A Response to Edward Feser on Romans 1

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Author Greg Koukl Published on 10/20/2015

Last week philosopher Edward Feser raised some concerns about a recent video blog that I did on Romans 1. Here is my response to his assessment.

Feser’s concern, I think, is partly the result of taking general remarks made in a video blog about Romans 1 and asking of it the kind of precision not generally possible in that format. In a brief verbal summary of an issue there is little opportunity for nuance regarding the kinds of concerns brought up in Feser’s thoughtful 2,500 word blog, which may account for my own remarks appearing “glib.”

Maybe a few brief comments (versus a full-throated response) will add more clarity, though it probably will not alleviate all the disagreement. No worries. I can live with opposing views, even from people I respect (I thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve read of Feser’s The Last Superstition).

Feser faulted me for lack of argument, yet my purpose was not to make a case, but rather merely to articulate what I take to be Paul’s assessment of man’s condition.

As to the comment, “’The Bible says so’ is, of course, not a good argument to give someone who doesn’t accept the authority of the Bible in the first place,” I agree wholeheartedly, as those familiar with my work know. My comments in the video blog, however, were directed to believers (just as Paul’s were), not atheists, so a straightforward appeal to the text seems legitimate.

As to whether or not my take on Romans 1 is an “extreme interpretation,” I can only commend you to Paul’s wording itself. I don’t think it is the least bit vague, ambiguous, or moderate. He says that certain of God’s attributes have been “clearly seen” and “understood” (1:20), and certain particulars about God are “known,” being “evident within them,” since “God made it evident to them” (1:19). Yet men still “suppress” (katecho, “to hold down, repress,” Wuest) these truths “in unrighteousness.” It’s difficult to see how a more moderate (vs. my “extreme”) understanding of the passage could actually be faithful to Paul’s words.

Further, if our knowledge of God is merely “general and confused” (Aquinas), it’s hard to see how God can hold us accountable for it (“without excuse” 1:20), making us properly subject to his “wrath” (orge, 1:18).

Even after reading Feser’s critique (et al.), it still strikes me that, regarding man’s innate knowledge of God, Paul is saying something quite a bit stronger than that man has “a natural inclination of the weaker and inchoate sort.” Thus, his unbelief is properly culpable.

For the record, I take this knowledge to be dispositional (known even if not currently or consciously aware of), not occurent (in mind and currently aware of) for the reasons that Feser (and others) pointed out. So man’s state of awareness of God, and his heart’s disposition towards rebellion against God are both sub-conscious.

Thus, though many atheists are not consciously aware of their rebellion (some are, of course) and may feel they have intellectual integrity in their atheism (some demonstrate a measure of integrity in their reasoned rejection of God), still, when all the cards are on the table in the final judgment, when men’s deepest and truest motives are fully revealed (Lk. 12:2), rebellion will be at the core. This rebellion-at-the-core, I think, is what Paul had in mind in Rom. 1—a fairly ordinary, run of the mill biblical point, it seems.

Regarding beleaguered Emil (see Feser’s post), I am inclined to agree with Feser: “A religious believer is not like someone trying to hold a beach ball underwater; rather, he is like someone trying to get a submerged beach ball with a leak in it to come back up to the surface.” Nicely put.

Remember, Paul’s point is that fallen humans are in rebellion and unbelief. But regeneration changes that, does it not? Those who have come to Christ (e.g., “Emil”) are not the subject of his concern. Doubt may still crop up, but for completely different reasons, I think. So the alleged reductio simply does not apply here since the scope of Paul’s comments (along with my reflections on them) is limited to man in rebellion, not to believers who have laid down their arms.

However, even deeply distressed Emil (and atheists with his same complaint) must account for the objective morality that was violated by the massacre, and no subjectivist account (biological or social) is going to be adequate. Ultimately, even man’s ubiquitous complaint about real Evil in the world (a complaint I share), ultimately and irrevocably (I think) points back to the God who alone grounds the Goodness necessary to make the problem of evil intelligible to begin with.

So, it seems to me that my general remarks about Romans 1 and atheists are defensible given the video’s intended audience and scope, and given the specific language of Romans 1. In the future when I address this issue, I will try to remember the “dispositional knowledge” qualification that might alleviate some confusion.

One final thought. Though I do not think it helpful to bandy this phrase about in the public dialogue, the statement, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God,” is not mine, but God’s.