Thursday, May 24, 2012

9 The Existence of God

After finishing seven chapters presenting a certain Reformed understanding of Scripture, Grudem proceeds to the doctrine of God. The first, somewhat brief chapter deals with the existence of God. How do people know that God exists? Grudem gives two basic answers: 1) an inner sense all humans have and 2) evidence in Scripture and nature.

Grudem builds his case for an inner sense off a couple "proof texts." One is Romans 1:21, where Paul seems to imply that Gentile unbelievers have no excuse for not believing in the true God. What can be known about God should be plain to them because God shows it to them (1:19).  They instead became fools. Grudem then jumps to Psalm 14:1, where it is the fool who says there is no God.

Why then do some people not see it? Grudem points to sin as the culprit (141).  In one sense, "everything that exists gives evidence of God's existence" (142, italics his).  Only sin blinds people from seeing it.

Both the Bible and nature provide this evidence. Scripture everywhere assumes that God exists.  But the heavens also tell the glory of God (Psalm 19:1).

Grudem does give very brief summaries of the four main philosophical arguments for the existence of God (143):
  • The cosmological argument is the argument that because every known thing in the universe has a cause, the universe itself must as well.
  • The teleological argument is the argument from design. "Since the universe appears to be designed with a purpose, it must have an intelligent and purposeful creator.
  • The ontological argument is an argument that the greatest possible being must be a being that actually exists, since otherwise it would not be the greatest.
  • The moral argument is the argument that our sense of right and wrong and the need for justice must come from a God who is the source of right and wrong.
Grudem considers all of these arguments valid because they all lead to the correct conclusions.  "The universe does have God as its cause, and it does show evidence of purposeful design, and God does exist as a being greater than which nothing can be imagined, and God has given us a sense of right and wrong and a sense that judgment is coming someday" (144).  But Grudem only believes a person can come to saving faith by believing the testimony of Scripture.

Grudem also believes that "God must enable us to be persuaded" (144). Satan blinds unbelievers from seeing the light of the gospel.  Only God can overcome our sin and enable us to be persuaded of his existence.

In a way, I was looking forward to getting to Grudem's section on God.  After all, I believe God exists. I believe God is all powerful, all knowing, and everywhere present.  I expected largely to agree with him. Yet his fundamentalist approach to such topics taints his approach chapter after chapter.

Notice the tension in this chapter between Grudem's use of Romans 1 to say that everyone has an inner sense that God exists and his use of 2 Corinthians 4 to say the god of this world has blinded those who do not believe.  No doubt he could propose a way to hold these two comments together.  The problem is that he rips such verses out of their contexts in specific arguments Paul is making to specific communities.

It is probably Jews who don't believe in Jesus that Paul speaks of Satan blinding their eyes in 2 Corinthians 4:4, but we shouldn't construct an entire theology of why people don't believe from such a passing statement.  Was he being a little poetic?  Was he drawing an image from his context?  Did he really mean us to think that everyone who doesn't believe is directly being blinded by Satan?

In Romans 1, Paul was likely drawing on the book of Wisdom, chapters 13-15 (Grudem would no doubt disagree because he doesn't like the Apocrypha).  But again, was he really making a statement he would want us to construct a systematic theology out of?  His point was that people should know better than to think that an idol is really a god. I'll confess that I have never fully followed the train of thought in Romans 1 that idolatry leads to sexual immorality. I can see that this is the train of thought in the book of Wisdom as well and thus that it made sense to many Jews at the time.

But to what extent was even this argument not so much about each individual statement but about where it was leading, namely, to the conclusion that all have sinned and thus stand in need of God's grace?  In the end, my point is only that Paul was not writing a theology textbook on the question of whether everyone has an inner sense of God's existence.  The fundamentalist rips a proof-text from a context and makes it a statement of propositional truth. The true biblical theologian looks to the spirit of all Scripture, realizing that most individual texts are pictures in a collage, moments in a flow of revelation.

Most people in history have believed that God or gods exist.  Not everyone does, especially these days. I would like to believe that at some point in everyone's life, God reveals himself to everyone at least a little, enough for them to move toward him or to reject that tiny bit of light.  But this is something  different from everyone having some built-in "inner sense" of God's existence as part of their human make-up.

Grudem is of course a Calvinist.  He believes in the end that God only turns on that light for certain people.  I think this is why there is something a little strange about the way he approaches the classic arguments for the existence of God.  He does not really talk about them as rational proofs--he does not really treat them as real arguments.  He just says that their conclusions will make sense to you if God has opened your eyes. The arguments in themselves can't convince you, but you will find them convincing if you already believe.

He is probably half right.  The first two arguments--that the universe needs a cause and an intelligent designer--make enough sense.  I doubt that many will come to Christian faith because of them, but if you have faith, they make enough sense.

The third one, the ontological argument, is probably incoherent in its classic form.  It seems to say that because a greatest possible being can exist in my mind it must also exist in the real world. It mixes apples and oranges.  There may be a more profound version of it but I have never heard one that really made sense to me.

Further, the moral argument is far from clear in a world whose history is filled with people who had no conscience. Cultural anthropology reveals that culture shapes our morals immensely, and that any core sense of right and wrong among humanity is extremely limited. Grudem can say that Christians will be on the same page morally if God opens their eyes. But I don't think missiologists will agree, apart from some very basics.

I believe it is reasonable to believe that God exists.  I also believe it is possible that, if our minds were not "fallen," God's existence would be obvious to everyone.  I am not so sure, however, that even those who believe in this life will find any rational proof for God's existence to be absolutely compelling as a philosophical argument.  That is to say, belief in God will ultimately remain a matter of faith in this life.

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