Romans 1, Calvin, and the usefulness of natural revelation in salvation

In my biblical and theological study of the possibility of the salvation of the unevangelized, I have presented a position that I call “accessibilism” (see Who Can Be Saved?). Among the varied understandings of how God makes salvation accessible to everyone, is a position I call “universal revelation accessibilism.” This asserts that God saves some people whose faith the Holy Spirit elicits through universal revelation alone. This idea does not sit well with many Calvinist interpreters of Romans 1, who hold a position I call “gospel exclusivism.” They acknowledge that God reveals certain truths about himself to everyone, and that this revelation is sufficient to account for God’s condemnation of people who “by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18 NRSV), but they believe that it is insufficient to save, since additional “particular” revelation concerning God’s promised redeemer is necessary for saving faith.

Timothy E. MillerTimothy E. Miller kindly shared with me a copy of the paper he read at ETS on Nov 19/14, entitled “Only the Aquinas Model: How Plantinga’s Epistemology Fails to Understand Calvin and Paul on the Sensus Divinitatis.” I found it an interesting study, which argues that Alvin Plantinga misunderstands the sensus divinitatis, and that this derives from a misunderstanding of both Calvin and of Paul’s discussion in Romans 1:18-32. Miller’s interest is not specifically the question of whether or not people can be saved through no other revelation than what God makes available to everyone in the sensus divinitatis, however that is understood, but I suggest that his work contributes to an answer to that question.

Miller gives us his own exposition of Romans 1 and of Calvin’s understanding of the sensus divinitatis (SD) about which Paul writes. His particular interest is in two variant proposals regarding Calvin’s notion, one which concludes that it entails only a vague notion that there is a God, and one that posits that the SD gives a “rich and full knowledge of God” (15). Miller believes this second position to be correct, being taught both by Paul and by John Calvin, and this particularly attracted my interest, because of its implications for salvation.

Romans 1

In Romans 1, Miller hears Paul asserting that God gives truth directly to human beings. This is “not what many would call a ‘natural’ knowledge, but a ‘revelational’ knowledge” (p. 5). That knowledge, as Thomas Schreiner states, “is [not] the result of careful deduction and reasoning . . . Instead, this knowledge of God is a reality for all people, not simply for those who possess unusually logical minds” (p. 6, citing Romans (BECNT), 86). Miller argues that Paul’s use of the preposition en (Rom 1:19) is “of massive import” (p. 6). Though it could be translated “to,” as many translations have done, Miller suggests that the “more natural reading of en with a dative—is ‘in.” On this reading, Paul is stating that the knowledge of God “is not something outside man for which he must search, but something like a gift that is naturally implanted” (p. 6).

This makes futile all human attempts to suppress the truth of God’s eternal power and divine nature (1:20), like “trying to immerse a beach ball under the water” (p. 6), because “inevitably the truth of God surfaces and confronts the sinner” (p. 6). This universal revelation of God, as Charles Hodge (Romans, 37; cf. Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, 81-82, and R. C. Sproul, Romans, 41) and K. Scott Oliphint (Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics, 64)  have argued, “is not limited to a notion ‘that there is something powerful out there.’ Instead, God’s revelation of Himself is a robust expression of Himself” (p. 7).

Miller proposes that Jewish readers of Romans 1:20 “would undoubtedly have been reminded of Psalms 19:1-3,” which I find very plausible.

Being trained in the Scriptures, there is little doubt that this Psalm was instrumental in Paul’s theology of Romans 1. In the Psalm, however, instead of seeing, man hears. In Romans, the focus is on seeing God’s creation, while in Psalms the focus is on hearing God’s creation. The best course of action is to understand both texts as saying that man experiences the knowledge of God through creation in ways similar to sense perception. (p.9)

Miller states that “if the knowledge of God, both implanted and reinforced by creation, is as robust as has been described, then Oliphint is correct to note that all men are in a relationship to God,” though Miller is sure that “this is not a salvific relationship” (p. 9). Miller does recognize that “the proper response to the knowledge of God is honor and thankfulness” (p. 10, citing James D. G. Dunn, Romans, 1:56) but, as is common among Calvinists, he gets stuck at the fact that “in spite of their knowledge and due to their sinfulness, man rejects God in favor of anything else they can replace him with” (Rom 3:10, 23; p. 10). What is strangely ignored is that, by God’s grace, many people are freed from that universal sinful suppression of God’s revealed truth and are given faith. Paul does not make that point in Romans 1, but it certainly becomes clear as his letter proceeds. It is puzzling how Paul’s statement about the just condemnation of all people because of universal revelation is extended to a belief in gospel exclusivism, though the text does not make that point. Correctly, however, Miller observes that the fault in regard to human suppression of God’s truth “is not in the clarity of God’s revelation,” but “lies in the sinfulness of man” who is “born naturally at war with God” (p. 11).

John Calvin

Miller identifies three ways in which Calvin finds the reality of the SD exemplified. First, “belief in God appears universal: “Since, then, there never had been, from the very first, any quarter of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion, this amounts to a tacit confession, that a sense of Deity is inscribed on every heart” (p. 14, citing Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.3.1). Second, although human beings do not naturally lower themselves to anyone or anything, they bow down and worship wood and stone, strange though that seems. From this, Calvin concludes that they have an unmistakable impression engraved on their heart that there is a God (3.3.1). Third, even those who call themselves atheists show their true belief in the form of fear. For example,

[Caligula] shook with terror before the God whom he professedly studied to condemn. You may every day see the same thing happening to his modern imitators. The most audacious despiser of God is most easily disturbed, trembling at the sound of a falling leaf. (p. 14, citing 1.3.2)

Miller finds three indications that Calvin believed that universal revelation communicates a rich knowledge of God. First, people are condemned on account of their rejecting the SD, which indicates that it leads them to truth. Second, the SD “would have functioned to bring all men to God if Adam had not sinned” (p. 18). Thus, Calvin wrote:

By the knowledge of God, I understand that by which we not only conceive that there is some God, but also apprehend what it is for our interest, and conducive to his glory, what, in short, it is befitting to know concerning him. For, properly speaking, we cannot say that God is known where there is no religion or piety. I am not now referring to that species of knowledge by which men, in themselves lost and under curse, apprehend God as a Redeemer in Christ the Mediator. I speak only of that simple and primitive knowledge, to which the mere course of nature would have conducted us, had Adam stood upright (Institutes 1.2.1, cited p. 18 with emphasis supplied).

So people’s failure to believe is not because they lack revelation of God, but because of their sin. Third, according to Calvin, in Romans 1, Paul “designates what it behooves us to know of God; and he means all that appertains to the setting forth of the glory of Lord, or which is the same thing, whatever ought to move and excite us to glorify God” (p. 18, citing Calvin’s Commentary on Romans, 1:19). In Miller’s judgment, “nothing less than the fullness of the attributes and characteristics of God could fill these roles,” for Calvin says concerning 1:21, that “no idea can be formed of God without including his eternity, power, wisdom, goodness, truth, and righteousness, and mercy” (cited, p. 18n74).

Miller has identified 3 interpretations of Calvin’s understanding of the extent to which sin mars the SD. Some interpreters see sin as incapacitating the SD so that it no longer functions. Others suggest that sin handicaps the SD so that it no longer works as intended.  Miller agrees with those who take a third reading, namely, that “sin hinders the ability of the creature to respond positively to the SD” (pp. 19, 21-22). “The minds of men are so corrupted by sin that the SD, still giving the full knowledge of God, is suppressed and every man seeks to replace the knowledge of God with the fictitious deity of their own imaginations” (p. 22, with reference to Institutes, 5.11). Calvin says, according to Miller, that both the SD and the sinful reaction to the SD begin before birth. Thus,

According to Calvin, if man had not fallen, the SD would have led to fruitful union. After the fall, the SD still contains the same knowledge. However, man picks and chooses what to follow. That man worships anything is a product of the SD, that he worships the wrong thing is the product of his willful disobedience. (p. 22)

Whereas, prior to the fall, “the SD led to a deep abiding relationship with God. After the fall, and due to human sin, the SD produces guilt and condemnation” (p. 22).

Calvin never spells out how the SD works so, once again, Miller identifies 3 different readings of Calvin’s work. Some think that the separation of chapter 3 from chapter 5 in  the Institutes, indicates two separate sources of natural revelation, the SD implanted in humans, and creation, from which knowledge of God is inferred (p. 23). Others, among whom Alvin Plantinga is Miller’s primary interest, think that Calvin thought of the SD as “merely a belief-producing module,” which “takes the circumstances [of creation] as input and issues as output theistic beliefs, beliefs about God” (p. 23, citing Warranted Christian Belief, 174-75). Miller favors the third view, that Calvin believes that the SD contains “all the necessary knowledge of God (non-salvific), and the world provides constant reminders of what is already known” (p. 23).

Implications for the salvation of the unevangelized

I found Miller’s exegesis of both Romans 1 and Calvin’s view of the sensus divinitatis both interesting and helpful. My own interest in this post, however, is primarily in what Scripture says about God’s revelation to all human beings, and only secondarily how Calvin understood this or whether Alvin Plantinga is correct in his own treatment of the SD and in his reading of Calvin on the subject.

In summary, without defending my conclusion here, I hear in Romans 1 two forms of universal divine revelation, one which is innate and primarily functional (cf. “the law written on the heart,” Rom 2:15) and the other which is external, through God’s creative and providential work. I concur that human beings are inherently religious because God, who created us in his image, has built into us a sense of transcendence and a longing for knowledge of and relationship with God which everyone seeks to satisfy. I am doubtful that we can identify revelational content, which could be formulated in theological propositions which are innate in human knowers. This content is communicated to us by God through external means, both means which are accessible to all human beings, hence universal, and means which are “particular,” given to chosen individuals, sometimes for their own information or direction, and sometimes as universally normative revelation which is to be proclaimed widely by those who are privileged to know it.

What Miller’s paper invites us to focus on is the universal revelation of God, and I suggest that of primary importance in that regard is the question of the value of this revelation within God’s saving work in the world. Miller has not made that issue his own focus, and this does not diminish the value of the issues with which he has grappled, but his exegesis both of Romans 1 and of Calvin’s understanding of universal revelation inevitably compels us to answer the pressing question: can those whom God only blesses with universal revelation (whether innate or external or both) be saved, if they are ignorant of the latest covenantal revelation made by God which, in our time, is the new covenant gospel?

Although that issue is not Miller’s focus, he does take a number of opportunities to express, parenthetically, his conviction that only full gospel revelation saves, and that God does not have salvific intentions in making himself known by the universal means (which is the SD, of which creation reminds us, according to Miller). Thus, Miller writes, as he sums up Paul’s message in Romans 1: “With the entrance of sin, the natural knowledge man gains from God cannot save, but merely serves to condemn the sinner” (p. 11). As Miller exposits Calvin’s view of universal revelation, he frequently asserts that Calvin also did not believe that universal revelation could lead to saving faith: “Only by Scriptural revelation does one come to the saving knowledge of God” (p. 13). As Calvin put it in his commentary on Acts, “Men are brought by the direction of the word alone unto that knowledge of Almighty God which bringeth salvation. And yet this letteth not that they be made without excuse, even without the word . . . even as Paul teacheth in the first chapter to the Romans” (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 14.17, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ calvin/calcom37.html [accessed May 6, 2010]).

What I want to suggest, however, is that neither Miller’s exegesis of Romans 1 nor Calvin’s view of universal revelation necessarily take us to this gospel exclusivist conclusion. In fact they lead us in the direction of “universal revelation accessibilism.” In commenting on Rom 1:21, Miller states that the verse “implies that the proper response to the knowledge of God is honor and thankfulness” (p. 10). Yes, indeed! As with every revelation of God, the content of the revelation defines implicitly (if not explicitly) the response which is the faith which God seeks and requires in connection with that revelation. Miller goes on:

Later in Romans, Paul will more explicitly show that no man responds to God positively (3:10, 23). In spite of their knowledge and due to their sinfulness, man rejects God in favor anything else they can replace Him with. Paul notes the devastating consequence of such a decision in verses 24-31. The flow of this text indicates that man takes a journey from true knowledge › suppression › exchanging the truth for a lie › being given over to sinful habits and thought processes › glorying in sin and sinners. (p. 10)

Once again, I completely agree. Since the fall, apart from the intervention of God’s grace, we all suppress God’s truth. So Miller is correct when he asserts in a footnote: “It is not to be assumed at this point that man can respond positively to the SD without the working of the Holy Spirit. It is only to be taken that what man is rejecting is not a hollow conception, but a robust knowledge of God. Further, it should not be assumed that the SD could of its own lead one to saving faith” (p.17n69, emphasis supplied). This must be said of every form of divine revelation, including its supreme written form, the inspired Scripture, and its ultimate personal form, the incarnate Word. By itself, no revelation of God can lead a sinner to salvation. In every case, God must graciously illumine blind eyes, open deaf ears, free bound wills, and thus enable sinners to understand and to believe and obey. What puzzles me is why Calvin, and those who follow his reading of Scripture on this point, push Romans 1 beyond its explicit statement. Paul very clearly describes the rejection of God’s truth which fallen sinners inevitably express when they encounter it in whatever form that revelation is given. But thanks to God’s gracious work of illumination, enablement and regeneration, a great host of people have been redeemed by the work of Christ as it is applied by the Holy Spirit. Calvin and his followers clearly assert this in regard to particular universally normative revelation, but strangely they deny it in the case of universal revelation.

What prompted me to write this post, after I had read Miller’s paper, was his exposition of Calvin’s very robust understanding of the content and effect of universal revelation (whether through SD alone, as per Miller, or by SD and external revelation in creation). This came through in the summation of Calvin’s view which I cited earlier:

The purpose of the SD has always remained the same—it gives knowledge of God to mankind. The consequence of the knowledge it gives has changed. Previous to the fall, the SD led to a deep abiding relationship with God. After the fall, and due to human sin, the SD produces guilt and condemnation. (p. 22)

Commonly, when Calvinists argue for the necessity of gospel proclamation (i.e., knowledge of the latest covenantal revelation) to salvation, they stress the intrinsic inadequacy of God’s revelation in creation. It is not enough for salvation, which can purportedly come about only through particular verbal revelation. But Miller has argued that what God has revealed to all through the SD is a very full knowledge of himself, one that would certainly lead to salvation if sinners were able to believe it. It is not the inadequacy of universal revelation, but the sinfulness of humans, that keeps people from being saved through it, according to Miller, and to Calvin according to Miller’s reading (p. 18): “Calvin believed that the SD would have functioned to bring all men to God if Adam had not sinned:

By the knowledge of God, I understand that by which we not only conceive that there is some God, but also apprehend what it is for our interest, and conducive to his glory, what, in short, it is befitting to know concerning him. For, properly speaking, we cannot say that God is known where there is no religion or piety. I am not now referring to that species of knowledge by which men, in themselves lost and under curse, apprehend God as a Redeemer in Christ the Mediator. I speak only of that simple and primitive knowledge, to which the mere course of nature would have conducted us, had Adam stood upright. (Institutes, 1.2.1, with emphasis added by Miller)

I suggest to you, therefore, that Miller and Calvin both have good reason to affirm universal revelation accessibilism, the belief that God saves some people whose faith the Holy Spirit elicits through universal revelation alone. Even if it may be doubted that anyone is actually saved by universal revelation alone, because scarcely anyone lacks some instance of particular revelation (cf., Who Can Be Saved?, 151-57), Miller and Calvin have no reason, from within their own theologies, to deny that, in principle, universal revelation has salvific potential. The revelation which was sufficient for Adam and Eve before the fall, can be made efficient by the work of God’s Spirit, after the fall. God holds people accountable for the revelation which he gives them, according to the covenant within which that revelation places them. What was sufficient to save Adam before the fall is still sufficient, if it is all that God makes known to an individual, provided the Holy Spirit graciously enables a faith response. I’m grateful to Miller for the clear way in which his biblical exposition and his study of Calvin lead us to this conclusion.

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