On the Importance of Philosophical Reasoning for Biblical Exegesis: Edward Feser and Romans 1:18-23

In my mind, the ability to engage in philosophical reasoning in order to tease out the implications of particular interpretations of the Bible and other truths is indispensable for reading the Bible and teaching it to others.


Edward Feser, in a post titled, “Repressed Knowledge of God?” comments that the common interpretation of Romans 1:18-23 is mistaken. Here is the passage in question from the ESV, I would translate it differently, but it reflects the most common interpretation:

Romans 1:18-23 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

The common interpretation is that the atheist is the person to whom these verses refer. This can be seen in the writings of many schools of Christian apologetics. The idea is that atheism is always a matter of intellectual dishonesty because the Bible teaches that knowledge of the God of the Bible is so obvious that it can only be suppressed by sheer force of will. Personaly, I think that some people are atheists because they accept bad arguments just like some people believe in God for silly reasons.

Without thinking about Christian theology, the psychology of all atheists, and broader philosophical conclusions, the text of Romans 1:18-23 itself militates against seeing atheists in this passage. The passage is not about people who believe in no gods, but rather those who have good reason to worship the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, but choose to worship idols.(See the footnote of this post about the passage in question for an alternative interpretation). The passage gives good insight into the results of idolatry, which is related to atheism, but it is not directly about atheism at all.

Feser, without attempting to exegete the Bible passage in question, refutes the view that God’s existence is so obvious as to only be denied on purpose rather handily. Here is the relevant portion of his argument:

Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God? Yes, but in something like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or for art. You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education and sustained practice.  And without cultivating your interest in music or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability might even atrophy altogether.

Or consider moral virtue.  It is natural to us, but only in the sense that we have a natural capacity for it.  Actually to acquire the virtues still requires considerable effort.  As Aquinas writes: “[V]irtue is natural to man inchoatively…both intellectual and moral virtues are in us by way of a natural aptitude, inchoatively, but not perfectly…(Summa Theologiae I-II.63.1, emphasis added), and “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training” (Summa Theologiae I-II.95.1).

Now, knowledge of God is like this. We are indeed naturally inclined to infer from the natural order of things to the existence of some cause beyond it.  But the tendency is not a psychologically overwhelming one like our inclination to eat or to breathe is. It can be dulled.  Furthermore, the inclination is not by itself sufficient to generate a very clear conception of God.  As Aquinas writes:

To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude… This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching… (Summa Theologiae I.2.1, emphasis added)

In other words, from a philosophical point of view, to claim that God’s existence is only and ever obvious, is simply untrue. Now, that does not automatically mean that Paul doesn’t teach the falsified point of view. But for those with a conservative evangelical definition of the Bible, it means alternative interpretations should be sought. 

Think Rightly About Yourselves

[This is a repost from 2013 with an additional translation added to the list below]


Λέγω γὰρ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τῆς δοθείσης μοι παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ᾽ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν, ἑκάστῳ ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἐμέρισεν μέτρον πίστεως. (Rom 12:3 BGT)


Upon first glance the obvious translation/meaning is, “For, I say to all of you through the grace which was given to me, do not think about yourselves more highly than it is necessary to think, but rather think [w/respect to yourselves] in a manner that leads to temperance; each one as God has given a measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

Other Common Translations:

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Rom 12:3 KJV)


For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  (Rom 12:3 ESV)


For by the grace given to me I say to everyone who is among you not to think more highly of yourself than what one ought to think, but to think [sensibly], as God has apportioned a measure of faith to each one. (Rom 12:3 Lexham English Bible)


For by the grace given to me I ask every one of you not to think of yourself more highly than you should think, rather to think of yourself with sober judgment on the measure of faith that God has assigned each of you. (Rom 12:3 International Standard Version) [Here, they catch that ‘thinking of yourself’ is implied due to the nature of the contrasted modes of thought.]


For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.
(Rom 12:3 NET)

Syntactical Comment

Every translation takes the Greek preposition εις to mean “with” and they translate the stative verb (verb about a state of being) adverbially. I’m going against a trend in translations here, but εις rarely means ‘with’ and not ever, that I can think of, with an infinitive. But εις το + [infinitive] often (always?) connotes purpose.  

Paul is contrasting to ways of thinking about yourself. One is haughty, the other is a form of self-reflection that leads to sober-mindedness or temperance. 


Paul wants Christians to think about themselves so that they can judge their own capacities soundly. But it’s not just that he wants them to think soundly. It’s that he wants them to think about themselves in a way that leads to sound judgment in interpersonal matters. What this means, if you go on to read the rest of Romans 12, is that we consider just what our gifts are and we use them in a way that is in line with unhypocritical love (Romans 12:9).

This is an interesting way of looking at things. Be utterly realistic about how wretched, weak, and malicious you are (Romans 1-3). Also, be utterly realistic about what God’s grace has done in you (Romans 7-8). Realize that God has a plan that uses even the most dire of circumstances to bring his will to pass (Romans 9-11). Now, use your gifts with circumspection and confidence. That’s what he’s saying, or something like that.

A Recent Translation That Got Things Right

David Bentley Hart Translates the verse:

“For, by the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you not to be more haughtily minded than your thinking ought to be, but rather to let you thinking conduce to sober-mindedness, as God has apportioned a measure of faithfulness to each. (Romans 12:3 DBH NTT)

Walking in the Spirit and the Four-Fold Gospel


The things of the Spirit in Romans 8:1-17 are actually the same sorts of things we find in the four gospels. This is what Paul wants us to be mindful of in our day-to-day life with Christ and his church.

Whole Thought

Romans 8 is, by many accounts, one of the most beautiful passages penned by Paul and by some accounts, perhaps the most beautiful passage in Scripture. What has always intrigued me about Romans 8 is Paul’s notion of the Christian life on a moment by moment basis.

Paul describes the Christian life as

  1. Walking according to the Spirit
  2. Living according to the Spirit
  3. Setting the mind on the things of the Spirit
  4. Putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit
  5. Being led by the Spirit

But if this is so, then a very important line of questioning must come up. What is the meaning of doing all of these things according to or by the Spirit? What are the things of the Spirit? The common initial reaction is to equate the things of the Spirit with the things of the religious institution of which we are a part or to equate the things of the Spirit with the inner world of emotions and non-rational experiences and behavior. Such a divorce of “the things of the Spirit” from New Testament history has led to sad legalistic abuses (people who think that spirituality is purely about external/denominational ideals) and to sad emotion based Christianity wherein one’s discipleship is always a quest to have a certain feeling (feeling liberated, feeling loved, feeling worshipful, feeling authentic, etc). In both or these errors, one can spend so much time trying to conjure up this or that feeling or denominational distinctive (what if I’m Presbyterian but don’t like tobacco?), that they literally miss the teachings and person of Jesus.

There is an historical lineage to both types of error. Essentially in an effort to deal with the rationalist and empiricist turn in philosophy, many turned to nature and the feelings as a replacement for religion. This became associated with terms like spirit and spirituality. In turn then, many Christian movements began to focus more and more on their own institutional life and continuance as the proper form of spirituality. This is not a perfect sketch, but it is helpful. I recommend the brief article below:

Marie Mansouri and Vafa Keshavarzi, “Spirituality, a Conceptual Break: The Romantic Revolt and the Rise of a New Spirituality,” International Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Society 4, no. 1 (July 2014): 11–16.

So, when we come with this baggage to Paul, we miss out on what he’s getting at. What does he mean by doing things according to the Spirit, living by the Spirit, etc?

There are some very important tips about this in Romans 8. Read 8:1-17 below and focus upon the bold text:

Rom 8:1-17  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  (2)  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.  (3)  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  (4)  in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  (5)  For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  (6)  For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  (7)  For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  (8)  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  (9)  You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  (10)  But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  (11)  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.  (12)  So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.  (13)  For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  (14)  For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  (15)  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”  (16)  The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  (17)  and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Notice that in the bold text, Paul attributes certain things to the Holy Spirit and all of them are about the life, ministry, teachings, death, resurrection, and present reign of Jesus Christ.

  1. The Spirit set us free from the law of sin and death in Christ (and from elsewhere in Romans we know that this is from Jesus’ act of obedience (his whole life).
  2. The Spirit dwells in believers. All four gospels say that this will be the result of his ministry. He will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8), he promises power and the Spirit (John: 6:24, Luke 24:49, Matthew 28:16-20), the living water is equated with the Spirit (John 7:39), and conversion itself (John 3:1-16) is attributed to the work of the Spirit.
  3. The Spirit is the Spirit of the God who raised Christ from the dead.
  4. The Spirit given to us helps us to call God ,”Father” when we pray. This is a very important aspect of early Christianity and a central facet of Jesus’ teaching. Paul essentially says here that being led by the Spirit is the same thing as obeying Jesus when he says, “When you pray, pray like this, ‘Our Father…’

So, it appears that “the things of the Spirit” are not merely institutional trappings of this or that church (though those can be good things) and they are not merely emotional experiences and intuitions (though those can be good things). The things of the Spirit are the things revealed by the Spirit in the gospel message.

Minding the Spirit, it would appear, is the crux of walking by the Spirit. It is Paul’s way of saying that living you life based upon Jesus and his teachings is the proper way to live with God’s Spirit as we await God’s renewal of creation.

Mistaken Theological Tidbits

Everything happens for a reason.

The phrase above is trivially true. Every thing that happens certainly has a cause. But it is often seen as a piece of centrally true theological reasoning. You lock your keys in your car, “God did it for a reason.” You get gas from over-eating, “It happened for a reason.” You make a bunch of bad decisions that hurt others and famously, “I learned something from it, therefore it must have happened for a reason.”

I submit that in the trivial sense, yes everything happens for a reason.

I then also say that Paul’s argument in Romans 8 assumes and even requires that many evils are meaningless and vain, but that despite their vanity, God can cause them to work out for the ultimate the good of a group of people who love him. That’s the argument. A lot of things that happen are pointlessly evil. That’s what life apart from the revelation of God becomes according to Ecclesiastes: meaningless.

So, while I am thankful that many people, even non-Christians attempt to preserve the dignity of others and of themselves when they are going through trials (by pointing out that it’s clearly happening with some inscrutable divine purpose behind it), I also want to point out that only God can bring meaning out of the pointless evils and lame drudgeries that people are subjected to throughout their lives. The Scripture never says that such things are always caused with good in mind. Though it does state that some events are from God for trials, it seems to also indicate that many evils are frivolously wrought by evil persons and forces in the creation.

Romans, Debt, and Obligation

A feature of Paul’s letter to the Romans that I’ve never noticed being explored in depth is the concept of obligation or indebtedness. I am interested in this topic because there is a great deal of hand wringing in modern Christian thought about the notion of debt or obligation to God.

John Piper, for instance, thinks that the language of obligation in the context of the Christian life and worship is akin to telling your wife that you bought her flowers out of obligation (Desiring God, 97-98). Piper even calls obligation the “mortal enemy” of worship. Similarly, Greg Boyd (Piper’s opposite), in his book Seeing is Believing seems to say something similar, “striving to be holy, loving, kind or patient means nothing if these attributes are sought as ethical ideals, or to fulfill a rule, or to meet an obligation (Seeing is Believing, 53).” These attitudes toward obligation are psychologically confusing to normal people who don’t have doctoral degrees to help them keep silly things straight. When Jesus says, “train them to do everything which I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19),” we rightly feel obligated to do what he says and to tell others of the obligations Jesus lays on them.

My sense is that both of these thinkers are trying to claim that there is an ideal to be met. The ideal is having a relationship with God wherein our emotions/passions and automatic habits line up with the commands in Scripture. I agree with that this is the ideal. But in the Bible, the ideal is not the litmus test for true spirituality. In Scripture, there is tremendous dignity ascribed to those who do the hard thing that they do not want to do (see all of Proverbs).

In fact, there is no contradiction between doing your duty always and sometimes finding it to be a delight and even spontaneously discharging that duty out of pleasure. Incidentally and contra Piper’s point, Paul sees sexual encounters between husband and wife as an obligation in (1 Corinthians 7:3), but I doubt that the obligation does not carry pleasure with it. I hope that what follows gives a picture of the nature of duty/debt/obligation in Paul’s thought. In so doing, I hope that it clarifies some of the confusion that might even make people feel guilty about following Jesus out of duty or obligation.

Thesis: Obligation and duty are central features of the Paul’s picture of being a disciple of Jesus in his letter to the Romans.

Probatio and Exposition
Paul utilizes the word ὀφειλέτης in several passages:

(Rom 1:14-15 BGT) Ἕλλησίν τε καὶ βαρβάροις, σοφοῖς τε καὶ ἀνοήτοις ὀφειλέτης εἰμί, οὕτως τὸ κατ᾽ ἐμὲ πρόθυμον καὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς ἐν Ῥώμῃ εὐαγγελίσασθαι.

I am a debtor to the Greeks and to the Barbarians, to the wise and to the ignorant, thus I am willing also to proclaim the gospel message to you who are in Rome.

Here Paul seems to be noting that his wish to share the gospel in Rome and (as we’ll find later) to receive assistance from the Roman Christians for a trip to Spain (15:26-30) is based on a sincere sense of obligation, not on a desire for money or public acclaim. Paul sees himself as obligated to those who do not know the gospel. Obligations carry negative connotations these days, but in reality obligation is a positive concept and in the ancient world it was certainly seen that way. The obligation Paul sees laid upon his person is such that he is able to show tremendous love and care toward people of a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and to introduce them into the Jesus movement and thus to the God of Israel.

(Rom 4:4-5 BGT) τῷ δὲ ἐργαζομένῳ ὁ μισθὸς οὐ λογίζεται κατὰ χάριν ἀλλὰ κατὰ ὀφείλημα, τῷ δὲ μὴ ἐργαζομένῳ πιστεύοντι δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἀσεβῆ λογίζεται ἡ πίστις αὐτοῦ εἰς δικαιοσύνην·

To the one who works, the reward is not accounted according to principles of grace, but according to principles of obligation, on the contrary, to the one who does not work, but places his trust in He Who Justifies the Impious, his faith is accounted toward righteousness [or “his faith is accounted/credited for the purpose of righteousness” which would carry the meaning in English “his faith is counted as good as righteousness”].

Here Paul uses obligation in a strictly financial sense to bring a notion of ancient patronage that all auditors would know and understand into his discussion about justification. The idea is that an ancient patron could pay you justly for work or in order to boost his own honor, provide a grace/gift with no expectation (or possibility) of remuneration. The correct response to this gift would be to show loyalty or trust toward the giver (See David DeSilva, Honor Patronage Kinship, and Purity (IVP, 2000), 121-156). In this case, the gift is the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 4:24-45) and the show of loyalty is faith and entering into this patron-client relationship with He Who Justifies the Impious leads to justification/righteousness. As Robert Jewett notes: “faith was the response of converts to the message that Christ died for the impious, and it led to their joining small communities of faith in which righteousness became a social reality as the dishonored were restored to honor, that is, to “righteousness.”*

(Rom 8:12-13 BGT)  Ἄρα οὖν, ἀδελφοί, ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ τοῦ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆν, εἰ γὰρ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆτε, μέλλετε ἀποθνῄσκειν· εἰ δὲ πνεύματι τὰς πράξεις τοῦ σώματος θανατοῦτε, ζήσεσθε.

Therefore now, brothers and sisters, we are obligated, not to the flesh in order to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh you will die; if, by means of the Spirit, you put to death the practices of the body, you will live.

What seems to be going on here is that the Christian has an obligation to fulfill as a debtor, but not as a debtor to the flesh (because though Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh and was raised bodily (Romans 1:1-5, 4:24-25, 5:1-11, 6:1-4 8:1-11), it was the Spirit of God who raised him (Romans 8:11). Thus, though the body is important, not everything we do in it is good. There is sin in our members (Romans 7:5), but we are not obligated to that way of life. In fact, if we paid off our debt to the flesh, it would be like nothing other than working as a servant of Sin, who pays his workers with death (Romans 6:23)**

(Rom 13:7-8 BGT) ἀπόδοτε πᾶσιν τὰς ὀφειλάς, τῷ τὸν φόρον τὸν φόρον, τῷ τὸ τέλος τὸ τέλος, τῷ τὸν φόβον τὸν φόβον, τῷ τὴν τιμὴν τὴν τιμήν. Μηδενὶ μηδὲν ὀφείλετε εἰ μὴ τὸ ἀλλήλους ἀγαπᾶν· ὁ γὰρ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἕτερον νόμον πεπλήρωκεν.

Give to all what is obligatory: to whom you owe tribute tax, give tribute tax; to whom you owe customs tax, give customs tax; to whom you owe reverence, give reverence; to whom you owe honor, give honor. In no way be obligated to anybody except to love one another. For the one who loves the other fulfills the Law.

Here Paul’s point is that being mindful of the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5-8) is not pie-in-the-sky-ism. It is rather a very practical way of life that involves making way for the gospel to influence all peoples in all nations. In this respect, the Christian is to live in appropriate relationships with the legal customs of the surrounding world precisely so that there is freedom to love the other, namely the Christian who is not yourself (note that the main idea is to love one another, elsewhere Paul clearly expresses A) his debt to all men and B) that Christian love extends beyond the in-group.

(Rom 15:1 BGT) Ὀφείλομεν δὲ ἡμεῖς οἱ δυνατοὶ τὰ ἀσθενήματα τῶν ἀδυνάτων βαστάζειν καὶ μὴ ἑαυτοῖς ἀρέσκειν.

But, we who are capable, are ourselves obligated to bear the weaknesses of the incapable and to not please ourselves.

Here the main point seems to be to the effect that Christian of serious scruples about dietary laws and Old Testament customs should be showed dignity by Christians who are capable of not participating in those customs. In this case, Christians who have an advantageous perspective should show due deference to their brethren of weaker conscience. This principle is based partly on the honor accorded to all for whom Christ died (Romans 14:6) and partly upon the example of Jesus in bringing Gentiles into God’s people in the first place (Romans 15:7-9).

This might also be explanatory for Paul’s reminder to non-Jewish Christians that they should not, in arrogance think ill of Jewish folk because in their arrogance they may abandon the gospel (Romans 11:15-23). Thus, within the church, Christians are to regard each other (when disagreements about Christian ceremony come up) with humility and respect, treating one another as people with burdens to bear. Paul expects this, I think, of everybody. The rhetorical move may very well be to get any Christian to think of themselves as a capable person and thus to bear his own load and that of his brethren so that everybody might be built up and that there might be peace (Romans 14:19 and Galatians 6:2-5).

(Rom 15:27 BGT) εὐδόκησαν γὰρ καὶ ὀφειλέται εἰσὶν αὐτῶν· εἰ γὰρ τοῖς πνευματικοῖς αὐτῶν ἐκοινώνησαν τὰ ἔθνη, ὀφείλουσιν καὶ ἐν τοῖς σαρκικοῖς λειτουργῆσαι αὐτοῖς.

For they were pleased to do this and they were debtors to them. For if they shared their spiritual blessings with the nations, they are debtors with respect to material things to those who thus served them.

Here Paul’s point, that I said I would get to earlier, is that the other gentile churches were pleased to offer financial aid to the poor Christians in Jerusalem. The idea here is that the gentile Christians not only served the poor out of obedience to Jesus (which would make sense to do), but in this case, served the poor Jewish Christians out of a sense of reciprocity. The Israelite nation had given them the gospel of Christ, therefore, it was fitting for the gentiles to offer material assistance during the famine.

The overall picture is that Christians should see themselves as being to other Christians, debtors (in imitation of Paul) to outsiders who need the gospel, and as non-debtors to the flesh. Paul also uses the term “placed in service” in Romans 6:22 to refer to the relationship a believer has to God. Certainly there is an element of joy in that in Paul’s mind, but there is also an element of obligation to God. This is naturally due to God’s nature as well as due to God’s revelation to us in Christ. It appears that being obligated toward God and others is not only a part of Paul’s conceptual world, but it is an important part that is exactly part of the process of learning to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). It is also important to note that Jesus thought that the notion of having a servant-self-image was part of the process of becoming great in God’s kingdom (Mark 10:45). Thus, it’s okay to do Christian things out of a sense of obligation. Not only that, but it might even be freeing at times because you don’t have to be in control of your feelings to know whether or not your doing the Christian life the right way.

*Robert Jewett and Roy David Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 315.

**I still don’t know why people interpret Romans 6:23 to mean that the penalty for sin is death when the passage seems to be indicating that Sin, when you treat it like a master and live for its purposes destroys you rather than gives you the life it promises. Romans 1:18-32 does note that death is a punishment for sinning or at least it is potentially the just-dessert of sinning. But Romans 6:23 just doesn’t say what it is often portrayed as saying. I think the common interpretation is based solely on the simplification it offers for gospel tracts.