Sensus divinitatis and the mission of the church

Plagued with despair, Leo Tolstoy at times was led to question the meaning of life, so much so that he thought of suicide as a logical solution to his inner turmoil. But at the same time, he also found within himself a profound sense of God urging him to press on. “Yes,” wrote the famous Russian novelist, “whilst my intellect was working, something else in me was working too, and kept me from the deed … a consciousness of life, as I may call it, which was like a force that obliged my mind to fix itself in another direction and draw me out of my situation of despair .… My heart kept languishing with another pining emotion. I can call this by no other name than that of a thirst of God. This craving for God…came from my heart.”1

In the most despairing moments of his life, Tolstoy found a new value and significance in life, prompted by the “consciousness of life,” the “craving for God.” These expressions describe a universal experience of humankind, often called a sense of the divine, a sensus divinitatis.

The belief about being sensitive to the presence of God is not uncommon, although such discussions may not affirm a faith relationship to a personal Creator God who has an abiding interest in one’s life. But a Christian cannot speak of sensus divinitatis without at the same time affirming faith in God who lives – and lives both as God of the cosmos and God of one’s heart. This article2 is an attempt to define the meaning of sensus divinitatis and draw some implications for the mission of the church.

What is sensus divinitatis?

I want to begin this discussion by turning to John Calvin for two reasons. First, 2009 is the 500th birth anniversary of the great Reformer, and the Christian church around the world is marking this important event through a series of studies on Calvin’s contribution to the mission and message of the church. Second, Calvin was perhaps the first Christian theologian and philosopher to discuss the possibility of knowing God from within.

Calvin argued that the fundamental nature of the universal sense of divinity or, sensus divinitatis, is the “seed” of the knowledge of God that is sown in each person. Calvin asserted, “We lay it down as a position not to be controverted, that the human mind, even by natural instinct, possesses some sense of Deity. For that no man might shelter himself under the pretext of ignorance, God hath given to all some apprehension of His existence… the memory of which He frequently and insensibly renews, so that, as men universally know that there is a God, and that He is their Maker, they must be condemned by their own testimony, for not having worshipped Him and consecrated their lives to His service.”3

Calvin’s position leads us to four conclusions. First, Calvin believed that sensus divinitatis is naturally granted by the Creator. It is just as natural as other properties of human nature are natural. It is a kind of rational but also emotional instinct, the sixth sense, so to say, that universally speaks in every human heart that there is a God.

Second, this universal sense of divinity implies that humans are aware of certain traits of God, such as His existence, His Creatorship, and His worthiness of worship from humans whom He had created. Paul speaks of God’s “invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, [that] has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20, RSV) and of the inner law of moral obligation that is in the hearts of everyone (Romans 2). Wasn’t it Immanuel Kant who said once that he never ceased to wonder about the starry heavens above and the moral law within?

Third, this sensus has been given to humankind in order that no one can hide behind the pretext of ignorance and escape the final judgment.

Finally, according to Calvin, sensus divinitatis is a kind of memory that everyone has, and the sharpening and deepening of this sensus may be an additional action of divine grace. Calvin did not define what this action of God is; he just stated that God renews the capacity to know Him.

Plantinga’s view

A more recent view on this inner perception of God is that of Alvin Plantinga, a philosopher of religion at Notre Dame University.4 Plantinga says, “The sensus divinitatis is a disposition or set of dispositions to form theistic beliefs in various circumstances, in response to the sorts of conditions or stimuli that trigger the working of this sense of divinity.”5

Consider what is involved in Plantinga’s definition of sensus divinitatis. First, there is the disposition – that is, an inclination, a tendency, a proneness – toward thinking after God. Second, this disposition of sensus leads to forming concrete theistic beliefs, such as knowing God as a Creator who deserves worship and obedience.6 Third, there are some circumstances or conditions that trigger the working of the sensus.

What are these triggers? According to Plantinga, triggers come from various human experiences that may lead one to an awareness of God.7 For example, appreciation of beauty in nature or an experiences of true love in human relations may lead one to a reflection of the creatorship of God or God’s perfect love toward us. Even negative experiences, such as human suffering or death, may trigger one to affirm the value of life and the living presence of God (such was the case with Tolstoy). All such triggers may lead to some degree of the knowledge of God, even our desire to worship.

Unlike Calvin, Plantinga broadens the content of sensus divinitatis to affirm that even those who are not Christians can be led to allegiance and worship of God, if only they would allow certain conditions to stimulate or trigger their inner sense of divinity.

Ellen White’s concept

To the discussion thus far on the sense of the divine, we now add another dimension from the writings of Ellen White. She is quite clear on the limited nature of the latent knowledge of God or sense of God within and that it is not sufficient for salvation. She stated, “In its human wisdom the world cannot know God. Its wise men gather an imperfect knowledge of God from His created works, and then in their foolishness they exalt nature and the laws of nature above nature’s God.”8 She further added, “It is impossible to gain a perfect knowledge of God from nature alone; for nature itself is imperfect. In its imperfection it cannot represent God, it cannot reveal the character of God in its moral perfection.”9

Ellen White did not use the phrase “sense of divinity,” but she seems to speak of a natural knowledge of God that corresponds to a natural revelation of sensus divinitatis. This knowledge of God is possible through nature outside of human beings, but it is also a part of the inner structure of the human. Sin, of course, has severely damaged this natural capacity to know God, but there is still some sensitivity within human beings to God’s living presence. However, Ellen White is careful in distinguishing between the working of the inner voice, of sensus divinitatis, and vain profession: “There are persons who have for some time made a profession of religion who are, to all intents and purposes, without God and without a sensitive conscience. They are vain and trifling; their conversation is of a low order.”10

To conclude: sensus divinitatis may be understood as an inner, natural disposition toward knowing God, a disposition that may be activated in certain conditions. In itself, it is not sufficient to lead a person to salvation, but it may be a contact point for witness to take effect.

Sensus divinitatis and the mission of the church

How, then, can we use this innate thirst for God, however dim or dull it may be, to increase the effectiveness of Christian mission?

1. Be aware of sensus divinitatis, felt by all human beings. This sense may be damaged and diluted by the presence of sin, and its sharpness may have been suppressed by indifference to its presence. Yet, this inner quest for God can be a contact point for Christian apologetics. The focus of Christian mission should be to touch this inner sense – its longing for God, its thirst to discover what true God is like and what He can do can – and lead from the bare sensus divinitatis to the fuller revelation, from the mere longing to know God to a meaningful confrontation with God as revealed in the good news of Jesus. That is to say, sensus divinitatis can only be a starting point for Christian mission. The revelation available in nature or in the harmony of the universe may lead the sensus to additional development, but the fuller understanding of who God is, what He can do for the liberation of the human from the bondage of sin, and how one could experience this can come only when the fullness of Christ as the Truth and the Way is grasped and understood. And this is possible only through biblical witness, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Thus, what little is revealed through sensus about God is not enough for salvation and mature Christian living, but it is a good preparatory point of recognizing the possibility and opportunity of the knowledge of God by nonbelievers.

2. Sensus divinitatis should help us view nonbelievers not as total antagonists to the gospel but as people who may be open to find out the reality and fullness of God and His way of salvation. Not all may fit this description, for there are those who have let sinful stubbornness or moral obstinacy defy the Spirit’s probings and pleas, and persist in dulling their sensus within. But, however lost a person may be, he or she is still the object of God’s love, and His grace does not easily give up on any human being, for they are all precious. Neither should we give up on our mission at the first sight of rejection, for even though a person may reject the witness of the gospel, so long as the contact point of divine sensitivity is there, we must rest our hope in the fact that the lost souls are not beyond the reach of God’s grace. They might enter the kingdom of Christ with the joy of finding the genuine spiritual reality.

3. Finally, in our missionary approach we need to be much more aware of the possible triggers of the working of sensus divinitatis. These triggers can shock one to the point where the thirst for God reaches out to quench that thirst by finding the God who loves – His power and greatness on the one hand, His benevolence and love on the other.

Such triggers may be positive or negative. Positive triggers that might stimulate sensus divinitatis represent all the experiences of positive and pleasant states in our consciousness. For example, when we see the starry heavens on a clear summer night, we may experience an ecstatic aesthetic experience. The experience may lead us to affirm the existence of an extraordinary and even intelligent force in nature. Suddenly, we may feel how this force obliterates our despair or loneliness in this universe. All these feelings may come to us even when we do not acknowledge a personal, creator God. However, a possibility exists that these feelings of joy, of recognition of something so beautiful up in the sky, of a freedom from despair within, may all combine to trigger a belief that there may be God, after all. Thus, a belief in the presence of God may begin.

Another aesthetic experience that plays the role of the trigger may be music. Listening to music by Bach or Mozart may bring a sense of harmony and peace that we have been seeking. This ecstasy of harmony might awaken the thought of universal harmony as the appearance of something divine. The result may be a belief in a God who ensures harmony and unity in real life.

Negative triggers represent all experiences of negative or harmful states in our life. We already mentioned Tolstoy’s thought of suicide that led him at the final point of despair to “consciousness of life,” an acknowledgement that there is value and meaning in this life. Even the most negative experiences of life can trigger an affirmation for the positive. Like in the case of Job, one may be able to sense the strength of God even in the midst of destruction: “After my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26, NKJV).

Another example of a negative trigger is the sense of guilt. Whenever we feel the extreme form of personal guilt, there may be a possibility of forced openness to forgiveness as the only way out and the only positive alternative to the hopelessness and despair that can crush our being. Perfect forgiveness from human beings is not possible, but the search for forgiveness can lead us to someone who is able to forgive absolutely, and that is God.

Thus in our mission and ministry, we can look for triggers that can stimulate the inner and latent sense of searching for God. These triggers may differ from person to person, but we can try to touch those contact points, and from there lead the individual to a more dynamic and open belief and relationship with a great and loving God. Our insistence on and searching for these stimuli of sensus divinitatis represent the exceptional apologetic linkage in our mission to nonbelievers.

Aleksandar S. Santrac (Ph.D., Belgrade State University) is from Serbia, and is working as an associate professor of religion, ethics and philosophy at the University of the Southern Caribbean, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He is also a post-doctoral fellow, Catholic Institute, Paris, and a visiting scholar, Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana, U.S.A. He also worked as a pastor evangelist in his native country. E-mail:


  1. Leo Tolstoy, Zonia quoted in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experiences: A Study In Human Nature (New York: Modern Library, 2002), p. 174.
  2. 2. This article is based on my research Knowing God: Evaluation of John Calvin’s and Alvin Plantinga’s Concept of Sensus Divinitatis as part of the post-doctoral Fellow program at Catholic Institute in Paris and visiting scholar position at University of Notre Dame, Indiana, U.S.A.

    3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Allen, trans. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936), book I, ch. iii, p. 1.

    4. Plantinga does not wish to be seen as an interpreter of Calvin and says that his idea of sensus divinitatis has only terminological similarity with that of Calvin (interview with Alvin Plantinga, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, November 15, 2007, conducted by Aleksandar S. Santrac).

    5. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 173.

    6. Plantinga, The Twin Pillars of Christian Scholarship (Grand Rapids: The Stob Lectures, Calvin College and Seminary, 1989-1990), p. 53.

    7. Plantinga says, “In a variety of circumstances—upon beholding the starry heavens above, when in danger, upon seeing that we have done something deeply wrong. . . . we human beings find ourselves aware of God’s presence, realizing that we owe Him obedience and allegiance” (Ibid.).

    8. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn.), vol.1, p. 295.