General Revelation is not potential knowledge, but actual knowledge. The phrase “gnontes ton theon” in Romans 1:21, translated as “[they] knew God” implies knowing God already. If that is the case, a theological apologetic witness to God utilizing only the world around should be aimed at awakening and reminding the sinner to what they have suppressed, and elucidating what is presently known. When we look at the world, we are always reminded of our Creator.
Now, it is true that men can and do shut out that reminder, they can quieten the voice of conscience and the voice of memory (both of which are revelational to a degree). When they then put forth their numerous alternatives; religions and philosophies, and argue for their truth over against the Christian truth claim, they are doing nothing more than exhibiting the results of their ongoing distortion of God’s revelation in them and around them.
But however low man may go, man is still the image of his Creator; spoiled, confused, and corrupt at turns though he may be. He has eternity in his heart (Eccles. 3:11), but he has set himself against his Maker and will not be reconciled.
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. – Romans 8:7
God has made man upright but man has sought out many wicked devices (Eccles. 7:29). Sinful man’s reception of God’s General Revelation is certainly blighted, but it is never destroyed. As one leading theologian put it,
Holy Scripture teaches that God very definitely, consciously, and intentionally, reveals himself in nature and history in the heart and conscious of human beings. When people do not acknowledge and understand this revelation, this is due to the darkening of their mind and therefore renders them inexcusable. – Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics I, 340
In man’s ontic and noetic poles; in his being and his knowing, he still knows God, although in a distorted and corrupted way, because of his inner corruption.
An Impotent Witness?
Does this mean that because of the corruption of man’s heart General Revelation is impotent as a witness to God? No, it is resoundingly clear that just because man in his sinfulness suppresses and distorts and then reconfigures this revelation, and then projects a pseudo-revelation which does not have God in it, he does it always rebelliously. This is why Paul tried to speak to the Greeks in Athens to bring out this imprisoned knowledge. So he begins in Acts 17:23,
For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
What the Apostle witnesses to is not the unknown god, but the ignored God. So, in his presentation before the philosophers, who were both Epicureans and Stoics, Paul emphasized seven things:
- Acts 17:24 (“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man.”) – Paul emphasized that God is the Creator of all things and is distinct from his creation. So he argues for God being the Creator of the material universe; therefore the universe is personal; and then also that God is above and beyond what He has made. This is the doctrine of transcendence.
- 17:25 (“Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”) – the doctrine of Providence and the doctrine of God’s aseity are introduced. Because God created it, He does not need anything…He is perfectly self-sustaining.
- 17:26-27 (“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.”) – God is not localized, like the localized deities of the ancient world. God rules over all the nations.
- 17:27-28 (“That they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.'”) – the doctrine of immanence. We must never separate transcendence from immanence in the Christian worldview. God is Lord over creation, but He is also in and with every human being.
- 17:28-29 (For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”) – Because of this, God cannot be worshipped through an image.
- 17:30-31 (“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”) – This tells us that God will one day judge all mankind and on the basis of this He has given notice by the resurrection that Paul is preaching in Athens.
The first six points of Paul’s sermon are derived from General Revelation. Only the resurrection comes as Special Revelation. But it takes the Special Revelation that is Paul’s preaching to show it. We mustn’t therefore assume that Paul is chiding them for not clearly seeing all of this; he knows that sin has distorted the picture. Nevertheless he is appealing to what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis, the sense of the Deity which all humans have. Van Til said,
To be sure finite man cannot know all the wondrous works of God, but man can and does know that God, his Creator, exists. Man can and does know that God is the living God who is not only the original Creator, but also the Controller and bountiful Benefactor of mankind. – Cornelius Van Til, Paul at Athens, 9
Paul’s procedure depended on God’s already existing self-revelation, which he could point to and use to bring these philosophers face-to-face with the realities of their Creator, who they were ignoring. He was in the true sense reminding them of what they already knew.
The ignorance which characterizes unbelieving thought is something for which the unbeliever is morally responsible, and we might add is always morally responsible for it. – Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready, 253