False Gods and God’s Revelation

Apostle Paul, ceiling mosaic, Archiepiscopal Chapel of St. Andrew, Ravenna, Italy

Apostle Paul, ceiling mosaic, Archiepiscopal Chapel of St. Andrew, Ravenna, Italy

False Gods of God and Silver

But miserable are they, and in dead things is their hope, who call them gods, which are the works of men’s hands, gold and silver, to shew art in, and resemblances of beasts, or a stone good for nothing, the work of an ancient hand. (Wisdom 13:10)

Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. (Acts 17:29)

In Paul’s speech on Mars Hill, the phrase “gold and silver” comes directly from Wisdom 13:10. While the phrase “gold and silver” is used elsewhere in the New Testament, it is never used in connection with the argument from Wisdom. Paul’s use of this argument is interesting, because the Greek philosophers would not be expected to have intimate knowledge of Jewish wisdom literature, despite its being available in the Greek language, and would likely not have caught the reference. Paul is not using this quotation purely as a rhetorical device, but rather because the text had so permeated his thinking that its words became his words.

A similar thing happens in the opening of the epistle to the Romans, where Paul writes: “[the ungodly] changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Rom 1:23). This one verse sums up the entire passage in Wisdom 13:1-19, which describes a man who takes some wood and uses it to make serving dishes, and then uses the remaining wood to make an idol for himself, unto which he prays. Of the same tree he makes for himself something useful, and something useless.

Our Knowledge of the Creator

Surely vain are all men by nature, who are ignorant of God, and could not out of the good things that are seen know him that is: neither by considering the works did they acknowledge the workmaster; But deemed either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the violent water, or the lights of heaven, to be the gods which govern the world. With whose beauty if they being delighted took them to be gods; let them know how much better the Lord of them is: for the first author of beauty hath created them. But if they were astonished at their power and virtue, let them understand by them, how much mightier he is that made them. For by the greatness and beauty of the creatures proportionably the maker of them is seen. But yet for this they are the less to be blamed: for they peradventure err, seeking God, and desirous to find him. For being conversant in his works they search him diligently, and believe their sight: because the things are beautiful that are seen. Howbeit neither are they to be pardoned. For if they were able to know so much, that they could aim at the world; how did they not sooner find out the Lord thereof? But miserable are they, and in dead things is their hope, who call them gods, which are the works of men’s hands, gold and silver, to shew art in, and resemblances of beasts, or a stone good for nothing, the work of an ancient hand. (Wisdom 13:1-10)

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. (Rom 1:18-25)

Much of the first chapter of Romans is indebted to Wisdom chapter 13. We have already discussed Paul’s usage of the phrase “silver and gold” during his sermon on Mars Hill. However, Paul draws his argument on the subject of General Revelation from Wisdom. The argument in Wisdom is that the existence of God is demonstrated not by the existence of things in and of themselves, but rather their beauty. The fact that things are beautiful in and of themselves, and that we seem to exist to recognize and share in that beauty tells us that there must be a point to all this.

In Romans, Paul condenses this argument when he says: “that which may be known of God is manifest in them [the ungodly]”; that is to say, in their knowledge of God through His creation of and operations within the material world (Rom 1:19). Note that Paul does not say that God may be known through His creation — which is to say, known in His essence. Instead, Paul speaks of “that which may be known of God”, which is an entirely different thing. To use the terminology of the Eastern Church, Paul is speaking of the difference between God’s essence and God’s energies; between God as He actually is (in His fullness), and God as revealed through His actions. Using this idea, both General and Special Revelation together constitute God’s energies, God’s actions within and on behalf of this world. God in His essence, His essential self, remains altogether beyond our grasp.

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