Tagapologetics

The God of Reason and Scripture

Note: this is the conclusion of a series of posts on the existence of God. Here are the previous posts:

Proving God Exists

The Necessary Being

What Is the Necessary Being?

Pure Actuality (or Why the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” Isn’t God)

One and Only One

The First Cause

“This All Men Speak of As God”

“Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over Averroes” by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–97)

Over the last few weeks I have presented a case for the existence of God that moved from the contingent (dependent) nature of reality to some necessary (independent) explanation of that reality. In the process, I deduced that this necessary being must be the personal, eternal, immaterial, immutable, and unique sustaining source of all contingent existence. Well, I say, “I deduced.” Actually, what I did is simply summarize shamelessly parrot as concisely as I could the grand tradition of philosophical reasoning that is reflected in pagans like Aristotle, Jews like Maimonides, Christians like Aquinas, and Muslims like Ibn Sina. This is a rich legacy of thoughtful reflection on the rationality of faith, and sadly, a legacy concerning which many believers are unaware (including me until just a few years ago). If this series of posts has piqued your interest in learning more about this classical tradition, then I am a thrilled.

There is one other ancient thinker I should mention – the apostle Paul. What I have tried to do in these posts is really just follow his example of pointing to the natural order as a signpost to God’s existence and attributes. Whether speaking to pagans in Lystra (in Acts 14) or addressing philosophers in Athens (in Acts 17), this is precisely how Paul initiated the case for faith in the one true God. Later, in the letter to the church at Rome, Paul explained why this case is so powerful:

For what can be known about God is plain to them [pagans], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)

According to Paul, God’s eternal power and divine nature are perceptible – clearly perceptible – based on what we can discern from nature. And that is how the argument of the last few weeks unfolded, beginning with the concept of a necessary being, then building from that to deduce just what this being must be like.

In this post, I want to compare the conclusions we drew about God from the natural revelation of creation to the testimony concerning God found in Scripture. Many of you who are reading these posts are believers, and you may have wondered how the philosophical portrait of God (as necessary, eternal, immutable, etc) matches up with the biblical portrait of God. But first, please remember an important caveat from the previous post. As the Creator, God is completely unlike anything in our immediate experience as creatures.

To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
and compare me, that we may be alike?…
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me (Isaiah 46:5, 9).

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

This means that when the Bible speaks of God as a “father,” for example, that it is conveying a truth about God that is something like our concept of fatherhood, only much greater. Keeping this important caveat in mind will help shield you from common misunderstandings of biblical descriptions of God.

With that disclaimer in mind, let’s look at what the Bible says about the God we have discovered through logical arguments.

God Is Necessary

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)

As the necessary being, God doesn’t rely on anything else to exist. He simply is existence itself, and that is what the divine name here in Exodus 3:14 means. Given the widespread acceptance of polytheism in the ancient world, this description of God in Exodus is remarkable. As one philosopher points out:

The author of the biblical text has managed to offer an expression of God that just happens to be in accord with some of the most profound metaphysical reasoning about the nature of God and His relation to the world in the history of Western Thought. (Gaven Kerr, Aquinas’s Way to God, p. 169).

God Is Eternal

Since God doesn’t depend on anything else to exist, he didn’t come to be and he cannot pass away. He is eternal.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:2)

God’s timeless existence is the basis for this challenge to the false gods of the nations. Since he is not confined by time, God can tell the future but idols cannot:

Set forth your case, says the LORD;
bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.
Let them bring them, and tell us
what is to happen.
Tell us the former things, what they are,
that we may consider them,
that we may know their outcome;
or declare to us the things to come.
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
that we may be dismayed and terrified. (Isaiah 41:21-23; cf. 44:6-7)

God Is Immaterial

I argued that God is not composed of parts, otherwise he would depend on those parts to exist, as well as on someone or something to assemble them. Another way to state the point is that God wasn’t made by anything or anyone else. The pagan shrine makers in Ephesus perceived the stark difference between their conception of god versus Paul’s:

And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. (Acts 19:26)

Since God is immaterial, this is why Scripture presents idolatry as such a grave mistake. To worship something from the created material order as if it could represent God is an outrage  (see Deuteronomy 4:11-19).

God Is Immutable

Because God is (as Aristotle described him) Pure Actuality, there isn’t anything that can be added to God to make him greater than he is, to change him. God is maximally perfect, and in that sense, immutable or unchanging.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)

This is part of what Paul was getting at when he explained to the Athenians that all of their idols and temples were pointless. They contribute nothing to the nature of the true God:

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24-25)

God Is Unique

We also explored the reasons why there can only be one such perfect being. The uniqueness of God was the foundational confession of ancient Israel:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

As that which is necessary, God’s status is truly exceptional:

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.” (Isaiah 43:10)

God Is the Sustaining Cause of Existence

Another feature of God we discerned from the natural order is that God sustains it in existence moment by moment, like a musician making music. Alluding to a pagan description of God, Paul reminded the Athenians:

Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

It is not entirely clear which ancient author Paul had mind, but as Ben Witherington observes, the point is clear:

The point is that God is the source of life and of power for activities, and so humans are radically dependent on this one God for their very being and all that they do. (The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary p. 529)

God Is Personal

While we recognize that to speak of God’s goodness, will, and intellect is to describe something vastly greater than human goodness, will, and intellect, the Bible is emphatic that God is personal.

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6).

God is not merely a being who happens to love.

“God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

The portrait of God we’ve drawn from logical reasoning and the portrait of God found in Scripture have a great deal in common. But philosophical reflection can only take us so far. After all, Jews, Muslims, and even some pagans have drawn many of these same conclusions. Why should the specific claims of Christianity be accepted?

That is the subject of a new series for next year, Lord willing.

“This All Men Speak of as God”

Note: this is the seventh post in a series on  the existence of God. Since it builds on the previous posts, please carefully read them before you read this one:

Proving God Exists

The Necessary Being

What Is the Necessary Being?

Pure Actuality (or Why the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” Isn’t God)

One and Only One

The First Cause

If you have followed along thus far, you know that we have looked at reasons to believe that there is a necessary being that is the eternal, immaterial, immutable, and unique creator and sustainer of all contingent reality. But there is one more attribute we need in order to demonstrate that this necessary being is God. Is the necessary being personal? After all, based on what I have argued up until this point, the necessary being could be The Force from Star Wars! So why should we believe that the necessary being is not just an impersonal field of energy? Why believe in a personal God?

Just Like vs Sort of Like

Before I explain why that which is necessary is personal, there is a very important disclaimer I need to make. It goes without saying that if there is a necessary being (one that doesn’t exist in time, that doesn’t consist of parts, that doesn’t change, and that is unique), then this necessary being is vastly different from anything in my immediate experience. I exist in time (I just turned 50). I consist of parts (which are breaking down – I just turned 50). I change (see previous parenthesis!). And as the sort of being I am (human), I am not unique – there are eight billion others on the planet at this moment. As a contingent being, living in a world of contingent reality, I recognize there is a great gulf fixed between what I am and what this necessary being is.

Since that is the case, it would be a huge mistake for me to think that this necessary being is just like me, only bigger/older/stronger/smarter. That may be a good way to think of various pagan conceptions of gods like Thor or Athena, but it would be an egregious category mistake to confuse those concepts of “god” with the concept of a necessary being. It is simply impossible by definition for me (or anything else in the contingent order) to be just like the necessary being; at the very most I can only be sort of like the necessary being.

I’ve said all of that to offer this disclaimer about whether the necessary being is personal. I am going to offer some reasons why we can use that word to describe this ultimate ground of all reality, but we must always bear in mind that what “personal” means for you and me as contingent creatures is not exactly what it will mean for the necessary being. An old illustration explains it like this. If I say, “I see the tree,” and “I see your point,” I am using the same word – see – to express concepts that are sort of like each other, although one is vastly greater than the other. To see a tree is a physical act of the senses. To see your point is an intellectual act of the mind. “See” conveys both concepts, but one kind of “seeing” is much greater than the other. And so it is with the word “personal.” I am a personal being, and that which is necessary is a personal being – but in a vastly greater sense.

With that caveat in place, let’s now discuss why this necessary being is personal.

Getting Personal

To think more deeply about what it means to say that the necessary being is personal, consider how you feel when you receive an email from a friend as opposed to a piece of spam. Spam is automated. No one chose to send such an email to you in particular, and whatever algorithm spat out your name on its mailing list, it certainly didn’t do so because it knows you individually. Since it lacks knowledge and will, spam is impersonal. On the other hand, if a friend sends you an email, it is because he chose to do so, and also because he knows you. That kind of email is personal.

This helps to clarify what we mean when we say that something is personal rather than impersonal. It involves qualities like intellect and free will. “The Force” in Star Wars doesn’t really have the properties of mind or will; Sith lords and Jedi knights tap into its impersonal power based on their choices and knowledge. But why should we think that the necessary being possesses such personal attributes?

Let’s begin with the quality of will. We have talked a lot in this series about the difference between what is necessary versus what is contingent. As you recall, that which is necessary doesn’t rely on anything else to exist – it simply is. That which is contingent, on the other hand, does rely on something else to exist. Its existence is not necessary. But why did that which is necessary enable that which is contingent to exist in the first place? It could only be because that which is necessary made a choice to bring contingent things into existence. Since to make a choice is to exercise free will, we can deduce that the necessary being has the personal quality of will.

What about intellect? Consider this illustration. Quite often I have two cups on my desk, a mug for coffee and a tumbler for water. The mug is made of ceramic and the tumbler is made of plastic. Even though they are made from different materials, they are both “cups.” Why? Because in addition to the stuff out of which they are made, the mug and the tumbler each consist of a configuration or pattern – one in the pattern of a tumbler and the other in the pattern of a mug. And both of those patterns share features that identify the mug and tumbler as belonging to the same category – cup. This feature that I have called a “configuration” or “pattern” or “category” is what ancient philosophers called a form. If I wanted to go into the cup-making business, the form/configuration/pattern of “cupness” would have to exist in my mind before I could fashion the ceramic or plastic into an actual cup. Since the necessary being is ultimately responsible for bringing all contingent reality into existence, that means that all of the forms of contingent reality must exist in its intellect, just as the form of “cup” exists in the intellect of the cup maker.

But what about the supreme personal feature, love? Is there any reason to think the necessary being is capable of love? Yes – in fact, we can go a step further. We can say that the necessary being is goodness itself, the very source of love. Why do I say that? Think about the following sentences:

“That is a good tomato” (maybe some of you think there’s no such thing!).

“She’s a good basketball player.”

“I have a bad knee.”

In each case, whether something is good or bad is a question of the extent to which it fulfills the potential of the sort of thing it is. A good tomato exemplifies the redness, sweetness, and juiciness of what a tomato is supposed to be. A good basketball player displays the skills and abilities of basketball to a high degree. A bad knee, by contrast, falls short in the extent to which it functions as a knee should. This is just another way of saying that something is good to the extent that its potentials have been actualized (as Aristotle would put it). If this is the case, then something that is pure actuality (as we’ve previously described the necessary being) is good to the ultimate degree. It is pure goodness, goodness itself. And since to love someone is to determine to do what is good for them, that means that – as goodness itself – the necessary being is the ultimate source of all love.

Will, intellect, and goodness. Such features of the necessary being lead us to add one more attribute to its nature – it is personal. Just bear in mind that when I use the term “personal” with regard to the necessary being, I mean something analogous to but not identical with what I mean when I describe myself as a person. Yes, the necessary being can do things like choose, think, and love, but it does so to a degree far beyond comparison to anything in the experience of contingent reality.

Let’s summarize everything we have pieced together in this argument over the last several weeks. The contingent order points to a necessary being. This necessary being is the unique, personal, eternal, immaterial, and immutable sustaining source of all contingent reality. What would you call this sort of being? I agree with Thomas Aquinas’s conclusion at the end of a similar sort of argument: “This all men speak of as God.”

Now, someone may object that these arguments haven’t proven that Christianity is true. And that is correct – of course, these arguments weren’t designed to do so. All I have been seeking to show thus far is that God exists. Whether God has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth is a different question, one I plan to address in a future series. But next week I want to bring this series to a conclusion by comparing the portrait of God found in Scripture with the one we have deduced over the last few weeks.

A Future Book: Thinking Through Faith

One of the reasons I began this blog was to follow the advice of several authors who have said that the best way to improve your writing is to write. Another purpose for the blog is to think out loud while I write, creating initial drafts of potential future books. One of those projects is a book introducing Christians to the classical case for the existence of God, the sort of thinking about God that has its roots in such figures as Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas (and, as it happens, the view of God found in the Bible!). That picture, combined with a careful defense of the credibility of the testimony of the gospels, provides what I believe is the most potent case for Christianity that can be made.

Down below you can see various posts I’ve done so far that are first drafts of potential chapters (or parts of chapters) in the book. If you’ve missed some of these posts, please check them out. Your feedback will make the book better!

And while you are at it, take a moment to subscribe to the blog so you can keep up to date with future posts.

Blind Faith or Reasoned Faith?

The “Atheist’s Guide to Reality” (or, Colorless Crayons)

Nazis, Morality, and Atheism

Proving God Exists

Richard Dawkins and His Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Argument 

The Necessary Being

What Is the Necessary Being?

Pure Actuality (or Why the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” Isn’t God)

One and Only One

The Problem of Evil for Atheism

The Problem of Evil

 

One and Only One

(Note: this is the fifth post in a series on  the existence of God. Since it builds on the previous posts, please carefully read them before you read this one:

I have been making the case for God’s existence in two major moves. The first move was to show that the only way to ultimately account for contingent realities (those things that rely on something else to exist) is by the existence of some necessary reality (something that does not rely on anything else to exist). That was part one – and in my opinion, it’s the easy part!

The second major move is to identify what this necessary being or reality is. And this isn’t really difficult to do; it just takes some patient and careful reflection. So far, we have deduced the following:

  • It must be eternal, since – as a necessary being rather than a contingent being – it doesn’t rely on anything else to come into existence or to remain in existence. It just is.
  • It must be immaterial, since anything that is made up of parts is contingent (it depends on those parts to exist, and it depends on something to assemble the parts). It isn’t anything physical, in other words.
  • It must be immutable, since – as a necessary being – it does not rely on something else to “actualize” its potentials (a fancy word for “change it”). It is purely or fully actual.

Obviously, whatever this necessary being is, it is much different than us or anything else we encounter in the reality of time, space, and matter. Then again, we would expect that the ultimate foundation of all reality would be pretty special! And that leads me to one more attribute of this necessary being… Continue reading

Pure Actuality (or, Why the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” Isn’t God)

Note: this is the fourth post in a series on  the existence of God. Since it builds on the previous posts, please carefully read them before you read this one:

In this series of posts I am laying out the case for God’s existence. This case is taking shape in two phases. In the first phase, I began with the observation that whatever exists does so either because it depends on something else to exist or it doesn’t depend on something else to exist. We can see many things that do depend on other things to exist (like me, for instance!). But those things which depend on something else to exist cannot ultimately be accounted for by other things that also depend on something else to exist – that just shifts the question to another dependent reality. Therefore, there must be some ultimate reality that doesn’t depend on anything else to exist (a contingent being) but rather exists independently (a necessary being).

But what is it? That’s the second phase of this argument. Continue reading

The Necessary Being

Last week I wrote a post in which I discussed whether it is possible to prove that God exists. To briefly review, I explained that since (according to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) God is the Creator of the universe rather than simply another object in the universe, God’s existence is not detectable by scientific means. But there is another avenue of evidence that it open to us. We can start with simple observations from our world, and using the principles of logic, put together a series of deductions that prove that God exists. I want to begin such a project with this post. Continue reading

Proving God Exists

Is it possible to prove that God exists? That all depends on what is meant by the word prove.

If the question is whether it is possible to prove scientifically that God exists, then the answer is no. But that is not because belief in God is unreasonable or unsupported by evidence. It is because – by definition – God is not the sort of being whose existence is detectable by scientific investigation. The tools of science are well-suited to analyze those things that are part of the material world, things that can be put under a microscope or tested in a particle accelerator. Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) teaches that God is the creator of the universe, and as such, God exists outside of the material world. So in principle, God is not a fit subject for the empirical methods of science. Continue reading

The Problem of Evil and Suffering for Atheism

The most powerful argument against belief in God is the problem of evil and suffering. Its basic form goes like this:

  • If God is all-powerful He could prevent evil and suffering.
  • If God is all-good He would prevent evil and suffering.
  • But evil and suffering exist.
  • Therefore an all-powerful and all-good God does not exist.

In a previous post I explained that while the existence of evil and suffering poses a puzzle for believers (one that my wife and I are dealing with as she faces Stage 4 cancer), this puzzle does not disprove God’s existence.  In this post I want to flip the argument around as a problem for atheists by focusing on the third premise: “But evil and suffering exist.” Continue reading

Is the Resurrection of Jesus a Legend?

The Entombment, by Rembrandt

This coming Sunday is a time of the year when even the nominally religious give homage to the resurrection of Jesus.  But if the polling data is correct, the percentage of Americans who believe in the claims of Christianity is rapidly shrinking. A common view of the resurrection is that it is a legend that developed over time among those who loved and revered Jesus. This is the view of Pentecostal preacher turned atheist Dan Barker:

There have been many reasons for doubting the claim [of the resurrection], but the consensus among critical scholars today appears to be that the story is a “legend.” During the 60-70 years it took for the Gospels to be composed, the original story went through a growth period that began with the unadorned idea that Jesus, like Grandma, had “died and gone to heaven” and ended with a fantastic narrative produced by a later generation of believers that included earthquakes, angels, an eclipse, a resuscitated corpse, and a spectacular bodily ascension into the clouds.

Is this the best explanation of the data? In this post I want to offer three reasons why the resurrection of Jesus is not in fact a legend. Continue reading

The Inerrancy of Scripture and the Basis of Our Faith

In the fall of 1990 I engaged in a televised debate with a professor from Eastern Kentucky University over the question of the inerrancy of Scripture. Is the Bible without error in all that it teaches? I defended the affirmative. My opponent was a Southern Baptist who was outraged by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s recent shift toward belief in inerrancy as an expectation for its faculty. I was invited to participate in the debate because I penned a letter to the editor in response to an op-ed piece of his in the Lexington Herald-Leader. I don’t think I realized at the time that my opponent, Dr. James Robert Miller, was the head of the philosophy and religion department at EKU. I wasn’t even finished with my master’s degree! But young and foolish as I was, when the host of the tv program told me he had tried to get twenty other people to represent the inerrancy view and they declined, I felt like I should do it. Besides, the show was going to air really early on Saturday morning, so I figured that if I blew it, no one would know!

I was happy to defend inerrancy then, and I am glad to do so now. It is the view of Scripture implied by the testimony of Jesus in passages like John 10:35 – “Scripture cannot be broken.” Since Jesus is Lord, His word on the matter is authoritative. Continue reading