Augustus Strong on the Existence of God

strongAugustus 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.

Kind of.

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.

First truths

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).

Proof?

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).

Strong continues:

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).

Finis

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:

  • Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith by Doug Groothuis. This is the best most comprehensive one-volume book on apologetics a thinking Christian can get. It’ll make you more grounded in your faith at an intellectual level.
  • Always Ready by Greg Bahnsen. A classic and essential book on apologetics by a renowned Reformed scholar.
  • The Ultimate Proof for Creation by Jason Lisle. A wonderful, deep book on apologetics from a presuppositional perspective. Perhaps a bit more accessible than Bahnsen.

Strong’s discussion on God’s existence was good in 1917. It’s not bad today, but there’s better discussions out there.

Growing Stronger with Strong

strongI’ve just finished my latest reading project, and am now embarking on another. I’ve decided to read a good deal of Augustus Strong’s Systematic Theology text. Strong’s work was the old standard in many Baptist seminaries for most of the 20th century. It was first published in 1886, and he released the last edition in 1907. It’s largely been replaced by Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology , which was first released in 1983 and recently went into it’s third edition (2013).

I spent a great deal of time with Erickson last year, and read through perhaps 50% of his systematic. This year, I plan to do the same with Strong. I haven’t read much from him. Strong’s ecclesiology (i.e. doctrine of the church) is, of course, superb. He still has the best systematic doctrine of the church I’ve read anywhere. Contemporary Baptist theologians from the fundamentalist-evangelical tradition still reference his work.[1]

In addition, Strong’s discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity was extraordinarily helpful to me years ago. It’s also the best discussion of that doctrine that I’ve ever read from a systematic theology. It’s better even than Erickson, who’s written on the Trinity at length in separate works.[2]

So, all that gives me good confidence that Strong will be well worth my time. Having said that, I thought I’d share these encouraging words from the preface to his text. This was clearly written in the context of the ongoing fundamentalist-modernist debates of his era, but Strong’s passion for theological truth and the “fundamentals” of the faith should be encouraging to any Christian:[3]

Neither evolution nor the higher criticism has any terrors to one who regards them as parts of Christ’s creating and educating process. The Christ in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge himself furnishes all the needed safeguards and limitations. It is only because Christ has been forgotten that nature and law have been personified, that history has been regarded as unpurposed development, that Judaism has been referred to a merely human origin, that Paul has been thought to have switched the church off from its proper track even before it had gotten fairly started on its course, that superstition and illusion have come to seem the only foundation for the sacrifices of the martyrs and the triumphs of modern missions. I believe in no such irrational and atheistic evolution as this. I believe rather in him in whom all things consist, who is with his people even to the end of the world, and who has promised to lead them into all the truth.

Philosophy and science are good servants of Christ, but they are poor guides when they rule out the Son of God. As I reach my seventieth year and write these words on my birthday, I am thankful for that personal experience of union with Christ which has enabled me to see in science and philosophy the teaching of my Lord. But this same personal experience has made me even more alive to Christ’s teaching in Scripture, has made me recognize in Paul and John a truth profounder than that disclosed by any secular writers, truth with regard to sin and atonement for sin, that satisfies the deepest wants of my nature and that is self-evidencing and divine.

I am distressed by some common theological tendencies of our time, because I believe them to be false to both science and religion. How men who have ever felt themselves to be lost sinners and who have once received pardon from their crucified Lord and Savior can thereafter seek to pare down his attributes, deny his deity and atonement, tear from his brow the crown of miracle and sovereignty, relegate him to the place of a merely moral teacher who influences us only as does Socrates by words spoken across a stretch of ages, passes my comprehension.

Here is my test of orthodoxy: Do we pray to Jesus? Do we call upon the name of Christ, as did Stephen and all the early church? Is he our living Lord, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent? Is he divine only in the sense in which we are divine, or is he the only-begotten Son, God manifest in the flesh, in whom is all the fulness of the Godhead bodily? What think ye of the Christ? is still the critical question, and none are entitled to the name of Christian who, in the face of the evidence he has furnished us, cannot answer the question aright.

Under the influence of Ritschl and his Kantian relativism, many of our teachers and preachers have swung off into a practical denial of Christ’s deity and of his atonement. We seem upon the verge of a second Unitarian defection, that will break up churches and compel secessions, in a worse manner than did that of Channing and Ware a century ago. American Christianity recovered from that disaster only by vigorously asserting the authority of Christ and the inspiration of the Scriptures. We need a new vision of the Savior like that which Paul saw on the way to Damascus and John saw on the isle of Patmos, to convince us that Jesus is lifted above space and time, that his existence antedated creation, that he conducted the march of Hebrew history, that he was born of a virgin, suffered on the cross, rose from the dead, and now lives forevermore, the Lord of the universe, the only God with whom we have to do, our Savior here and our Judge hereafter.

Without a revival of this faith our churches will become secularized, mission enterprise will die out, and the candlestick will be removed out of its place as it was with the seven churches of Asia, and as it has been with the apostate churches of New England.

I print this revised and enlarged edition of my “Systematic Theology,” in the hope that its publication may do something to stem this fast advancing tide, and to confirm the faith of God’s elect. I make no doubt that the vast majority of Christians still hold the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints, and that they will sooner or later separate themselves from those who deny the Lord who bought them. When the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord will raise up a standard against him. I would do my part in raising up such a standard.

I would lead others to avow anew, as I do now, in spite of the supercilious assumptions of modern infidelity, my firm belief, only confirmed by the experience and reflection of a half-century, in the old doctrines of holiness as the fundamental attribute of God, of an original transgression and sin of the whole human race, in a divine preparation in Hebrew history for man’s redemption, in the deity, preëxistence, virgin birth, vicarious atonement and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord, and in his future coming to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe that these are truths of science as well as truths of revelation; that the supernatural will yet be seen to be most truly natural; and that not the open-minded theologian but the narrow-minded scientist will be obliged to hide his head at Christ’s coming.

The present volume, in its treatment of Ethical Monism, Inspiration, the Attributes of God, and the Trinity, contains an antidote to most of the false doctrine which now threatens the safety of the church. I desire especially to call attention to the section on Perfection, and the Attributes therein involved, because I believe that the recent merging of Holiness in Love, and the practical denial that Righteousness is fundamental in God’s nature, are responsible for the utilitarian views of law and the superficial views of sin which now prevail in some systems of theology.

There can be no proper doctrine of the atonement and no proper doctrine of retribution, so long as Holiness is refused its preëminence. Love must have a norm or standard, and this norm or standard can be found only in Holiness. The old conviction of sin and the sense of guilt that drove the convicted sinner to the cross are inseparable from a firm belief in the self-affirming attribute of God as logically prior to and as conditioning the self-communicating attribute. The theology of our day needs a new view of the Righteous One. Such a view will make it plain that God must be reconciled before man can be saved, and that the human conscience can be pacified only upon condition that propitiation is made to the divine Righteousness. In this volume I propound what I regard as the true Doctrine of God, because upon it will be based all that follows in the volumes on the Doctrine of Man, and the Doctrine of Salvation.

The universal presence of Christ, the Light that lighteth every man, in heathen as well as in Christian lands, to direct or overrule all movements of the human mind, gives me confidence that the recent attacks upon the Christian faith will fail of their purpose. It becomes evident at last that not only the outworks are assaulted, but the very citadel itself.

We are asked to give up all belief in special revelation. Jesus Christ, it is said, has come in the flesh precisely as each one of us has come, and he was before Abraham only in the same sense that we were. Christian experience knows how to characterize such doctrine so soon as it is clearly stated. And the new theology will be of use in enabling even ordinary believers to recognize soul-destroying heresy even under the mask of professed orthodoxy.

Notes

[1] Rolland McCune, for example (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. [Detroit: DBTS, 2010], 3:195 – 297) relies heavily on Augustus Strong’s Systematic in his own discussions on Baptist polity.

[2] See, for example, God Made Flesh: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), The Word Became Flesh: A Contemporary Incarnational Christology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000) and Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009).

[3]  Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), vii–xi.