God’s revelation to us in Scripture has ultimate authority as the word and words of God, providing the source and ground of theology, apologetics, and right reason. Therefore, as God is the source and explanation of all things, and the wellspring of all His works are His perfections (or attributes), then the perfections of God as revealed in Scripture are the ultimate source, basis, and guide for all knowledge and truth. This is the underlying premise of this book.
The focus of this work will be the implications of the perfections of God to a God-honoring defense and proclamation of the Gospel, and to a God-honoring approach to life and thought. I will attempt to show why and how God is the proper starting point of all things, including all life and thought.
Our approach will be simple and straightforward. Each attribute will be defined and then analyzed for its implications to apologetics more specifically, and to theology and right reason more generally. To God be all the glory.
The first words of Scripture introduce us to the ultimate explanation of reality and the solution to the deepest questions of philosophy and religion: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In the sixty-six books that follow, the person and works of God and His relationship to the universe and people He created are on vivid display: from eternity past, through all of human history, to the end of time and beyond. God is the source and explanation of all things. From God we have existence, meaning, and purpose. From God we have all truth and the ability to know truth. In God’s revelation (Scripture) we have the basis for a proper understanding of God, ourselves, and His universe, and the necessary and sure foundation for a God-honoring defense and proclamation of the Gospel of Christ.1
Apologetics, therefore, is preeminently theological, unfolding the implications of the nature and works of our triune God for a God-honoring defense of the Christian faith.2 Created by God, we depend on God for life and knowledge of God and His universe. And as God’s revelation to us in Scripture has ultimate authority as the word and words of God, it provides the source and ground of theology and apologetics. Therefore, as God is the source and explanation of all things, and the essential nature of God and wellspring of all his works are His perfections,3 then the perfections of God as revealed in Scripture are the ultimate source, basis, and guide for right reasoning, knowledge, and truth. This is the underlying premise of this book.
The biblical/theological apologetic approach presented here is generally called “presuppositional.”4 With deep roots in Reformed theology, the approach was most thoroughly developed and applied by the twentieth century theologian Cornelius Van Til. In addition to Van Til, the theology of Jonathan Edwards will inform the apologetic content and approach presented here.
The distinction and significance of the approach lies not in novelty of content and method, or in its affirmation of the biblical view of God as the creator and source or all things, but in a more consistent submission of content and method to the ultimate authority of Scripture, and to a more comprehensive and uniform application of the fundamental truths of Scripture to all areas of thought. Central to this apologetic method is a coherent biblical approach to authority, truth, and knowledge--the upholding of the ultimate authority and independence of God--while maintaining finite man’s dependence upon God for all knowledge.
The evidence for God’s power, genius, and lordship is clear, comprehensive, and convincing, such that all people are without excuse for not worshipping and giving Him thanks.5 Indeed, the divine nature and authority of Scripture are equally clear, comprehensive, and convincing. Therefore, trust in an assumed “ultimate authority” other than the God of Scripture is unwarranted and reflects a heart in rebellion against God.
At the center of the sinners’ rebellion against God is a willful, misplaced faith. Believers and unbelievers alike are people of faith, but differ in their respective objects of faith. Unbelievers have faith in their ability to interpret God and His world apart from God and Scripture, assuming their own ability and authority to determine knowledge and truth. Conversely, Christians accept their status as created by God and place their faith in the authority of God and His revelation (Scripture), in submission to God’s lordship.
In the same way, believers and unbelievers exercise reason. Unbelievers use reason to deny the obvious evidence of God’s existence and authority, viewing their own interpretations of God and reality as ultimately authoritative. Believers use reason to understand, order, and submit to God’s revelation. Thus, the familiar “faith versus reason” argument posed by unbelievers is a false dichotomy, used to misrepresent Christian belief as lacking reason while obscuring the unreasonable faith of unbelief.6
The presuppositional apologetic of Van Til, therefore, 1) exposes unbelief as unjustified faith in one’s own opinion concerning God and His universe, and 2) displays the impossibility of truth, knowledge, and existence apart from God.7 Created, finite, and dependent people are limited to five senses, three dimensions, and seventy or so years on earth, and cannot possibly speak with legitimate authority concerning the ultimate nature of God and His universe. If God is denied as the source and sustainer of all things, we are rendered meaningless random chance occurrences, floating in a sea of random chance occurrences, interpreting with assumed authority other meaningless random chance occurrences. If the God of Scripture is not assumed to be the ultimate ground of everything, then all reality, knowledge, and statements of “truth” are rendered meaningless. Of course, unbelievers exercise reason, conduct science, and discover and know truth, but only because God exists and their denial of God is false. This will be addressed in more detail below.
We get a taste of the impossibility of reality, knowledge, and truth apart from God in the endlessly debated and seemingly unsolvable puzzles of Western philosophy.8 Conundrums are necessarily created when the only possible answer to a question is excluded. Imagine mathematicians attempting to answer 2+2=? while excluding the number 4 and you will have a general idea of the problems associated with philosophical discussions that exclude God as the creator, designer, and sustainer of all things. When the only possible explanation for reality is precluded at the outset of philosophical inquiry, questions concerning reality become like the familiar conundrum: What came first, the chicken or egg? Apart from God creating the egg or the chicken, no reasonable answer is possible. In fact, all of life is filled with chicken and egg conundrums that point to God as the necessary source of all things. In the same way, the difficult questions of philosophy are unanswerable apart from acknowledging God as the source of all things. The world cannot be properly understood apart from God.
Nonetheless, the profound implications of God as the foundation of knowledge and truth have not always been appreciated in the history of apologetics. Unbiblical answers to difficult theological questions have often compromised Christian doctrine and our ability to defend it. For instance, attempts to “solve” the “problem of evil” sometimes define God as less than sovereign or as the author of evil, both contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture.9 Attempts to defend the historicity of the miracles in Scripture by making them acceptable to anti-supernatural or naturalistic assumptions have denied the power of God who transcends the “natural laws” He upholds. History abounds with attempts to make Christianity compatible with unbelief by denying God’s transcendence and providence while undermining the trustworthiness of Scripture.
In contrast, our theology and apologetic method must honor the authority and supremacy of God in all things, acknowledging the nature of God as revealed in Scripture, His work as creator and sustainer of all things, and of our utter dependence upon Him for existence, knowledge, and truth. We dare not follow Adam in assuming our own authority. We are to honor God in giving Him first place in all things, including how we think and defend the Christian faith.
The focus of this work, therefore, will be the implications of the perfections of God to a God-honoring defense and proclamation of the Gospel, and to a God-honoring approach to life and thought. I will attempt to show why and how God is the proper starting point of all things, including Christian apologetics, theology, the Gospel, and godly living and thought.
The benefits of such a study are significant. For instance, understanding how and why the perfections of God are foundational to apologetics highlights their importance as the basis of a comprehensive and coherent Christian worldview and proper understanding of all things. God is displayed as first and central in our life and thought. His overall purpose in creation and redemption through Christ and all biblical truths are integrated into the greater coherent picture of God’s ultimate purpose and plan. The realms of science, philosophy, and ethics are seen more correctly as mutually dependent and equally determined by God. Moreover, such a study can teach us to think more critically and analytically in submission to the Lordship of Christ, enhancing our steadfastness amidst the winds and waves of unbelieving thought. We can grow in our ability to think in a manner that honors God, increasing our appreciation of the greatness and beauty of God in all things, and in our ability see and refute the unreasonable attacks upon God and Scripture. We can be strengthened in our ability to joyfully and graciously defend and proclaim the truth, encouraging our faith and the faith of others. And while the present study deals with many deep and profound truths, it is relevant and practical to the core, as is the study of all of God’s revealed truth. A study of the perfections of God and their implications for all life and thought is one of the most foundational and fruitful studies one can undertake.
Our approach will be simple and straightforward. Each attribute will be defined and then analyzed for its implications to apologetics. One difficulty with this approach concerns the interrelated nature of the attributes and their implications. As God’s perfections are mutually dependent and inseparable, the apologetic implication of one attribute will often be common to other attributes. Thus, to decrease redundancy and improve readability, particular apologetic issues will usually be discussed under a single attribute, even while it may be the implication of several. At the same time, some repetition will be necessary to show how an apologetic principle relates to several attributes, highlighting the unity of God and the mutually dependent nature of God’s perfections. This will also serve to reinforce several important apologetic principles. And while I run the risk of some redundancy, I believe the overall effect will enhance the reader’s understanding of important theological and apologetic principles. Overall, the approach will be beneficial toward the development of a God-honoring, comprehensive, and cohesive biblical worldview and apologetic method. To God be all the glory.
1 The theological discipline of defending the Christian faith against the attacks of unbelief is called apologetics. The terms apologist and apologetics are from the Greek term apologia, meaning to make a defense or reply to an accusation or judgment. See Walter Bauer, “apologia,” in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 4th ed., trans. and ed. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 96. The term is often translated defense, as in Acts 22:1: “Hear the defense I now make,” or 1 Corinthians 9:3: “My defense to those who examine me is this.” See also Acts 25:16 and 2 Timothy 4:16. Perhaps the most important verse of the New Testament concerning apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer [defense] to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” From this short verse we might define apologetics as follows: The defense and proclamation of the gospel and all of God’s revealed truth in a gentle and reverent method and manner that properly honors Christ as Lord of all. A more comprehensive definition of apologetics might include the study of God’s attributes and activity as the only basis of a true and God-honoring comprehensive biblical worldview, including the study of and response to the irrational assumptions of all systems of unbelief; the study of the rational and defensible assumptions of Christian faith, assurance of the authority, accuracy, and trustworthiness of Scripture, and the presentation of the glory of God and Christ in the Gospel. And while apologetics does address important philosophical issues, it is primarily a biblical and theological discipline, touching all aspects of theology. Regardless, as God is the source and basis of all reasoning, philosophy and apologetics are ultimately aspects of theology.
2 The defense of the Christian faith has taken many forms throughout the history of the church. Some apologists have looked to Western philosophical thought and principles as providing the basis of knowledge, truth, and a rational defense of Christianity. As a result, apologetics is sometimes treated as a separate discipline from theology, or as the discipline that establishes the ground and validity of theology. For a brief discussion of this point, see Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1998), 43-87.
3 Or, attributes.
4 Van Til’s apologetic is sometimes called “covenantal” apologetics, distinguishing it from other apologetic methods more broadly defined as “presuppositional” or “Reformed.”
5 See Romans 1:18-22.
6 What unbelievers typically mean by “faith” in their “faith versus reason” dichotomy is blind, unjustified faith, a leap in the dark despite a lack of evidence or evidence to the contrary. This “faith” is then set in opposition to their own “scientific” and justified reason. As we will see, the opposite is actually true.
7 Of course, Van Til’s apologetic is comprehensive and consists of far more than these two main points. For a concise summary of the key points of his apologetic, see Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 727-730.
8 We get a “slight taste” only, because philosophers nonetheless operate on Christian principles in acknowledging design and order in reality and in philosophical discourse. For instance, random chance cannot account for the laws of logic by which philosophers operate. Atheistic philosophers borrow Christian principles even while they deny the God of the Bible in their philosophizing. This will be discussed in more depth in the chapters that follow.
9 To be addressed later.
God is entirely uncaused, self-sufficient, and completely independent of all things in His being and actions. He needs nothing and owes nothing to anyone or any thing, for by Him all things were created, and upon Him all things depend for everything.
Romans 11:35-36: “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen”
Psalm 90:2: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”
Isaiah 40:13-14: “Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?”
Acts 17:24-25: “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.”1
Everything in the universe was created by God and exists by the ongoing exertion of His power.2 The implications of this basic truth are universal and all-encompassing, applying to all things. For instance, as God is the designer, creator, and sustainer of all things, so the nature of God, mankind, and reality are determined by God alone. So also all authority, truth, and knowledge are determined by God, as well as how we should live in His universe. Therefore, a proper understanding of all things depends upon a proper understanding of the perfections of God.
Thus, in examining perfections of God as the foundation of apologetics, we examine them as the foundation of a proper understanding of the nature of God, mankind, and reality (metaphysics); ultimate authority, truth, and knowledge (epistemology); and how we should live (ethics). Apologetics, as well as all theology, philosophy, and science, concern these fundamental topics. Therefore, the big questions concerning God, life, and the universe are answered by the Creator and Sustainer of life and the universe. All issues are ultimately theological.
Before God created the heavens and the earth, nothing existed but God alone. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit alone existed eternally in perfect joy and fellowship, in need of nothing. The universe, including all time, matter, space, and energy were spoken into existence by God.
Therefore, the universe has a beginning and is not eternal. “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Hebrews 11:3). God spoke and brought all things into being, and upholds them by the “word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3). Speaking of the Son of God, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17).
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. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place (Acts 17:24-26).
The eternally self-sufficient God designed and orders all things for His purpose, working “all things after the counsel of His will,” to bring about the praise of His glory in the salvation of His people (Ephesians 1:11-12).
As the source, designer, and sustainer of all things, God is both the author and sustainer of all “natural” or physical laws of the universe, by which the universe is ordered and governed. We do better calling “natural” laws divine laws, for apart from the ongoing power of God in ordering even the smallest measure of matter and energy in the universe, no such laws would exist. In fact, such “laws” are not really laws at all if by “laws” one means they exist and operate apart from God’s ongoing power. The uniformity or “laws of nature” are no more than God ordering the various aspects of the universe in a particular manner for a particular time. What we observe and discover in science is how God currently orders and sustains the matter and energy He created. What we call “miracles” are merely God doing something different than what we normally see Him do in His ongoing, providential ordering of the universe. God alone determines what is possible and impossible in the universe, not those who observe and discover how God orders and sustains it. To deny the possibility of miracles is to either deny God’s existence or deny His control over the universe He orders and sustains. Because God orders the world one way today does not preclude His ordering it differently yesterday or tomorrow. Miracles will be addressed in greater detail in the discussion of God’s omnipotence.
Moreover, uniform and universal “laws” are inexplicable apart from God creating, ordering, and upholding them. Apart from God, no reasonable explanation for the fixed and predictable operations in the universe is possible. Deny God as behind all things and you are left with random chance as the explanation of a universe of ordered and uniform laws.
In the same way, the uniform and universal laws of logic3 are inexplicable apart from God. Random chance produces no uniform and universal laws. Rather, the laws of logic reflect the order and coherence of God’s thought and are easily explained on that basis. And while unbelievers use logic to deny the existence of God, logic itself is evidence of the existence of God. Issues related to random chance, logic, and the necessity of God’s existence will be discussed further below.
Thus, the fact that the universe depends on God for everything is foundational to right reason and a key component of a God-honoring worldview. Yet, even Christians do not always appreciate the importance of this point. We are so accustomed to God’s consistent and rational governing of the universe that we sometimes take His work in ordering and sustaining it for granted, as if the physical laws of the universe operate independently of God. After all, everything appears to work the way it did yesterday, last year, or a thousand years ago. We scientifically study the universe and develop accurate physical explanations of how it all operates, including the stars in the sky, our own physical bodies, and the smallest atomic building blocks of matter. We have used that knowledge to achieve great things for the benefit of mankind. Yet, we can sometimes forget that all these things are ordered and sustained by the ongoing power of God.
And while we are mindful of our tendency to wander from the path of the Chief Shepherd in issues of piety and obedience, we sometimes miss that piety and obedience also involve how we think about God and His world. As our sin displays a practical atheism in exalting our will over God’s will, so we exhibit a practical Deism in viewing the universe as begun by God but operating according to independent physical laws. As Christians we acknowledge and study physical laws, but we properly understand them as the display of God’s ongoing ordering and sustaining of the universe, and not the product of random chance.
When we think of our dependence upon God, we usually think of our dependence for physical life and sustenance.
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:13-16).
God not only created the human race in creating Adam, He individually formed each one of us in the womb and ordained the very days of our life. The hairs of our head are numbered (Matthew 10:30), while the food on our table gives clear witness to the bountiful hand of God’s providence (Acts 14:17). And as Paul preached at Mars Hill, even some unbelievers acknowledge their dependence upon “God” for life: “in Him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are His offspring’” (Acts 17:28). Moreover, our dependence upon Christ for our salvation is the central doctrine of our faith.
A bit less familiar and understood, however, is our dependence upon God for all truth, knowledge, and authority. In the same way we sometimes overlook God’s ongoing ordering and sustaining of the universe, so we often discount the importance of our dependence upon God for all truth, knowledge, and authority.
To begin, as God created, orders, sustains, and rules over all things, He is the ultimate authority and source of all truth. No higher authority or standard of truth exists in the universe. All things have their beginning and ongoing existence by God’s creating and sustaining power, so God alone knows completely and comprehensively why and how all things exist and work together. God alone views and understands all things from an objective vantage point, for He is not part of the universe He created and upholds (more about this under omniscience). God’s explanation is always true.
Next, we depend on God for the ability to see and understand truth. Apart from God giving us the ability know and understand Him and His universe, we could know nothing. Yet, He created us in His image, in personal relationship with Him, with the ability to know and understand Him. God was able to speak directly to Adam and Eve in the garden, because God created them with the ability to know and understand Him through His personal presence and spoken, intelligible language.
Moreover, our dependence upon God for His revelation to us through language preceded the fall of mankind into sin. We know that sinners require God’s special revelation in spoken and written language to understand Him and His world correctly. Apart from His special revelation in language, we would never view Him or His world correctly, as fallen people suppress the revelation of God in all things from a heart of hostility toward God. As Adam avoided God in the garden following his sin, so all people seek to avoid God and suppress the clear, comprehensive, and convincing knowledge of God in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-22). Yet, even prior to Adam’s sin, both Adam and Eve required God’s special revelation in language to relate to God and know His will for them. The command to cultivate the garden was given in language, as was the all important command to not eat the forbidden fruit. Thus, God’s special revelation in language (now given to us in Scripture) is necessary for us as created and dependent upon God for all things.
Accordingly, we depend upon God for the content of truth and knowledge. We can observe the world and speculate about the ultimate nature of God and the universe, but the effects of our fall into sin have made our interpretations untrustworthy. Indeed, “He who trusts in his own mind is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26). We lack proper, unbiased objectivity. Apart from God’s explanation of Himself and His world, we will interpret all things to suit our own desires.4 “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Additionally, we lack the necessary capabilities to interpret the ultimate nature of God and His world correctly. We are constrained by time, space, and our limited abilities. We are limited to three dimensions, five senses, and seventy or so years on this earth. How can people so limited make true statements about the ultimate nature of God and reality apart from God’s explanation?5 The universe is a big place, and some of us have never been out of our hometown or country, let alone to the end of the universe and beyond. As God transcends the universe He created, we could not describe or know Him accurately without His revelation. God’s admonition to Job is instructive in this regard.
Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:2-7).
Created, dependent, and finite people are unable to make true and authoritative statements concerning the ultimate nature of God and the universe apart from God’s revelation.
It follows, then, that truth is what God says it is, or that which corresponds to God’s explanation of Himself and His universe. Our knowledge is derived from God and not original to ourselves. We observe and interpret reality, and insofar as our interpretations are correct, they are nonetheless interpretations that depend on God as the source of all truth, as the giver of our ability to see and know truth, and as the ultimately authority and standard of truth. We may discover truth, as we do in conducting science, but God is the source of it.
Therefore, God has provided that we can know truth as He desires us to know it. Created in God’s image, we can know truth as God knows truth, both accurately and in agreement with His knowledge. Nonetheless, our knowledge differs from God’s in that our knowledge is dependent upon or derived from God’s knowledge, and subject to human limitations. In contrast, God’s knowledge is independent, original, eternal, and infinite. As we differ from God as finite and created by God, so our knowledge differs from God’s knowledge in its quality and quantity (to be discussed further under omniscience).6
As God is the creator and owner of all things, and the source and standard of all knowledge and truth, so He determines our ultimate purpose, meaning, and the moral standards by which we are to live. Our purpose is determined by God’s purpose in creating us. As He owns us, His purpose is to be our purpose. God alone determines right and wrong. All these things are rightfully God’s prerogative as the creator and owner of all things.
Conversely, no purpose, meaning, and moral compass or standard exists apart from God. Apart from God, morality is reduced to relativism with no ultimate right or wrong, with human opinion elevated to the highest moral authority. People are thus free to do as they please. Of course, atheists and agnostics often have well-developed moral principles by which they live, but only because they do not fully live according to the implications of their atheism and agnosticism.7 We can thank God that evolutionists do not generally live according to the fundamental tenet of the theory. Of the many catalysts of the Nazi reign of terror we can identify, the application of the evolutionary principle of the survival of the fittest would certainly be near the top of the list.8 No God means no ultimate standard of right and wrong, no ultimate accountability, and no ultimate consequences for bad behavior, with predictable results.
Thus, as summarized in the following diagram, mankind, as created, ordered, and sustained by God, depends upon God for everything.9
In defining God’s self-sufficiency, we noted that God needs nothing and owes nothing to anyone or any thing, for by Him all things were created, and upon Him all things depend for everything. God exists and has always existed eternally in perfect happiness. Nothing could be added to God to increase His happiness, as nothing could be added to improve perfection. Yet, the fact that God created people to be in a loving relationship with Him raises the question of why He created us, especially in light of His self-sufficiency. Why would God create anything if He needs nothing? Moreover, creation and redemption as the means by which the Father blesses the Son with the gift of a bride (the church as the bride of Christ) appears similar to God creating Eve because “it is not good for the man to be alone.” Could it be that “it is not good for God to be alone” is the reason God created us? Unlike Adam, however, God has never been alone. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist eternally in a perfect fellowship of love. Further, as God is perfectly self-satisfied, He can never be in need or create anything to satisfy a need in Him. Rather, He created us out of the overflow of His goodness and self-sufficiency.10
As God has no lack or need, He depends upon us for nothing and owes us nothing. In creating mankind and the universe, He remains independent and able to do as He pleases with what He created and owns. As the potter has the right to do as he pleases with the clay (Romans 9:20-21), so God is free to do all things “according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).
In stark contrast to God, mankind owes God everything always. We have nothing that we did not receive, and can receive nothing unless God gives it to us.11 Created by God and dependent upon God for all things (to whom God owes absolutely nothing), mankind is obligated to God for all things always. Moreover, all love, honor, and worship are necessarily proper to a God of such infinite excellence. Thus, mankind was created in a covenant relationship with God, with responsibilities and obligations appropriate to the nature of the relationship. We are to do all after the council of God’s will.
Therefore, the minimum requirement for one created in such a covenant relationship with God is perfect love and obedience.12 We can merit nothing from God, while all good things we receive from God are gifts. Even if Adam should have obeyed in the garden and been confirmed in eternal life, he would have been given eternal life by the gracious arrangement of God only, which God was under no obligation to initiate and bestow.13
The implication of our debt to God in the face of arguments impugning God for His judgments and the calamities in the world are profound. In light of our rebellion against God, every breath we breathe is by the mercy of God in not giving us what we deserve, and every good we receive is by the grace of God in giving us what we do not deserve. And while mysteries remain, we have a proper starting point to engage difficult questions: God owes us nothing while we owe God perfect love, honor, and obedience. Thus, more appropriate than asking why bad things happen to good people is asking why such good things happen to those who willingly disregard their absolute and unending obligation of perfect love and obedience to their infinitely excellent and benevolent Creator. Why does God love those who shout for His death while He offers them eternal life? Our every sin is a cry of “crucify!” and our indifference a cry for Barabbas. Why should anything good happen to us apart from God’s grace?
God created us in His image and we bear what are sometimes called the “communicable” attributes of God. We share in aspects of the nature of God, but not in the same quality or degree as God. The clay bears the fingerprints of the Potter as the genius of the Artist can be seen in His handiwork. Yet, the clay is not the Potter or the Potter the clay. In bearing God’s likeness we remain eternally dependent upon God while God remains eternally independent and distinct from His creation. God in His perfect self-sufficiency will never be constrained by the limitations of His creatures. And though God created all things from nothing, and nothing has its existence apart from God creating and sustaining it, all created things remain distinct from God forever.
Moreover, the redeemed have been married into the family of the Trinity as the bride of Christ. And as is fitting for such an eternal relationship, we shall be made like Christ, “for when he appears we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2). Nonetheless, we will not be Him. And though we have “become partakers of the divine nature” as redeemed in Christ (2 Peter 1:4) and will display that divine nature to a significantly greater extent in the glories of Heaven, we will never be God. Even in our glorified state in eternity, we will remain creatures of God, dependent upon God for all things. And while our holiness will shine like the brightness of the sun, we will nonetheless be reflecting the glory of God in and through us, not our own glory.
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), “the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3).
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, 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. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Romans 1:18-21).
The evidence for God’s existence, genius, and power is so clear, comprehensive, and convincing, that all people are without excuse for not giving God honor and thanks. As the genius of a Rembrandt or Michelangelo is evident in their work and clearly distinguishable from the finger painting of a child, so the genius of God is unmistakable as behind all of His works. The evidence is so convincing that Scripture tells us that unbelievers “know” God, even while they suppress that knowledge from a heart of hostility toward God.14 Such knowledge lacks the intimate, loving aspect of the believer’s knowledge and seeks to destroy the true knowledge of God in the world. In contrast, believers rejoice in their knowledge of God and seek to increase it. And as the evidence of God surrounds the unbeliever at every turn, suppression of that knowledge is a full-time job. The theory of evolution is founded upon this suppression of the obvious truth of God, contrary to the clear testimony of created reality.
Further, God “did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). Every trip to the supermarket, every meal, every bite from an apple or candy bar gives clear witness to God and our debt to Him. Every cloud or raindrop declares His goodness.
The knowledge of God extends beyond our surroundings into the recesses of our being, for God has written His law upon every heart.15 All people have a sense of God’s existence, an inescapable knowledge of God within their own conscience and consciousness. Many will go to great lengths to deny this, yet the most hardened atheist cannot escape it. Perhaps this is no more clearly seen that in the deathbed quotes of some of the greatest antagonists of Christianity. With respect to Voltaire, Herbert Lockyer wrote that he “used his pen to retard and demolish Christianity. Of Christ, Voltaire said: ‘Curse the wretch!’” He boasted that “in twenty years Christianity will be no more. My single hand shall destroy the edifice it took twelve apostles to rear.” But on his deathbed, Voltaire’s knowledge of God tormented his soul.
I am abandoned by God and man! I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six months’ life. Then I shall go to hell; and you will go with me. O Christ! O Jesus Christ!
The nurse who cared for Voltaire is reported to have said, “For all the wealth in Europe I would not see another infidel die.”16 William Pope, another ardent atheist was said to lead a group “who ridiculed everything religious. One of their exercises was to kick the Bible about the floor and tear it up.” Yet, those who were with Pope when he died “spoke of it as a scene of terror.” Pope is reported to have said,
I have no contrition. I cannot repent. God will damn me. I know the day of grace is past…You see one who is damned forever…Oh, Eternity! Eternity! …Nothing for me but hell. Come, eternal torments…I hate everything God has made, only I have no hatred for the devil –I wish to be with him. I long to be in hell.17
However people may attempt to suppress the knowledge of God, “a sense of Deity is indelibly engraven on the human heart.”18 Even the most ardent advocates of the theory of evolution, with its central principle of survival of the fittest, have a moral code that belies their explanation of their existence. Atheists go to great lengths to claim a moral code of living, even while their worldview denies an ultimate basis for one. God’s law on the heart explains the atheists’ need to justify their unbelief by pointing to their moral code of living, as if they needed to justify the legitimacy of their unbelief. All of this is because God has written His law upon every heart.19
When we speak of God’s “special” as compared to His “general” revelation, we refer to God’s specific acts and communications to people within history at specific times, as compared to His “general” acts of revelation in creation, conscience, and His ongoing provision of good things. Most particularly, special revelation refers to Scripture, itself special revelation and the written account of God’s acts of special revelation. Just as God’s creating and sustaining activity bear the distinct marks of their divine author, so Scripture, the very word and words of God, bears the clear, comprehensive, and convincing marks of its divine author. In speaking of Scripture and the Gospel, Edwards writes:
The divine glory and beauty of divine things is in itself a real evidence of their divinity, and the most direct and strong evidence….We cannot rationally doubt but that things that are divine, and that appertain to the Supreme Being, are vastly different from the things that are human: that there is a God-like, high, and glorious excellency in them, that does so distinguish them from the things which are of men that the difference is ineffable; and therefore such as, if seen will have a most convincing, satisfying influence upon any one that they are what they are, viz., divine.20
That people reject the authority of Scripture, as they reject the testimony of creation, providence, and their own conscience, is not an issue of evidence, but of the heart. As Christ said, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (Acts 14:17). The heart unwilling to do the will of God will not see Scripture as the divine revelation of God’s will.
All that God does bears the distinct marks of His divine power and genius as a work properly bears the marks of its author. All His works display the beauty of His excellence as part of His ultimate purpose in all things. The universe is the setting and stage for the accomplishment of God’s ultimate purpose to display His excellence in and through the person and redeeming work of Jesus Christ. He is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). Christ, God the Son, is the highest and supreme display of God’s excellence. “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Christ displays the infinite excellence of God in His condescending to an infinite degree to take upon Himself a human body and nature, and in suffering infinite wrath for the infinitely unworthy. The perfections of God were never so clearly displayed than in the obedience of Christ to death upon the cross at Calvary. In the redemption of sinners in and through Christ we see the divine excellence of God’s perfect justice, holiness, love, mercy, grace, wisdom, power, and knowledge, et al. “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:4b-6).
The world is the stage upon which the ultimate display of God’s excellence in the person and redemptive work of Christ takes place. The Gospel events are accomplished, in part, through created things, while the calling of the elect takes place in time in the created realm. All things are for the ultimate purpose to display God’s infinite excellence in and through the person and redeeming work of Christ.21 “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
For good reason, God tells us, “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God’” (Psalm 14:1, 53:1). Apart from the terrible eternal consequences of unbelief, the clear, comprehensive, and convincing nature of the evidence renders all unbelief blameworthy and foolish. I can remember one particular encounter with an unbelieving friend in a beautiful backyard garden, complete with flowers, trees, sunshine, and food on the grill. As we spoke, using the mind and reasoning God gave us, breathing the air God created, in an amazing body He formed in the womb for us, in a beautiful setting where the creative genius of God was most pointedly displayed; my friend challenged me to provide evidence for God’s existence. And so it is with all unbelievers. They breathe and see the trees bending in the wind and ask for evidence of air. Where in the universe does evidence for God not exist? The very question reveals a heart in need of repentance and faith. Unbelief is sin because it is a choice of the will contrary to the evidence. To the extent that unbelief is rooted in a lack of evidence it would be reasonable and innocent. The problem would lie with God’s inadequate provision of evidence, and not the response to the evidence in the heart of the unbeliever. But Scripture clearly teaches that the responsibility and guilt of unbelief lies with the unbeliever. The clear evidence is suppressed from hostility to God and the implications of the existence of God on their life. All arguments for the existence of God, like all of the evidence of God that surrounds the unbeliever at all times, will be viewed in a manner that justifies unbelief. And while belief in the specifics of the Gospel of Christ requires the special revelation of Scripture, the unwillingness to worship, give thanks, or actively pursue a right relationship with God is willful and blameworthy. Unbelievers know better, despite their objections to the contrary.
It follows, then, that how one views and interprets God and His universe is an ethical issue, determined by one’s nature. Believers rightly view the world as created and sustained by God. We love the marks of God’s genius on His entire created universe and gladly accept the implications of our dependence upon God in all things. In contrast, unbelievers suppress the evidence for God and the truth of God in Scripture in unrighteousness, according to their hostility toward God. At the heart of the sinful response to God is a desire to be independent of God, to be one’s own authority. The marks of God’s genius and lordship in the universe continually call this sinful desire to account, reminding would-be-independent sinners of their responsibility before God, and their sin of ignoring Him. Yet, “Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:32).
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed (John 3:19-20).
The clear, comprehensive, and convincing evidence for God in the universe is the proverbial rain on the parade of unbelief, the ubiquitous killjoy of the rebel’s assumed independence. Therefore, unbelievers will not view the evidence with neutral objectivity. They refuse to do so, as the implications of a right interpretation are too great for their desire for independence from God. All evidence of the existence and nature of God will be suppressed. One of the more pointed illustrations of this reality is the acceptance of the theory of evolution. Apart from the severe lack of any true scientific evidence for the theory, the idea that universal and uniform laws are founded on random chance and that everything came from nothing is absurd. Yet, the irrationality of believing such an impossible and unscientific explanation of the universe is understandable, given the antipathy people have toward the obvious explanation and its implications for their assumed independence from God.
Consider the crowds shouting hosanna! at Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. A short week later they shouted “crucify him!” Yet, most, if not all of the crowd was familiar with the many convincing miracles of Christ before they shouted for His death. Many ate of the loaves and fishes. Some knew Lazarus and saw his empty tomb. Scripture tells us that multitudes were amazed and gave glory to God for the many miracles of Christ in His three and a half year ministry. The shouts of crucify were not from a lack of evidence. The crowds were easily swayed when they saw their conqueror of Rome under the power and punishment of Rome.
The world will be interpreted according to one’s desire to love and honor or avoid and reject God. Disinterested, neutral, and objective observers of the universe do not exist. One’s explanation of how one knows anything (epistemology) will be determined by one’s view of God, either positively or negatively. This applies to everyone.
The existence and attributes of the eternally self-existent and self-sufficient creator are independent of His creation. God is who He is regardless of what we think He is. Yet, as obvious as this simple truth may appear, the history of the world tells us it is scarcely accepted or appreciated. From the Garden of Eden to the present day, God is treated as the clay in the sinner’s hands, made into whatever image suits the potter. The golden calf in the Sinai desert was merely a variation of a universal theme. And while we may not physically carve a block of wood or silver into an object of worship, we do so mentally when we imagine a god that suits our self interest, as if thinking makes Him so.
Yet, anything and everything mankind may imagine about God has no effect on the nature and existence of God. Even what professing believers may imagine and record about their experience with God over the centuries has absolutely no effect upon the nature and existence of God. God is who and what He is regardless. And as we depend on Him for all knowledge and truth, we know the nature and works of God correctly by what He has chosen to reveal to us in Scripture.
Therefore, should the whole world follow after atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, God and His promises remain unaffected. Should the entire academic community and cultured despisers of Scripture and the Gospel laugh at our “naïve” and “foolish” faith in Christ, God and His truth endure forever. Christ told us that the way to eternal life is narrow and that few people find it (Matthew 7:13-14), and that if people hated Him they will hate us also (John 15:18-21), so we need not be intimidated into compromising or denying our faith by the strength and popularity of unbelief. The fear of man is a snare (Proverbs 29:25), while God remains our sure and firm foundation. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8b ).
As created and sustained by God, the existence and attributes of His creation are wholly determined by God. And like the existence and attributes of God, they are unaffected by human perception and beliefs. The objective reality of God’s creation is independent of our perception of it, as real things exist by God’s creating and sustaining activity, not our perception. For those who believe in God, this appears as an obvious truth, hardly worth mentioning. But, in attempting to account for reality apart from the assumption of God as the source and sustainer of all things, the question of the real existence of things apart from our perception becomes a philosophical conundrum. The problem is typically illustrated by the well-known question, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there it hear it, did it make a sound? Centuries of philosophical discussion have yet to produce an answer upon which all philosophers agree. Like the chicken and the egg conundrum, the question poses significant problems if God is not presupposed as the foundation of all of reality. Yet, when we properly acknowledge God as the source and sustainer of all reality, no such conundrum exists. God made the tree and the sound it makes, and each exist regardless of our perception because their existence depends upon God.22 And whether or not someone is present to hear the tree fall, God hears it. He is ultimately behind the tree and the sound it makes in falling, and He is the one who gives us the perception of it. God’s universe and everything in it have objective, real existence because they are created and sustained by God, and not because God gave us the ability to perceive them. If God were to create a universe with no one to view or hear it, it would still exist because God created and sustains it.
Moreover, unbelievers may deny the reality of angels and demons, but their existence and nature are not determined by what people believe. People may imagine that there’s no heaven or hell, and it may even be “easy if you try,”23 but their existence is not determined by what anyone believes. Imagine what you will, but the human imagination does not determine the existence and nature of what God created and sustains in His universe. All people will one day be confronted with reality as God has determined it to be, regardless of what they imagine it to be.
In a sense, the present point is merely a restatement of the first words of Scripture, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God alone determines reality. We observe, make judgments, and discover truth about the reality God created, but we do not determine that reality.
Life begets life, while nothing begets nothing. Nothing can exist or have meaning apart from God creating, ordering, and sustaining all things. Given the universe as it exists, God must exist. Apart from acknowledging God as the source and sustainer of the universe, all things are rendered random chance occurrences without meaning and purpose. All is reduced to absurdity.
For the sake of argument, imagine that God does not exist (even thinking that God does not exist proves that He exists, as will be discussed below). Assume that all matter and energy came from nothing or have existed for all of eternity. Founded upon random chance, all things in this universe are random chance occurrences amidst a sea of unrelated random chance occurrences. Now imagine unrelated random chance occurrences attempting to interpret and explain other unrelated random chance occurrences. Now imagine some of the problems with such a universe.
First, how can a random chance occurrence, itself without meaning or purpose, attribute meaning or purpose to other random chance occurrences? All things are unrelated as existing randomly and by chance. No basis for meaning and purpose for anything is possible.
Second, how does one random chance occurrence interpret another random chance occurrence? Everything continually changes in a universe of random chance such that nothing exists in the same form or relationship to other random chance occurrences from one moment to the next. Both the examiner and the object examined are in flux and will not be the same thing from one moment to the next. How does the interpreter in flux examine the object in flux, when neither will be the same nor even exist from one moment to the next? Meaningful interpretation of reality would be impossible.
Third, on what basis can one random chance occurrence describe another? Language assumes continuity of meaning from one moment to the next. If all is random chance in flux, how can a term with a specific meaning apply to something that will not exist as the same thing from one moment to the next? Language would be meaningless in such a universe.
Fourth, like language, truth requires continuity of meaning and existence. But, how can something be true of something that will not be the same thing in the next moment? Nothing could be said about anything except the fact that nothing can be said about anything. If nothing remains as it is, and what anything will be in the next moment cannot be predicted, how could a random chance occurrence know anything to be true of anything? Truth and knowledge would be impossible.
Fifth, thought would be impossible, as it not only requires the distinct ordering and continuity of language and knowledge, it requires the ordering and continuity of the cells of the brain, none of which are possible in a random chance universe.
Unbelievers will object to this line of reasoning by pointing out that the universe reflects none of the above characteristics and therefore has none of the problems as stated. The universe is well-ordered and things exist today as they existed yesterday and will exist tomorrow. The sun still rises, the world still exists, and the “laws of nature” operate uniformly and universally, they will say. And indeed, all of this is quite true, but only because God exists. The world as we know and interpret it could not exist apart from God. Given the nature of the world as it is, God necessarily must exist. The world, as we know it, can only be accounted for by the God of Scripture. Random chance simply cannot account for the nature of the world. It is impossible that God does not exist.24
Ironically, God must exist for unbelievers to deny His existence.25 Dr. Van Til often used the illustration of a child he observed slapping her father in the face. As the child could only slap her father because he was holding her in his lap, so unbelievers can only deny God’s existence because God created, orders, and sustains the universe and the people in it.26 Such is the nature of unbelief. The mind, thought, and language by which unbelievers deny God only exist because God exists. Interestingly, when atheists debate Christians over the existence of God, they lose the debate by showing up.27 By using their mind and language, by assuming meaning and continuity in the universe, by using the uniform and universal laws of logic, etc., they presume the existence of God. Indeed, by the time atheists think to deny the existence of God, they have already presumed His existence.
Atheists deny God but expect to wake up in the morning as the same person in the same house.28 They look in the mirror and expect to see the same face. They use language and expect that the things that words refer to today will be the same tomorrow. Atheist or agnostic, all people are practical believers in God. People simply cannot live as a random chance occurrence in a random chance universe. Life, as they live it, would be impossible. No purpose or meaning could exist. Nonetheless, people live and have meaning and purpose precisely because they do not live in such a universe, because God orders and sustains all things.
So, when atheists point to their moral standards of conduct, or affirm order, purpose, and meaning in life without God, they presume God in denying Him. Apart from God, they could do neither.29 Or, as Van Til put it, “unless its truth [the “Christian position”] is presupposed there is no possibility of ‘proving’ anything at all.”30
Not all scientists affirm the existence of God, but all scientists presume His existence. Science is impossible in a random chance universe. In addition to the reasons noted above, uniform and universal laws upon which science is based are incompatible with random chance. Pure random chance occurrences measuring and interpreting random chance occurrences cannot do science as we know it. Without uniform and universal laws, no experiment could be conducted. Measurements and definitions would be worthless, as nothing would be the same from one moment to the next. And even if an observer were to exist long enough to observe and interpret the objects of a random chance universe, nothing could be described, for nothing would be the same from one moment to the next. No outcome could be predicted or replicated. Knowledge, truth, and language would be impossible. All would be flux.
Nonetheless, science is conducted with great success and benefit to humanity, as a world of uniform and universal laws is assumed by scientists. Such a world is only possible because God exists as the creator and sustainer of all things. Like the child that can slap her father because he holds her on his lap, so some scientists use science to deny the God who makes science possible. Atheistic scientists presume God’s existence in order to deny Him.
The familiar chicken and egg conundrum asks the question, what came first, the chicken or the egg? One cannot answer “the chicken came first” because the chicken came from an egg. Conversely, one cannot say “the egg came first” because the egg was laid by a chicken. Apart from God creating the chicken or the egg, no answer of the conundrum is possible.31 A reasonable account for the existence of the chicken or the egg is impossible apart from the existence and creating activity of God. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” including the chicken that laid the egg.
Moreover, all of life is the chicken and egg conundrum. No reasonable account for the existence of any life form is possible apart from God as the source of all things. For instance, what came first, the mother or the baby? All mothers were once a baby, while all babies have their birth through a mother. The same goes for dogs, cats, whales, bugs, birds, and even to plants. Plants come from seeds, but seeds are produced by plants. The same problem exists with the building blocks of life. For example, DNA is required for life to exist, but DNA can only be produced by life. What came first? As with the people, animals, and plants, no answer is possible apart from God. The problem is further compounded by the necessity of both a father and a mother to produce offspring. Where did the father come from? He, too, was once a baby who himself required a father and a mother. Life as we know it without God as its source is quite impossible. Thus, even ignoring the lack of objective, verifiable, and repeatable scientific evidence for the theory of evolution, the impossibility of the theory is demonstrated by something as simple as a chicken and egg.
The same difficulty is found in the various attempts of Western philosophy to answer the deepest questions about reality. The impossible task of philosophy to explain the universe and answer its deepest questions can be traced to the necessity of God as the source and ground of reality as we know it (for specific problems with the philosophical schools of Empiricism and Rationalism when they proceed according to atheistic assumptions, see Appendix A). Questions cannot be answered when the only possible answer is denied or ignored at the outset. Like the mathematicians trying to solve 2+2 without 4, ultimate questions become unsolvable without God.
To argue that God probably exists is to grant the possibility that He does not exist. And to the extent that God’s non-existence is possible is the extent that unbelief is justified. For the sake of illustration, assume that a percentage could be applied to the probability of God’s existence as proposed by a given set of arguments. For example, assume an apologist can show an eighty percent probability that God exists. In such a case, unbelief is twenty percent justified. Further, if unbelievers are unfamiliar with the arguments giving an eighty percent probability of God’s existence, their unbelief is further justified. As illustrated below, to the extent that objective proof is lacking, unbelief is justified.
Thus, if the existence of God can only be shown to be probable, then the problem of unbelief is not primarily the will suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (as Scripture teaches), but a lack of data. Calls to repent are unjustified until unbelievers are given sufficient schooling in the various arguments for the existence of God. In contrast, Christ and the apostles assumed that people were accountable for their unbelief. The first spoken sentence of Christ in the Gospel of Mark includes a call to repent and believe the Gospel. No course in apologetics was required before He called them to account for their unbelief. Ultimately, arguments for the probability of God deny Scripture’s testimony that God has revealed Himself clearly, comprehensively, and convincingly, such that all are without excuse for not seeking Him and giving Him thanks. If God can only be shown to probably exist, God is at least partially responsible for the unbelief He condemns because He did not provide enough evidence.32
With respect to believers, an eighty percent probability of God’s existence means a twenty percent chance that God does not exist and our faith is worthless. Therefore, twenty percent of a believer’s faith must be blind and unjustified faith, a leap in the dark. Blind faith or a lack of assurance would be twenty percent justified, as illustrated below.
Odds would be one in five that Christianity is a hoax. Complete assurance of salvation would not be justified, as we are merely gambling on the better odds. Doubt becomes reasonable, justified, and necessary. The promises of God become “mostly sure,” some rock, some sand. Indeed, for those unfamiliar with the arguments of apologetics that provide for our hypothetical eighty percent assurance will have even less assurance. Perhaps they are only fifty, thirty, or ten percent justified in their faith. Are true faith and assurance, then, only to be found at the end of a seminary education in apologetics? The testimony of Scripture and the faith of the saints would deny this. Edwards speaks to this point clearly.
It is certain that such an assurance [of the truth of the Gospel] is not to be attained by the greater part of them who live under the gospel, by arguments fetched from ancient traditions, histories, monuments.
And if we come to fact and experience, there is not the least reason to suppose that one in a hundred of those who have been sincere Christians, and have had a heart to sell all for Christ, have come by their conviction of the truth of the gospel this way. If we read over the histories of the many thousands that died martyrs for Christ since the beginning of the Reformation, who have cheerfully undergone extreme tortures in a confidence of the truth of the gospel, and consider their circumstances and advantages, how few of them were there that we can reasonably suppose ever came by their assured persuasion this way; or, indeed, for whom it was possible reasonably to receive so full and strong an assurance from such arguments! Many of them were…children, and the greater part of them illiterate persons, many of whom had been brought up in popish ignorance and darkness, and were but newly come out of it, and lived and died in times wherein those arguments for the truth of Christianity from antiquity and history had been but very imperfectly handled. And indeed, it is but very lately that these arguments have been set in a clear and convincing light, even by learned men themselves: and since it has been done, there never were fewer thorough believers among those who have been educated in the true religion. Infidelity never prevailed so much in any age as in this, wherein these arguments are handled to the greatest advantage.”33
In context, Edwards here addresses the self-authenticating nature of Scripture and the obvious evidence of its truth and divine nature, denied only by those blind to the objective marks of its divine authorship. He later affirms value in the learned arguments for the truth of Christianity in “ancient traditions, histories, monuments,” but subordinates them to the primary witness of Scripture itself, the witness providing a sure and complete assurance. The witness of creation is no less conspicuous in proclaiming its divine origin (see Appendix B for a more detailed comparison between justified and unjustified faith).
Accordingly, as it is impossible for God not to exist, so it is unreasonable that God only probably exists. “It is as unreasonable as a child asking whether he has parents and, after looking at the evidence, concluding that he probably has!”34 The evidence for His existence is so clear, comprehensive, and convincing that faith is fully justified, assurance is meant to be complete, while unbelief if blameworthy and without excuse.
“Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
1 See also Job 41:11, Psalm 50:10-12, Exodus 3:14, John 1:3.
2 Sin is the one and only exception. Sin has its beginning in the will of mankind.
3 This is not to say that all philosophers and logicians agree on every point, as evidenced by the various types of logic. But, it is to say that the great majority acknowledge a significant body of universal and uniform laws on which they agree and depend for reasonable thought, discourse, and science.
4 Proverbs 16:2: “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit”
5 This is a central aspect of Van Til’s apologetic and a key argument against both atheism and agnosticism. How could one of such human limitations possibly say that God does not or could not exist, or make any definitive statements about God at all? For a simple and practical treatment of the implication of this basic truth see Biehl, What’s in the Box?, unpublished manuscript.
6 A significant and protracted controversy erupted between Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark concerning God’s incomprehensibility and knowledge, including and the correspondence of human knowledge with God’s knowledge. While I am greatly simplifying the complexity of the debate, central to the controversy was Gordon Clark’s contention that Van Til’s qualitative and quantitative distinction between human and divine knowledge implied that human knowledge of truth was impossible. While not without ambiguous language, Van Til affirmed human knowledge of truth concerning God and His world, as derived from God’s revelation of truth, while maintaining a proper distinction between the created being and God. And while other factors may have contributed to the heat and duration of the controversy, including “unclear polemics on both sides,” as Bahnsen put it, it appears that Clark did not fully understand Van Til’s qualification of human knowledge in emphasizing the distinction between the Creator and creature. See Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 225, fn 147; 227, fn 152; 228, fn 159; 231, fn168; 242, fn 194; Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974), 159-173; John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987), 29-40.
7 They “borrow” the morality of Christianity, or live within a culture that has vestiges of Christian morality built into its mores and traditions. In any event, they have a God-given conscience with the law of God written on their hearts, even if they insist on denying the God who gave it to them. See Romans 2:14-15. This will be more fully discussed in the chapters that follow.
8 Reflecting his hatred of Christian morality and his exaltation of power, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche represents a more consistent application of atheistic and evolutionary principles than other philosophical views. In reading Nietsche, one can easily see the soil in which the evils of eugenics, Aryanism, and the Holocaust took root. In The Anti-Christ, he wrote: “Good” is “everything that enhances people’s feeling of power, will to power, power itself,” while the “bad” is “everything stemming from weakness.” “Happiness” is “the feeling that power is growing, that some resistance has been overcome. Not contentedness, but more power; not peace, but war; not virtue, but prowess….The weak and failures should perish: first principle of our love of humanity. And they should be helped to do this. What is more harmful than any vice?—Active pity for all failures and weakness—Christianity” (4, §2). “The Christian idea of God—God as a god of the sick…is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God the world has ever seen” (15, §18). Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ: A Curse on Christianity, in The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings. Ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 9-10, §11.
9 Diagrams with circles were standard fare in apologetics courses at Westminster Theological Seminary, a legacy of Van Til, who often used them to illustrate the relationship of God and mankind. I first saw them used by Scott Oliphint.
10 In speaking of the pleasure God has in creating people and communicating to them His holiness and happiness, Edwards writes, “’Tis no argument of the emptiness or deficiency of a fountain that it is inclined to overflow.” In other words, that fact that God created us does not argue that He created us to meet a need or deficiency in Himself. Rather, He created us from the overflow of His goodness. Jonathan Edwards, “Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World,” in Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey, vol. 8 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 448.
11 Paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 4:7 and John 3:27, respectively.
12 To be discussed further under God’s righteousness.
13 See Craig Biehl, The Infinite Merit of Christ: The Glory of Christ’s Obedience in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Jackson, MS: Reformed Academic Press, 2009), 100-101.
14 Romans 8:7, Colossians 1:21.
15 See John 1:9; Romans 1:19, 2:14-15.
16 Herbert Lockyer, All the Last Words of Saints and Sinners (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1969), 133.
17 Lockyer, Last Words, 132-133.
18 Calvin writes, “All men of sound judgment will therefore hold, that a sense of Deity is indelibly engraven on the human heart. And that this belief is naturally engendered in all, and thoroughly fixed as it were in our very bones, is strikingly attested by the contumacy [defiance] of the wicked, who, though they struggle furiously, are unable to extricate themselves from the fear of God. Though Diagoras, and others of like stamp, make themselves merry with whatever has been believed in all ages concerning religion, and Dionysius scoffs at the judgment of heaven, it is but a Sardonian grin; for the worm of conscience, keener than burning steel, is gnawing within them.” Calvin, Institutes, 1.3.3, quoted in Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 88.
19 See Romans 1:32, where we read of the most depraved of sinners understand that “those who practice such things deserve to die.”
20 Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 224, 225. Cf. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John Edwin Smith, The Works of Jonathan
Edwards, vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 298, 299. Hereafter the Banner of Truth and Yale versions will be designated by “BT” and “Yale,” respectively. “The gospel of the blessed God does not go abroad a-begging for its evidence, so much as some think; it has its highest and most proper evidence in itself.” Edwards, Religious Affections; BT, 233; Yale, 307. Calvin writes, “Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.” John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, vol. 1, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.7.2.
21 The background of this brief discussion of God’s purpose to display His glory through the person and work of Christ in redeeming unworthy sinners, can be seen in the exposition of Jonathan Edwards’ understanding of the ultimate purpose of God in Biehl, The Infinite Merit of Christ.
22 This is not to deny the existence of complex issues with respect to perception and truth, or that different people will view things differently, according to a myriad of different factors. Yet, it is to say, that the ultimate existence and nature of anything is determined by God alone, and not our perception, and that many of the difficulties surrounding this particular philosophical discussion stem from attempting to answer it apart from presuming God as the source and sustainer of all things.
23 So said John Lennon is his popular song, Imagine.
24 Van Til writes, “We cannot prove the existence of beams underneath a floor if by proof we mean that they must be ascertainable in the way that we can see the chairs and tables of the room. But the very idea of a floor as the support of tables and chairs requires the idea of beams that are underneath. But there would be no floor if no beams were underneath. Thus there is absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism.” Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 4th ed., ed. K. Scott Oliphint, 2008), 126. This type of argument for the existence of God is sometimes called “arguing from the impossibility of the contrary” and is a central and critical aspect of Van Til’s apologetic approach. See Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic; 6-7, 621.
25 Bahnsen notes, “The most compact and dramatic way of summarizing Van Til’s apologetic that I have seen (or can imagine) is simply these three words: ‘Antitheism presupposes theism.’ From A Survey of Christian Epistemology, In Defense of the Faith, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), xii; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 113.
26 See Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 712.
27 I once heard Dr. Bahnsen relate the story of a debate he had with an atheist, where he made this very point by telling his opponent that he lost the debate by showing up.
28 Thanks to Scott Oliphint for illustrating this insight.
29 A few are willing to admit that a universe founded upon random chance renders all things meaningless and without purpose, but they are the rare exception.
30 “My Credo,” in Jerusalem and Athens, ed. E. R. Geehan (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 21; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 113.
31 We know God created the chicken first from Scripture.
32 This raises the question about the provision of the Gospel to unbelievers, their responsibility for believing it to be saved, and their judgment for not believing it. Could not God be blamed for not providing the Gospel to everyone in the world? Scripture clearly teaches that God is just in all His ways, and never makes a wrong judgment. In the case of those who never hear the Gospel, Scripture says they will be judged for suppressing the evidence they have been given, the evidence they suppress in unrighteousness. No one will ever be judged who desired to know God, but was hindered by a lack of evidence. In the end, Scripture tells us that no one, apart from the grace of God, seeks after the true God of Scripture apart from God’s grace.
33 Edwards, Religious Affections; BT, 231-232; Yale, 305.
34 Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1971; reprint, 1980), 33.
“Because God is infinite and we are finite or limited, we can never fully understand God. In this sense God is said to be incomprehensible, where the term incomprehensible is used with an old and less common sense, ‘unable to be fully understood.’ This sense must be clearly distinguished from the more common meaning, ‘unable to be understood.’ It is not true to say that God is unable to be understood, but it is true to say that he cannot be understood fully or exhaustively.”1
Isaiah 40:28b: “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”
Isaiah 55:8-9: “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.”
Romans 11:33-35: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’”
God has made Himself known. All of creation bears the clear, comprehensive, and convincing evidence of his genius and power. The rains, seasons, and food on our table speak of His goodness. The stars speak of his glory. Our conscience reminds us of our accountability to love and obey Him. And His word and words to us in Scripture reveal His person, purpose, and works, and explain for us the nature of reality. Moreover, He created us in His image with the ability to know Him and communicate with Him. Yet, if God did not condescend to reveal Himself to us, we could not know Him. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). “No one has ever seen God; the only God, what is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). All knowledge of God depends upon God condescending to reveal Himself to us.2 Our dependence on God for knowledge of God did not begin with the sin of Adam, but is an implication of God’s incomprehensibility, self-existence, and infinity.3
One of the implications of God’s self-existence noted above is God’s independence of human perception and thought. All the thoughts and pronouncements of finite, created, and dependent people can never determine the existence and nature of God. God is completely independent of His creation. Moreover, given His incomprehensibility and our dependence upon Him for all knowledge, one person’s speculation about God is no better than another person’s speculation about God. Apart from God’s revelation, all speculation is guesswork. God is incomprehensible and we lack the ability to know beyond what He has chosen to reveal to us about Himself. Thus, we can be thankful that God has chosen to reveal Himself to us in creation and Scripture. We need not speculate about God, or be shaken by the unjustified speculation of unbelievers about God.
As created in God’s image, we are to pursue science to seek knowledge of God’s world for His glory and the benefit of His creatures. But we should do so with the proper understanding of our status as God’s creatures and God’s status as the incomprehensible source and sustainer of all things. We should be wise in seeking to know what God has given for us to know, and reverent in knowing our limitations before our incomprehensible Creator.
It is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in Himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder. He has set forth by His Word the secrets of his will that he has decided to reveal to us. These He decided to reveal in so far as he foresaw that they would concern us and benefit us.4
Speculation about God beyond what He has condescended to reveal to us risks the idolatry of creating false images of God in our minds, according to our finite and fallen perspective. Moreover, to ignore or go beyond God’s revelation concerning His person, works, and will is to exalt our own reason over His revelation and our own authority over His authority.
As God created, ordered, and sustains the universe, so He created, ordered, and sustains reason, knowledge, and truth. Created as dependent upon God for all things, God gave us what we need for knowledge of Him and His universe. To that end, God gave us reason and logic to understand, order, and reverently submit to His revelation. And as the entire universe bears the fingerprints of God’s power and genius, so logic reflects the mind of God as He is infinitely rational and coherent in His thinking and knowledge of all things. He does not contradict Himself and in Him are no contradictions.6 And while we may not understand all that God has revealed to us about Himself and His world, our human limitations do not imply contradictions in God. Logic reflects the coherent mind of God, but is limited as used by created, finite, and fallible people.7
For instance, logic is never used in a neutral manner. As used by people to order their thought and knowledge, logic is always used according to the perspective and purpose of the person using it. Believers use logic to affirm God’s existence and attributes, while unbelievers use logic to deny them. One’s relationship to God determines how one interprets God and His creation according to the rules of logic.
Also, logic alone is inadequate to know the attributes of God. We know the nature of God by what He has chosen to reveal to us about Himself in creation and in the word and words of God in Scripture. We know of the person, works, and words of Jesus Christ, and the ultimate interpretation of God’s universe in Scripture. Logic, as vitally important as it is to order our thinking correctly, does not tell us these things. God’s revelation is the ultimate determiner of truth.
A case in point is the well-known “cosmological” argument for the existence of God. Simply stated, one version of the argument says that every effect has a cause, and as an infinite chain of causes and effects is impossible, a first cause or “unmoved mover” (God) must exist. In one sense, the argument is valid because the entire universe gives clear, comprehensive, and convincing evidence of God as its author. The effect that is the universe and everything in it proclaim God as the cause.8 Yet, we cannot conclude from logic alone that God does not have a cause or that an infinite chain of causes and effects is impossible. On the contrary, it logically follows that if “every effect must have a cause” then an infinite chain of causes and effects must exist, for the “first cause” itself must have a cause. Only God’s revelation tells us no infinite chain of causes and effects exists and that God is the self-existent cause of all things. “In the beginning God” limits the authority of logic by itself to determine ultimate truth about God and His existence. In the same way, logic alone cannot tell us that God is a Trinity, or that Christ is both one-hundred percent God and one-hundred percent man at the same time. Logic, apart from revelation, could be used to argue against such Christian doctrines.
Logic is not contrary to Christian doctrine, however. God gave logic to be used by people created in His image in the context of a world that clearly and comprehensively reveals God in all things. And while logic depends upon God’s revelation as the ultimate source of truth concerning God’s existence and attributes, the existence and use of logic itself gives clear evidence of the existence of God. Consider again a godless universe of random chance. What, then, accounts for the uniformity and universality of the laws of logic? Uniform and universal laws could not exist in a universe founded on random chance. That our reasoning functions according to uniform and universal laws of logic9 gives clear evidence of God’s existence. Apart from God, logic would be impossible.
I recently heard an atheist who, in great confidence, believes he refutes the apologetic arguments of Christians. When asked to give an account for the existence of logic he boldly affirmed that it “just is,” assuming that for which he was to give an account. He dodged the question while claiming to answer it because he could not give a reasonable account for anything in the universe as it exists, including logic, apart from God as its source and sustainer. And this should not be surprising, for the same apologists for atheism, while immersed in the clear, comprehensive, and convincing evidence of God’s existence, ask Christians for evidence of God’s existence.
Fundamental to properly understanding the nature of belief and unbelief is how we know the existence and excellence of God. In short, evidence for the existence and excellence of God is seen and known immediately and intuitively, and is not the result of a process of logical deduction. This is not to say that the knowledge of God is illogical. As we have seen, God as the source and sustainer of all things is eminently logical and the only reasonable explanation of reality as we know it. Yet, no amount of logical reasoning will convince a heart at enmity with God of the existence and excellence of God.
Edwards likens the knowledge of God to our recognition of the harmony of music, the beauty of a rainbow, or the tasting of honey.10 No explanation of sound waves is needed to prove the disharmony of two musical notes when hearing the dissonance is evidence enough. Explanations of mathematical symmetry and the various locations on the color scale cannot substitute for actually seeing the beauty of a rainbow. Its beauty is known immediately and intuitively. All of the verbal descriptions of honey to one without taste buds are nothing compared to actually tasting it. So it is with the knowledge of God. Edwards writes,
The divine glory and beauty of divine things is in itself a real evidence of their divinity, and the most direct and strong evidence. He that truly sees the divine, transcendent, supreme glory of those things which are divine, does, as it were, know their divinity intuitively.11
No amount of deductive reasoning (valuable as it is) will convince unbelievers of the excellence of God if they lack the spiritual eyes or sense to see His beauty. The evidence is clear, comprehensive, and convincing. “The gospel of the blessed God does not go abroad a-begging for its evidence, so much as some think; it has its highest and most proper evidence in itself.”12 The marks of the excellence of God are conspicuous in the world and in the parts and whole of Scripture. They are so clear in creation that all mankind are without excuse for not worshipping and giving God thanks (Romans 1:18-22). Yet, unbelievers are blind to the beauty of God’s attributes. They are hostile to the God of Scripture and view the excellence of the Gospel as “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). They see and know the truth, but their enmity against God drives them to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They know truth about God by the clear, comprehensive, and convincing evidence that surrounds them, but are blind to the beauty of God’s excellence from a heart of enmity against God as their creator, lord, and redeemer. Their desire for independence from God drives their erroneous interpretations of God’s world. The same is true of Scripture. Unbelievers can read and understand it, but cannot see its beauty and therefore reject its authority. They suppress the evidence of its divine authorship from a heart of enmity against God.
Thus, the ultimate issue of unbelief is not one of logic (as logical as true belief is), but the nature of one’s heart toward God. The heart at enmity with God will not see the beauty of God’s excellence, and will suppress the knowledge of God at every turn. Until the Spirit of God changes the heart of the unbeliever in removing the hostility and blindness to the beauty of God’s excellence, he or she will not believe. Yet, when the hostility is removed, the knowledge of the existence and excellence of God will be known immediately and intuitively, as the truth will be seen for what it truly is. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
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).
While we can know God in a personal loving relationship, we can never know Him or His ways exhaustively. God is incomprehensible. God would be no higher than us if we could know Him exhaustively. This fact, though not always sufficiently appreciated by believers, is critical to a proper interpretation of reality in submission to God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture.
Believers are often confronted with arguments against faith in Christ based upon the apparent impossibility of Christian doctrines and biblical events. Many deny the possibility of the Trinity because they cannot understand how God can be one and yet eternally exist as three persons. Atheists are quick to point to the impossibility of Jonah in the belly of a big fish for three days, a universal flood and the salvation of animal life and humanity by an ark, or the sun standing still, etc. Yet, as we noted above, human perception and understanding have no effect on the nature of God and the reality God created and upholds. Because a finite human being does not believe something can happen or exist determines nothing. To deny truth about God because one does not understand it denies God’s incomprehensibility. And to deny God’s incomprehensibility is to claim knowledge about the character of God, something beyond the capacity of a finite person to know apart from the revelation of God. In the end, it makes one’s understanding the ultimate standard of truth, saying, “If I cannot understand something, it cannot be true.” This assumes for the human the authority of God in determining what can or cannot be, all despite the human limitations of five senses, three dimensions, and a few years upon the earth. Finite human understanding can never be the final standard of truth.
Given the nature of God as the creator and sustainer of all things, and our nature as created, limited, and dependent upon God for all things, it necessarily follows from our human perspective that mysteries must exist. If we could understand all things we would be God. It makes perfect sense that people of limited understanding cannot fully understand or logically reconcile many things God has revealed to us about Himself and His universe. Created, finite, and dependent people simply cannot fully comprehend what is and is not possible with a God that transcends all that He created and sustains. God is not constrained by the universe or our limited understanding of it. Moreover, to reject something because we cannot understand it implies that our limited understanding is the ultimate standard of what can and cannot be true concerning God and His universe. The same applies to the so-called “problem of evil” (to be discussed further below). The inability of our finite understanding to fully grasp the existence of evil in a universe created and sustained by a good and all powerful God merely points to our human limitations.
Behind the many problems unbelievers have with the nature of God and reality as revealed in Scripture, among other things, is a failure to acknowledge human limitations in the face of an infinite and incomprehensible God. Mystery concerning God and His universe reflects the infinite gap between God and His creatures, not any irrationality in God.13
To whom will you liken God? Or what likeness compare with Him…. To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing (Isaiah 40:18, 25-26).
While it is true that all things bear the finger prints of God and give clear, comprehensive, and convincing evidence of His existence and nature, the Potter is not the clay. The genius of the Potter is seen in the clay, but forever remains distinct from the clay. The same applies to our being created in God’s image. We bear aspects of God’s divinity but are not divine. When through faith we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), we bear and reflect aspects of the character of Christ by His Spirit within us, but we do not become Christ. All we bear of God’s image is quantitatively and qualitatively different from God.
Notwithstanding, Scripture does provide many earthly analogies of God and spiritual realities. For instance, Christ tells us that if human fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will God be good to His children (Luke 11:10-13). The relationship of husband and wife is a picture of the relationship of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Many such analogies are taught in Scripture. But while we can learn many things about God by what He has created, no earthly analogy can sufficiently represent an incomprehensible God. If earthly analogies could sufficiently explain God, He would be no higher than earthly things.
Our dependence upon Scripture does not deny that God has clearly revealed Himself in creation, providence, and conscience. But, even before Adam and Eve sinned, they needed God’s special revelation to know their purpose and duties. The supreme test of their fidelity in God’s command to not eat the forbidden fruit required the special revelation of God’s word.
Thus, our fall into sin did not initiate our dependence upon God’s special revelation, but greatly increased it. A corrupted will and understanding require special revelation to interpret reality correctly. A fallen will and understanding will pervert and suppress earthly analogies of God.14 Further, fallen people need the special revelation of the Gospel to know the way of deliverance from the penalty and power of sin, and to know God’s will for their life. General revelation renders irreverence and ignorance of God inexcusable, but cannot reconcile fallen people to God through faith in Christ.
Sin, corruption, and death affirm Scripture’s account of the reality if sin, its consequences, and the justice of God. But evil is not analogous of God. Without the guidance and correction of Scripture, we would interpret reality according to our finite and corrupt understanding, drawing erroneous conclusions from the existence of evil in the world. God could be seen as both good and evil, with evil as equally ultimate as goodness. We would make God in our own image or the image of created things. And, if earthly analogies are used by Christian apologists as the primary evidence of God’s existence, unbelievers will merely point to evil in the world and dismiss the existence of the holy God of Scripture. Thus, while earthly analogies are often helpful in leading unbelievers to the knowledge of God in Christ, Scripture is required for them to be used correctly.
As created and sustained by our self-existent and incomprehensible God, we humbly depend on Scripture to know and proclaim His excellence and rightly understand His universe. God alone created all things, knows all things, and possesses ultimate authority to properly interpret and explain all things. Created and dependent people of five senses, three dimensions, and a few years on earth do not possess the knowledge and outside perspective to question God’s explanation of Himself or the universe He created and sustains. For good reason God tells us that “whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26). We simply lack the perspective and knowledge of God to determine truth, or to deny what God has revealed to us as truth. To what higher authority than Scripture can one appeal to deny the truth of Scripture? If we say science, on what basis does science deny the truth of Scripture? Science is conducted by human scientists, subject to the same limitations of all people. To deny the truthfulness of Scripture, one would need to deny the existence of its author, God Himself. And on what basis can a scientist, subject to human limitations, say that the transcendent God of the universe does not exist? To justifiably deny the existence of God requires knowledge about the entire universe and beyond. The omniscience of God is required to legitimately deny God. As God is incomprehensible, scientists are simply incapable of explaining His nature and existence apart from what God Himself has revealed. And no higher authority exists to which they can appeal to deny the truthfulness of Scripture (miracles will be discussed below). Apart from Scripture, atheistic scientists (as contrasted with believing scientists) merely describe how God governs the universe, even as they deny Him.
“Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
1 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 149.
2 Citing Augustine, Calvin notes that God condescends to speak to us on our level as a mother speaks to her child. Calvin, Institutes, 3.21.4.
3 To be discussed below.
4 Calvin, Institutes, 2.22.1.
5 Logic can only be the ultimate standard of truth in the sense that God is the standard of truth and God’s “mind” is perfectly coherent and logical. Finite human reasoning, including our use of logic, cannot be the final standard of truth. God has revealed many truths that we cannot reconcile according to our human use of logic, that are ultimately reconcilable to God in His infinite knowledge.
6 Frame writes, “Scripture teaches that God himself is logical. In the first place, His Word is truth (John 17:17), and truth means nothing if it is not opposed to falsehood. Therefore His Word is noncontradictory. Furthermore, God does not break His promises (2 Cor. 1:20); He does not deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13); He does not lie (Heb. 6:18; Tit. 1:2). At the very least, those expressions mean that God does not do, say, or believe the contradictory of what He says to us. The same conclusion follows from the biblical teaching concerning the holiness of God. Holiness means that there is nothing in God that contradicts his perfection (including His truth). Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 253.
7 The question sometimes arises as to whether logic is created and therefore limited and unable to be the ultimate standard of truth or uncreated as it is a reflection of the coherence of God’s thought. The question, as I have phrased it, however, poses an unnecessary dichotomy. “Christians see the laws of logic as expressions of God’s thinking, His own consistent personal nature, not as principles outside of God to which He must measure up. The laws of logic reflect the nature of God, for in Him we find perfect coherence….the laws of logic reflect His nature, the way He is in Himself. They are, therefore, eternal expressions of the unchanging character of God (Num. 23:19; Mal. 3:6; James 1:17).” Gary DeMar, ed., Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2007) 210. See also 200-202, 154, 264-266. Yet, logic is used in the reasoning of finite and fallen creatures. Thus, in speaking of logic as used by finite and fallen creatures, Richard Pratt is correct in saying that “logic is not above the Creator-creature distinction,” that “logic is a part of creation,” “has limitations,” and that it is not the ultimate standard of truth, as “truth is found at the judgment seat of God, not the court of logic.” Richard Pratt, Every Thought Captive (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1979), 24-25. Pratt and Bahnsen, both adherents and expositors of the apologetic of Cornelius Van Til, agree that God’s thought is perfectly rational and coherent, that the laws of logic are reflective of God’s mind as perfectly rational and coherent, but that logic as used by created, finite, and fallible humans cannot be the ultimate standard of truth. Frame states it this way, “Human logic is fallible, even though God’s logic is infallible.” Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 255. See also Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 10-12.
8 “God’s revelation is everywhere, and everywhere perspicuous [clear]. Hence, the theistic proofs are absolutely valid. They are but the restatement of the revelation of God.” Van Til, quoted in Bahnsen, 616.
9 Or, at least, it should.
10 Edwards, Religious Affections; BT, 224; Yale, 207-208.
11 Ibid., BT, 224; Yale, 298.
12 Ibid., BT, 233; Yale, 307.
13 See Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 12.
14 See Romans 1:18-22.
· God is perfect with respect to His person.1
“Although God reveals Himself as a personal Being capable of fellowship with man, who we can worship and love, and to whom we can pray with the assurance of being heard and answered; nevertheless He fills heaven and earth; He is exalted above all we can know or think. He is infinite in his being and perfections.”2
“God’s perfection means that God completely possesses all excellent qualities and lacks no part of any qualities that would be desirable for him.”3
“Absence of all limitation and defect.”4
Note: All of God’s attributes are interrelated, interdependent, and inseparable in God. Though listed here as a separate attribute, perfection describes all of God’s attributes, i.e., He is perfect in holiness, perfect in knowledge, perfect in wisdom, etc.5 Indeed, theologians often use the term “perfections” instead of “attributes” to describe the nature of God.
Deuteronomy 32:4: “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”
Job 37:16: “Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of him who is perfect in knowledge.”
Psalm 113:4: “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens!”
· God is eternal with respect to time.
“As He is free from all the limitations of space, so He is exalted above all the limitation of time. As He is not more in one place than in another, but is everywhere equally present, so He does not exist during one period of duration more than another. With Him there is no distinction between the present, past, and future; but all things are equally and always present to Him. With Him duration is an eternal now.”6
Psalm 90:2, 4: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God…. For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.”
Psalm 102:25-27: “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.”
Isaiah 57:15a: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy.”
· God is immense and omnipresent with respect to space.
Immensity and omnipresence “are not different attributes, but one and the same attribute, viewed under different aspects. His immensity is the infinitude of his being, viewed as belonging to his nature from eternity. He fills immensity with his presence. His omnipresence is the infinitude of his being, viewed in relation to his creatures. He is equally present with all his creatures, at all times, and in all places.”7
Immensity has to do with God’s transcendence (i.e., He is not subject to the limitations of space), while omnipresence has to do with God’s immanence (i.e., God is present in all aspects of His creation).8
Jeremiah 23:23-24: “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.”
Psalm 139:7-10: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”
Ephesians 1:23: “[The church] which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Caution: Though God fills all things, and occupies all space, he is not all things, and has no spatial dimensions. The Creator and His creation are distinct. He is everywhere, but He is not everything.
Nothing can be higher than God as infinite. As big as the universe may be, it is small compared to God. The “gap” between God and His creation is infinite. As we noted earlier, if God did not condescend to reveal Himself to the people He created, we could never know Him. The finite cannot comprehend the infinite without the help of the infinite, as it were.
As infinite, God is perfect in every way. All His attributes are absolutely perfect and without defect. As noted with respect to God’s eternal self-existence and self-sufficiency, no standard or authority exists to which God is answerable. God created and sustains all things, while all things depend upon God for everything. As infinite, He is beyond His creation to an infinite extent. He is everywhere always, and transcends the limitations of time. As the source of all truth and knowledge, God is the ultimate authority and standard of truth and cannot possibly be wrong. He answers to no one. To whom or what can a finite human being appeal to criticize or question the will and authority of an infinite God? No such authority can possibly exist. As noted concerning God’s incomprehensibility, created and finite beings are unqualified to contradict what Scripture says God can, cannot, should, or should not do. Indeed, for finite, fallen, and dependent people to question the supreme authority and infinite perfection of their creator is a supreme insult. Charnock writes,
The validity of a proclamation is derived from the authority of the prince that dictates it and orders it; yet, the greater the person that publisheth it, the more dishonour is cast upon the authority of the prince that enjoins it, if it be contemned. The everlasting God ordained it, and the eternal Son published it.9
How much more, then, the infinity of God should give us reason to rest in the trustworthiness of His word, Scripture.
The infinite cannot be constrained by the finite. Without defect or limitation, God cannot be constrained by what He created. He is perfectly free and independent of all things. Yet, one of the most common misrepresentations of God is that He is subject to the limitations of that which He created and sustains. On the contrary, God is infinite and without limits. Many of the objections to the God of Scripture would easily be dismissed if we would merely acknowledge both the infinite nature of God and the limits of our human understanding. God transcends the constraints of the “natural” world.
Apart from God’s revelation, created, finite, and dependent people cannot know what God can and cannot be, or what God can and cannot do, and therefore what is and what is not possible with God and His universe. A brief look at a few representative objections to the nature of God as revealed in Scripture will help illustrate the point.
For instance, some people reject the doctrine that God is omnipresent because “two things cannot occupy the same space.”10 Scientists operating from their limited, human vantage point have observed this as a characteristic of space and matter. But, on what authority does one apply characteristics observed in the created universe to God, who created, sustains, and transcends the universe? God is infinite and without limitations. Human understanding of the laws of physics may say that two different things cannot occupy the same space at the same time, but the transcendent God who created and sustains all things is not so constrained. Apart from God’s revelation, how can finite people know what is possible for an infinite and transcendent God? To what higher authority can one appeal? Scientists can observe and describe the universe as God created and sustains it, but can only offer unjustified guesses as to what a transcendent God can and cannot do. And as all people are equally incapable of knowing truth about the transcendent God apart from His revelation, trust in human opinion as the standard of truth reduces to relativism and the loss of truth. Six billion or more people, each as an “ultimate authority” or standard of truth, reduce to no ultimate authority or standard of truth.
Others claim that God must be constrained by time to interact with people in time. Again, on what authority is the claim based? None can know such a thing apart from God telling them, and Scripture tells us that God transcends time and interacts personally with His people in time. He is transcendent and immanent, beyond and within His world at the same time. Here again, science can do no more than offer an unfounded opinion.
One last example is the claim that “if God fills all things, He must be all things.” Or, if God is immense and omnipresent, we should all be pantheists. But Scripture clearly distinguishes God from His creation. The Potter is not the clay, though the Potter is everywhere and fills the clay. We may not understand how this is possible from our limited perspective, but to what authority can one appeal to say otherwise? The finite cannot possibly know that the infinite God is so constrained. Scientists, again, can only venture a guess. No finite human interpreters are justified in claiming that the transcendent creator of all things is subject to the constraints of what they observe in created reality.
The claim that God is constrained by that which He created and transcends denies the attributes of God as He has revealed them to us in Scripture. God’s infinity and transcendence is denied, His omnipotence is denied, His omnipresence is denied, His knowledge of the past, present, and future at the same time, is denied. To state that God is constrained by aspects of created reality is to deny God as God.
To know what is possible or impossible with God apart from Scripture, one would have to be God, knowing everything about the universe and beyond. Ironically, those claiming that God is subject to the constraints of His creation lack the omniscience to make such claims, even while they contradict Scripture, the only authoritative source of truth about such things. Yet, all unbiblical speculation concerning what is and is not possible with God reduces to unjustified faith in human opinion. And again, when human opinion becomes the ultimate standard of truth, all knowledge becomes relative as truth is reduced to billions of individual opinions. Truth is thereby rendered meaningless and unknowable, as no single ultimate authority exists by which opinions can be measured as true or false.
Opinions about God not only concern knowledge and truth, they are an ethical issue. How one approaches truth and knowledge reflects how one honors the authority and rule of God. To assume that God is constrained by His creation dishonors God by repeating the sin of Adam and Eve. In choosing to eat the forbidden fruit, they assumed for themselves God’s place and prerogative as the ultimate authority and determiner of truth.
In the sin of Adam and Eve we see not only the evil and consequences of willful disobedience to a command of God, we see a presumed role reversal of God as creator and His people as created, a denial of reality as God created it, a presumed usurping of the authority possessed by God alone, a denial of the true source of truth and knowledge, and an ethical irreverence of God as creator and benevolent giver of all good things. In the sin of Adam and Eve, we see the depth and breadth of the evil of sin.
To begin, as created by God, Adam and Eve depended upon God for all things, including all knowledge and truth. God alone is the independent and authoritative source of all truth and knowledge. Adam and Eve owed God all love, honor, and obedience, while God owed them nothing. This was the reality and proper order of things in the garden.
The serpent, however, questioned reality as God created it and proposed for Adam and Eve a false reality where they were ultimate authorities, where they determined knowledge and truth, and where God’s will for them was one alternative among many. In effect, they did not owe God all love, honor, and obedience. Contrary to God’s representation of reality, God did not really want what was best for them. He was merely self-protective, not wanting them to be like Him or to know what He knew. God was neither good nor forthright. The serpent proposed a role reversal in exalting the authority of Adam and Eve over God’s authority, while lowering God to the same level as the serpent as an equally valid alternative. Worse, the serpent asked them to exalt him over God, by calling God a liar and exalting his word over God’s word.
The response of Adam and Eve affirmed the serpent’s distortion of reality, denied their created status and dependence upon God for all knowledge and truth, and denied their debt to love, honor, and obey Him always. When Eve observed the beauty of the fruit and its ability to make her “wise,” she rejected God’s authority and explanation of reality and exalted her own reason over God’s authority and revelation. She assumed that her interpretation of reality was better than God’s interpretation and disregarded God’s command and explanation of the consequences of disobedience. When Adam and Eve contemplated the serpent’s offer instead of rejecting it, they lowered God’s word and will to the level of the word and will of the created serpent. They granted themselves the authority to choose between the word of God and the word of the serpent. In short, they denied the true nature of reality as God created it, they usurped the ultimate authority of God to determine truth and knowledge, and dishonored God to whom they owed all love, honor and obedience. They took upon themselves the place and prerogative of God.
In the sin of Adam and Eve we have a clear picture of the nature of sin and unbelief. They deny human dependence upon God as creator, to whom belongs all love and honor, and usurp His authority to determine truth and knowledge. Unbelief denies God and exalts humanity to God’s rightful place. Unbelief repeats not only the sin of Adam and Eve, but the first sin of Lucifer who sought to exalt himself over the throne of God.11 Tozer put is this way,
Sin has many manifestations but its essence is one. A moral being, created to worship before the throne of God, sits on the throne of his own selfhood and from that elevated position declares, ‘I AM.’ That is sin in its concentrated essence.12
In the role reversal, mankind assumes the place of ultimate authority to determine truth and knowledge, while God’s revelation of Himself and His universe is dismissed as unhistorical and unscientific.
At first glance, the idea that God is debased by exalting Him above fallible human language may sound counterintuitive. Can God really be lowered by raising Him so high? Yet, this is exactly the case. For one, Scripture is replete with clear and unequivocal statements that God has spoken to us in human language and that we can know Him savingly and lovingly by His written word.13 Also, to speak of God as too exalted to be known by language answers yes to the question, is anything too difficult for God? Apparently, using spoken and written language to communicate to and though imperfect people is too difficult for God. He can create us in His image, but His power and wisdom to personally communicate with us in human language is thwarted by our imperfections. His perfection and transcendence somehow limit His capabilities.
The problems associated with this assertion are the same problems with claims that God is constrained by the universe He created, sustains, and transcends. First, the claim contradicts itself. No one could know that God is too exalted to be known by human language apart from God telling them with meaningful and understandable human language. And if God were to communicate such a notion through subjective impressions in the heart or mind, to understand and articulate its meaning would require language. Subjective impressions are meaningless without specific content. Curiously, those who speak of God being unknowable by human language tend to say a great deal about God. John Frame makes this interesting point.
Theologians who make much of the ‘wholly otherness’ of God are not in the least restrained in their writing and speaking about God. Typically, they have gone ahead to write great tomes, developing elaborate theories about God’s nature and existence, his attributes, and the relations among the persons of the Trinity, as if they had entirely forgotten their initial agnosticism.14
Apart from knowledge of God by the definitive revelation from God, one wonders why some scholars spend a lifetime writing about that which language is wholly unable to describe, and why anyone would pay attention to their unfounded opinions.15
Second, the claim exalts human reason as the ultimate authority over God’s revelation and authority. Proponents of the view presume their own authority to determine what God can and cannot be and do, contrary to Scripture’s clear teaching. Yet, while they lack the omniscience necessary to make claims about God apart from specific revelation from God, they contradict the special revelation God has provided. Here, again, an untenable position is based on faith in personal and unwarranted opinion.
Interestingly, those who emphasize God’s transcendence and deny His active and ongoing personal involvement in history, and those who deny God’s transcendence and reduce Him to no more than an idealized man, operate according to the same unbelieving principles. They both trust in their opinion over the authority of God in Scripture, and interpret God and reality according to the same unbelieving assumptions that exalt human opinion over God’s revelation. Perhaps their common denial of the historicity of the temptation and fall of mankind is in their interest, as the sin of Adam and Eve so reflects their own approach to God, reality, knowledge, and truth. In any event, history shows that they always seem to end up in the same place, denying the exclusive claims of Christ and the Gospel.
Few doctrines of Scripture are more difficult to accept than our human limitations and absolute dependence upon God for all knowledge and truth. Yet, few doctrines are more important for a proper response to profound suffering and evil. Given the nature of God and who we are in relationship to Him, humble acceptance of our limited perspective and understanding is necessary and appropriate. Peace and contentment in the face of great difficulties are not ultimately from specific answers to every difficult question (though God has provided many specific answers in Scripture), but from resting in the perfect goodness and excellence of the One with all the answers.
Moreover, our perspective is often earthly and short-sighted. We lack the comprehensive, eternal perspective from which to properly view all things. The ultimate outcome of everything is in God’s hands, and He has told us enough to trust Him. In the long run He will make everything right. As we read in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” All suffering must be viewed in light of the brevity of life, endless eternity, the excellence of God as most fully displayed in Christ and the extent to which He went to remedy evil, and our profoundly limited human perspective. God’s justice is perfect, all people will be treated accordingly (The “problem of evil” will be discussed further under the attribute of “Unity”).
Perhaps Calvin best summarizes the point.
“And let us not be ashamed to submit our understanding to God's boundless wisdom as far as to yield before its many secrets. For, of those things which it is neither given nor lawful to know, ignorance is learned, the raving to know, a kind of madness.”16
Sin’s desire to be God can generate unwarranted speculation. The “madness” and “raving to know” beyond what God has given us to know display a misplaced faith and unwillingness to accept our limitations as created, finite, and dependent creatures of God. True wisdom knows its limitations and accepts the silence beyond the boundaries of God’s revelation.
“Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
1 Berkhof defines God’s infinity according to the threefold definition utilized here. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th revised and Enlarged ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939; reprint, 1991), 60-61.
2 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; reprint, Hendrickson, 2003), 380.
3 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 218.
4 Orr, quoted in Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 60.
5 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 218. See also Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 60.
6 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:385.
7 Ibid., 1:383.
8 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 61.
9 Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (1797; reprint, Minneapolis: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1977), 264.
10 Not being a physicist, perhaps there are more recent theories that allow for two things to occupy the same space at the same time, but even if such a theory were to exist, it does nothing to bolster the objection against God’s omnipresence.
11 See Isaiah 14:12-14.
12 A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1961), 29-30.
13 The instances of God speaking directly to His people began with God speaking directly to Adam and Eve in spoken and understood language. The entire scope and meaning of redemptive history is dependent upon the clear words and understanding of the first commandments of God to Adam and Eve. Throughout the Old Testament, in passages too many to mention, God spoke to His people in clear and understandable language. With respect to Scripture as the written words and word of God, see Matthew 5:18, 2 Timothy 3:16, 1 Thessalonians 1:13 and 2 Peter 1:20-21.
14 John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 206.
15 Unbelief has the tendency to mask itself in piety, as appears to be the case with those claiming to exalt God by denying the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture.
16 Calvin, Institutes, 3.23.8.
“God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations,”1and always in such a way that He remains perfect, uncontingent (unmoved or dependent upon events outside His control), and suffers no loss to His being.2
“Nothing that is from the creature adds to or alters God’s happiness, as though it were changeable either by increase or diminution.”3
Malachi 3:6: “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”
Psalm 33:11: “The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.”
Psalm 102:25-26a: “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain.”
Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
James. 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
Cultures change, God does not. Nonetheless, the Christian message and method of sharing and defending the Gospel of Christ will be pressed to fit the prevailing culture if the message and method are not founded upon God’s unchanging nature. Thus, a proper proclamation and defense of the Gospel requires sound theology, including a proper understanding of the nature of God that is its foundation. God’s immutability provides limits to how we adopt and respond to different cultures in our preaching, teaching, evangelism, and missionary enterprises. Different cultures and languages require sensitivity and a willingness to remove unnecessary cultural hindrances to the Gospel while communicating its timeless truth in language that can be understood. Yet, the message must not be changed, while the method must always honor and display the character of Christ.4
No culture is innocent. Regardless of how small a Christian witness may be in a given setting, all people are confronted with the clear, comprehensive, and convincing evidence of God in creation, providence, and the law of God written on their heart. All people are responsible to seek, worship, and give thanks to God. All idolatry is without excuse. As Paul notes in his address on Mars Hill, no one should think that the God who made all things and is “Lord of heaven and earth” dwells in man-made temples or that He is “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). The Athenian idolatry was blameworthy, and Paul called them to repent.
He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘in him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘for we also are his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The time of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead (Acts 27b-31).
Mars Hill, Manhattan, or Papua New Guinea, the essential nature of unbelief remains the same in any age and culture. Created by God to love, honor, and obey Him, we suppress the clear evidence of our obligation to do so. We worship the creature rather than the Creator.5 Modern idols may not be images of gold or silver. But if our minds or hands created them, they are idols, nonetheless. And however unbelief displays itself in any age or culture, it always involves a presumed independence from God or a presumed authority to create or choose a “god” that suits our desires. And while the depth and display of evil differs between cultures, the essence of unbelief in every heart remains the same, as does the remedy.
Created by God, we owe God everything. Anything less than perfect obedience is sin. Indeed, the curse upon the world was the result of a single sin. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). God’s infinite excellence deserves perfect honor and obedience, and His justice requires it without exception. Indeed, God grants eternal life on the condition of perfect obedience. Adam was created in a loving relationship with God, but He was created without eternal life (eternal life is eternal). God created Adam holy but judged him for his sin and cast him from the garden before he could eat from the Tree of Life and live forever as condemned. Standing for all mankind, the first Adam failed the test of his probation by failing to exercise loving fidelity to God in obedience to His command. The requirement of perfect obedience for eternal life remained unfulfilled until the Second Adam fulfilled it in our place. The perfect obedience required for eternal life and the penalty required for Adam’s sin were satisfied by Christ on our behalf. Christ alone satisfied the strict requirements of God’s justice for obtaining eternal life and alone constitutes the way of salvation. No man can come to God apart from Christ, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). As the positive requirement of obedience and the negative requirement of the penalty for sin are founded upon the unchanging nature of God and His justice, so God’s requirement for eternal life remains the same in any age or culture.
The need of salvation, the accomplishment of salvation by Christ, and the acquiring of salvation through faith in Christ alone remain the same for any age or culture. “And you were dead in trespasses and sins….But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:1, 4-5). “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). Regardless of cultural peculiarities and differences to be considered in sharing the Gospel, salvation remains through faith in Christ alone.
History abounds with frontal attacks against the authority and accuracy of Scripture and the truthfulness of its doctrines. The open opponents of Christianity have damaged the faith of many. Yet, many claiming to defend the faith against its detractors have caused greater damage to the credibility of Christianity than its enemies. Jonathan Edwards observed that some of the strongest supporters of the Great Awakening caused greater damage to the Awakening than those who openly opposed it.6 Modern proponents of “Christian” liberalism profess to defend Christianity by denying the essential doctrines that define it. Some attempt to make Christianity compatible with “reason” and the assumptions of atheistic naturalism, while others relegate Christianity to the subjective realm of experience, beyond the reach of “science” and reason. These approaches deny the true nature of Christianity. And while the cultural manifestations of unbelief may differ (though built on the same assumptions), God and His revelation do not change. No greater need to make Christian doctrine compatible with the assumptions of naturalism and unbelief exists today than when Christ walked on water or God spoke and made the universe. As God does not change, so the truth, validity, and applicability of Scripture do not change.
While many Christians worldwide suffer imprisonment, torture, or death for their faith in Christ, the label of “dumb,” “unscientific,” or “unreasonable” tempts many of us as free Christians to buckle under the weight of the indignity. And while Christians should be the best scientists and the most reasonable, gracious, and humble of people, we should not elevate acceptance by the cultured despisers of Christ above fidelity and honor to Christ. To do so dishonors God to whom we owe all love, honor, and obedience; misrepresents reality as God has created and explained it; and denies our dependence upon Him for all things. We need not be intimidated by a hostile world when God remains trustworthy. Charnock says it well.
Though the foundations of the world should be ripped up, and the heavens clatter together, and whole fabric of them be unpinned and fall to pieces, the firmest parts of it dissolved, yet the church should continue in its stability, because it stands not upon the changeableness of creatures, but is built upon the immutable rock of the truth of God, which is as little subject to change as his essence.7
1 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 163.
2 For a brief discussion concerning the impassibility of God, including whether or not God has emotions or can suffer, see Frame, Doctrine of God, 608-616.
3 Edwards, “Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World,” 448. Edwards acknowledges that God rejoices in His creatures as He rejoices in His perfections displayed in and through them. God rejoices in them “in time.” “Yet his joy in them is without beginning or change. They were always equally present in the divine mind. He beheld them with equal clearness, certainty and fullness in every respect, as he doth now. They were always equally present, as with him there is no variableness or succession. He ever beheld and enjoyed them perfectly in his own independent and immutable power and will. And his view of, and joy in them is eternally, absolutely perfect, unchangeable and independent. It can’t be added to or diminished by the power or will of any creature; nor is in the least dependent on anything mutable or contingent.” 448. See 447- 449 for an excellent discussion of God’s immutability as it relates to God creating and rejoicing in His creatures.
4 “Contextualization” is the term used in the science of missions that refers to how missionaries consider and adapt their approach to different cultures. Proper contextualization involves presenting the Gospel clearly, accurately, and understandably within a given culture and language, without altering the content of the Gospel. It may involve the adoption of aspects of a given culture, such as dress and other customs, along with the elimination of unnecessary cultural baggage that might hinder acceptance of the missionary or prevent a hearing of the Gospel. Proper contextualization involves cultural sensitivity but is founded upon and constrained by the unchanging message and character of God and the Gospel.
5 See Romans 1:18-25.
6 See Edwards, Religious Affections; BT, 18-19; Yale, 87-88.
7 Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 99.
“God is not divided into parts, yet we see different attributes of God emphasized at different times.”2
All of the perfections of God are true of all of God’s being; there is no division or hierarchy of the perfections. God’s perfections are not separate or additional to God’s being; rather, they all describe who God is all of the time. God is as to His being always, at all times, just, holy, merciful, etc.
“The simplicity of God follows from some of His other perfections; from His Self-existence, which excludes the idea that something preceded Him, as in the case of compounds; and from His immutability, which could not be predicated of His nature, if it were made up of parts....Scripture does not explicitly assert it, but implies it where it speaks of God as righteousness, truth, wisdom, light, life, love, and so on, and thus indicates that each of these properties, because of their absolute perfection, is identical with His Being.”3
“The personal is prior to the impersonal. God’s personal goodness defines any legitimate abstract concept of goodness. God relates to us as a whole person, not as a collection of attributes. The attributes merely describe different things about him.”4
Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”
Deuteronomy 32:4a: “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice.”
1 John 1:5: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
1 John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
Hebrews 12:29: “Our God is a consuming fire.”
The being, persons, and attributes of God exist in perfect harmony. No contradictions or incompatibilities between the attributes are possible. Nonetheless, apparent incompatibilities or logical difficulties between the attributes, from a human perspective, are often used as arguments against the existence of God. We will first look at a few representative examples of such arguments, followed by a brief discussion of the problem of evil, along with biblical principles by which to approach the problem of evil and related arguments.
One such argument is that God cannot be both just and merciful because justice requires just deserts while mercy spares just deserts. This, of course is a legitimate question, but one that is easily solved by the clear testimony of Scripture. As will be examined further in the discussion of God’s righteousness below, God indeed cannot let the guilty go unpunished and can never act in a manner inconsistent with His perfect justice. God cannot compromise His justice to the smallest degree in order to be merciful to a sinner. This very problem, however, is the reason for the Gospel, the reason why Christ perfectly satisfied the unchanging and strict requirements of God’s justice by His perfect obedience and perfect sacrifice to bear the just penalty for sin. Christ fully satisfied the requirements of God’s justice on behalf of unrighteous sinners. Such is why God can “justify the ungodly” (Romans 4:5) and “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Christ was the propitiation for sin in order “to show God’s righteousness” in saving sinners (Romans 3:25).
Another such argument is that God cannot be omniscient and free at the same time because a future choice that is known before the choice is made, cannot be a free choice, because it cannot be other than what is was already known to be. If God changes His choice, the argument goes, His original knowledge was incorrect. The same argument is used against God knowing the future acts of “free” people. Namely, if people are truly free, God cannot know their future acts. Yet, Scripture clearly teaches that God is both omniscient and free.
Earlier we noted the unbelieving argument that God cannot be both transcendent and personal, or be outside of time and act within time at the same time. Again, Scripture teaches that God is both transcendent and personal. Many such arguments are used to argue against the existence of God.5 Nevertheless, as we will see below, the biblical principles that answer one of the above arguments will answer all of such arguments.
Perhaps the most well-known argument used by opponents of Christianity, and the one that seems to create the most problems for Christian theologians, is what is called the “problem of evil.” Speaking of moral evil,6 the argument logically sets God’s goodness against God’s omnipotence as follows:
If God is perfectly good He would not want evil to exist.
If God were omnipotent He could prevent it.
God is either not good or not omnipotent.
Or stated another way:
“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then his is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” Epicurus (341-270 BC).7
In other words, because moral evil exists, God cannot be both good and omnipotent. Or put another way, given that Scripture teaches that God is both good and omnipotent, the God of Scripture cannot exist.
Many arguments against the existence of God and theological difficulties confronting Christians are but variations of this argument. For instance, Scripture teaches that God predetermines and brings all things to pass, yet people are solely responsible for their sin. Attempts to reconcile God’s preordination of all events and the responsibility of people for moral evil (sin) often set God’s sovereignty against His holiness. If God causes all things, would He not then also be the cause of moral evil and therefore unholy? Conversely, if evil is beyond God’s control, God cannot be sovereign over all things. From a limited human perspective, one might logically deduce that God is either unholy as responsible for sin or not in control of His universe. Yet, Scripture tells us that God is sovereign and all of God’s sovereign acts are holy.8
Similarly, how can God as a perfect creator of all things and the fall of angels and people created by God be logically reconciled? We know that God is perfect and all that He creates is perfect, yet Scripture locates the beginning of evil in the will of created beings. How could beings, created by a perfect God who does all things perfectly, do evil? If we say that God created free will, did God not know they would sin when He created them? He is, after all, omniscient and the determiner of all things. To protect God’s holiness in light of this difficulty, one might argue that God did not know they would choose evil. But that denies God’s omniscience. Perhaps the option to choose evil is required for beings to have free will and God wanted to create free beings. But, God is infinitely and eternally free and does not have the choice of evil, and we will be the most free in heaven where we will not have the choice of evil. Moreover, Christ set us free from the power and penalty of moral evil, He did not set us free to have the option to choose moral evil.
Related difficulties include saying God created beings with the propensity or inclination to sin. But this makes God imperfect and responsible for their sin, for He created them with the defect that led them to sin. Or, if we say God created evil for the greater purpose of revealing His goodness, we make God the author of evil in order to do good. The idea of doing evil that good may result is strongly condemned in Scripture (Romans 3:8). If we say that evil is the necessary flipside of good and is equally as ultimate as goodness, we deny God’s self-existence and holiness because God alone existed as holy for all eternity until He created creatures with a will. As noted in our discussion of God’s self-existence, evil cannot be equally ultimate with good. The view that evil is necessary to know good will be discussed in detail under the implications of God’s goodness.
From our short survey we can see that the attempts of finite people of limited perspective to logically reconcile certain theological difficulties, including the supposedly incompatible nature of various attributes of God, often create additional problems and the denial of other attributes of God. So how does one approach such difficult questions, or give an answer to those who would use them to deny the existence of the God of Scripture?
We know from the perfection and unity of God, no attribute of God as revealed in Scripture can be compromised, and no one attribute of God can be in conflict with another attribute. If a single attribute of God were compromised, God would not be God (to be discussed further below). How, then, do we logically answer the difficulties and reconcile the apparent contradictions? While a comprehensive list of answers to each theological problem is beyond the scope of this work,9 Scripture provides the answer to all such problems. The answer lies in the nature of God’s perfections. The “problem of evil,” and all such theological difficulties, are answered in light of the infinite excellence of God. As will be seen below, the perfections of God answer the difficulty of reconciling the perfections of God!
All human difficulties with reconciling God’s revelation of Himself and the world as it exists can be reduced to the infinite difference between God and His people. We are finite in perspective and knowledge, God is not. God determines all truth, while we depend upon Him for all knowledge of the truth. And as the finite cannot fully comprehend the infinite, we deny reality and set our reason as the ultimate authority over God’s revelation if we attempt do so. As we noted concerning God’s incomprehensibility, mystery is proper and reasonable for finite beings in a universe created and sustained by an infinite God. That finite people cannot and will not fully understand the nature and ways of an infinite and transcendent God is reasonable and to be expected. Our desire to reconcile every apparent tension or incompatibility of God’s revelation with our understanding of the world often reflects a refusal to accept the fact that we are not God. To reject what God has revealed about Himself and His universe because we do not understand it repeats the sin of Adam and Eve by exalting our limited human understanding over God as the ultimate standard of truth. It says, in effect, that “what I cannot understand cannot be true, and only that which I can understand can be true,” lowering God’s ways to our ways. While we cannot fully grasp how evil can exist in a world created, ordered, and sustained by a good and omnipotent God, our limited understanding does not constitute the final authority of what is possible and impossible with a transcendent and infinite God. When confronted with the profound mysteries of Scripture, we must avoid saying that which contradicts Scripture and dishonors God as the source of all truth and knowledge. By all means we should pursue the study of God’s word and learn about God’s universe through scientific study. But when the land meets the deep waters, we do best to stand on the safety of the shore. When confronted with deep mystery, we rightly admit our limitations and refuse the irreverent debasing of God.
The biblical and God-honoring approach to all such theological problems involves the acknowledgement and assent to the following biblical truths.
1) God’s ways are perfect in every way and infinitely higher than our ways.
“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).
“Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding’” (Job 38:1-4).
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?” (Isaiah 40:12-14).
2) As created, finite, and dependent upon God for all knowledge, we can know only what God has chosen to reveal to us.
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
3) Our limited understanding does not constitute the standard of truth for what can or cannot be true with God, or what God can and cannot do in His universe.
“Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” (Jeremiah 32:27 NAS).
“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one's eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17).
“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Romans 9:20).
4) No proposed solution to the “problem of evil” or other theological difficulty can compromise any revealed attribute of God, or any necessary implication of an attribute of God.
“And the LORD said to Job: ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.’ Then Job answered the LORD and said: ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.’ Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: ‘Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?’” (Job 40:1-8).
“What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.’ But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?” (Romans 3:3-6).
5) The responsibility and guilt of sin always lies in the will of the creature that sins, including the foreordained acts of sinners.
“See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29).
“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
“For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).
“For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22).
6) God has remedied evil at infinite cost to Himself. In the redeeming work of Christ, He upheld and displayed His perfect righteousness and sufficiently revealed His perfect character in which we can fully trust in the face of the greatest mysteries and difficulties.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it--the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26).
Of course, an entire library could be filled, and indeed many libraries are filled, with the presentation and explanation of the last point. God has displayed His infinite excellence in the person and saving work of Christ, condescending from His infinite glory in heaven to take upon Himself frail human flesh. From an infinite heart of love he suffered infinite wrath on behalf of the infinitely evil and unworthy, that he might purchase for them perfect righteousness and infinite joy in heaven forever. And through it all He maintained and displayed the perfection of all His attributes. The God who goes the infinite mile for the unlovable, without the slightest compromise of His righteousness, can be fully trusted in the face of great mystery. Of this we can be sure, God’s character is infinitely excellent and the free will of the creature is responsible for sin. To find fault with such a God speaks only of the wickedness of the heart that would do so.
Yet, none of the above truths will satisfy the sinner as the self-appointed ultimate authority and standard of what God can and cannot be, and what God can and cannot do in His universe. A person at enmity with God will suppress and reject all truth that points to the supremacy and excellence of God (Romans 1:18-22). “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 1:15). But, all the suppression and denial in the world does not make the above truths above any less true. As we have seen, the opinions of God’s creation cannot effect what God can and cannot be and can and cannot do.
As noted in the Introduction and increasingly evident by overlap in the discussion thus far, the same apologetic principles are implied by many different attributes of God. For instance, man’s dependence upon God for all knowledge is because God as self-existent and self-sufficient created, sustains, and determines all things, possesses perfect and infinite knowledge and wisdom, is omnipotent, omnipresent, spirit, and the source of all truth. Similarly, God is not subject to the limitations of His creation as infinite, omnipotent, self-existent, self-sufficient, omnipresent, and spirit, and thus all arguments against God that are based on the supposed impossibility of God existing based on natural laws are without merit. This point will become increasingly clear as we examine the apologetic implications of more attributes.
The attributes of God are mutually dependent one upon the other, while each attribute is implied by the others. In speaking of the unity of God, Frame writes, “all of his attributes have divine attributes! God’s mercy is eternal, and his creative power is wise.”10 As I note elsewhere concerning Edwards’ view of God’s justice and the Gospel,
God’s justice is both consistent and necessarily implied in God’s perfections. God is creator of all things, upholds all things, and knows all things, and as He is infinite and perfect in knowledge, He knows what is the ‘fittest’ in all things. His perfect knowledge precludes His ever being deceived, and He cannot be tempted to receive any more than He already has, ‘for it is impossible that he should want any addition to his happiness or pleasure,’ for He is ‘self-existent’ and ‘independent as to his happiness.’ Should He need anything, ‘with infinite power he can procure it,’ while He cannot be tempted to procure it unjustly. Injustice in God contradicts His all-sufficiency, self-existence, infinity, holiness, mercy, immutability, omniscience, and goodness. Indeed, ‘to suppose that God is unjust contradicts all the attributes and so the very being of God.’ For God to be unjust is to no longer be God.11
Hodge writes, “The perfections of God…are attributes, without which He would cease to be God.”12 To deny one attribute of God denies other attributes of God and therefore denies God as God. Yet, this all important truth of theology and apologetics is often misunderstood or ignored by theologians attempting to reconcile mysteries beyond what God has revealed to us, or by those who attempt to make God’s nature and acts more amenable to prevailing philosophical and cultural beliefs.
For instance, granting to an unbeliever that God can only act in time denies God as infinite, self-existent, spirit, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. To deny God’s knowledge of the future to preserve a supposed view that human acts cannot be free if they are ordained or foreknown by God not only denies omniscience, it denies God’s infinite perfection, wisdom, and self-sufficiency as He is made dependent on events outside His control to accomplish His will. Advocates of such views do not always appreciate the full implications of their attempts to reconcile what they believe to be incompatible with reality and logic. In the desire to save what they believe is necessary for free will, they deny God as God. In the end, they exalt their own understanding to the place of ultimate authority to determine what can and cannot be true about God. Better they should accept their limited understanding and dependence on God for all knowledge and trust what God has revealed about Himself in Scripture.
God has called us to defend and proclaim His excellence in the Gospel of Christ. Yet, He has not done so because He needs us. Rather, He has graciously given us the privilege to participate in His ultimate purpose to display His glory in and through the person and saving work of Christ. We are to honor Him in reverently participating in this purpose. The denial of a single attribute of God is contrary to God’s ultimate purpose. God needs no defense that elevates human reason over His authority, or subjects Him to the constraints of our human understanding of logic or the created universe. God needs no “defense” that reduces His infinite excellence to suit our limited understanding, or compromises any of His attributes as He has revealed them to us in Scripture.
1 William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed., ed. Alan W. Gomes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2003), 276-7; Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 61-2.
2 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 177.
3 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 62.
4 Frame, Doctrine of God, 230.
5 See Theodore M. Drange, “Incompatible-Properties arguments: A Survey,” Philo, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall-Winter 1998, 49-60. Drange lists ten pairs of what he perceives to be “incompatible properties” of God. Drange’s list is not exhaustive, as variations of each argument could be produced, just as many variations of the problem of evil exist. For additional arguments along these lines, see Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier, eds., The Impossibility of God (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003).
6 While the argument sometimes includes all types of evil in the world, such as suffering and natural disasters and the like, natural disasters and other “natural” evils do not pose as great a theological difficulty as moral evil. All “natural” problems in a world originally created perfect by God can ultimately be traced to the entrance of sin into the world and God’s curse upon it.
7 Louis P. Pojman, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company), 163.
8 Frame, Doctrine of God, 392-393.
9 For an excellent summary of various proposed solutions to the problem of evil, the problems associated with each proposed solution, and a biblical response to the problem, see John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (P & R Publishing: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1994), 149-190.
10 Frame, Doctrine of God, 229.
11 Biehl, Infinite Merit of Christ, 99-100.
12 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:369.
“God has a substantial Being all His own and distinct from the world and that this substantial Being is immaterial, invisible, and without composition or extension.” He has no corporeal body, nor “properties belonging to matter.”1
John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
John 4:24: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
1 Timothy 1:17: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
1 Timothy 6:15b-16: “The King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”
Note how this attribute is intimately connected with God’s simplicity, incomprehensibility, infinity (including His transcending time and space, and omnipresence), self-existence, and self-sufficiency.
God as spirit cannot be constrained by the “natural” order and “laws” of the universe. This truth is also implied by His infinity, incomprehensibility, and self-existence as creator of all things. And as we have seen, created, finite, and dependent people are incapable of knowing that God is constrained by the universe He created and upholds. No human is capable of knowing that God, as infinite spirit, is so limited.2 Apart from God’s revelation, knowledge of what God can and cannot be or do requires omniscience. And as with God’s infinity and incomprehensibility, God as spirit must reveal to us His nature if we are to know it. To presume otherwise is again to exalt human reason over the ultimate authority of God’s revelation.
Perhaps you are old enough to remember an incident involving one of the early Soviet cosmonauts. Upon achieving orbit around the earth he looked out the window into outer space and proclaimed that he did not see God (one commentator noted that had the astronaut broken the window of his capsule he would have seen God immediately). No doubt this was great propaganda for the atheistic communists who sent him into space. But was it a worthwhile or meaningful statement? On the one hand, it was worthless for affirming or denying the existence of God, for God is spirit and it would have been impossible for the cosmonaut to see Him. In this respect, his vantage point in space was no greater than ours on earth. Given that God is spirit and cannot be seen by anyone apart from God choosing to manifest himself, it was a scientific non-event.
On the other hand, it was a telling event with respect to the nature of unbelief. A living breathing person of countless individual cells, all working together in harmony, sustained by other plant and animal life of countless individual cells, coherently thinks thought and operates the controls of the space capsule, similarly made up of countless atoms, all moving about in space, yet comprising the organized matter of the space capsule, moving in orbit according to fixed, uniform, and universal “laws” of “nature,” having been built and launched according to those same laws. Surrounded by the clear, comprehensive, and convincing evidence of the genius and power of God, he looks out the window and declares that he does not see God. Rightly Scripture tells us, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1, 53:1).
As noted earlier, the very denial of God presumes the existence of God. A universe without God is a universe of random chance, in which no astronaut, window, or language to describe the sight would be possible. The entire Soviet space program assumed the existence of God in all of their work to put the cosmonaut in space, only to deny Him in the midst of an ocean of compelling evidence to the contrary. The cosmonaut’s statement merely confirmed Scripture’s description of unbelief as the unrighteous suppression of the obvious truth concerning God and the need to repent of this affront to God’s excellence. But as a scientific statement regarding the existence of God, the cosmonaut’s statement was worthless.
Explanations of God and the universe on purely material grounds cannot explain the nature and purpose of either. Scientists are at a loss here. They can observe and describe what God has created and how He orders and sustains it, but are helpless to explain the ultimate nature of God and reality apart from God’s revelation.
Interestingly, the same limitations that make people unable to know ultimate realities are often enlisted by unbelievers to make claims about ultimate realities. One such claim goes something like this: God cannot be known, because we can only know for certain what can be known by our five senses. If we cannot see, hear, taste, touch, or smell God, we cannot know Him. But while this appears to affirm the limitations of human knowledge, it actually presumes the omniscience required to know the nature of God. The claim assumes to know what God can and cannot do, i.e., reveal Himself, while at the same time denying that we can know God. This claims knowledge of that which the claim says we can know nothing, and is thus self-contradictory.
Further, the claim assumes to know what God has and has not done, i.e., reveal Himself. It also denies that God can be known by the evidence of His works, or that anything in the world known by our senses gives evidence for God. But this is contrary to reality. The evidence is clear, comprehensive, and convincing, such that all people are without excuse. This is suppression of the truth in unrighteousness and not a truth derived and known by the senses.
Indeed, the claim is also self-defeating in that our senses cannot determine the claim that knowledge of something is limited to that which can be known by our senses. If we can only know for certain what can be known by our five senses, how do we know that this statement is true? What justifies the claim, or from what authority is the claim derived? As the claim cannot be derived or proven by the senses, then the claim itself is false according to its own principles.
Some go so far as to say that something cannot exist which cannot be known by our senses. For instance, some may remember Carl Sagan’s opening line to his Cosmos TV series: “The cosmos is all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be.” But, as we have seen, Dr. Sagan himself would need to be omniscient, knowing everything about the entire universe and beyond to justifiably make such a statement. How could he possibly know that the cosmos is all there is, was, or will ever be? Did he really assume that his understanding of what he could personally see in a telescope or test tube determines what can and cannot exist? Rather than making impossible statements, perhaps Dr. Sagan would have done better to state that the cosmos is all he has ever seen personally, admitting his human limitations in the face of a transcendent God. Of course, even this would be an inadequate statement, as the entire universe declares the glory of God.
Ironically, those making personal experience the ultimate standard of truth assume an ordered reality to be known and ordered senses to know it, with no reasonable explanation for the existence of either. That both exist give clear evidence of God’s creating, ordering, and sustaining work, apart from which there could be no senses or reality for the senses to know. Apart from God, all is random chance, and random chance accidents in a random chance universe can know nothing. Rules, laws, order, and design, including the senses and knowledge, are impossible in a random chance universe. All things, including knowledge and the “knower,” would be random chance accidents, each unrelated to anything else, without continuity of existence or form from one moment to the next (to be discussed further below under “truth”). Knowledge and senses assume design, order, uniformity and continuity, none of which are explicable or possible by random chance. Thus, knowledge and human senses are inexplicable apart from God.
Again, God alone determines what can and cannot be known. Apart from God, nothing can be known. The assumption that our senses and personal experience by which we interpret the world are the standard of what can exist or be known is to assume the place and prerogative of God alone. The sin of Adam and Eve is again repeated here.
1 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 66.
2 In the short booklet, What’s in the Box? (unpublished), the obvious point is made that if Mr. Atheist is unable to know the contents of Mr. Christian’s little black box without looking into it, how can he possibly know things that require complete knowledge of everything in the universe and beyond?
“That perfection of God whereby He, in an entirely unique manner, knows Himself and all things possible and actual in one eternal and most simple act.”1
God knows everything about everything and everyone always and immediately, without a process of reasoning or deduction. He knows the past, present, and future simultaneously, in one eternal now, even prior to the existence of time, space, and all things.
Psalm 139:1-6: “O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.”
Psalm 147:5: “Great is our Lord, and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.”
Isaiah 40:28: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”
Isaiah 46:9b-10a: “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.”
Hebrews 4:13: “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
God alone knows all things perfectly. God alone is the self-existent creator, sustainer, and determiner of all things. God’s existence and knowledge are independent of the existence, perception, and knowledge of His creatures. God is the sole origin and determiner of all truth.
God’s knowledge is original knowledge, as God is the source of all truth. Human knowledge is acquired or derived knowledge, dependent upon our discovering and understanding the truth as determined and revealed by God. People do not determine truth, we receive or discover it. We depend upon God for the ability to know truth and for the proper interpretation of all things.
Standing in the presence of truth incarnate, Pontius Pilate cynically asked, “What is truth?” Pilate, of course, was anything but naïve. He was intimately familiar with the wiles of politics and the endless parade of the gods, philosophies, and religions of men. Scripture tells us he understood the false piety and hypocrisy of the leaders making accusations against Christ. His betrayal was viewed by Pilate as more of the same petty jealousy and ambition of the self-seeking religious leaders. On one level, we can hardly blame Pilate for his cynicism. Yet, in the end, what he wrongly perceived to be in his own self-interest took precedence over justice and the witness of the excellence of Christ. Seeking to save himself, he lost himself and became for all time a picture of selfish and pragmatic injustice.
To answer his cynical question, truth is whatever God says it is. The embodiment of truth stood in his midst.2 The words of his prisoner were truth. God’s spoken and written word are truth. Truth is that which agrees with God’s explanation of Himself and all reality. Naturally, atheistic philosophers have not always agreed on a definition of truth, for in rejecting the only source of truth they left themselves without an ultimate authority and standard of truth. As we have seen, the alternative to God as the ultimate determiner of truth is everyone becomes an ultimate authority, drowning truth in a sea of opinion. Truth is lost to relativism. The difficulty of philosophers to agree upon a definition of truth is understandable when the ultimate source and determiner of truth is ignored.3
As truth is what God says it is, so we know truth when our interpretation of reality corresponds to God’s interpretation. As created by God in His image we have the ability to know and communicate God’s truth as He has revealed it to us. Thus we can know the same truth as God knows, as He has revealed it and would have us to know it. We live in the same universe that God created and interprets for us. As we noted with respect to God’s infinity, to deny that God can communicate truth to us in language is to debase God as unable to communicate with that which He created. Scripture clearly testifies that we can know God truly and personally, as God desires to be known. “But let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 9:24).
God has created us to know truth about Him and His world. But, as created, finite, and dependent upon God for all truth, we cannot know any given truth as intimately and exhaustively as God. We are not God. God’s knowledge is infinite while ours is limited. God alone knows exhaustively why and how all things exist, and their intricate relationship to every other thing, in the past, present, and future, including all possible relationships or consequences of any given action. God knows the big picture and the smallest detail at the same time. The qualitative and quantitative difference between God’s knowledge and our knowledge reflects the difference between God and His creatures. Nonetheless, God created us to know truth as He determined we should know it in created reality and Scripture.
In discussing the implications of God’s infinity to apologetics, we noted several examples of how human understanding is inadequate to contradict truths revealed in Scripture. With respect to God’s infinite knowledge of all things, we again come to deep waters beyond human understanding. For instance, some have objected to God’s knowledge of the future by claiming that God cannot know the future because He is subject to time. From their human perspective, they observe reality moving forward in a succession of time and events, with future events being unknown until they occur in the present or are known to have happened in the past. But again, how can those subject to the constraints of time know that God is so constrained? That created reality is subject to time is no argument that the God who transcends created reality is subject to time. Scripture clearly teaches that God knows the future as well as He knows the past and the present. He is not subject to the constraints of time.
Also, to what higher authority does one appeal to contradict Scripture and validate the claim that God is subject to time and therefore cannot know the future? Scientists are of no help here, either, for while they can observe and describe the universe as God created and sustains it, they can determine nothing with respect to an infinite God that transcends it. Neither can they know what God can and cannot know. Apart from God’s revelation, science is reduced to personal opinion and guessing with respect to ultimate issues that cannot be observed and tested according to the scientific method. Again, the relativism and loss of truth that results from countless opinions and “ultimate authorities” applies here.
Additionally, as noted earlier with respect to free agency and time, some deny God’s omniscience is compatible with the free choices of people, contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture that God knows all things, including the future. God not only knows the free acts of people, He foreordains the free and sinful acts of people. Two passages are particularly instructive in this regard. First, in Acts 2:23, we read, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Second, in Acts 4:27-28 we read,
For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
God foreordained the sinful acts of those who crucified Christ, the worst sin ever committed. At the same time, God is not responsible for the sin of any person, including those who put Christ to death according to His predetermined plan.
God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:13b-15).
The betrayal of Christ by Judas was foreordained, but Judas acted willingly and was responsible for His unconstrained act of sin. He will be severely judged for his choice. “For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21).5 Yet, the same sin for which Judas was judged was integral to God’s ultimate purpose to display His glory through the person and redeeming work of Christ. God was not culpable for the sin of Judas and God is righteous in judging it, but it was nonetheless according to His predetermined plan. In this we reach the limits of human understanding. We can only bow before God’s infinite wisdom and knowledge, thank Him for His gift of salvation in Christ, and trust His perfect character so clearly revealed to us in Scripture. Beyond this, we cannot go.
The point has already been made, but it bears repeating with respect to God’s omniscience. To justifiably deny God’s existence one must possess the omniscience of the God denied. Knowledge of everything in and beyond the universe is required to make informed statements about the ultimate nature of God and the universe apart from the revelation of God. One must be God to justifiably deny God, an absurdity.6
1 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 66.
2 See John 14:6.
3 For a helpful discussion of the nature of truth and knowledge, including the relationship of belief and unbelief to the correspondence and coherence theories of truth, see Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 158-164.
4 Belief and knowledge are related but not identical. Knowledge is belief that is justified as true, whereas belief could be true or untrue and thus may or may not be knowledge. One can believe and know something, but one could also believe something to be true but not know it is true. Even if one’s belief is true, it is still not knowledge until one is justified in knowing it is true. In this sense, knowledge may be called warranted or justified belief. See Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 158-161.
5 The case of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and the subsequent explanation of God raising up Pharaoh to display His glory in Romans 9 is sometimes viewed as problematic in that it seems to make God responsible for Pharaoh’s sin. God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, however, does not present as great a difficulty as Acts 2 and Acts 4. Cleary, on several occasions Pharaoh did not let God’s people go because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Additionally, we read in Romans 9:20-23, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.” Yet, nowhere in Romans 9 does Scripture tell us that God made Pharaoh a sinner, or that God made Pharaoh sin. Even when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to not let God’s people go, Pharaoh was merely prevented from acting in self-interest. Had God not hardened Pharaoh’s heart he may have let the people go to save himself from another plague, but not from a proper love and reverence for God. One may give a thief money to avoid the consequences of a gun, while still hating the thief. We often obey people from self-interest while maintaining ill will or ill motives, so Pharaoh could have obeyed God while maintaining contempt for God in his heart. God merely prevented Pharaoh from this. Scripture never tells us that God gave Pharaoh the evil inclination of His heart. We know that all people became sinful in Adam, as Romans 5:12-21 makes clear. So, God ordained Pharaoh’s rule over Egypt, by choosing to mold a lump of sinful clay, taken from the greater lump of sinful clay, without being responsible for Pharaoh’s sin. Pharaoh was a sinner who sinned according to the inclination of His own heart, for which he was responsible.
6 For a short and easy-to-read elaboration on this point, see Biehl, What’s in the Box?
God’s wisdom is the application of His knowledge to achieve His best purpose.
Daniel 2:20-22: “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.”
Psalm 104:24: “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”
Romans 11:33: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
Colossians 2:2b-3: “Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”3
Discussion of the apologetic implications of God’s wisdom will be brief, as the implications of God’s wisdom for apologetics mirror those of God’s knowledge. As with knowledge, God is the source of all wisdom, or the proper understanding of how knowledge is applied. God is the “only wise God” (Romans 16:27), perfect in knowledge and perfect in the application of knowledge. Thus, as truth is that which conforms to God’s revealed truth, so true wisdom is that which conforms to God’s revealed wisdom. No higher standard for wisdom exists than God’s wisdom.
The essential nature of unbelief, God’s justice and the requirement for eternal life, and the application of the saving benefits of Christ’s redeeming work are the same in any age or culture. Therefore, God’s perfect wisdom is always right and best in any circumstance or culture. God always uses the best means to accomplish the best end, and has appointed us to use the best means to accomplish the best end. Again, different contexts in which we present the Gospel require sensitivity to culture and other issues.4 We must be careful to not create unnecessary barriers to our ability to bring the Gospel to people of a different background and experience by making non-essentials of our own culture into essentials within another culture.
Yet, our tendency to dilute or alter the Gospel and God’s revealed means of proclaiming it poses a greater problem. In perfect wisdom God has ordained both the message and the means of redeeming people from their sin. The unredeemed world, however, views the message and messengers as foolish. Unbelievers cannot discern the excellence of Christ, the Gospel, and the things of the Spirit of God, for they are “spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).
The clearer the Gospel message, the stronger will be opposition to it and our temptation to make it more acceptable to unbelief. For example, as our culture views the exclusivity of the cross as narrow and bigoted, so we are tempted to broaden the grace of salvation to include those who have not placed saving faith in Christ alone. We are tempted to deny the ultimate authority of Scripture by reducing inerrancy to concepts only, while transforming extraordinary biblical events into mere metaphors or theological illustrations, devoid of historicity. We can downplay, ignore, or redefine the true nature of sin and the need of repentance, or ignore or redefine its consequences. Opposition to God and the Gospel of Christ tempts us to substitute our finite wisdom for God’s perfect wisdom.
But, true wisdom is wisdom from God. We depend upon God for all knowledge and wisdom. God knows best. When we ignore God’s wisdom in Scripture, we depend on our own finite and corrupted opinion and imitate a world that views the wisdom of God in the Gospel of Christ as “foolish.”5 Should we be driven by a culture that views the best as worst, the wise as foolish, and the supremely excellent as worthy of death by crucifixion? Unbelieving opposition to Christ should not guide the apologetic method and message. The Gospel “commands our respect; whoever slights it, it is as much as if he slighted Jesus Christ himself.”6 Here again, to substitute our wisdom for God’s wisdom is to foolishly and irreverently exalt our authority over the authority of God.
God’s wisdom and providence in our circumstances are often discerned best in hindsight. We lack exhaustive understanding of how our circumstances fit in the greater tapestry of God’s ordering of every detail of the universe according to His purposes. We know that “all things work together for our good” and that God brings trials and troubles to refine our faith and increase our hope. We know He is sovereign over the affairs of our life. Nonetheless, our perspective and objectivity are usually greater looking back than when we are struggling in the pain and confusion of a trial.
For example, Joseph did not immediately understand the ultimate purpose of God in the actions of his brothers when he was sold into slavery and taken to Egypt, or when he was thrown into prison on the false charges of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph did not immediately understand God’s wisdom in sending him to Egypt until he became the ruler of Egypt and the savior of Jacob and the twelve tribes of Israel. We now know that God used him to save the family line through which the Messiah would come. Moses did not immediately understand the value of tending wandering sheep in the wilderness for forty years until he led a wandering people in the wilderness for forty years. Few of the mourners lining the road to Golgotha understood that the suffering of Christ was the greatest display of God’s glory and the means of their own salvation and exaltation.
God has given us all we need to trust His perfect wisdom, but as created, finite, dependent, and corrupted people, we are unqualified to question God’s wisdom in our personal circumstances.
Atheists will often deny the existence of God by pointing to the moral evil and natural disasters in the world. They ask, how could a good God exist when there is so much suffering in the world? Yet, as we cannot fully understand the infinite wisdom of God in the affairs of our own circumstances, so we are incapable of fully understanding God’s wisdom in history. Created, finite, and dependent people cannot justifiably deny God’s existence by claiming to not see God’s wisdom in the world. Great mystery will always confront created, finite, and dependent people. We can only know what God has chosen to reveal to us regarding His reign and rule of the universe. God’s sovereign rule over all the affairs of the universe is infinitely wise, whether we understand it or not.
Nonetheless, God’s wisdom in creation and providence is clearly revealed in the universe. As noted with respect to God as the creator of all things, the fingerprints of God’s power and genius are on all things, including the stars in the sky, the food on our table, and the law of God written on every heart. Sinners suppress and reject this clear, comprehensive, and convincing knowledge of God.7 Mystery, in this case, is self-inflicted.
Also, Scripture plainly teaches that humanity is responsible for the moral corruptions of the world, not God. Interestingly, those most bent on affirming the free and sovereign will of people are often the most adamant in denying responsibility for the evil it produces. Atheists, for instance, claim that a sovereign and good God cannot exist in a world where free agents are responsible for their own sin. While they freely admit responsibility for their choices, they deny accountability for them before God. Yet, even while denying His existence, many still find reason to curse God for the free actions of people. It can all be a bit confusing. In any event, “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD” (Proverbs 19:3).
Of course, unbelievers are incapable of knowing that the God of Scripture cannot exist because evil exists. Such claims exalt personal opinion over the revelation of God, the very sin of Adam and Eve that brought about the calamities in the world in the first place. The refusal to admit to mystery with respect to God’s providence is merely a refusal to accept one’s own finite and dependent status before an infinite God.
We cannot always understand the perfect wisdom of God in His providence by viewing the circumstances of this profoundly wicked world. But our limitations do not justify drawing conclusions beyond our limited human capabilities. We will not understand many things until we are in heaven and see the wisdom of God’s providence more clearly. Such is the reality of a finite creature in a world created and sustained by an infinite, transcendent God. In the meantime, we trust that “God is the best judge of the seasons of distributing his own mercies, and darting out his own glory,”8 while accepting the fact that responsibility for moral evil lies with those who commit it.
1 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 193.
2 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 69. See also Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 270-1.
4 Again, this is not to deny contextualization, but to place limits upon it.
5 J. B. Phillips translates Romans 12:2 as follows: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.” J. B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English, First American Edition (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965).
6 Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 264.
7 See Romans 1:18ff.
8 Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 64.
“He is the true God, and that all his knowledge and words are both true and the final standard of truth.”1 Or, “That perfection of His being by virtue of which He fully answers to the idea of the Godhead, is perfectly reliable in His revelation, and sees things as they really are.”2
Numbers 23:19: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
Psalm 33:4: “For the word of the LORD is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.”
Psalm 119:151: “But you are near, O LORD, and all your commandments are true.”
John. 14:6: “Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
John 17:17: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”3
Christian apologetics is not about arguing for an undefined higher power while granting the unbeliever the ultimate authority to define its nature. Such would merely confirm the unbeliever’s idolatry or allow for the substitution of one idol for another, leaving the essence of unbelief unchallenged. At the heart of unbelief is both a denial of the obvious in what God has clearly revealed about Himself, while exerting one’s own opinion and will as ultimate. Sin presumes the place and prerogative of God in thought and deed. To admit of a “higher power” does nothing to challenge the presumed independence and authority of unbelief, as unbelievers remain free to define it to suit their presumed independence and authority. The apologetic challenge to unbelief is to repent of both the worship of false gods, and the false presumption of independence from God, and ultimate authority to define such gods. Idols are “worthless” and “a work of delusion” (Jeremiah 10:15).
Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? Says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing (Isaiah 40:18-26).
It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses. Every man is stupid and without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols, for his images are false, and there is no breath in them. They are worthless, a work of delusion; at the time of their punishment they shall perish. Not like these is he who is the portion of Jacob, for he is the one who formed all things, and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance; the LORD of hosts is his name (Jeremiah 10:12-16).
As a created work of God immersed in a sea of the works of God, unbelievers should know better. Idolatry and unbelief are without excuse.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, 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. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (Romans 1:18-23).
Unbelief is sin and worthy of condemnation precisely because unbelievers know better. Unbelief denies the obvious.
The only true definition of God is what He has revealed about Himself in Scripture. As we have seen, apart from God’s specific revelation of Himself, finite people are incapable of knowing the nature of an infinite, transcendent God. Attempts by fallen people to define God apart from Scripture result in as many definitions as there are people, each no more authoritative than another. No “true” and authoritative definition of God would be possible. Yet, God has revealed Himself. “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). We worship, proclaim, and defend the God of Scripture, not an unknown higher power.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Had Christ said, “I am not the way, and the truth, and the life,” the entire Gospel and meaning of the history of redemption in Scripture would be undone. A single word can make a world of difference. Indeed, the serpent’s temptation of Eve in the garden rested on slight alterations to the words of God, with immense implications. Theologians rightly speak of the inspiration of Scripture as verbal, applying to the very words of Scripture, and plenary, applying to the entirety of Scripture. As our brief illustrations show, statements of “truth” are untrustworthy when the individual words are untrustworthy.5 And as we have seen, truth and knowledge are determined by God. As created and finite, we depend upon God for ultimate truth and knowledge. And as determined by God who is Himself trustworthy, all God’s revelation is trustworthy. A proper doctrine of the authority and inspiration of Scripture, therefore, is founded upon a proper doctrine of God. God is true and the source of all truth. The words penned by the human writers of Scripture are the very words of God.
Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21).
Indeed, Christ promised the disciples that they would be the instruments of His truth in His giving them a “Helper,” “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17).
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:13-14).
At issue concerning the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, then, is the same issue with all claims by created, finite, and dependent people: to what higher authority than Scripture can one appeal for the ultimate explanation concerning God and the universe He created? As we have seen, no such higher authority exists. To what or whom, then, do those who deny the orthodox doctrine of the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture appeal? If to human opinion, we are left with the same problem of billions of ultimate authorities, none of whom are equipped to speak of ultimate truth. Truth is therefore lost in a sea of opinions.
Yet, this is exactly the case with those who deny the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture. For instance, many who deny the historical nature of certain Old Testament events, such as the flood or the creation and temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden, at the same time affirm certain New Testament doctrines and history. Yet, having already established the principle that they are personally adequate to determine what is historical and not historical in the Old Testament, even if such events are spoken of as historical in the New Testament, they nonetheless want to maintain the authority of the New Testament. But why? If such interpreters can assume the authority to question Old Testament historical events, why not New Testament events? Possibly because one can seemingly deny the historicity of the flood while maintaining the historicity of the life and death of Christ, upon which all of Christianity stands. Yet, the personal authority assumed in interpreting the Old Testament is the same unbelieving assumption of those who deny the historicity of the New Testament. If the ultimate authority of human opinion is the final court of appeal in interpreting the Old Testament, why is it not the final court of appeal in interpreting the New Testament? At least those who deny the truthfulness of all of Scripture are consistent in assuming their own opinion as ultimate authority in interpreting both the New and Old Testaments. But those wanting to profess the authority of Scripture and Christ as Lord and Savior want to have it both ways, to operate in the place of God in determining what is true and acceptable in the Bible according to their own criteria, contrary to the testimony of Scripture itself, while choosing to acknowledge God’s authority wherever they choose, such as in the New Testament. In either case, they act as the final authority as to what they will accept or deny, imitating the sin of Adam and Eve in their presumption of authority to choose between God’s word and the word of the serpent.
Of course, interpreters will appeal to data or certain criteria in making their interpretation. For those holding to verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture, the criteria are explicitly stated in Scripture. Assumptions include God as truthful and the source of all truth, and God as perfect and unable to do anything in or with error, and able to use the imperfect to accomplish His perfect ends. As the well-known saying goes, God can make a straight line with a bent stick. Christ took upon Himself corruptible human flesh, yet he was without sin and error in all He did and said. As Scripture tells us, God used imperfect apostles to pen his perfect truth.6 Who, then, can deny that the infinite, perfect, and all-powerful and wise God cannot use human writers to pen perfect truth? No authority exists to which one can appeal to deny God’s ability to do so. As with all interpreters of the biblical and extra-biblical data, the data will be interpreted according to either the nature of God as the starting point of all truth and knowledge, or the assumed authority of human opinion.
A more in-depth discussion of the various issues related to biblical inspiration would take us too far afield, but note well that the same issues with respect to ultimate authority concerning knowledge and truth apply to interpreters denying the historicity of parts of Scripture that are written as history. Created, finite, and fallen people are dependent upon God for all knowledge and truth. The proper starting point and foundation for a right doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is the nature of God as revealed in Scripture. All improper views of inspiration go wrong at this point.
God’s knowledge and explanation of Himself and reality correspond to reality perfectly.7 God is perfectly objective and knows things exactly as they are in every respect. He created and sustains all things, while His knowledge “precedes the existence of things”8 and determines all facts. Our knowledge of truth is derived from God, therefore our interpretation of facts is only true when it corresponds to God’s interpretation. Again, this is not to deny that we can know facts truly, but affirms our dependence on God for true knowledge and our need for humility and reverence in approaching Scripture. God has revealed truth and has given us the ability to know it.
Not only are we limited in our capacity for knowledge, lacking the capacity and perspective of God, our perception of facts is influenced by subjective factors of our experience, mood, prejudices, etc., as well as our physical and mental limitations. Moreover, all unbelievers will suppress the truth in unrighteousness and interpret reality to suit their denial of the God of Scripture. Even as believers, in our sinfulness we will also suppress the truth in unrighteousness in our moments of rebellion against God’s lordship. Thus, the only interpretation of reality that can be trusted fully is God’s interpretation.
As noted concerning God as eternally self-existent and the creator of all things, God’s existence and attributes are unaffected by unbelief. God is independent of His creation. He is who He is regardless of what anyone thinks. In the same way, as God is true and the source of all truth, truth is unaffected by unbelief. Should the whole world deny God and His word, God and His word remain true. And as God does not change, so His truth does not change.
“Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Romans 3:4). That mankind misunderstands and rejects the truth of God points to defects in the interpreter, not defects in God or His truth. Created reality and Scripture bear the clear marks of the divine Creator and Author such that all people are without excuse for not worshipping and giving Him thanks. Moreover, God and the Gospel are infinitely excellent. To not see, appreciate, and worship God for His excellence reveals the perversity of the fallen human heart. Christ, the perfect revelation of the character of God was no less excellent as God when the crowd shouted for His death. To view the Gospel as foolish or to interpret Scripture according to naturalistic assumptions of unbelief reflects the heart of sin. Such presumes the place of God as the ultimate authority in determining what is true and acceptable concerning God.
The creator and sustainer of all things is perfectly true and cannot lie or deny Himself, for He is omniscient, immutable, wise, powerful, holy, righteous, and good. As omniscient, He knows everything truly. As immutable, truth does not change because God as the source and sustainer of all things does not change. As wise, He knows what is best and true in every conceivable reality and circumstance. As all-powerful, He determines all things after the counsel of His own will and nothing can stay His hand in doing so; determining all things He determines all truth. As holy, all He says is true for He cannot lie. As infinite, He is perfect and without defect and thus always true. As righteous, all His judgments are correct according to the reality of every case and therefore true. As good, He can only do that which is true, holy, and right.
God’s truthfulness is intimately related to and dependent upon all His attributes, for the denial of God as true and truthful denies all the attributes of God. God would not be God if He were not true and truthful.
One of the apologetic implications of the self-existence and self-sufficiency of God discussed earlier was the impossibility of God not existing, that God is the only possible explanation of all things as they exist. Apart from God, all would be random chance, and life and reality as we know it would be impossible in such a universe. We noted that truth and language would be impossible in a universe consisting of unrelated and meaningless random chance occurrences interpreting meaningless random occurrences. Truth would be impossible as everything would be unrelated and nothing could be said to be true from one second to the next. Assuming anything would even exist for more than a moment, the uniformity of God’s universe that allows us to think, use language, conduct science, among other things, would not exist.
We noted that the world does not operate that way, because God exists. Science and knowledge are possible because God exists. Uniform and universal laws exist because God exists. We think and reason because God exists. One might imagine that God does not exist, but it is impossible to account for reality as it is apart from Him. We have the pleasure of musing on such things precisely because God created, orders, and sustains all things according to His power and purpose. We can deny Him only because we are not random chance occurrences in a random chance universe.
We also noted that the denial of God’s existence and authority results in pure relativism and the loss of knowledge and truth. Apart from God, no ultimate authority and standard for truth could exist. Absolute truth would be impossible. All “truth” would be reduced to mere opinion, everyone’s best guess. Again, this is not to deny that unbelievers know truth. It is to deny any justification for truth according to a worldview that excludes God. Finite people are incapable of authoritatively explaining the ultimate nature of reality apart from God’s explanation of it, especially if they are themselves mere random chance occurrences. All are limited in their perspective and lack an outside objective perspective. Van Til illustrated the problem as follows.
Suppose we think of a man made of water in an infinitely extended and bottomless ocean of water. Desiring to get out of water, he makes a ladder of water. He sets this ladder upon the water and against the water and then attempts to climb out of the water. So hopeless and senseless a picture must be drawn of the natural man’s methodology based as it is upon the assumption that time or chance is ultimate. On his assumption his own rationality is a product of chance. On his assumption even the laws of logic which he employs are products of chance. The rationality and purpose that he may be searching for are still bound to be products of chance.9
The situation would be hopeless apart from God. Truth exists because God exists.
1 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 195.
2 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 69.
3 See also Romans 3:3-4, 2 Timothy 2:13, Titus 1:1-2.
4 For a discussion of God as true as to His essence or being, which in turn is the ground of truth expressed, as in God’s revelation, and truth in knowing intellectually (in the sense that knowledge conforms to that which is known), see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 207-210. See also Frame’s discussion and interaction with Bavinck, in Frame, Doctrine of God, 475-9.
5 A comprehensive treatment of the nature of biblical inerrancy is beyond the scope of this short work, but the importance of a proper understanding of the attributes of God to the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture cannot be overstated.
6 Note that the doctrine of inerrancy applies to the original autograph, not the copies. Adherents to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy admit to slight textual issues such as copyist errors and slight differences between some manuscripts. For two excellent treatments of the issue of inerrancy (among many), see John D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Corporation, 1982), and John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010).
7 See Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:209.
8 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:209.
9 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th Edition, Ed. By K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), 124-5.
“God is the final standard of good, and that all that God is and does is worthy of approval.”1
“There is the goodness of being, which is the natural perfection of a thing; there is the goodness of will, which is the holiness and righteousness of a person; there is the goodness of the hand, which we call liberality or beneficence, a doing good to others.”2
· God is good as to who He is.
“He is good, he is goodness, good in himself, good in his essence, good in the highest degree, possessing whatsoever is comely, excellent, desirable; the highest good, because the first good; whatsoever is perfect goodness is God, whatsoever is truly goodness in any creature is a resemblance of God. All the names of God are comprehended in this one of good. All gifts, all variety of goodness, are contained in him as one common good. He is the efficient cause of all good by an overflowing goodness of his nature. He refers all things to himself as the end of the representation of his own goodness.”3
“The goodness of God comprehends all his attributes. All the acts of God are nothing else but the effluxes of his goodness, distinguished by several names, according to the objects it is exercised about. As the sea, though it be on mass of water, yet we distinguish it by several names, according to the shore it washeth and beats upon….When Moses longed to see his glory, God tells him, he would give him a prospect of his goodness: Exod. 33:19, ‘I will make all my goodness to pass before thee.’ His goodness is his glory and Godhead, as much as is delightfully visible to his creature, and whereby he doth benefit man….the whole catalogue of mercy, grace, long-suffering, abundance of truth, Exod. 34:6, summed up in this one word. All are streams from this one fountain; he could be none of this were he not first good. When it confers happiness against merit, it is mercy; when he bears with provoking rebels, it is long-suffering; when he performs his promise, it is truth; when it meets with a person to whom it is not obliged, it is grace; when he meets with a person in the world, to which he hath obliged himself by promise, it is truth; when it commiserates a distressed person, it is pity; when it supplies an indigent person, it is bounty; when it succours an innocent person, it is righteousness; and when it pardons a penitent sinner, it is mercy,--all summed up in this one name of goodness.”4
Psalm 100:5: “For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
Psalm 145:7-9: “They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.”
Exodus 34:6: “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.’”
James 1:17: “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.”
· God is good as to what He does:
§ In all His works
Genesis 1:31: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”
Psalm 119:68: “You are good and do good; teach me your statutes.”
1 Timothy 4:4: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”
§ In His general benevolence to all of His creation
Psalm 145:8-9: “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.”
Matthew 5:45b: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Acts 14:17: “Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
§ In His saving and special love to His people in grace and mercy. In grace in giving them what they do not deserve, and in mercy in not giving them what they do deserve.
Romans 5:8: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Ephesians 2:4-5: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved.”
1 John 4:10: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Good has no meaning or existence apart from God. He is neither subject to a standard that exists apart from Him, nor arbitrary in defining what is good.5 God is as to His nature good and the source and definition of all good. Good is that which conforms to the character and will of God. Therefore, no higher standard than God exists by which goodness can be measured. God’s nature is perfect, fallen human nature is not.6 Who, then, could judge an action of God as revealed in Scripture as less than good? To what authority or standard can one appeal? One could attempt to argue that certain actions of God do not conform to what He has revealed concerning the nature of His goodness. Yet, again, all that God does is good, and from our limited perspective we lack the capability to know otherwise. God is not only free to do with His creation what He pleases, but He also knows everything perfectly and intimately. We could never have enough knowledge to criticize an action of God as not good. We would have to be God Himself to do so.
The same applies to all attributes that are a “model or criterion for the same attributes imaged in creation.”7 For instance, God is as to His nature righteous and the source and definition of all that is righteous. Apart from God, righteousness or goodness do not exist. The same can be said of holiness, love, etc. We know the nature of these things rightly when we know the nature of God as He has revealed Himself to us.
Prior to creating the heavens and the earth, nothing but God existed. God as goodness exists eternally without beginning or end. In contrast, moral evil had its beginning in the will of created beings, beginning with Lucifer. Apart from the will of the creature, evil cannot and does not exist. It can be discussed as a concept, but it only exists as a choice of the will. Moreover, evil will have an end when God eliminates all sin from existence forever. The new heavens and earth will be without sin, and the redeemed will dwell sinless with God for eternity. Evil, then, is a temporary blemish in the universe and cannot be co-equal with good.
One explanation for evil’s existence in a world created and ordered by a good and omnipotent God is that knowledge of good requires knowledge of evil. One might point to the existence of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to support such a view. Evil as necessary for the knowledge of good as an explanation for the existence of evil has many problems, however. On a simple level, Adam and Eve did not need to know the taste of rotten food to know that the food in the garden was delicious. I can appreciate a good steak even if I have never had a mouth full of dirt.
Also, the necessity of evil to know good supposes Adam and Eve could not have known God prior to the entrance of sin into the world, for God is good. Yet, Adam and Eve knew God personally prior to their sin. And it hardly seems plausible that if Adam and Eve had not sinned and were confirmed in eternal life they could not have known God as good, with whom they would dwell in a loving relationship for eternity. How could they know God if they could not know that which defines His character? Moreover, Adam and Eve were not improved by that which is eternally destructive and antithetical to God. They and the world were not made better by that which brought them spiritual death.
Also, as God is triune, He did not require evil to know and display His goodness among the persons of the Trinity prior to creation. If evil were necessary for the knowledge of good, then evil would have been necessary for the persons of the Trinity to know good. Yet, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always existed in perfect goodness and knowledge for all of eternity. God is eternally self-sufficient, in need of absolutely nothing, while evil never existed prior to creation. God did not lack or need evil to properly know good. If one were to argue that God did not need evil to know goodness, but His creatures do, then we again posit a God unable to create creatures capable of knowing His goodness apart from that which He hates. Like the claim that God is too high to communicate with human language, this debases God as unable to communicate His excellence to His creatures without the assistance of that which is most contrary to Him. God would no longer be independent, but dependent upon His worst enemy to accomplish His will. Evil would be redefined as that which brings about the greatest good, accomplishing what God could not do without it, requiring a wholesale redefinition of how the Bible defines evil, as well as the attributes of God. On the contrary, God in His infinity, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and wisdom, can do whatever He pleases without constraint.8 He needs nothing to accomplish His perfect will, least of all evil.
Similarly, God did not require evil to display His glory to the universe. The argument is sometimes raised that God could not have displayed His infinite goodness and grace in saving unworthy sinners without evil. Again, the implication here is that God depends on that which is most contrary to His character to accomplish His ultimate purpose to display His glory in the world. Or, put another way, God is independent and self-sufficient, in need of nothing, except evil. He needs evil to accomplish His will. After all, God displays His infinite glory by saving sinners. Yet, the critical distinction must be made between God bringing about the highest good from the greatest evil, and God doing evil that good may result. The former is true, the latter is blasphemy. Christ did bring about the highest good from the greatest evil in His display of His excellence in saving sinners. But doing evil that good may result is clearly condemned in Scripture and unworthy of God. Condemnation is “just” for those who say, “let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8). God is perfectly righteous, holy, and cannot do moral evil for any reason, least of all to do good. Imagine God doing evil in order to condemn billions to suffering in hell so that He might show His goodness to a few. The thought is repugnant in light of the breadth and depth of the Scripture’s teaching on God’s holiness and righteousness. It would be tantamount to a mass murderer showing how merciful he is by not killing everyone, or someone beating an animal to show how good he is by dressing the wounds. Would anyone be impressed with such “goodness”? Is this really God’s glory? Moreover, God would be doing what He judges and condemns in others. In such a case, the critics and despisers of the God of Scripture would be correct.
On the contrary, Christ took upon Himself infinite suffering that God might be just in justifying the ungodly (Romans 3:21-31). Christ’s redeeming work would be a mockery of God’s excellence if He suffered for that for which God was responsible, brought about by God’s dependence upon evil to do the highest good. The excellence of the Gospel would be turned on its head, and the glory of God tainted beyond repair. Satan’s ongoing blasphemies against God would have merit and Adam and Eve would have been correct in affirming the serpent’s lies.
Also, God commanded Adam and Eve to not eat of the tree lest they die. Did God secretly want them to sin and die, along with the billions Adam represented when he sinned? Was the serpent really correct in accusing God of being disingenuous with ulterior and malicious motives in His command to not eat of the tree? The thought is blasphemous. Are we really to doubt God’s word as Satan would have us do? May it never be!9
In the end, an unwillingness to accept mystery in light of the perfect excellence of God creates greater difficulties and ultimately leads to a denial of the excellent perfections of God. God has given us all we need to know His perfect character. In the person and redeeming work of Christ we have God’s excellence on vivid display, including His holiness, righteousness, and infinite hatred of evil. We can rest assured of the infinite goodness of God, while speculation beyond what He has revealed to us will only lead us astray.
As noted above, God has revealed all we need to know Him as perfectly good. Moreover, we have no claims upon God; we owe God perfect love, honor, and obedience at all times, at a minimum. God owes us nothing, we owe God everything. And after our sin, every good from God is grace (undeserved) and every breath we breathe is mercy. Who, then, are we to judge God? God’s answer to created and dependent people who would question His sovereign rule and just judgments is this: “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:20). As created and dependent upon God for all things, including all knowledge of God and goodness, we are unqualified to pass judgment upon God’s goodness.
Additionally, we cannot trust our judgments with respect to God, as we are sinful and prone to self justification. “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit” (Proverbs 16:2). If Scripture tells us we are fools to trust our own heart, and that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and is desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9a ), how much less can we trust our heart to judge the perfect person and works of the infinitely good God?
Moreover, God knows all things, and sees what we cannot possibly see. We simply lack the perspective and information to question God’s judgments, including knowledge of particular things and how all things ultimately fit into the big picture of God’s eternal plan. We depend upon God for all knowledge, including what is good and just.
With respect to the existence of evil, Scripture reveals what God deemed best for us to know, beyond which we cannot speculate. To reject God because evil exists is to assume the place of God’s authority and deny one’s status as created, finite, and dependent upon God for all knowledge. To demand complete understanding and deny the necessity of mystery with respect to the person and providence of an infinite God is to commit the same error. “The fear of the Lord” is indeed “the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7), including the admission of our smallness and dependence upon God for all knowledge.
God “has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). He has given us all we need to know in the face of the darkest questions and circumstances of life. Scripture provides the history of God’s creating and redeeming work and the display of His excellence in all things. The pinnacle and summary display of His excellence is the person and work of Jesus Christ. In divine love for us, He condescended from infinite glory to take upon Himself a human body and nature, to voluntarily suffer infinite wrath upon His soul for the infinitely unworthy, satisfying divine justice to purchase for us eternal life. He suffered infinite wrath to defeat evil and deliver us from its consequences, purchasing our eternal happiness. He did so without compromise to His infinite perfections in the least degree. In this, from eternity past to the culmination of all things in our glorification in heaven, He has displayed Himself to be infinitely excellent and trustworthy.
Yet, God has not revealed to us everything. In saving us He did not make us omniscient. Great mysteries will always and necessarily confront the finite and dependent creature in the face of an infinite God. Thus, the essence of faith is not having all the answers, but trust in the character of the One who does. God has sufficiently revealed His excellence that we should trust Him alone, regardless of what confronts us in this short life. In this the depth and breadth of the profound suffering and evil in the world are not discounted, but placed in the proper light of the perfect excellence of God, as most clearly revealed in the person and work of Christ. In our deepest darkness we may confidently cling to the Light and Savior of the world, who at long last will make all things right. “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10).
1 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 197.
2 Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 540.
3 Ibid., 538.
4 Ibid., 542-3.
5 The “Euthyphro Problem” does not apply to God. See Frame, Doctrine of God, 405-7. “Plato, in Euthyphro, poses the question of whether piety is what the gods say it is, or whether the gods command piety because of its intrinsic nature, apart from their own wishes. In Plato’s mind, the former makes the nature of piety arbitrary, one that could be changed on the whim of a god. But the second alternative, which Plato certainly prefers, means that piety is independent of the will of the gods, something to which the gods’ opinions are subject. So either piety is arbitrary or the gods are subject to something higher than themselves.” 405.
6 See Frame, Doctrine of God, 407.
7 Ibid., 406.
8 In a sense He was constrained by His nature, but He would only want to do that which was consistent with His nature, so He was not constrained in doing anything He desired to do.
9 The “felix culpa” or “happy sin” of Adam does not help here. While it is true that believers are blessed with the infinite merit of Christ for His redeeming work on their behalf, and that they will enjoy a greater reward for Christ’s infinite merit on their behalf than if Adam had obeyed in the garden, the billions who will suffer eternal condemnation will not similarly be happy. Their condemnation is a just condemnation, by a just and good God. God did bring infinite good out of infinite evil, but that does not say He did infinite evil, directly or indirectly, that good may result. If He did, the condemnation of sinners would be unjust and God would be equally liable to just condemnation. An appeal to God’s sovereignty will not help, as God’s sovereign will and rule is a righteous and holy rule. God can indeed do all things, but only in accordance with His character.
Separate and exalted above all of creation in transcendent majesty; and separate from all evil in pure moral uprightness according to His nature.
“The holiness of God in the more extensive sense of the word, and the sense in which the word is commonly, if not universally, used concerning God in Scripture, is the same with the moral excellency of the divine nature, or His purity and beauty as a moral agent, comprehending all His moral perfections, His righteousness, faithfulness, and goodness. As in holy men, their charity, Christian kindness, and mercy, belong to His holiness.”1
“Holiness is in a peculiar manner the beauty of the divine nature. Hence we often read of the beauty of holiness, Psal. 29:2, 96:9, and 110:3. This renders all His other attributes glorious and lovely. It is the glory of God’s wisdom that it is a holy wisdom, and not a wicked subtlety and craftiness. This makes His majesty lovely, and not merely dreadful and horrible, that it is a holy majesty. It is the glory of God’s immutability that it is a holy immutability, and not an inflexible obstinacy in wickedness.”2
Exodus 15:11: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?”
Psalm 77:13: “Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?”
Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
1 Peter 1:15: “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”
Revelation 15:4: “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
In Religious Affections, Edwards argues that the beauty of God consists in His holiness, the chief object of the saints’ love for God.
A true love to God must begin with a delight in His holiness, and not with a delight in any other attribute; for no other attribute is truly lovely without this, and no otherwise than as…it derives its loveliness from this; and therefore it is impossible that other attributes should appear lovely, in their true loveliness, until this is seen; and it is impossible that any perfection of the divine nature should be loved with true love until this is loved.3
In distinguishing between God’s “natural” and “moral” attributes, Edwards argues that the beauty of God’s natural attributes is their holiness. For instance, God’s power is a beautiful power because it is holy, whereas the power of Satan and demons is an ugly power because it is unholy.
Holiness is in a peculiar manner the beauty of the divine nature. Hence we often read of the beauty of holiness, Psal. 24:2, 96:9, and 110:3. This renders all His other attributes glorious and lovely. It is the glory of God’s wisdom that it is a holy wisdom, and not a wicked subtlety and craftiness. This makes His majesty lovely, and not merely dreadful and horrible, that it is a holy majesty. It is the glory of God’s immutability that it is a holy immutability, and not an inflexible obstinacy in wickedness.4
The beauty of all things related to God is their holiness. “Herein consists the beauty and brightness of the angels of heaven, that they are holy angels and so not devils.”5 The beauty of “saints or holy ones” is “the moral image of God in them,” or their holiness.6 “The beauty of His divine nature, of which the beauty of His human nature is the image and reflection, also primarily consists in His holiness.”7 “It is a holy gospel, and so bright an emanation of the holy beauty of God and Jesus Christ. Herein consists the spiritual beauty of its doctrines, that they are holy doctrines or doctrines according to godliness. And herein consists the spiritual beauty of the way of salvation by Jesus Christ, that it is so holy a way.”8 “Herein chiefly consists the glory of heaven, that it is the holy city, the holy Jerusalem, the habitation of God’s holiness and so of His glory.”9
All of God’s acts are holy acts, including His foreordination of all things. God’s sovereign rule over all things is a holy rule. Apart from holiness, God’s sovereign rule would be no better than that of a wicked despot. All moral evil in the universe is fully attributable to the will of the creature and not to God.
As we noted above, God does not do evil that good may result. Any proposed “solution” to the “problem of evil” that either states or implies that God authored evil to bring about a greater good is inconsistent with God’s character as holy. In the same way, any theological framework that makes or implies God to be the author of evil or sin to bring about God’s ultimate purpose in Christ to redeem the elect is inconsistent with God as holy.10
All attempts to reconcile God’s sovereign and omniscient creation and ordination of all things with the free agency of mankind, including the entrance of sin through the free agency of created beings (first Lucifer, then Adam and Eve) must consider that no “solution” is valid that, in any way, compromises God as infinitely holy. God is not and cannot be the author of that which is contrary to His holy character. Here, as elsewhere, we must acknowledge our limited understanding as created, finite, and dependent beings in the face of an infinite God. Reason simply cannot reconcile God’s sovereignty and human free agency. As all of God’s actions are holy, so His sovereign ordination and control over all things is a holy ordination and control.
And as the beauty of God and the beauty of things related to God consist in their holiness, it is inconceivable that those loving and rejoicing in the infinite holiness of God could take comfort and delight in God as directly or indirectly the author of evil. We certainly take no comfort in a universe where evil is beyond God’s sovereign control. We take comfort in God’s sovereign control over all things, and in the fact that evil only exists as subject to God’s sovereign control. Yet, as the very beauty of God and His sovereign rule is their holiness, we also take no comfort in God as sullied by the responsibility for sin in the world. The responsibility for sin lies in the will of the creature. Beyond this, the origin of evil in the universe is inexplicable. How an evil inclination arose in one created by God as holy is beyond our capacity to understand. We do know that Lucifer, Adam, and Eve freely chose evil, but we leave the responsibility and explanation there. Attempts to reconcile the apparent contradiction between God’s sovereign rule and the free agency of the creature in bringing evil into the universe will only result in the loss of God as holy or sovereign, neither of which is possible. Thus, we rest in God’s unfailing and perfect character, accepting our human limitations in the face of an infinite God. Beyond this, we simply cannot go.
As we have seen, to compromise God as holy is to compromise that which is the beauty of His attributes. The compromise of a single attribute of God compromises all of God’s attributes. We proclaim a different God than the God of Scripture if we compromise a single attribute of God.
Also, to posit God as possibly or probably existing treats God as unholy. Given the universe as it is, it is impossible that God could not exist. God is the creator and sustainer of all things, apart from whom nothing can possibly exist. To argue for the mere probability of God’s existence debases God and partially justifies unbelief.
Additionally, God is treated as unholy when sinful clay is granted legitimacy in sitting as judge of the Potter, or when unbelievers are given the place of God as the ultimate determiner of truth (like Adam and Eve in the garden). God is treated as unholy when the Gospel is amended to make it more amenable to an unbelieving culture. God knows best and we depend upon Him to know what is best. Christ is Lord over our apologetic method and message.
As will be discussed further under God’s righteousness below, God is of such purity that He despises sin. That He personally interacts with fallen humanity (believers and unbelievers) and angels, is by virtue of Christ’s satisfaction of the penalty required by God’s justice for sin.11 Not only do we have no claims upon God and owe Him all things as created by Him, we owe Him all thanks, love and honor for our salvation in Christ. Apart from Christ we are hopelessly lost and odious in God’s holy eyes. That we can even approach God in light of His holiness required the infinite payment for our sins by Christ. Thus, from our creation to our redemption, we have no claims upon a holy God. Our approach to unbelief and the attacks against God and the Gospel must acknowledge this, denying the legitimacy of complaints and arguments against God while keeping the supremacy and holiness of God in proper perspective.
And the LORD said to Job: ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.’ Then Job answered the LORD and said: ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further’ (Job 40:1-5).
In our pragmatic age, we are tempted to evaluate ministry success by numbers or the acceptability of our ministry by the world. Yet, opposition to Christ and the Gospel are the greatest when God’s excellence is most clearly seen. Christ came into the world, but the world “loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19). As unbelievers are blind to the beauty of God’s holiness they are blind to the beauty of Christ, the Gospel, the church, and the saints. The more we conform to God’s holiness, the more we will be opposed by a world opposed to God. And the more faithful we are to a God-honoring method and message, the more opposition we will generate. Of course, opposition should always be the result of faithfulness to the message, not a lack of grace, kindness, compassion, patience, and respect on our part. Truth should always be presented with love. But truth should be presented, nonetheless. We are not to be alarmed by opposition, which “is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” (Philippians 1:28).
Therefore, as the methods and message that least honor God’s holiness will be most acceptable to unbelievers, the apologetic method and message are to be judged according to their faithfulness to God and His word and not their acceptance by unbelievers. Perhaps some churches are small in number because they are the most faithful.
1 Edwards, Religious Affections; BT, 181; Yale, 255-256.
2 Ibid.; BT, 183; Yale, 257.
3 Ibid.; BT, 183; Yale, 257-258.
4 Ibid.; BT, 183; Yale, 257.
5 Ibid.; BT, 184; Yale, 258.
6 Ibid.; BT, 184; Yale, 258.
7 Ibid.; BT, 184; Yale, 259.
8 Ibid.; BT, 184-185; Yale, 259.
9 Ibid.; BT, 185; Yale, 259.
10 For those familiar with the highly technical debate between supralapsarians and infralapsarians (if you are not intimately familiar with the debate, disregard this footnote), it seems to me that Supralapsarianism comes too close to implying that God is the author of sin. While supralapsarians and infralapsarians both believe God has foreordained all things, supralapsarianism prioritizes God’s sovereignty in determining all things over God’s holiness from which all of God’s actions spring and with which all God’s acts are consistent. But, all God’s sovereign acts are necessarily holy acts. God’s holiness cannot be subordinated to God’s sovereignty (and vice versa). Thus, whether or not one believes that logically ordering the decrees of God is a legitimate theological exercise, any such attempt must never call into question God’s holiness.
11 That God forbears judging sin immediately is by virtue of Christ’s future and past propitiation for sin for those who live prior to and after Christ’s saving work, respectively. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:23-26).
“God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right.”1
“When we regard God as the author of our moral nature, we conceive of Him as holy; when we regard Him in his dealings with his rational creatures, we conceive of Him as righteous. He is a righteous ruler; all his laws are holy, just, and good. In his moral government He faithfully adheres to those laws. He is impartial and uniform in their execution. As a judge he renders unto every man according to his works. He neither condemns the innocent, nor clears the guilty; neither does He ever punish with undue severity. Hence the justice of God is distinguished as…that which is concerned in the imposition of righteous laws and in their impartial execution; and…that which is manifested in the righteous distribution of rewards and punishment. The Bible constantly represents God as a righteous ruler and a just judge.”2
Deuteronomy 32:4: “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”
Psalm 11:7: “For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.”
Psalm 89:14: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.”
Psalm 98:9b: “He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
Romans 3:23-26: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Most of God’s revelation is relatively straight forward and easy to understand, though even the simplest truths can be denied by those hostile to God. At the same time, some things are “hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). Other things are easily understood on a cognitive level, but confront us with profound and difficult implications. For instance, the doctrine of eternal hell is clearly taught in Scripture. Christ spoke of it often as the appropriate penalty for sin. Yet, I suspect that most thoughtful Christians have at some point struggled with the sheer terror of the doctrine, or have questioned the severity of the punishment in light of the crime. And while the most zealous atheist can accept hell for Hitler or Stalin, hell appears to most people, including some professing believers, as unduly cruel and unbecoming of a God of love and justice. Yet Scripture clearly teaches it.
How can we respond to unbelieving attacks or personal doubts concerning the doctrine? To begin, all the implications of God’s attributes we have seen thus far apply here. Created by the eternally self-existent and self-sufficient God, we owe God all love, honor, obedience, and thanks. But what is our response to God?
If we consider how various, innumerable, and vast the benefits we receive from God, how infinitely great and wonderful that grace, which is revealed and offered to them who live under the gospel--in that eternal salvation which is procured by God giving his only-begotten Son to die for sinners--and also how unworthy we are all, deserving...eternal perdition under God’s wrath and curse--how great is the gratitude that would become us, who are the subjects of so many and great benefits!...But ho! what poor returns!--How little the gratitude! How low, how cold and inconstant, the affection in the best, compare with the obligation! And what then shall be said of the gratitude of the generality?3
Our appreciation hardly answers our debt to God for His goodness, while we little understand the degree to which our sin, indifference, and ingratitude insult God’s infinite majesty. If we accurately understood the infinite holiness of God and the depth of our contempt for one so deserving of all love, honor, and obedience, we would not question the justice of hell, even as we cringe at its horrors. Indeed, what can we say of someone who despises the God who suffered infinite wrath for the infinitely unworthy that they might have infinite bliss for eternity? God knows the full extent of such evil and will deal with it justly.
Moreover, as we depend upon God for all knowledge and truth, we can only know what God has chosen to reveal to us. And even what we do know is clouded by sin and self-justification. And should we reject revealed truths because we do not understand them or cannot reconcile them with our finite understanding of logic, we make our own understanding the ultimate standard of truth and of what can and cannot be true or possible. In this we assume the place and prerogative of God and imitate the sin of Adam and Eve. If we assume that created, finite, and dependent people possess the authority to reject one doctrine revealed by God because we do not like it or understand it, why not others? And while those who reject the doctrine of eternal hell may not reject every aspect of the Gospel, they have affirmed the principle by which others will do so.
Additionally, God is infinite, incomprehensible, omniscient, holy, good and righteous. He knows all things perfectly and all that He does is perfect, good, and right. He knows the deepest thoughts and motives of the hearts of all people intimately while we judge by superficial appearances. He sees the whole picture clearly while we see a small part dimly. How, then, from our limited and fallen perspective, can we possibly question a truth revealed to us by such a God? We simply cannot.
As with the mysteries of God and the universe, we must admit our human limitations and trust the perfect character of our infinite God. Whatever we may think about eternal hell, we can rest assured that no one will suffer unjustly and that the punishment will justly fit the crimes. “Shall not the judge of the earth deal justly?” We can take comfort that Christ endured infinite suffering that people might not go there, and rejoice that we have been delivered from its punishment. Our hearts should be moved by love and compassion for those who reject Christ as the remedy for their sin. But we dare not sin in assuming the place of God as the ultimate standard of truth.
The principles applied in approaching the difficult doctrine of hell apply to every difficult question of Scripture, though the nature of the difficulty may differ. With respect to hell, our struggle basically stems from the horror of the doctrine and not a lack of biblical support. Other difficulties stem from a lack of specific Bible texts on a topic, or a lack of understanding of how clearly revealed theological principles apply to a topic. And while a list and treatment of difficult theological questions is beyond the scope of this work, the principles presented here can be applied to any theological difficulty. Whatever the difficulty that confronts our limited understanding, God’s righteousness assures us that no one will be condemned who does not deserve it, and no one will be in heaven without the perfection of the imputed righteousness of Christ. The believer need not have answers to every difficult question, but can rest in the perfect righteousness of God. Indeed, when God’s justice is questioned, we need only look to Christ’s work on the cross. And as we have seen, faith ultimately rests in the character of God in the face of our limited understanding and His infinity. We must content ourselves in our status as created, limited in our understanding, and dependent upon God for all truth. In any event, we clearly know God’s justice by the infinite extent He went to uphold it in the saving work of Christ. In Him we can rest.
Whatever the theological difficulty, the foundation for a proper approach to it begins with the perfections of God and their implications for apologetics. God is the proper starting point for all knowledge.
Created, finite, and dependent sinners are in no place to sit in judgment of God. As noted with respect to God’s holiness, we have no claims upon a holy God. Moreover, God is the ultimate judge of the universe, as He is the ultimate source and standard of all righteousness. He alone is qualified to judge His creation, and He cannot be judged by it. Such would be an irreverent role reversal. Nonetheless, in our sinfulness we often judge God. As Adam and Eve compared God’s will to the will of the serpent, they sat in judgment of God’s command and subordinated God’s revealed will and authority to their own. They assumed the place of ultimate authority and treated God’s will as below that of the lying serpent. And we do the same when we sit in judgment of God’s revealed will and providence. And while we may question God from a position of humble reverence in seeking greater understanding and clarity regarding His revealed will, we are never justified to sit in judgment over God. In the same way, anger against God is never justified. What right do we have to be angry with our Creator and Redeemer, whose will is perfect?
In defending and proclaiming the Gospel, the true Gospel must be defended and proclaimed. The warning of the first chapter of Galatians should sober us all.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).
The foundation of a proper Gospel is a proper understanding of God’s justice. The justice of God is that which stands in the way of the sinner’s reconciliation with God, demands condemnation for sin, and requires satisfaction of its requirement of perfect obedience for eternal life. The nature of God’s justice, therefore, shapes the nature of Christ’s redeeming work in meeting its demands in order that sinners might be saved in a manner consistent with God’s justice. In short, the perfection and penalty for sin required by God’s justice can only be satisfied by the perfection and payment of Christ as our substitute. The requirement of Adam’s perfect obedience as the representative of his posterity went unfulfilled in his disobedience and is only fulfilled by Christ. The penalty for the sin of Adam and his posterity could only be paid by Christ, an infinite payment for an infinite debt. And so it is that Christ is the only way, for no other could satisfy the strict and unchanging requirements of God’s justice.
One of the great marvels of the Gospel is that God remains just in justifying the ungodly, as His justice is satisfied by Christ on behalf of believers, and the law of God is upheld because its strict requirements were never abrogated or diminished. Christ fulfilled them perfectly. And so we read, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). United to Christ through faith, the righteousness of Christ that satisfied God’s just requirements for eternal life is legally imputed or credited to the believer. The requirements of God’s law are satisfied in the salvation of sinners through faith in Christ, upholding the requirements of God’s justice.
The strict and inflexible nature of God’s justice cannot allow for salvation any other way. For God to save a single sinner apart from the satisfaction of His strict and unchanging justice would render God unrighteous. He would not be God in such a case. Moreover, the road to a salvation by the works of sinners is paved by a relaxing of God’s strict justice. But, “if righteousness comes through the Law,” with reference to sinners keeping of the Law, “then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21). All distortions and or denials of the Gospel are founded upon error regarding God’s justice, and all religions based on works righteousness compromise God’s perfect justice.
1 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 203.
2 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:416.
3 Jonathan Edwards, Original Sin, ed. By Clyde A. Holbrook, vol. 3 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 155.
God’s power is infinite such that He can do anything he wishes, consistent with His perfections. He is infinitely more powerful than anything or anyone in the universe.
“God’s omnipotence means that God is able to do all his holy will.”1
Genesis 18:14: “Is there anything too difficult for the Lord?”2
Psalm 115:3: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
Jeremiah 32:17: “Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.”
Mark 10:27b: “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God."
Nothing is impossible with God. As infinite and omnipotent, God is not constrained by the patterns or laws by which He orders and sustains His universe. Moreover, miracles are reasonable in view of the infinite “gap” between God and mankind. As mystery is the necessary implication of the limitations of our perspective and knowledge, so aspects of God’s ordering and operating the universe He created and upholds will be beyond our capacity to understand or explain.
Indeed, as briefly mentioned with respect to God’s self-existence and self-sufficiency, “natural laws” are better described as the way God governs the universe for a particular length of time. The uniformity of nature, as we perceive it, only exists as long as God orders the universe in a particular way. And even if one assumes that matter and energy exist apart from God, everything would be random chance and chaos apart from God’s ongoing ordering and sustaining of it. All things depend on God’s ongoing power for existence and order at all times. Miracles, then, should not be contrasted with a universe presumed to exist and operate apart from the ongoing power of God, or viewed as God intervening into the operations of the universe. On the contrary, miracles are no more than God changing the way He orders and sustains an aspect of His universe at a point in time, for a particular purpose.3 The far greater “miracle” is the display of God’s genius and power in the existence and uniformity of the entire universe. The miracles of Scripture are small by comparison.
Briefly, a worldview is one’s view of God, man, reality, knowledge, truth, authority, and ethics. A worldview is determined by certain ultimate, non-negotiable faith commitments or beliefs (presuppositions, assumptions) by which one interprets all things.4 Ultimately, one’s worldview is determined by the nature of one’s heart, or one’s love or hatred of the God of Scripture. The person who views all of reality as created, ordered and sustained by God, and reflective of His glory will interpret things differently from someone who sees none of reality as created, ordered and sustained by God, and reflective of His glory. The person who views mankind as created and dependent upon God for all things, including knowledge and truth, will interpret reality differently from one who views mankind as uncreated and independent of God in all things, especially knowledge and truth. One’s view of ethics will be determined by one’s view of the nature of God and mankind.
Thus, by definition, no worldview is neutral. All things will be interpreted according to the ultimate faith commitments of the interpreter, believer and unbeliever alike. The nature of the interpreter determines the nature of the interpretation. Everyone wears the “colored glasses” of the worldview through which they view and interpret the data of God’s universe.5 And as all things will be colored by the tint of the glasses, all things will be “colored” or interpreted according to the faith assumptions of the worldview by which they are viewed. The interpretation of any fact will be driven by the assumptions of the worldview.
God created all and is Lord over all. Believer or unbeliever, all people are created and sustained by God and exist in the universe created and sustained by God. We all share a common existence in the same created world of God. “The rich and the poor have a common bond, the Lord is the maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2, NASB). Moreover, believers and unbelievers alike are created in the image of God.6 And though severely defaced by sin, the image of God in people remains intact.7 Therefore, much common ground exists between believers and unbelievers as they exist together in God’s image, in God’s universe.
Yet, despite the considerable common ground shared by believers and unbelievers, believers and unbelievers do not interpret the world the same way. The faith assumptions by which the believer interprets the world differ from the faith assumptions by which the unbeliever interprets the world. In fact, the faith assumptions of the believer are so contrary to those of the unbeliever, that in principle, they share no common ground in how they interpret the universe.
On the one hand, believers view all things as created, sustained, and interpreted by God. All design, order, and beauty in the universe depend on God for existence and display God’s excellence. No design, order, and beauty in the universe are possible apart from God. Man depends upon God for all knowledge and interpretation of facts, and all created things declare our debt to love, honor and obey God. Moreover, what is possible in God’s universe is determined by God. The ultimate authority and standard of truth for the believer is Scripture.
On the other hand, unbelievers view all things as existing, ordered, and properly interpreted without the God of the Bible. All design, order, and beauty in the universe exist apart from God and display nothing about God, while all design, order, and beauty in the universe are possible without God. Everything came from nothing and random chance is behind all of the order and design of the universe. Man is independent of God for all knowledge and interpretation of facts, and nothing in the universe declares our debt to love, honor and obey God. Moreover, what is possible in the universe is determined by the human interpreter. The ultimate authority and standard of truth for the unbeliever is human opinion. The contrasting worldview assumptions of the believer and unbeliever (in principle) are as follows.
Believers and unbelievers may share the same reality, but operate according to opposing faith assumptions by which they interpret God, man, reality, knowledge, truth, authority, and ethics.8 Believers reason in submission to God and His revelation, while unbelievers assert their own presumed authority and reason in rebellion against God. Each interprets reality accordingly. This applies to religious unbelief, as well. Idolatry of any form is ultimately unbelief, and ultimately operates according to the above principles of unbelief, even if it claims Scripture as its ultimate authority. Religious unbelief often borrows aspects of the true biblical worldview, even while ultimately denying it by assuming the place of God’s ultimate authority in picking and choosing what to accept or reject of God’s revelation in Scripture. Religious unbelief, like atheistic unbelief, suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, even if it claims to accept portions of Scripture as true.9 Moreover, as God’s revelation is from the only God, all other “revelation” is ultimately man-made.10 Scripture alone is the authoritative written word of God.
And as one’s worldview is determined by the nature of one’s heart, or one’s love or hatred of the God of Scripture, so also will one interpret the universe in a manner that reflects his or her view of God. Thus, because unbelievers are hostile to God,11 they will interpret God as either non-existent, unknowable, unimportant, or “made-up” according to their own imagination. The nature of the unbelieving worldview is to interpret God as anything other than what He has revealed himself to be in Scripture. This explains the near universal acceptance of the theory of evolution. That everything came from nothing and subsequently organized itself into the brilliant complexity of life as we know it is absurd. That no one will accept that an iPod developed by random chance while believing that the innumerable life forms of immeasurable more complexity came about by accident is evidence that worldview drives interpretation. From a heart of hostility toward God, the clear evidence of God’s genius is suppressed in unrighteousness.
And so it is in principle, the believer and unbeliever share no common ground in how they interpret the universe, as they view it according to contrary principles. In practice, however, they often interpret things in many similar ways, because neither believers nor unbelievers live and interpret the world in a manner entirely consistent with their worldview (for reasons that will be discussed below with respect to God’s sovereignty). For our present purpose, however, note well that nothing is interpreted from a purely neutral, objective perspective, including miracles.
Miracles are interpreted in the same way that all things are interpreted, according to one’s worldview or core beliefs about God, man, reality, knowledge, truth, authority, and ethics. And as one’s view of God ultimately determines one’s view of all things, so also one’s view of God ultimately determines one’s view of the miracles of Scripture. For instance, if God’s existence is denied, then the divine origin of Scripture and the historicity of the miracles it reveals will be denied. If God is understood to be the author of Scripture and the creator and sustainer of all things by His infinite power, then the miracles of Scripture appear reasonable and true. And to believe that God is the creator and sustainer of all things is also to believe that finite, created people are dependent upon God for all things, including the truth of what is possible in God’s universe. To believe in the God of Scripture is to accept one’s human limitations in explaining that which transcends reality as we know and experience it. Believers accept that God can do anything consistent with His holy character, even if we cannot understand it. How one’s worldview determines one’s view of miracles can be seen in the following diagram.
One’s view of God ultimately determines the assumptions of one’s worldview, which determines the interpretation of biblical miracles. Any and all of the miracles of Scripture will be accepted as reasonable or rejected as unreasonable according to the interpreter’s view of God. No miracle of Scripture is unreasonable or impossible in a universe created and sustained by an infinitely powerful God who transcends created reality.
As miracles are quite reasonable in a universe created and sustained by an omnipotent God, one must first prove that God does not exist to deny the existence or possibility of the miracles of Scripture.
Exhaustive knowledge of the entire universe and beyond is required to know that God does not exist. Or, granting that God does exist, exhaustive knowledge of God’s nature is required to know that He lacks omnipotence and is constrained by the universal and uniform “laws of nature.” In other words, one must be God to legitimately deny God’s existence and to know what is possible in the universe. But, the limited perspective of a finite person of three dimensions and five senses is incapable of knowing that God does not exist or what an infinite, self-existent, self-sufficient, omniscient and omnipotent spirit can or cannot do. Created and finite people are dependent upon God for existence and all knowledge, and can only know what God can and cannot do by what God has revealed about Himself.
Even while unbelievers deny the existence of the God of Scripture, they nonetheless affirm His existence in their denial of miracles. Appeals to the uniform laws of “nature” to deny miracles are self-defeating, as uniform laws are impossible apart from God’s ongoing ordering and sustaining of the universe. God’s ongoing ordering of the universe forms the basis of the unbelievers’ denial of the miracles of Scripture, by which they deny the existence of the God of Scripture. In other words, God must exist for unbelievers to appeal to the uniformity of nature to deny miracles and God’s existence. As we have seen, the uniformity of nature is inexplicable apart from God’s creating, ordering, and sustaining power. Random chance produces no laws and no uniformity of nature. And even if one incorrectly assumes the uniformity of nature apart from God, science cannot prove a consistent uniformity of nature throughout all of history. The assumption that things have always operated as they do today is as unjustified as the assumption that uniform, universal, and consistent laws are the product of random chance.
No authority higher than God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture exists by which we can know God’s nature and abilities. We know what God can and cannot do from Scripture. Apart from Scripture, human opinion is insufficient to speak authoritatively about God. To claim to know that which contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture assumes one’s personal opinion as superior to God’s authoritative revelation as the ultimate determiner of truth. Created, finite, and dependent people are simply incapable of knowing such things apart from God’s revelation.
As one must be God (omniscient) to prove God does not exist, and one must prove God does not exist to deny miracles, one cannot legitimately deny God’s existence or the truthfulness of Scripture by denying the possibility of the miracles of the Bible. Yet this inconvenient truth has done little to deter unbelievers from making unwarranted claims about God and the universe. I remember watching a movie where someone argued that God could not have stopped the earth’s rotation to make the sun stand still because all of the continents would have piled up onto each other. It apparently escaped the script writer’s notice that a God who could stop the earth’s rotation could also prevent the continents from piling up.12 Arguments against the historicity of the miracles of Scripture are worthless in light of the omnipotence of God. If God spoke and made the universe, no miracle of Scripture is unreasonable or impossible. Six-day creation, Noah and the Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, Christ walking on water and raising the dead, et al, what miracle is impossible for an omnipotent God who created and uphold all things?
Why, then, do professing Christians sometimes attempt to defend the miracles of Scripture by making them compatible with unbelieving assumptions of the uniformity of nature? For instance, the size of Noah’s Ark is often used to validate the account as historical. And while Scripture gives us the actual dimensions of the Ark, and such information is indeed true and helpful, it does not prove that the account was historical. After all, Noah had to collect all the animals, direct them in their respective stalls, feed them, and clean up after them. Regardless of the size of the ark, God’s miraculous power was required for the universal flood and the gathering and preservation of life. And while the size of the Ark is accurate and adequate to God’s task, we cannot expect to make miracles acceptable to those who deny the omnipotence of God by making miracles compatible with unbelieving assumptions.
Perhaps more problematic are attempts to explain the plagues of Egypt or the miracles in the wilderness by natural causes, such as algae turning the Nile to blood (and just at the right time!) or the Red Sea as two inches deep as the explanation of Israel passing through the Sea. And while the things God has created and ordered are often utilized in God’s miracles, He is not constrained to use “natural” things or “natural laws” to perform them. Apologists need not appeal to a recent account of someone being swallowed by a whale and surviving to defend the historicity of Jonah’s trip to Nineveh. God could keep Jonah alive in a whale for one hundred years if He so willed.
Not only do attempts to explain miracles by the naturalistic assumptions of unbelief fail to establish the historicity of miracles, they appear to deny or ignore the infinite power of God. They grant legitimacy to the unbelieving principle that God, even if He exists, is subject to the constraints of “natural” laws. But the point of miracles is to display God’s transcendent power above and beyond the universe He created and controls. He has power over all things. Christ displayed His power over the realm of life and death by raising Lazarus from the dead. No “natural” explanation is needed.
Further, when Christian apologists attempt to make miracles compatible with the false assumptions of the unbelieving worldview, they affirm the unbelieving worldview and the unbeliever’s presumed authority to determine what God can and cannot do in His universe. As we have seen, exhaustive knowledge of everything in and beyond the universe is required to know what God can and cannot do (apart from revelation) and whether or not God, the miracle maker, exists. We would do better to expose the unbelievers’ unjustified faith in their opinions about what they are incapable of knowing apart from God’s revelation, a revelation that contradicts what they claim to know. Rather than conforming the miracles of Scripture to the principles of unbelief, we should challenge claims to know what cannot possibly be known and call unbelievers to repent of the sin of assuming the place of God in their denial of Him.
Lucifer’s fate is a lesson to all. Attempts to assume the place and prerogative of God are doomed to defeat. No opposition to God can stand. And though we suffer persecution and are considered as sheep for the slaughter, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”13 We need not be intimidated. And while the ridicule and insults of the world against God and His people are often difficult to bear, we are to bless and curse not, and have compassion on those opposing God. God’s purposes will stand for all eternity. Moreover, our present sufferings are not to be compared to the glory that will be revealed by God’s infinite power. As we share in the sufferings of Christ, we shall also share in His glory in heaven forever. This glory, through salvation in Christ, we should desire for those engaged in the futile pursuit of opposing the omnipotent God of the universe.
1 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 216.
3 To speak of miracles as an intervention of God into the world implies that the world and its physical laws exist and operate independently of God’s ongoing intervention and power. To the contrary, in performing miracles, God merely does something differently in His active and ongoing work of upholding and ordering the universe according to His “natural” laws. For an excellent discussion on this point, see G. C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 204-207.
4 For a definition and description of the nature of presuppositions, See Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 2n.4. Bahnsen describes a worldview as “fundamental convictions about reality, knowledge, and human conduct.” Ibid., 40n.14.
5 Van Til, Why I Believe in God; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 128-9.
6 “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Genesis 1:27, NASB.
7 “With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” James 3:9.
8 Thus, Van Til notes that believers and unbelievers “cannot be said to have any fact in common. On the other hand, it must be asserted that they have every fact in common. Both deal with the same God and with the same universe created by God. Both are made in the image of God….Metaphysically, both parties have all things in common, while epistemologically they have nothing in common.” Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel ( Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1972), 5.
9 In addressing the presumption of some that particular promises of Scripture were spoken to them directly and in particular, Edwards quotes an interesting and applicable comment by Thomas Shepard in The Religious Affections. Shepard asks the question, “when may a Christian take a promise without presumption, as spoken to him?” He answers, “The rule is very sweet, but certain; when he takes all the Scripture, and embraces it as spoken unto him, he may then take any particular promise boldly….This no hypocrite can do; this the saints shall do.” The Religious Affections, BT, 152, footnote; Yale 224.
10 And or demonically inspired as in the Garden of Eden. An adequate discussion of this particular point is beyond the scope of this work.
11 See Romans 1:18-22, 8:7; and Colossians 1:21.
12 This was an argument made in a scene from the movie Inherit the Wind, a grossly inaccurate portrayal of the Scopes “Monkey” trial.
13 Romans 8:37.
“Sovereignty is not a property of the divine nature, but a prerogative arising out of the perfections of the Supreme Being. If God be a Spirit, and therefore a person, infinite, eternal, and immutable in his being and perfections, the Creator and Preserver of the universe, He is of right its absolute sovereign. Infinite wisdom, goodness, and power, with the right of possession, which belongs to God in all his creatures, are the immutable foundation of his dominion.”1
As the creator, sustainer, determiner, and owner of all things, God is the sovereign and supreme ruler over all, free and able to do as he pleases.
2 Chronicles 20:6: “O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you.”
Psalm 45:6: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness.”
Psalm 47:7-8: “For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.”
Isaiah 14:27: “For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?”
Daniel 4:35: “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?”
While this point is intimately related to the previous discussion of worldview, I have included it here under the implications of God’s sovereignty because it concerns the ultimate object of one’s faith. One’s ultimate object of faith is one’s ultimate authority and determiner of truth.
On the one hand, believers submit to God’s lordship and reason by faith in God’s words and word (Scripture) to properly interpret God, mankind, the universe, and ethics. Assuming Scripture to be the ultimate authority and determiner of truth, believers use God-given reason to interpret, order, and submit to God’s revelation. They accept their status as created and dependent upon God.
On the other hand, unbelievers reject God’s lordship and reason by faith in their own ability to properly interpret God, mankind, the universe, and ethics. Assuming their opinion to be the ultimate authority and determiner of truth, unbelievers use God-given reason to sit in judgment over God and His revelation. They deny their status as created and dependent upon God and assume the authority of God.
Therefore, it is inaccurate to say that unbelievers exercise “reason” while believers exercise “faith” to interpret the world. The “faith versus reason” argument proposed by unbelievers is a false dichotomy. Both believers and unbelievers exercise faith and reason. At issue here is two things: 1) whether or not God-given reason is used in reverent submission to God, and 2) whether or not the ultimate object of faith is true and justified.
The apologist must not see his dispute with the unbeliever as a matter of faith (the Christian perspective) versus reason (the non-Christian perspective). It is rather one worldview (a faith that controls reasoning) versus another worldview (a different faith that controls reasoning).2
All men do their thinking on the basis of a position accepted by faith. If your faith is not one which has God in Christ speaking infallibly in Scripture for its object, then your faith is in man as autonomous [independent of God]. All of one’s reasoning is controlled by either of these presuppositions.3
In other words, either one reasons and interprets reality by faith in God and His revealed word as the ultimate authority and standard of truth, or by faith in oneself and human opinion as the ultimate authority and standard of truth. Unbelievers pose the false dichotomies of “faith versus reason” or “faith versus science” to justify their rejection of the clear and compelling evidence for God’s existence and the trustworthiness of Scripture. These false dichotomies are an attempt to justify unbelief by painting the unbeliever as reasonable and scientific and the believer as unreasonable and unscientific.
Therefore, the critical issue regarding the difference between believers and unbelievers is not faith versus reason, but this: Whose faith is justified? Or, whose object of faith is trustworthy?
Believing faith is reasonable and justified because its object is the sovereign and trustworthy source of all truth and knowledge. God designed, created, sustains, and determines all things. He knows all things perfectly. He is true and truth, and perfectly wise, holy, righteous, and good.
Moreover, believing faith is reasonable and justified because it is not blind faith. All of created reality gives clear and compelling evidence of the power, divinity, wisdom, and providence of God such that all people “know” God and are without excuse for not honoring Him and giving Him thanks. God created us in His image with both the ability to know Him and the knowledge of Him in our hearts (a “sense of divinity”). Scripture bears clear and compelling evidence and testimony of its own divine nature and authority, with accurate correspondence to all of history and reality. No scientific discovery in the history of mankind contradicts Scripture. Human interpreters of reality contradict Scripture continually, but those interpretations are driven by the unbelieving faith assumptions we noted above. God alone interprets all of reality truthfully and objectively.
In contrast, unbelieving faith4 is unreasonable and unjustified because its object is finite, sinful, and dependent upon God for truth and knowledge. The personal opinion of a finite, fallen, and dependent person is not trustworthy as the ultimate source of truth and knowledge about God and His universe. People lack the perspective to interpret God and His universe apart from God’s revelation. Constrained by their senses, time, and space, people cannot know what is in their neighbor’s garage without looking inside, let alone what is beyond the universe.5 Human opinion cannot be trusted concerning ultimate and eternal matters. We lack the ability and perspective.
Moreover, human opinion as the source of truth results in relativism and the loss of all truth, as all people share the same limitations and no one opinion has greater authority than another. All are equally incapable of properly interpreting God and reality apart from God’s revelation.
The universe cannot be viewed with disinterested neutrality any more than Christ can be viewed with disinterested neutrality. As Christ said, “Whoever is not with me is against me” ( Luke 11:23). The evidence for God in created reality is clear, comprehensive, and convincing. We were created in debt to love, honor, and obey God. We are called to faith and the denial of self-will. The implications of God as our creator and we as His creation involve every aspect of life. To enjoy the rich blessings of God’s world and yet deny His existence, amidst the clear display of His excellence and power always, is supreme ingratitude and contempt toward God. Our life is from God, and every good thing we enjoy is from God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). “Neutrality” toward the One to whom we owe all love, honor, obedience, and thanksgiving is contempt.
Precisely because God is the creator and sustainer of all things, apart from whom nothing would exist or make sense, no one can consistently live according to an atheistic worldview. Unbelievers must presume God and borrow Christian truth to function. Life in a random chance universe is impossible. For instance, unbelievers may deny the existence of God but they presume God’s ordering and upholding of the universe in conducting science according to uniform and universal laws. Uniform and universal laws are impossible apart from God. Similarly, unbelievers deny but presume God when reasoning according to uniform and universal laws of logic because reasoning, knowledge, and truth are impossible if all things are unrelated random chance accidents. Reasoning, knowledge, and truth are impossible without God. Moreover, unbelievers deny but presume God in attributing purpose and meaning to life. Products of nothing and random chance in a universe of random chance have no meaning or purpose. Ultimate meaning and purpose are impossible without God. This last point is not to say that atheists do not attribute purpose and meaning to life, but it is to say they have no reasonable basis for them.6
Unbelievers borrow and use what conveniently serves self-interest, even while denying anything that challenges their supposed independence or reveals their sin and rebellion against God. But, despite their best efforts, unbelievers cannot completely suppress God’s truth in a world created, ordered, and sustained by God. Confronted with God’s revelation always and everywhere, all unbelievers have a “sense of deity” in their heart. Suppression of the knowledge of God takes willful, relentless effort. In this effort the unbelievers cannot be entirely successful. They exist in God’s world and are surrounded by the evidence of God’s existence and call upon their life, and they cannot live consistently with a worldview that implies that everything is pointless, random chance.
Additionally, God’s common grace prevents the full manifestation of sin and unbelief in the world in order to accomplish His ultimate purpose in saving sinners. All believers and unbelievers possess a God-given conscience that relentlessly confronts them with their sin and accountability before God.7 God’s law is written on their heart (Romans 2:14-15), and they know they are worthy of judgment for their sin (Romans 1:32). They sense their obligation to love, honor, and obey God. Thus, despite the best efforts of unbelievers to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, they still “know” God (Romans 1:18-22). And while unbelievers do not know God in the loving, personal way that believers know God, they know Him sufficiently to render them without excuse for not honoring and giving God thanks.
Believers, also, do not live consistently with their worldview. Indwelling sin opposes the Holy Spirit within us, while the baggage of the thoughts and deeds of our former life apart from Christ continue to plague us. Every time we sin we act contrary to our worldview. Perfection awaits us in our life beyond this life.
Thus, while the distinction between the believing and unbelieving worldview remains clear in principle, the distinction appears muddled in practice. Neither believers nor unbelievers live consistently according to their professed worldview. Nonetheless, inconsistency in practice does not deny the opposing worldviews in principle.
The combination of the unwillingness of unbelievers to acknowledge their creator and redeemer and their inability to live according to a view of the universe as founded and operating according to random chance, leads to the phenomenon of unbelievers being reasonable and unreasonable at the same time. For instance, unbelievers reasonably admit their limited knowledge while unreasonably making claims about God and the universe that require omniscience, including defining what God can and cannot be, or can and cannot do. While claiming that people cannot know what God is like, they are nonetheless quick to say that He cannot be uncreated and the source and sustainer of all things according to His perfect plan, He cannot be behind the uniform laws of “nature,” He did not and cannot do the miracles of Scripture, He did not speak to us in Scripture, creation could not be as Genesis describes it, and Christ could not be who He claimed to be, etc. While professing the inability to know anything about God they actually claim to know a great deal.
Similarly, unbelievers rightly assume a designer and maker behind every computer, car, house, and cake, but view the far greater sophistication and design of life and the universe as products of random chance. They assume uniform and universal laws in conducting science while assuming the universe is founded on random chance. They view themselves as products of random chance in a universe of random chance while attributing meaning and purpose to life. In each case, they are simultaneously reasonable and unreasonable.
And such will always be the case. The denial of the only possible source and explanation of God, mankind, knowledge, truth, authority, and ethics will always lead to the holding of contradictory principles simultaneously. To claim the world is founded and operating according to random chance while living as if it does not is a contradiction. And as denying God reduces everything to absurdity, and as life cannot be lived in a random chance universe, the most ardent atheist will live by principles contrary to his or her professed worldview. It cannot be avoided. Atheists must borrow Christian principles to live, even as they deny their source.8
Related to the erroneous idea that unbelievers exercise reason while believers exercise faith is the false notion that theology is limited to the realm of faith and does not address the natural, visible, knowable, and verifiable realm of science. But, because God is the creator, sustainer, and interpreter of all things, Scripture addresses the most fundamental questions of science and philosophy.9
As we have already seen, the existence and nature of God is presumed in everything we do, including science. Apart from presuming the power and genius of God in creating, ordering, and sustaining all things, science would be impossible. In fact, all scientific discoveries validate the Christian worldview and contradict the non-Christian worldview, as nothing in the universe is explicable by random chance, the foundation of the atheistic worldview. All scientific discoveries validate God’s ordering and sustaining of the universe, including all uniform and universal laws.
Moreover, as one’s view of God determines one’s worldview, it also determines whether or not the data of the universe will be interpreted correctly. Thus, theology undergirds all of reality, including knowledge, truth, and authority.
As God created, orders, and sustains all things, all the issues of life are essentially theological. To deny this is to deny the nature of reality and ignore the foundation of all of science. This, of course, is exactly what the sin of unbelief does in suppressing the truth of God in unrighteousness.
In the same way that those assuming God is constrained by His creation repeat the sin of Adam and Eve, so also do atheistic philosophers. We noted earlier that Adam and Eve put faith in their supposed ability to interpret God’s world apart from God’s interpretation. Eve trusted her interpretation of the fruit that it was “good for food,” a “delight to the eyes,” and “desirable to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). Adam trusted Eve’s interpretation of the fruit, while they both disregarded God’s explanation that “the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). They mutually denied their dependence upon God for knowledge and truth.
Moreover, Adam and Eve granted a created serpent equal authority with God the creator. They elevated the status and authority of the creature, while they lowered and denied the ultimate authority of God as creator, relegating His will to a mere option among others.
Atheistic philosophers repeat the sin of Adam and Eve by disregarding God as sovereign Lord and in assuming authority to interpret reality and determine truth apart from God. They deny God as creator and man as created and dependent upon God for all knowledge at the outset of philosophical inquiry. Like Adam and Eve, they have faith in their supposed ability to interpret God’s world without God, attempting to answer questions that cannot possibly be answered apart from God’s revelation.11 They assume that reality can be objectively interpreted from their limited perspective without consulting God’s interpretation.
And as we noted in the Introduction, philosophical speculation regarding ultimate issues is futile when the only possible source of truth and knowledge is precluded at the outset. Apart from God, no solutions to the big philosophical questions are possible. “The world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (1 Corinthians 1:21b, NASB). And when the opinions of philosophers, as with the opinions of scientists and everyone else, are assumed to be the ultimate standard of truth, “truth” becomes relative and meaningless. The finite perspective and opinion of one is no more authoritative than the finite perspective and opinion of another. And apart from God, no reasonable basis exists for uniform and universal laws of logic, or for truth, purpose, and the meaningfulness of any statement whatsoever. Philosophers are not immune to this problem.
Thus, apart from acknowledging God as the source of all truth and knowledge, all philosophical reasoning vacillates between the false extremes of presumption of omniscience and its opposite, the inability to know anything at all (skepticism). On the one hand, philosophers cannot know that which requires knowledge of the entire universe and beyond, despite their presuming such a capability in positing answers to ultimate questions. On the other hand, skepticism is a false alternative as truth can be known because God has created us with the ability to know the truth He has revealed to us about Himself and His universe. Philosophy, as with all inquiry into the nature of God and the universe, must begin with a reverent acknowledgement and submission to God or be reduced to mere human opinion (see Appendix A for an analysis of problems with atheistic Rationalism and atheistic Empiricism).
To defend Christianity against the attacks of unbelief, the apologist must challenge the validity of the unbelievers’ object of faith and call them to repentance from idolatry to faith in Jesus Christ. And as we have seen, the unbeliever’s ultimate object of faith is worthless as an ultimate authority and standard of truth. Created, finite, and fallen people do not possess the comprehensive knowledge of the universe and beyond to interpret God and reality correctly and answer the ultimate questions of life. And regardless of the sophistication of arguments against Christianity, all are built on the same faulty foundation of human opinion. So, as brilliant and logical as atheistic arguments against Christianity might be, they are only as good as their foundation. And that foundation is the sinking sand of human opinion. Personal and unjustified opinion is no rock upon which to rest one’s eternal destiny.
Thus, by exposing the foundation of the unbeliever’s worldview as mere human opinion, and by exposing human opinion as worthless as the ultimate authority and determiner of truth, all unbelieving arguments can be exposed as worthless. This is a crucial point. While technical apologetic arguments concerning the various fields of philosophy and the sciences are helpful, the most effective apologetic method will expose the false faith assumptions of unbelief that drive all unbelieving interpretations of God’s universe, including all philosophical and scientific arguments. If the foundation upon which unbelieving arguments are built is faulty, then all of the arguments built on them are faulty, regardless of the sophistication of the arguments. And if the false faith in human opinion can easily be exposed and identified, effective apologetic argumentation can be made available to all Christians, regardless of their scientific and philosophical expertise.
The call to repent is more comprehensive than we often realize, as true repentance involves turning from the false assumptions of the unbelieving worldview. For instance, repentance from sin to faith in Christ involves denying our false and self-exalting views of God, self, and all of reality. Repentance involves turning from false assumptions regarding truth, knowledge, and ultimate authority. Repentance is from doing what is right in our own eyes to seeking to do the will of God. The comprehensive nature of repentance can be seen in the following diagram.
The apologetic method of exposing the unjustified and faulty faith assumptions of unbelief does not deny the value of other methods of defending the faith, as a great deal of excellent work has been done in addressing specific scientific, philosophical, and theological arguments of unbelief. But the failure to challenge the foundational faith assumptions under arguments against Christianity avoids addressing the heart of unbelief. The unbeliever’s faith in his or her ability to properly interpret God and reality apart from God’s revelation must be challenged as unreasonable and unjustified. The unbelievers’ assumptions concerning God, mankind, reality, knowledge, truth, authority, and ethics must also be challenged as unreasonable and unjustified. Failure to challenge these unwarranted faith assumptions:
· fails to expose that unbelievers are not neutral, objective interpreters because their hostility toward God prejudices their interpretation of all things;
· fails to adequately expose their ongoing, unreasonable, and sinful suppression of the clear and compelling knowledge of God;
· fails to expose that unbelievers have presumed the place of God as the ultimate authority and determiner of truth;
· fails to expose the unreasonable and unjustified faith in one’s ability to know about God and His universe what cannot possibly be known apart from God’s revelation;
· allows unbelievers to believe they are justified in their interpretations as their assumed authority and assumptions by which they interpret all things are unchallenged; and,
· fails to expose the need to repent of their rebellion against God in exalting their will and authority over God’s will and authority.
Thus, “it is impossible to convince any non-Christian of the truth of the Christian position, as long as he reasons on non-Christian assumptions….All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye.”12 As long as the fundamental faith assumptions of the unbeliever remain in place, the unbeliever will assume the prerogative to interpret God, mankind, reality, knowledge, truth, authority, and ethics in a manner that supports unbelief, regardless of the evidence. The unbelieving worldview will remain opposed to the believing worldview and God will be interpreted as non-existent, unknowable, unimportant, or made-up according to the desires of the unbeliever.
The Gospel call to faith in Christ is a call from faith in the idol of one’s presumed authority and independence from God and faith in human opinion, to faith in God’s revelation of Himself and His world in Scripture. Humbly submitting to God through faith in Christ involves turning from the sin of presuming the place and prerogative of God. Thus, the apologetic method that challenges the unjustified faith assumptions of unbelief is not only compatible with the Gospel but integral to it. A biblical approach to apologetics, therefore, includes both the defense and proclamation of the Gospel, as one is intimately involved with the other. All people are called to faith in Christ and loving submission to His sovereign lordship in all things. All people are called to recognize their created and finite status before their infinite Creator, upon whom they depend for all life knowledge, and truth, and to whom they owe all love and obedience. Fallen and alienated from God by sin, the right recognition of God and reality and the right response to His revelation is only possible in a right relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Thus, the ultimate goal of the defense of the Gospel is the proclamation of Christ, in whom is life everlasting, and to whom belongs all the glory and honor forever.
1 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:440.
2 Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 102.
3 Van Til, Case for Calvinism, 128-129; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 102.
4 “Unbelieving faith” at first glance appears contradictory, for faith is belief. Yet, the description accurately describes unbelief, as all people have faith, while not all people have faith in the true God. Even idolatry is faith, though faith in the wrong object.
5 Biehl, What’s in the Box?
6 In this respect, Nihilism is the most consistent non-Christian philosophy. Thanks to K. Scott Oliphint for this insight.
7 The conscience, though suppressed, remains active in fallen unbelievers. Unbelievers have a clear sense of desert and justice and will even affirm and pursue justice from both a fear of judgment and self-interest. For a helpful discussion on this point, see Jonathan Edwards, “The Nature of True virtue,” in Ethical Writings. Ed. Paul Ramsey. Vol. 8 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 581-599.
8 Van Til speaks of this as the unbeliever “borrowing” or “stealing” Christian capital in conducting epistemology and doing science, as neither could be done according to the principles of a random chance universe. See Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic; 297-8, 460, 483n.34, 524n.126, 710. A pastor friend of mine called the atheistic view “parasitic,” as they live by the benefits of the Christian worldview, even as they deny and oppose it.
9 “Scripture gives definite information of a most fundamental character about all the facts and principles with which philosophy and science deal. For philosophy or science to reject or even to ignore this information is to falsify the picture it gives of the field with which it deals.” Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 65.
10 See Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 152-153.
11 In a brief introduction to why Greece was the cradle of Western philosophy, Palmer speaks of an optimism in the “sheer power of human reason” to explain the nature of all things, that “the human mind operating on it own devices is able to discover ultimate truths about reality.” Donald Palmer, Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter, 2nd Ed. (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1994), 7.
12 Van Til, Common Grace, 94-95.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth comprises the proper starting point of a God-honoring defense and proclamation of the Christian faith, and the only right explanation of reality and proper foundation for all knowledge and truth. God is the author of all knowledge and truth. Therefore, all theological, apologetic, scientific and philosophic reasoning have their proper starting point in acknowledging the excellent perfections of God. A right view and understanding of God and His universe correctly begins with reverent submission to His ultimate authority and revelation, in a proper understanding of our smallness and dependence upon Him for all things, including knowledge and truth. Proper honor and love to God includes how we reason, as no realm of life exists outside of His sovereign rule and our obligation to honor Him. To reason any other way is to deny reality as God created it, deny our finite status before our infinite creator, and deny His infinite excellence as the source and sustainer of all things. To Him we owe all things in reverent honor to His name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the history of Western philosophy, two predominant and competing schools of the thought concerning the nature and discovery of truth have emerged: empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism and rationalism differ in their starting point and approach to determining truth.
In general, empiricists believe knowledge is founded upon the experience of our senses. We observe and interpret empirical data and utilize inductive reasoning to draw conclusions. Empiricists employ the “scientific method,” working from the data or particulars of the world to draw general conclusions.
In contrast, rationalists believe knowledge is founded upon reason and self-evident truths or propositions.1 They identify what they believe to be self-evident truths and draw conclusions by deducing what necessarily follows from these self-evident truths. They work from general propositions about the world to draw conclusions about the particulars of the world.
Both approaches are valid and worthwhile when self-consciously used as part of God’s created world, with the creator and sustainer of all things as the assumed determiner of all truth. But neither approach is adequate to interpret reality and determine truth apart from God as the ultimate determiner of truth.
For instance, empiricism has several serious problems when done without the assumption of God as the starting point for all truth.
First, empiricists do not agree in their interpretations of reality. Apart from God, no ultimate and absolute authority exists to whom they can appeal to settle differences of interpretation. All interpreters suffer from the same human limitations, and they all lack the objectivity of an outsider’s perspective. They are all part of the universe they are attempting to explain. Moreover, all people lack the breadth and depth of knowledge to adequately answer ultimate questions. Knowledge of everything in the universe and beyond is required to adequately answer ultimate questions regarding God, mankind, and the universe. Apart from God’s explanation of Himself and His universe, all interpretations are reduced to mere observations of the way things are, with no ultimate explanation of why they are and where they came from.
Second, no one, including scientists, interprets data as a “neutral” observer. All people interpret the things of the world according to a basic set of assumptions concerning the world. This set of assumptions, or “worldview,” is like colored glasses through which everyone views the world.2 Data will always be colored according to the assumptions of the interpreter’s worldview, while the assumptions are determined by countless factors, such as culture, personal experience, religious beliefs, education and training, TV programs viewed as a child, and so on. Of course, the greatest influence of all is one’s relationship to God. For example, the theory of evolution as the interpretation of the data of the world (theistic evolution not withstanding) is driven by the assumption that God is not the creator and sustainer of all things, itself an assumption that cannot be proven by the empirical method. The bias of the interpreter is unavoidable. Indeed, we are usually unaware of our ultimate assumptions at work when we interpret the data of the world. And, with no ultimate authority to which interpreters can appeal for an authoritative and objective interpretation, each interpreter becomes his or her own ultimate authority.
Third, any rule stating how the data should be interpreted cannot itself be verified by the empirical method. This is a self-defeating internal contradiction. All such rules as to how data should be interpreted are assumed, contrary to the principles of empiricism.
Lastly, apart from an ultimate authority for interpretation (i.e., Scripture), empiricism leads to relativism and skepticism. As all people are subject to the same human limitations, so no one person’s authority is more justified than another’s with respect to ultimate issues. All truth becomes relative, with the result that no warranted statements of truth can be made. “That’s just your opinion” becomes the law of the land, and who can say otherwise? Apart from an ultimate authority to which we can appeal for ultimate truth, we are left with as many authorities as there are opinions, and as many opinions as there are people. Six billion opinions of similarly constrained interpreters is no basis for truth.
Rationalism suffers from similar fatal problems when the ultimate authority of God is ignored.
First, to what ultimate authority does one appeal to justify “self-evident truths”? Philosophers do not agree on what constitutes a “self-evident truth.” That which is “self-evident” to one philosopher is not necessarily “self-evident” to another. To what ultimate authority does one appeal if the designer, creator, and sustainer of all things is disregarded?
Second, to what ultimate authority can one appeal to confirm with certainty that a given deduction from a “self-evident truth” necessarily follows? How does one know which deductions are true? To what ultimate authority does one appeal to validate the deductions? If the “self-evident truths” cannot be known for certain, neither can the deductions made from them be known for certain.
Lastly, in the same way that atheistic empiricism leads to relativism and the loss of truth, so atheistic rationalism leads to the loss of truth. All interpreters become speculators, with one guess or opinion as good as another. No interpreters can transcend their human limitations to glean the information necessary for a definite statement of truth concerning the ultimate nature of things. Apart from an ultimate authority for truth (i.e., Scripture), rationalism also reduces to six billion opinions of similarly constrained interpreters with the resulting loss of ultimate truth.
Therefore, in considering the historical feud between empiricism and rationalism as the proper method of interpreting reality and determining truth, at issue is not empiricism versus rationalism, as the history of Western philosophy would seem to suggest. Rather, the basic issue is whether or not empiricism and rationalism are done with a proper acknowledgement of the One who created and sustains all things, the ultimate and final authority as to the nature and meaning of all things. Apart from God as the basis of all knowledge, neither empiricism nor rationalism is adequate to account for the nature of reality as we know it. Neither is adequate to answer ultimate questions if done in ignorance of the source of all truth. Both, however, are equally valid when conducted with proper deference to God as the ultimate authority and interpreter of all things. God is the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a proper interpretation of His world, and the one who determines the most basic or “self-evident” truths.3
1 For a quick and simple comparison of the two schools of thought, see Tom Morris, Philosophy for Dummies (New York: Wiley Publishing, 1999), 68-69.
2 Van Til, Why I Believe in God; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 128-9
3 Of course, “self-evident” is a bit of a misnomer with respect to God-determined truths, as we know them as true because God has revealed them to be true.