Patristic (and later) use of Rom. 1:20 as natural theology

Whilst natural theology is a hot topic at The Hump, Eddie Robinson’s recent pieces here  and here regarding the BioLogos thread mentioning natural theology, in connection with Lutheranism, prompted me to do a rapid, and of course, incomplete survey of the Church Fathers on this subject.

I took the easy route of simply searching out where they had cited Romans 1:20, and how. What emerges over several centuries is very clearly what George Murphy calls the “classical” view – that mainstream Christian apologists and teachers regarded a limited knowledge of God as naturally available to all men through considering the works of nature. This is an interesting contrast to the present day, where, as Eddie has pointed out, such a view of the natural world is taken as the province of outlying “Intelligent Design” supporters, the more “mainstream” idea being that God is deeply hidden behind nature, except to eyes of faith that have been opened in other ways. I think you will see that this was not the historical position.

I have included all those Fathers I found to have made relevant use of Rom. 1:20, omitting one or two who use it in some allegorical or otherwise irrelevant way (notably Origen). However I’m sure the survey is not exhaustive, but I do think it representative.


Tatian (d. c185) To the Greeks, 4:

Him we know from his creation, and apprehend his invisible power by his works.

The context is that of saying why Tatian refuses to worship anything but God: ie the works reveal divinity, but are not themselves divine.

Tertullian (c155-c240) Against Hermogenes (who said matter is eternal) XLV:

If [as Hermogenes claims] he made this world simply by appearing and approaching it, did he, on completion of this work, cease to appear and approach it any more? Nay rather, God began to appear more conspicuously and to be everywhere accessible from the time when the world was made. You see, therefore, how all things consist by the operation of that God who “made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and stretched out the heaven by his understanding”…applying the almighty efforts of his mind, his wisdom, his power, his understanding, his word, his Spirit, his might. Now these things were not necessary to him, if he had been perfect by simply appearing and approaching. They are, however, his “invisible things,” which according the apostle, “are from the creation of the world clearly seen by the things that are made;” [they are no parts] of a nondescript Matter, but they are sensible evidences of himself.

Tertullian here is, effectively, opposing materialism (reading past his specific critique of Hermogenes). God is more clearly evident now than at the moment of creation, the things created being “sensible evidence” of God’s attributes, rather than of “nondescript Matter”.

On the Soul XVIII:

For how can the intellect be superior to the senses, when it these that educate it for the discovery of various truths? It is a fact, that these truths are learned by means of palpable forms; in other words, invisible things are discovered by the help of visible ones, even as the apostle tells us in his epistle: “For the invisible things of him are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made.”

That is, the sensory experiences of nature inform the intellect regarding God, rather than vice versa.

Against Marcion V.XVI:

Which God has the greater right to be angry? He, as I suppose, who from the beginning of all things has given to man, as primary witnesses for the knowledge of himself, nature in her [manifold] works, kindly providences, plagues, and indications [of his divinity], but who in spite of all this evidence has not been acknowledged.

Here Tertullian regards nature as the primary witness of the knowledge of God for all men.

Novatian (200-258) Concerning the Trinity III:

Who, similarly wishing still more to come into our knowledge, and by way of stirring up our minds to his worship, said, “I am the Lord, who made the light and created the darkness;” that we might deem not that some Nature – what I know not – was the artificer of those viscissitudes whereby nights and days are controlled, but might recognise God rather (as is more true) as their Creator. And since by the gaze of our eyes we cannot see him, we rightly learn of him from the greatness, and the power, and the majesty of his works. “For the invisible things of him,” says the apostle Paul, “from the creation of the world, are clearly seenm being understood by those things which are made, even his eternal power and godhead;” so that the human mind, learning hidden things from those that are manifest, from the greatness of the works which it should behold, might with the eyes of the mind consider the greatness of the Architect.

Novatian, like Tertullian, refutes “Nature”, not pagan gods, as the “artificer” or “Architect” of all that is, again reasoning that the invisible God’s attributes of greatness, power and majesty are fully visible in the nature of his works.

Pseudo-Clement (before 325) Recognitions BkII. 21:

For to those who think aright, God is manifest even by the operations of the world which he hath made, using the evidence of his creation; and therefore, since there ought to be no doubt about God, we have now to inquire only about his righteousness and his kingdom.

Only confused thinkers, in his view, would deny the clear evidence of God in nature, and so one may start apologetics with the arguments for higher doctrines of salvation.

Athanasius(328-373) Against the Gentiles:

35. Creation a revelation of God; especially in the order and harmony pervading the whole.

1. For God, being good and loving to mankind, and caring for the souls made by Him — since He is by nature invisible and incomprehensible, having His being beyond all created existence, for which reason the race of mankind was likely to miss the way to the knowledge of Him, since they are made out of nothing while He is unmade — for this cause God by His own Word gave the Universe the Order it has, in order that since He is by nature invisible, men might be enabled to know Him at any rate by His works. For often the artist even when not seen is known by his works.

2. And as they tell of Phidias the Sculptor that his works of art by their symmetry and by the proportion of their parts betray Phidias to those who see them although he is not there, so by the order of the Universe one ought to perceive God its maker and artificer, even though He be not seen with the bodily eyes. For God did not take His stand upon His invisible nature (let none plead that as an excuse) and leave Himself utterly unknown to men; but as I said above, He so ordered Creation that although He is by nature invisible He may yet be known by His works.

3. And I say this not on my own authority, but on the strength of what I learned from men who have spoken of God, among them Paul, who thus writes to the Romans Romans 1:20: “for the invisible things of Him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made;” while to the Lycaonians he speaks out and says Acts 14:15: “We also are men of like passions with you, and bring you good tidings, to turn from these vain things unto a Living God, Who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that in them is, Who in the generations gone by suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. And yet He left not Himself without witness, in that He did good, and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness.”

4. For who that sees the circle of heaven and the course of the sun and the moon, and the positions and movements of the other stars, as they take place in opposite and different directions, while yet in their difference all with one accord observe a consistent order, can resist the conclusion that these are not ordered by themselves, but have a maker distinct from themselves who orders them? Or who that sees the sun rising by day and the moon shining by night, and waning and waxing without variation exactly according to the same number of days, and some of the stars running their courses and with orbits various and manifold, while others move without wandering, can fail to perceive that they certainly have a creator to guide them?

Athanasius sees creation as being revelatory in the sense of a remedy for God’s intrinsic invisibility. See also how in (4) his argument is principally about the orderly connections between things as evidence of divine design and guidance. The harmony of visible parts points to invisible divine wisdom. Incidentally, elsewhere Athanasius is the only Patristic writer I have found who goes beyond this limited “classical” argument to say that even the doctrine of Christ and the Trinity is inherent in nature, and ought to be visible to all.

Basil of Caesarea (329-379) Hexameron 1.6:

Morover, you will find that the world was not devised at random or to no purpose, but to contribute to some useful end and to the great advantage of all beings, if it is truly a training place for rational souls and a school for attaining the knowledge of God, because though visible and perceptible objects it provided guidance to the mind for the contemplation of the invisible, as the Apostle says, “Since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen…being understood through the things that are made.”

Once more, the clear demonstration in nature of God’s invisible attributes is seen as one of its main purposes, in making the world a “training place for rational souls.”

Gregory Nazianzus (c329-390)2nd Theological Oration:

Thus reason that proceeds from God, which is implanted in all from the beginning and is bound up in all, leads us up to God through visible things…

But in our belief about God, first comes the idea that God is. This we gather from his works. For, as we perceive his wisdom, his goodness and all “his invisible things from the creation of the world”, so we know him. So, too, we accept him as our Lord. For since God is the Creator of the whole world, and we are a part of the world, God is our Creator. This knowledge is followed by faith, and this faith by worship.

Gregory sees the knowledge of God through nature as universal to men. Note also the order in the 2nd paragraph: knowledge of God through nature is followed by faith, leading to worship. He does not believe that seeing God in nature is ordinarily the result of believing worship.

John Chrysostom (c349-407) Commentary on Romans:

Ver. 19. “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has showed it unto them.”

…This, however, is an assertion, not a proof. But do thou make it good, and show me that the knowledge of God was plain to them, and that they willingly turned aside. Whence was it plain then? Did He send them a voice from above? By no means. But what was able to draw them to Him more than a voice, that He did, by putting before them the Creation, so that both wise, and unlearned, and Scythian, and barbarian, having through sight learned the beauty of the things which were seen, might mount up to God. Wherefore he says,

Ver. 20. “For the invisible things of Him from the Creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made.”

Which also the prophet said, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Psalm 19:1 For what will the Greeks (i.e. Heathen) say in that day? That “we were ignorant of You?” Did ye then not hear the heaven sending forth a voice by the sight, while the well-ordered harmony of all things spoke out more clearly than a trumpet? Did ye not see the hours of night and day abiding unmoved continually, the goodly order of winter, spring, and the other seasons remaining both sure and unmoved, the tractableness of the sea amid all its turbulence and waves? All things abiding in order and by their beauty and their grandeur, preaching aloud of the Creator? For all these things and more than these does Paul sum up in saying, “The invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made, even His eternal Power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” And yet it is not for this God has made these things, even if this came of it. For it was not to bereave them of all excuse, that He set before them so great a system of teaching, but that they might come to know Him. But by not having recognized Him they deprived themselves of every excuse.

Once more the theme is that nature was created with the very purpose of revealing God to all. Note he sees the presentation of this case as the proof of the mere assertion that God is clearly visible to all, and that the fact this leaves nobody an excuse for unbelief is the fault of people, not the intention of God, which was to allow all men to know him.

And now, much later on an example of more of the same:

Gregory Palamas (1296-1367) Triads 2.3.44:

…knowledge of creation brought mankind to knowledge of God before the Law and the prophets; today also it is bringing men back; and almost the whole of the inhabited world … now possesses by that means alone a knowledge of God who is none other than the Creator of this universe.

The apologetic value of natural theology here strongly asserted in the Eastern tradition. In the West, around this time, Aquinas was of course writing extensively on natural theology, especially in the philosophical realm.

For good measure, since his name first raised the issue, let me quote Martin Luther Lectures on Rom 1:19-20:

So we must say: “From the creation of the world” (i.e., from the beginning of the world, not merely from now on) it has always been so, that the invisible nature of God was seen and perceived in his works, as will become plain farther on.

The meaning therefore is this: Even if the wise of this world should be unable to perceive that the world is created, they could perceive the invisible things of God in the works of the created world if, namely, they were to regard these works that witness to God, as word and Scripture. “For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21.).

This interpretation seems to be contradicted by the fact that the text says that they knew God, but the difficulty is readily solved by what we read a little farther on: Even if they knew God, “they refused to have God in their knowledge,” i.e., by their actions they gave themselves the appearance of not knowing him. For the sake of a clearer understanding we must note that the apostle rebukes in these words not the Romans only, as many believe. He addresses himself, not to certain persons, but to all people, including the Romans. This can be seen clearly in the words of the apostle below in ch.3:9 of this letter: “We laid to the charge both of Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin.” He therefore excepts none, because he says “all.” One must imagine that, while speaking, the apostle has the entire world before his eyes as if it were one whole body…

With this he gives to understand that also the natural goods are to be ascribed to God as the giver. The sentence which follows shows plainly that it is the natural knowledge of God which is here dealt with: it says how he has manifested himself to them by the fact that the invisible things of him are clearly seen from the creation of the world (i.e., are knowable in a natural way from their effects). This means that, from the creation of the world, it has always been the case that the “invisible things of him are clearly seen” and this is said in order that nobody may cavil and say that only in our time it was possible to know God. For it has been possible to know him from the beginning of the world and at all times, and it is possible now.

This, then, is the authentic view of Luther himself on natural theology and how “hidden” God is in nature. Incidentally, he goes on to develop his argument to show that idolatry reveals itself as hypocrisy, which is less relevant to us today.

Finally, let’s contrast Luther with John Calvin, to show that there is no contrast at all in this tradition of interpretation:

John Calvin Commentary on Romans 1.20

20. “Since his invisible things, etc.” God is in himself invisible; but as his majesty shines forth in his works and in his creatures everywhere, men ought in these to acknowledge him, for they clearly set forth their Maker: and for this reason the Apostle in his Epistle to the Hebrews says, that this world is a mirror, or the representation of invisible things. He does not mention all the particulars which may be thought to belong to God; but he states, that we can arrive at the knowledge of his eternal power and divinity; for he who is the framer of all things, must necessarily be without beginning and from himself. When we arrive at this point, the divinity becomes known to us, which cannot exist except accompanied with all the attributes of a God, since they are all included under that idea.

“So that they are inexcusable.” It hence clearly appears what the consequence is of having this evidence — that men cannot allege any thing before God’s tribunal for the purpose of showing that they are not justly condemned. Yet let this difference be remembered, that the manifestation of God, by which he makes his glory known in his creation, is, with regard to the light itself, sufficiently clear; but that on account of our blindness, it is not found to be sufficient. We are not however so blind, that we can plead our ignorance as an excuse for our perverseness.


In the end, it seems to me that this kind of natural theology, understood as an endowment of the created order for mankind to “know God” (in Paul’s Romans 1 sense) through what has been made, is in fact part of the creation provision described in Genesis 1. The world is a temple in which people, by nature, participate in the worship of God in which all creatures are involved. What arises from and after that, first in the Eden story and then in the salvation history that arises from its tragic outcome, is the means by which human worshippers may enter the holy place of that temple, and meet God face to face, superceding natural knowledge with supernatural sonship.

So from the beginning God was known, but with a view to being known better, in Christ. God is only hidden in creation because even the original sight that mankind had at the creation was darkened by sin.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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10 Responses to Patristic (and later) use of Rom. 1:20 as natural theology

  1. GD GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    This is a timely reminder to all of us who seek harmony between faith and science – I do not want too quibble (so I suppose I will), but we should be reminded that, strictly speaking, natural theology as often discussed these days, is more of an oxymoron. By this I mean theology is the discussions on God derived from scripture. Natural processes do not directly provide such discussions, and as you point out, science is quickly followed by faith. This comment may (?) go some way to clarify my objection to phrases such as “evolution is God ordained”, we have “two books on God”, and the worst of all, we can see what is in God’s mind from nature. I can imagine the Fathers getting agitated by such non-sense, and Calvin or Luther using strident language to negate such outlooks. The transcendence and imminence of God need to be discussed at length by those who adopt such language and claim such “natural theology” as relevant.

    This is not to distract from the point of your discussion, but an addition to it.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks GD:

      “A designing God would not have done it that way” (eg Venema’s frequent argument in his book) is, of course, an example of natural theology carried beyond the “classical approach”!

  2. drnmud says:

    The final perfection, which is the end of the whole universe, is the perfect beatitude of the saints at the consummation of the world; and the first perfection is the completeness of the universe at its first founding, and this is what is ascribed to the seventh day.
    – Thomas Aquinas

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Drat – I knew I should have quoted from Aquinas!

      One needs to understand his nuanced take on “perfection”, of course, for he takes for granted that any perishable material world has imperfections, accidents and so on.

      But the completeness of the universe as what-it-is, a unified cosmos, under God’s rule, is exactly what is implied in the Patristic teaching.

      • drnmud says:

        “One needs to understand his nuanced take on “perfection”, of course, for he takes for granted that any perishable material world has imperfections, accidents and so on.”

        I’d like to see his quotes about perishable material and imperfections being in the perfection of the universe at its first founding.

        Perhaps you can add those quotes here.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Well, a brief exploration gives some almost random examples. The first is the brief statement of his 4th proof for God:

    Summa Theologiae Ia, 2, 3

    The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.

    The proof depends on the gradation of perfections in creation (by its very constition) that point to a higher perfection in God.

    Summa Theologiae 48, 1, 2

    I answer that, As was said above (I:47:2), the perfection of the universe requires that there should be inequality in things, so that every grade of goodness may be realized. Now, one grade of goodness is that of the good which cannot fail. Another grade of goodness is that of the good which can fail in goodness, and this grade is to be found in existence itself; for some things there are which cannot lose their existence as incorruptible things, while some there are which can lose it, as things corruptible.

    As, therefore, the perfection of the universe requires that there should be not only beings incorruptible, but also corruptible beings; so the perfection of the universe requires that there should be some which can fail in goodness, and thence it follows that sometimes they do fail. Now it is in this that evil consists, namely, in the fact that a thing fails in goodness. Hence it is clear that evil is found in things, as corruption also is found; for corruption is itself an evil.

    A similar understanding, in this case to show how the imperfections of creation are a necessary part of its perfection in toto – bearing in mind that he said in the last quote that even that perfection is imperfection in relation to God.

    De Veritate Q5: on Providence, IV

    Moreover, the same things that are close to their principle are close to their end, and those that are remote from their principle are remote from their end. Consequently, not only have incorruptible substances an unfailing act of existence, but also their actions never fail to keep their direction to an end. For example, there are heavenly bodies whose motions never leave their natural orbit. However because corruptible bodies have defective natures, many of their movements diverge from their proper order. It is for this reason that, in regard to the order of the universe, the Philosopher compares incorruptible bodies to children in a household who always do what is good for the home, and corruptible bodies to domestic animals and slaves whose actions frequently violate the order laid down by the one in charge of the household. This is the reason, too, why Avicenna says that nothing evil lies beyond the moon and that there is evil only in creatures here below.

    Aquinas’ work on providence, in general, scatters teaching about how it covers even the occasional failures within nature, these failures being inevitable because of the corruptibility of lower natures. Also interesting, but not readily quotable, is his discussion on the origin of original sin, in Contra Gentiles, in which he argues against original sin as a defect of nature not on the grounds that there are no such defects, but because, though they certainly occur, they do not account for the features of original sin.

  4. drnmud says:

    Jon,

    Thanks for all the Aquinas quotes. But I have a further consideration regarding them.

    It seems to me that in Aquinas’ “perfection of the universe at its first founding”, a thing’s being “corruptible” might not necessarily mean that the thing must corrupt, as in must die. Rather, “corruptibility” may mean something could corrupt/die, especially if circumstances change (i.e. if sin enters the world).

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      No, I think not: to Aquinas, the tendency to go wrong sometimes was inherent to a thing being made of parts, which is how material things are made, ie subject to change.

      Now, it would be possible for God to overcome that tendency actively (something to which he refers, specifically with regard to Adam before he sinned), but he does not refer to that being the case in nature before the fall, and would seem to exclude it when he writes:

      In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state [before the fall], have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon. Nor does Bede’s gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some. Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals. Summa Theologiae, Part 1:96:A1

  5. drnmud says:

    Jon,

    “No, I think not: to Aquinas, the tendency to go wrong sometimes was inherent to a thing being made of parts, which is how material things are made, ie subject to change.”

    So you’re saying Aquinas believed corruption and death would have come into the world as a function of time, no sin required. That would be surprising to me.

    From your Aquinas quote:
    “For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon. Nor does Bede’s gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some.”

    I don’t understand the “to some”.
    Genesis 1:30 says
    “And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.”

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      You are now asking how Aquinas can justify contradicting (in your view) Scripture. Having done my job of providing information about what he said, since you introduced him, I don’t see my role as defending him.

      I’ll just say that like nearly all writers before the 16th century, and in my view like the Bible itself, Aquinas is careful to distinguish the death of sinners from the natural death of perishable creatures, and the corruption of sin from the inherent corrutibility of matter. There are several thousand pages of his on line, well indexed – you can study him for yourself!

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