ACST 18. The Independent One

Chapter 14 introduced the idea that God is transcendent.1 The term implies that God is not a part of the universe, but is separate from it. In the words of the Julie Gold song, made popular by Bette Midler, “God is watching us from a distance.” J. Gresham Machen insisted that this attribute of God is “absolutely fundamental in the Bible” and “absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible all the rest.”2 One of the reasons that God must be seen as separate from his creation is that the creation has been adversely affected by sin, but God has not.

The Old Testament fiercely preserves and protects the
transcendence of God, precisely because it fiercely preserves
and protects the holiness of God. Angels, particularly the
mysterious Angel of the Lord, seem to appear in the narrative
of the Hebrew scriptures for this very purpose – to allow
divine interaction with the corruptible world of created
beings, while at the same time preserving the distance between
God and all that is corruptible.3

Chapter 14 also introduced the theological flipside to the issue of transcendence. God is not only separate from his creation, but he remains active within it, intervening whenever and wherever he pleases.4 This concept is included in the doctrine of the immanence of God, defined as “God’s intimacy and closeness to all creatures.” He is immanent without losing his transcendence, or without “ceasing to be the free and sovereign Lord of all.”5

Putting both of these biblical concepts together reveals a God who is both sovereign over creation and independent from it. Yet it poses a problem: if God is independent from the universe which he created, how can we prove his existence?
The short answer is that we cannot. His transcendence makes it impossible for us to point to God and tell the world “there he is.”

Yet his immanence makes it entirely possible that we can point to God’s work as evidence that he exists. He has left footsteps in the sand to show that he has been here among us, and that evidence keeps reoccurring to show us that he still walks among us. The majority of the world still believes in a deity of some kind because of this evidence, but most suppress this truth. For that reason, simply recounting examples of this evidence may not achieve much. Nevertheless, it will not hurt to try!

Evidence from Creation

For most of human history, the sciences have come to the aid of theology in providing evidence for God’s existence because they examined the universe, both on a macro (telescope) and micro (microscope) level. The evidence science has catalogued indicated that “the universe manifests order and purpose that can only be the result of a conscious intelligence.”6 We see this order in the patterns that repeat themselves in creation: the petals on a flower, or the rotation of the planets in a solar system.

In the past century, as technology has continued to improve, science has become more and more capable of presenting this type of evidence, but, ironically has been distracted from that task. Science has been held captive by a philosophical belief system which refuses to acknowledge the possibility of anything supernatural about nature itself, especially its origin. This has resulted in the disenchantment of nature itself, and has been partially responsible for the exploitation of the environment that has left the planet with a number of ecological problems.7 We do not have to deify nature in order to solve the ecological crisis. We merely need to rediscover how important nature is as a means of connecting us to its Creator.

The psalmist tells us that nature is constantly communicating both the existence and majesty of God.8 It does this by presenting to us evidence that demands us to consider its design and thus postulate the existence of its designer. Even if we are not ready to speculate on the nature of that designer, logic demands that we imagine at least that there is one.

Many of us may not fully grasp the purpose of Stonehenge,
but we immediately recognize that it is the result of
intelligent design and not natural processes. This is
because Stonehenge contains a complex arrangement of
stones that match a pattern. We may know very
little about the purposes, beliefs, or identity of the
designers of Stonehenge, but we know it was designed.9

Like Stonehenge, nature gives us clues to its creator. We see in both the microcosm and the macrocosm an almost infinite number of recognizable patterns, complex machine-like systems working on the basis of complex encoded data. To suggest that all of what is there “just happened” defies logic, and requires a faith in chance that goes way beyond the faith required of any god in any religion.

Evidence from Philosophy

Some of Christianity’s earliest theologians were philosophers as well, and sought to bring their philosophical disciplines to bear on the subject of God’s existence as well. One of the first, and most effective of these was Thomas Aquinas. His five ways that nature evidences God’s existence show how the human mind keeps stumbling over the fact of God’s existence when simply thinking about the nature of what is.10

1. The fact that the entire universe is in motion leads us to suspect an unmoved mover as its creator.

2. The fact that everything that exists appears to have a cause leads us to suspect that it was all created by an uncaused cause capable of bringing everything into existence.

3. The fact that the universe exists leads us to surmise an uncreated creator, because nothing happens without a reason. If there was ever a time when nothing (or no one) existed, there could have been nothing (or no one) to bring the universe into existence.

4. The fact that we can appreciate excellence in the universe leads to the suggestion that a being exists who is the standard by which all else is compared. Since the universe contains degrees of complexity from inanimate objects to complex beings, it follows that an even more complex being than humanity is possible.

5. The fact that the universe manifests order and direction suggests a conscious intelligence directing it, and building order into its structure.

Arguments like these are constantly debated among philosophers, and rarely yield agreement. Even Aquinas did not come to faith in God by virtue of his appreciation of God’s evidence in nature. It was the other way around: after finding God through Christ, Aquinas was able to see the evidence for God’s existence in nature. Faith became a lens by which Aquinas was able to see creation more clearly, and thus detect the marks which God, the creator had left upon it.

However, Aquinas’ faith does not negate his logic. A witness’s testimony is not negated when she is able to give a more accurate story since she was wearing corrective lenses when she saw the incident. Her testimony is actually deemed more reliable. In the same way, believers who approach the question of God from the book of creation are not out of bounds and in error simply because they have access to the supplemental revelation of faith or scripture.

In fact, there are a number of thinkers in this planet who come to accept the fact of God’s existence without those corrective lenses. They are theists, but not believers in any particular god. They see sufficient evidence in nature and elsewhere for the assumption of a deity, while remaining agnostic as to his, her, or it’s identity. This fact lends credence to arguments like Aquinas’s five ways. It suggests that such arguments are not merely reflections of religious bias, tainting pure science. Like the citizens of Athens, they knew enough about God to know that he existed, but not enough to know who he was.11

Evidence from Human Nature

A particularly revealing chapter in the book of nature is the book of human nature. The thoughts and feelings within the human heart show an impression upon us that cannot be explained by merely blaming the environment or our past history. One example of these thoughts and feelings is the tendency all humans have of assessing the acts of other humans, or societies with the categories of justice or injustice. All human beings are not in agreement on what is fair and what is unfair. Neither has there been consistent agreement throughout time as to which actions are just, and which are unjust. Nevertheless, it is true that throughout time all human beings of whatever race, culture or creed have retained the concept of justice.

One question to ponder, then, is where did this concept of justice come from? It is too simplistic to say that such concepts are merely taught by parents and reinforced by society. Many, because of conscience, are led to reject the teaching of their parents, or rebel against their governments.

It is also too simplistic to assume that such ideas are programmed into us by the processes of evolution. To suggest that our moral consciences are merely throwbacks to the decisions our prehistoric ancestors had to make to survive does not account for the justice decisions people make all the time which are clearly not in the interest of personal or corporate survival. If there is a justice gene embedded in human DNA, then why is it that humans and nations are consistently inconsistent on what justice is?

From whence, then, do these ideas and policies come which seek fairness for all? Christians have an answer. We blame God for wiring all humans in such a way that we see actions as potentially right or wrong, fair or unfair, just or unjust. In fact, we often go beyond the concept of justice, and ask “what would be the caring or loving thing to do.” We seek reconciliation rather than retribution. Christians argue that these concepts did not emerge through a gradual process from the primordial ooze. They have been with humanity since creation, and are inherited from a loving God who wishes his creatures to imitate his character.

The Difference Christ Made

As good as the above arguments are, each of them is inadequate. Although they can lead some to be theists, they are not sufficient to dispel the agnosticism of Athens. It takes revelation to do that. So, Paul at Athens said…
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31 ESV)

This man is Jesus. His resurrection was the evidence, or assurance (pistis) that God offered to humanity still in ignorance (agnoia) of his existence. The resurrection of Jesus is all the proof the world will ever need that everything said in the Bible is true. As evidence supplied by God himself, it covers the issue of origins, the issue of our responsibility to God as his creatures, and everything in between. Thus it was on the basis of the resurrection of Christ that Paul commanded the Athenians to repent, and warned them of coming judgment.

Now that Christ has been raised from the dead, no human being will be able to stand before God and excuse her failure to pay attention to his word. The gospel message redirects a world that has ignored God’s message back to it. Once we return to God’s word, the gaps in our knowledge of him are filled in by it.

Evidence from the Bible

The Bible tells us that God exists, and progressively reveals more and more of his character and identity as it tells his story. Without this essential piece to the puzzle, crucial elements of the story of the universe and the story of humanity would remain a mystery. This explains why cultures who deny God’s existence are apt to bring harm to their environment and themselves. Conversely, those people and societies who care enough to seek God through the Bible find that the resulting relationship leads to a proper stewardship of the earth’s resources, and a better care for society as a whole. Knowing God makes a difference.

We saw in previous chapters that the Bible reveals a God who cannot be defined in the terms which we use to define everything else in the universe. He is immeasurable. That makes him independent of the universe which he created. Although he can affect change upon the universe, he cannot be changed by it. He is immutable. All around the universe change is happening, including the ultimate change of death, but God is not capable of such change. He alone has immortality.

Although analogies from nature (such as the shamrock, or water) have been used to illustrate the Trinity, nature is really insufficient to teach the doctrine. The Bible, however, has no such limitation. From the beginning of Genesis, where we see a God who is both a “he” and an “us,” the triune nature of God comes through. The holiness of God is also best seen in his relationship with man and nations, which is brought out best through the history given in divine revelation.

What we see as the evidence from scripture piles up around us is that God is not the same as the universe he created. He is the Independent One. His sovereign acts within history and his words revealing himself and his plan are just ways that he has chosen to connect with his creatures. They are adequate to give us glimpses of his existence and attributes, and that is all that faith truly needs. Skepticism and doubt are free to ignore that evidence, but that ignorance is a choice, not an excuse.12

Human beings have every capacity to recognize the clues to God’s existence in nature, thought, human nature and the Bible, but some choose not to do so. The reasons why this is so are found not in the nature of God, but in human nature, particularly that nature as it currently presents itself, marred by original sin. Thus logically we proceed to a study of those issues.

1 cf. page 98.

2 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2009), 54. “From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the creator.”

3 Kevin W. Mannoia and Don Thorsen, The Holiness Manifesto. (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2008), 47.

4 cf. page 100.

5 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 413.

6 Douglas J. Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009), 226.

7 cf. Alister McGrath, The Re-enchantment of Nature. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2002).

8 Psalm 19:1-6.

9 H. Wayne House, Intelligent Design 101. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2008), 241.

10 My summary of Aquinas is based on Patrick J. Clarke, Questions about God. (Gloucestershire, UK: Nelson Thornes, 2001), 30-31, and Soccio, 226-230.

11 Acts 17:23.

12 Romans 1:20.