Grace Theological Journal 2.1 (1981) 45-58.
Copyright © 1981 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
CORNELIUS VAN TIL AND
A STUDY IN THE EPISTEMOLOGY OF
DAVID L. TURNER
Should the Christian attempt to prove the existence of God to
the unbeliever? Many apologists would answer in the positive, at least
in some cases. However, Van Til says "no." It is his view, admittedly
developed by presupposing the truth of the Bible, that the unbeliever
is somehow already aware, in the deep recesses of his heart, that God
exists. Van Til develops this argument regarding the sensus deitatis
(sense of deity) largely from Rom -21. This study seeks first to
summarize some of the relevant features of Van Til’s epistemology.
Then a brief exegesis of relevant features of Rom -21 follows,
with the conclusion that Van Til is mainly correct. In evangelism
and apologetics the Christian should not attempt to prove the existence of
God to the unbeliever. The unbeliever, if he is honest with himself,
knows this already. The Christian should proclaim the gospel, God’s
appointed dynamic for turning the lost to himself.
VAN Til's presuppositional apologetic differs radically from tradi-
tional apologetics (whether empirical, rationalistic, or a combina-
tion of both.) Viewing the Scriptures as self-authenticating, he assumes
their truth. The following extended quotation well summarizes his
I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the
universe as unquestionably true on its own authority. The Bible
requires men to believe that he exists apart from and above the world
and that he by his plan controls whatever takes place in the world.
Everything in the created universe therefore displays the fact that it is
controlled by God, that it is what it is by virtue of the place that it
46 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
occupies in the plan of God. The objective evidence for the existence of
God and of the comprehensive governance of the world by God is
therefore so plain that he who runs may read. Men cannot get away
from this evidence. They see it round about them. They see it within
them. Their own constitution so clearly evinces the facts of God's
creation of them and control over them that there is no man who can
possibly escape observing it. If he is self-conscious at all he is also God-
conscious. No matter how men may try they cannot hide from them-
selves the fact of their own createdness. Whether men engage in
inductive study with respect to the facts of nature about them or
engage in analysis of their own self-consciousness they are always face
to face with God their maker.1
In Van Til's view, God is the logical reference point for all predication.
Fallen man, however, suppresses his knowledge
of God even though he still is aware of God's existence. Regenerate
man has been given again the capacity to think God's thoughts after
him. Thus for Van Til apologetics is largely an appeal to the image of
God in man, which image includes an ineradicable sensus deitatis
(sense of deity).2
All this, to say the least, is rejected by traditional apologists, who
appeal primarily to man's rational capacities or to his sense percep-
tions. Men who fit in this category believe that Van Til has begged
the apologetic question; his defense of the faith has left the faith
defenseless.3 In this view Van Til is essentially a fideist, one who
requires men to believe in God apart from any evidence.4 Van Til's
response to this is in substance the claim that his position squares
with the biblical doctrines of common grace, general revelation, and
man's inherent yet suppressed knowledge of God. Van Til's appeal is
then not merely to man's rational or sensory capacities, which in his
view are seriously impaired by the fall. Instead, Van Til appeals to the
inner sense of deity which man's fallen mind suppresses. Important
1 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (3rd ed.;
and Reformed, 1967) 195.
2 Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought (
Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971) 6, 140, 151.
3 Gordon R. Lewis, "Van Til and Carnell-Part I,"
Christianity’s Truth Claims (Chicago: Moody, 1976) 144-48.
4 Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976) 56-58.
For a concise and cogent answer to the charges of men like Lewis and Geisler, see
James M. Grier, Jr., "The Apologetical Value of the Self-Witness of Scripture,"
GTJ (1980) 71-76. See also John C. Whitcomb, Jr.'s, four-part series "Contemporary
Apologetics and the Christian Faith," which appeared in BSac beginning with 134:534
5 For a convenient outline where Van Til compares and contrasts his own
position with that of traditional apologetics, see “My Credo,” Jerusalem and Athens, 18-21.
TURNER: VAN TIL AND ROM 1:18-21 47
Scripture passages for Van Til's argument include Genesis 3, Acts 14
and 17, 1 Corinthians 2, Ephesians 2 and 4, and especially Romans 1-2.
As one reads the works of Van Til, however, he realizes that
biblical exegesis is not Van Til's forte. He is usually content merely to
quote from English versions without attention to the original languages.
6 In reply to G. C. Berkouwer, Van Til admits this problem:
I agree that my little book on The Sovereignty of Grace should
have had much more exegesis in it than it has. This is a defect. The lack of
detailed scriptural exegesis is a lack in all my writings. I have
no excuse for this.7
This problem underlines the need for this study. It cannot be
doubted that Rom 1: 18-21 is a major passage for Van Til's apologetic
method. Yet he nowhere gives a detailed exegesis of the passage. Thus
it seems imperative for presuppositional apologetics to determine
whether he has correctly understood this vital passage.
This brief study centers first upon an overview of some salient
features of Van Til's epistemology. Then some key exegetical factors
in Rom 1:18-21 are touched upon.
AN OVERVIEW OF SOME RELEVANT FEATURES OF VAN TIL'S
According to one source, epistemology is "the theory of knowl-
edge…that branch of philosophy which is concerned with the
nature and scope of knowledge, its presuppositions and basis, and the
general reliability of claims to knowledge." (8) Van Til's works empha-
size epistemology, especially his Christian Theory of Knowledge.
Basic to Van Til's epistemology is the concept of analogical
thought, grounded upon the distinction between God as Creator and
6 But see "Apologetics" (syllabus, Westminster Theological Seminary, n.d.)
43-44; Introduction to Systematic Theology, vol. 5 of In Defense of Biblical Christianity,
(Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976) 93; Christian Theory of Knowledge
(Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969) 245, 264, 308; and The Intellectual
Challenge of the Gospel (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1953) 6.
of traditional reformed exegesis and wishes he had included more of it in his writings.
He adds that he hopes his readers will do their own exegesis. A former student of
Van Til, Prof.
James M. Grier, Jr., of
referred his students to the exegesis of his colleagues John Murray, Ned Stonehouse,
and E. J. Young. Murray and Van Til do differ on some features of Romans 1,
however, as will be shown later in this study.
8 D. W. Hamlyn, "Epistemology, History of," The Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (ed. Paul Edwards; 8 vols.; New York Macmillan, 1967), 3. 9-10.
48 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
man as creature. God is original, absolute, and infinite while man is
derived, limited, and finite. Man, created in God's image, was respon-
sible to think analogically God's thoughts after him. In this way, man
was to interpret God's universe, with the aid of God's preinterpreta-
tion, special revelation. To prove this concept Van Til relies upon
Genesis 1-3 where God by special revelation interpreted the earth
(general revelation) for man and then charged man to be submissive
to this revelational interpretation. God's knowledge then is compre-
hensive and analytical, while man's knowledge is limited and ana-
logical, yet genuine.
The system that Christians seek to obtain may...be said to be
analogical....God has absolute self-contained system within himself.
...But man, as Gods creature, cannot have a replica of that system
of God....He must...in seeking to form his own system, constantly be
subject to the authority of God's system to the extent that this system is
revealed to him.
For this reason all of man's interpretations in any field are subject
to the Scriptures given him. Scripture informs us that, at the beginning
of history, before man had sinned, he was subject to the direct
revelation of God in all the interpretations that he would make of his
Van Til's concept of analogical knowledge occasioned a dispute
with Gordon Clark.10 Clark seems to hold that knowledge must be
univocal and comprehensive in order to be genuine, and he charges
that Van Til's system leads to skepticism since in it man cannot know
truth but only an analogy of the truth. In response, Van Til charges
tion and denies the incomprehensibility of God. In Van Til's view,
"we know the world truly...though not comprehensively.”11
The bearing of this on Rom 1:18ff. must now be explained. In
Van Til's view, this passage affirms that men knew God, yet chose to
serve the creature rather than the Creator, all the while suppressing
their inner knowledge of God. Van Til sees in this a rebellion against
9 Christian Theory of Knowledge, 16; ct. The Defense of the Faith, 31-50; and
10 Gordon H. Clark, "The Bible as Truth" BSac 114 (1957) 157-70; and
"Apologetics," Contemporary Evangelical Thought (ed. by C. F. H. Henry; Great Neck,
NY: Channel, 1957) 159.
11 The Defense of the Faith, 43. For further discussion of this question, see Robert
L. Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed,1976)
98-105, and Gilbert B. Weaver, "The Concepts of Truth in the Apologetics Systems of
Gordon Haddon Clark and Cornelius Van Til" (unpublished Th.D dissertation, Grace
1967) passim. Reymond
argues that Van Til is correct.
TURNER: VAN TIL AND ROM 1:18-21 49
the Creator-creature distinction and a setting up of human autonomy
in the place of special revelation as the ultimate reference point for
understanding the universe. Van Til's solution involves believers
submitting once again to God's special revelation in order to interpret
reality properly. "Man's interpretation must always be reinterpreta-
tion. Men cannot get at reality at all except via the interpretation of
God. . . .The fact that it is reinterpretation of God's original makes our
Three types of epistemological consciousness
A second basic feature of Van Til's epistemology is his concep-
tion of three types of consciousness. Based squarely upon his Creator-
creature distinction, Van Til posits (1) Adamic consciousness, (2)
unregenerate consciousness, and (3) regenerate consciousness.13 By
"Adamic consciousness" he refers to Adam's prefall submission to
revelation when he receptively reconstructed and reinterpreted God's
system. "Unregenerate consciousness" refers to man's mistaken and
futile attempt to create his own autonomous system (creative con-
struction) in total disregard of God's revelation. "Regenerate conscious-
ness" refers to the believer's thought as it is being restored to Adamic
consciousness, i.e., once again reinterpreting reality in submission to
revelation (cf. Eph -24). It should be added here that Van
Til's position would not deny a common created self-consciousness
for all men.
At this juncture, it is imperative to insert a qualifier. Van Til is
quick to point out that both unregenerate and regenerate men may in
practice be respectively better or worse than they are in principle.
Thus the unregenerate man is often in practice not as bad as he could
be in principle, and the regenerate man is often, sad to say, not as
good in practice as he should be in principle. Here Paul's "old man"
vs. "new man" motif is employed in a novel fashion. Just as the
believer's "old man" hinders him in his quest for submission to God,14
so the unbeliever's old man (his God-likeness and sensus deitatis)
hinders him in his quest for autonomy. In Van Til's own words,
12 Psychology of Religion, vol. 4 of In Defense of Biblical Christianity (
Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971) 53.
13 See The Defense of the Faith, 48-50; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 25-
30; and Christian Theistic Ethics, vol. 3 of In Defense of Biblical Christianity (
NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977) 20-24.
14The writer is aware of the division among exegetes on the old man vs. new man
motif (Rom 6:5; Eph -24;
that this motif contrasts the old and new in the believer. There are others, however,
who hold that the old man is the unregenerate man and the new man is the regenerate
man. Even if one does not agree with Van Til's terminology, it must still be recognized
50 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
It is the new man in Christ Jesus who is the true man. But this new
man in every concrete instance finds that he has an old man within
him which wars within his members and represses the working out of the
principles of his true new man. Similarly it may be said that the non-
believer has his new man. It is that man which in the fall declared
independence of God, seeking to be his own reference point. ...But as
in the new man of the Christian the new man of the unbeliever finds
within himself an old man warring in his members against his will. It is
the sense of deity, the knowledge of creaturehood and of responsibility
to his Creator and Judge....Now the covenant breaker never fully
succeeds in this life in suppressing the old man he has within him....
That is the reason for his doing the relatively good though in his heart,
in his new man, he is wholly evil. So then the situation is always mixed.
In anyone's statement of personal philosophy there will always be
remnants of his old man. In the case of the Christian this keeps him
from being consistently Christian in his philosophy of life and in his
practice. In the case of the non-believer this keeps him from being fully
Satanic in his opposition to God.15
Rom 1:18ff. is obviously relevant to this point in Van Til's
position. Man seems to be viewed by Paul as suppressing () his
knowledge (, 28, 32) of God in his futile quest for autonomy.
Thus the unbeliever's "old man," his awareness of the Creator and the
created universe, hinders his "new man" in its vain attempt to gain
wisdom apart from God ().
The starting point of Van Til's system is the triune God who has
infallibly revealed himself in self-attesting Scripture. Without this
foundation, neither the law of contradiction nor man's sensory per-
ception would be intelligible. Man is not viewed as an impartial
seeker after truth who can be convinced of God's existence by
probability arguments from reason or experience. Instead, man is
viewed as a rebel against God who nonetheless in his innermost being
still recognizes his Master. Therefore the point of contact in apolo-
getics and evangelism16 is the unbeliever's "old man," his awareness of
that the believer still has the capacity to sin. For an able discussion of this question
with a defense of the latter view, see John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957) 211-19.
15 See Van Til's "Introduction" in B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of
the Bible (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948) 24; and also his "Nature
and Scripture" in The
Infallible Word (3rd rev. ed.;
Reformed, 1967) 282.
16 Van Til has been criticized for joining apologetics and evangelism by Frederic R.
Howe, "Kerygma and Apologia,"
TURNER: VAN TIL AND ROM 1:18-21 51
God and God's universe which he possesses since he was created in
God's image. Natural revelation is authoritative, sufficient, and per-
spicuous to the natural man, (17) but he is guilty of suppressing its
testimony and of not interpreting it conjointly with special (super-
EXEGETICAL NOTES ON ROM 1:18-21 WITH EVALUATION
OF VAN TIL'S POSITION
This section does not purport to be an exhaustive exegesis
of this passage. However, it will expose certain issues in these verses which
are of crucial import to Van Til particularly and to Christian apolo-
getics generally. Van Til’s position will be evaluated from an exe-
Argument of the passage
The general argument of Rom 1:18.-32 seems to have three
movements. First, Paul relates the revelation of God's wrath ().
Second, he explains the reasons for God's wrath, namely, that men
have suppressed and spurned God's self-revelation in nature. They
idolatrously worship the creation-not the Creator (-23). Third,
Paul shows the results of God's wrath (-32). God's judgment on
man’s idolatry includes delivering men over to impurity (24-25),
homosexuality (26-27), and radical depravity (28-32). As a whole,
then, this section of the epistle emphasizes a present continuing
revelation of God's wrath (a]pokalu<ptetai, ), which is to be
identified with God's delivering men over (pare<dwken, ,26,28) to
sin. The point of Paul's argument is not that these sins could lead to
God s wrath in the future. On the contrary, these sins indicate that
God's wrath is already being poured out. "In other words, sexual
rebellion, license, and anarchy is the retributive judgment of God."18
More specifically, the argument of -21 seems to be built
upon the conjunctions ga>r (18, 20) and dio<ti (19, 21). Salvation by
faith and the revelation of the righteousness of God (-17) are of
utmost importance because (ga>r) the wrath of God is also being
revealed (). The wrath of God is being revealed because (dio<ti)
Howe is that no "sharp distinction" between apologetics and evangelism is justified
from Scripture. In Van Til's view, the "defense of the truth of Christianity . . .
is always, at the same time, a witness to Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life"
17 "Nature and Scripture," 272-83.
18 S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., "'God Gave Them Up': A Study in Divine Retribution,"
BSac 129 (1972) 130.
52 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
men have not responded to the revelation of God clearly present in
nature (). seems to be largely epexegetical of ; the ga>r
should probably be understood as explanatory ("indeed"). Men are
without excuse (1:20c) because (dio<ti) they did not glorify God even
though they knew him (1:2la).
In Rom the meaning of katexo<ntwn is crucial. The verb
kate<xw has two legitimate ideas in the NT, "to hold fast" and "to
hold down.19 The basic question here is whether Paul simply states
that the unsaved "hold" (= "possess, have," AV) the truth or "suppress"
(= "hinder, hold down," NIV, NASB) it. Reputable scholars may be
found on both sides of the question.20 The second alternative seems to
fit the contextual argument much better. However, the two possibil-
ities are complementary, not contradictory. If the unsaved possess the
truth in an unrighteous state, they are actually suppressing it. Like-
wise, the suppression of truth seems to presuppose the possession of it.
For Van Til, katexo<ntwn definitely refers to suppression. When
one scans Van Til's works he finds many different "translations" of
the word, including "hold, hold back, hold down, hold under, keep
under, keep down, hinder, resist, repress, and suppress." The unsaved
man in Van Til's view constantly fights the losing battle of estab-
lishing human autonomy in spite of the sensus deitatis within. The
suggestion of Cranfield, that katexo<ntwn is merely conative, fits in
well with Van Til's understanding.21 Although the unsaved attempt to
obliterate the truth, it is inherent in their very beings. This attempt "is
always bound in the end to prove futile."22
19 See BAGD, 422-23, for a detailed discussion.
20 Those who view katexo<ntwn as possession include G. Abbott-Smith, Manual
Greek Lexicon of the New
Testament (3rd ed.;
following J. B. Lightfoot, Notes on
the Epistles of St. Paul (reprinted;
IN: Alpha Publications, n.d.) 251. See also
the Apostle to the Romans (CGT; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1912) 43-44.
However, most exegetical commentaries view katexo<ntwn as suppression. See, for
example, C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Romans (ICC;
to the Romans (New York: Harper and Row, 1957) 34. Against both of the above is
the translation "laying claim" advocated by F. W. Danker in "Under Contract,"
Festschrift to Honor F. Wilbur Gingrich (ed. E. H. Barth and R. E. Cocroft;
Brill, 1972) 93.
21 Commentary on Romans, 1. 112.
TURNER: VAN TIL AND ROM 1:18-21 53
Two features of are relevant to this discussion. The first of
these concerns the meaning of the phrase to> gnwsto>n tou? qeou?. Does
this phrase refer to actual or merely potential knowledge? In other
words, is there a real sense in which unsaved men know God, or is
Paul simply saying that God is "knowable"? This second view has the
support of many well-known scholars.23 However, H. G. Liddon's
statement is hard to disprove: "The phrase...must, according to the
invariable New Testament and LXX use, mean that which is known
not that which may be known about God.24
For Van Til the unsaved man really knows God. God is revealed
clearly through both nature and conscience. While Van Til would
admit that nature's revelation of God is limited in scope (cf. ), he
would still insist that man actually knows this God. While gnwsto<j
may have a potential meaning in Classical Greek,25 it seems best in
light of both NT usage and the context to understand it as a reference
to a real yet suppressed knowledge. There is no warrant here to speak
of a potential knowledge of God to be gained by probability argu-
mentation. Paul is certainly not attempting a "cosmological argu-
ment." Rather, he is speaking of an actual knowledge of God
obtained from nature. Man suppresses this limited knowledge and
thus becomes "without excuse" (1:20).
The second feature of 1:19 which deserves treatment here is the
meaning of the prepositional e]n autoi?j. Three views have been
suggested, each of which is grammatically possible: (1) God is mani-
fest within each man's conscience26 (2) God is manifest among men
23 Ibid., 113; William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical
Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902) 42;
E. H. Gifford, The Epistle of
BAGD (164) translates "what can be known about God or God, to the extent that he
can be known." Similarly, R. Bultmann, "'ginw<skw," TDNT 1(1974) 718-19, under-
stands it "God in his knowability."
24 H. P. Liddon, Explanatory Analysis of
(London: Longmans, Green, 1899) 26. See also H. A. W. Meyer, Critical and
Exegetical Handbook to the Epistle to the Romans trans. by J. C. Moore and
E. Johnson; rev. and ed. by W. P. Dickson;
R. C. H. Lenski,
The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle
to the Romans (
means "knowable" the context seems to require not only that God is "knowable" but
that he is actually "known." That is why the suppression takes place.
25 LSJ 355.
26 Sanday and Headlam, Romans, 42; Gifford, Romans, 62; Liddon, Romans,
25; Meyer, Romans, 57; and Charles M. Horne, "Toward a Biblical Apologetic," Grace
Journal 2:2 (1961) 15.
54 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
collectively,27 and (3) God is manifest to men (= simple dative of
indirect object au]toi?j, 1:19b).28
Obviously, view 1 would be most in harmony with Van Til's
position on the sensus deitatis. The strongest objection to this,
however, is that the context emphasizes objective external revelation,
not an internal individual subjective apprehension of that revelation.29
There may be some force to this objection, but it should be noted that
the context of Romans 1 does include the idea of a subjective
apprehension of the revelation in nature (cf. gnwsto>n, 1:19; gno<ntej,
1:21; a]pignw<sei, 1:28; and a]pigne<ntej, 1:32). How else could it be
truly said that men "suppress" the truth (1:18)? Even if view 2 or 3 is
favored, though, Van Til's position is not necessarily denied.
While much time could be spent on the attributes of God
mentioned in 1:20 (du<namij kai> qeio<thj), two other considerations
are more specifically relevant to this study. The first of these concerns
the meaning of the prepositional phrase a]po> kti<sewj ko<smou. Scho-
lars are divided over the question of a temporal ("since") or source
("from") connotation. It could be argued that the source idea is more
natural to the preposition's meaning,30 but the temporal use is also
clearly demonstrable.31 Thus the question is whether this phrase refers
to the source of the revelation of God's invisible attributes or to the
time when these attributes began to be revealed in this way.
Neither of these two possibilities present a problem to Van
Til's apologetic. The temporal view is much to be preferred, however, since
the source or means of the revelation is already expressed by toi?j
poih<masin (1:20).32 Thus, the temporal view avoids a tautology.
God's natural revelation, then, began at the time of the creation of
the universe, but even during the pre-fall period, God's direct verbal
revelation interpreted this natural revelation to Adam.
27 Cranfield, Romans, 1. 113-14.
28 John Murray, The Epistle to the
1959), 1. 37-38.
29 Cranfield, Romans, 1. 114; Murray, Romans, 1 37-38.
30 Gifford, Romans, 63, 70.
31 BAGD, 87; J. H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
(Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1901) 58; Sanday and Headlam, Romans, 42-43; Cranfield,
Romans, 1. 114; and Murray, Romans, 1. 39.
32 Nigel Turner views this as a probable instrumental dative. See his Syntax, vol. 3
of A Grammar of New Testament
Greek by J. H. Moulton (
TURNER: VAN TIL AND ROM 1:18-21 55
A second noteworthy feature of 1:20 is the meaning of the verb
kaqora?tai. With ta> a]o<rata this verb forms a striking oxymoron.33
The verb kaqora<w is a compound form in which kata> intensifies
o[ra<w. The meaning is "perceive" or "notice" and can be rendered here
with the modal participle noou<mena, "perceived with the eye of reason.”34
Cranfield, holding that subjective mental perception is precluded,
argues that merely physical sight is in view.35
For Van Til, the clarity or perspicuity of natural revelation is an
important factor. It is his position that the theistic proofs (Aquinas's
"five ways",36 etc.) seriously compromise this clarity, since, as they
are popularly formulated, they do not take into account the sensus
deitatis and are content merely with probable conclusions as to God 's
existence. Van Til's position seems to be vindicated by the verb
kaqora?tai. The unsaved are viewed as clearly perceiving God's
invisible attributes even as they simultaneously suppress his knowl-
edge. Van Til is correct, then, in maintaining that the theistic proofs
as normally formulated are self-defeating. If men already know God
exists, it is a mistake to attempt to prove it to them in the usual ways.
The usual approach caters to man's desire for autonomy and does not
take into account the sensus deitatis or the clarity of natural revela-
tion. To reason with a supposedly neutral unsaved mind concerning
the possibility of God's existence totally ignores Paul's thrust in this
Only one phrase in Rom 1:21 will be discussed, the adverbial
participle gno<ntej to>n qeo>n. Since it is aorist, it could involve action
either prior to or simultaneous with that of the main verbs e]do<casan
34 BAGD 391. Thayer, Lexicon, 314 translates the verb "to see thoroughly, perceive
clearly, understand." W. Michaelis views noou?mena as a simultaneous modal participle
describing a mental process, "o[ra<w," TDNT 5. 380.
35 Romans, 1. 115. Similarly, Sanday and Headlam, Romans, 43, mention that the
kata> prefix may be directive, resulting in the meaning "surveyor contemplate."
36 St. Thomas Aquinas, Existence and Nature of God, vol. 2 of Summa Theologiae.
ed. T. McDermott (60 vols.;
Aquinas interpreted Rom 1:18ff. as indicating men could come to know about God's
existence by their natural powers of reasoning. Van Til, on the other hand, says that
men already know God and use their rational capacities to suppress this knowledge.
G. Bornkamm is certainly correct in pointing out that Paul here emphasizes natural
revelation as a basis for judgment, not as a basis for a theoretical understanding of
God. See his "Faith and Reason in Paul's Epistles," NTS 4 (1958) 96-97. It is difficult
to understand the position of J. J. O'Rourke, who admits that Paul is speaking about
56 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
hu]xari<sthsan, e]mataiw<qhsan, and e]skoti<sqh. Cranfield opts for
prior action "since their experience of God has necessarily always
gone before their failure to recognize its true significance and act
accordingly."37 It would also seem true, however, that their failure to
interpret their experience of God properly occurs even while they are
aware of his being and existence. Perhaps the participle has a
concessive force here. (38) The sense would then be that even though
they knew God (as Paul shows in I: 18-20), they still refused to glorify
or thank him.
This understanding can be supported in the context of 1:21.
Suppression of truth (1:18) requires a degree of knowledge about it,
and 1:19-20 speak of the extent of this knowledge (being epexegetical
to 1:18). The vanity and darkening of the mind in 1:21 and the
activities described in the ensuing verses all assume man's knowledge
of truth. Especially noteworthy in this regard is 1:28, where the men
are portrayed as not liking to have God in their knowledge (e]pignw<sei.),
resulting in the judicial punishment of an a]do<kimon nou?n. In the
culminating indictment of the chapter, 1:32, yet another reference is
made to the fact that they knew God's righteous standards (to>
dikai<wma tou? qeou? e[igno<ntej).
With the words "There are no atheists, least of all in the
hereafter,"39 Van Til expresses his conviction that all men know God
in the utmost depths of their beings. Paradoxically, though, men do
not want to know God, and may claim to be atheists. Thus, the same
person is in a sense both a theist and an atheist. Only the grace of
God in Christ can create in such a person a true saving knowledge of
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
A vitally important issue in apologetics today is the distinction
between natural revelation and natural theology. While it is certain
that God has revealed himself in nature, it is unbiblical to assert that
man responds positively to natural revelation. On the contrary, man
suppresses this knowledge, rebels against it, and is therefore judicially
abandoned by God. Rom 1:18ff. must not be understood as a
cosmological argument for the probability of God's existence. Such
an actual possession of knowledge about God but then implies that man obtains that
knowledge via the use of Aquinas's five ways. This view involves a positive response to
natural revelation, which is contrary to Paul's emphasis in this passage. See O'Rourke's
"Romans 1:20 and Natural Revelation," CBQ 23 (1961) 303-4.
37 Romans, 1. 116n.
38 H. E. Dana and J. R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New
Testament (Toronto: Macmillan, 1955) 227. See also Barrett, Romans, 36; NASB.
39The Defense of the Faith, 153.
TURNER: VAN TIL AND ROM 1:18-21 57
an apologetic must be rejected. The common ground between
believers and unbelievers lies not in a supposed common epistemology
but in a common bearing of God's image.41 This metaphysical
common ground, involving as it does the sensus deitatis, becomes the
proper point of contact in apologetics and evangelism. Men are
accessible to the gospel because they are God's image-bearers and live
in God's universe which constantly testifies to them of God.42 Here is
the true genius of the apologetic method of Cornelius Van Til. Let
everyone who proclaims the gospel of Christ consider Van Til's
Two areas of further study seem to be suggested by this study.
First, it has been noted above that there is some question as to
whether Van Til has overemphasized the sensus deitatis in Romans 1.
Even John Murray had reservations in this area.43 This suggests the
need for a study of 2:1-16 (especially 2:14-15) and a correlation of its
emphasis with that of 1:18ff.
A broader area which needs further investigation is the tension
between natural theology and natural revelation. Cranfield, for ex-
ample, in his desire to avoid the former, is reticent to accept the
40 See the critique of "natural theology" in G. C. Berkouwer, General Revelation
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955) 148-53. Berkouwer concludes that "only by distin-
guishing between general revelation and natural theology can we do justice to the
message of Scripture" (153). See also Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans (trans.
by C. C. Rasmussen;
Romans 1," NTS 6 (1960) 299-300.
41 Evidential apologetics relies upon a supposed epistemological common ground
between believers and unbelievers. From this perspective comes J. W. Montgomery's
parable of the Shadoks and the Gibis, which originally appeared in
Founded on Fact: Essays in Evidential Apologetics (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1978),
results in an impasse-there is no point of contact between the mythical Shadoks and
Gibis, who diverge radically in their respective world-views. However,
has neglected the truth of Rom 1 that men at bottom know God. As Jim S. Halsey
critique of Van Til's apologetic for it assumes that each race...has been created as a
metaphysical blank. In other words, the parable ignores the central and crucial fact
that both the Shadoks and the Gibis know the truth from the outset of their respective
existences. The difference between the two (Christian and non-Christian) occurs at the
point of epistemological interpretation." See Halsey's For a Time Such as This: An
Introduction to the Reformed Apologetic of Cornelius Van Ti1 (
and Reformed, 1976) 78.
42 In his stimulating study, "The Scope of Natural Revelation in Romans 1 and
Acts 17," NTS 5 (1959) 133-43, H. P. Owen states "Paul would...seem to imply that
the knowledge gained by natural revelation (either in an actual and recognized, or in a
potential and unrecognized form) constitutes a 'point of contact' for the gospel" (142).
58 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
latter. He does not grant that men subjectively know God through
natural revelation. In his view men know God
...in the sense that in their awareness of the created world it is of him
that all along, though unwittingly, they have been--objectively--
aware. They have in fact experienced him. . . though they have not
recognized him. . . . It is in this limited sense they have known him all
It has been previously argued that Paul's language in Rom 1:18ff
requires more of an awareness of God than Cranfield allows. Perhaps
Cranfield's motive is to relieve the paradox which Van Til's position
sets up. Cranfield emphasizes man's estrangement from God to the
detriment of natural revelation. However, Van Til emphasizes man's
estrangement from God as rebellion against his own conscience and
surrounding environment. Here followers of Van Til should be
warned by Cranfield not to stress the sensus deitatis without a
balancing stress upon man's suppression of truth, rebellion against
truth, and judicial abandonment to radical depravity.
44 Romans, 1. 116-17.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org