My article pointing out the tension between general revelation as portrayed in Romans 2 and psychopathy received a range of responses which map out a range of possible responses to the dilemma, so it will be helpful to survey them.
Getting Clear on the Problem
If we are to deal with this problem adequately we shall have to be clear on what it is. We can begin with Robert’s proposed solution to reconciling the tension:
“Could such a person [i.e. a psychopathic personality] have begun life having the moral law written on their hearts and having a conscience, at the beginning of their life. Thus proposition #1 was true of them at one tiime. And then later through repeated sin had their conscience seared and then no longer had a conscience? So then proposition #2 is true of them. If this is the case then this would explain how the two propositions could easily both be true.”
To generalize the point, Robert would be suggesting that the tension could be eliminated if we posit that each psychopath began with a moral conscience, a law written on the heart, which only atrophied after repeated neglect or repression.
The problem with that solution is that it is not true to the facts of psychopathy. On this point our other Robert responds to the first Robert by providing a link to a NY Times article on a 9 year old who is believed to be psychopathic, and to have evinced those characteristics at a young age.
A few months ago I mentioned the award-winning film “We need to talk about Kevin“, a dramatic depiction of a family coming to terms with a psychopathic child. The problem is that the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the pschopathic condition is primarily something innate. To borrow a line from Lady Gaga, they’re “Born this way.”
This may provide some kind of solace to parents at their wits end to know that they didn’t do anything wrong. However, it forces us back again to the question at hand: how do we reconcile the law written on the heart with those who seem to have no law?
Let’s now turn to the proposed responses.
Walter goes for the rhetorical jugular as he claims that psychopaths do present a problem for Romans 2, as the text presents an account which admits no exceptions for people without this knowledge. Consequently, he concludes that this “should perhaps prompt you to take a closer look at your scriptural rule to determine if this rule really comes from an omniscient God….”
Walter is right to note that this presents a problem for Christians, which is precisely why I raised it. But he seems to overreach in identifying the existential and theological significance of the case for a Christian. I don’t think the putative error here is anywhere significant enough to say it should lead a Christian to reconsider whether scripture is inspired. We don’t know anywhere near enough about psychopaths or Romans 2 to make that kind of sweeping judgment.
Dylanesque also sees a serious problem here though he suggests it concerns not the inspiration of the scriptures per se, but rather their inerrancy. It is an important reminder that we should not conflate inspiration and inerrancy. Consequently, it is in principle open to us to affirm simultaneously that God inspired scripture and that Paul made an error.
While we’re on the topic of inerrancy we might keep in mind the warning of the inerrantist that we should take care to note context. Let’s say that you ask me how many people live in Canada. I respond “Thirty three million”. Technically that is in error given that there may be, at that moment, 33,234,242 people living in Canada. But given the context, the person was looking for a round number, not a precise one.
It may be that Paul is dealing with a “round number” when describing the moral law, an approximation that is consistent with the exceptions, perhaps including psychopaths.
Reject the debate
John suggests that we’ve already granted too much to the claim of Romans 2: “isn’t this all moot until some evidence is presented for the premise that their is a moral law written onto all hearts?”
This would take us too far afield. I would direct people to J. Budziszewski’s Written on their Hearts (Baker) as a starting point of discussion. That said, I do think that providing a proper definition of general revelation is typically more difficult than theologians recognize. It is common to define general revelation as that which is, to quote Ron Rhodes, “available to all persons of all times.”
Granted the quote comes from 5 Minute Apologetics for Today, not exactly scholarly reading, but it nonetheless adequately summarizes the unqualified nature of many theological claims about general revelation. And it prompts a range of difficult questions: Is general revelation available to a man when he is sleeping? Is it available to a woman undergoing a grand mal seizure? Is it available to an anencephalic infant? (Or is an anencephalic infant not a person?) Sweeping, incautious statements about general revelation like this may be permissible in a book touting apologetics in 5 minute sound bytes, but hopefully by the time you hit a ten minute discussion you’re getting into more messy nuance.
Reinterpret the text
This brings us to the call to reinterpret the text which is posed by Dan Wilkinson:
I haven’t studied this closely, but I don’t see how Romans 2 is saying that those people who don’t have access to revealed law in scripture ALL have the law “written on the heart” and ALL have their consciences bear witness.
Rather, it says that “WHEN Gentiles…do by nature things required by the law” then they are SHOWING that the law is written on their hearts and that in such people their thoughts and consciences also demonstrate that the law is written on their heart. So in the case of a psychopath, they clearly show through their thoughts and consciences that the law ISN’T written on their hearts.
Pete jumps in by saying:
Romans 2 is a Jew vs. Gentile dichotomy dealing with hypocrisy and judgment…. not a treatise on DSM IV.
First a quibble with Pete’s quip: psychopathy is not a recognized diagnosis in the DSM IV (this could change with the next edition soon to emerge, but it is not likely for a number of reasons).
Now to the main point. Unfortunately I don’t think this response is successful for the simple reason that Romans 1-3 has a singular purpose summarized in 3:23: to show that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We’ve all fallen short by failing to live up to the law God has provided for us. For some of us, that law is a special one, for others it is simply the law of general revelation.
I am not disputing that Dan and Pete can go ahead and reinterpret Romans 2 in light of the existence of psychopaths. But that would be a concession and revision from the text’s argument. After all, Romans 3:23 really doesn’t admit to exceptions.
In my next installment I’ll lay out some other options.