On Proof for the Existence of God.

“To oppose something is to maintain it. …To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof.”[1] Ursula K. Le Guin.

If God exists, why does He not provide incontrovertible proof of His existence? I believe in the existence of God. I have been blessed by experiences that constitute, for me, proof. But those experiences do not (and indeed cannot) prove God’s existence to you. I believe, but I cannot believe for you. I have had certain experiences, but those experiences were meant for me, and me alone.

One definition of a miracle is that it provides access to the divine. It is, therefore, personal. Even when a miracle is performed in public, that miracle is interpreted individually. The individual may choose to internalize or rationalize what they have seen, to accept or deny the event. A person’s response to the miracle is what is important, not the miracle itself.

In the case of Jesus’ miracles, we see at least two reactions. Some people were astonished and praised God. Others argued that Jesus performed miracles by the power of Beelzebub. The same miracle occurred before all, but it was interpreted and assimilated differently.

What if God were to provide incontrovertible proof of His existence? What then? The interpretation and assimilation of that proof take place within each person. Some would love God, some would hate Him. But, having provided absolute and incontrovertible proof would be to end the question. Each person’s reaction would, at that point, be fixed and immutable. For some, the love of God would be paradise; for others, the love of the God whom they hate would be a torment. And so God, in His mercy, leaves the question open and provides the opportunity for true repentance.

Russell's Teapot

Russell’s Teapot

In an earlier post,[2] I discussed Bertrand Russell’s teapot. I must confess to have misunderstood what Bertrand Russell was driving at. He writes:

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

What Bertrand Russel was getting at can be summed up in the following quotes:[3]

  • “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” Carl Sagan
  • “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” Pierre-Simon Laplace
  • “A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence,”  and “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” David Hume
  • “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” Marcello Truzzi

The problem with this is that it requires the existence of something outside a particular domain to be proved by only the evidence that exists within that domain. To put it another way, the materialist assumes God to be part of the material world, and thereby must be proven by material means. The Christian God not only exists outside the material world, but created the material world. By that standard, the God who exists outside space-time cannot be proven solely by evidence that exists within space-time.

In 1884, the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott published the book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. This book begins with an exploration of a two-dimensional world. One of the characters, A Square, visits a one-dimensional world, where his descriptions of life in a two-dimensional world arouse suspicion. After this, A Square receives his own visit from a three-dimensional sphere, and the story goes on from there.

The point of all this (an unintentional pun, BTW), is that in a two-dimensional world, they might indeed be evidence of a three-dimensional world, but no proof. A two-dimensional being cannot experience three-dimensions, just as a one-dimensional being cannot experience two. Thus, we can say that a miracle provides evidence for the existence of God, but does not constitute proof.

But we do not have to postulate higher dimensions to discuss the difficulties with the concept of proving God’s existence. All we have to do is ask what constitutes proof, and within which domain. Within the historical domain, I can prove the existence of Abraham Lincoln, but I cannot scientifically prove his existence. The two domains have very different ideas about what constitutes proof. I can use the tools of science to provide evidence for Lincoln’s existence, yet within the scientific domain that evidence does not constitute proof. And within the legal domain, I may prove someone’s guilt, yet both history and science may yet demonstrate and/or prove that person’s innocence. Scientific tools may be used to provide evidence of either proof or innocence, yet that innocence or guilt exists outside of the scientific domain.

So does God exist? There is evidence, but no proof. Or to put it more precisely, there are miracles that prove to me that God exists, but those miracles cannot serve as proof for someone else. A miracle happened to me and one other person and was witnessed by a third. I realized it was a miracle and was completely nonplussed by it. The witness saw it too and was equally nonplussed. The second person the miracle happened to didn’t seem to even notice it. The event constituted conclusive evidence for the existence of God for me, yet had no effect on the second person. Was I predisposed to believe? Was he predisposed to disbelieve? Am I gullible and he discerning? Am I discerning and he unaware? I know the answer, but I cannot prove it to you.

  1. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ursula_K._Le_Guin
  2. http://www.whymarymatters.com/archives/645
  3. https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Extraordinary_claims_require_extraordinary_evidence

Does God Exist?

Jesus casting out demons

Jesus casting out demons

“To oppose something is to maintain it. …To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof.” Ursula K. Le Guin.

If God exists, why does He not provide incontrovertible proof of His existence? I believe in the existence of God. I have been blessed by experiences that constitute, for me, proof. But those experiences do not, and indeed cannot, prove God’s existence to you. I believe, but I cannot believe for you. I have had certain experiences, but those experiences were meant for me, and me alone.

One definition of a miracle is that it provides access to the divine. It is, therefore, personal. Even when a miracle is performed in public, that miracle is interpreted individually. The individual may choose to internalize or rationalize what they have seen, to accept or deny the event. A person’s response to the miracle is what is important, not the miracle itself.

In the case of Jesus’ miracles, we see at least two reactions. Some people were astonished and praised God. Others argued that Jesus performed miracles by the power of Beelzebub. The same miracle occurred before all, but it was interpreted and assimilated differently.

What if God were to provide incontrovertible proof of His existence? What then? The interpretation and assimilation of that proof take place within each person. Some would love God, some would hate Him. But to provide absolute and incontrovertible proof would be to end the question. Each person’s reaction would, at that point, be fixed and immutable. For some, the love of God would be paradise; for others, the love of the God whom they hate would be a torment. And so God, in His mercy, leaves the question open and provides the opportunity for true repentance.

The Triune God as Theological Error

Triune

Triune

The Triune God as Theological Error

The doctrine of the Trinity is perhaps the most difficult topic in theology.  We cover up the difficulties with creedal formulations, but people who confess the same creed can have radically different understandings of the trinity. Thus we have Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and others who speak of the Triune God, using this term as a synonym for the doctrine of the Trinity. The Eastern Orthodox do not refer to the Triune God because, at a minimum, the term suggests a radically different understanding of the Trinity.

God is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, existing forever and yet ever the same. For this reason making declarative statements about God is always dangerous, as these statements are couched in human language, using terms and concepts that are amenable to our finite minds. Thus any positive declarations about God (saying what God is) are always false because they serve to limit God into something that we can understand. If God is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, and incomprehensible, then our ways of speaking of God are nothing more than approximations or mental models. And as the statistician George Box famously stated: “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

The mental models we create to explain God and the terms we use to describe God have very specific meanings. The words we use are important. And yet, when speaking of God, we also know that our ways of speaking are imperfect representations of the reality of God, of God in His essence and nature. We cannot avoid speaking of God, even though our ways of speaking of God are imperfect. Some of our models are wrong, but some are more wrong than others; some of our ways of speaking and thinking about God are more imperfect and less useful than others.

With that in mind, let us discuss some of the different models for the Trinity. The most important matter is the distinction between the person and the essence. Since divinity is of one essence existing in three persons, what is the best way to describe this? And what is the relationship of the three persons to the essence?  Paul L. Owen describes the question this way.

What is the major point of difference between the Eastern and Western Church? It has to do with the understanding of the relationship of the Father to the Monarchy of the Godhead.   Both East and West are agreed that the Father has a certain priority of position within the Trinity. The Father alone is unbegotten and non-proceeding. But does the Monarchy, the font of Deity, reside in the Father’s person, or in his Being? Is the Son begotten of the Father’s person, or his Being? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father’s person, or his Being?[1]

All who confess the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are agreed that the Father has some degree of priority within the Trinity. What is not agreed upon is the nature of that priority. Is this a priority of honor, as the first among equals? Or is there something more to this, such that we can legitimately speak of the Monarchy of the Godhead?[2] And if we can legitimately speak of the Monarchy of the Godhead, is this personal or impersonal? Does it derive from the person of the Father, or from the essence of divinity? Paul L. Owen explains:

This argument has important theological ramifications. If the font of Deity is located in the Father’s person, then the divine nature of the Son and the Spirit will of necessity be a derived divinity. In fact, it is a general tendency of the Eastern Fathers (Gregory Nazianzen excluded) to speak of God the Father as the cause of the Deity of the Son and the Spirit. The issue at stake is whether or not each of the Persons of the Trinity can be spoken of properly as God in their own right (autotheos).[3]

To speak of the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit as derived from the person of the Father does not imply that the Father came first, and only afterwards came the Son and the Holy Spirit. The eternal generation of the Son means that the Son existed from eternity with the Father; there never was a time when the Father was, and the Son was not. Likewise the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit means the same; there never was a time with the Father was, and the Holy Spirit was not. The generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit are from eternity past and unto eternity future. Yet this does not answer the question of whether the generation and procession are from the person of the Father, or from the essence of the divinity. Father Zizioulas, in his book Being as Communion, provides a summation of the Eastern Orthodox position.

The unity of God, the one God, and the ontological principle or “cause” of the being and life of God does not consist in the one substance of God but in the hypostasis, that is, the person of the Father. The one God is not the one substance but the Father, who is the “cause” both of the generation of the Son and of the procession of the Spirit. Consequently, the ontological “principle” of God is traced back, once again, to the person. Thus when we say that God “is,” we do not bind the personal freedom of God — the being of God is not an ontological “necessity” or a simple “reality” for God — but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom.[4]

In the unaltered Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. In the altered (or western) version of the Creed, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (the dreaded filioque). The first implies the procession of the Holy Spirit from the person of the Father; the second implies the procession of the Holy Spirit from the divine essence of the Father and the Son. There are potential theological problems with either position. To the western Church, the monarchate of the Father implies the subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit, which is implicitly Arian. To the eastern Church, the procession from the Father and the Son presents an opportunity for the heresy of modalism to arise.[5] In addition, it upends the monarchate of the Father and subordinates the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son.

In classical Orthodoxy, God is one in essence, existing in three persons apart from the created world, and the three persons of the Godhead also act within the world. Paul L. Owen describes there being “a trinitarian structure to the non-contingent Being of God, so likewise there is a trinitarian structure to the historical “economy” of God. Or in other words, God is three not only in Himself, but is also three-fold “for us.” God’s non-contingent being is reflected in the self-revelation of God in the realm of contingency.”[6] God’s being three-fold in Himself is part of the transcendence of God, something we are wholly unable to comprehend. By contrast, the “God with us” belongs to the immanence of God, the working of God within creation. God’s essence is transcendent; the enacting of God’s will, known as the divine economy, represent God’s immanence. The essence of divinity is contingent upon nothing, and the persons of the Trinity form the structure of the ontological Trinity. The created order is wholly contingent upon the existence and actions of God, and the actions of God have a trinitarian structure, leading us to a description of the economic Trinity.

It is easy for us to confuse the work of God in the world with the essence of God. The filioque, the idea that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, can be understood in terms of God’s essence (which is how it was originally understood), or as part of the actions, energies, or workings of God. In the first case, the Holy Spirit’s eternal generation is from the Father and the Son; in the second case, the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. This is a rather common understanding today, and the Roman Catholic Church seems to describe it in both essential and economic terms in The Catechism of the Catholic Church.[7] The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Canon I, is especially clear regarding the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son:[8]

We firmly believe and openly confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immense, omnipotent, unchangeable, incomprehensible, and ineffable, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; three Persons indeed but one essense, substance, or nature absolutely simple; the Father (proceeding) from no one, but the Son from the Father only, and the Holy Ghost equally from both, always without beginning and end.[9]

Part of the problem is that while Greek uses different words to represent ontological and personal generation, Latin uses the same word for both. In Greek the word ekporev denotes an ontological procession; the Greek word pemps denotes an economic procession; and both the Greek word pronai and the Latin word procedit can mean either. The passage from John 15:26 (who proceedeth from the Father) uses the word ekporev, meaning the procession of the Holy Spirit is ontological, and therefore the unaltered Creed does not refer to an economic procession. The Latin word procedit is ambiguous and, being the translation of the Greek word ekporev, is the source of much confusion. Roman Catholics still proclaim the monarchate of the Father, but due to the ambiguities of their Latin translation of the Nicene Creed and there later alterations, their theology is muddled in this area.

Let me say it again: the doctrine of the Trinity is perhaps the most difficult topic in theology.  Within the bounds of classical orthodoxy, there are significant variants in the understanding of the Trinity. However, the term “Triune” as a description of the Godhead is relatively new (~ 1630 A.D.), postdating the Reformation by little more than one hundred years. Whereas the term “Trinity” means three, the term “Triune” means three in one. And there the problem begins.  You see, the term “Triune” is a laden with theological meanings which are not readily apparent. To understand this, we need to learn another theological term: “autotheos”.

To be autotheos is to be self-existent, and the term Triune is a confession that the Father, the Son, and the Holy-Spirit are autotheos — that each person of the Trinity is self-existent, deriving its existence from no one; that each is equal to the other, with none subordinate to any other. This is a purely Protestant doctrine, one that derives from John Calvin,[10] and most prominently belongs to those churches of the Reformed tradition.[11] In his The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes: “For instance, what avails it to discuss, as Lombard does at length (lib. 1 dist. 9), Whether or not the Father always generates? This idea of continual generation becomes an absurd fiction from the moment it is seen, that from eternity there were three persons in one God.”[12] In accepting the eternal existence of the Son, while dismissing the eternal generation of the Son, Calvin is claiming the Son to be autotheos. While claiming the Trinity to be one in essence, but made up of three self-existent persons, Calvin’s trinitarian doctrine comes very close to tri-theism.

In classical orthodoxy, only the Father is autotheos. The Son is only-begotten from eternity, and the Spirit proceeds from eternity. Calvin’s error is ascribing the directional nature of time to eternity, thereby ascribing the Father’s begetting of the Son and the Spirit’s procession to a singular point in time. But there is no directionality to eternity. Whatever has happened is also currently happening — when considered from the point of view of we poor, time-bound wretches. Thus the scriptures note that the Son was slain from the foundation of the world, meaning that from an eternal vantage point, the creation and the crucifixion — to say nothing of Our Lord’s second coming — have a certain simultaneity. Thus it is entirely meet, right, and salutary to refer to the eternal generation of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Bibliography

Calvin, J. (2005). The Institutes of the Christian Religion. (H. Beveridge, Trans.) Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Catholic Church. (1997). Catechism of the Catholic Church. Washington DC: USCCB Publishing.

Halsall, P. (1996, March). Medieval Sourcebook: Fourth Lateran Council: Lateran IV 1215. Retrieved November 1, 2014, from Fordham University: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp

Owen, P. L. (1999). Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 1. Retrieved November 1, 2014, from Institute for Religious Research: http://mit.irr.org/reflections-on-doctrine-of-holy-trinity-part-1

Owen, P. L. (1999). Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 2. Retrieved November 1, 2014, from Institute for Religious Research: http://mit.irr.org/reflections-on-doctrine-of-holy-trinity-part-2

Walts, D. (2008, October 30). John Calvin: a tri-theistic heretic??? Retrieved November 2, 2014, from Articuli Fidei: http://articulifidei.blogspot.com/2008/10/john-calvin-tri-theistic-heretic.html

Zizioulas, J. D. (1985). Being As Communion. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

 

 

[1]  (Owen, Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 2, 1999)

[2] The easiest way for western Christians to think of this is in political terms. Is the Trinity a democracy or a monarchy?

[3] (Owen, Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 2, 1999)

[4] (Zizioulas, 1985, pp. 40-41)

[5] Modalism is the idea that there is one God in essence who has three modes of acting within the created world. In other words, God is ontologically one, but economically three. (Ontology has to do with the nature of being; economy has to do with modes of action.)

[6] (Owen, Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 1, 1999)

[7] (Catholic Church, 1997, pp. 65, 181)

[8] Vatican II, in the Lumen Gentium, also known as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, discusses the sending of the Holy Spirit in time, for the Church. In other words, this is an economic procession of the Holy Spirit.

[9] (Halsall, 1996)

[10] In his Institutes, John Calvin writes: “For instance, what avails it to discuss, as Lombard does at length (lib. 1 dist. 9), Whether or not the Father always generates? This idea of continual generation becomes an absurd fiction from the moment it is seen, that from eternity there were three persons in one God.” (Calvin, 2005, p. 140) In accepting the eternal existence of the Son, while dismissing the eternal generation of the Son, Calvin is claiming the Son to be autotheos.

[11] (Walts, 2008)

[12]  (Calvin, 2005, p. 140)

The Ineffable God

The Holy Trinity by the hand of Andrei Rublev

The Holy Trinity
by the hand of
Andrei Rublev

For of God we speak not all we ought (for that is known to Him only), but so much as the capacity of human nature has received, and so much as our weakness can bear. For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.

But some one will say, If the Divine substance is incomprehensible, why then dost thou discourse of these things? So then, because I cannot drink up all the river, am I not even to take in moderation what is expedient for me? Because with eyes so constituted as mine I cannot take in all the sun, am I not even to look upon him enough to satisfy my wants? Or again, because I have entered into a great garden, and cannot eat all the supply of fruits, wouldst thou have me go away altogether hungry? I praise and glorify Him that made us; for it is a divine command which saith, Let every breath praise the Lord. I am attempting now to glorify the Lord, but not to describe Him, knowing nevertheless that I shall fall short of glorifying Him worthily, yet deeming it a work of piety even to attempt it at all. For the Lord Jesus encourageth my weakness, by saying, No man hath seen God at any time.

What then, some man will say, is it not written, The little ones’ Angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven? Yes, but the Angels see God not as He is, but as far as they themselves are capable. For it is Jesus Himself who saith, Not that any man hath seen the Father, save He which is of God, He hath seen the Father. The Angels therefore behold as much as they can bear, and Archangels as much as they are able; and Thrones and Dominions more than the former, but yet less than His worthiness: for with the Son the Holy Ghost alone can rightly behold Him: for He searcheth all things, and knoweth even the deep things of God: as indeed the Only-begotten Son also, with the Holy Ghost, knoweth the Father fully: For neither, saith He, knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal Him. For He fully beholdeth, and, according as each can bear, revealeth God through the Spirit: since the Only-begotten Son together with the Holy Ghost is a partaker of the Father’s Godhead. He, who was begotten knoweth Him who begat; and He Who begat knoweth Him who is begotten. Since Angels then are ignorant (for to each according to his own capacity doth the Only-begotten reveal Him through the Holy Ghost, as we have said), let no man be ashamed to confess his ignorance. I am speaking now, as all do on occasion: but how we speak, we cannot tell: how then can I declare Him who hath given us speech ? I who have a soul, and cannot tell its distinctive properties, how shall I be able to describe its Giver?

For devotion it suffices us simply to know that we have a God; a God who is One, a living, an ever-living God; always like unto Himself; who has no Father, none mightier than Himself, no successor to thrust Him out from His kingdom: Who in name is manifold, in power infinite, in substance uniform. For though He is called Good, and Just, and Almighty and Sabaoth, He is not on that account diverse and various; but being one and the same, He sends forth countless operations of His Godhead, not exceeding here and deficient there, but being in all things like unto Himself . Not great in loving-kindness only, and little in wisdom, but with wisdom and loving-kindness in equal power: not seeing in part, and in part devoid of sight; but being all eye, and all ear, and all mind: not like us perceiving in part and in part not knowing; for such a statement were blasphemous, and unworthy of the Divine substance. He foreknoweth the things that be ; He is Holy, and Almighty , and excelleth all in goodness, and majesty, and wisdom: of Whom we can declare neither beginning, nor form, nor shape. For ye have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His shape, saith Holy Scripture. Wherefore Moses saith also to the Israelites: And take ye good heed to your own souls, for ye saw no similitude. For if it is wholly impossible to imagine His likeness, how shall thought come near His substance?

Cyril of Jerusalem (2013-03-08). The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Kindle Locations 1445-1447; 1474-1480; 1481-1505).  Kindle Edition.

 

The Annunciation

The following commentary is by Blessed Theophylact.

The Ohrid Annunciation of Our Lord

The Ohrid Annunciation

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God (Luke 1:26-30).

The sixth month means the sixth month after John’s conception. The Evangelist says that the virgin was betrothed to a man of the house of David, to show that she too was descended from the tribe and lineage of David. For it was the law that husband and wife should be of the same tribe and the same lineage. Because the Lord had once said to Eve, In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children, that sorrow is now removed by the joy which the angel offers to the woman, saying to her, Rejoice, though who art full of grace. Since Eve had been cursed, now Mary hears herself blessed. She considered in her mind what sort of salutation this might be surely not an unseemly and provocative greeting as from a forward man to a young maiden? Or was it perhaps a divine salutation, since God was mentioned together with the greeting, The Lord is with thee. First the angel calms the fear in her heart, so that she might hear the divine decision when she was peaceful and untroubled. While she was troubled, she would not be able to hear and understand clearly the things that would take place. When the angel said to her, Thou who art full of grace, it is as if he were saying, “Thou has found grace and favor in the sight of God, and thou art pleasing to God.” This is not out of the ordinary, for there were many other women who had found favor with God.

(Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria. The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Luke. Chrysostom Press. 2007, 14-15)