Psalm 14 begins with a very strong declaration: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1).
In a recent op-ed guest column that appeared in The New York Times, “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith,” T. M. Luhrmann writes about faith in God (in an earlier post, I used a “he” to identify Luhrmann. However, as Mark Roberts reminded me, T. M. Luhrmann is a woman; her name is Tanya M. Luhrmann). In her article, Luhrmann mentions a discussion in church where the focus of the dialogue was on “Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives?”
What amazed me about Luhrmann’s article was her statement that “Not all members of deeply theologically conservative churches . . . have made up their minds about whether God exists or how God exists.”
The problem of the existence of God has been the subject of many books and much discussion among philosophers and theologians. There are two ways by which people begin their discussion about the existence of God. For many, the necessary starting point for a discussion of the existence of God is with human knowledge and experience. In her article, Luhrmann quotes a devout Christian woman who, when asked about the realness of God, said: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”
Many people use a humanistic, philosophical approach to explain belief in the existence of God. The so-called classical arguments for the existence of God are just that, arguments. These arguments assume that the God of the Bible is an object whose existence can be demonstrated by logical arguments or philosophical propositions.
Luhrmann recognized that these questions about the existence of God reflect a philosophical attempt at understanding the mystery of God’s being. In her article Luhrmann declared that “These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions.”
But the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of philosophers. Any discussion about the existence of God must begin with the concept of revelation. God is the God of revelation. In fact, the affirmation that the knowledge of God must be based on revelation is absolutely necessary if one is to believe that God exists. Without the idea that God has entered human history and revealed himself to human beings, our ideas about God “would be a series of ideas we have thought up for ourselves” (Barr, p. 83).
People who deny the idea of revelation also deny that God exists or that any true knowledge of God is possible. Without revelation, the God of the Bible would be an unknown God, a God who would only exist in the imagination of philosophers or in the likeness of the images dreamed by artists and pious individuals.
The people of Israel never argued for the existence of God. According to the people of the Bible, only fools deny that God exists. Ancient Israel believed in God because he had revealed himself in historical events. The writings found in the Old Testament are a record of that revelation. As A. B. Davidson said in his book, The Theology of the Old Testament, no prophet nor any writer in the Old Testament sought to prove the existence of God. To do so, Davidson wrote, “might well have seemed an absurdity” (p. 30).
The God of the Old Testament is the creator of the universe and the reality of God is seen everywhere: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Only people who deny the existence of God or who do not believe in a Creator fail to see that all nature reveals the glory and the power of God.
The existence of God was self-evident through what God had created. The psalmist saw the hands of God at work in creation. He wrote: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4). To him, the reality of God was everywhere.
Agnosticism has no place in the Old Testament. The knowledge of God is not achieved by philosophical speculation nor by arguments that emphasize that God is the most perfect being and that he is without all the limitations found in human beings (via negativa) or that God represents the perfect state of all positive qualities found in humans (via eminentiae).
In her article Luhrmann summarizes Émile Durkheim’s view of faith in God: “He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive – and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural.” According to Luhrmann, Durkheim’s view of belief in God could be summarized as follows: “You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.”
Durkheim’s view puts the cart before the horse: there would be no church without God’s special revelation in Christ. The church owes its existence because of the reality of the God who revealed himself in Christ: “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God . . .and the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1, 14).
I go to church not in order to believe in God; I go to church because the God in whom I believe became a man and revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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James Bar, Old and New in Interpretation. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.
A. B. Davidson, The Theology of the Old Testament. New York: Scribners, 1910.