Romans 1 and Atheist Understanding

The assumption that St. Paul makes in Romans 1 is that people have a basic understanding of the philosophy of the day in regards to the concept of godness or what attributes makes something a God.

In Platonic thought that leads to Stoic philosophy you have 5 main ideas.

The first is the idea of transcendence, that there is something that surpasses empirical reality. A modern example used in apologetics is the concept of numbers; in the fact that they don’t exist except as an abstract concept. But, Plato was taking this one step further. He would state that this idea (ousia) as the true essential reality, or the reality of things, was their true essence. This type of thinking would eventually lead to the devaluing of physical existence.

The second idea is the inner aim of human existence (telos). The striving to become as similar to God as possible. The person needed to participate in the divine sphere as much as possible. To behave spiritual is to become spiritual. The emphasis here is less on the physical actions and more on the concept of the fact that there is a purpose of mankind’s existence. We find this in the Church today, earliest use is with the Cappadocian Fathers, to describe the ultimate aim of human existence.

The third idea is the soul falling from participation in the essential reality that is the spiritual world. Being on earth in a physical body, then trying to get rid of the bondage of the body, and ultimately elevating oneself above the material world. This would need to happen in an ordered set of steps and in incremental degrees.

This idea is so ingrained in the Christian Church that you find it in everything, from the writings of the early church fathers, to the constitution of mankind, to almost every funeral service, and the articulation of how the atonement of Christ is applied.

If someone were to ask you, “What is man made up of?”, and you answer we are a body and a soul, you are expressing the third idea of Platonic thought. Dichotomists and Trichotomists both articulate this idea contrary to a body/soul unity expressed by Traducians. I actually think this is part of the problem that people have when understanding the doctrine of Justification.

The forth idea is that of providence. There is no short example of debates on this aspect, especially when it comes to the sovereignty of God and man’s free will. Is there libertarian free will? Do we still posses it? Did we ever have it? Is our life fatalistically determined? Is God’s sovereignty meticulous or is it general? Am I responsible or response able?

In the late ancient world the anxiety of fate and death was a very powerful thing that was part of everyday lives. Accident and necessity, or fate, was represented by the two Greek goddesses Tychè and Heimarmene.

Tychè was the goddess over the things not able to be controlled individually that would happen such as earthquakes, floods, frosts, and even politics. She would be seen as a goddess of the good fortune and prosperity of a city as well as its unmerited demise.

Heimarmene was the goddess over that which was controllable on an individual level to a degree. She was the goddess of cause and effect. While you couldn’t stop the things that had already been set in motion you could influence the direction of the cause for a more favorable outcome. This deals with the universe as a whole as well as an individuals life. In Roman 8 we see the hymn of triumph in regards to this idea. (Romans 8:1-2 NET)

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

The implications of the fact that Christ overcame the demonic forces of fate for us is an extremely appealing concept! That the providential fate of our lives is completely controlled by the highest god gives us the courage to escape the vicissitudes of a fate that held us unrelentingly!

The fifth idea in Platonic thought was added from Aristotle. It was the concept of the divine form without matter, perfect in itself. In Christian theology this would be articulated in three ways, God is spirit (non-corporal), immutable (beyond the ability to change), and possessing the attribute of aseity (self existence as being itself).

This highest form, Aristotle would state, is moving the world, not by pushing from the outside but by driving everything finite toward him by means of love. That God, being actually pure, moves everything by being loved by everything. Everything has the desire to unite itself with the highest form and to rid itself of the lowest form, which is the bondage of and to matter.

These five ideas of spiritual reality, (transcendence, purpose, fallen state, providence, God as the greatest conceivable being), set the stage for the next step in refinement of religious thought that became more important for life in the ancient world than Plato and Aristotle together.

The uniting factor that underlies all these ideas is that of the knowledge of and about them. This was not lost on the Stoics. It is immediately noticeable in Stoic tradition and philosophy where the role of knowledge comes into play.