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.

Trinity Tuesdays – The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity

The Shield of the Trinity From Wikimedia Commons

The foundational doctrine of the Bible is that there is one true and living God. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This prayer, called the Shema (from the Hebrew word for “hear”), was the central confession of Israel.

But just as surely as the Bible teaches there is one God, it also teaches that there is a three-ness to God – that God is the Father, Son, and Spirit. Astonishingly, one of the primary proof texts for this claim is Israel’s ancient creed in Deuteronomy 6:4.   In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, the apostle Paul says:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

According to Paul, the “LORD our God” refers to the Father (“one God”) and also to Jesus Christ” (“one LORD”). This elaboration of the Shema is profound. It says that the one LORD who is God that Israel has always worshiped is the Father and the Son. Continue reading

Calvinism and the Two “Wills” of God

John Calvin, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543)

Those who hold to the Calvinistic concept of predestination believe that God predetermined everything that would happen before the foundation of the world in an eternal and unconditional decree. The Westminster Confession of Faith outlines this decree and its ramifications in this way:

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass…

III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

In this view, God selected certain sinners to be regenerated and implanted with saving faith, but did not select other sinners for regeneration and faith. Continue reading

In Defense of Theology

I grew up hearing many sermons urging Christians to “speak where the Bible speaks.” And I have embraced that heritage. I’m a “Bible guy.” Almost all of the classes I teach are textual studies, and most of my sermons are expository messages, moving verse by verse through a passage of Scripture.

Thomas Aquinas, An altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy,
by Carlo Crivelli (15th century)

But I also went to a seminary to receive a graduate degree in theology. And for some people from the same background as me, theology is almost a dirty word. And seminaries? Why, they ought to be called cemeteries, because they bury the word of God!!!! More than once I have discussed my grad school experience with friends who have also had some seminary training, only to hear them say something like, “Well, I took as many textual courses as I could, but I stayed away from any of those theology courses” (italics cannot adequately capture the disdain in their voices!).

Why do so many people have this allergic response to theology? Continue reading

Paul vs James? Faith, Works, and Justification

Portrait of Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1529)

In his 1522 Preface to the New Testament Martin Luther expressed his reservations about the book of James, which he described as an “epistle of straw.” He had questions about the identity of its author, but he was even more troubled by its seeming contradiction with the teaching of Paul on justification. At one point Luther offered to give his doctor’s beret to any man who could reconcile the teaching of Paul and James. 

On the surface, it is easy to see why Luther was so perplexed. In Romans 3:29 Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Yet in James 2:24 we read, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” We have basically two options: either Paul and James contradict each other, or they are using the same terms to mean different things .

And I believe this latter approach is correct. Continue reading