91

E

CHAPTER 4

THIS KNOWLEDGE IS EITHER SMOTHERED OR CORRUPTED, PARTLY BY IGNORANCE, PARTLY BY MALICE
1. SUPERSTITION As experience shows, God has sown a seed of religion in all men. But scarcely one man in a hundred is met with who fosters it, once received, in his heart, and none in whom it ripens — much less shows fruit in season [cf. <190103>Psalm 1:3]. Besides while some may evaporate in their own superstitions and others deliberately and wickedly desert God, yet all degenerate from the true knowledge of him. And so it happens that no real piety remains in the world. But as to my statement that some erroneously slip into superstition, I do not mean by this that their ingenuousness should free them from blame. For the blindness under which they labor is almost always mixed with proud vanity and obstinacy. Indeed, vanity joined with pride can be detected in the fact e(b)that, in seeking God, miserable men do not rise above themselves as they should, but measure him by the yardstick of their own carnal stupidity, and neglect sound investigation; thus out of curiosity they fly off into empty speculations. They do not therefore apprehend God as he offers himself, but imagine him as they have fashioned him in their own presumption. When this gulf opens, in whatever direction they move their feet, they cannot but plunge headlong into ruin. Indeed, whatever they afterward attempt by way of worship or service of God, they cannot bring as tribute to him, for they are worshiping not God but a figment and a dream of their own heart. f202 e Paul eloquently notes this wickedness: “Striving to be wise, they make fools of themselves” [<450122>Romans 1:22 p.]. He had said before that “they became futile in their thinking” [<450121>Romans 1:21]. In order, however, that no one might excuse their guilt, he adds that they are justly blinded. For not content with sobriety but claiming for themselves more than is right, they wantonly bring darkness upon themselves — in fact, they
e

92

become fools in their empty and perverse haughtiness. From this it follows that their stupidity is not excusable, since it is caused not only by vain curiosity but by an inordinate desire to know more than is fitting, joined with a false confidence. 2. CONSCIOUS TURNING AWAY FROM GOD David’s statement that ungodly men and fools feel in their hearts that there is no God [<191401>Psalm 14:1; <195301>53:1] must first, as we shall see again a little later, be limited to those who, by extinguishing the light of nature, deliberately befuddle themselves. Accordingly, we see that many, after they have become hardened in insolent and habitual sinning, furiously repel all remembrance of God, although this is freely suggested to them inwardly from the feeling of nature. But to render their madness more detestable, David represents them as flatly denying God’s existence; not that they deprive him of his being, but because, in despoiling him of his judgment and providence, they shut him up idle in heaven. f203 Now there is nothing less in accord with God’s nature than for him to cast off the government of the universe and abandon it to fortune, and to be blind to the wicked deeds of men, so that they may lust unpunished. Accordingly, whoever heedlessly indulges himself, his fear of heavenly judgment extinguished, denies that there is a God. f204 And it is God’s just punishment of the wicked that fatness envelops their hearts, so that after they have closed their eyes, in seeing they see not [ <401314>Matthew 13:1415; cf. <230609>Isaiah 6:9-10 and <191710>Psalm 17:10]. And David is the best interpreter of his thought when in another place he says that “the fear of God is not before the eyes of the ungodly” [<193601>Psalm 36:1 p.]. Likewise, because they persuade themselves that God does not see, they proudly applaud their own wrongdoing [<191011>Psalm 10:11].
e

Even though they are compelled to recognize some god, they strip him of glory by taking away his power. For, as Paul affirms, just as “God cannot deny himself,” because “he remains” forever like himself [<540213>2 Timothy 2:13], so they, by fashioning a dead and empty idol, are truly said to deny God. At this point we ought to note that, however much they struggle against their own senses, and wish not only to drive God thence but also to destroy him in heaven, their stupidity never increases to the point where God does not at times bring them back to his judgment seat. But

93

because no fear restrains them from rushing violently against God, it is certain that so long as this blind urge grips them, their own oafish forgetfulness of God will hold sway over them. 3. WE ARE NOT TO FASHION GOD ACCORDING TO OUR OWN WHIM† Thus is overthrown that vain defense with which many are wont to gloss over their superstition. For they think that any zeal for religion, however preposterous, is sufficient. But they do not realize that true religion ought to be conformed to God’s will as to a universal rule; that God ever remains like himself, and is not a specter or phantasm to be transformed according to anyone’s whim. One can clearly see, too, how superstition mocks God with pretenses while it tries to please him. For, seizing almost solely upon what God has testified to be of no concern to himself, superstition either holds in contempt or else openly rejects that which he prescribes and enjoins as pleasing to himself. Thus all who set up their own false rites to God worship and adore their own ravings. Unless they had first fashioned a God to match the absurdity of their trifling, f205 they would by no means have dared trifle with God in this way. The apostle accordingly characterizes that vague and erroneous opinion of the divine as ignorance of God. “When you did not know God,” he says, “you were in bondage to beings that by nature were no gods” [Galatians 4: 8 p.]. And elsewhere he teaches that the Ephesians were “without God” at the time they were straying away from the right knowledge of the one God [<490212>Ephesians 2:12]. Nor is it of much concern, at least in this circumstance, whether you conceive of one God or several; for you continually depart from the true God and forsake him, and, having left him, you have nothing left except an accursed idol. Therefore it remains for us to assert with Lactantius that no religion is genuine unless it be joined with truth. f206
b

4. HYPOCRISY A second sin arises, that they never consider God at all unless compelled to; and they do not come nigh until they are dragged there despite their resistance. And not even then are they impressed with the voluntary fear that arises out of reverence for the divine majesty, but merely with a slavish, forced fear, which God’s judgment extorts from them. bThis, since
e(b)

94

they cannot escape it, they dread even to the point of loathing. That saying of Statius’ that fear first made gods in the world f207 corresponds well to this kind of irreligion, and to this alone. Those who are of a mind alien to God’s righteousness know that his judgment seat stands ready to punish transgressions against him, yet they greatly desire its overthrow. Feeling so, they wage war against the Lord, who cannot be without judgment. But while they know that his inescapable power hangs over them because they can neither do away with it nor flee from it, they recoil from it in dread. And so, lest they should everywhere seem to despise him whose majesty weighs upon them, they perform some semblance of religion. Meanwhile they do not desist from polluting themselves with every sort of vice, and from joining wickedness to wickedness, until in every respect they violate the holy law of the Lord and dissipate all his righteousness. Or at least they are not so restrained by that pretended fear of God from wallowing blithely in their own sins and flattering themselves, and preferring to indulge their fleshly intemperance rather than restrain it by the bridle of the Holy Spirit. This, however, is but a vain and false shadow of religion, scarcely even worth being called a shadow. e(b)From it one may easily grasp anew how much this confused knowledge of God differs from the piety from which religion takes its source, f208 which is instilled in the breasts of believers only. cAnd yet hypocrites would tread these twisting paths so as to seem to approach the God from whom they flee. bFor where they ought to have remained consistently obedient throughout life, they boldly rebel against him in almost all their deeds, and are zealous to placate him merely with a few paltry sacrifices. Where they ought to serve him in sanctity of life and integrity of heart, they trump up frivolous trifles and worthless little observances with which to win his favor. eNay, more, with greater license they sluggishly lie in their own filth, because they are confident that they can perform their duty toward him by ridiculous acts of expiation. e(b)Then while their trust ought to have been placed in him, they neglect him and rely upon themselves, his creatures though they be. Finally, they entangle themselves in such a huge mass of errors that blind wickedness stifles and finally extinguishes those sparks which once flashed forth to show them God’s glory, byet that seed remains which can in no wise be uprooted: that there is some sort of divinity; but this seed is so corrupted that by itself it produces only the worst fruits.

95

From this, my present contention is brought out with greater certainty, that a sense of divinity is by nature engraven on human hearts. For necessity forces from the reprobate themselves a confession of it. In tranquil times they wittily joke about God, indeed are facetious and garrulous in belittling his power. If any occasion for despair presses upon them, it goads them to seek him and impels their perfunctory prayers. From this it is clear that they have not been utterly ignorant of God, but that what should have come forth sooner was held back by stubbornness.
e

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful

Master Your Semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master Your Semester with a Special Offer from Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.