Commentary on Romans 2:1-16

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things.

The best solution is to understand the “therefore” to relate, not to the description of (mainly) Gentile sin in 1:21-32, but to the announcement of God’s wrath and the reality of the knowledge of God in 1:18-19. For 1:18-19, which functions as a kind of heading for all of 1:18-3:20, includes reference to all humanity. On this reading, Paul would be saying in 2:1 that because God’s wrath is revealed against all people, and because all people have been given knowledge of God, therefore even the person who judges is “without excuse” before God. Although it might be objected that connecting 2:1 with 1:18-19 skips over too much intervening material, it can be said in response that 1:18-19 establishes what is Paul’s main point in 1:18-32, so that the “therefore” in 2:1 resumes the main sequence of Paul’s argument.1

In 1:18-32 Paul used the third person plural (‘they’) when depicting the sins of humanity. But in 2:1ff., where he exposes the hypocrisy and impending judgment of those who take the high moral ground in relation to those who practice evil, the apostle uses the second person singular (‘you’). (The use of the second person is dropped in 2:2, 6-16, but resumed again in 2:17ff.) It is a mistake to think that Paul’s use of the second person singular indicates that he is addressing directly one of his Roman Christian audiences or even all of them — elsewhere in the letter he makes quite clear that he has a high opinion of their Christian standing (cf. 1:8; 15:14). It is better to regard his use of the second person singular as an application of the rhetorical device known as the diatribe. Using this device, an orator/author does not address his audience directly, but instead engages a hypothetical dialogue partner. The dialogue between orator/author and the hypothetical dialogue partner is intended to be heard by the audience and to be a vehicle for their instruction. In the case of 2:1-16 Paul is explaining for the benefit of his audience that people who know what God requires but do not carry it out are left exposed to the righteous judgment of God.2

When Paul claims that such people ‘have no excuse’, he uses an expression also found in 1:20, where he says that humanity is ‘without excuse’ for practicing idolatry because from the creation of the world God has revealed his eternal power and deity to them through the things he has made. Thus, as far as accountability before God is concerned, Paul implies that those (primarily Jewish people) who know enough of what God requires to pronounce judgment upon others while being guilty of the same things themselves, are no better than the rest of humanity; no better than idolaters.3

The idea that condemnation is due to judging itself, though initially plausible, is mistaken. It cuts short the flow of the argument of verse 1 in that Paul proceeds to explain why those who judge and condemn others are themselves condemned. They condemn themselves because (gar) they practice the same things (ta gar auta prasseis ho krinon, for you, the one judging, practice the same things). Judging itself is not condemned, for Paul expects Jews to agree that Gentiles who engage in such behavior are deserving of wrath.4

[T]he similarity of “you are doing the very same things” and “those who are doing these things” in 1:32 suggests that we should look to 1:29-31 rather than to 1:20-28 for the sins Paul has in mind here in 2:1. Many of these sins–for example, pride, arrogance, gossiping, maligning others, and lack of affection–are as prevalent in the Jewish as in the Gentile world. In fact, Paul will accuse the Jews of some of these same sins in vv. 17-24.5

2 Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things.

In saying that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth “Paul is affirming that God’s judgment against sin is fully in accord with the facts, that it is just.”6

3 And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment?

4 Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?

The “or” at the beginning of this verse does not set forth an alternative to v. 3 but introduces a rhetorical question that brings to light the false assumptions of the person who is addressed in v. 3. Paul wants to show the person who thinks she can sin and yet avoid judgment that she is, in fact, “showing contempt for” God’s mercy. Three terms, all dependent on “riches,” describe this mercy of God. “Goodness” is attributed to God by Paul in Rom. 11:11a and c (where its opposite is “severity”) and in Eph. 2:7; Tit. 3:4. It is used several times in the LXX of the Psalms to designate God’s goodness toward his people. “Forbearance” and “patience” denote the expression of God’s goodness in his patient withholding of the judgment that is rightfully due the sinner.7

5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed!

The root problem of the Jews is uncovered in verse 5. The kindness and patience of God were intended to lead them to repentance. Yet they failed to repent “because they had a hard and unrepentant heart” (kata de ten skleroteta sou kai ametanoeton kardian). In saying that their evil actions stemmed from a hard and unrepentant heart, Paul was probably influenced by Jewish tradition, which located human inability to obey in an uncircumcised (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4) or hard heart (T. Sim. 6.2; 1 Enoch 16.3). Indeed, verse 5 foreshadows by way of contrast the end of the chapter (v. 29), where a circumcised heart becomes a reality only by the work of the Holy Spirit. What Paul suggests here is that Jews who do not believe in Jesus as Messiah have not yet been the beneficiaries of the new covenant work of the Spirit by which the law is written on the heart. Their disobedience shows that they have not yet received the circumcision of the heart (Deut. 30:6) that the Jews were to receive after the exile. In other words, the Jews of Paul’s day who did not believe in Jesus had still not experienced the future promises of salvation pledged in the prophets. Israel expected to rule the world, but Rome ruled the world instead. Israel’s punishment was due to disobedience rooted in a hard heart that had no inclination to keep God’s commands.8

The word thesaurizeis (you are storing up, v. 5) is probably ironical, for it typically denotes the future bliss Jews would have because of their good works (Tob. 4:9-10; 2 Esdr. [4 Ezra] 6:5; 7:77; 8:33, 36; 2 Bar. 14.12). Paul does not dispute that good works would lead to future bliss. Rather he asserts that those good works are lacking, and therefore the Jews are storing up wrath for themselves. They will experience this wrath on the day of the Lord (compare esp. Zeph. 1:15, 18; 2:2-3, where the day of the Lord and wrath are linked) in which his eschatological wrath and righteousness will be revealed.9

6 He will reward each one according to his works:

The phrase “will reward each one according to his works” is almost exactly the same as the phrase in Prov 24:12 LXX.10

7 eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality,

In the ancient Greco-Roman world to receive honor was to be publicly acknowledged or praised for one’s worth. It was something much sought after, and its opposite, to be exposed to shame, was to be avoided at all costs.11

“Immortality” involves the resurrection of the body (1 Cor 15:42, 50, 53-54; 2 Tim 1:10) not (just) the immortality of the soul.

8 but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness.

Paul contrasts those who by ‘doing good seek glory, honor and immortality’ with those who ‘are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil’. The word translated ‘self-seeking’ is found only in the writings of Aristotle prior to NT times. There it ‘denotes a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means’. While the meaning of the word in the NT is debatable, translations such as ‘selfishness’ and ‘selfish ambition’ make good sense in each of the contexts in which they occur (2:8; 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:20; Phil 1:17; 2:3; Jas 3:14, 16). It would appear, then, that Paul is saying that those who disobey the truth are motivated by ‘self-seeking’.12

The “truth” in question is God’s truth, his revelation.

9 There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek,

In an ironic twist, Paul uses the same phrase that maintained the priority of the Jew as the recipient of the good news of salvation (1:16) to assert the same priority in judgment. As the word of the promise has gone “first” to the Jew, so does punishment for failure to respond to that word go “first” to the Jew. In contrast to the Jews’ tendency to regard their election as a guarantee that they would be “first” in salvation and “last” in judgment, Paul insists that their priority be applied equally to both.13

In this context the formula, ‘first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’, carries the idea that there will be no special considerations for the Jewish people when it comes to judgment.14

10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek.

11 For there is no partiality with God.

The words, ‘God does not show favoritism’, could stand as the heading over the whole of 2:1-16, and what Paul means by it is spelled out further in the verses that follow (2:12-16). Paul’s emphasis here upon the fact that God does not show favoritism reflects the fact that his hypothetical dialogue partner in 2:1-16 is indeed a representative Jew, one who would expect to receive favorable treatment from God because he is a Jew.15

12 For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

The “law” is the Law of Moses. Gentiles are those “apart from the law” and Jews are those “under the law”. Verses 14-16 imply that the Gentiles are judged fairly because they are conscious of moral norms but do not consistently keep them.

13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous.

Paul’s point here is that being a ‘hearer’ of the law does not guarantee righteousness in God’s sight. One must be a ‘doer’ of the law as well. His purpose is to show that Jewish knowledge of the law is no ground for being ‘declared righteous’ by God. Jewish people will be judged in accordance with their obedience to the law. And shortly Paul will argue that his Jewish dialogue partner and those whom he represents are guilty of disobedience to the law, despite their possession and knowledge of it (2:17-24). When Paul says that ‘it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous’, he employs the future tense, suggesting that it is future justification that he has in mind (cf. 2:16).16

14 For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves.

What is the significance of ‘by nature’ in this clause? Does it qualify the verb ‘do’, thus yielding a translation like that of the NIV: ‘Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law’. Or does it qualify ‘Gentiles’, thus yielding a translation like ‘Gentiles, who by nature do not have the law, do the things required by the law’. There are good reasons for adopting the latter option, including the fact that when Paul uses ‘by nature’ elsewhere it always qualifies a state of being, never an action, and the fact that in 2:12 he speaks of those ‘who sin apart from the law’ (Gentiles) perishing ‘apart from the law’ and so characterizing the Gentiles as those who do not have the law by virtue of being Gentiles. In 2:14, then, it is better to see ‘by nature’ qualifying what the Gentiles are (those who do not have the law) than what they do (the things required by the law). So Paul’s point is that these Gentiles who, as Gentiles, do not have the privilege of possessing the law nevertheless do what the law requires.17

Scholars are divided as to the identity of the Gentiles who do the things required by the law. Some believe Paul describes Gentile Christians who manifest the new life of the Spirit by their obedience to the law. Others believe he describes pagans who occasionally obey the law but that this is not sufficient for salvation.

The following arguments are made in support of the position that Gentile Christians are described:

  1. The “for” that opens verse 14 connects to verse 13b: “those who do the law will be declared righteous.” Since verse 13b speaks of obedience to the law bringing justification it is most natural to believe that verse 14 speaks of obedience to the law bringing justification. Those Gentiles who are justified are Christians, not pagans.
  2. The phrase “the work of the law is written in their hearts” (v 15) clearly alludes to Jer 31:33. Since Jer 31:33 refers to a godly moral disposition, not just an innate moral sense, a reference to Christians is more likely.
  3. The conflicting thoughts (v 15) indicates that the obedience is imperfect but not that it is insignificant. The Gentiles in view could still be Christians benefiting from the work of the Holy Spirit.

The following arguments are made in support of the position that pagan Gentiles are described:

  1. The “for” that opens verse 14 connects to verse 13a: “it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God.” The point of verses 14-15 is that Gentiles possess the moral norms of the law. This moral law is written on their hearts and attested by their conscience (v 15). The Jews do not possess an advantage by merely hearing the law.
  2. Verse 15 does not say the law is written on their hearts, rather it says the work of the law is written on their hearts. Therefore, there is no allusion to Jer 31:33. The “work of the law” refers to the moral commands of the law.
  3. To say the Gentiles are “a law to themselves” is an unusual way of describing Christians. Normally Paul describes Christian obedience to the law in term of fulfillment (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14) or as enabled by the Holy Spirit (Rom 2:26-29; 8:4). The phrase better fits the conception of a natural law written on the hearts of all people.

I believe it is more likely that pagan Gentiles are in view in verses 14-16.

15 They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them,

Paul does not view the conscience as moderns often do, as primarily a negative inner voice. In his view conscience can either approve or disapprove, commend or condemn, render an account of what has been thought, said, or done.18

The clause “their thoughts among themselves both accusing and excusing them” might add a second, independent idea to the witness of the conscience, but it probably expands it: the witness of the conscience consists in the mixed verdict of one’s thoughts.19

Some have seized on the reference to “excusing” as evidence that this final verdict could bring salvation to some Gentiles apart from the gospel. But this misses the connection in which the idea stands. Bengel is on the mark: “The concessive particle, even, shows that the thoughts have far more to accuse, than defend, and the defense itself . . . does not extend to the whole, but only to a part of the conduct, and this very part in turn proves us to be debtors as to the whole. . . .”20

16 on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.

There is considerable doubt whether “Christ Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” is original. The oldest extant witnesses support “Christ Jesus”.21 Verse 15 describes the present work of the conscience while verse 16 describes the final judgment.

The accusing and defending work of the conscience in the present will reach its consummation, full validity, and clarification on the day of judgment, when God will judge the secrets of all. Käsemann observes rightly that the work of the conscience without God’s judgment leaves the passage hanging in the air. God’s judgment brings the entire passage to a climax and recalls the introductory words in verse 12. Not only is his judgment climactic; it is also comprehensive. He will judge the secrets of all, assuring the reader that the judgment will truly be impartial (v. 11) since it is based on a thorough understanding of both actions and motives (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5). Moreover, by appending this verse Paul defends his gospel against Jewish critics who believed that he diminished the importance of good works. The gospel that Paul preaches to the Gentiles does not invalidate the law. On the contrary it teaches that Jesus Christ will judge all people according to their obedience of the law.22

When Paul refers to “my gospel,” he does not mean a particular form of teaching peculiar to him, but the gospel, common to all Christians, which has been entrusted by God to Paul for his preservation and proclamation (cf. 1:1).23


Justification by Works?

This passage speaks of people being judged on the basis of their works (2:6, 9-10, 13-15). This appears to contradict 3:20: “For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law.” It is debated how Paul reconciles both beliefs.

Douglas J. Moo states:

First, to what degree and in what sense does Paul regard the law as a means of justification? The view that God gave the law to Israel as a means of justification is now generally discredited, and rightly so. The OT presents the law as a means of regulating the covenant relationship that had already been established through God’s grace. But, granted that the law was not given for the purpose of securing one’s relationship before God, it may still be questioned whether it sets forth in theory a means of justification. We would argue that it does. Verses such as Rom. 2:7, 10, 13, and 7:10 suggest that Paul agreed with the Jewish belief that justification could, in theory, be secured through works. Where Paul disagreed with Judaism was in his belief that the power of sin prevents any person, even the Jew who depends on his or her covenant status, from actually achieving justification in that manner. While, therefore, one could be justified by doing the law in theory, in practice it is impossible. This issue is related in traditional Reformed theology to the debate over the existence and nature of the “covenant of works” and the place of the Mosaic law within that covenant.

Second, how does our suggestion that Paul assumes the impossibility of fulfilling the law square with contemporary Jewish beliefs? Sanders claims that they cannot be reconciled. He argues that Jews in Paul’s day considered it possible, indeed easy, to “do the law.” Perfection was not considered necessary; the intention to obey was what was important, along with repentance and other means of atonement when failures occurred. How, then, could Paul assume that no one can do the law?

Sanders’s own answer is to call into question whether Paul indeed teaches that it is impossible to do the law. But, contrary to Sanders, Gal. 3:10-13, along with 5:3, seems to imply just this. It must be said, however, that Paul never makes this clear in Romans. But what he does make clear is that everyone has failed to match up to the standard necessary to secure justification (compare 2:13 with 3:9, 19-20). Another possible answer is to say that Paul views the law as impossible to do only after the coming of Christ. But Paul’s whole purpose in this part of Romans is to justify the need of “the revelation of the righteousness of God” in Christ (1:17; 3:21). He can hardly establish the need for this revelation by citing the problems people face after it has arrived.

The best answer appears to be that Paul takes a more radical viewpoint of what “doing the law” involves. Because he denies any salvific value to the Mosaic law and the covenant of which it is a part, he recognizes that it is not enough–and never has been–to seek to do the law, however sincerely. For, from the first, it has been faith in the promise of God, and only faith, that justifies (cf. chap. 4). This being the case, only a perfect doing of the law would suffice to justify a person before God. True, an insistence on perfect obedience is a departure from the Jewish view. But this is just what Paul has implied by putting Jews and Gentiles on the same footing with respect to works and judgment in 2:1-16. What he says here plainly implies that the covenantal structure within which the Jews thought their sins could be taken care of was itself denied by Paul. The enormity of God’s Son being crucified led Paul to take a far more pessimistic view of human sin than was typical of Judaism: sins that, for the Jews, simply needed to be atoned for within the covenant meant for Paul a breaking of the covenantal structure itself.24

Thomas R. Schreiner writes:

The main reason Paul introduced the issue of repayment according to works is to show the Jews that God is impartial, that there will be no special favoritism for them. The connection forged between verses 5 and 6 supports this view. The Jews are storing up wrath for themselves because God renders to each person in accord with his or her works. He states twice that repayment in accord with works applies “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (vv. 9-10). By underlining the priority of the Jews Paul stresses that they are not exempt from the principle of retribution according to works. Indeed, like Amos (Amos 3:2) Paul implies that the special privilege of the Jews involves greater responsibility. One should conclude, then, that Paul’s primary purpose is to argue that Jews who lack good works will not escape judgment.

The main purpose of this section is to demonstrate that the Jews fall short of God’s righteousness. Nonetheless, one must still account for the assertion that those who do good works will be granted eternal life. Probably the dominant interpretation is that these verses are hypothetical. Eternal life would be given if one did good works and kept the law perfectly, but no one does the requisite good works, and thus all deserve judgment. The advantage of this interpretation is that it retains the focus of this section of Romans: judgment on all who sinned. It also neatly harmonizes with 3:19-20. No one can ever be justified by the works of the law since no one practices what the law commands.

Others argue that Paul is snared in a contradiction here, in that righteousness by works is enunciated in Rom. 2 and then declared to be impossible in 3:19-20. Still other scholars claim that the text refers to those who are justified by observing the law. Such keeping of the law is the result of God’s grace, but it does not necessarily involve the hearing of the gospel. Finally, many scholars contend that Paul describes Christians whose obedience to the law is a means by which they will be saved in the eschatological day. The possibility that Paul speaks hypothetically is attractive, especially since it explains satisfactorily how Paul can say justification is by works in chapter 2 and then disavow it in chapter 3. Interestingly, the claim that Paul speaks hypothetically and that he contradicts himself is called into question by the same piece of evidence: Paul elsewhere teaches that works are necessary to enter the kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 5:21). Since Paul asserts that works are necessary for salvation and also that one cannot be justified by works of the law, it is probable that he did not see these two themes as contradictory. Paul’s insistence elsewhere that works are necessary to enter the kingdom suggests that the similar theme here cannot be dismissed as hypothetical. The promise of eternal life for those who do good works in Rom. 2:7, 10, in any case, seems straightforward enough. At this stage in the argument of Romans, however, it is impossible to argue conclusively against the hypothetical interpretation. The flow of the argument in Rom. 2-3 could very well indicate that Paul depicts hypothetical obedience in this particular context. Even less evidence exists in these verses to discern whether hearing the gospel is necessary to observe the law. When examining 2:25-29, I will argue that these verses are the key to resolving this dispute, and that this passage tilts the scales decisively toward the view that in verses 7 and 10 Paul is speaking of Christians who keep the law by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can also conclude from this that Paul is not as far from James as some suggest, for he shared in common with the latter the conviction that good works are essential for participation in the coming age.25

Ben Witherington III says:

There are two viable explanations for this seeming contradiction: (1) Paul could indeed be focusing here on Gentiles outside of Christ (even though the critique of judgmentalism could also apply to those in Christ), and he does indeed believe that they will be judged on the basis of their works, just as he believes Jews outside of Christ will be judged on the basis of what they do in relationship to the Law’s requirements. But of course Paul also believes, as 1.18-32 shows, that people will be judged, or, better said, are being judged, on the basis of what they have done with what they know of God as well. (2) While Paul believes that initial justification or conversion is by grace through faith, he also affirms that Christians’ works, what they do after conversion, will be judged by God. This is clear from 1 Cor. 3.12-15, but 2 Cor. 5.10 is even more transparent: “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” That is, while Paul certainly affirms salvation by grace through faith, he also affirms a judgment on the works of every human being, whether Christian or not. What is not made clear is the relationship between salvation by grace through faith and a judgment on all persons’ works. Perhaps, 1 Corinthians 3 gives a clue: while a minister’s works may prove to be worthless when tested on judgment day, he nonetheless will escape judgment of himself as a person, but only just–as through fire.26


Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

  1. Moo 1996, 129-130 
  2. Kruse 2012, 119 
  3. Kruse 2012, 120 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2440-2444 
  5. Moo 1996, 131 
  6. Moo 1996, 131 
  7. Moo 1996, 132-133 
  8. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2464-2475 
  9. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2479-2484 
  10. Kruse 2012, 124 
  11. Kruse 2012, 125 
  12. Kruse 2012, 126-127 
  13. Moo 1996, 139 
  14. Kruse 2012, 128 
  15. Kruse 2012, 128 
  16. Kruse 2012, 129 
  17. Kruse 2012, 131 
  18. Witherington III 2004, 82-83 
  19. Moo 1996, 153 
  20. Moo 1996, 153 
  21. Metzger 2005, 448 
  22. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2785-2793 
  23. Moo 1996, 155 
  24. Moo 1996, 155-157 
  25. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2564-2596 
  26. Witherington III 2004, 80-81 

Quotes from Thomas E. Woods Jr.

The following quotes are from the recommended book How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods Jr. (Kindle Edition. Regnery Publishing, 2005).

Compared with other civilizations, it may be asserted that Western civilization has enjoyed certain competitive advantages. The chief of those advantages has been our Catholic faith. Far from acting as a brake on progress, our faith has been a guide and source of inspiration toward the heights of cultural advancement. Our Catholic faith leads us initially to God, Who, of course, is beyond our comprehension. At the same time, our Catholic faith requires an affirmation about human reason and Being. What a curious religion, that invites its believers to believe in their own reason! This is the religion that preserved classical writings during the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire. This is the religion that inspired Charlemagne to dream of creating a new Athens. This is the religion that, during the Carolingian Renaissance, fostered the pursuit of philosophical and scientific investigation. (Cardinal Antonio Canizares; Kindle Location 144)

The point is that in our present cultural milieu it is easy to forget–or not to learn in the first place–just how much our civilization owes to the Catholic Church. To be sure, most people recognize the influence of the Church in music, art, and architecture. The purpose of this book, however, is to demonstrate that the Church’s influence on Western civilization goes well beyond these areas. (p. 2)

Given the strong identification of the barbarian peoples with their kings, it was generally enough to convert the monarch, and the people would eventually follow. This was not always an easy or smooth process; in the centuries to come, Catholic priests from among the Franks would say Mass but also continue to offer sacrifice to the old nature gods. For that reason, it was not enough simply to convert the barbarians; the Church had to continue to guide them, both to guarantee that the conversion had truly taken hold and to ensure that the faith would begin to transform their government and way of life. (p. 13)

Teaching the Germanic people grammatically correct Latin–a difficult skill to acquire during the unsettled sixth and seventh centuries–was an essential element of the Carolingian Renaissance. Knowledge of Latin made possible both the study of the Latin Church fathers and the classical world of ancient Rome. In fact, the oldest surviving copies of most ancient Roman literature date back to the ninth century, when Carolingian scholars rescued them from oblivion. (p. 17)

Fredegise, Alcuin’s successor as abbot at Saint Martin’s, played a definitive part in the development and introduction of Carolingian minuscule. Now Western Europe had a script that could be read and written with relative ease. The introduction of lowercase letters, spaces between words, and other measures intended to increase readability quickened both reading and writing. Two recent scholars describe its “unsurpassed grace and lucidity, which must have had a tremendous effect on the survival of classical literature by casting it in a form that all could read with both ease and pleasure.” “It would be no exaggeration,” writes Philippe Wolff, “to link this development with that of printing itself as the two decisive steps in the growth of a civilization based on the written word.” Carolingian minuscule–developed by the monks of the Catholic Church–was crucial to building the literacy of Western civilization. (p. 18)

This preservation both of the West’s classical heritage and of the accomplishments of the Carolingian Renaissance was no simple matter. Invading hordes had sacked many a monastery and set fire to libraries whose volumes were far more precious to the intellectual community of the time than modern readers, accustomed to an inexpensive and abundant supply of books, can readily appreciate. As Dawson rightly notes, it was the monks who kept the light of learning from being extinguished. (p. 22)

Although they [monks] cleared forests that stood in the way of human habitation and use, they were also careful to plant trees and conserve forests when possible. (p. 30)

Wherever they went, the monks introduced crops, industries, or production methods with which the people had not been previously familiar. Here they would introduce the rearing of cattle and horses, there the brewing of beer or the raising of bees or fruit. In Sweden, the corn trade owed its existence to the monks; in Parma, it was cheese making; in Ireland, salmon fisheries–and, in a great many places, the finest vineyards. Monks stored up the waters from springs in order to distribute them in times of drought. In fact, it was the monks of the monasteries of Saint Laurent and Saint Martin who, spying the waters of springs that were distributing themselves uselessly over the meadows of Saint Gervais and Belleville, directed them to Paris. In Lombardy, the peasants learned irrigation from the monks, which contributed mightily to making that area so well known throughout Europe for its fertility and riches. The monks were also the first to work toward improving cattle breeds, rather than leaving the process to chance. (p. 31)

The monks were also important architects of medieval technology. The Cistercians, a reform-minded Benedictine order established at Citeaux in 1098, are especially well known for their technological sophistication. Thanks to the great network of communication that existed between the various monasteries, technological information was able to spread rapidly. Thus we find very similar water-powered systems at monasteries that were at great distances from each other, even thousands of miles away. “These monasteries,” a scholar writes, “were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe, and perhaps in the world, before that time.” (p. 33)

The monks “had the potential to move to blast furnaces that produced nothing but cast iron. They were poised to do it on a large scale, but by breaking up the virtual monopoly, Henry VIII effectively broke up that potential.”

Had it not been for a greedy king’s suppression of the English monasteries, therefore, the monks appear to have been on the verge of ushering in the industrial era and its related explosion in wealth, population, and life expectancy figures. That development would instead have to wait two and a half more centuries. (pp. 37-38)

The fact is, the Church cherished, preserved, studied, and taught the works of the ancients, which would otherwise have been lost. (p. 41)

The monastic contribution to Western civilization, as we have seen, is immense. Among other things, the monks taught metallurgy, introduced new crops, copied ancient texts, preserved literacy, pioneered in technology, invented champagne, improved the European landscape, provided for wanderers of every stripe, and looked after the lost and shipwrecked. Who else in the history of Western civilization can boast such a record? (p. 46)

The university was an utterly new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like it had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution that we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations, and degrees, as well as the distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, comes to us directly from the medieval world. The Church developed the university system because, according to historian Lowrie Daly, it was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge.” (p. 47)

When the university system was still young, therefore, the popes were its most consistent protectors and the authority to which students and faculty alike regularly had recourse. The Church granted charters, protected the university’s rights, sided with scholars against obnoxious interference by overbearing authorities, built an international academic community with the ius ubique docendi privilege, and (as we shall see) permitted and fostered the kind of robust and largely unfettered scholarly debate and discussion that we associate with the university. In the universities and elsewhere, no other institution did more to promote the dissemination of knowledge than the Catholic Church. (p. 51)

Contrary to the general impression that theological presuppositions colored all of their investigations, medieval scholars by and large respected the autonomy of what was referred to as natural philosophy (a branch of study that concerned itself with the functioning of the physical world and particularly with change and motion in that world). Seeking natural explanations for natural phenomena, they kept their studies separate from theology. Natural philosophers in the arts faculties, writes Edward Grant in God and Reason in the Middle Ages, “were expected to refrain from introducing theology and matters of faith into natural philosophy.” (p. 56)

Had the Middle Ages really been a time when all questions were to be resolved by mere appeals to authority, this commitment to the study of formal logic would make no sense. Rather, the commitment to the discipline of logic reveals a civilization that aimed to understand and to persuade. To that end, educated men wanted students to be able to detect logical fallacies and to be able to form logically sound arguments. (pp. 57-58)

Father Clavius, one of the great mathematicians of his day, had headed the commission that yielded the Gregorian calendar (which went into effect in 1582), which resolved the inaccuracies that had plagued the old Julian calendar. His calculations regarding the length of the solar year and the number of days necessary to keep the calendar in line with the solar year–ninety-seven leap days every four hundred years, he explained–were so precise that scholars to this day remain stumped as to how he did it. (p. 70)

This point may appear so obvious as to be of little interest. But the idea of a rational, orderly universe–enormously fruitful and indeed indispensable for the progress of science–has eluded entire civilizations. (p. 76)

Such stillbirths can be accounted for by each of these cultures’ conceptions of the universe and their lack of belief in a transcendent Creator who endowed His creation with consistent physical laws. To the contrary, they conceived of the universe as a huge organism dominated by a pantheon of deities and destined to go through endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. This made the development of science impossible. The animism that characterized ancient cultures, which conceived of the divine as immanent in created things, hindered the growth of science by making the idea of constant natural laws foreign. Created things had minds and wills of their own–an idea that all but precluded the possibility of thinking of them as behaving according to regular, fixed patterns. (pp. 76-77)

This point finds surprising support in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the nineteenth century’s greatest critics of Christianity. “Strictly speaking,” argued Nietzsche, “there is no such thing as science ‘without any presuppositions’. . . a philosophy, a ‘faith,’ must always be there first, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit, a method, a right to exist. . . . It is still a metaphysical faith that underlies our faith in science.” (p. 81)

It is a relatively simple matter to show that many great scientists, like Louis Pasteur, have been Catholic. Much more revealing, however, is the surprising number of Catholic churchmen, priests in particular, whose scientific work has been so extensive and significant. Here were men who in most cases had taken holy orders and had committed themselves to the highest and most significant spiritual commitment the Church affords. Their insatiable curiosity about the universe God created and their commitment to scientific research reveals, far more than could any merely theoretical discussion, that the relationship between Church and science is naturally one of friendship rather than of antagonism and suspicion. (p. 94)

The Jesuits were also the first to introduce Western science into such far-off places as China and India. (p. 101)

Jesuits made important contributions to the scientific knowledge and infrastructure of other less developed nations not only in Asia but also in Africa and Central and South America. (p. 102)

The Jesuits’ contributions to seismology (the study of earthquakes) have been so substantial that the field itself has sometimes been called “the Jesuit science.” (p. 109)

The fact remains, as J. L. Heilbron of the University of California– Berkeley points out, that “[t]he Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.” (p. 113)

In areas unrelated to art, though, the Renaissance period actually constituted a time of retrogression. The study of English and continental literatures would hardly miss the removal of the fifteenth century. At the same time, the scientific life of Europe all but came to a standstill. With the exception of the Copernican theory of the universe, the history of Western science between 1350 and 1600 is one of relative stagnation. Western philosophy, which had flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, has comparatively little to show for itself during the same period.

One could even say that the Renaissance was in many regards a time of irrationalism. It was during the Renaissance that alchemy reached its height, for example. Astrology grew ever more influential. Persecutions of witches, erroneously associated with the Middle Ages, became widespread only during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. (p. 126)

Vitoria borrowed two important principles from Saint Thomas Aquinas: 1) the divine law, which proceeds from grace, does not annul human law, which proceeds from natural reason; and 2) those things that are natural to man are neither to be taken from nor given to him on account of sin. Surely no Catholic would argue that it is a less serious crime to murder a non-baptized person than a baptized one. This is what Vitoria meant: The treatment to which all human beings are entitled–e.g., not to be killed, expropriated, etc.–derives from their status as men rather than as members of the faithful in the state of grace. Father Domingo de Soto, Vitoria’s colleague at the University of Salamanca, stated the matter plainly: “Those who are in the grace of God are not a whit better off than the sinner or the pagan in what concerns natural rights.” (p. 141)

In sum, Spanish theologians of the sixteenth century held the behavior of their own civilization up to critical scrutiny and found it wanting. They proposed that in matters of natural right the other peoples of the world were their equals, and that the commonwealths of pagan peoples were entitled to the same treatment that the nations of Christian Europe accorded to one another. That Catholic priests gave Western civilization the philosophical tools with which to approach non-Western peoples in a spirit of equality is quite an extraordinary thing. If we consider the Age of Discovery in the light of sound historical judgment, we must conclude that the Spaniards’ ability to look objectively at these foreign peoples and recognize their common humanity was no small accomplishment, particularly when measured against the parochialism that has so often colored one people’s conception of another.

Such impartiality could not have been expected to develop out of American Indian cultures. “The Indians of the same region or language group did not even have a common name for themselves,” explains Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison. “Each tribe called itself something like ‘We, the People,’ and referred to its neighbors by a word that meant ‘the Barbarians,’ ‘Sons of She-Dog,’ or something equally insulting.” That a counterexample like the Iroquois Confederation comes so readily to mind is an indication of its exceptional character. The conception of an international order of states large and small, of varying levels of civilization and refinement, operating on a principle of equality, could not have found fertile soil amid such narrow chauvinism. The Catholic conception of the fundamental unity of the human race, on the other hand, informed the deliberations of the great sixteenth-century Spanish theologians who insisted on universal principles that must govern the interaction of states. If we criticize Spanish excesses in the New World, therefore, it is thanks to the moral tools provided by the Catholic theologians of Spain itself that we are able to do so. (pp. 151-152)

It would take many large volumes to record the complete history of Catholic charitable work carried on by individuals, parishes, dioceses, monasteries, missionaries, friars, nuns, and lay organizations. Suffice it to say that Catholic charity has had no peer in the amount and variety of good work it has done and the human suffering and misery it has alleviated. Let us go still further: the Catholic Church invented charity as we know it in the West. (p. 172)

It is open to debate whether institutions resembling hospitals in the modern sense can be said to have existed in ancient Greece and Rome. Many historians have doubted it, while others have pointed out an unusual exception here and there. Yet even these exceptions involved the care of sick or wounded soldiers rather than of the general population. With regard to the establishment of institutions staffed by physicians who made diagnoses and prescribed remedies, and where nursing provisions were also available, the Church appears to have pioneered. (p. 178)

So impressive has Catholic charitable work been that even the Church’s own enemies have grudgingly acknowledged it. The pagan writer Lucian (130–200) observed in astonishment, “The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end. Their first lawgiver put it into their heads that they were all brethren!” Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor who made a futile, if energetic, attempt in the 360s to return the empire to its earlier paganism, conceded that the Christians outshone the pagans in their devotion to charitable work. “Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor,” he wrote, “the hated Galileans [that is, the Christians] devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.” Martin Luther, as inveterate an enemy of the Catholic Church as ever lived, was forced to admit: “Under the papacy the people were at least charitable, and force was not required to obtain alms. Today, under the reign of the Gospel [by which he meant Protestantism], in place of giving they rob each other, and it might be said that no one thinks he has anything till he gets possession of the property of his neighbor.” (p. 182)

Just as the sixteenth-century attack on the monasteries by the Crown debilitated the network of charity that those institutions had supported, the French Revolution’s eighteenth-century attack on the Church likewise struck at the source of so much good work. In November 1789, the revolutionary French government nationalized (that is, confiscated) Church property. The archbishop of Aix en Provence warned that such an act of theft threatened educational and welfare provisions for the French people. He was right, of course. In 1847, France had 47 percent fewer hospitals than in the year of the confiscation, and in 1799 the 50,000 students enrolled in universities ten years earlier had dwindled to a mere 12,000. (p. 187)

Many of the most important principles of the Western moral tradition derive from the distinctly Catholic idea of the sacredness of human life. The insistence on the uniqueness and value of each person, by virtue of the immortal soul, was nowhere to be found in the ancient world. Indeed, the poor, weak, or sickly were typically treated with contempt by non-Catholics and sometimes even abandoned altogether. That, as we have seen, is what made Catholic charity so significant, and something new in the Western world.

Catholics spoke out against, and eventually abolished, the practice of infanticide, which had been considered morally acceptable even in ancient Greece and Rome. Plato, for example, had said that a poor man whose sickness made him unable to work any longer should be left to die. Seneca wrote: “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.” Deformed male children and many healthy female children (inconvenient in patriarchal societies) were simply abandoned. As a result, the male population of the ancient Roman world outnumbered the female population by some 30 percent. The Church could never accept such behavior.

We see the Church’s commitment to the sacred nature of human life in the Western condemnation of suicide, a practice that had its defenders in the ancient world. Aristotle had criticized the practice of suicide, but others among the ancients, particularly the Stoics, favored suicide as an acceptable method of escaping physical pain or emotional frustration. A number of well-known Stoics themselves committed suicide. What better proof of one’s detachment from the world than control of the moment of departure? (pp. 205-206)

The Church taught that intimate relations were to be confined to husband and wife. Even Edward Gibbon, who blamed Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, was compelled to admit: “The dignity of marriage was restored by the Christians.” The second-century Greek physician Galen, so struck by the rectitude of Christian sexual behavior, described them as “so far advanced in self-discipline and . . . intense desire to attain moral excellence that they are in no way inferior to true philosophers.”

Adultery, according to the Church, was not confined to a wife’s infidelity to her husband, as the ancient world so often had it, but also extended to a husband’s unfaithfulness to his wife. The Church’s influence in this area was of great historical significance, which is why Edward Westermarck, an accomplished historian of the institution of marriage, credited Christian influence with the equalization of the sin of adultery.

These principles account in part for why women formed so much of the Christian population of the early centuries of the Church. So numerous were female Christians that the Romans used to dismiss Christianity as a religion for women. Part of the attraction that the faith held for women was that the Church sanctified marriage, elevating it to the level of a sacrament, and prohibited divorce (which really meant that men could not leave their wives with nothing to go marry another woman). Women also attained substantially more autonomy thanks to Catholicism. “Women found protection in the teachings of the Church,” writes philosopher Robert Phillips, “and were permitted to form communities of religious who would be self-governing–something unheard of in any culture of the ancient world. . . . Look at the catalogue of saints filled up with women. Where in the world were women able to run their own schools, convents, colleges, hospitals and orphanages, outside of Catholicism?” (pp. 214-215)

The self-imposed historical amnesia of the West today cannot undo the past or the Church’s central role in building Western civilization. “I am not a Catholic,” wrote French philosopher Simone Weil, “but I consider the Christian idea, which has its roots in Greek thought and in the course of the centuries has nourished all of our European civilization, as something that one cannot renounce without becoming degraded.” That is a lesson that Western civilization, cut off more and more from its Catholic foundations, is in the process of learning the hard way. (pp. 226-228)

Commentary on Romans 1:18-32

Notes (NET Translation)

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness,

The word “for” (gar) links verse 18 to the preceding verses. Paul “has been talking about the righteousness of God as it is seen and expressed through the gospel and related to through faith. Now he will go on to explain what God’s righteousness amounts to for those who have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, namely, God’s wrath.”1 It is “humanity’s sinfulness and consequent exposure to the wrath of God that made the revelation of God’s righteousness through the gospel necessary.”2

The wrath of God is a present, ongoing reality. It is revealed when God inflicts his wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. While God will inflict his wrath on the day of judgment (2:5, 8; 3:5; 9:22; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6; 1 Thess 5:9) he also inflicts his wrath in history by handing humans over to their sin and its consequences (1:24-28).

Paul further characterizes the people who are guilty of “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” as those who “suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness.” “Truth” in the NT is not simply something to which one must give mental assent; it is something to be done, to be obeyed. When people act sinfully, rebelling against God’s just rule, they fail to embrace the truth and so suppress it. In this case, as Meyer says, they “do not let it develop itself into power and influence on their religious knowledge and moral condition.”3

The truth that people have unrighteously suppressed and rejected is that the one true God should be honored and worshiped and esteemed as God. We have seen that the righteousness of God is based on a desire to see his name honored. Paul uses the word “unrighteousness” (ἀδικία) twice in verse 18 to describe the sin of human beings. Human unrighteousness most fundamentally consists in a refusal to worship God and a desire to worship that which is in the created order. Unrighteousness involves the refusal to give God his proper sovereignty in one’s life. Since refusal to honor and glorify God is described in terms of ἀδικία, we have a clue here that both the saving and judging righteousness of God are rooted in a desire to see his name glorified. His wrath is inflicted upon the world because he is not prized, esteemed, and glorified.4

19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

Does gnoston (“what can be known about God”) refer to what is actually known about God or to what is knowable about God? Verses 21 (“they knew God”), 28 (“they did not see fit to acknowledge God”), and 32 (“they fully know God’s righteous decree”) indicate that Paul is saying that in some sense they actually know God.

The word translated ‘known’ is found only here in Paul’s writings but fourteen times elsewhere in the NT, and in every case it refers to something that is known or being made known, not something that may be known. This would support the translation of 1:19a as ‘what is known about God’. The reason why what is known about God ‘is plain to them’ is that God himself ‘has made it plain to them’. What the apostle means by this is spelled out in 1:20.5

20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.

God’s eternal power and divine nature/deity are known through observing the created world.

But just what does Paul mean when he claims that human beings “see” and “understand” from creation and history that a powerful God exists? Some think that Paul is asserting only that people have around them the evidence of God’s existence and basic qualities; whether people actually perceive it or become personally conscious of it is not clear. But Paul’s wording suggests more than this. He asserts that people actually come to “understand” something about God’s existence and nature. How universal is this perception? The flow of Paul’s argument makes any limitation impossible. Those who perceive the attributes of God in creation must be the same as those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness and are therefore liable to the wrath of God. Paul makes clear that this includes all people (see 3:9, 19-20).6

This comports with what we know of Greco-Roman reflection on such matters. For example, Cicero argues that when one examines the heavens and earth one cannot but believe that some god or higher power is responsible for such a magnificent, intricately designed, and enormous structure (Tusculan Disputations 1.29.70). In fact, in the Greek philosophical tradition, natural theology goes back at least to Plato (Timaeus 28A-30C, 32A-35A) and was continued by his successors (e.g., Aristotle, De Mund. 6.397b-399b). This tradition of natural theology is found in early Jewish thinkers influenced by both their own tradition and the Greco-Roman tradition (e.g., Philo, Rewards and Punishments 43-46; Abraham 33.185; Josephus, Antiquities 1.154-56). So Paul stands in a long and time-honored line of those who have reflected about natural theology. But behind natural theology is, in the case of these Jewish writers, a theology of natural revelation. Paul believes, as Rom. 1.19 states, that there is only knowledge of God available through nature, because God has chosen to reveal himself in that fashion. He does not speak of humans ascending to or pursuing knowledge of God on their own.7

21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened.

The failure of people to acknowledge God explains why they are without excuse (1:20). The following verses suggest the futility in thought refers to idolatry.

In the NT, “heart” is broad in its meaning, denoting “the thinking, feeling, willing ego of man, with particular regard to his responsibility to God.” We can understand, then, how Paul can describe the heart as being “without understanding” and recognize also how comprehensive is this description of fallen humanity. At the very center of every person, where the knowledge of God, if it is to have any positive effects, must be embraced, there has settled a darkness–a darkness that only the light of the gospel can penetrate.8

22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools

In refusing to pay homage to God when his works are recognized, people claim to be acquiring wisdom. In reality, however, it is the opposite: they are “becoming foolish.” From v. 23, it is clear that this foolishness involves not only refusing to worship the true God but also embracing false gods.9

23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

The language of this verse echoes Ps 106:20; Jer 2:11.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves.

The word “therefore” indicates that God hands over humans in response to their rejection of him. There is both a divine and human side to this. People already had impure desires. Eph 4:19 says the Gentiles gave themselves up to sin.

But the meaning of “hand over” demands that we give God a more active role as the initiator of the process. God does not simply let the boat go–he gives it a push downstream. Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin.10

25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

“The truth of God” is not “the truth God has made known and belongs to him,” but the reality, the fact of God as he has revealed himself. The Thessalonian Christians, Paul writes, have reversed this exchange; they “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).11

26 For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged the natural sexual relations for unnatural ones,

Verses 26-27 make it clear that the “dishonorable passions” are illicit homosexual passions.

The extent to which Paul characterizes this exchange as a violation of God’s created order depends on the significance of the words “natural” and “nature” in this verse. Paul generally uses the word “nature” to describe the way things are by reason of their intrinsic state or birth, and in these cases there is no clear reference to divine intention. Some scholars in recent years especially, noting this, have argued that Paul does not here brand homosexuality as a violation of God’s will. He is only, they argue, following his own cultural prejudices by characterizing homosexual relations as being against what is “usually” the case. But Paul’s use of the word “nature” in this verse probably owes much to Jewish authors, particularly Philo, who included sexual morality as part of “natural law” and therefore as a divine mandate applicable to all people. Violations of this law, as in the case of Sodom, are therefore considered transgressions of God’s will. In keeping with the biblical and Jewish worldview, the heterosexual desires observed normally in nature are traced to God’s creative intent. Sexual sins that are “against nature” are also, then, against God, and it is this close association that makes it probable that Paul’s appeal to “nature” in this verse includes appeal to God’s created order. Confirmation can be found in the context. In labeling the turning from “the natural use” to “that [use] which is against nature” an “exchange,” Paul associates homosexuality with the perversion of true knowledge of God already depicted in vv. 23 and 25. In addition, we must remember that the clause in question is a description of “sinful passions,” a phrase plainly connoting activities that are contrary to God’s will. When these factors are considered, it is clear that Paul depicts homosexual activity as a violation of God’s created order, another indication of the departure from true knowledge and worship of God.12

In both Jewish and Greco-Roman tradition there was a long history of seeing such behavior as “unnatural” or counter to the way God originally created and intended things to be (Plato, Laws 1.2; Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.758; Lev. 18.22; 20.13; Philo, Abraham 26.135; Special Laws 2.14.50; Josephus, Apion 2.25, 199; 2 Enoch 10.4). Paul certainly believes there is a natural order of things that God put into creation which ought to be followed.13

The early church fathers interpreted Paul’s statement in 1:26 that their ‘women [lit. ‘females’] exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones’ as female homosexual practice. For example, Ambrosiaster says: ‘Paul tells us that these things came about, that a woman should lust after another woman, because God was angry at the human race because of its idolatry’, and Chrysostom maintains: ‘But when God abandons a person to his own devices, then everything is turned upside down. Thus not only was their doctrine satanic, but their life was too. . . . How disgraceful it is when even the women sought after these things, when they ought to have a greater sense of shame than men have’.14

27 and likewise the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed in their passions for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Verse 27 gives no indication that only specific kinds of homosexual activity are prohibited. Instead, homosexual relations in general are indicted.15

In calling the homosexual activity that brings about this penalty an “error,” Paul does not diminish the seriousness of the offense, for this word often denotes sins of unbelievers in the NT. In claiming that this penalty for homosexual practice is received “in themselves,” Paul may suggest that the sexual perversion itself is the punishment. On the other hand, this could be a vivid way of saying that those who engage in such activities will suffer eternal punishment; they will receive “in their own persons” God’s penalty for violation of his will. This punishment, Paul says, was “necessary,” by which he probably means that God could not allow his created order to be so violated without there being a just punishment.16

Jewett, who recognizes that Paul condemns all forms of homosexual activity, suggests that the apostle included this in his letter to the Romans in order to encourage slaves who were being sexually exploited by their masters:

> While the Jewish background of Paul’s heterosexual preference has been frequently cited as decisive by previous researchers, little attention has been given to the correlation between homosexuality and slavery. The right of masters to demand sexual services from slaves and freedmen is an important factor in grasping the impact of Paul’s rhetoric, because slavery was so prominent a feature of the social background of most of Paul’s audience in Rome. . . . I suggest that Paul’s rhetoric may provide entrée into the similarly unhappy experience of Christian slaves and former slaves who had experienced and resented sexual exploitation, both for themselves and for their children, in a culture marked by aggressive bisexuality. . . . For those members of the Roman congregation still subject to sexual exploitation by slave owners or former slave owners who are now functioning as patrons, the moral condemnation of same-sex and extra-marital relations of all kinds would confirm the damnation of their exploiters and thus raise the status of the exploited above that of helpless victims with no prospect of retribution.17

28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done.

Paul makes a play on words here. He says that since people did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, he gave them over into the tyranny of a mind that was not worthwhile/depraved, a mind that Cranfield describes as ‘so debilitated and corrupted as to be a quite untrustworthy guide in moral decisions’.18

People who have refused to acknowledge God end up with minds that are “disqualified” from being able to understand and acknowledge the will of God. The result, of course, is that they do things that are “not proper.” As in 1:21, Paul stresses that people who have turned from God are fundamentally unable to think and decide correctly about God and his will. This tragic incapacity is the explanation for the apparently inexplicable failure of people to comprehend, let alone practice, biblical ethical principles. Only the work of the Spirit in “renewing the mind [nous]” (Rom. 12:2) can overcome this deep-seated blindness and perversity.19

Paul describes what should not be done in verses 29-31.

29 They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips,

The Textus Receptus, following L Ψ 88 326 330 614 Byz Lect syrh arm al, contains porneia (“fornication”) after adikia (“unrighteousness”) and before ponēria (“wickedness”). The UBS4 believes the word was inserted into the text when ponēria was read as porneia. “The fact, however, that Paul argues (verses 24-25) that such vices as listed here issue from the licentious practices of idolatry, makes it unlikely that he would have included porneia within the list itself.”20

Some terms in this vice list are nearly synonymous and an overlap of meaning occurs between them.

30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents,

The sin of human self-exaltation before both God and other people is conveyed in the next three words, “proud [insolent],” “arrogant,” and “overbearing [boastful].” Trench distinguishes them, arguing that the first focuses on activities, the second on thoughts, and the third on words. Without making these distinctions absolute, they capture accurately enough the nuances of the words.21

Jewett notes that those who disobeyed their parents were ‘perceived by ancient Jews and Romans as profoundly dangerous. Deut 21:18-21 prescribed the death penalty for children who are disobedient to their mothers and fathers. While there are no indications that this law was enforced among Jews of the first century, there was frequent stress “on the honour and respect due to parents”. Roman law was even more severe, as Seneca the Elder reminded his audience of the ancient practice: “Remember, fathers expected absolute obedience from their children and could punish recalcitrant children even with death”. . . . Such authority was still an important factor in Roman family and political life in the first century’.22

31 senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless.

A “senseless” person describes a person who can no longer comprehend the will of God. Like the “fool” of Proverbs he pursues activities harmful to both himself and others.23

32 Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them.

Paul speaks of what all people, Jews and Gentiles, can know of God’s judgment (cf. 2:14-15). People have some awareness that what they do is wrong and deserves to be punished by God. In this context the phrase “deserve to die” may refer to the final condemnation of the wicked.

[T]he person who commits evil, even though his or her actions are inexcusable, can at least plead the mitigating circumstances of the passion of the moment. Those who encourage others to practice evil do so from a settled and impassioned conviction. Cranfield says: “But there is also the fact that those who condone and applaud the vicious actions of others are actually making a deliberate contribution to the setting up of public opinion favourable to vice, and so to the corruption of an indefinite number of other people.” The full extent of the rejection of God becomes evident in such an attitude. His judgment is known, yet people are encouraged to pursue evil anyway. Those who encourage others to pursue evil commit a greater evil in that they foment the spread of evil and are complicit in the destruction of others. The hatred of God is so entrenched that people are willing to risk future judgment in order to carry out their evil desires. Once again the text hints that the fundamental sin that informs all others is a refusal to delight in or submit to God’s lordship. God’s wrath is rightly inflicted on those who not only practice evil but find their greatest delight in it.24


Is This Passage Describing Jews or Gentiles?

Verse 18 may serve as the theme for all of 1:18-3:20, but we can still ask whether 1:19-32 is primarily describing Jews or Gentiles.

Traditionally it has been assumed the passage depicts Gentiles, but there are some reasons put forth to reject or qualify this assumption:

  1. The object of God’s wrath are called “people” (anthropon) instead of “Gentiles” (ethne).
  2. Verse 23 alludes to both Ps 106:20 and Jer 2:11, which describe the idolatry of Israel.
  3. The turning to idolatry is described in language reminiscent of OT descriptions of the fall, suggesting all humanity is in view, and the golden calf incident, suggesting Jews are included.
  4. Some commentators think the transition from 1:32 to 2:1 is smoother if the people indicted in 2:1-4, who are not confined to Gentiles, were already included in 1:19-32.

However, these reasons are not persuasive:

  1. The passage is typical of the Jewish view of Gentile sin: creation points to the Creator (Rom 1:20; Wis 13:1, 5, 8) but foolish thought leads to idolatry (Rom 1:21-22; Wis 12:24; 13:1), the worship of idols (Rom 1:23, 25; Wis 13:10-14, 17; 14:8, 11-12, 21), sexual immorality (Rom 1:24, 26-27; Wis 14:12, 22-24), and wickedness (Rom 1:29-31; Wis 14:25-27).
  2. Ps 106:20 and Jer 2:11 are now applied to the Gentiles.
  3. The knowledge of God rejected by those depicted in 1:19-32 comes from natural revelation, whereas the knowledge of God comes to the Jew through special revelation (Rom 2:12-13, 17-29).
  4. The overt form of idolatry depicted was practically unknown among the Jews of Paul’s day but was normal among the Gentiles.
  5. Jews consistently frowned upon homosexuality whereas homosexual relations were not uncommon in the pagan world.
  6. Jews condemned sin instead of approving it (1:32).

The strategy of Paul’s argument is comparable to what we find in Amos 1-2. Paul attacked the Gentiles first, and while the Jews are saying “amen” he shockingly indicts them as well. The allusions to the idolatry of the Jews in Rom. 1:23 can be understood as foreshadowing chapter 2. In other words, 1:19-32 is directed against the Gentiles, but upon reading chapter 2 a Jew would begin to understand that they were not exempt from the charges pressed in chapter 1.25

The argument of 1:18-2:29 is best viewed as a series of concentric circles, proceeding from the general to the particular. Verse 18, the outermost circle, begins with a universal indictment: all people stand condemned under the wrath of God. It is the “heading” of 1:18-3:20 as a whole. Romans 1:19-32, likewise, includes in its scope all people, but it looks at them from the standpoint of their responsibility to God apart from special revelation. This qualification, even though not removing Jews in principle from the focus, means that Paul is not speaking directly about them. He is still speaking to them, however, since he uses this section to set up the indictment of the Jews that follows. The focus in 2:1-11 becomes more specific as Paul indicts the “moral person,” but implicitly, as we will see, the Jew. Romans 2:17-29 finally targets Jews explicitly, accusing them on the basis of the clearest revelation of God available: the law of Moses.26

Natural Revelation

Natural revelation concerns what creation reveals about God. Special revelation concerns what God reveals about himself through his direct actions and words.

True knowledge of God can be learned from observing nature apart from God’s special revelation (vv 19-21). Verse 18 says that people are suppressing the truth. For the argument in verses 19-28 to work, the people who suppress the truth must be the same people who have access to knowledge of God. Therefore, this passage is not speaking of a collective fall of humanity into idolatry in the past; it is speaking of an ongoing process in the present. However, this knowledge of God is limited to the basic attributes of God (v 20). Some knowledge of God stays with a person even after the person has fallen into a degenerate state (v 32).


Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

  1. Witherington III 2004, 64 
  2. Kruse 2012, 86 
  3. Moo 1996, 102-103 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2092-2098 
  5. Kruse 2012, 89-90 
  6. Moo 1996, 105 
  7. Witherington III 2004, 66 
  8. Moo 1996, 107 
  9. Moo 1996, 108 
  10. Moo 1996, 111 
  11. Moo 1996, 112-113 
  12. Moo 1996, 114-115 
  13. Witherington III, 69 
  14. Kruse 2012, 102 
  15. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2214-2215 
  16. Moo 1996, 116-117 
  17. Kruse 2012, 104-105 
  18. Kruse 2012, 105 
  19. Moo 1996, 118 
  20. Metzger 2005, 447 
  21. Moo 1996, 120 
  22. Kruse 2012, 106-107 
  23. Moo 1996, 120-121 
  24. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2309-2317 
  25. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 1973-1976 
  26. Moo 1996, 96-97 


In reviewing Jerry Coyne’s latest book, the Verbose Stoic makes a number of great points on naturalism that I regularly use in discussions with professed naturalists, materialists, and physicalists.

What I find is that either what sort of phenomena count as natural is defined so broadly that anything that exists and that we can even see empirically counts as natural, or else if natural is defined in a way that doesn’t just devolve to “exists” that it seems that we’ve found all sorts of things that ought to count as supernatural. . . .

If anything that science proved existed and was able to study gets called natural, then setting this out as a methodological commitment simply means that you will never, ever discover that any supernatural explanation is actually correct. If we had scientific evidence that telepathy worked, it seems unlikely that scientists would therefore conclude that something supernatural existed. Instead, they would most likely insist that telepathy was really natural all along and we just didn’t realize it (for an example of how that might work, see Babylon 5’s “The Psi Corps Trilogy”, where telepathy is discovered scientifically and becomes “natural”). And we’ve seen this sort of move in science already, with things like time dilation. . . . Technically, if I’m sitting and watching the baseball game and then stand up and walk around the room, time is moving slower for me in the second case, even though it might feel like it’s moving slower in the first case. Sure, it’s imperceptible, but it means that I can control time by intentional actions. How is that not supernatural? . . . Thus, it is difficult to imagine what sort of phenomena you could prove existed that science would not claim natural as soon as you did so, and if that’s the case then the claim that we’ve tested natural vs supernatural explanations and natural explanations is hollow; based on this, there is no way that a supernatural explanation can possibly win, and so this becomes a hidden presumption, but a presumption nonetheless. . . .

If empirical evidence is to be the gold standard of scientific claims, then there seems to be no reason to even classify explanations as natural or supernatural to start with. Instead, you should just go straight to the evidence. If supernatural explanations don’t work, then the evidence will always lead you away from them. There is, then, no need to prejudge an explanation as supernatural and therefore one that you ought to be more skeptical of.

Atheists and Bigotry

In reference to Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, Fr. Dwight Longenecker says he sees “a man dressed up as a whore” on the cover of Vanity Fair. In response, Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, says: “We’ve come to expect this sort of bigotry from religious leaders. They demean people like Jenner by refusing to acknowledge her identity. That’s what happens when faith-based hatred clouds basic human decency.”

If refusing to acknowledge a person’s subjective identity is bigotry then I’d like to suggest that all atheists are bigots? Consider the fact that some people identify as gods (e.g., Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors). On the one hand, if the atheist acknowledges such a person’s identity then he is no longer an atheist. On the other hand, if the atheist refuses to acknowledge such a person’s identity then he is a bigot.

Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 5

David Eller writes chapter 5: Love Your Enemy, Kill Your Enemy: Crusades, Inquisitions, and Centuries of Christian Violence. He summarizes his chapter as follows:

This chapter will focus on two episodes of Christian violence, violence that was not only protracted but officially authorized and highly institutionalized — namely, the Crusades and the Inquisition. However, these two phenomena are not isolated from each other or from wider Christian history; indeed, we will argue here that the Inquisition was a continuation of the crusading spirit long after the war with Muslims was lost, since the Crusades themselves were not “an organized campaign under unopposed military or ecclesiastical leadership but a movement, supported by individuals whose motivations for taking the cross were as varied as their social and ethnic ties” (and as varied and contradictory as Christianity’s own opinions on war). Finally, both the Crusades and the Inquisition follow a long history of Christian justification for violence, justification that, as historian Jonathan Phillips put it, “continues to resonate in modern politics” and “shows no sign of diminishing.”

This chapter covers most of the 2,000 year history of Christianity. It is a one-sided look at history, not a balanced look at history. I’ll restrict my comments to topics I know better than others.

War and Peace (but Mostly War) in the Formation of Christianity

In the first section the author admits:

As for committing violence, early Christians shrank from it in horror. Blessed are the peacemakers who turn the other cheek, after all, their savior taught them. Roland Bainton found no sources before the era of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity in 313, that “countenanced Christian participation in warfare.” For instance, no Christians served in the Roman army until 173 CE, and Tertullian wrote sternly against military service. Obeying their savior, Christian thinkers like Athenagoras and Justin Martyr recommended not resisting evil, not defending oneself, not even notifying the police if one was robbed, and happily dying for Christ instead of killing for him.

This confirms what can be deduced from reading the New Testament: the foundational teachings of Christianity, the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, are generally peaceful in nature. It is simply false to state that the formation of Christianity involved “mostly war” unless we are going to say the formative years of Christianity stretched to the fourth century.

Eller attempts to water down the peacefulness of early Christians:

In its early decades, Christianity was hardly in a position to make war.

Christian pacifism proved to be more a virtue of the weak (causing no harm when one is too weak to cause harm) than a truly principled stance. Almost as soon as the Church stopped being persecuted, it began persecuting, now with the machinery of state on its side.

It is not true that Christianity could not have waged war in its first decades. Jesus and the apostles were Jews and could have supported and participated in movements that led to the Jewish wars with Rome. They made a decision not to do so. It was not a decision forced on them by circumstances.

Consider the context in which Christianity began:

Killing was widespread and acceptable in the world where the early Christians lived. Roman culture of course accepted and glorified killing by the Roman army. Capital punishment via the sword and crucifixion was also the norm. In addition, Greco-Roman culture in the first three centuries justified and accepted widespread abortion, infanticide, and suicide. And one of the most popular “sports” events of the time was the gladiatorial contests, where trained gladiators fought to the death, cheered on by thousands of spectators. That was the context in which the early Christians developed their own witness on killing.1

Against this context, it is unfair to state that the Christian pacifism of the first centuries was not a truly principled stance. It was a counter-cultural stance that the early Christians were willing to suffer or die for. “Prior to the advent of Christianity there is no record of anyone suffering death for a refusal of military service.”2

Nor was it the case that Christians could not have acted violently if they had wanted to. Consider the words of Tertullian (Apology 37):

Yet, banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to, though, if it were held right among us to repay evil by evil, a single night with a torch or two could achieve an ample vengeance? But away with the idea of a sect divine avenging itself by human fires, or shrinking from the sufferings in which it is tried. If we desired, indeed, to act the part of open enemies, not merely of secret avengers, would there be any lacking in strength, whether of numbers or resources? . . . We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you — cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum, — we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods. For what wars should we not be fit, not eager, even with unequal forces, we who so willingly yield ourselves to the sword, if in our religion it were not counted better to be slain than to slay?

Or, again, consider the words of Origen (Against Celsus 3.8):

But with regard to the Christians, because they were taught not to avenge themselves upon their enemies (and have thus observed laws of a mild and philanthropic character); and because they would not, although able, have made war even if they had received authority to do so, — they have obtained this reward from God, that He has always warred in their behalf, and on certain occasions has restrained those who rose up against them and desired to destroy them.

Eller ends the section with the following:

Official orthodoxy branded all other interpretations unorthodoxy and heresy, and already in 385 Priscillian, the bishop of Spain, and six others were tortured and killed. The religion of peace and love had turned deadly.

One can be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of this quote, that the treatment of Priscillian was the norm in 385. It was not:

The most famous example of Martin’s standing against the state machinery of death, when his actions are seen compounded of an all-too-human admixture of hesitancy and courage, compromise and integrity, is provided by his role in the Priscillianist controversy, which came to a head in about the year 385. Priscillian, who in Spain had preached a species of ascetic renunciation flavored with a penchant for slightly dualistic apocryphal writings, at an episcopal synod at Bordeaux held to investigate his teachings had appealed from the judgment of the bishops to that of the emperor Magnus Maximus at his capital Trier. Thither many bishops of Spain and Gaul traveled, including Martin. Sulpicius Severus later observed that of all the assembled bishops there, many of whom were wealthy and powerful men, who disgraced their episcopal dignity by their abject fawning before the emperor and his court, only Martin by his steadfastness of character “maintained an apostolic authority.” Martin at first refused repeated invitations to the imperial table, until, according to Sulpicius Severus, he was finally persuaded to come to a banquet when Maximus declared to him that his unlooked-for victory over Gratian showed that he had become emperor by divine will, and that none of his enemies had been slain except in battle. At the banquet itself, when a servant offered a bowl of wine to the emperor and he ordered it to be given first to Martin, thinking that he would then be graced by receiving the bowl back from the bishop, Martin instead gave the bowl to his accompanying priest, an action in upholding the episcopal dignity that won even the emperor’s admiration.

Years later it was Sulpicius Severus’s opinion that in the trial before the emperor at Trier, the accusers of Priscillian, by his lights admittedly a heretic, were as bad as the accused. Their ringleader was Bishop Ithacius of Ossonuba (in today’s southern Portugal), and according to our source there was nothing holy about him. Although it led to his being charged with heresy himself, Martin repeatedly pressed Ithacius to withdraw the accusation, or at least prevail upon Maximus not to shed the blood of the heretics. Besides, it would be an unheard-of, unholy barbarity for an ecclesiastical matter to be judged by a secular authority. According to Sulpicius Severus, Martin before he left Trier went so far as to elicit a promise from Maximus that he would not inflict any punishment of blood upon Priscillian and his followers. But after Martin’s departure, the prosecution of Priscillian was resumed. He was eventually convicted on a charge of maleficium, and in 385 or 386 he and six of his associates were beheaded, while others were sent into exile.

The execution of Priscillian and his followers was a type of event still novel for its age: the participation of ministers of Christ in the judicial killing of fellow believers who thought and taught something at variance with what ecclesiastical authorities had deemed orthodox. Although the Priscillianists were widely regarded as heretics, many bishops in the West were shocked and appalled at what had happened. If one makes allowances for the exaggerations of panegyric, something of the contemporary opinion on the matter in secular circles can be derived from the speech given before the emperor Theodosius by the Gallic rhetor Pacatus in 389 in the aftermath of Maximus’s suppression. There Pacatus sarcastically admits that the Priscillianists had been guilty of “too much religion and too assiduous a worship of the divine.” He reserves special scorn for the bishops, unworthy of the name, who had instigated and encouraged the execution of the Priscillianists, bishops derided as toadies (satellites) and butchers (carnifices). After their participation in torture and execution, “they brought back to the sacred rites hands polluted by contact with capital punishment, and the ceremonies which they had defiled with their minds they also contaminated with their bodies.” And it seems ecclesiastical censure was likewise severe, and immediate. Ambrose of Milan, for his part, when on an embassy to Trier from the court in Italy would have nothing to do with the bishops involved in the Priscillianists’ prosecution. Pope Siricius in a letter to Maximus complained of ecclesiastics being tried before a secular tribunal, and of Bishop Ithacius’s role in making an accusation involving a capital charge.

One can well imagine the reaction of the ex-soldier bishop of Tours, who had left the army out of a conscientious aversion to bloodshed, to the news of the execution and exile of the Priscillianists. A synod of Gallic bishops was held at Trier soon afterwards, at which among other matters a successor to Bishop Britto of Trier had to be ordained. Maximus had put under royal protection Ithacius, who by acting as Priscillian’s accuser had rendered himself liable, in an ecclesiastical forum, of being charged with having played a role in the execution of human beings, this being regarded as sinful no matter what they had said or done. When Ithacius and his episcopal allies learned that Martin was nearing Trier, they became anxious that the renowned bishop of Tours would refrain from communion with them for their role in the executions and by his example encourage others to the same course. They had Maximus send out to meet Martin imperial functionaries forbidding him to enter the city unless he swore to share peace with the bishops at Trier, but Martin fobbed them off by declaring that he was coming “with the peace of Christ.” True to his initial resolution, Martin at first had nothing to do with the other bishops at Trier, but instead went to the palace to petition Maximus to rescind his plan to send imperial agents armed with capital authority (“cum iure gladiorum”) into Spain to prosecute the Priscillianists there, seeking thus, as Sulpicius Severus tells us, “to save not only Christians . . . but even the heretics themselves.”

Meanwhile the bishops associated with Ithacius had gone to the emperor to complain of Martin’s refusal to have communion with them. In a private interview with the stubborn bishop, Maximus assured him that the heretics had not been the victims of an episcopal witch-hunt, but had been justly convicted by the laws of the state, and that therefore there was no good reason not to share peace with Ithacius, who in any case had been declared free from blame in the affair in an episcopal meeting a few days earlier. Martin was not swayed by Maximus’s arguments. But upon learning that the emperor was proceeding with his plan to prosecute the Priscillianists in Spain, the bishop rushed to the palace and promised that he would communicate with the other bishops if the emperor called off any further prosecutions. Maximus agreed to the compromise. The next day Martin shared communion with his fellow bishops at the ordination of Felix as bishop of Trier, although he could not be induced to attach his subscription to a document attesting to his communication.

Martin instantly regretted his action. On the way home the next day he was visibly depressed. At one point he sat down dejectedly on the road in anguished torment over what he had done, being persuaded to go on only after an angelic visitation, according to our source, convinced him that, considering the circumstances, he had had no choice. When afterwards he cured the possessed with more difficulty than he had previously, he confessed with tears that since “the evil of that communion” he had sensed a diminution of his spiritual powers. Despite his actions at Trier, however, in the end it was not the well-connected courtier-bishops who had connived at the execution of the Priscillianists who are remembered as being a friend to humankind. And lest Sulpicius Severus be thought to have exaggerated Martin’s subsequent regret at communicating with Priscillian’s executioners in order to blunt the effect of what many then, and later, must have regarded as a disgraceful compromise, a blot on his reputation for integrity, the saint’s disciple refers to what must have been at the time a well-known fact, that for the rest of his life Martin never went to another synod, and kept his distance from any meeting of bishops.3

You Always Hurt the Ones You Love

After Constantine, Christian rulers needed to use violence to defend and govern the Empire. This section touches on Augustine and just war. Contrary to popular opinion, Augustine “had not formulated his own just war idea.”4 Eller then incorrectly states that Augustine thought war should be waged out of love.

It is true that Augustine had a number of times cited the example of a father disciplining his son with harsh correction to show that “there can be love in punishment,” and had explicitly likened that model to the actions of governors and kings in using punishment to maintain societal order. In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Augustine noted that in the past the saints had punished some sinners with death in order to instill fear in would-be sinners and to prevent those punished from committing even worse sins had they lived, adding that anyone so punishing “should punish with the disposition of a father punishing his little boy.” But although Augustine like many another Christian writer in later times could subsume under the state’s ius gladii both the exercise of domestic justice and the waging of war, all the above examples explicitly involve the state’s right to inflict capital punishment. As we have seen, Augustine knew very well what war was, and considered it one of the evils of postlapsarian life; tellingly, he did not include capital punishment in the lists of evils that included war. Almost everything he wrote regarding what should motivate leaders to initiate wars and soldiers to fight them involved the simple and straightforward duty to obey the orders of one’s superior: the leader should initiate war in obedience to God, and the soldier should fight in war in obedience to his legitimate superior. There is no mention of the need to fight with love in one’s heart.

In only one instance does Augustine come close to saying something of that sort. In his letter to Marcellinus refuting the pagan Volusianus’s charge that the pacifistic counsels of Christ were incompatible with the empire’s need to defend itself against its enemies, Augustine had countered that were the empire defended by an army that truly followed Christ’s commandments, then “even wars themselves would not be waged without kindness.” But as noted above in discussing this passage, this seems in context an (not unique) instance of polemical overkill on Augustine’s part; not only was he countering Volusianus’s unrealistic evocation of Christian quietism with an equally unrealistic picture of a thoroughly Christian army in a thoroughly Christian society, he was at the same time that he wrote this letter beginning The City of God, in which the earthly city was depicted as being ultimately irredeemable.5

Eller claims that Augustine gave “Christianity . . . the permission it needed to evolve from a pacifist to a militarist religion.” This is doubtful considering Augustine abhorred war.

Augustine’s attitude toward war, in fact, remained fairly constant, with little or no change discernible, in the almost three decades’ worth of written evidence we possess on the matter. Far from his being the stance of a detached theoretician of war, in either the broader or the narrower sense of the word, the constancy in his attitude was one of abhorrence. Even in the few instances when he seemed to approve of war, Augustine felt compelled to defend such statements; ironically, those very statements ultimately motivated by his aversion to war later helped make him into its justifier. His most consistent attitude toward war Augustine expressed a number of times quite simply and straightforwardly: war was one of the evils of this world.6

Augustine’s generally positive view of Christian military service does not mean, however, that he had a similar view of war. To him, war was one of the evils of this world. Roman history amply illustrated the truth that human beings in fighting each other acted worse than the most savage animals. He himself had witnessed firsthand the baleful effects of war, particularly in the civil wars that plagued his time. Though wars were evil, they nonetheless fell within the purview of divine providence. God used war to punish the wicked, or to test the virtue of the good. In wars that served particular ends of divine justice, God of course was ultimately in charge, but he chose boni, good men found in the appropriate rank in human society, to wage wars under divine auspices. Such boni, unlike ancient and some contemporary Romans, eschewed the pursuit of power and gloria for their own sakes. Most such wars had occurred in Old Testament times, but in the battle of the Frigidus the Christian emperor Theodosius, a contemporary example of a bonus, had fought after receiving assurance of divine support, a support manifested during the battle itself by a providential wind that was like the miracles in the battles of the Old Testament. As for the “just war” of the Romans, it was at best a necessary evil, at worst a pretext for crime.7

Eller goes on to say: “Augustine was also a champion of religious persecution, specifically against heretics whose beliefs diverged from Church orthodoxy.” It should be noted that Augustine changed his mind on this matter:

At first Augustine had resisted using the secular authorities to coerce the Donatists. He had ended up changing his mind, though, due to the intransigence and violence of the schismatics, and the undeniable success the enforcement of imperial edicts had had in convincing many of them to become orthodox.

I have, then, yielded to the facts suggested to me by my colleagues, although my first feeling about it was that no one was to be forced into the unity of Christ, but that we should act by speaking, fight by debating, and prevail by our reasoning, for fear of making pretended Catholics out of those whom we knew as open heretics. But this opinion of mine was overcome not by the words of those who controverted it, but by conclusive examples.8

Augustine did not want to see heretics killed:

It is also true that a survey of Augustine’s writings that focuses on his justifications for state-sanctioned killing and the licitness of Christian participation in it leaves a misleading impression of a certain bloody-mindedness on his part. On the issue of capital punishment, simply because he argued that legitimate authorities could execute criminals due to their having derived their authority ultimately from God does not mean that he thought they should. From early on, we see Augustine being sympathetic to the notion of avoiding the exaction of the ultimate penalty whenever possible. In 394 in his treatise De mendacio Augustine treated the question of whether a Christian should lie to conceal someone accused of murder, regardless of his innocence or guilt, since “it is part of Christian teaching not to despair of anyone’s correction or to shut off to anyone the possibility of repentance.” Augustine concluded that it is always wrong to lie. Nevertheless, he counsels a Christian who knows where a fugitive is to reply on being asked where, “I know but I will never reveal it,” even on pain of torture. One should go so far to preserve even the slightest possibility of someone’s repentance, even in the case of murderers. Augustine’s counsel here to go to such lengths to avoid the execution of criminals, regardless of their culpability, is at odds with the picture of him as the apologist for capital punishment.9

But we can see especially in his letters where Augustine gets down to “real world” cases. There what seems at times a hard-nosed rigidity is often softened by mercy and humanity. In every instance we know from his letters where real as opposed to theoretical capital punishment was involved, Augustine counseled mercy, even for Donatists who had killed and mutilated Catholic clergy.10

The above should not be taken as a defense of the persecution of heretics. I am merely trying to provide balance to Eller’s depiction of Augustine.

The Crusades against the Muslims

Thomas F. Madden summarizes the beginning of the Crusades:

With enormous energy, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after Mohammed’s death. They were extremely successful. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt — once the most heavily Christian areas in the world — quickly succumbed. By the eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the time of St. Paul. The old Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of western Europe asking them to aid their brothers and sisters in the East.

Eller writes:

Most importantly, as Geoffrey Hindley reminds us, the eye of western Christians was not exclusively or primarily on Jerusalem or the Muslims; after all, one Muslim ruler or another had occupied the holy city for four hundred years by the late eleventh century. In fact, Hindley contends that Pope Gregory VII (reigned 1073-85) “had envisaged a military campaign with himself as ‘general and pope,’ to establish papal primatial authority in Constantinople.” In other words, the immediate prize for the Catholic Church was not Jerusalem but the Eastern Church.

While I’m no expert on the Crusades this sounds questionable to me. I notice that Hindley contends Pope Gregory VII envisaged a military campaign. This suggests it is a matter of dispute that he really did so. But even if Pope Gregory VII did, in fact, envisage a military campaign to establish papal authority in Constantinople that does not mean the Crusaders, who fought after Gregory’s reign, fought for this reason.

Eller again:

The author of the Crusades, Pope Urban II (reigned 1088-99), seized the crisis in eastern Christendom as his chance to fulfill Gregory’s wish, calling upon Christians to rise to the holy cause of resisting the Turks; at the Council of Clermont, which convened on November 18, 1095, Urban “preached a sermon on the suffering of the Christians in the East and concluded with a passionate appeal for volunteers to enlist under the sign of the Cross of Christ.” But Michael Köhler insists too that “the conquest of the Holy Places was seemingly not a primary objective” of the Pope, and the War of the Cross as a program to take Jerusalem “was not presented to the Crusaders from the outset”; indeed, for many of the combatants, military action was “little more than an extensive conquering expedition” dressed up in Christian garb.

It is not clear how resisting the Turks was supposed to fulfill Gregory’s wish to establish papal authority in Constantinople. Kohler’s claim also seems doubtful if we read accounts of Urban II’s speech at Clermont:

Robert the Monk

Let the holy sepulchre of the Lord our Saviour, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially incite you, and the holy places which are now treated with ignominy and irreverently polluted with their filthiness. Oh, most valiant soldiers and descendants of invincible ancestors, be not degenerate, but recall the valor of your progenitors.

Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves.

This royal city, therefore, situated at the centre of the world, is now held captive by His enemies, and is in subjection to those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathens. She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated, and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid.

Version of Balderic of Dol

We say this, brethren, that you may restrain your murderous hands from the destruction of your brothers, and in behalf of your relatives in the faith oppose yourselves to the Gentiles. Under Jesus Christ, our Leader, may you struggle for your Jerusalem, in Christian battleline, most invincible line, even more successfully than did the sons of Jacob of old – struggle, that you may assail and drive out the Turks, more execrable than the Jebusites, who are in this land, and may you deem it a beautiful thing to die for Christ in that city in which He died for us.

And turning to the bishops, he said, “You, brothers and fellow bishops; you, fellow priests and sharers with us in Christ, make this same announcement through the churches committed to you, and with your whole soul vigorously preach the journey to Jerusalem.

Version of Guibert de Nogent

Most beloved brethren, if you reverence the source of that holiness and if you cherish these shrines which are the marks of His footprints on earth, if you seek (the way), God leading you, God fighting in your behalf, you should strive with your utmost efforts to cleanse the Holy City and the glory of the Sepulchre, now polluted by the concourse of the Gentiles, as much as is in their power.

Consider, therefore, that the Almighty has provided you, perhaps, for this purpose, that through you He may restore Jerusalem from such debasement. Ponder, I beg you, how full of joy and delight our hearts will be when we shall see the Holy City restored with your little help, and the prophet’s, nay divine, words fulfilled in our times.

Unfortunately, Eller does not opine on whether it was morally permissible for Christians from the West to come to the aid of Christians in the East and to capture lands that had been lost. There is nothing obviously wrong with these aims.

Moving on, Eller seems to think the Muslim general Saladin was more merciful than the Crusaders:

As the Christians were fading in power, a Muslim general, Salah-ed-Din or Saladin, was rising. Between the late 1160s and late 1180s, he grew from the ruler of Egypt to the head of a resurgent Islam, reconquering Jerusalem in 1187; impressively, unlike the good Christian soldiers, he did not slaughter the city’s inhabitants but actually protected local Christians from harm.

Rodney Stark explains why this is a misreading of Saladin:

Admiration for Saladin is not a recent invention. Since the Enlightenment, Saladin has “bizarrely” been portrayed “as a rational and civilized figure in juxtaposition to credulous barbaric crusaders.” Even Edward Gibbon, writing in 1788, noted, “Of some writers it is a favourite and invidious theme to compare the humanity of Saladin with the massacre of the first crusade . . . but we should not forget that the Christians offered to capitulate, and that the Mahometans of Jerusalem sustained the last extremities of an assault and storm.” There we have it, one of the primary rules of warfare at that time: cities were spared if they did not force their opponents to take them by storm; they were massacred as an object lesson to other cities if they had to be stormed, since this usually inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. This rule did not require cities to surrender quickly: long sieges were acceptable, but only until the attackers had completed all of the preparations needed to storm the walls. Of course, cities often did not surrender at this point because they believed the attack could be defeated.

Not only have Saladin’s modern fans ignored this rule of war; they have carefully ignored the fact, acknowledged by Muslim writers, that Jerusalem was an exception to Saladin’s usual butchery of his enemies. Saladin had looked forward to massacring the Christians in Jerusalem, but he offered about half of them a safe conduct in exchange for their surrender of Jerusalem without further resistance. In most other instances Saladin was quite unchivalrous. Following the Battle of Hattin, for example, he personally participated in butchering some of the captured Knights Templars and Hospitallers and then sat back and enjoyed watching the execution of the rest of them. As told by Saladin’s secretary, Imad ed-Din: “He [Saladin] ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and Sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics; each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais; the unbelievers showed black despair.”11

According to Eller the Crusades accomplished nothing worthwhile in the long run:

Despite the fact that the Crusades accomplished nothing in the long run, other than alienating Muslims, their champion, the Catholic Church, continues to praise them to this day. The aforementioned Catholic encyclopedia speaks approvingly: “If, indeed, the Christian civilization of Europe has become universal culture, in the highest sense, the glory redounds, in no small measure, to the Crusades.”

First, the alienation of Muslims due to the Crusades is a recent phenomenon:

As Jonathan Riley-Smith explained: “One often reads that Muslims have inherited from their medieval ancestors bitter memories of the violence of the crusaders. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before the end of the nineteenth century Muslims had not shown much interest in the crusades . . . [looking] back on [them] with indifference and complacency.” Even at the time they took place, Muslim chroniclers paid very little attention to the Crusades, regarding them as invasions by “a primitive, unlearned, impoverished, and un-Muslim people, about whom Muslim rulers and scholars knew and cared little.” Moreover, most Arabs dismissed the Crusades as having been attacks upon the hated Turks, and therefore of little interest. Indeed, in the account written by Ibn Zafir at the end of the twelfth century, it was said that it was better that the Franks occupied the kingdom of Jerusalem as this prevented “the spread of the influence of the Turks to the lands of Egypt.”

Muslim interest in the Crusades seems to have begun in the nineteenth century, when the term itself was introduced by Christian Arabs who translated French histories into Arabic — for it was in the West that the Crusades first came back into vogue during the nineteenth century.12

Thus, current Muslim memories and anger about the Crusades are a twentieth-century creation, prompted in part by “post-World War I British and French imperialism and the post-World War II creation of the state of Israel.” It was the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire to rule with absolute authority, Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909), who began to refer to European Crusades. This prompted the first Muslim history of the Crusades, published in 1899. In the introduction, its author, Sayyid Ali al-Hariri, noted: “The sovereigns of Europe nowadays attack our Sublime Empire in a manner bearing great resemblance to the deeds of those people in bygone times [the crusaders]. Our most glorious sultan, Abdulhamid II, has rightly remarked that Europe is now carrying out a Crusade against us.”

This theme was eagerly picked up by Muslim nationalists. “Only Muslim unity could oppose these new crusades, some argued, and the crusading threat became an important theme in the writings of the pan-Islamic movement.” Even within the context of Muslim weakness in the face the modern West, Islamic triumphalism flourished; many proposed that through the Crusades the “savage West . . . benefited by absorbing [Islam’s] civilized values.” As for crusader effects on Islam, “how could Islam benefit from contacts established with an inferior, backward civilization?”

Eventually, the image of the brutal, colonizing crusader proved to have such polemical power that it drowned out nearly everything else in the ideological lexicon of Muslim antagonism toward the West — except, of course, for Israel and paranoid tales about the worldwide Jewish conspiracy.13

Second, it is not evident that the Crusades have not had some positive, lasting effects. Roland Bainton notes:

The crusades are commonly believed to have contributed, nevertheless, to European unity. Despite political fragmentation, medieval society from the Baltic to the Mediterranean became a corpus christianum, a respublic christiana. Very probably the crusades did aid by setting Christendom over against Islam. On the other hand, a greater weight is perhaps to be assigned to those peaceful processes by which the Church unified the west sufficiently to make possible a crusade. It may well be that the many instances of the avoidance of war by arbitration, in the Europe of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, were due to weariness and revulsion against the crusades.14

Thomas F. Madden says:

Whether we admire the Crusaders or not, it is a fact that the world we know today would not exist without their efforts. The ancient faith of Christianity, with its respect for women and antipathy toward slavery, not only survived but flourished. Without the Crusades, it might well have followed Zoroastrianism, another of Islam’s rivals, into extinction.

Crusading against the Enemy at Home

While some aims of the Crusades may be defensible there were many atrocities committed during the period. This section quickly covers wars against pagans and Christian heretics.

The Inquisition: Justice of the Cross

The Inquisition came about as a way to correct and punish Christian heretics, not non-Christians. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity were also tried in inquisitorial courts. Eller seems relatively accurate (to this layman) in this section but omits important contextual information.

In the midst of the Waldensian and Albigensian crises, the Church felt the need to establish some institutional measures to deal with heresy.

It should be remembered that the civil courts, like the courts of the pagan empire of old, viewed heresy as a form of treason against the state, punishable by death.15 The church became complicit in the violence of the state but it was not the only one to view heresy as problematic.

Based on the Roman legal concept of inquisitor or inquiry, suspected heretics were brought before one or more inquisitors, who called witnesses and conducted cross-examinations.

Note that the inquiry had Roman, not solely Christian, roots.

When a confession was not forthcoming, torture could be applied. Religious torture used exactly the same techniques as secular/legal/criminal torture. . . .

Keep in mind that the “use of torture was an ancient, common provision of Roman law, contrary to centuries of Christian legal usage but recently revived by the civil courts of the Holy Roman Empire.”16

In 1320, Pope John XXII authorized the Inquisition to expand its mission into investigations of witchcraft and sorcery, and theologians at the University of Paris in 1398 pronounced witchcraft and other forms of magic to be a type of heresy.

David Bentley Hart provides important additional information:

Nevertheless, it was the Catholic Church, of all the institutions of the time, that came to treat accusations of witchcraft with the most pronounced incredulity. Where secular courts and licentious mobs were eager to consign the accused to the tender ministrations of the public executioner, ecclesial inquisitions were prone to demand hard evidence and, in its absence, to dismiss charges. Ultimately, in lands where the authority of the church and its inquisitions were strong — especially during the high tide of witch-hunting — convictions were extremely rare. In Spain, for example, in the whole of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we have evidence of only two prosecutions going to trial. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the Catalonian Inquisition set the precedent (imitated by other inquisitions soon after) of arguing against all further prosecutions for witchcraft. In or around 1609, during an eruption of witch-hunting panic in Basque country, the Spanish Inquisition went so far as to forbid even the discussion of witchcraft; and more than once, in the years following, Iberian inquisitions were obliged to intervene when secular courts renewed prosecutions.17

Back to Eller:

In 1478, in the midst of the ongoing Spanish Catholic wars against the occupying Muslims or Moors, the crusading Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received permission from Pope Sixtus IX to operate an independent inquisition against Jews.

Once again, David Bentley Hart provides balance:

True, it was Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) who authorized the early Inquisition, but he did so under pressure from King Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504), who — with the end of centuries of Muslim occupation of Andalusia — were eager for any instrument they thought might help to enforce national unity and increase the power of Castile and Aragon. Such, however, was the early Inquisition’s harshness and corruption that Sixtus soon attempted to interfere in its operations. In a papal bull of April 1482, he uncompromisingly denounced its destruction of innocent lives and its theft of property (though he did not, admittedly, object in principle to the execution of genuine heretics). But Ferdinand effectively refused to recognize the bull, and in 1483 he forced Sixtus to relinquish control of the Inquisition to the Spanish thrones and to consent to the civil appointment of a Grand Inquisitor. The first man to wear this title was the notorious Tomas de Torquemada (1420-1498), a priest both severe and uncompromising, especially toward Christian converts (conversos) from Judaism and Islam whom he suspected of secret adherence to the teachings of their original faiths. Before he was finally reined in by Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), Torquemada was responsible for the expulsion of a good number of Jews from Spain and for perhaps two thousand executions of “heretics.” Even after Sixtus had surrendered his authority over the Inquisition, however, he did not entirely relent in his opposition to its excesses. In 1484, for instance, he supported the city of Teruel after it forbade the Inquisition entry — a revolt that Ferdinand suppressed the following year by force of arms. And Sixtus and his successor Innocent VIII (1432-1492) continued to issue sporadic demands that the Inquisition exercise greater leniency, and continued to attempt to intervene on behalf of the conversos when the opportunity arose. Over the next century, the Inquisition was often involved in the nauseating national politics of “blood purity,” limpieza de sangre, from which no one — not even a monk, priest, or archbishop — was safe. Within Spain itself, there was some resistance to the new Spanish racialism, none more honorable and uncompromising than that of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits. But from racialist harassments often only the papacy’s interventions could provide relief, however small or infrequent.18

Onward, Christian Soldiers

This section primarily covers Christian violence in Europe in the last 500 years (e.g., the Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years’ War). Eller does admit that politics and power also factored into the violence. He closes with this:

How far Christianity has come from its original assertion of peace and love, even if that assertion was more a matter of necessity than principle (Christians, as a weak minority, valorizing weakness and meekness). As Christianity attained power, it found clever arguments in support of its own vice and violence, perfecting the art of casuistry, the practice of specious or subtle reasoning for the purpose of rationalizing or misleading. To be sure, early Christians had models of “just war” provided by the ancients; all they had to add was specifically Christian justifications. But then, justice is in the eye of the beholder, and even more so, history has shown that “the greater the justice of my cause and the more violating a rule is necessary for my cause to prevail, the greater my justification in violating the rule.” Unfortunately, few people find anything more just, and therefore justifying, than their religion.

I’ve shown above that the first Christians were peaceful as a matter of principle. The bold section is an admission that the teachings of Christianity have to be ignored or re-worked to justify certain acts of violence (or perhaps a situation is misjudged).

  1. Sider, Ronald J. (2012-07-01). The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment (Kindle Locations 168-174). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
  2. Bainton, Roland H. Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960, p. 53. 
  3. Wynn, Phillip (2013-11-01). Augustine on War and Military Service (Kindle Locations 2366-2427). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. 
  4. Wynn 7245-7246 
  5. Wynn 7264-7283 
  6. Wynn 4793-4798 
  7. Wynn 7139-7148 
  8. Wynn 3904-3910 
  9. Wynn 4400-4411 
  10. Wynn 7166-7169 
  11. Stark, Rodney (2009-09-16). God’s Battalions (pp. 199-200). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 
  12. Stark 245-246 
  13. Stark 247-248 
  14. Bainton 116 
  15. David Bentley Hart. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Kindle Location 1074). Kindle Edition. 
  16. Hart loc. 1072-1073 
  17. Hart loc. 1084-1090 
  18. Hart loc. 1140-1152 

Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 4

Peter Boghossian writes chapter 4: Faith, Epistemology, and Answering Socrates’ Question by Translation. See my index of reviews for his book A Manual for Creating Atheists for more criticisms of his ideas.

According to the author, there is no way around the following three facts:

  1. Faith is an epistemology.
  2. In religious contexts, the term faith is used when one assigns a higher confidence value to a belief than is warranted by the evidence.
  3. Some people live their lives based upon their faith-based beliefs.

It is interesting that Boghossian says he will “flesh out” the first two facts because he certainly doesn’t provide a persuasive argument for them. At the end of the chapter he says that “[r]eason, rationality, honesty, authenticity, epistemic humility, and assigning confidence values in direct proportion to evidence take us toward the good life.” I don’t think he consistently displays these characteristics in the chapter.

The author provides a quick definition of knowledge as justified true belief:

Dating back to Plato’s Theaetetus, knowledge has been understood as Justified True Belief. That is, to say one knows P (a proposition), P needs to be justified (one needs sufficient evidence to warrant belief), true (P must lawfully correspond to reality), and believed (one’s verbal behavior needs to comport with one’s internal state in that one needs to believe what one claims to believe).

Later in the chapter he writes: “the word faith needs to be analyzed by how it’s used in a religious context and not by how its use has been rationalized for centuries.” The reader can be forgiven for expecting to see evidence for the first two alleged facts. No survey of how the word faith is used in the Christian tradition is provided. The first two propositions are not justified and are therefore not knowledge.

But Boghossian is aware of “sophisticated theologians” who will contest his propositions. He knows that they claim “there is adequate historical evidence and/or argument to warrant belief in propositions within their faith tradition.” The curious reader is warned that Christian scholarship is “too tedious, too disingenuous, and too corrupted by confirmation bias to deserve serious intellectual consideration.” This statement clashes with his call for epistemic humility and assigning confidence values in direct proportion to the evidence. A humble thinker might seriously consider the ideas of others. How can I be sure I’m assigning confidence values in direct proportion to the evidence if I don’t even seriously consider all the evidence?

Continuing on we read:

By sidestepping the entire corpus of Christian literature, which gives it the consideration it is due, one can examine what people mean when they use the word faith in a religious context and focus on truth claims as they relate to faith and faith-based epistemologies. Moreover, by bypassing historical sophistry and specious attempts to legitimize faith, we can avoid the well-rehearsed responses of Sophisticated Theologians.

Christian literature is replete with examples of how people use the word faith in a religious context, yet, somehow, we can examine what people mean when they use the word faith in a religious context by ignoring how people use the word faith in a religious context. Moreover, we can avoid changing our false beliefs when confronted with well-rehearsed responses.