Last week I wrote about our knowledge of God. How is it possible to say we know God? This seems to be the question that people ask all the time. If our knowledge of God is limited, does that mean that God is limited? If we say we can't actually know God as he knows himself, what kind of knowledge of God is this? If the only way we can speak of God is through analogy, can we say we truly speak about God?
These are questions that philosophers and theologians have asked for centuries. They are questions that, at some point, every person asks (even if the questions are not clearly spelled out). There is a mystery at play in our knowledge of God. The fact that the infinite One has revealed himself to the finite is a profound mystery and miracle. The miracle of God's self-revelation is a problem that no non-Christian philosophy or theology can solve.
There is a sense in which all non-Christian thought falls into two camps: deism and pantheism (for a strong defense of this read Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics vol. 1). However, these camps are not isolated poles, but they are more like two sides of the same coin. When taken to their logical ends they rely on each other to solve the problems they encounter in the world. So, deism cannot solve the problem of revelation because its god has to be an impersonal watchmaker. That is to say, deism's god is removed from the world and unable to personally relate with creation. In fact, it is not even able to create because the deist God cannot understand anything outside of itself or relate to anything outside of itself. To be able to solve the problem that deism creates with its god, nature must become autonomous. It must determine its own course and its telos or end. Reality becomes divine, and thus, deism falls into pantheism where everything becomes divine. Nevertheless, pantheism collapses into deism when trying to answer the questions of creation and revelation. All is god and god is all. Everything is a manifestation of god. However, as we know, when everything is one thing then nothing is that thing. So, if everything is god, then nothing is god. Ultimately, there is nothing that stands behind the pantheistic reality. Just like for deism, god is not known in pantheism. So, the pantheist becomes a deist at best or an atheist at worst. (Jim Cassidy delivered a much more robust lecture of this in his recent address at the Reformed Forum Conference. You can listen to it here.)
So, what we have in Christianity is the solution to the problem to which all non-Christian thought leaves unanswered. For the Christian, God's self-revelation in no way diminishes him. Bavinck puts it this way:
Our knowledge does not limit God because (1) it is grounded in him, (2) can only exist through him, and (3) especially has as its object and content God as the infinite One.
What Bavinck is saying is that for us to say anything true, God must have revealed it to us. This is because God is the source of all truth. Scripture makes it clear that this world is the theatre (to use Calvin and Bavinck's language) of God's self-revelation (Acts 17:23-24). God's power and deity have been clearly displayed through creation (Rom 1:19-20). He created man to be a reflection of him, man is the imago Dei or image of God (Gen 1:26). God has spoken to us through the prophets and above all in his Son (Heb 1:1). Because the universe is a creation, it is also revelation of the Creator. It is revelation of God.
Therefore what we find is that "in an absolute sense nothing is atheistic." We know God because has chosen to reveal himself to his creation. He reveals himself because inside himself, he is a personal relational being. He exists in relationship and it is this presupposition that allows us, his creation, to know him as our God. Deism does not allow us to know God. Pantheism does not allow us to know God. The only religion that can claim true knowledge of God is Christianity because it is the only religion that can fully explain creation and revelation. It is the only faith that allows us to live in the mystery and miracle of the infinite God revealing himself to and through his finite creation.
So back to the opening question: how can we know God? Well, the answer is that we have to start with a presupposition. That presupposition is a belief in the Triune personal God of the Bible. When we start there, we are able to then make sense of the world around us. Without this starting point, we will not have a grasp on truth or reality. You see, for the Christian, a biblical ontology (understanding God as his is) is necessary for a correct epistemology (understanding how we know). We do not start with knowledge and work our way to an understanding of God, but have faith in the God of the Bible and then seek understanding. To know anything we start with faith. To paraphrase Anselm Christianity is faith seeking understanding.
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