the commonly held assumption that the recipient of a gift MUST give honor to the giver or be judged a social outcast. Thus when Paul judges the gentiles’ failure to act on their knowledge of God, Paul is placing the gentiles’ actions within the institution of benefaction. He knew that his readers would be appalled that a recipient would fail to honor or thank their benefactor. Not only did the gentiles deny honor of their true benefactor, they set up a false benefactor. This is another way of describing idolatry. As Paul argues, it is not simply that idolaters have intellectual hang-ups about particular aspects of deity. No, the idolater stands in the center of town and in everyone’s presence declares allegiance to that which is not God.
But it is not only the idolater which is condemned, it is also the gentile who judges those idolaters but fails to understand the true problem underpinning the practice. The former has substituted one from of idolatry for another – a stone statue for human Reason. In both cases, the end result is failure to praise the one true God. Here I part company with Wilkins in one detail, in that I think 2:1 speaks about gentiles who embrace the popular philosophies of the day, such as Stoicism, which mock the superstitious attitudes and behaviors of their less educated country-folk. Paul, it should be noted, does not mention Jews directly until 2:17, when he tackling them on their failure to live out the truth of the law.
A second important aspect of Rom 1 and 2 which I do not have space to develop, is that of ‘doing’ belief. As Paul states, it is not those who hear who are justified, but those who do (2:13); it is those who live out their understanding of the one true God who are blessed (2:6-8). He presents humans as capable of acting outside the explicit knowledge of the law (special revelation) in ways which honor God their Benefactor. Their behaviors and attitudes are praiseworthy because they are consistent with God’s character. Knowledge of that character does not come from the special revelation given the Jews, thus it most likely comes from the natural revelation given by the Creator God.