18For the wrath of God is revealed from
18For God's wrath is revealed from heaven
Having in verse 17 stated his thesis—God's dealings with the faithful reveal his righteousness—Paul begins with the negative formulation of that thesis: the Lord's dealings with the unfaithful. In chapter 1, he discusses the unfaithful among the gentiles. He turns to Israel at the beginning of chapter 2. Romans 1:18–2:11 may be a case of diatribe, a rhetorical form in which one pretends to argue with someone to teach something. If Paul uses diatribe, some of the difficulties we find in reading Romans, such as to whom Paul is referring in Romans 2:1 and what to make of his description of himself in Romans 7:8–23, are solved.
Much of verse 18 and the following verses seems to have been influenced by Wisdom, a book that was popular among the early Christians and often used as scripture. The book is echoed in many places. For example, chapter 1 of Wisdom discusses the necessity of justice, and Wisdom 13:1–10 is much like this section of Romans, explaining how those who worship idols could have known about God (for more on Wisdom, see page 17).
In places, Paul seems to combine Stoic philosophy and Jewish thought, a combination that is also evident in Wisdom. This combination probably does not reflect Paul's education, but contemporary ideas that had also found their way into Wisdom. Because these ideas were current, they likely appealed to the congregation at Rome and were easy to understand because the terms Paul used to describe them were familiar. The Stoics believed a sense of right and wrong is available to every person through reason and contemplation. Thus, because this part of Stoic philosophy was both familiar to the people of Paul's time and consonant with the gospel, it was useful to Paul as he preached. However, the early leaders of the church clearly rejected other Stoic doctrines, such as their doctrine of fate and the resulting mechanistic attitude toward the creation (see, for example, 2 Peter 3:4–5).
The wrath of God
In verse 17 we saw that divine justice is revealed to those who are faithful. The converse of divine justice is divine wrath, and in the phrase the wrath of God we see that divine wrath is revealed to those who are not faithful.
Though the most obvious and literal translation of the Greek word translated "wrath" (orgē, οργη) is "wrath" or "anger," we must be careful as we think about what this means. On the one hand, we do not want to overlook the fact that anger is attributed to God. On the other hand, we probably do not want to attribute to God the kind of anger we are most familiar with, especially not the blind and blinding anger we associate with the word wrath. Notice that we do not see the Father punishing the sinners described later, at least not in our ordinary sense of the word punish. Rather, as we will see, Paul says that the Father gives them up to their sins (see verse 24). Their sin is their punishment.
One legitimate understanding of divine wrath is that the Father's wrath is his reaction to evil, his abhorrence of sin. One who judges rightly abhors the evil and sin he condemns, and sinners rightly call that abhorrence wrath. We stand condemned for our sins by the Father's righteous judgment, and from our point of view, wrath is a particularly appropriate word. However, wrath describes our experience, not God's emotion. On this view, the Father's wrath is his refusal to be indifferent to or permissive with those who sin. In his love for us, he calls us to repentance and demands that we cease to be sinful (see Amos 3:2), often warning us what will happen if we do not. This demand and warning are acts of love, but the sinner experiences them as anger and wrath.
The phrase is revealed corresponds to the same phrase in verse 17, making the two verses parallel. In verse 17 the justice of God is revealed in the gospel, and in verse 18 through the end of the chapter the wrath of God is revealed against all sin.
Ungodliness and unrighteousness
Another translation of the phrase ungodliness and unrighteousness is "impiety and injustice." In verse 17, God's righteousness, his justice, was revealed. In verses 18–32 (and also in Romans 2:1–11) the injustice, in other words, the unrighteousness, of human beings will be revealed. The mention of ungodliness (asebeia, ασεβεια, meaning "impiety")92 prefigures the idolatry of the sinners in verses 21–25. Not to worship God is to worship something else, as is to find something to be more valuable than God. Thus the failure to worship (or to worship properly) can be used as a metonymy for sin in general.
Ungodliness and unrighteousness may be a pleonastic pair (see the discussion of grace and apostleship in verse 5, page 28–30). If so, either the two words are intended to be understood as the same thing or may be translated as "the impiety (or ungodliness) of injustice." To be impious is to transgress one's obligations to God, while to be unjust is to transgress one's obligations to other mortals. God's wrath is revealed on all in each group because they are, in reality, the same. To transgress one is to transgress the other. Paul's mention of both emphasizes the point that God will not condone evil, no matter what its form, no matter whom it is against. The Father is no respecter of persons (see Romans 2:11) and will no more accept transgression against another person than he would against himself: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matthew 25:40).
In New Testament usage, the word translated "truth" (alētheia, αληθεια) has basically three meanings: dependability and uprightness (as in Romans 3:7; 15:8); truth in our sense, namely, what corresponds to reality, the opposite of what is false; and finally, reality. The last of these may strike us as odd, but that is at least partly because we think of reality differently than did the people of New Testament times. For us, reality is physical reality. For them it was closer to what we might broadly call moral reality, and this is why the Savior could say, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).
This supposed failure to separate the moral, or spiritual, realm from the physical is one of the things that most significantly marks the difference between the ancient Greek and Hebrew world and the modern world. Several hundred years before Paul, the Greek philosopher Plato claimed that only the virtuous could have knowledge.93 Though this idea makes no sense to us (except perhaps metaphorically) because we do not have the same understanding of reality as did the ancients, it is implicit in much Greek and other Mediterranean thought. For example, it is a prominent feature of Stoic philosophy, perhaps the most common philosophy in Paul's day. This identification of virtue with knowledge tells us as much about the ancients' concept of knowledge as it does about their concept of virtue.
For us, what is—reality—is objective rather than personal, and it is ultimately static, "a datum at rest in itself."94 However, for the ancients, the most real thing is that which makes all other things possible. For Plato, that was the Good. For the Hebrews and Christians, it was God. For the ancients, any discussion of reality that did not take account of what is most real was deficient. Thus they would see our objective descriptions of things as deficient because they explicitly omit reference to the Good or to God.
The implications of this view are numerous. Suffice it to point to just one. Hebrews and early Christians believed that God is ultimately the reality, and for them reality was "pre-eminently personal being."95 All other realities had to be measured against that one. Thus Hebrews and Christians would have agreed with Plato that knowledge is virtue (i.e., being in harmony with the divine), for to know is ultimately to know God, and only the virtuous can know God.96
If translated literally, the word translated "truth" (alētheia) means "the unhidden." That meaning does not carry over from preclassical Greek times even into classical times, much less into New Testament times, but the etymology is nevertheless sound and informative.97 With this caveat, we can conclude that Paul and other writers use the Greek word for truth in ways similar to the way we use truth, but this root meaning can help us understand that truth is revelation. Sin hides or suppresses the truth, and the Lord reveals it again. One of Paul's themes is that the Lord does indeed reveal truth, though he is not obliged to do so. He does it as a gift. For Greek- and Hebrew-speaking people, truth is connected to acquaintance and experience more than to a recitation of facts. This explains why we are free if we know the truth: genuine knowledge is more than the ability to recite a list of facts. Jesus was born on the earth and died to save us, Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and prophets on the earth today guide us and speak for God. Knowledge is not merely knowing these facts, but living and experiencing them as true. That life and experience, the truth in its ancient sense, frees us.
Though ancient Greek and Hebrew writers would certainly have thought such lists of facts were true, they did not think that a knowledge of those lists was the primary manifestation of truth. Instead, for ancient writers truth was a matter of acquaintance. This follows from their understanding of reality: to know God (or, for the Greeks, what is ultimate) is not to know about him as much as it is to be acquainted with him. Thus while we think a person knows something if he can tell us various facts about it, they would have thought he knew it if he were familiar with it and had experience with it, whether it was a fact, an idea, a thing, or a person.98 To the ancients, that Heavenly Father knows all things did not mean primarily that he could tell them about everything if he wanted to. It meant instead that he has experienced everything, that he is familiar with all. According to this way of thinking about God's knowledge, God can tell us everything. He is omniscient. This ability to tell us everything is a consequence of his knowledge, but it does not constitute his knowledge.
Knowledge necessarily means knowledge of the truth; it is self-contradictory to know something that is not true. If truth is acquaintance and experience, then genuine knowledge is like that gained by Adam and Eve: a lived, experiential acquaintance with good and evil and God that gives a person the ability to see the difference between good and evil and to choose between them (see Genesis 3; Moses 4). That kind of knowledge is the basis for our ability to be just as our Father in Heaven is just. Such knowledge comes by faith and is absent when we are in sin.
From this point of view, one thinking as did the ancients might go so far as to say that we cannot know evil at all. Evil and what is false are correlates, and we cannot know something false. We can know that something is false, but we cannot know the thing itself—be acquainted with and experience it—unless it is true. I cannot know that the moon is made of green cheese, because it is not. The knowledge of good and evil, then, is an acquaintance or experience with the reality and fullness of what is good (God) and the knowledge that it is possible to deny that fullness (evil). In this sense, Satan has no knowledge because he refuses that experience of God.
Though it sounds strange to our modern ears, given, as we have seen, that one ancient understanding of the word truth is "the real," logic implies that evil is unreal. Of course, that is not to say that there is no evil or that it is imaginary or any other thing that we think of when we say that something is unreal. By coming to that conclusion we apply our understanding of reality anachronistically. We use our concept of reality to interpret reality quite differently than did the ancients.
When the ancients said that evil is unreal, they used morality rather than physicality as the measure of reality. When, as ancient thinkers did, we use God as the standard of reality, then we can see a fullness of reality and know that what is ungodly is unreal because it does not measure up to God's standards.
Who hold the truth in unrighteousness
In the phrase who hold the truth in unrighteousness, the Greek word katechō (κατεχω), translated "hold," means "to hold captive," hence the alternate translation "to suppress." As before, another translation of the Greek word translated "unrighteousness" is "injustice." People's unrighteousness, their refusal or inability to judge rightly between good and evil and to right wrongs, suppresses the truth. We commonly think of the truth as something that can be believed or at least understood apart from our righteousness. However, as we have seen, for Paul and others of his time, the truth is moral as well as factual. For them, the truth is something one cannot hold without acting on it. To the degree that we are unjust, we suppress the truth and thus cannot know it. Sin and truth are mutually exclusive in the gospel.
We will later see some ways in which people have held the truth captive by their injustices (see pages 83–97).
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who love not the truth, but remain in unrighteousness.
Joseph Smith changes who hold the truth in righteousness to who love not the truth, but remain in unrighteousness. This shows what it means to hold the truth in unrighteousness. That loving the truth and remaining in unrighteousness are opposed to one another in the JST phrasing suggests that to remain in unrighteousness is not to love the truth. If we do not love the truth, then we will not seek to reveal it. In fact, because our unrighteousness is opposed to the truth, when we are unrighteous we suppress the truth by the very act of being unrighteous. The Prophet's revision clarifies the relation between denying the truth and injustice and states it in contemporary terms, thus making the point more clear for us.
Verse 19 repeats the idea of verse 18 and explains that verse. Verse 18 tells us that God reveals his wrath to the unrighteous, and verse 19 tells us that he does this because he has already shown the unrighteous what they can know of him. Verses 20 and 21 will expand this idea.
Because indicates that the following words explain what accounts for God's wrath.
The Greek word gnōstos (γνωστóς) has a broad variety of uses. In general, it indicates understanding rather than sensory perception.99 (That is one reason for thinking that Paul is not presenting a cosmological argument in this and the following verses. See the discussion of verse 20, page 79.) In gnosticism, a movement related to early Christianity and holding some similar doctrines as well as some heretical ones, gnōstos, meaning "knowledge," most often refers to what is known by divine illumination. The book of Wisdom (see the discussion on page 17) may use gnōstos in a similar manner. "Intimate knowledge" or "intimate acquaintance" is thus a good paraphrase. Given the meaning of truth discussed above (verse 18, pages 73–75), this meaning of the word is important, for it bolsters the point that the truth is something one cannot merely hold, but must live. That knowledge is not merely the ability to recite a list of facts, but something intimate, something a person experiences.
That which may be known of God
Literally, the phrase that which may be known of God means "the thing known of God." We can read the genitive (the of) in two different ways: "the things we know about God" or "the knowledge that comes from God." As we have seen, for Paul, to know about the Father in any full sense is to know not only what his characteristics are (that would be merely to have a list), but also what our relationship to him is and, therefore, what he requires of us. It is to know these things not just as facts, but as elements of our experience. For example, to know that I must not lie is not only to have learned that fact, but to feel that command as an imperative. It is to experience the need not to lie. Such knowledge is from God because it is from our experience of him; it is godly knowledge. Thus the second reading of the genitive, "the knowledge that comes from God," is more appropriate, though it does not exclude our knowing things about God.
The phrase in them indicates that not only has God revealed himself to all human beings since the creation of the world, but the fact that he has done so is revealed in those human beings. Even their unrighteousness is a revelation that they know good from evil. We will see below how they have that knowledge in themselves.
Is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them
The King James translation does not take into account a significant wordplay in the Greek version of the phrase is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. The word translated "manifest" (phaneros, Φανερóς) can also be translated "known." It comes from a word meaning "to appear" or "to shine forth." The word translated "hath shewed" (phaneroō, Φανερóω) is a cognate of phaneros. Phaneroō could easily be translated "revealed" (though it is not the same verb as that translated "revealed" in verses 17 and 18). Thus one way to translate the phrase would be "is revealed in them, for God has revealed it to them" or "is known to them, for God has made it known to them." Because the word phaneros carries with it the idea of shining forth—of light—another translation is possible: "is clear to them for God made it clear to them." But since the Greek also carries with it the notion that the manifestation is in them already and not merely an observation or the result of an observation, the alternate translation is "is manifest in them, for God made it manifest in them."
One might suppose that most people act unjustly because they are ignorant. However, if they are truly ignorant, then they are not accountable for their sins, and God will not punish them for those sins (though he might allow them to suffer for other reasons, since, as Christ's life demonstrates, even the just suffer). Paul does not believe that for the most part we act unjustly out of ignorance; he says that all people, including those who are impious and unjust, have already had piety and justice revealed to them.
For modern people this is a strange notion. How is it possible, we might ask, for everyone to already know piety and justice? For people of Paul's time the answer was not particularly difficult. Though many disagreed about the details, most thought of truth as something like harmony100 (recall the earlier discussion of truth, verse 18, pages 73–75). Knowing the truth meant being in harmony with the way things really are. Ancient people tended to think of truth as a way of being, or fitting into the reality of the world, and that is why ancient Greek thinkers thought it obvious that only virtuous people could know the truth. Virtue meant acting in harmony with reality.
For those who, like the Greeks and the Hebrews and other ancients, think that truth is a matter of harmony, everyone who lives at all is in harmony with the world to some extent or another. People must be able to get along in the real world to some degree. They must be in harmony with it enough to eat and drink and to avoid falling into pits in broad daylight. If they were not, they could not survive. Gaining knowledge, or virtue, is a matter of becoming more and more in harmony with what is most real, the source for or model of the world we live in. It is a matter of getting rid of things that create disharmony. Because, from this ancient point of view, everyone must be in harmony with the world to some degree, everyone already knows what the truth is, or they at least know it sufficiently to learn more. No one starts from zero, so no one is incapable of being virtuous.
Given this understanding of truth and our relation to it, Paul can appeal to the creation of the world as the standard of truth: God created a harmonious world, people live in that world and are necessarily in harmony with it to some degree, and every person can thus become more harmonious and act rightly by developing the harmony in which they already live. Those who do not do this go against the testimony of their own lives, a testimony that God has provided to everyone.
Though this is not the way we usually think of the light of Christ today (we think of it as a power or an ability rather than a function of our own existence), this is generally the way most people of Paul's time would have thought of our ability to know right from wrong,101 and it is probably what lies behind Paul's remarks in verses 19 and 20. Paul is speaking of the light of Christ, though not in ways that are familiar to us.
After that which may be known of God is manifest to them / /.
The changes in the JST are slight, but significant. Joseph Smith joins this verse to the previous one with the word after rather than because, he changes in to to, and he deletes the phrase for God hath shewed it unto them that appears in the KJV at the end of the verse.
To understand the first of these changes, we must see the change in the context of verses 18 and 19 together. The King James translation of verses 18 and 19 can be paraphrased in this way: "God's wrath is revealed against all the unrighteousness of people who remain in unrighteousness, and it is revealed against them because what can be known of God is revealed in them." Verses 18 and 19 of the JST read, "God's wrath is revealed against all the unrighteousness of people who remain in unrighteousness and do not love the truth, even after what can be known of God is revealed to them."
As we have seen with several other changes the Prophet made, the difference is not so much a change in meaning as it is a change in emphasis. The Greek and King James texts use verse 19 as an explanation of why God's wrath can be revealed to the unrighteous. Joseph Smith's text ignores that question and uses verse 19 to emphasize the unrighteousness of those who love evil and not truth. The King James and Greek understandings of these verses emphasize divine wrath and how people suppress the truth. The Joseph Smith translation emphasizes the sinfulness of those who suppress the truth, balancing that, as it were, with divine wrath.
By changing in to to, Joseph Smith changes the meaning. The traditional text says that the unrighteous know of God because that knowledge is revealed in the people themselves, and it is revealed in them because God made them and the world. The Prophet's change deletes the idea that the knowledge of God is shown in the unrighteous.
The invisible things
The translation "the invisible things" is excellent because the English word carries many of the same connotations as does the Greek. Paul contrasts what can be seen with what cannot. The Greek word he used in verse 19, when he spoke of "that which may be known of God," implies that the things of God cannot be seen by the eye. In verse 20 he refers to those things once again, calling them invisible, or not visible to the eye.
As is often the case, the question is how to read the of in of him. Given the earlier discussion of the things of God (see the commentary on verse 19), it is reasonable to read this as "from him."
The word translated "world" (kosmos, κóσμος) refers not simply to the planet earth, but to the created universe. "Cosmos," a transliteration of the Greek word, is a good translation.
From the creation of the world
The Greek word translated "from" (apo, απó) in the phrase from the creation of the world could also be translated "since," in other words, "since the creation of the world." Sometimes this Greek word is used to indicate the originating point of a particular thing.102 The most obvious meaning in this context is "since." Nevertheless, I think the other meaning carries an important connotation: the knowledge Paul is speaking of had its beginning in the creation, and the creation itself, of which we are part, gives us the knowledge of God.
The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen
The phrase the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen is Paul's explanation of why he rejects the assumption that people act unjustly out of ignorance: since the beginning of the world and implicit in its creation, invisible things like the truth are clearly known to those who choose to understand them through God's works. Isaiah has said the same thing (see Isaiah 40:21–23), and so has Alma (see Alma 30:41–44). No one is incapable of knowing the truth if they will honestly strive to do so, if they will honestly give up ignoring it. We are capable of this because the Father has already given the truth to us, and he has made us so that we are in harmony with it unless we give up that harmony. Presumably, one way to explain the need for an atonement is that, being fallen, we are out of harmony with God. We have refused to be in harmony with him. However, even if we cease to refuse this harmony, something more than our own effort is needed to restore it.
Being understood by the things that are made
If we contemplate the visible things that the Father has made, such as the natural world, then we can understand what is supposedly not visible to us, namely, God's power and his divinity. At first glance it might seem that Paul is offering proof of God's existence with the phrase being understood by the things that are made, proof based on the order of the universe (what philosophers call cosmological proof), but I do not think he is. Paul is explaining that each person can discriminate between good and evil, and this has been true from the beginning of the world. That is the way we and the world were created. Though we may not know what to call our knowledge of good and evil or how to explain that knowledge, if we understand the world and our existence in it (which we necessarily do; see the discussion of truth in verse 18, pages 73–75, and the discussion of is manifest in them; for God shewed it unto them in verse 19, pages 76–77), we know what we need to know. Our human existence in the world with other humans shows us the basics of right and wrong.
As shown by the endowment ceremony and the various versions of the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, the ability to discriminate between good and evil is central to the plan of salvation and our understanding of our place in the world. If we are evil it is because we refuse to be good, not because we cannot be good or even because we are ignorant. Though we may be ignorant of the finer points of what we should do, if we are genuinely serious and aware of the world and the way we live in it, we are able to see what is right and what is wrong. Both we and the world are made in such a way that seeing that difference is always possible unless we refuse to allow it to be. Every person has the light of Christ (see D&C 84:45–46). Therefore, Paul says, those who are impious and unjust have no excuse.
One of the things we see if we look at the world attentively is the power of God. The word power translates the Greek word dynamis (δυναμις), from which we get words like dynamic. The emphasis of the Greek word power in the phrase his eternal power is not on sheer strength or power to overcome, as seems to be the case with the English word power, but on the ability to act.103 The world reveals God's ability to act. It shows his eternal ability to create, and more. If the Father has eternal power, or infinite ability to act—in other words, if his power to act does not come to an end—then he has power to save us. The creation of the world guarantees God's ability to do what needs to be done for us. Nothing can stop him from acting.
"Divinity" is a more accurate translation of theotes (θεóτης), translated "Godhead," though perhaps divinity and Godhead can be synonyms. In the creation, we see the divinity of God, the things that make him God. What are those things? One mentioned in the phrase within which the word Godhead appears is his creative power, something that distinguishes him from the supposed divinity of the false gods, idols that are made and cannot make anything themselves. As we learn in the temple, creative power, the power to be a parent, is the mark of true divinity. Another of the distinguishing characteristics of the Divine is righteousness, or justice. Given the earlier discussion of God's righteousness (see the discussion of the righteousness of God in verse 17, pages 58–63), and the contrast that Paul makes between divine righteousness and human unrighteousness, it seems reasonable to assume that Paul is suggesting that we can see divine righteousness in the creation. If so, we presumably see it in the Father's making the world harmoniously and thereby making it possible for us to have harmony in our lives (compare the discussion of is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them in verse 19, pages 76–77).
His eternal power and Godhead
As a whole, the phrase his eternal power and Godhead describes the unseen things that an attentive understanding of the world allows us to see. God has created the world so that, by being part of the world, we have what Latter-day revelation calls the light of Christ (see Alma 28:14; Moroni 7:19; D&C 84:45–46), and it allows us to see the difference between good and evil. But to know the good is to know God, even if only implicitly, for whatever persuades us to do good is of God (see Moroni 7:16). Thus, if we have the light of Christ then we know the power of God. We experience it even if we do not have cognitive understanding of it. Implicit in our experience of life in the world is the knowledge that God has the power to do good and to persuade us to do good. With this knowledge, which is not necessarily explicit or cognitive, we also know what it is that makes him God; we know what the verse calls his Godhead. We also know that these godly attributes are what make him the ruler of the world with infinite creative power. To know he is the omnipotent ruler is to know we need not fear that Satan will win the confrontation between good and evil, for our Father has the eternal power to bring about good. Notice the difference between having the power to defeat evil and having the power always to do good. These verses suggest that the Father's divinity is found in the latter rather than the former. Thus the light of Christ is the basis for our faith in God, our trust in him. We can refuse to trust if we wish, but we have already been given sufficient knowledge for us to have faith if we do not refuse. This is one way in which even our faith in God is a gift from him to us.
The phrase his eternal power and Godhead also may be a pleonastic pair, which is a pair of phrases intended to have the same meaning, but used together for emphasis (see the discussion of verse 5, pages 29–30, for more about pleonastic pairs). If it is such a pair, the phrase defines God's divinity as his eternal ability to act.
The Greek word apologia (απολογια), translated "excuse" in the phrase without excuse, can also be translated "explanation." There is no explanation for sin. That strikes modern ears as strange, for our scientific way of thinking tells us that everything can be explained. However, if why people are evil could be explained, we would excuse it. To truly explain sin is to describe what causes it, and if it is caused, then those who commit sin are not responsible for doing so. In the sense of naming a cause, there is no explanation for sin except for the sinners themselves.
For God hath revealed unto them the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, which are clearly seen; things which are not seen being understood by the things that are made, through his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse;
The traditional version of this verse and Joseph Smith's revised version of it explain how the unrighteous have had a revelation of God. The Prophet's version makes this more apparent with the insertion of God hath revealed unto them, a repetition of the underlying theme of this section of Paul's letter. In the traditional text, this clause is passive, but Joseph Smith makes it active and therefore more readable. In addition, he changes clearly seen from a phrase telling us how the things of God are revealed to a phrase describing the things God has revealed. The third change, the addition of things which are not seen, ties the two clauses together, making it clear that Paul is still speaking of the invisible things of God, including the ability of created beings to understand what they cannot see. The final change identifies divine eternal power and Godhead not as things that created beings see, in other words, the creations of God, but as the method by which they see them.
When they knew God, they glorified him not as God
The Greek version of the phrase when they knew God, they glorified him not as God is even more powerful than the English. Literally and therefore awkwardly it reads, "having known God, not as God they glorified him nor were thankful," and can mean "though they knew God, they did not give the glory due to him as God and they were not thankful to him."
When they knew God
Those against whom God has directed his wrath may not have known him personally, but they have known him through the light of Christ, in other words, through knowing what it means to be a person created by God in a world created by him. The word translated "knew" in the phrase when they knew God is the same word used in verse 19 (gnōstos, γνωστóς) and connotes an intimate knowledge. Recipients of God's wrath know not just facts about him and his creation and hence good and evil, but are intimately acquainted with these things through their experience.
They glorified him not as God
Had sinners acknowledged what they knew through the light of Christ and acted rightly, they would have glorified God. But because they have sinned, they cannot glorify God as he is. Sin is implicitly but necessarily a denial of the Father. A refusal of his righteousness and justice is equally a refusal of him, because that righteousness and justice are an essential part of what he is. Therefore, even if those enmeshed in sin seem to glorify the Father, they necessarily glorify something else, and to glorify something other than the Father is idolatry. Idolatry is at the heart of an absent conscience, for both are the refusal to recognize God as God.
Neither were they thankful
The word translated "were thankful" (eucharisteō, ευχαριστεω) in the phrase neither were they thankful has as one of its roots the word for grace, or charis (χαρις). They refused to accept God's grace—in this case, the light of Christ—so they were not thankful. They have the gift, but they refuse to recognize that they have it; they are ingrates. Doctrine and Covenants 59:21 notes the following about ingratitude: "And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments."
But became vain in their imaginations
In contemporary English, "imaginations" is not as good a translation as "thoughts," "reasonings," or "speculations" would be in the phrase but became vain in their imaginations (the Greek word is dialogismos, διαλογισμóς). When they thought about God, they did so futilely, fruitlessly, profitlessly. Their sinfulness and their refusal to see God's power and Godhead in the world made their thinking profitless.
The Greek word translated "vain" (mataioō, ματαιóω) meaning "useless" or "futile," translates the Hebrew word that denotes idols, "vain things" (hebel,
see Acts 14:15 for the Greek and Leviticus 17:7; Jeremiah 2:5; and 2 Kings 17:15 for the corresponding Hebrew). Their reasonings were not only useless, but also idolatrous, as we will see in verse 23. This repeats the idea that "they glorified him not as God."
As mentioned above, another translation of dialogismos, is "speculations" or "reasonings," rather than "imaginations." Dialogismos is often, if not always, used negatively in the New Testament104 and refers to the undisciplined use of the mind, especially in service to a corrupt heart, as here. This is why the King James translators used the word imaginations.
The people of Paul's time considered the heart to be the seat of the human being.105 The heart can connote such things as counsel and courage, as well as wisdom and feeling.
The Greek word translated "foolish" (asunetos, ασυνετος) could also be translated "intelligent," "sagacious," "wise," "discerning," or "having good sense" without its negative prefix (like un- in English). Sinners have a heart that, as Paul has just shown, lacks wisdom. Their heart does not understand the creation and refuses to discern between good and evil.
Their foolish heart was darkened
By refusing to discern good from evil, they darkened the light that would make it possible for them to discern.
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were they thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
The first change is minor: a semicolon becomes a comma. This may simply reflect the fact that nineteenth-century punctuation conventions were different than those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the King James translation was made. The second change is more significant. The Prophet makes the abstract noun heart more concrete by changing it to a plural noun. By using the abstract noun, the Greek and the King James Version emphasize the idolaters as a group. The Prophet's change shifts that emphasis to the individuals.
Verses 22 and 23 may be read as an explanation of the foolishness of the people described in verses 23–32. These people claim to be wise but have been made foolish. They are sinful because they have claimed to be wise. They vaunt themselves and in so doing refuse to see what God has placed before their eyes in the creation of the world. The result is their sin, their foolishness.
Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools
The phrase professing themselves to be wise, they became fools tells us that, while claiming to be wise, idolaters were actually stupefied by their sinfulness. In Greek, the root word translated "became fools" (mōrainō, μωραινω) means "stupid, silly, or foolish." It is the root for our word moron. The verb is passive. This is what happens to those who claim to be wise, especially when the wisdom they profess denies what God has made manifest in them and all around them.
Changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image
(See Psalm 106:20; Isaiah 40:19–20; 44:9–20; 45:16.) The sinners Paul describes in the phrase changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image exchanged the truth of God, which God had implanted in their hearts by creating them, for the lie of idolatry. They worshiped the creature more than the Creator. The irony is that the very creation they worshiped would have revealed the truth of God to them—a truth about his glory that would have glorified them—if they had been willing to understand it (see verse 20). Not to be holy as the Lord God is holy (see Leviticus 19:2) is to be an idolater. Paul is almost certainly specifically thinking of those whose culture is fundamentally Greek, which would include most Romans, but he is using them as a type for all sinners.
Uncorruptible . . . corruptible
The Greek words translated as "uncorruptible" and "corruptible" mean "immortal" and "mortal," respectively (aphthartos, αΦθαρτος; phthartos, Φθαρτóς). The idea is that mortal bodies are corruptible (they are subject to disease, decay, and so on) and thus perish. Immortal bodies, on the other hand, are not subject to such corruption and do not perish. By extension, this contrast may also refer to the major difference between humans and God: sin. God is not corruptible, but humans are subject to moral decay.
92. The Greek word asebeia literally means "failure to worship," but in general usage it has a more narrow character: not just failure to worship, but failure to recognize God. See Romans 11:26; 2 Timothy 2:16; Titus 2:12; Jude 1:15, 18 for other uses of the term, as well as related terms in 1 Peter 4:18; 2 Peter 2:5–6; 3:7; Jude 1:4; 4:5; 5:6.
93. See Plato, Meno, passim, and Republic, book 7.
94. Thorlief Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 45.
95. Ibid., 45–46.
96. For more on the question of how the ancients understand the real, see James E. Faulconer, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999), 123–53; and "Scripture as Incarnation."
97. See Kittel, Theological Dictionary, 1:238, where it is discussed as "nonconcealment"; Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, comps., Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Calrendon, 1968), 63–64.
98. We see evidence of this understanding of knowledge as acquaintance in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We also see it in Plato, for example, in his story of how we came to know the Forms (the ultimate reality of things) in a preexistent life where we were acquainted with them.
99. See Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, 164.
100. For example, Stoic philosophy speaks of the state of being in the truth, that is, knowing the truth, as harmony or imperturbability. See Ioannes ab Arnim, comp., Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta (Stuttgart: B. G. Teubner, 1964), 1:49–55.
101. Again, Stoic philosophy provides an excellent example. For an excellent, brief article on stoicism, see Thomas Schmeller, "Stoicism," in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6:210–14.
102. See Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, 87; Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation, 280.
103. See Kittel, Theological Dictionary, 2:285.
104. See Matthew 15:19; Mark 7:21; Luke 24:38; Romans 14:1; 1 Corinthians 3:20; Philippians 2:14; 1 Timothy 2:8; James 2:4. Some uses of the word in Luke may not be negative (see 2:35; 5:22; 6:8; 9:46, 47), but the context of those uses and the fact that the word is negative in every other case suggests that it should be read as a negative terms in those verses too.
105. See T. F. Glasson, "'Visions of thy Head' (Daniel 228): The Heart and the Head in Bible Psychology," The Expository Times 81/8 (May 1970): 247–48.