Knowledge of the truth is more than knowledge of facts, for the simple reason that facts do not exist in isolation. Each event and object is connected, either directly or distantly, with all other events and objects. The proper connecting of these facts—including the proper weighing or valuation of each—is necessary for a knowledge of truth. More than that, facts must be understood in their relationship to persons, and especially to the one Person whose mind exhaustively comprehends all facts and perceives them in their proper relations.
We never know brute facts. We know only those facts that our minds have already construed or interpreted, having assigned them a place in the universe as we imagine it to be. What we imagine the universe to be is not simply an intellectual or cognitive matter. It is freighted with moral implications. Nowhere is this moral implicatedness seen more readily than in the first half of Romans 2.
As Paul opens the chapter, he is attempting to solve a problem that has been left over from the argument of Romans 1. In that chapter, he argued that all humans are accountable for the knowledge of God that is obvious to them in the created order, namely, knowledge of His eternal power and divine nature. Rather than embracing this knowledge of God, however, humanity universally exchanges it for something else. People invent idols, and under the rubric of their idols they attempt to reconstruct the facts in ways that point away from God. Paul offers two observations about this reconstructive activity. First, it represents an attempt to hold down or suppress the truth. When they invent false systems of explanation, people are not merely making innocent mistakes. They are morally culpable for the truth that they are concealing. Second, this human abandonment of God is the source of all of the practical manifestations of depravity that degrade humanity. Paul lists the attitudes and behaviors to which God has given over humanity. The picture is not pretty.
The problem that Paul has to solve, however, is posed by the fact that not all humans plunge into the deepest manifestations of depravity. On the contrary, people are still capable of apparent virtue and altruism (as might be expected of those made in God’s image, however badly damaged). How can Paul account for these flashes of virtue, and, more importantly, how do they affect his overall assessment that humanity has utterly rejected God and suppressed the truth?