If there’s one question you’ll be asked when talking to an atheist today, it’s “How do you know God exists? Aren’t you just basing it on your scriptures?”
That’s kind of a funny question for two reasons. First, because the scriptures alone are indeed enough to believe that God exists, and second, because this question assumes that the burden of proof is on us (it seems necessary to prove that God does not exist, because of all the evidence there is for his existence). Nevertheless, these two answers generally will not work. Atheists are convinced that the scriptures were simply generated by some people who wanted to start their own religion, and they also believe that the burden of proof certainly does rest on us.
Because of this, the question they are asking is not religious (regarding scriptures, Christian practices or beliefs), but philosophical. They are essentially asking, “Outside of your scriptures, what reason is there to believe that God exists? Could you even know it without the Bible?” The answers we give them will therefore be philosophical as well.
This, however, is a point of contention among Christians. One of the church fathers, Tertullian, is known for his direct opposition to philosophy:
“For philosophy is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy… What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church? What have heretics to do with Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic Christianity! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after receiving the gospel! When we believe, we desire no further belief. For this is our first article of faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.”
Obviously, based on my introduction, I do not agree with Tertullian here. I think the problem is that Tertullian has failed to make a distinction between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world. Now, I could move on and get to the arguments for the existence of God that I have learned and will present in my own fashion. However, the argument presented by Tertullian has been such a major issue within the Church (largely in the recent past), that the rest of my post will be used to deal with this discussion. I intend to show that philosophy can be and indeed is used for the glory of God, and that there is a difference between wisdom and simply good logic.
Aim For Logic AND Wisdom
I have already written in another post about my position on faith and reason. If you feel like I’m not addressing that here, feel free to check that post out. I had to mention it here because what I am about to say rests on the fact that reason is good, and that it must never be abandoned when having a discussion of any kind.
The Bible has several verses that talk about “the wisdom of this world”. Here are three that I found (NIV):
“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” ~1 Cor 1:20
“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” ~1 Cor 3:19-20
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” ~Colossians 2:8
Notice something very interesting about all of these verses. They do not merely identify wisdom or philosophy as being foolish; rather, it is “the wisdom of the/this world” and “hollow and deceptive philosophy”, the latter depending on this world and not on Christ.
I find the Colossians verse to be particularly enlightening and so true throughout history. When I took philosophy at Multnomah University I was always astounded by the textbook readings. All those famous philosophers, from Plato to Descartes, used logic so beautifully that they seemed to have it all together. And yet, after reading each well-thought-out theory, there was always one problem: they had based their argument “on the basic principles of this world”, and on “human tradition”. They assumed something to be true merely because their wise philosophy teacher had believed it, or because they assumed that God did not exist. Their arguments were highly logical, but they made these major mistakes. They were therefore logical but also unwise, using wisdom that is of this world.
Let me give an example of this. It is like a mathematician playing miniature golf, who is able to calculate precisely the angle the ball needs to be hit from, how hard he needs to hit it, how the wind will affect it at every point, and what he must bounce it off so that it will roll directly into the hole. He has all this on paper, and there’s no doubting that he’s got it right; he is very logical. However, when he carries it out it fails. Why? He was very logical and his argument was sound, but he was also very foolish, for he assumed that he could hit the ball in precisely the manner it needed to get that hole in one.
The argument in his head was:
A. I am able to hit this ball just right so that it will go in the hole.
B. I have made perfect calculations so that I know just how to hit the ball.
Therefore, the ball will go in the hole for sure.
His argument is sound and logical (indeed, it is technically valid). He failed because he doesn’t know how to play golf! His first premise was not true.
This is how I interpret that verse from Colossians. It seems to me that the “basic principles of this world” are what sinful man turns to and bases his beliefs and arguments on when wishing to reject God, just like the miniature golfer turns to his own understanding that he is a great golfer.
This is just a slice of what wisdom is, and others will surely be able to define wisdom better than I have. What I am saying here is that wisdom, in part, is that ability to see truth as it really is, and you are only able to see it if you are seeing God and what he has done. It is therefore the wise mathematician who, after being taught by God to put away his pride, can admit that he has no skill to make the shot, which is the truth.
It seems that I have dealt more with the definition of wisdom and logic than to have presented a reason to believe that philosophy can be good. What I was aiming for was to show that there is a difference between the philosophy of this world, which is based on logic only (and often bad logic too!), and philosophy that combines both wisdom and logic, which can determine what is really true.
What will this mean when I argue for the existence of God using philosophy and not scripture in my future blog posts? It means I will use the many reasons there are for believing that God exists, and I will (hopefully) present them logically. But it will be up to the atheist to decide, after hearing it, whether he wishes to be wise or foolish about what the logic is saying.
Some may object by saying, “You can’t argue someone into the kingdom.” If they mean what I think they mean, then I definitely agree with them. Even if my arguments are perfect, the atheist may still reject them out of the hardness of his/her heart. Additionally, it will not be my arguments alone that convince them, but scripture and the Holy Spirit as well. This is why one should present these kinds of arguments alongside scripture and let God do the rest. However, if someone asks me, “Outside of scripture, how do you know God exists?”, I’m hardly going to tell him, “Let me quote a verse for you….”
Instead, I would say what I am going to say in the following blog posts. Stay tuned…