Saturday, September 4, 2010

Berkhof's Systematic Theology (Part One, Chapter One): The Existence of God

Part One
The Doctrine of God
(The Being of God)

I. The Existence of God
   A. Place of the Doctrine of God in Dogmatics
   B. Scriptural Proof for the Existence of God
   C. Denial of the Existence of God in its Various Forms
   D. The So-Called Rational Proofs for the Existence of God

Berkhof''s Systematic Theology has been heralded as the standard textbook for the seven loci of theology. Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) was born in the Netherlands and (like so many others) moved to Grand Rapids, Michingan in 1882. He was a graduate of Calvin and Princeton Seminaries, pastored two Reformed churches, and eventually became president of Calvin Theological Seminary.

A. Place of the Doctrine of God in Dogmatics
According to Berkhof, we begin theological study with two presuppositions, (1) that God exists, and (2) he has revealed himself in his divine Word. Systematic theology is the study of God throughout in all its ramifications, from the beginning to the end. Without these presuppositions the study of theology cannot commence. The study of theology should begin with the doctrine of God and this was the norm until Schleiermacher introduced his new method by beginning with the religious consciousness of man. This reverses the order and leads to a rational search for God instead of God's own self disclosure to man. He writes, "Faith in Scripture as an authoritative revelation of God was discredited, and human insight based on man's own emotional or rational apprehension became the standard of religious thought. Man ceased to recognize the knowledge of God as something that was given in Scripture, and began to pride himself on being a seeker after God." (p.20)

B. Scripture Proof for the Existence of God
Scripture proves the existence of God is this way, namely that it assumes God's existence. "The assumption is not merely that there is something, some idea or ideal, some power or purposeful tendency, to which the name of God may be applied, but that there is a self-existent, self-conscious, personal Being, which is the origin of all things, and which transcends the entire creation, but is at the same time immanent in every part of it." (p. 20-21) The God of Scripture must be received by faith, this is what Scripture sets forth. Surely, there are evidences of God in creation (Rom. 1) but there is no natural proof that leads natural man to embrace God's existence beyond all doubt.

C. Denial of the Existence of God in its Various Forms
The idea of God is practically universal in the human race even in the most uncivilized nations and tribes, yet there are those even in Christianized lands who deny the existence of God as he is revealed in Scripture.

     1. Absolute denial of the existence of God.
There are two types of atheism; theoretical and practical. We are familiar with both. The former deny God based upon some scientific or philosophical reason. The latter deny him in their lives though giving assent to his existence. Theoretical atheists can be distinguished in at least three categories which often overlap, (1) dogmatic, (2) skeptical, and (3) critical. Berkhof notes that agnosticism respecting the existence of God, while allowing the possibility of reality, leaves us without an object of worship and adoration just as much as dogmatic atheism does." (p.23)
     2. Present day false conceptions of God involving a denial of the true God.
There are many false conceptions of God "which involve a denial of the theistic conception of God." (p.24) By "theistic" Berkhof means the Christian conception of God or that which is revealed in holy writ. Theism has always believed in a God who is both transcendent and immanent.

     a. An immanent and impersonal God. While Deism removed God from his creation and denied his immanence and Pantheism failed to recognize God's transcendence, Schleiermacher's focus on man's religious experience ignores God's transcendence and also does away with God's immanence in that man's religious conscience is dependent attributes of God that are merely symbolic with no reality.

     b. A finite and personal God. The concept of finite gods are nothing new. For those who believe in a God who is personal but finite, certain realities make it impossible to believe in an infinite or omnipotent God, namely the miserable condition of the world. "Because of the evil that is in the world, he [God] must be thought of as limited in knowledge or power, or in both. The existence of a larger power which is friendly to man and with which he can commune meets all the practical needs and experiences of religion." (p.25). Berkhof notes the idea of a struggling and growing God, which seems to be the understanding of proponents of today's open theism.

     c. God as the personification of a mere abstract idea. The old statement is given that God created man in his image and man has thus returned the favor ever since. Many who profess faith in God, create a god of their own imaginations. I see how this is possible in both theoretical and practical atheism. God may be seen as a quality, a goal, the spirit of some great desire or hope. God is seen by some to be needful for human evolution but that mankind is approaching a time when God will no longer be necessary. In this view God is a projection of the human mind.

D. The So-Called Rational Proofs for the Existence of God.
Berkhoff gives the five most common rational proofs of God, some of which, he says, were in essence suggested by Plato and Aristotle but added to and developed later by students of philosophy and religion. These so-called "proofs" cannot by themselves prove anything, they may be more accurately labeled "testimonies" rather than arguments, yet he acknowledges that they have some value for believers as testimony to divine revelation and while they do not prove beyond doubt the existence of God "they can be so construed as to establish a strong probability and thereby silence many unbelievers." (p.28)

     1. The Ontological Argument.
Credit for developing this argument is generally given to Anselm. The basic argument is that man can conceive of a perfect being, therefore a perfect being must exist. This is true in that all men have some knowledge of God by virtue of being made in his image, but of course conception cannot prove absolute existence. The argument cannot stand alone.

     2. The Cosmological Argument.
Every effect must have a cause, though some would argue this point given certain supposed discoveries at the quantum level, but nevertheless we understand cause and effect. The universe is an effect of something, there must be a cause and it is reasonable to assume an adequate cause, that being God. Again, this is a true testimony to Scriptures account of creation, but the push back to this argument when standing alone is that we cannot assume that God is eternal and that the universe is not. If everything must have a cause, as Kant pointed out, then God must have a cause which results in an endless regress.

     3. The Teleological Argument.
This argument seems to be the best of the five, that the order we find in the universe proves a grand architect, but again according to Kant this does not lead an orthodox understanding of God.

     4. The Moral Argument.
This is a popular one today, that man's moral standard is derived from a moral being. The law of God is written upon the heart of man and he is therefore accountable to it. This presupposition is necessary. The new atheists seem to have no problem harmonizing their denial of God and their own moral standards. Berkhof writes, "While this argument does point to the existence of a holy and just being, it does not compel belief in a God, a Creator, or a being of infinite perfections." (p. 27).

     5. The Historical or Ethnological Argument.
To every place one may go and find man throughout history, one will find religion. Man is a religious being.

To these arguments, Berkhof says that believers do not need them. Though this may sound harsh, he does not trash them completely (as I previously commented). His point, and I think a right one, is that if believers are willing to stake their faith on rational arguments they refuse to accept the testimony of God's Word. These arguments are not to stand alone and cannot by themselves lead to faith in the God of Scripture, but can be seen as accurate interpretations of general revelation and supplements to special revelation. As Schaeffer rightly said, "all truth is God's truth."