Augustus Strong has a good discussion on the existence of God. The last edition of his systematic theology text came out in 1917, so you’d think his material is a bit dated.
Strong doesn’t pin his discussion on the doctrine of Scripture, which may be a problem for some Christians. In other words, he doesn’t say (1) the Bible says God exists, (2) therefore God exists, and (3) we know this is true because the Bible says so.
To be sure, presuppositional, Reformed apologists argue convincingly and well that this isn’t necessarily a circular argument. After all, one has to start somewhere. You can read John Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God for more on this. But, Strong doesn’t start there. He says everyone intuitively knows God exists, there are various “proofs” one can examine which, compounded together, form a cumulative case for God’s existence, and the Scriptures tell us who this God actually is:
It is to be remembered, however, that the loss of love to God has greatly obscured even this rational intuition, so that the revelation of nature and the Scriptures is needed to awaken, confirm and enlarge it, and the special work of the Spirit of Christ to make it the knowledge of friendship and communion (pg. 67).
This makes good sense. Here, I’ll briefly explain Strong’s case.
We all know God exists:
Logically, it precedes and conditions all observation and reasoning. Chronologically, only reflection upon the phenomena of nature and of mind occasions its rise in consciousness (pg. 52).
God’s existence is the foundation of all true knowledge; “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” (Prov 1:7). This means that, in order to really understand the creation He created and the laws that govern its existence, we need to acknowledge who made it.
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew (Prov 3:19-20).
He’s the reason we see a world that’s designed, why we’re hard-wired with an innate sense of morality, justice and fairness. There’s no foundation for logic and reasoning unless we presuppose a Creator who defines and shapes the very ideas of “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong;” who defines “logical” and “illogical.”
But, are people usually introspective enough to think about this? No, they aren’t. That’s why Strong said this idea only rises in the conscience upon reflection. But, make no mistake, the very idea of “God” is a necessary “first truth;” something humans intuitively assume in order to make sense of the world. Strong explains:
A first truth is a knowledge which, though developed upon occasion of observation and reflection, is not derived from observation and reflection,—a knowledge on the contrary which has such logical priority that it must be assumed or supposed, in order to make any observation or reflection possible (pg. 54).
Something qualifies as a “first truth,” Strong says, if it’s (1) universally believed, (2) logically necessary for practical, everyday life and (3) presupposed by the mind. This sounds a bit heavy, but it’s actually pretty simple. If, on a practical basis, everyone assumes something is true in their day to day actions, and such an assumption is logically necessary for normal life, then it’s a “first truth.”
Now, someone might not be consciously aware of her presuppositions, but that’s irrelevant. A baby isn’t consciously aware of the maxim “oxygen is necessary for life,” but it surely depends on it and tries to get it!
Why God’s existence is a first truth
God is real, and cultures throughout history worship a deity of some sort. People know they’re dependent on a Being higher than themselves. Fact.
Even the fetich-worshiper, who calls the stone or the tree a god, shows that he has already the idea of a God. We must not measure the ideas of the heathen by their capacity for expression, any more than we should judge the child’s belief in the existence of his father by his success in drawing the father’s picture (pg. 56).
Even if people claim they don’t have or worship a “higher power,” the way they live their lives shows this isn’t correct.
This agreement among individuals and nations so widely separated in time and place can be most satisfactorily explained by supposing that it has its ground, not in accidental circumstances, but in the nature of man as man (pg. 57).
So far, so good. But why are people’s ideas about God so different?
The diverse and imperfectly developed ideas of the supreme Being which prevail among men are best accounted for as misinterpretations and perversions of an intuitive conviction common to all (pg. 57).
In troubled times, people instinctively reach for something high than themselves. That is, we’re hard-wired to worship God:
In times of sudden shock and danger, this rational intuition becomes a presentative intuition,—men become more conscious of God’s existence than of the existence of their fellow-men and they instinctively cry to God for help (pg. 58).
Have you ever considered why some people are driven to hate God so much? Why are entire organizations consumed with a pathological hatred of Christianity, Jesus and the God of Scripture (e.g. the Freedom from Religion Foundation)? I heard one apologist observe, “I don’t believe in unicorns. But, I’m not driven to write a book entitled, The Unicorn Delusion!” This is a reference to the atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.
Why, indeed! In fact, Strong argues, we implicitly acknowledge God exists in everything we do:
The validity of the simplest mental acts, such as sense-perception, self-consciousness, and memory, depends upon the assumption that a God exists who has so constituted our minds that they give us knowledge of things as they are (pg. 59).
This is an early version of the transcendental argument for the existence of God, an approach often employed by Reformed apologists. The late Greg Bahnsen wrote:
The best, the only, the absolutely certain proof of the truth of Christianity is that unless its truth be presupposed there is no proof of anything (Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith [KL 1021-1022]).
This means that, if the unbeliever wants to be consistent and defend and establish what grounds he has for believing and understanding anything, without borrowing from the Christian worldview, he couldn’t do it.
The fool must be answered by showing him his foolishness and the necessity of Christianity as the precondition of intelligibility (Bahnsen, Always Ready, KL 1025 – 1026).
Why do you think it’s wrong to beat up old ladies? Why is it wrong to cheat on your husband? To kidnap little children? Are these social constructions that just so happen to be universal in every culture and society? Or, is there something deeper, here? If you don’t have God and His word, what is your logical foundation and basis for understanding anything?
[W]e can believe in the universal authority of right, only by assuming that there exists a God of righteousness who reveals his will both in the individual conscience and in the moral universe at large (pg. 61).
That’s what modern presuppositionalist apologetics presses home, and it’s what Strong was getting at here, too. It’s why he wrote this:
The more complex processes of the mind, such as induction and deduction, can be relied on only by presupposing a thinking Deity who has made the various parts of the universe and the various aspects of truth to correspond to each other and to the investigating faculties of man (pg. 60).
The very idea of “logic” presupposes order, rationality, and a unifying Being who gives shape and structure to these concepts. Where do “laws of logic” come from? Why can I read a theological text written by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, and it “makes sense” to me – even though he lived about 900 years ago, in a different culture, with a different language?
In assuming that there is a universe, that the universe is a rational whole, a system of thought-relations, we assume the existence of an absolute Thinker, of whose thought the universe is an expression (pg. 60).
Strong doesn’t believe you can “prove” God exists, in an absolute sense.
We cannot prove that God is; but we can show that, in order to the existence of any knowledge, thought, reason, conscience, in man, man must assume that God is (61).
Instead, God is a revealed reality. All the “arguments” and “proofs” in the world won’t get you anywhere; a cold intellectualism is not saving faith:
The arguments for the divine existence, valuable as they are for purposes to be shown hereafter, are not sufficient by themselves to warrant our conviction that there exists an infinite and absolute Being. It will appear upon examination that the a priori argument is capable of proving only an abstract and ideal proposition, but can never conduct us to the existence of a real Being (pg. 66).
Knowledge of a person is turned into personal knowledge by actual communication or revelation. First, comes the intuitive knowledge of God possessed by all men—the assumption that there exists a Reason, Power, Perfection, Personality, that makes correct thinking and acting possible. Secondly, comes the knowledge of God’s being and attributes which nature and Scripture furnish. Thirdly, comes the personal and presentative knowledge derived from actual reconciliation and intercourse with God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit (pg. 68).
Indeed, the Bible never attempts to “prove” God’s existence at all; the authors presupposed Him and wrote according to that worldview. “The preacher may confidently follow the example of Scripture by assuming it. But he must also explicitly declare it, as the Scripture does,” (pg. 68).
With that, Strong finishes his discussion. He moves immediately to a discussion of four classical “proofs” of God’s existence, and stresses these arguments form a cumulative case that should direct the thinking man to Christ and the Scriptures.
Is Strong’s section on “the existence of God” worth reading, today? Not really, but that’s not Strong’s fault. The world has moved on, and our Western context is quite different today. The arguments have had to become more rigorous, as the attacks have become sharper.
His discussion about why God’s existence is a first truth is particularly weak. But, Strong lived in a different time. Theological revisionism was largely happening in the seminaries and, to some extent, in the pulpits. It hadn’t happened in the pews to great extent, yet. Strong assumes a theistic worldview in his comments, and today’s future pastors need something more rigorous. They need a defense against the “new atheist” tactics. Again, this isn’t Strong’s fault – it’s just a different time, now.
The issue of “does God really exist” is really more about epistemology and worldview, than anything else. If this is something you want to read more about, you should start with these three books:
Strong’s discussion on God’s existence was good in 1917. It’s not bad today, but there’s better discussions out there.