Friday, February 21, 2014

The Bible and the Natural Theology Knowledge of God

Certainly science and human reflection are not the only loci for discovery a basic awareness of divinity. It is also implicit in the Church’s confession that God is “the Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” To know that God has created humankind implies that we are created for God. As Psalm 42:1 declares, “O God, I yearn for you.” When God created the man and the woman in the divine image, it means that they are created for relationships. We read it in the first pages of the Scripture.
Both the Priestly (Genesis 1:1-2:3) and the Jahwist (Genesis 2:4b-25) accounts of creation describe relational aspect of the image of God. As an aspect of this relationality, God can communicate with men and women. In Genesis 1:29-30, God speaks directly to them—communication represents a significant form of relating. Because human beings are made in God’s image, we can enter into a relationship with God, and in fact, this relationship with God is the highest call of human beings. Jesus, later in the Scripture, echoed this with an invitation: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15.12, italics added) and even goes so far as to call his followers “friends” (John 15.15), indicating how intimate this relationship can be.
In Genesis 1:27, creation as male and female implies that human beings are to relate to one another, for which marriage (Genesis 2:24) is the most definitive human institution. Relationality is also demonstrated by the fact that both male and female are created in God’s image, and therefore neither is definitively the human being. Humanity is only adequately represented by both sexes.
Earlier in the text of Genesis 2, Adam is told to have “dominion” over the animals—better understood as stewardship like a good king and names the animals (Genesis 2:19).
The scholarship on this passage is immense. Here I will simply cite Douglas John Hall, “Under the conditions of imperial Christianity, it was not stewardship but lordliness that appealed to the mentality of the church’s policy makers. Thus, historic Christianity has seemed either to ignore and escape from the world, or else wish to possess it” (The Steward, 82) In this context, I am reminded of RenĂ© Descartes’ notorious phrase that we are “masters and possessors of nature.” Hall continues his analysis and reclaiming of the concept of human stewardship: it means that we must take in action role in tending creation and abandon “forms of religion that denigrate the natural world, that view the world as primarily a cache of resources to be exploited for human ends” (ibid.).
In the following curses of Genesis, Adam and Eve have a disrupted relationship with earth, e.g., that there will be toil in farming and “thorn and thistles” (Genesis 3:17-19).
The Ten Commandments (found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) exemplify these relationships. The first four begin with God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). As creatures, our essential relationship is with our Creator. As distinct from other creatures, we can return praise to God. In the “second tablet” of the Decalogue addresses human relationships such as do not steal, do not commit adultery. And there is a hint of the relationship with the rest of creation: the Sabbath command sets up not only rest for human beings but also for the “ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock” (Deuteronomy 5:14).
There is also an implied relationship with self that is necessary for human moral reflection, but comes most clearly into view in Paul’s tortured self-reflection in Romans 7:7-25, encapsulated in his cry of individual incomprehension, “I do not understand my own actions” (Romans 7:15). (Incidentally, whether Paul is speaking pre- or post-conversion is not relevant in this exposition.) Proper relationality means harmony; disruption, disharmony and incomprehension reveal a tortured and sinful relation. But for the purposes here, it is a relation nonetheless.
To state this more systematically, Genesis 1-2 sets up four basic relationships: with God, with other human beings, with ourselves (implied), with the rest of creation (other animals, plants, and the earth).
This essentially human relationality—especially in our relation to God—sets up a natural knowledge of God. Romans 1:18-20 and 2:14-15 constitute the locus classicus for the natural knowledge of God, or indeed, a natural theology. In Romans 1:19-20, Paul notes this awareness:
19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
As Paul lays out his case for why all stand before God in need of Christ’s redemption, he argues that all people know “God” (or perhaps better “god”—the garden variety word theos is used here). As James D. G. Dunn writes, “some sort of natural theology is involved here…. Paul is certainly conversant with and indeed indebted to a strong strand of like-minded Hellenistic Jewish wisdom theology.” Dunn notes Wisdom of Solomon 12-15, especially verses 19-32.
A comparison text is Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God has put “eternity into our hearts.” Overall I agree with the exposition of Joseph Fitzmeier in his commentary on Romans that Paul is indicating humankind has some innate knowledge of God. I cannot agree with Karl Barth in his A Shorter Commentary on Romans, “Paul does not dream of paying the Gentiles anything resembling a compliment and of trying to find in their religions some point of contact for the understanding of the Gospel…..”
Still, for Paul, this knowledge remains relatively vaguely—only his “eternal power” and “deity” or “divine nature.”
Additionally, in Romans 2, Paul is arguing that both Jews and Gentiles stand universally in need of Christ’s redemption. He is moving toward the key statement, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) to be resolved by the redemption in Christ “But God proves his love for us that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In the course of this argument, he appeals to the conscience of the Gentiles, and their ability to do “what the law requires.” Specifically, in Romans 2:14-16, Paul writes
14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
Paul’s point here is not about natural theology per se, but that the Gentiles have some innate or natural knowledge of God’s moral will. Perhaps Paul is referring to Stoic notions, Jewish Wisdom concepts, or both. In any event, he clearly presents some natural knowledge God, expanding on the previous statement in 1:18-20 about God’s “invisible power and deity” to include now sufficient knowledge of God’s “law” or moral that all will be judged by the standard of the gospel of Christ, by the one Paul proclaims “his gospel.”
Put together, these biblical passages assert that we are created for God, that we know the general nature of God (especially his power and otherness as deity), and that we have a moral conscience. More on what that means in light of science in the following post...

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