Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Adam Clarke in his exposition on these verses hints that Paul was acquainted with the writings of the Greek philosophers: “This certainly refers to the foolish manner in which even the wisest of their philosophers discoursed about the Divine nature, including Socrates, Plato, and Seneca. Who can read their works without being struck with the vanity of their reasonings, as well as with the stupidity of their nonsense, when speaking about God? I might crowd my page with proofs of this, but it is not necessary to those who are acquainted with their writings, and to others, it would not be useful. In short, their foolish, darkened minds sought God nowhere but in the place in which He is never to be found; viz. the vile, corrupted, and corrupting passions of their own hearts. As they did not discover Him there, they scarcely sought Him anywhere else.”1

Charles Spurgeon preached on this subject and said: “Even in old Rome, with all its darkness, there was some knowledge of God: how can the creature quite forget its Creator? Of course, the people had not that spiritual knowledge which the Holy Ghost communicates to the renewed in heart, for the carnal mind cannot know God spiritually: its fleshly ideas cannot come near to His holy spirituality. But Paul means that they perceived the eternal power and Godhead of the Great Creator of all things; and they might have perceived much more of His divine character and glory if their foolish hearts had not been darkened by their evil passions.2

However, Albert Barnes shares that if we consult the writings of the ancient philosophers we will find plenty of evidence that they were aware of a superior divine being.3 In one of the references he names we find the following quote from Chrysippus:4If there be some thing in the world that man’s mind and human reason, strength, and power are incapable of producing, that which produces it must necessarily be superior to man.”5 Barnes also makes reference to a quote from Cicero in the same work, that reads: “When we gaze upward to the sky and contemplate the heavenly bodies, what can be so obvious and so manifest as that there must exist, some power possessing transcendent intelligence by whom these things are ruled.”6 To this Barnes asks the question: Who else could this be but God?

John Stott gives us this explanation: “The opening statement that they knew God cannot be taken absolutely since elsewhere Paul writes that people outside Christ do not know God. It refers rather to the limited knowledge of God’s power and glory which is available to everybody through general revelation. Instead of their knowledge of God leading to the worship of God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him. Rather their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.7

Douglas Moo echoes the same thought: “This limited knowledge of God falls far short of what is necessary to establish a relationship with Him. Knowledge must lead to reverence and gratitude. This it has failed to do. Instead of acknowledging God ‘as God,’ by glorifying Him and thanking Him, human beings perverted their knowledge and sank into idolatry and immorality.”8 It is clear that the individuals Paul refers to knew of God, but they did not really know God. This same fallacy is with us today. It can be seen in the irony of those who use God’s name in vain even though they claim He doesn’t exist.

Verses 22-23: They thought they were being wise, but they became fools. Instead of honoring the immortal greatness of God, they traded it for the worship of idols—things made to look like humans, or like birds, animals, and snakes who get sick and die.

The thing that made Paul shake his head in bewilderment was the fact that such people were convinced they knew exactly what they were doing. When in fact, it was just the opposite of what they thought. We might compare this to what happened to many in the early gold rush in California that started in 1848. Many of the miners would hide the location of their diggings or pannings while bringing bags filled with gold to assessors, only to find out it was worthless pyrite. Thus it became known as “Fool’s gold.” As Charles Hodge point out, they were: “Saying in the sense of pretending it to be. The more they boasted of their wisdom, the more conspicuous became their folly. What greater folly can there be, than to worship beasts rather than [the] God [who created them]?9

In the case Paul presents here, many of those who were worshiping idols thought they were forms of real gods when in fact they were only imagined images carved out of wood, stone, silver, or gold. It was something the prophet Jeremiah had to deal with: “People are so stupid! Goldsmiths end up looking like fools by the idols they make. These statues are nothing but lies. These ridiculous idols are worth nothing. They are something to make fun of.”10 What astounded Paul, as it did Jeremiah, was that these inanimate man-made objects were given features such as eyes, ears, noses, mouths, arms, hands, legs, and feet, but there was no life in them. Therefore, they couldn’t see, hear, smell, talk, walk, or pick up anything.11

Martin Luther takes what Paul says here as the Golden Rule for all mankind, both those who are considered special in society and those who are thought of as average.12 In other words, no matter how intelligent or how uneducated a person maybe, to suggest that they have greater wisdom than God makes them all equal fools. This is borne out by the fact they such foolishness leads both to commit the same corruption of worshiping gods of their own making rather than the God who made them.

Reformist John Calvin spoke on what secular philosophers were thinking as they looked at God’s creation: “There were indeed none who sought not to form some ideas of the majesty of God, and to make Him such a God as they could conceive Him to be according to their own reason. This presumption I hold is not learned in the schools, but is innate, and comes with us, so to speak, from the womb. It is indeed evident, that it is an evil which has prevailed in all ages — that men have allowed themselves every liberty in coining superstitions. The arrogance, then, which is condemned here is this — that men sought to be in themselves wise, and to pull God down to a level with their own low condition when they should have humbly given Him His own glory. For Paul holds this principle, that none, except through their own fault, are unacquainted with the worship due to God; as though he said, “As they have proudly exalted themselves, they have become infatuated through the righteous judgment of God.” There is an obvious reason, which contravenes the interpretation which I reject; for the error of forming an image of God did not originate with the philosophers; but they, by their consent, approved of it as received from others.”13

Adam Clarke makes this point: “A dispassionate examination of the doctrine and lives of the most famed philosophers of antiquity, of every nation, will show that they were darkened in their mind and irregular in their conduct. It was from the Christian religion alone that true philosophy and genuine philosophers sprang.”14 Clarke goes on to say: “The finest representation of their deities was [found] in the human figure; and on such representative figures the sculptors spent all their skill; hence the Hercules of Farnese, the Venus of Medicis, and the Apollo of Belvidere. And when they had formed their gods according to the human shape, they endowed them with human passions; and as they clothed them with attributes of extraordinary strength, beauty, wisdom, etc., not having the true principles of morality, they represented them as slaves to the most disorderly and disgraceful passions; excelling in irregularities the most libertine of men, as possessing unlimited powers of sensual gratification.”15

Several early church scholars have a number of comments on this verse. Says Ambrosiaster: They imagined that they were wise because they thought they had explored the natural sciences, investigating the courses of the stars and the quantities of the elements, while rejecting the God who made them. Therefore they are fools, for if these things are worthy of praise, how much more is their Creator!16 The great preacher Chrysostom said: “Having some high opinion of themselves and not being patient enough to go the way that God had commanded them, they were immersed in a way of thinking which made no sense.”17 Then the great scholar Augustine makes this point: “It is pride that turns man away from wisdom, and folly is the consequence of turning away from wisdom.18 And one of Augustine’s contemporary scholars says: “They thought they were wise because they had ‘discovered’ how the invisible God can be honored by means of a visible idol!19 And bishop Theodoret concludes: “They increased their guilt by their claim, for in calling themselves wise they showed that in fact, they were fools.”20

When the Psalmist wrote about how the children of Israel were fooled into making an idol out of gold, he said: “They traded their glorious God for a statue of a grass-eating ox!21 And what made it so ridiculous was that the ox couldn’t move or eat grass. But we must ask ourselves this question: Since we cannot see God, what do we think He looks like in our imagination? The prophet Isaiah asked this question and then gives his answer: “Can you compare God to anything? Can you make a picture of God? No, but some people make statues from rock or wood, and they call them gods.”22 Here in our text, Paul emphasizes the fact that God is a timeless, immortal, bodyless Spirit. After all, that’s exactly the way Jesus His Son described Him: “God is a spirit. So the people who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”23

1 Adam Clarke: On Romans, loc. cit.

2 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, loc. cit.

3 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

4 Chrysippus of Soli (c. 279 – 206 BC), Greek Stoic philosopher.

5 Cicero, De Natura Deorum Academica, Harvard University Press, London 1933, Vol. 19, Bk. II, Ch. 6, p. 139

6 Ibid. Ch. 2, p. 125

7 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

8 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 107

9 Ibid.

10 Jeremiah 10:14-15

11 Cf. Psalm 115:4-8; 135:15-18

12 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 44

13 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.

14 Adam Clarke: On Romans, loc. cit.

15 Ibid., verse 23

16 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.

17 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 3, loc. cit.

18 Augustine: On Free Will 24.72

19 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.

20 Theodoret of Cyr: On Letter to the Romans, loc. cit.

21 Psalm 106:20; Cf. Jeremiah 2:11

22 Isaiah 40:18-19

23 John 4:24

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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