All knowledge begins with divine revelation. The great axiom of all rationality is that God is and that He has spoken. Unless our sensations and perceptions are rightly interpreted—unless they are fit into the correct framework of relationships—then they prove either unintelligible or misleading. In order to know, facts must be connected to other facts, to values, and to persons. Revelation gives us the framework, the great interpretive scheme within which all facts, values, and persons may be assigned their proper meaning.
Revelation does not point out to us all of the details of the world. It leaves plenty of room for the human impulse toward exploration and argumentation. Nor does it guarantee that, when we interpret facts within its framework, every interpretation will be correct. What it does is to provide a foundation upon which we can build and a set of parameters or boundaries upon which our understanding of reality must not encroach.
We cannot argue about axioms. That God is and that God has spoken are first truths. There is no proving them. Either we begin with a commitment to these truths or we begin falsely.
Nor do we need to argue about them. Through revelation, God has brought Himself near to us. He has made Himself both available and comprehensible. He has revealed, not merely propositions, but Himself. He has presented Himself to humanity in an obvious way (Rom. 1:19).
To be sure, God’s self-disclosure is not exhaustive. How could it ever be? God is an infinite person. His intricacy, wisdom, and glory are manifold and beyond comprehension. Even though He is utterly simple as to His being, the divine simplicity surpasses the ability of our minds to grasp. He is not merely more of the same thing that we are—a kind of Übermensch. He is something other than we are.
Yet in His self-disclosure, what He reveals is true. He made our minds knowing exactly how He would present Himself to us, and His self-presentation is designed so that our knowledge of Him will be genuine, even if partial. God never misleads us with respect to Himself.
The apostle Paul declares that God is present to us within the created order (Rom. 1:18-21). In making an assertion, Paul is echoing the prophets and poets. The heavens proclaim the glory of God (Ps. 19:1-6). This proclamation is so evident that no one anywhere escapes the knowledge of God. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
This evident self-disclosure is what renders idolatry profoundly sophomoric as well as deeply sinful. The idols have mute mouths, blind eyes, deaf ears, and insensible noses. They cannot grasp a single object for themselves. They have to be carried wherever they go. They cannot so much as groan in their throats. They are obtuse lumps of matter, just like the people who trust them (Ps. 115:1-8).
Those who make for themselves idols are simply absurd. They bear witness against themselves (Isa. 44:9-20). A smith labors to exhaustion over his forge, shaping an ingot into an object that he will worship. A carpenter designs for himself the image that he will craft to bring into his house. A man plants his own tree, grows it, harvests it, and uses the wood to warm himself and to cook his food. Of the scraps that are left he fashions a god and begs it to deliver him. Such a man, says the prophet, is feeding on ashes. His conduct is idiocy.
When Paul spoke to the philosophers on the Areopagus, he was surrounded by the idols of Greece and Rome (Acts 17:22-31). His tactic was to point out the utter absurdity of such worship. The God who made everything does not require humanly made temples for His dwelling. The God who gives life and breath to all does not stand in need of the gifts that humans present Him. This God had already made Himself present, even to the philosophers, as their own poets tacitly recognized. Therefore, all are culpable for the colossal blunder of thinking that God could ever be represented as an image in metal or stone. Such representations are merely the productions of the human imagination, at which God has every reason to be incensed. He has graciously overlooked this folly, but He now commands everyone everywhere to repent.
These were not concessive words. Paul was confronting the philosophers with their own bumbling ignorance, their culpable stupidity. He was exposing the pretentiousness and vanity of all truth claims that are not grounded in the knowledge of God. Paul’s words were not an invitation to dialogue, they were an indictment filled with barely-restrained scorn.
No wonder. To the Christian in Rome, Paul wrote that the created order is God’s poiema (Rom. 1:20). God is not merely the abstract first principle or detached first cause of the world. He is the craftsman, the artist who has put Himself into everything He has made. To live in the world is to encounter God at every turn, much as one encounters the poet in the poem or the composer in the sonata. His eternal power and divine nature are everywhere and inescapably present.
This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.
These words are not, as some have supposed, an expression of pantheism. Created things are not God. They are not part of God. But the stamp of God’s power and divine nature is always and everywhere present upon them. We literally cannot turn around without being confronted by God’s presence.
In Romans 1, Paul is not offering some primitive version of the cosmological or teleological argument. He is not suggesting that we can look at the created order, gather the evidence, and, using the neutral tools of reason, infer our way to God. No, Paul is telling us that God is unavoidable. We cannot help encountering Him and we cannot help knowing Him. We intuit Him, not as an abstract principle for ratiocination, but as an almighty, divine Person.
This point cannot be overemphasized. We do not discover God. We already know God. The knowledge of God is hardwired into us. At the most fundamental level, no one needs to be convinced that God is and God has spoken. Every human being has this knowledge. To resist it is the epistemological equivalent of building a sand castle to conduct war against the tide. The effort is ultimately futile. One’s defenses are being constantly eroded. Through the porous ramparts seeps the constant and (ultimately) irresistible conviction that God is and that He has spoken.
from A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner, upon the 51. Psalme
Anne Locke (1530-c. 1590)
Have mercy, God, for thy great mercies sake.
O God: my God, unto my shame I say,
Beynge fled from thee, so as I dred to take
Thy name in wretched mouth, and feare to pray
Or aske the mercy that I have abusde.
But, God of mercy, let me come to thee:
Not for justice, that justly am accusde:
Which selfe word Justice so amaseth me,
That scarce I dare thy mercy sound againe.
But mercie, Lord, yet suffer me to crave.
Mercie is thine: Let me not crye in vaine,
Thy great mercie for my great fault to have.
Have mercie, God, pitie my penitence.