Robert H. Tanzie
New Horizons: April 2000
Also in this issue
by Alan D. Strange
by Larry E. Wilson
by SuAnne (Murphy) Davids
by Edward N. Gross
Christian faith is as much caughtin the church, in the workplace, and amid the varied joys and trials of this journey we call lifeas it is taught in the academy. Few people move from living under the wrath of God to knowing the grace of God as the result of a lecture.
Nevertheless, Christian faith is to be taught. We are commanded by our God to love him not only with our heart, soul, and strength, but with our mind as well. Therefore, a lecture on the topic "Is There a God?" is most appropriate in a divinity school. The apostle Peter exhorts us, "In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1 Pet. 3:15-16).
I am aiming my remarks this evening primarily at those of you who are divinity students or are presently in ministry. I will give you an example of the apologetic methodology known as presuppositionalism. I would contrast it to fideism, which was my grandmother Anna Friebe's method: "Never question, just believe in Gott." I would also contrast it to evidentialism, which begins with self-evident reason and gradually builds a case for God's existence. An example of that method would be Pope John Paul's recent and learned call for a return to the methods of Thomas Aquinas. This approach led a much admired theologian to spend eight days on a ship arguing the existence of the human soul with a Marxist. He never did get around to speaking of God!
I lay my presuppositional cards on the table: I am a committed Christian and have been since 1966. My argument is circular and assumes the conclusion in the premise: the triune God of the Bible exists and calls you into fellowship with himself.
A corollary to this is that Christianity is not only intellectually defensible, but the only worldview available in the marketplace of ideas that is intellectually defensible, internally consistent, and livablebecause it is the truth. I can conceive of a world without me, I can conceive of God without the universe, but I cannot conceive of me or a universe without God.
With the psalmist let us proclaim, "Your love, 0 Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.... For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light" (Ps. 36:5, 6, 9).
"Is there a god?" is a question asked today in a milieu of doubt, a culture of disbelief so well articulated by Steven Carter of Yale. The same question, when asked, say, at this divinity school in 1798, would not have been considered trivial or marginal by the society at large. Believe it, today most folks "out there" see this question as trivial. And most folks "out there" see your calling as irrelevant. As a pastor, I minister to a generally educated population. When I converse with a nonbeliever about our Christian faith, I generally assume either indifference or articulate opposition on the part of the other person. I am seldom disappointed. As if they are throwing meat to the jackals (with me being the meat), they will tell me why they are not Christian and often why I should not be a Christian.
We need to ask ourselves what the underlying cultural assumptions are in our time that prompt the question "Is there a god?" Why is the question posed in this way? Does it not assume that I, the questioner, have the right and the ability in some fashion to hold God accountable? I can put God in the dock; I can put my questions to him; I can demand satisfactory answers from him; I can cause this divinity to pass through my net; I can pronounce judgment upon him.
Many well-intentioned Christians and pagans over the past two millennia have sought to put up such a net and induce God to pass through it. The effort to construct a rationally transparent test, syllogism, or experiment to prove God's existence to believers and nonbelievers alike is as old as it is futile. All too often, the believing effort that begins with Descartes' "I think; therefore I am" ends with Bertrand Russell's complaint. When asked what he would say if, after death, he found himself before the Almighty, Professor Russell said his reply would be, "Sir, you did not give me enough proof."
The cosmonaut Yury Gagarin failed to see a god when he was rocketed into the heavens. Radio telescopes scan the universe, to no avail. Many a net has been fashioned to catch a god (and even an occasional goddess), but to date, none has been snagged. Perhaps the time has come for us Christians to join the secular society and just admit that the question "Is there a god?" cannot be confidently answered in the affirmative.
But if we answer that question in the negative, we must also have the courage to admit the death of man and woman as meaningful and moral beings. Dostoyevsky, a Christian, was right when he said, "If God is dead, then everything is permitted." The exhilaration of freedom from Moses' Ten Commandments, and from Jesus' stern sexual ethic, soon dissipates when we think about the ramifications of our negative answer.
I have here a tract from the Humanist Association of Massachusetts. This tract states, "Human experience and reasoning are the sources of meaning and values.... Humankind, as a species, is a special product of the evolutionary process." The tract quotes the famous humanist Corliss Lamont, who speaks of "the greater good of all humanity" as the basis for ethics. Linus Pauling mentions "service for the good." Erich Fromm notes, "Humanist ethics...is based on the principle that only humans themselves can determine the criterion of virtue and sin."
Did I hear that correctly? "Meaning and values"? "Humankind, as a species, is special"? Be serious! "The greater good...service for the good...virtue and sin"? Get real, boys. Your humanist elders should know that you can't have it both ways. When God dies, so does meaning.
This was brought home to me in a conversation I had with a young man during the height of the Vietnam War. A picture taken on June 8, 1972, was published in, as I recall, Life Magazine. Five little Vietnamese children were fleeing for their lives from a U.S. napalm bombing. The little girl in the middle was running toward the camera, totally naked, her mouth wide open, screaming in complete terror. Having seen this picture, the young man raged and railed against the Christian God who permitted what we both agreed were horrible atrocities. He loudly proclaimed his atheism in the face of such horror.
I replied to my new friend, "Being a Christian, I am morally outraged by what was done to those children. But why should you care if the children live or die? When the napalm burns their skin and they become crispy critters, is that not simply a chemical reaction? The meaningless molecules are simply rearranged." He understood, seeing the nonexistence not only of God, but of all his values, and he walked away in stunned silence.
Have the courage of your convictions. If God does not exist, there is no possibility of value, argument, history, or experience. We are locked into our self-existent skulls, and, as Sartre saw, the only philosophical question is "Why not commit suicide?" The joke is on those who fish for God. As the psalmist said of those who resist God, "Their feet are caught in the net they have hidden.... [They] are ensnared by the work of their hands" (Ps. 9:15-16).
But we Christians have good news. Not that a god exists, not that there is a high probability of the divine, but that the living and true God calls you by his Spirit into fellowship through his Son, Jesus Christ. We cannot and should not attempt to devise a net in which to catch God; nevertheless, he has left abundant witness to himself. Indeed, God is casting out his gospel net, and he is fishing for us! And we, looking out from within God's good creation, can confirm his presence and love in many ways.
When I am approached with the question "Is there a god?" I usually respond, "Yes, God is. What would you accept as proof? Would you accept a philosophical proof, a historical proof, or perhaps an existential proof?" Those of you going into ministry should be let in on a secret. Maybe once every decade will you be asked a theological question in pure form. I had been pastoring for six years before this happened to me. Riding the subway in Philadelphia, a friend and I were going over a class we had just presented in the city. A young woman tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I've been eavesdropping. I want to know how to become a Christian. I am ready. What must I do? I get off in two stops, so please be quick about it!"
I have attempted in this little talk to give you a philosophical argument for the existence of God. With Anselm, I believe in order that I may understand. There is no such thing as a merely abstract, purely intellectual knowledge of God. All knowledge, including all knowledge of God, exists in relationship to God. This is so because we all live in God's creation. "The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge" (Ps. 19:1-2 NASB).
This is so because we are all created in God's image. "For when the Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them" (Rom. 2:14-15 NASB). "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools" (Rom. 1:18-22 NASB).
You are therefore already from birth without excuse. You can deny God only because God has created the conditions of existence that make such a denial possible. Your position is that of a baby who, in order to slap old Dad in the face, must be held up in his arms. You are, we all are, without excuse. Whether or not you agree with or even follow this argument, you already know in the depths of your personality that the true God is, and you know at this moment whether you are or are not in fellowship with him.
The three hundred or so prophecies of the Bible have always been of great comfort to the church as she faces the world, proclaiming her God. They begin with the veiled protevangelium of Genesis 3:15, where it is foretold that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. They conclude in the Old Testament at Malachi 3:1-4: " 'See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,' says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years." The history of biblical prophecy and hand-in-glove fulfillment has been and is today a compelling proof of the truth of our holy faith.
A contemporary example is found in a young, Jewish, very secular psychologist, who, on hearing the reading of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, shot back, "What's so impressive about that? Anyone standing at the foot of the cross could have written that." He was amazed to learn that the passage had been penned centuries before Jesus' crucifixion. It was the beginning of the end of his secularism. Today Dr. Rich Ganz is a Christian.
The jewel in the crown of Christian proofs is the resurrection of Jesus. Paul preached the resurrection of Jesus to convince pagans of the truth of Christianity. " 'But I have had God's help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happenthat the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.' At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. 'You are out of your mind, Paul!' he shouted. 'Your great learning is driving you insane.' 'I am not insane, most excellent Festus,' Paul replied. 'What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.' Then Agrippa said to Paul, 'Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?' Paul replied, 'Short time or longI pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains'" (Acts 26:22-29).
Neither King Agrippa nor Festus became a believer. But the fact of the Resurrection turned twelve men cowering in an upper room into fearless preachers of the Resurrectioneven at the cost of their lives. Many have been moved from wrath to grace by the weight of this proof.
In a book that became a best seller, Who Moved the Stone? Frank Morison, a lawyer, tells how he was brought up in a rationalistic environment and came to the opinion that the Resurrection was nothing but a fairy-tale happy ending which spoiled a great story about Jesus. Therefore, he planned to write an account of the last tragic days of Jesus, allowing the full horror of the crime and the full heroism of Jesus to shine through. He would, of course, omit any suspicion of the miraculous, and would utterly discount the Resurrection. But when he came to study the facts with care, he had to change his mind, and he wrote his book on the other side, the side of belief. His first chapter, significantly, is entitled "The Book That Refused to Be Written."
Personal experience is not subject to critical examination in the same way that historical proof is, but one's experience is often the most compelling factor in belief. There are many millions of Christians at present. They could be having a group hallucination along with millions of others down through the past two millennia, but the farmer's argument, "Don't tell me there is no God; I spoke with him this morning!" carries a certain value.
Here is a challenge. If you are asked, "Is there a god?" invite the inquirer to ask God. God calls you and each of us through his servant Jeremiah: " 'Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,' declares the Lord" (Jer. 29:12-14). I can assure you that the living God not only exists, but seeks your fellowship. As a youth, I read these words of the prophet and took up the challenge, and God answered me. He will answer you as well.
This article was first an address delivered at Harvard Divinity School at a Hope for Harvard meeting, and then was published in the Fall 1998 issue of New England Reformed Journal, a local pastors' publication. Mr. Tanzie is the pastor of Peace OPC in Boston, Mass. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2000.
New Horizons: April 2000
Also in this issue
by Alan D. Strange
by Larry E. Wilson
by SuAnne (Murphy) Davids
by Edward N. Gross
© 2022 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church