My claims are simple: (1) the Bible teaches that there is a “natural” knowledge of God, and (2) the Bible teaches that the “natural” man is responsible and judged according to his knowledge of God, which entails a knowledge of his will. By “natural” knowledge and “natural” man, I do not mean “apart from God” or “apart from the supernatural.” On the contrary, all of creation is “infused” with the living God, known “in the heart” according to the moral (and aesthetic) order of creation. As such, God is known apart from his special revelation: his covenants, wherein salvation is promised and, in Christ, given. So, “natural” man is man outside of the covenant people (Israel-Church). Natural knowledge of God is, thus, not knowledge of the Law given to the Israelites and fulfilled by Christ; but, as we shall see, natural man is capable of a knowledge of God and his commandments (his will) for his creation. This knowledge is sufficient for the salvation of the natural man, even though natural man has not received knowledge of the means for his reconcilement with God. In other words, the Mediator (Christ) need not be known on this side of eternity in order for a person to be judged righteous by God and accepted into eternal life.
The first two chapters of Romans contain the most explicit statements of this so-called “natural theology.” Though it can be understood also from the Old Testament, such as the righteous judgment of Job, a non-Isrealite, in the OT, a judgment according to a faithful obedience — a righteousness — accepted by God. It should go without saying that the Bible is unanimous in teaching both a present and eschatological judgment of righteousness which includes a manifest righteousness in the person. Paul could not be more clear on this in his pneumatology, and Christ teaches nothing else. All the same, there is no bare legal standard by which a wicked-or-righteous delineation can be discerned, and, furthermore, repentance itself is considered fundamental to a righteous standing (even before the works of the Holy Spirit have been manifest in acts of charity). Keeping this in mind, let’s look at the first chapter of Romans, wherein Paul is announcing God’s judgment against all, both Jews and Gentiles, who do not honor God:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. [All translations are the NASB.]
Little needs to be said by way of commentary. The important points are clear: God is “evident within them,” all who have existed “since the creation of the world,” through a knowledge of God “understood through what has been made.” God’s holiness, his righteousness, is known (“attributes” and “nature”), and this knowledge accompanies a binding prescription on those who know. It can safely be said that all humans with a normal rational consciousness are held responsible, since this knowledge of God is “clear” and “without excuse.” It is interesting that Paul assumes that a knowledge of God’s nature entails a knowledge of his will for his creatures, and this will is then determinative for the culpability of those under his judgment.
In the second chapter of Romans, Paul gives another retelling of this judgment, but this time he is explicit that the Law received by the Jews and the “law” known by the Gentiles both condemn the respective bearers of this knowledge, but there is also a righteousness than can be achieved vis-a-vis this knowledge of God. Eternal life is granted to those who seek the things of God (“glory and honor and immortality”):
5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,
6 who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS:
7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life;
8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.
Paul has not yet solved the problem of how any can “by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality,” since the Law cannot bring life in-itself but only death (enter Christ and the Spirit, but that comes in the next several chapters). Continuing on:
11 For there is no partiality with God.
12 For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law;
13 for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.
14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively [or “by nature” — RSV] the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves,
15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,
16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
The doers of the Law “are just before God” or “will be justified.” But, once again, it does not matter that the Jews have received the law in a special revelation, since the Gentiles also “instinctively” or “by nature” can be doers of the Law. Theirs is a law “written on their hearts.” Their “conscience bears witness,” their moral sense tells them what is right, what is the will of God, what is holy and just. Those who persevere in seeking this holiness will enter eternal life, and Paul is clear that this applies to the Gentiles who “have not the law.” Thus, those who are outside of God’s special covenanting work are still subject to God and objects of his salvation. Since this applies to all Gentiles “since the creation of the world,” it likewise must apply to all Gentiles who have yet received the knowledge of God’s covenant with Israel and Christ, the means of our salvation. After the resurrection, Gentiles outside of the few apostles and disciples did not automatically become subject to a new requirement to have a “conscious” faith in Jesus Christ on this side of eternity. This is foreign to the Bible, and if we are to trust the historical research of Francis Sullivan, S.J. (in Salvation Outside the Church?, Wipf & Stock 2002), this exclusivism is largely foreign to the early church as well.
Obviously there is much more to be said, especially about the role of grace, the ordo salutis, and the economy of the Holy Spirit outside the Church. Not surprisingly, I have liked what I have read from von Balthasar on all these points, so go forth and read wisely.