Proving God's Existence: Beside the Point?

William Edgar
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Mar/Apr 2006

Most textbooks on the philosophy of religion have a section on the existence of God. (For an example, see Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 3rd ed., edited by Louis P. Pojman, Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1998.) Usually, some kind of introductory statement is made about how thinkers have debated whether God's existence can be demonstrated by human reason or not. Then, a classification is proposed for the different types of arguments. Two main groups are signaled: the a posteriori (from the experience of the world) and the a priori (from necessity). Thomas Aquinas' so-called cosmological argument is an example of the former. Aquinas (1225-1274) presented several variants of his basic argument in his Summa Theologica (1.Q2.A3). One of the variants-the so-called five ways-states that if you begin with a world in which things are caused, then you must move through the next steps: Nothing can be the cause of itself, nor can there be an infinite regress of causes. Finally, you arrive at the conclusion that there must be an uncaused first cause, which is what God is. Anselm of Canterbury's so-called ontological argument is an example of the latter, the a priori type. Anselm (1033-1109) argued in his Proslogium for the absurdity of denying God's existence. Supposing that God is "a being than which nothing greater can be conceived," then he cannot simply exist in our mind; he must exist in reality.

Many variants and extensions of these proofs can be found throughout the history of ideas (and, of course, many different refutations of them as well). On the a posteriori side, William Paley (1743-1805) argued that just as the clock is a purpose-driven machine and makes no sense without a clockmaker, so the universe must be the result of intelligent design. The brilliant Richard Swinburne (b. 1934) tries to put together many inductive arguments for the existence of God, and concludes that together they make a powerful case for theism. Today, there is a cottage industry of intelligent design apologetics, often interacting with science. On the a priori side, Alvin Plantinga (b. 1932) presents a modal version of Anselm's argument, that is, using the "modes of possibility," he asserts that there is a possible world in which there is "maximal greatness." His point is not to prove God, but only to show that there is nothing irrational about faith. Plantinga, a Reformed Christian, is arguably America's premier philosopher.

These scholars are often godly persons, who were, and are, responding to their generation as best they can. They are anxious to use language and reasoning that appeals to their context. But we must ask: how biblical, and how edifying are these arguments? The answer is not simple. Two extremes may be avoided.

The first extreme is to squeeze the biblical data into the mold of the classical proofs. Discussions of God's existence are on the whole foreign to biblical language and emphases. The Bible nowhere worries about God's mere existence, at least not in the terms of the preceding arguments. When it explains the reality of God it is not concerned to define essence or existence in a philosophical manner. Nor does it lend support to either the a posteriori folks or the a priori ones. You might ask, don't certain texts at least speak of his existence? Certainly. For example, the Hebrew word for "sound wisdom" in Proverbs 8:14 can mean "essence." Romans 1:20 and Colossians 2:9 refer to deity. Galatians 4:8, speaking negatively, states that idols are "not by nature gods." Or, again, both the NIV and the ESV boldly translate Hebrews 11:6 to say, "whoever would draw near to God must first believe that he exists [estin] and that he rewards those who seek him."

It is also important to avoid the danger of importing a philosophical view of being, essence, existence, and the like, into the biblical text. The Bible is more concerned to assure its readers of God's reliability than of his mere existence. For example, the great faith chapter, Hebrews 11, from which the last quote comes, is a call to perseverance. The author pleads for holding fast without wavering, principally because God, who promised salvation, is faithful (10:23). God is a living God, and though it is fearful to fall into his hands, we don't shrink back but trust in him (11:31, 39). The many examples of believers who are cited in order to encourage us are each commended because they had understood something about the steadfast faithfulness of God. They believed his plan, though they had not received the full provision that we have (11:40). Among them are Abel who still speaks, and Enoch who pleased God, both by their faith (11:4-5). The author then explains how we, too, may please God and draw near to him (v. 6).

God's faithfulness is not unrelated to God's existence. But the stress is far more on the relation of his nature and actions to his power than on his existence. God's purposes are the adequate basis for faith. His purposes are indeed grounded in who he is. "For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself" (6:13). God's greatness is surely the adequate basis for his reliability. But the final proof of God's promises is Christ, the high priest. In 2:10, we are told that Christ, the founder of salvation (the pioneer) was made to suffer, fittingly, by the one "for whom and by whom all things exist." The author is expressing the same thought as 11:6. God is the undergirding meaning of the created universe. It is his prerogative to provide salvation in the remarkable way he does, through the sacrifice of his Son. It is this God who rewards seekers. Notice how far this is from terms like "unmoved mover," or "first cause," which give little assurance to his people.

The same point can be demonstrated from those unusual words in Exodus 3:14, "I am who I am." Philosophers and theologians alike have discussed these enigmatic words, trying to find in them a statement of aseity ( se-deriving from none other than himself). No doubt, they do express something of the independent, self-referential reality of God. In an attempt to downplay any metaphysical implications numerous commentators have missed the obvious. As Richard Muller points out, the reformers, zealous as they were to do good exegesis, still found proof for the aseity of God in Exodus 3:14.

Yet a careful look at the context shows there is much more going on here than an appeal to being-as-such, or existence-as-such. We are at Horeb, in the wilderness. Moses, the shepherd, has just seen the angel of the Lord appear in a burning bush, a plant on fire but not consumed. The Lord then commissions him to go down to Egypt and lead the people of Israel out of slavery and into the promised land. Here, in verse 14, God is answering one of Moses' objections to leading Israel out of Egypt. At first, doubting his own qualifications ("Who am I?"), God reassures him that "I will be with you," and confirms it with a sign (3:11-12). Now, Moses puts forth a second objection: Israel will ask me who is sending me, "What is his name?" He is worried about the reception of his message (3:13). So, the Lord tells him, "I am who I am" (3:14a). The Hebrew in this text (ehyeh asher ehyeh) takes the first person imperfective of "to be" (hayah) and joins it to the relative pronoun "that" with the verb repeated. A lot is going on here. Of course, one cannot miss the emphasis on God's "I am-ness." Moses is also being prepared to see the link between that and the name of God.

More than mere existence, God's character and faithfulness guarantee the survival of the bush (Israel) through the fire (the trials of slavery and of exodus). Note carefully that the Lord has revealed an identity to Moses in 14a. He reminds him that he is the same as before. Then (in 14b) he gives his name, which is etymologically connected to the verb "to be": "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I am has sent me to you.'" Then, in verse 15, he elaborates by telling Moses to proclaim to Israel that Yhwh has sent him. He assertively adds that this is "the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob." As in the Book of Hebrews, the stress here is on God's character and faithfulness, more than on some abstract notion of existence.

When Jesus uses the "I am" language over and over, he is consciously referring to the name of God, and especially to the continuity between his faithfulness and liberating power, going all the way back to eternity: "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). His immediate audience understood the point, since they tried to execute him for blasphemy (8:59). Jesus was arguing for his divinity, and especially for the authority of his message in contrast to the duplicity of his critics. Above all, he would prove to be the true burning bush, the true remnant of Israel who would be raised from the dead through the fiery trials of suffering and crucifixion. This is far removed from mere existence, or first cause.

The second extreme to be avoided is to render all of the biblical language merely relational, and thus to downplay the metaphysical reality of which the Bible speaks. Here, we must stress that God's purposes are related to his being. God can be a life-giving presence because he is Spirit (John 4:24; cf. Deut. 32:10-11; Ezek. 39:29). God can be faithful to his promises because he is light (1 John 1:5; cf. James 1:17; Mal. 3:6). God can so love the world because he is love (1 John 4:8; cf. John 3:16; Eph. 1:4-5). To be sure, it does not work the other way around. God does not have to govern, have to promise, or have to redeem, because his being somehow requires it. The gospel is good news precisely because God is under no obligation to save, but does so anyway. At the same time, the gospel exhibits his attributes, and even shows new depths to them. It tells us, for instance, how much love God has to give. It also tells us he must remain just, though he is the justifier of the ungodly (Rom. 3:26).

Although it is true that the God of the Bible is not the god of the philosophers, a higher being, an unmoved mover, or something "that which nothing greater can be conceived," that does not mean one cannot philosophize about God. Surely, God's purposes relate to his being. God is indeed a being. And he certainly exists. But his being and existence should not be defined by philosophers operating outside of the pale of revelation. Statements about a first cause or a being than which no greater can be conceived are intended to appeal to unbelievers. The idea was never to give a full description of God but to begin with baby steps. But are they the right ones? Thomas Aquinas tried hard to reconcile the insights of philosophy with the biblical data. He rightly defended a God whose essence is his existence. But soon, the philosophical language takes on a life of its own. He defines existence as "the most perfect of all things." The reason, using Aristotle's categories, is that existence makes other things actual. Accordingly, God is a being in which all created perfections abide. "Hence He is spoken of as universally perfect, because he lacks not any excellence which may be found in any genus" (ST 1.Q4.A1-A2). God ends up being the best, the most perfect, and more, but is he really unique? We can only know God by comparison: he is not temporal, he is not corporeal, and so forth. Further, he states that we can never know God in his essence.

The Bible affirms just the opposite. First, it insists on beginning with a Creator whose being is utterly different from the being of creation. Second, it argues that because of thishe can be known by his creatures. While, of course, we can never know God exhaustively, yet we may know him truly, in his essence. Even unbelievers know God, though they try to suppress the knowledge of him (Rom. 1:18-21). Paul reminds his Roman readers that they ought never say, "Who will ascend to heaven?" (to bring Christ down) or "Who will descend into the abyss?" (to bring Christ up from the dead), because he is as near to us as the word of faith (Rom. 10:6-11). The essence of God is that he is both free and powerful. In freedom, not obligation, and using his great power, he chose to make the world. He has structured it so that everyone made as God's image can know him, in his essence. Similarly, he decided to redeem the world, through his dying, risen Son. He structured redemption so that his people may know their God, in his essence as Savior.

Cornelius Van Til helpfully explains that one reason why Thomist theology cannot assert our full knowledge of God is a defective understanding of revelation. Because the Romanist allows that reality must answer to various autonomous laws of being and thought, he can never fully accept revelation. And, particularly, he can never fully appreciate the human mind as "inherently revelational of God." In this view, man is partly independent of God, and thus he will always fall short of accepting God's own categories about himself. Ironically, the result is that God himself ends up dependent on the created order of things. To put it provocatively: Thomists only have one large category of being into which all things must fit. The Bible speaks of two categories of being, Creator and creature.

Van Til consequently states that before we can speak at all about the existence of God, we must find out who he is: "We must first ask what kind of a God Christianity believes in before we can really ask with intelligence whether such a God exists. The what precedes the that; the connotation precedes the denotation; at least the latter cannot be discussed intelligently without at once considering the former." Van Til is not a fideist who asks us to leap into the dark. Rather, he is saying that if Christianity is true, we cannot prove it by assuming our human categories for truth are adequate. If God exists, we cannot prove it by assuming our human category of existence is right. That is where the classical proofs fall short. We cannot begin from the creation as the philosophers define it, and then assume that everything else operates in the same way. Rather, we must submit at every point to revelation, which will tell us all about being and existence from God's point of view.

When we do that, we are in line to be challenged, disturbed, surprised, comforted, and reassured, all at the same time. God is a consuming fire (Ps. 79:5; Heb. 10:27). God is the beginning and the end (Isa. 41:4; Heb. 13:8; Rev. 1:8). His ways are above our ways (Job 38:4; Isa. 40:25). He is merciful and forgiving (Ps. 103:3-4; Matt. 9:2). He is a Person (Ps. 115:4-8). He is three Persons (2 Cor. 13:14). He is the Creator (Gen. 1:1; John 1:1-3; Rev. 4:11). He is Immanuel, God with us (Isa. 7:14; Luke 1:31, 34). Only this being exists.

Can we prove God's existence? Of course we can. But only on God's own terms. Other approaches are beside the point!

1 [ Back ] Dr. Edgar's quotation from Richard A. Muller is taken from Muller's Post-reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003, pp. 233-236). (Dr. Edgar thanks colleague K. Scott Oliphint for this reference.) Dr. Edgar's first quotation from Cornelius Van Til is taken from Van Til's Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1974), p. 160; his second citation of Van Til is taken from Van Til's The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: P & R Publishing, 1976), p. 9.
Photo of William Edgar
William Edgar
William Edgar (PhD, DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), an associate professor at the Faculté Jean Calvin, and an accomplished musician.
Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology