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3: St Paul and the Hebrew Background

We began with the Areopagus speech, and not with the Letter to the Romans, not because the speech is more important—for many would consider Romans to be more important—but because it seems to be a very clear example of something like natural theology. In the case of Romans, on the other hand, there is more difficulty and doubt, and some considerable difference of opinion among experts. To Romans we must therefore now turn.

I will summarize the texts. In Romans 118 Paul says that the anger of God is revealed from heaven against all the impiety and injustice of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness, because that which can be known of God (to. gnwsto.n tou/ Qeou/) is manifest (fanero,n) in them or among them, for God revealed it (evfane,rwsen) to them. So, he continues in v. 20, from the creation of the world onwards, the invisible reality of God (ta. avo,rata auvtou/) is plainly discerned, being known by the things that he has made, and this means his eternal power and divine nature (δu,namij kai. qeio,thj), so that they are without excuse. Following this, Paul goes on to talk about the corruptions to which human beings had become liable, or, as he put it, to which God had given them up: idolatry led on to lust, and this to ‘unnatural’ vice (i.e. vice that contradicts the (fusikh. crh/sij or ‘natural’ sexual relations, 126, 27), and this meant that God had handed them over to all sorts of wickedness, which are listed in detail.

This leads on to the great summing up: ‘therefore you are without excuse (avnapolo,ghtoj), every one who judges’ (21). You who judge are doing the same things as those whom you judge. But God will render to everyone according to their works, and this is the same for Jews and for Greeks. God will recompense trouble and pain to every one who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honour and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek (29). For, he explains, there is no respect of persons with God: everyone is taken on the same basis. Those who have sinned without law (avno,mwj) will also perish without law, and those who have sinned under law (evn no,mw|) will be judged by the I law. It is not the hearers of the law that are just before God, but the doers of the law will be counted just.

And this brings us to the second expression which has seemed to imply a kind of natural theology: Romans 214. When the Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature (fu,sei)—note the word ‘nature’, which suggests a certain pointer towards ‘natural’ theology—the things of the law, they, not having the law, are a law unto themselves. They show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience (sunei,δhsij) also giving witness together, and their thoughts or cogitations (logismoi) reciprocally accusing or defending—all, he concludes, in the day when God judges the hidden things of humanity according to my gospel through Jesus Christ. The Gentiles, then, not having the special revelation of God, lacking the law, are a law to themselves or operate as such a law, their own thoughts and consciences somehow taking a part in this.

Now is there natural theology, or a sanction for natural theology, or a basis which might by extension imply a ground for natural theology, in all this? Here we have to be careful, for New Testament specialists themselves appear not to agree, and some of them explicitly deny that there is anything like natural theology in Romans. Moreover, as a survey of recent writing makes clear, the problem is tied up with questions of the audience to which the letter is addressed, its purpose and function and the like, all questions which I would not feel competent to address on a professional level. One might summarize a large variety of positions somewhat like this:

  1. There is no sort of natural theology anywhere in Romans, and nothing like it.
  2. There is something rather like natural theology but it is quite marginal and insignificant: this can be combined, perhaps, with the further opinion that, though there is plenty of natural theology in Acts, there is effectively none in Paul, and this carries with it the implication that the passages of Acts which we have discussed do not properly represent Paul.
  3. There is indeed something of a natural theology in Romans but it does not come from Paul and is not part of his real message, indeed (in one version) he did not write this portion of the book at all.

We will look swiftly at some of these options. The first of these, of course, is the nearest to the Barthian viewpoint, and for it we can cite the two distinguished British exegetes Barrett and Cranfield. Thus Barrett in his commentary tells us that: ‘It is not Paul's intention in this and the following verses to establish a natural theology; nor does he create one unintentionally. He is concerned with the moral principles of God's judgement.’1 And again, a little later: ‘Paul does not teach that there exist rational means of proving from creation that God exists. A mechanistic or fortuitous account of the universe never occurs to him.’ And Cranfield,2 adding that ‘Barrett is surely correct over against a great many interpretations’, expresses a similar judgement: ‘The result of God's self-manifestation in his creation is not a natural knowledge of God on men's part independent of God's self-revelation in his Word, a valid though limited knowledge, but simply the excuselessness of men in their ignorance.’

Now before we go further we can make some comments on the position taken by these two influential exegetes. First, it may indeed be argued, as it is especially by Cranfield, that there is ‘no natural knowledge’ here ‘independent of God's self-revelation in his Word’. If something is known, it is God who ‘has revealed it to I them’ (Rom. 119). If, then, there is some sort of revelation in creation, it is real self-revelation by God, and in that sense it appears at first might not to belong to natural theology as traditionally defined. But this, if so, does not solve as much as might seem to be the case. For it might mean only that the definition of natural theology has to be widened or adjusted. For, if this knowledge of God through creation is accessible and available to everybody, indeed in some degree attained or possessed by everybody, Jew or Gentile, it seems to come to the same thing as natural theology in effect. They all know it, or know some trace of it. If they all know this trace of it, why can one not build some theology upon this fact? If there is a divine revelation in the natural or created world, and if this is available to everyone, why can we not argue from it, which is what St Paul appears to be doing, and that in the line of much Hellenistic Judaism before him? If there is some kind of revelation to which all human beings have been given access, it means that, even if it comes by revelation of God, it can operate in the mode by which natural theology, or some kinds of it, traditionally operated. It may mean something like a kind of revealed natural theology: in other words it may suggest that the traditional boundaries between revealed and natural theology cannot be sustained or must be reconsidered, and that is a possibility to which we shall have to return.

Secondly, it is commonly said in the Reformational tradition, and we see it in Cranfield's remarks just quoted, that the only effect of God's manifestation in creation is that people are without excuse. The word only (or likewise ‘simply’), however, is exegetically unjustified here.3 People are without excuse, yes, but there is no basis for insisting on the only at this point. The effect, and no doubt the purpose, of that only is to diminish the positive importance of the self-manifestation in the created world. But it is more probable that the manifestation of God in creation is intended by Paul as a highly powerful factor of a positive kind, and not one mentioned only because it leaves people without excuse.

That this is so may be observed from the fact that Paul in Romans twice observes that people are avapolo,ghtoi, without excuse: the first time in connection with God's revelation of what is knowable of himself in creation, 120, and the second at 21, where he writes, ‘Therefore you are without excuse, every man who judges.’ Thus, if humans are without excuse, this is not the total and only result of having a chance to know God through his creation, it is the result of other specific human acts, in particular the result of judging. The inexcusability of human beings is not mentioned purely as a consequence of their having failed to recognize the deity in his created works. By the same token it is likely that the whole matter of divine self-revelation in the created world has more in the way of positive consequence than ‘only’ that humanity is without excuse. There is no exegetical basis for this only, which is no more than a reiteration of certain dogmatic traditions.

Thus the statements quoted from Barrett and Cranfield are subject to two criticisms: first, they give the impression of confessional ssertions rather than exegetically backed interpretations, and secondly, even taken as exegetical interpretations, they are logically inadequate, in that they do not exclude natural theology but only certain limited and partial forms of it or interpretations of it.

On the first of these points, both Barrett and Cranfield give the impression that they are uttering expressions of loyalty to a basically Barthian viewpoint, rather than providing close exegetical evidence for their conclusion. Barrett, for example, in his preface wrote: ‘If in those days, and since, I remained and have continued to be a Christian. I owe the fact in large measure to that book [Barth's Romans].’4 Cranfield's exposition creates something of the same impression.

And, on the second aspect, both scholars slip into their comments additional attributes which might indeed apply to some conceptions of natural theology but do not necessarily apply to all. Thus when Cranfield says: ‘God's being manifest in his creation is the result of his own deliberate self-disclosure and not something in any way independent of his will’,5 this does not really close the door against natural theology: even the most natural of all natural theologies did not suppose that the knowledge accessible through natural theology was independent of the will of God. All natural theology assumed that that which was ‘naturally’ known was known because God had willed it to be naturally known. Again, of course, as Barrett argues. Paul does not teach that ‘there is a rational means of proving’ from creation that God exists. But that leaves open the possibility that there is some other kind of natural theology than one that furnishes rational proof of the existence of God. When Barrett adds that Paul had no idea of a ‘mechanistic or fortuitous account of the universe’, no one ever supposed that he had. Natural theology does not advocate a theory of the universe as mechanistic or fortuitous; quite the contrary, one of its chief errors down the centuries, one might say, is that it has assumed too readily a universe carefully and rationally planned. All these remarks are obvious misrepresentations of natural theology and introduce irrelevant considerations which obscure the reality of the decisive issues concerning the latter. What Romans does appear to imply is that there is something ‘known of God’, which is revealed through his created works, which is accessible to all human beings through their being human, and which, as constituted through the law ‘written in the heart’, forms a resource through which moral decisions may be taken.

These last remarks are directed mainly at the first portion of the Romans text, and before we go further we have to add some consideration of the phrases about the Gentiles being ‘a law unto themselves’ (214 ff.). This famous sentence is of a somewhat different scope and character, and yet it is equally relevant, though in a different way, to the question of natural theology. It does not say directly anything about whether Gentiles have or do not have a knowledge of God. And it is clear that they do not have the ‘special’ law of God, manifestly the Jewish law delivered through Moses. But they may nevertheless ‘by nature’ and as we saw, this terminological link with the concept of ‘natural’ theology makes the passage specially distinguished for our purpose (‘by nature’ seems to mean, by means of resources that these Gentiles have as human people, as distinct from the resources that might be gained from the law specially given by God through Moses)—do things that belong to the functions of that law.

And the passage seems to imply that it is quite possible that Gentiles might achieve this: it is not expressed as if this was a totally theoretical discussion, so that no Gentile ever ‘by nature’ actually did anything good. On the contrary, it is expressed as if it was accepted experience, ‘when’ (o[tan) the Gentiles do this, which obviously they sometimes do, they function as if they were to themselves a law. Moreover Paul seems to know how this works, and tells us something about the machinery of the matter: the work of the law written in the heart, assisted by the operations of conscience and the mutual accusations and defences of their own reckonings. It is as if he has seen it working. Gentiles doing what the law requires are a realistic possibility. Precisely for this reason he has to come back to the question in 31. ‘What then is the advantage of the Jew?’—exactly because one can do what the law requires without having the law, and one can have the law but not fulfil its requirements. If Paul thought that no Gentile ‘by nature’, and in spite of the resources indicated by this term, had ever done anything of this work of the law, the argument of 31 would have been unnecessary. So, though the passage at this point does not speak in terms of a natural ‘knowledge’ or ‘awareness’ of God, it does speak of a resource, available ‘by nature’, just by being human, which can at least in principle perform the sort of moral requirement that the revealed divine law can perform (or can fail to perform). Whether or not there is a natural ‘knowledge’ of God, there is a ‘natural’ resource which can do the same work as the revealed resource can do. The existence of such a ‘natural’ resource would seem, even if nothing more is said explicitly, to give some support to the idea of a ‘natural’ awareness of God upon which some kind of ‘natural theology’ might be built.

In respect of this passage, we should mention also that it includes a term such as sunei,δhsij, ‘conscience’, which is said to have a distinctly Stoic ring about it, and also that the use of no,moj in ‘being a law to themselves’ is strikingly different from the typical usage relating to the Mosaic Law.6 If some connection may be suggested with Jewish traditions that some divine laws had originally been given to the Gentiles, the actual wording comes closer to Aristotle's phrases to the effect that the refined and well-bred man (cari,ej kai. evleuqe,rioj) is as it were a law to himself (ou[twj e[xei, o-on no,moj w'n e'autw/|—Nic. Eth. 1128a31), or that ‘there can be no law dealing with such men [men of outstanding virtue] for they are themselves a law’ (Politics, 1284a14). Following these lines, the connection of nature with the divine law, whether written or unwritten, was a well-established theme of Jewish argument. For the moment, however, we shall not attempt to evaluate these facts, until we have explored more widely the ramifications of the material. We shall want, in a moment, to make a comparison of this material with the speech of Paul on the Areopagus as reported in Luke, and we shall want to consider its background in earlier Jewish sources.

As always in such matters, a variety of exegetical opinions remains possible. On Romans we may quote three more, in addition to those of Barrett and Cranfield which have already been discussed. First, we may mention the argument of Bo Reicke, which comes perhaps the nearest to a possible interpretation compatible with the Barthian view of natural theology.7 In Paul, says Reicke, as generally in the Bible, the knowledge of God rests upon revelation; this is so even in the Areopagus speech (p. 155). The world by reason cannot know God (1 Cor. 121). Nevertheless, through a universal divine revelation people ought to be able to know God. This, Reicke says, is unmistakable in Romans 118 ff.. In a certain sense, therefore (p. 159), Paul grants the possibility of a natural theology. The truth is accessible to humanity. But one cannot go on to say that Paul accepts the actuality of a natural theology. All this potential knowledge is turned into lies, idolatry, insults against God, who replies by letting loose his wrath from heaven. It is thus (p. 165) only through the gospel that a certain ‘point of contact’ (Anknüpfungspunkt) is created. This fits with the words about the ‘works of the law’ which the Gentiles may do without having the law. According to Reicke, these works of the law which are done in the hearts of Gentiles correspond to the work which according to Paul took place in the heart of Jews, in the missionary situation of their conversion to Christian faith. In other words, Paul is not referring to good works which Gentiles do in their natural, pagan state, but to an operation through which they may become Christians, just as Jews may.

I must say that I find this an unconvincing intrusion of a position of Barthian type on a text that looks very different. As Christian Link, one of the most profound recent writers on these matters and himself very much in the Barthian tradition, rightly remarks,8 Reicke's explanation is an easy way of getting rid of the problems of natural theology by intruding the modern contrast of reason and revelation into the Pauline text. From the beginning Reicke imposes a Barthian dogmatic framework when he says: ‘As in the Bible in general (überhaupt), so in Paul one finds the conception that the knowledge of God rests upon a revelation of God.’9 But it is by no means clear that this fits for the Old Testament, where there is no general indication that there is no knowledge of God except through a revelation of God; and if the situation in the Old Testament is different from what Reicke claims, then it is all the more likely that Paul's opinion was different too. And, in detail, I find it quite implausible that when Gentiles ‘do the work of the law’, with their conscience and thoughts acting upon them, this refers to the process of their becoming Christians. I mention it in order to illustrate how a position of Barthian type has been maintained, rather than because it has high intrinsic merits.

Much the most powerful exposition among the commentaries I have consulted comes from Käsemann.10 Käsemann fully recognizes the many similarities between our New Testament passages and Hellenistic sources, especially Jewish sources in Greek. But he distinguishes Paul from Acts, in which, he thinks, there is certainly natural theology.11 For Paul it is significant just what he accepts, and the extreme restrictiveness he exercises in what he accepts. Thus in the genuine Pauline letters creation is not an ‘independent doctrinal theme’ (kern selbständiges Lehrstück), and thus Paul has no theoretical or isolated interest in the beginnings of the world. Rather, his view is eschatological. Reality before the Fall cannot be reconstructed, not even as something to think of as an ideal state for life it is. Even of God Paul speaks only in his relation to humanity and the world after the Fall: he says nothing about his attributes and his essence, or about the δioi,khsij or ta,xij of the cosmos as a basis on which to found the knowledge of God. Metaphysical questions do not interest him. The rhetoric of Romans 1 is one of accusation and curse (pp. 37 f.)—he does not enlighten, prove, defend, or ‘establish contact’ (anknüpft—again an allusion to the term of Brunner's argument against Barth). On the contrary he accuses, he reduces the Greek motifs to the extreme, characterizes God's deity as a power at confronts, and sees human guilt not in ignorance but in revolt against the Lord who is known. Thus the tendency observed in Philo is much more strongly ‘radicalized’ in Paul. ‘Radicalization’ is extremely prominent as a value marker in Käsemann's interpretation, indeed one may say that ‘radicality’ is the ultimate value for I the thing he most wants and needs to find in Paul.12

Something similar is to be found in his handling of the passage about ‘a law to themselves’ in ch. 2 (his pp. 57 ff.). It is not a matter placing humanity within a scheme of order, but it is a matter of the ‘crisis of existence’ (p. 59).

Even with full respect to Käsemann's arguments, however, we may question whether they really demonstrate the absence of some kind of natural theology from Romans. Even if creation is not an ‘independent theme’ in the other genuine letters, this does not entirely prove that it is not a theme here: after all, the argument of Romans 1–2 in general does not find a duplicate elsewhere in the genuine letters. The fact that the argument is one of accusation rather than of abstract discussion does not show that natural theology could not have taken part in such an argument. Paul may not have had a ‘theoretical’ interest in the beginnings of the world, and may not have been interested in its δioi,khsij or ta,xij, but it is very likely all the same that the profound and systematic creation story of Genesis was an important source for his thought. And, even if his view is an eschatological one, that does not exclude a close linkage with creation; on the contrary, the two opposite ends of the time spectrum are commonly closely linked. I shall later come back to Käsemann's view and try to suggest an explanation for the difficulties he sees.

Another recent exposition of Romans which offers a further possibility is that of W. Schmithals. In his view (his p. 29), the document which we call the Letter to the Romans is a combination of two quite different writings, Romans A and Romans B. The sections which we have been studying, from the point of view of our discussion of natural theology, lie within Romans A (which consists of 11–425, 512–1136 and 158–13). The first part of this document, the first two chapters of the present book, builds heavily in his judgement upon traditional synagogue polemic against the Gentiles. But—and this is the essential point—Paul is here quoting or rehearsing a customary Jewish argument in order to use it against the synagogue. In other words, what he is saying is not his own opinion, but is the argument of others, which he is using against these others. He is thus (p. 92) not at all unfolding any natural theology of the law: ‘his interest lies only in showing, with the help of synagogal arguments, that even the possession of the Torah does not provide the Jews with a distinctiveness over against the Gentiles (nicht vor den Heiden auszeichnet).’ In 118–320 Paul's ‘representations move in pure synagogue language… thus he is not putting forward his own arguments, he is reproducing synagogue teaching’ (p. 72). To sum up, the first part of Romans A (pp. 72 f.) does not unfold genuine Pauline theology, but puts synagogal idea material into a Pauline field of view (Optik) and places it in the service of the apostle's missionary strategy. Thus, Schmithals writes with emphasis marked, a systematic representation of Pauline theology can leave out of consideration the individual lines of argument of 118–320, and ‘this first part of the doctrinal document sent to Rome thus contains no content of Christian preaching’.

Thus, if I understand him rightly, Schmithals is probably quite ready to accept that there is natural theology in these parts of Romans, and that this represents an acceptance of Stoic teaching on the part of the relevant currents of the synagogue, and its use on behalf of Judaism as against the Gentiles. But its presence in the Letter, our letter, to the Romans does not mean that it was seriously meant as the view of St Paul. Indeed, we may perhaps say, though he does not exactly put it in this way, the presence of natural theology in the words of Romans makes it highly probable that this part, though written by Paul, was not intended to be taken seriously. The effects of this argument—to most of us a rather novel and paradoxical one—cannot be considered further here; for the present it helps to demonstrate the variety of implications that can follow from different exegetical handlings of the New Testament texts.13

Before we go further, we may make some general assessments of the exegetical positions described. What I, speaking personally, most gain from this sort of discussion is a depressing feeling of the weakness of the Bible as a guide in fundamental theological questions. On the whole, people are far more heavily influenced by the strong dogmatic convictions which they have inherited or to which they adhere, and only with the greatest difficulty can they find it in themselves to admit that the Bible actually points in a direction different from these convictions. We have noted this in the more specifically Barthian approaches.

We began by acknowledging that it is at least possible to expound the early chapters of Romans in a style more akin to the Barthian approach, and this is what we have seen in highly reputable exegetes like Barrett and still more in Cranfield. But one cannot avoid the impression that the Barthian sort of interpretation, when handling the passages that might support natural theology, turned over to that same sort of narrow critical exegesis that was exactly the kind most attacked by Barth in the handling of any other element of scripture. In general and for the most part, Barthian exegesis has been theologically expansive: it was open to the wide and profound theological problems and possibilities, of which it was possible to accuse academic and critical exegesis of having failed to grasp the potentialities. But, in anything touching natural theology, Barth and his followers espoused the narrowest and most negative, suspicious, and critical approach. The kind of exegesis which will refuse any openness to natural theology in Romans 1–2 is the kind of negative exegesis which will also deny a doctrine of incarnation in John or a doctrine of the Trinity in Paul.14

But something similar can probably be said about other lines of exegetical discussion. It is extremely difficult for scholars to maintain an open mind about the question of natural theology in scripture, most of all in the Letter to the Romans. In general we may say: at least within Protestantism, scholars do not want to find it or to have to handle it. The twentieth-century prejudice is against natural theology, and therefore against any willingness to admit evidence for it within the Bible.15 For the task cannot be carried out in a simple proof-text fashion, as if a few words in Acts or in Romans would clearly and incontrovertibly demonstrate the status of natural theology. What is required is not just a few words, or the exegesis of a few words, but a wide vision and perspective within which the status of the question might be seen. Exegesis alone will not alter people's minds, until they perceive an alternative total perspective through which they can see not only the biblical material but also an explanation of how it affects a wide range of personal stands and theological problems. Our purpose here, accordingly, is not to ‘prove’ or to ‘disprove’ the validity of natural theology through direct exegesis of the classic scriptural evidences on the matter, but, proceeding from these evidences, to explore the wider field within which the questions stand.

Our next step is to make some comparison between the Areopagus speech, along with the other materials in Acts, and these aspects of Romans. Such a comparison may help us to decide how far the Areopagus speech as reported is historical, and such a decision, if it can be made, may be very important. But the reaching of such a historical decision is not our primary aim in this enquiry. More important is to consider the presence of elements that may be common, that may be partly represented in one of these sources or in the other, or that may indicate common sources from which both in varying modes may have drawn.

The passages seem strikingly complementary: they have a certain common theme, but the modes in which they touch upon it are often different. Acts has, at least on the margin, the mention of Stoic philosophers: Romans says nothing about philosophers anywhere, but has the strikingly Stoic term sunei,δhsij, and also uses fu,sij twice in related connections.16 To this we may add Paul's use of the adjective fusiko,j in respect of sexual relations, and this we have to discuss at somewhat greater length. His terminology implies that for him, in this connection, ‘nature’ is a theological criterion. Homosexual relations are viewed as a climactic manifestation of (evil, but the reason given is not because they are forbidden by God or (because they are disapproved in the Old Testament (though these could easily have been shown, cf. Lev. 1822, 2013). Paul doubtless thought both these reasons to be valid and sufficient,17 but they were not the reason he gave: the reason he actually gave was that these (relations are against ‘nature’. This terminology was by no means new. Plato himself has it in Laws, 636, where the Athenian speaker Speaks of heterosexual relations as fuvsin, ‘according to nature’.18 The ‘natural’ use is approved, that which is para. fu,sin, ‘against nature’, is seen as obviously wrong.

Of course, this use of the ‘natural’ as a moral guide leaves open the question of what is natural and what is not. An amusing and ironic comment comes from 4 Maccabees 58, where Antiochus is depicted as representing to Eleazar that he would be a better Jew if he ate swine's flesh, since it was ‘nature’ that had graciously given (th/j fu,seqj kecarisme,nhj) the excellent practice of eating pork. The reply in 525 is: ‘believing the law to be established by God, we know that the creator of the world feels with us according to nature (kata. fu,sin), and that what he commanded us to eat was what would be appropriate to our souls’. The argument on both sides assumes that what is ‘natural’ will be right and in accord with the will of God.

Thus for Josephus, in this same connection, what is ‘natural’ is the same as what is recognized by the Jewish law. The sentence should be quoted in full:

mi/xin mo,nhn oi=δen ov no,moj th.n kata. fu,sin th.n pro.j gunai/ka kai. tau,thn eiv me,lloi te,knwn e[neka gi,esqai. th.n δe. pro.j avrre,nwn evstu,ghke, kai. qa,natoj touvpiti,mon ei; tij evpiceirh,seien. (Contra Apion., ii. 199; cf. Lev. 1822, 20)

The law recognizes only one kind of sexual intercourse, the natural one, that [of a man] with a woman, and this [only] if it is to take place for the sake of having children. It abominates intercourse of men with men, and death is the punishment if anyone attempts it.

The similarity of words and ideas with Paul is obvious.19

To sum up, therefore, the authority of ‘nature’ in Romans is not easily to be overlooked. For many Jews, no doubt, ‘nature’ and the will of God could scarcely be distinguished. Philo, wishing to show that providence must follow from the fact of creation, calls it a ‘law of nature’ that that which makes should take care of that which has been made: no,moj ga.r fu,sewj evpimelei/sqai pepoihko.j tou/ gegono,toj.20 ‘Law’ and ‘nature’ could belong closely together.

Again, returning to our comparison of Romans and the Areopagus speech, both passages have the theme of the creator God, but in Acts this is developed towards the theme that such a God does not live in temples and needs nothing from humanity, while in Romans it is developed towards the theme that humans should have known God through the works which he had made but instead went on to replace him with the images of mortals or of beasts and reptiles. It is Romans that makes explicit the idea ‘that which is know-able of God’, but Acts that makes it vivid with the mention of the altar to the ‘unknown’ God and the relative ‘ignorance’ of the Athenians who worship him. It is Romans that continues the subject into an emphasis on the appalling morality that follows from failure to acknowledge the true God; and for Romans this immorality seems to be a punishment rather than an accompaniment, ‘nicht Schuld sondern Strafe’ as Käsemann puts it.21 Acts on the other hand is quite easy about Gentile morality, treats it as a matter of ignorance, and derives no shocking effects from past idolatry. It makes it clear that past effects of idolatry will be overlooked so long as repentance now follows. Acts emphasizes the theme of the temple, saying that God does not live in any such building, while Romans leaves that aspect aside. If Romans (perhaps) admits that all persons have access to some knowledge of God and have some resource within them that can do the work of the law, Acts touches on this theme in a more purposeful way, not so much making express that they have these resources, but emphasizing that God determined and guided the situation of the nations with this possibility in view. It is only Acts that here appeals to the verses of a Greek poet and only lit that builds into its argument the near-pantheistic thought that we all alike live and move in God and are his offspring. Romans may admit aspects of knowledge of God, and of morality, as accessible among the Gentiles, but does nothing to associate these, even distantly, with forms of their religion; Acts on the other hand takes its starting-point in Athenian religiosity. Romans is more predicated on the difference between Jew and Gentile, the Areopagus speech distinctly more universal in its view. Both alike, on the other hand, associate the entire subject with the theme of divine judgement.

And, just to give my own preliminary opinion, it seems to me that this complementary situation of the two passages suggests that a common tradition lies behind them both. They have been developed in different ways but retain a strong family resemblance.22 And, this being so, it seems to me clear that, natural theology being certain in Acts, natural theology is probable in Romans also. For, though Romans portrays the human situation in darker terms than Acts, Romans nevertheless comes closer to the essential terms of natural theology than Acts does, with its mention on the one hand of how the knowable element of God was known to all, and on the other hand its use of terms like fu,sij, ‘nature’. There remains however the problem, most sharply expressed by Schmithals, that even if these passages are full of natural theology this may not have been seriously meant by Paul and not be part of his own actual theology. If we are to make it more probable that it does belong to his actual theology, therefore, we have to suggest a total scenario under which this would fit into the argument of the letter and also into the intellectual background.

On the one hand, Romans 1–2 may contain, or seem to contain, elements that are absent from the other genuine Pauline letters. On the other, they seem to contain elements which cannot easily be explained as insights of Christianity at all: in particular, the idea that all moral failings, from gossiping, slander, and disobedience to parents at one end to deceit, strife, and murder at the other end, can be accounted for as a consequence of earlier idolatry. What is there in the Christian message that justifies this strange causative linkage? And no more evident is it why homosexual relations, however one should judge them, should be explained as the result of idolatry too. What is the point of this strange scheme? What is there in the gospel that provides a source, a support, or a justification for it? And, if it comes from St Paul, why is it not repeated in his other genuine writings?

Well, I think one would have to judge with Schmithals that this material is very largely taken over from Jewish polemics or missionary preaching toward the Gentiles. But, if so, why might Paul have used it here? I think one might be able to explain it as follows: the plan of Romans, in this respect, is to compare the status of Jews and Gentiles in relation to God's justice. Both, according to Paul, are under the wrath of God for their failings. Why so? For the Jeus, it is easy enough to explain: they had the Law of Moses, but did not obey it. But what about the Gentiles? This was more complicated. They had known that which was knowable of God but failed to honour him accordingly and devoted the veneration proper to him to images of humans or, worse, of animals. God had responded to this by giving them up to impurities, lusts, unnatural ways of living, and finally all sorts of general immoralities. All this was indeed traditional Jewish Hellenistic polemic against the Gentile ways of life. But it provided a necessary balance in the argument about the place of Jews and the place of Gentiles in relation to Christian faith. And, just as Jews, who had the law, had disobeyed the law, so Gentiles, who did not have it, might in effect have obeyed it—a point which not only effected the necessary rhetorical balance but also provided a, somewhat needed, recognition of the fact that Gentile life, even where idols were present, was not wholly and purely dominated by the long list of evils which Paul has provided. And, because this was the argumentative line, one can see why an element of natural theology was not only rhetorically but also logically necessary: the Gentiles were at fault because the realities of God had indeed been revealed to them through his works of creation, and put in the opposite way, that means that the structures and elements of the created world form in themselves a testimony from which the reality of the creator God could have been and should have been inferred. Not only so, but it was inferred: they did know God, but did not honour him as God. This is why they are inexcusable. All this, in my opinion, forms a chain of reasoning along which it is understandable that a Christian Paul might have deployed these arguments. But indeed, as I shall argue and emphasize, they are Jewish, and Jewish Hellenistic, arguments.

At this point it will be appropriate to mention the important study of Bertil Gärtner, The Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation (1955),23 which is one of the few full-length exegetical studies in this (century to consider the subject seriously as a problem. In spite of the highly controversial character of natural theology or natural revelation at the time of his writing, Gärtner curiously did rather little in his book to relate his study to that general question or to derive general exegetical implications from his results. On the whole, however, the main trend of his study, it seems, was to deprecate the idea that the Paul of the speech in Acts was simply dependent on Greek ideas, especially on Stoic ideas, and to lay greater emphasis on the degree to which he was informed and inspired by Hebrew and Jewish ideas. And it is my purpose in a sense to follow somewhat further along the same line. For the reader may well be asking why the present writer, who is supposedly an Old Testament scholar, should be writing at such length about the New Testament. If I have a distinctive contribution to make, it is to suggest that Hebrew and Jewish ideas were a highly formative source which did much to form the background of natural theology. As will be obvious to anyone who knows the course of studies during this century, this, if justified, is a reversal of the trend which dominated much biblical theology and which represented Hebrew or Jewish material as intrinsically revelational and essentially antithetical to Greek thought, from which latter, it was thought, the seeds of natural theology and of more or less all theological errors had come.

My argument will therefore embrace two lines of thought which at first sight might appear to be contrary to each other. In the first place I shall argue that the real source from which Christian natural theology sprang is Hebraic. Since its basis is Hebraic, much of the criticism that has been directed against it on the grounds of compromise with the Hellenic spirit is improper. But, on the other hand, I also think, though I shall not attempt to prove it in detail, that much of the New Testament, and especially of the letters, and most of all of the Pauline letters, is much more Greek in its terms, its conceptuality, and its thinking than main trends of modern biblical theology have tended to allow. My own experience makes this to me undeniable. If one has spent most of one's life, as I have, working on Hebrew and other Semitic-language texts, and then returns after some absence to a closer study of the New Testament, the impression of the essentially Greek character of the latter is overwhelming, and especially so in St Paul, much less so in some other areas like the teaching of Jesus as seen in the Synoptic Gospels. The attempt, at one time popular and influential, to argue that, though the words might be Greek, the thought processes were fundamentally Hebraic, was a conspicuous failure. I quote the recent judgement of Link, following Bornkamm:

It cannot be disputed that Paul received the thoughts of the Greek tradition, not only eclectically and through a mere borrowing of their vocabulary, but thoroughly in their inner coherence (Zusammenhang) and in their framework of reality. He thus positively accepts an internally cohering thought-framework of Gentile natural theology.24

If we take the words of Romans 119 f., which are perhaps the prime terms of our discussion, not only the terminology but the thought-framework of the whole thing is unmistakably Hellenic. If it is also Jewish, which it is, this only goes to show that the opposition between Greek and Hebraic is not significant for our subject. Jewish thinkers who wrote in Greek expressed their Jewish thoughts not only in Greek words but in the Greek thought-forms that were so very customary to them.

If, therefore, our researches were to make it seem that Paul, or other NT authority, was substantially dependent on categories of Greek popular philosophy for his thoughts and arguments, we would not be troubled by this; it would count simply as a reality of the situation. For, by arguing that Paul, or any other NT writer, is essentially Hebraic or Jewish in spirit and heritage, we are not thereby making it more clear that he is opposed to natural theology; on the contrary, we are making it more probable that he is sympathetic to it.

  • 1.

    C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 35.

  • 2.

    C. B. Cranfield, Romans (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 116.

  • 3.

    Even for Calvin himself, much as he liked the theme of human inexcusability, he did not think that this was the ‘only’ effect: there was the other effect on which he dwelt very heavily, the impossibility of atheism, central to the first chapters of the Institutes. This belief in its turn has great implications for the presentation of the gospel.

  • 4.

    Barrett, Romans, p. vi.

  • 5.

    Cranfield, Romans, 114.

  • 6.

    Cf. here also the use of no,moj in places like Rom. 721 ff.

  • 7.

    B. Reicke, ‘Natürliche Theologie bei Paulus’, SEÅ 22–3 (1957–8), 154–67. Reicke's exposition follows that of Barth himself, and, earlier, that of Augustine.

  • 8.

    C. Link, Die Welt als Gleichnis (Munich: Kaiser, 1976), 87 and note.

  • 9.

    Reicke, ‘Natürliche Theologie bei Paulus’, 155.

  • 10.

    See his Rom. commentary, An die Römer (4th edn., Tübingen: Mohr, 1980), esp. 32 ff. on Rom. 118 ff., 57–64 on Rom. 212 ff..

  • 11.

    Käsemann, Römer, 36, is clear that one may and must speak of natural theology in Wisd. 135, in Aristeas 132, and in Acts 1415 ff., 1722 ff., but that things are not so simple in Paul himself: ‘Ohne jeden Zweifel darf und muss man hier von natürlicher Theologie sprechen. So einfach liegen die Dinge dagegen bei Pls nicht.’ For discussion cf. Link, Die Welt als Gleichnis, 86 f.

  • 12.

    Though Käsemann has much respect for Barth and is much influenced by his thought, in respect of natural theology his approach seems more akin to Bultmann's: see R. Bultmann. ‘The Problem of “Natural Theology”’, in his Faith and Understanding. ed. R. W. Funk (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 313–31.

  • 13.

    Cf. W. Schmithals, Der Römerbrief (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1988), 77, where rightly emphasizes Wisdom of Solomon as the closest parallel, mentions in small print Acts and other works, but claims that the Jew in any case did not depend on this plural revelation, since he did not need to conclude from the creation that God existed, because the Torah provided all this knowledge, cf. his p. 98 on Rom. 220. Cf. also the somewhat similar argumentation of E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Wish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 123 ff., and the comment of K. Syreeni, ‘Matthew. Luke and the Law’, in T. Veijola, The Law in the Bible and in Its Environment (Publications of the Finnish Exegetical Society 51; Helsinki: Finnish Exegetical 990). 145 n. 43.

  • 14.

    I return to expand this comment in Ch. 6 below.

  • 15.

    Thus Link, Die Welt ah Gleichnis, 315, quotes the opinion of Schillebeeckx: ‘the crisis today of Protestant and Catholic theology seems to me, seen from a particular angle of view, to be the ultimate consequence of the denial of every form of “natural theology”, a result of the breach between human experience and Christian faith. Anyone who starts out from the fact of this breach must sooner or later come to perceive that Christian faith is a useless superstructure over human reality.’ What is striking is not so much this opinion in itself, but Link's description of it as ‘a diagnosis perhaps astonishing for the Protestant reader’.

  • 16.

    Note that fu,sij occurs thrice in Wisd, and frequently in 3–4 Macc.

  • 17.

    It seems necessary to say this, if only to notice and to counter the suggestions of John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1980), who thinks, for example, that St Paul ‘never suggested there was any historical or legal reason to oppose homosexual behaviour: if he object to it, it was purely on the basis of functional, contemporary moral stans’ (p. 106)—especially since his work includes some discussion of Paul's use of ‘nature’ in our passage. Interesting as his work is in its gathering of material from the history, in its handling of biblical texts and above all in its arguments from specific biblical words I can only say that I find it to be staggering in the degree of its misjudgement.

  • 18.

    Cf. also 836 ff., and Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1148b15–1149a20. What is involved in ‘nature’ in these cases, however, is a subtle matter, on which see K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (London: Duckworth, 1978), esp. 60, 67, 154, 165 ff. Dover says (p. 60) that, if the meaning is that homosexuality as such is unnatural, that is ‘a standpoint… expounded only in one strand of the Socratic-Platonic philosophical tradition’. In any case, however, the terminology of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ is there. For a more recent discussion on Plato and Aristotle see A. W. Price, Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 223 ff.

  • 19.

    Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, though he mentions Josephus elsewhere (p. 346), appears not to take this passage into account in his discussion of Paul.

  • 20.

    Philo, Praem. 42.

  • 21.

    Römer, 34

  • 22.

    I borrow this term, essential in biblical theology, from John Barton's discussion of the principles of that subject in his article ‘Old Testament Theology’, in John Rogerson (ed.). Beginning Old Testament Study (London: SPCK. 1983). esp. 94 f.

  • 23.

    Uppsala: Gleerup, 1955.

  • 24.

    Link, Die Well als Gleichnis, 89, quoting G. Bornkamm, ‘Gesetz und Natur: Röm 2. 14–16’, in Studien zu Antike und Urchristentum, ii (Munich: Kaiser, 1959), III,