What are "The Things That are Made" in Romans 1:20?

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.

- Romans 1:20


If you've ever read a book or heard a lecture on Christian apologetics, there's a good chance Romans 1:19-20 were brought up.  Perhaps these verses were cited as proof that all men know God, so that no one could claim ignorance of God on judgment day.  That, of course, is true.  Responsibility is based on knowledge, and since God has revealed himself to all men, all men are accountable to him. 

Bible commentators, as well as the authors of the Westminster Confession, have identified two ways in which God reveals himself to men:  general revelation and special revelation.

Special revelation is identical with the 66 books of the Bible.  The Scriptures are God's written, propositional revelation, which principally teach us, "What man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man," in the words of the Shorter Catechism.    

But what about general revelation?  Just what is it that is meant by this term?  The most common answer is that general revelation is identical with nature.  We are told that when men look to the heavens and see the stars, or cast their eyes upon the majestic mountains they behold God's attributes and, to that extent, know him and are therefore rightfully held responsible by him, even if they have never so much as heard the name of Jesus Christ.

Here's one example of this line of reasoning.

Paul stresses the reality and universality of divine revelation, which is perpetual ("since the creation," v.20) and perspicuous ("clearly seen," v.20).  Divine invisibility, eternity, and power are all expressed in and through the created order...The invisible God is revealed through the visible medium of creation.  This revelation is manifest; it is not obscured but clearly seen (New Geneva Study Bible).    

The commentators manifestly argue that one can reason from visible creation to an invisible God, but does this really make sense?   On one hand, such an argument is appealing to Christians.  We believe in God and rightfully want others to share that belief.  But simply because we like the conclusion of an argument does not mean that it is a good argument.  This is the case even if the conclusion of argument - that there is an immortal, invisible all wise God who created and sustains the world - is true.

So what is the problem of reasoning to an invisible God from the visible world?  One of the most basic concepts in logic is that the conclusion of an argument cannot contain an idea that was not present in its premises.  In logic textbooks students often run across a model argument that runs like this:

Major Premise:  All men are mortal. 

Minor Premise: Socrates is a man. 

Conclusion:  Therefore, Socrates is mortal.    

Notice that the conclusion "Therefore, Socrates is mortal" contains the same terms - here we're talking about "Socrates" and "mortal" - that are found in the premises.  Logicians call this a valid argument.

But let's suppose someone made this argument,

Major Premise:  All men are mortal.

Minor Premise:  Socrates is a man. 

Conclusion:  Therefore, Socrates won a gold medal in Curling during the Winter Olympics.

The problem with this second argument is clearly seen, such that you probably don't need me to point it out to you.  Although neither of the argument's premises says anything about an Olympic gold medal in Curling, it shows up in the conclusion anyway.  This is an example of an invalid argument.  And it is an invalid argument, because the conclusion contains a term - won a gold medal in Curling during the Winter Olympics - that is nowhere found in the premises.  

This is the same problem with the argument that an invisible God can be deduced from visible creation.  We cannot reason from rocks, trees and oceans - all things which are visible to the eyes - to an invisible God.  To do so would be to violate the logical principle established above that an argument cannot contain terms not found in the premises. 

The same could be said for the claim that God's eternity can be clearly seen in creation.  Lakes dry up, living creatures die, and, at least is you listen to Al Gore, polar ice caps melt away to nothing.  Scientists even claim that stars have a life cycle, some ending up as supernovas, and others becoming white dwarfs.  If anything, the observation of nature could lead one to conclude that the god who created it, if indeed there is a god at all, is of limited power and may him/her/itself be mortal.   

But even though there are significant, manifest problems with the standard explanation of Romans 1:19-20,  it largely goes unchallenged by theologians.

John Robbins was one scholar who did challenge the standard explanation of Romans 1.  For him, the key was arriving at a correct definition of the term "the things that are made."  In the quotation from the New Geneva Study Bible cited above, the commentators take the line that the term "the things that are made" refers to the creation. 

But Robbins does not accept this.  He argues, persuasively I would add, that "the things that are made" does not refer to the heavens or to mountains or trees or whales, but to men themselves.  Men are "the things that are made," not general creation.  This is another way of saying that all men have innate knowledge of God. 

For your consideration, please see the transcript below, which I made this myself from the Trinity Foundation lecture "How Not to Do Apologetics:  Evidentialism" by John Robbins.   The excerpted portion begins at the 34:04 mark.


John Robbins on Romans 1:19-20

Please turn to the first chapter of Romans.  Romans 1, and I will begin reading, I believe it's verse 16, I don't have the citation down here.  Paul writes, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.  For in it t he righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'The just shall live by faith.'

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness; because what may be know of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.   For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man - and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things...who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever, Amen "

It is common to be told that this passage endorses the proofs for the existence of God, but if one reads it closely, one will see that that is not the case at all.  First, Paul wrote of the special revelation of the Gospel in verses 16-18.  Then in verse 19, he wrote that what may be known of God is manifest in them for God has shown it to them.  Again he wrote of revelation, no longer special, but a general revelation to all men.  Furthermore, this revelation is manifest in us, that is, it is innate knowledge.  It is not something we learn.  It is not something we discover by observation or reading Aristotle's philosophy.   

Paul agreed with John, who wrote in the first chapter of his Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...In Him was life, and that life was the light of men..That was the true Light, which gives light to every man who comes into the world."

Paul continued in verse 20, "For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen."  Now think about that for a moment.  Was Paul talking about sense experience?  Can invisible attributes be seen with the eyes, let alone clearly seen?  Of course not.  Paul immediately explained what he meant in the next phrase, "and are clearly seen being understood."  Seeing here, as it frequently does in Scripture, means intellectual understanding, not sense experience.  God's invisible attributes are understood, they are not red or green or blue.  Moreover, they are understood by the things that are made. 

And here we come to a word, a phrase in English, of things that are made, that the standard understanding of these verses requires us to interpret as the physical things around us, what Thomas called the sensibles, the sensibles.  But this is the same word in Greek, translated here as the things that are made, that Paul used in Romans 9:20, "But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?  Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, 'Why have you made me like this?' " And in Ephesians 2:10, "For we are his workmanship." The Greek word is of general extension and can refer to anything made.  It need not refer only to sensible objects.  And Paul actually uses it to refer specifically to human beings in this case.  We are the things that are made.  We understand for God has shown it to us, it is manifest in us, we are without excuse because we know the eternal power and Godhead, not by observing, inferring, arguing, and inducing, but simply because we're made in the image of God.

If the standard interpretation of this passage were true, it would overturn Paul's argument in Romans 1-3, that all men are without excuse.  If our knowledge of God and moral responsibility for sin depends and sense experience, then blind and deaf people would have neither knowledge of God nor actual guilt. If we gain our knowledge of God by looking at the heavens, then those who cannot see the heavens have no knowledge of God.  But Paul wrote that all men know God, and all men are sinners, because they deny and suppress that inescapable, innate knowledge.

Furthermore, if our knowledge of God, and hence our responsibility, depended on our ability to follow Thomas's and Aristotle's arguments for the existence of God, then few there be who know God, and few there be who are sinners.  Notice that in this passage Paul does not say anything about an argument for the existence of God.  He declares that all men know God innately and immediately.  It is knowledge that they are born with.  No, even before that.  If David was conceived in sin, and if sin presupposes knowledge of right and wrong, then David had knowledge in his mother's womb, even before he had eyes and ears.  Contrary to the standard Thomistic understanding of these verses, it does not matter that some people cannot see or hear.  It does not matter than they cannot follow an intricate metaphysical argument.  They all know God.  Therefore, that knowledge of God does not come as a result of sense experience or as the conclusion of an argument.


Closing Thoughts

This is a brilliant argument by Robbins, one that convincingly shows the term "things that are made" refers to men, not inanimate objects of creation.  Men have innate knowledge of God, not as a result of looking at the physical universe, but because Christ has enlightened the minds of all men with this knowledge. 

Some may think this is a small point.  But if Robbins is right, then the empirical apologetics of Thomas Aquinas, which is also the apologetics method of many folks in the Reformed camp, is without foundation in Scripture.

And at the same time the door is closed on empirical apologetics, Robbins' argument provides strong support for Scripturalist apologetics, namely the idea that we defend Christianity, not by proving the existence of God from an appeal to the physical creation, but with the Scriptures themselves. 

The Bible, and the Bible alone, is the starting point for the Christian system of thought.  As Robbins taught elsewhere, the 66 books of the Bible are the starting point of all knowledge and the axiom of Christianity. 

The Bible alone in the Word of God.