Theology coram Deo
The quote above is an excerpt from Paul’s sermon in Athens. It was there that Paul experienced a radically different theology than what he grew up with in Judea. The Greeks were polytheists, believing in multiple gods who depended upon human prayers and offerings, who could be contained and even killed. This belief system prompted Paul to preach this “Theology 101” sermon before the Areopagus.
“Theology” is a conjunction of two Greek words: theos (God) and logos (word, knowledge). Together, they carry the idea of the study/knowledge of God.
The knowledge of God (theology) is possible because, as Paul taught the Athenians, God has revealed Himself so that we can know Him.
Theology is Unavoidable
Not only has God made it possible to acquire knowledge of Him, He has made it impossible to be oblivious of Him. Consider Paul again in his letter to the church at Rome:
If God so desired, He could have made a world in which He were incognito, completely unseen, hidden. However, God is at work to glorify His Name and so He created beings in His Image who have the capacity to know and love Him. We, His Image-bearers, glean this knowledge of God through revelation (truth revealed).
Truth about God is first revealed in His creation. This universe is filled with demonstrations of God’s “eternal power and divine nature.” Creation puts us in awe at every turn. We have all looked up at night at the expanse of stars and declared the Psalm of David, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hand” (Ps. 19:1).
From the night sky we become mesmerized by the power of the God who hung each and every celestial body in the heavens. We are taught something of God’s invisible attributes. This is what we call “general revelation,” for God has revealed general truths about Himself in creation that very single Image-bearer is privy to. Paul indicates this saying, “for although they knew God…” (Rom. 1:21).
Therefore, the knowledge of God is inescapable. Every Image-bearer has discerned from the created order: 1, that God exists (v. 1:21); 2, certain attributes of God such as His power (v. 1:20); 3, His moral standard (v. 2:15); and 4, that His wrath is directed towards all who have offended His holy law (v. 1:18).
That is why I like to say that there is no such thing as an atheist.
Suppressing the Truth
Why then are there so many people who claim to be “atheists”? Paul also answers that for us: people, by their own unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Noetic Effects of the Fall
God has clearly revealed Himself in His creation such that every Image-bearer knows that there is a Creator to whom we are accountable. However, everyone is born with a sin nature, a heart that does not submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7) even though it is written on our hearts (Rom. 2:15). Because people do not want to be accountable to God, they suppress the truth (v. 1:18). Sometimes the easiest way to suppress the truth that you are accountable to a holy God is to deceive yourself into thinking that He doesn’t exist.
The result of perpetually suppressing the truth is that people’s thinking becomes corrupted and “senseless” (v. 1:21) This is why so-called “atheists” tend to be hostile towards Christianity in particular and not just any form of theism. Christianity is truth, and the truth is the very thing they are trying to suppress. This is also why “atheists” would rather embrace conclusions that are illogical and improbable instead of acknowledging the truth in the Scriptures. Ultimately, suppressing the truth culminates in all kinds of immoral behaviors (vv. 1:24-32).
These are the noetic effects of the Fall.
Mankind’s fall into sin has affected everything about us, including our minds (Greek, nous; hence, noetic effects). The effect of sin on our minds includes both the suppression of truth and spiritual blindness (1 Cor. 2:14) that lead to the downward spiral in Romans 1.
Yet, not all is lost. Retained in the Image of God is what John Calvin referred to as the sensus Divinitatis (sense of the Divine). Image-bearers still are able (and accountable!) to acquire true knowledge of God from revelation.
Not only that, there remains deep within the human soul a longing for fulfillment and a desire to worship. Paul points out that people do not stop worshiping just because they suppress the truth of God. No, “they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (vv. 22-23). Worship is redirected towards another object.
The great Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck, explains,
The pagans worship. The “atheists” worship. Most of the time, that worship is directed towards the self or some idol they have raised up. Yet, those counterfeit gods do not and cannot fulfill the universal inner longings of the soul. They are all “vanity, a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 1:14).
The Need for & Provision of Special Revelation
For man to find his longings fulfilled, he needs to stop suppressing the truth of God and embrace Him as He has revealed Himself. For that to happen, he needs salvation. Again we turn to Paul:
Although God has revealed Himself clearly in creation, saving knowledge does not come from creation. It comes from the gospel, the “word of Christ” (v. 17).
Because God is at work to glorify Himself, He did not leave mankind dead in our sin and suppressing the truth. Instead, He gave us His Word. His Word is the special revelation that we need to know our predicament, what God has done in Christ to redeem us, and the necessary response of faith and repentance.
To know God is to know Him as He has revealed Himself in both creation and His Word. We know God as Creator and judge from His creation. We know God as Savior and Lord from His Word. Acquiring knowledge of God from either sources of revelation is the work of theology.
As one theologian, R.C. Sproul, has said, “Everyone’s a theologian.” The only question is, “Are you a good one or not?” Do you, like Paul, study God’s self-revelation with the purpose of knowing and loving Him? Or do you, like the Athenians, construct your own theology out of a position of suppressing the revealed truth of God?
Theology for the Worship of God
The purpose of God revealing Himself is that we would know and love Him, that we would “reach out and find Him” (Acts 17:27). It is not enough to simply learn truth about God as if He were an object of our study. He is to be worshiped. Therefore, when we do theology, we are to do it coram Deo, before His face.
Doing theology before the face of God is to draw near to Him in His Word. It is to long for His presence and enjoy the communion we have with Him because He has revealed Himself.
Then and only then will we find the longings of our soul satisfied.