Grace Theological Journal 2.1 (1981) 45-58.

          Copyright © 1981 by Grace Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.


                   CORNELIUS VAN TIL AND

                            ROMANS 1:18-21

                    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 1:18-21. 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 1:18-21 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

basic position:


       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.

Man in Eden, created in God's image, was to think God's thoughts after him.

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.; Philadelphia: Presbyterian

and Reformed, 1967) 195.

2 Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought (Philadelphia:

Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971) 6, 140, 151.

3 Gordon R. Lewis, "Van Til and Carnell-Part I," Jerusalem and Athens (ed. E. R.

 Geehan; Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971) 359-61; and Testing

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

(April, 1977).

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.





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.


Analogical thought


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.

            7 Jerusalem and Athens, 203. Van Til further states that he has been aware

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 Cedarville College, related that Van Til usually

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 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 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

that Clark's univocal scheme obliterates the Creator-creature distinc-

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

"Apologetics," 9-11.

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

heological Seminary, 1967) passim. Reymond favors Clark's approach and Weaver

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

 interpretation valid.”12


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 4:20-24). 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 (Nutley, NJ:

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 (Nutley,

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 4:22-24; Col 3:9-10.) Van Til seems to agree with those who hold

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 (1:18) his

knowledge (1:21, 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 (1:22).




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.; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and

Reformed, 1967) 282.

            16 Van Til has been criticized for joining apologetics and evangelism by Frederic R.

Howe, "Kerygma and Apologia," Jerusalem and Athens, 445-52. Van Til's response to

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-

natural) revelation.



                            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-

getical perspective.


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 (1:18). 

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 (1:19-23). Third,

Paul shows the results of God's wrath (1:24-32). 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, 1:18), which is to be

identified with God's delivering men over (pare<dwken, 1:24,26,28) 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 1: 18-21 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 (1:16-17) are of

utmost importance because (ga>r) the wrath of God is also being

revealed (1:18). 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"

(ibid., 452).

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 (1:19). 1:20 seems to be largely epexegetical of 1:19; 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).


Romans 1:18


In Rom 1:18 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.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1937) 241,

following J. B. Lightfoot, Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul (reprinted; Winona Lake,

IN: Alpha Publications, n.d.) 251. See also R. St.  John Parry, ed., The Epistle of Paul

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;

Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 1. 112; C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle

 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; Leiden:

Brill, 1972) 93.

21 Commentary on Romans, 1. 112.

22 Ibid.

TURNER: VAN TIL AND ROM 1:18-21               53


Romans 1:19

Two features of 1: 19 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. 1:20), 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 St. Paul to the Romans (London: John Murray, 1886) 62.

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 St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans

(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; New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1884) 57;

R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Minneapolis:

Augsburg, 1961) 95-96; and Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans

(reprinted; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976) 36. It should be noted that even gnw<ston

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.


Romans 1:20


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 Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

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 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark,

1963) 240.

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



Romans 1:21

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


33 Murray, Romans, 1. 38. For another mind-boggling oxymoron see Eph 1:19.

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.; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964) 13-17 (Question 2, art. 3). 

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

the Godhead.



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; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1949) 102-9; and M.D. Hooker "Adam in

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 Jerusalem and

Athens, pp. 383-88, and has recently been republished without change in Faith

Founded on Fact: Essays in Evidential Apologetics (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1978),

107-28. Montgomery concludes that presuppositionalism (which he labels fideism)

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, Montgomery

has neglected the truth of Rom 1 that men at  bottom know God. As Jim S. Halsey

states, "Montgomery's engrossing parable of the Shadoks and the Gibis fails as a valid

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 (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian

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).

43 Murray, Romans, I. 37-38

58                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


latter. He does not grant that men subjectively know God through

natural revelation. In his view men know God 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

their lives.44


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.




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