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What is the sensus divinitatis?

sensus divinitatis
Question: "What is the sensus divinitatis?"

The sensus divinitatis is the natural capacity of human beings to perceive God. This concept is primarily associated with the writings of John Calvin, but it’s also seen in the work of modern philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga. Typically, the sensus divinitatis is portrayed in parallel to other senses such as sight or hearing. As sight “exists” to provide experiences regarding light, and hearing “exists” to provide experiences regarding sound, the sensus divinitatis “exists” to provide experiences regarding God.

According to Scripture, all people have some means of perceiving that God exists (Romans 1:19–20). Certain theologians ascribe this awareness to the combination of empirical senses and intellect (Psalm 14:1; 19:1). Others view it as a generic impulse or desire. As used by Calvin and Plantinga, however, the sensus divinitatis is an innate, direct perception of God. This would suggest our “sense of God” is not merely parallel to other empirical evidence. Rather, it would make belief in the existence of God just as rational and just as basic as belief in what we see with our eyes or hear with our ears.

The strongest versions of the sensus divinitatis idea imply that all people “know” God exists—a concept not without its own controversy. However, even that extreme is distinct from the idea that belief in God is entirely independent of reason or evidence. Such an approach, known as fideism, implies that empirical observations and intellect are unable to provide meaningful faith. The standard concept of sensus divinitatis posits that we possess a sense of God in addition to, not in spite of, other evidences.

Proponents of the sensus divinitatis note that the overwhelming majority of people throughout history have held some belief in the supernatural. This includes those in pervasively secular cultures and even those who reject organized faith or specific religions. That is to say, a vanishingly small proportion of humanity rejects absolutely all concepts of spiritual or supernatural reality. Continuing the parallel to empirical senses, proponents suggest this near-universal “sense of God” or “sense of the spiritual” ought not be dismissed as a figment of the imagination. Those without this sense of God would then be comparable to those with congenital or acquired blindness (see John 12:40).

A question arises concerning alternative perceptions of the divine. In theory, one could claim belief in Hinduism, Islam, or Wicca is supported by this same innate knowledge of the spiritual realm. Philosophers such as Calvin would counter that part of the sensus divinitatis is distinguishing between true and false concepts of God, just as properly functioning hearing distinguishes and identifies certain sounds. Other theologians respond to this difficulty by arguing a sensus divinitatis only serves to prove that spiritual experiences are legitimately part of human understanding, not that they intrinsically point toward a particular religious worldview.

Christians can agree to disagree about whether the sensus divinitatis exists or if it provides legitimate evidence for God. Whether human perception of God is a distinct, inborn faculty of the mind or the net effect of our other senses is ultimately irrelevant. What is beyond argument is that God leaves no excuse for ignorance of His existence (Romans 1:18–20). We all have the duty to glorify and thank God (Romans 1:21) and to “ask . . . seek . . . knock” in pursuit of Him (Matthew 7:7).

Recommended Resource: God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga

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