The Knowledge of God is Innate

B. Proof that the Knowledge of God is Innate

The question now is, Whether the existence of God is an intuitive truth? Is it given in the very constitution of our nature? Is it one of those truths which reveal themselves to every human mind, and to which the mind is forced to assent? In other words, has it the characteristics of universality and necessity? It should be remarked that when universality is made a criterion of intuitive truths, it is intended to apply to those truths only which have their foundation or evidence in the constitution of our nature. As to the external world, if ignorance be universal, error may be universal. All men, for example, for ages believed that the sun moves round the earth; but the universality of that belief was no evidence of its truth.

When it is asked, Whether the existence of God is an intuitive truth, the question is equivalent to asking, Whether the belief in his existence is universal and necessary? If it be true that all men do believe there is a God, and that no man can possibly disbelieve his existence, then his existence is an intuitive truth. It is one of those given in the constitution of our nature; or which, our nature being what it is, no man can fail to know and to acknowledge.

Such has been the common opinion in all ages. Cicero1 says: “Esse Deos, quoniam insitas eorum, vel potius innatas cognitiones habemus.” Tertullian2 says of the heathen of his day, that the common people had a more correct idea of God than the philosophers. Calvin3 says: “Hoc quidem recte judicantibus semper constabit, insculptum mentibus humanis esse divinitatis sensum, qui deleri nunquam potest.” The whole tendency in our day is to make the existence of God so purely a matter of intuition as to lead to the disparagement of all argument in proof of it. This extreme, however, does not justify the denial of a truth so important as that God has not left any human being without a knowledge of his existence and authority.

The word God, however, is used in a very wide sense. In the Christian sense of the word, “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” This sublime idea of God no human mind ever attained either intuitively or discursively, except under the light of a supernatural revelation. On the other hand, some philosophers dignify motion, force, or the vague idea of the infinite, with the name of God. In neither of these senses of the word is the knowledge of God said to be innate, or a matter of intuition. It is in the general sense of a Being on whom we are dependent, and to whom we are responsible, that the idea is asserted to exist universally, and of necessity, in every human mind. It is true that if this idea is analyzed, it will be found to embrace the conviction that God is a person, and that He possesses moral attributes, and acts as a moral governor. Nothing is asserted as to how far this analysis is made by uneducated and uncivilized men. All that is maintained is that this sense of dependence and accountability to a being higher than themselves exists in the minds of all men.

The knowledge of God is Universal

In proof of this doctrine, reference may be made—;

1. To the testimony of Scripture. The Bible asserts that the knowledge of God is thus universal. This it does both directly and by necessary implication. The Apostle directly asserts in regard to the heathen as such without limitation, that they have the knowledge of God, and such knowledge as to render their impiety and immorality inexcusable. “Because that when they knew God,” he says, “they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful.” (Rom. 1:19–21.) He says of the most depraved of men, that they know the righteous judgment of God, that those who commit sin are worthy of death. (Rom. 1:32.) The Scripture everywhere addresses men as sinners; it calls upon them to repent; it threatens them with punishment in case of disobedience; or promises pardon to those who turn from their sins. All this is done without any preliminary demonstration of the being of God. It assumes that men know that there is a God, and that they are subject to his moral government. It is true that the Bible at times speaks of the heathen as not knowing God, and says that they are without God. But this, as explained by the context in which such declarations appear, and by the general teaching of the Scriptures, only means that the heathen are without correct, or saving knowledge of God; that they are without his favour, do not belong to the number of his people, and of course are not partakers of the blessedness of those whose God is the Lord. In teaching the universal sinfulness and condemnation of men; their inexcusableness for idolatry and immorality; and in asserting that even the most degraded are conscious of guilt and just exposure to the divine judgment, the Bible takes for granted that the knowledge of God is universal, that it is written on the heart of every man.

This is still more apparent from what the Bible teaches of the law as written on the heart. The Apostle tells us that those who have a written revelation, shall be judged by that revelation; that those who have no externally revealed law, shall be judged by the law written on the heart. That the heathen have such a law, he proves first, from the fact that “they do by nature the things contained in the law,” i.e., they do under the control of their nature the things which the law prescribes; and secondly, from the operations of conscience. When it condemns, it pronounces something done, to be contrary to the moral law; and when it approves, it pronounces something to be conformed to that law. (Rom. 2:12–16.) The recognition of God, therefore, that is, of a being to whom we are responsible, is involved in the very idea of accountability. Hence every man carries in the very constitution of his being as a moral agent, the evidence of the existence of God. And as this sense of sin and responsibility is absolutely universal, so must also, according to the Bible, be the knowledge of God.

2. The second argument in favor of the universality of this knowledge, is the historical one. History shows that the religious element of our nature is just as universal as the rational or social one. Wherever men exist, in all ages and in all parts of the world, they have some form of religion. The idea of God is impressed on every human language. And as language is the product and revelation of human consciousness, if all languages have some name for God, it proves that the idea of God, in some form, belongs to every human being.

Objections to the Assumption that the knowledge of God is Universal

There are two objections often urged against the doctrine that the knowledge of God results from the very constitution of our nature, and is therefore universal. The one is, that travellers and missionaries report the existence of some tribes so degraded that they could discover in them no traces of this knowledge. Even if the fact be admitted that such tribes have no idea of God, it would not be conclusive. Should a tribe of idiots be discovered, it would not prove that reason is not an attribute of our nature. If any community should come to light in which infanticide was universal, it would not prove that parental love was not one of the instincts of humanity. But the probability is that the fact is not as reported. It is very difficult for foreigners to get acquainted with the interior life of those who differ from themselves so much in their intellectual and moral condition. And besides, Christians attach such an exalted meaning to the word God, that when they see no evidence of the presence of that exalted conception in the minds of the heathen, they are apt to conclude that all knowledge of God is wanting. Unless such people show that they have no sense of right and wrong, no consciousness of responsibility for character and conduct, there is no evidence that they have no knowledge of such a being as God.

The other objection is drawn from the case of the deaf and dumb, who sometimes say that previous to instruction, the idea of God never entered their minds. To this the same answer may be given. The knowledge obtained by Christian instruction so much surpasses that given by intuition, that the latter seems as nothing. It is hardly conceivable that a human soul should exist in any state of development, without a sense of responsibility, and this involves the idea of God. For the responsibility is felt to be not to self, nor to men, but to an invisible Being, higher than self, and higher than man.

 The Belief in God Necessary

But if it be admitted that the knowledge of God is universal among men, is it also a necessary belief? Is it impossible for the mind to dispossess itself of the conviction that there is a God? Necessity, as remarked above, may be considered as involved in universality, at least in such a case as this. There is no satisfactory way of accounting for the universal belief in the existence of God, except that such belief is founded on the very constitution of our nature. Nevertheless, these two criteria of intuitive truths are generally distinguished, and are in some aspects distinct.

The question then is, Is it possible for a sane man to disbelieve in the existence of God? This question is commonly answered in the negative. It is objected, however, that facts prove the contrary. No man has ever been found, who denies that two and two make four, whereas atheists abound in every age and in every part of the world.

There, are, however, different kinds of necessary truths.

1. Those the opposite of which is absolutely unthinkable. That every effect must have a cause, that a part of a given thing is less than the whole, are propositions the opposites of which cannot have any meaning. When a man says that something is nothing, he expresses no thought. He denies what he affirms, and therefore says nothing.

2. There are truths concerning external or material things, which have a power to constrain belief different from that power which pertains to truths concerning the mind. A man cannot deny that he has a body; and he cannot rationally deny that he has a will. The impossibility in both cases may be equal, but they are of different kinds, and affect the mind differently.

3. Again, there are truths which cannot be denied without doing violence to the laws of our nature. In such cases the denial is forced, and can only be temporary. The laws of our nature are sure sooner or later to assert themselves, and constrain an opposite belief. A pendulum when at rest hangs perpendicularly to the horizon. It may by extraneous force be made to hang at any degree of inclination. But as soon as such force is removed, it is sure to swing back to its normal position. Under the control of a metaphysical theory, a man may deny the existence of the external world, or the obligation of the moral law; and his disbelief may be sincere, and for a time persistent; but the moment the speculative reasons for his disbelief are absent from his mind, it of necessity reverts to its original and natural convictions. It is also possible that a man’s hand may be so hardened or cauterized as to lose the sense of touch. But that would not prove that the hand in man is not normally the great organ of touch. So it is possible that the moral nature of a man may be so disorganized by vice or by a false philosophy as to have its testimony for the existence of God effectually silenced. This, however, would prove nothing as to what that testimony really is. Besides this, insensibility and the consequent unbelief cannot last. Whatever rouses the moral nature, whether it be danger, or suffering, or the approach of death, banishes unbelief in a moment. Men pass from skepticism to faith, in many cases, instantaneously; not of course by a process of argument, but by the existence of a state of consciousness with which skepticism is irreconcilable, and in the presence of which it cannot exist. This fact is illustrated continually, not only in the case of the uneducated and superstitious, but even in the case of men of the highest culture. The simple fact of Scripture and experience is, that the moral law as written upon the heart is indelible; and the moral law in its nature implies a lawgiver, one from whom that law emanates, and by whom it will be enforced. And, therefore, so long as men are moral creatures, they will and must believe in the existence of a Being on whom they are dependent, and to whom they are responsible for their character and their conduct. To this extent, and in this sense, therefore, it is to be admitted that the knowledge of God is innate and intuitive; that men no more need to be taught that there is a God, than they need to be taught there is such a thing as sin. But as men are ignorant of the nature, and extent of sin, while aware of its existence, until instructed by the Word of God, and enlightened by his Spirit; so they greatly need the same sources of instruction to give them any adequate knowledge of the nature of God, and of their relations to Him.

 § 2. The knowledge of God is not due to a Process of Reasoning

Those who are unwilling to admit that the idea of God is innate as given in the very constitution of man, generally hold that it is a necessary, or, at least, a natural deduction of reason. Sometimes it is represented as the last and highest generalization of science. As the law of gravitation is assumed to account for a large class of the phenomena of the universe, and as it not only does account for them, but must be assumed in order to understand them; so the existence of an intelligent first cause is assumed to account for the existence of the universe itself, and for all its phenomena. But as such generalizations are possible only for cultivated minds, this theory of the origin of the idea of God, cannot account for belief in his existence in the minds of all men, even the least educated.

Others, therefore, while regarding this knowledge to be the result of a course of reasoning, make the process far more simple. There are many things which children and illiterate persons learn, and can hardly avoid learning, which need not be referred to the constitution of their nature. Thus the existence of God is so obviously manifested, by everything within and around us, the belief in that existence is so natural, so suited to what we see and what we need, that it comes to be generally adopted. We are surrounded by facts which indicate design; by effects which demand a cause. We have a sense of the infinite which is vague and void, until filled with God. We have a knowledge of ourselves as spiritual beings, which suggests the idea of God, who is a spirit. We have the consciousness of moral qualities, of the distinction between good and evil, and this makes us think of God as a being of moral perfections. All this may be very true, but it is not an adequate account of the facts of the case. It does not give a satisfactory reason for the universality and strength of the conviction of the existence of God. Our own consciousness teaches us that this is not the ground of our own faith. We do not thus reason ourselves into the belief that there is a God; and it is very obvious that it is not by such a process of ratiocination, simple as it is, that the mass of the people are brought to this conclusion.

Moreover, the process above described does not account for the origin of our belief in God, but only gives the method by which that belief is confirmed and developed. Very little is given by intuition in any case, at least to ordinary minds. What is thus discovered needs to be expanded, and its real contents unfolded. If this be true with the intuitions of sense and of the understanding, why should it not be so of our religious nature?

The truth is, that all the faculties and feelings of our minds and bodies have their appropriate objects; and the possession of the faculties supposes the existence of those objects. The senses suppose the existence and reality of the objects of sense. The eye, in its very structure, supposes that there is such an element as light; the sense of hearing would be unaccountable and inconceivable without sound; and the sense of touch would be inconceivable were there no tangible objects. The same is true of our social affections; they necessitate the assumption that there are relations suited to their exercises. Our moral nature supposes that the distinction between right and wrong is not chimerical or imaginary. In like manner, our religious feelings, our sense of dependence, our consciousness of responsibility, our aspirations after fellowship with some Being higher than ourselves, and higher than anything which the world or nature contains, necessitates the belief in the existence of God. It is indeed said that if this belief is intuitive and necessary, there is no virtue in it. This objection overlooks the fact that the moral character of our feelings depends on their nature and not on their origin. They may spring from the constitution of our nature, and yet be good or evil as the case may be. A mother’s love for her child is instinctive; the absence of the maternal affection in a mother is something unnatural and monstrous, the object of universal condemnation. The sense of pity, of justice, the feelings of benevolence, are instinctive, but none the less virtuous. The same is true of our religious feelings, and of the belief which they involve. We cannot help feeling that we are responsible, and it is right that we should feel so. The man who has brought himself to a state of insensibility to all moral obligation, is what the Scriptures call a “reprobate.” Adam believed in God the moment he was created, for the same reason that he believed in the external world. His religious nature, unclouded and undefiled, apprehended the one with the same confidence that his senses apprehended the other. It is of great importance that men should know and feel that they are by their very nature bound to believe in God; that they cannot emancipate themselves from that belief, without derationalizing and demoralizing their whole being.

§ 3. Knowledge of God not due exclusively to Tradition

There are some theologians who are unable to believe that the knowledge of God can be referred either to the constitution of our nature, or to any process of reasoning. Not only the exalted view of the Divine Being presented in the Bible, but the simple and perverted apprehensions of his nature prevailing among the heathen, they say must be referred to an original supernatural revelation. Such a revelation was made to our first parents, and from them passed over to their descendants. When the knowledge thus communicated began to die out among men, God again revealed himself to Abraham, and made him and his posterity the depositaries of the truth. Either, therefore, from the remains of the primitive revelation, or by radiation from the chosen people, all the knowledge of God existing in the world has been derived. The attempt is made to show that the more remote any people were from the Jews, the less did they know of God; and the more any nation enjoyed of intercourse with the people to whom God had committed his oracles, the more correct and extended was their knowledge.

This view, although arising from reverence for the Word of God, is evidently extreme. It is true that the further we go back in the history of the world, the nearer we approach the primal revelation, the purer is the knowledge concerning Him. It may also be true, as a general rule, that the more any people were brought under the influence of the truth as held by the chosen people of God, the more enlightened they became. It may further be conceded that those who with the Bible in their hands reject its teachings, and give themselves up to their own speculations, turn, as the Apostle expresses it, “the truth of God into a lie,” losing all knowledge of the living and true God. All this, however, does not prove that the knowledge of God is not written on the heart. Our intuitive perceptions need to be cherished, developed, and interpreted. We know from Scripture that the law is written in characters which cannot be obliterated, upon the souls of all men, and yet it has been perverted, misinterpreted, or disregarded by men in every age and in every part of the world.

§ 4. Can the Existence of God be proved?

A large class of theologians and philosophers deny that the existence of God is susceptible of proof. This is done on different grounds.

First. It is said that the knowledge of God being intuitive, it is not a proper subject of proof. This is the position taken by that class of theologians who resolve all religion into feeling, and by the modern school of speculative philosophers, who make such a wide distinction between the reason and the understanding; the former being the intuitional, and the latter the discursive faculty. Eternal and necessary truths belong to the province of the reason; subordinate truths to the sphere of the understanding. It is the understanding that argues and concludes. The reason apprehends by immediate vision. What relates to God, as the eternal, infinite, necessary Being, belongs to the province of reason, and not to that of the understanding. Even such theistic writers as Twesten1 say that the good need no proof that God is, and that the wicked are not susceptible of conviction. You cannot prove that a thing is beautiful, or that it is good. So neither can you prove that there is a God. The fallacy of this statement is obvious. Beauty and goodness are qualities which must be discerned by the mind, just as the objects of sight are discerned by the eye. As it is true that you cannot prove to a blind man that an object is red, so you cannot prove to a peasant that the “Paradise Lost” is sublime. But the existence of God is an objective fact. It may be shown that it is a fact which cannot be rationally denied. Although all men have feelings and convictions which necessitate the assumption that there is a God; it is, nevertheless, perfectly legitimate to show that there are other facts which necessarily lead to the same conclusion.

Besides, it is to be remembered that theistical arguments are designed to prove not only that there is a necessity for the assumption of an extra-mundane and eternal Being, but mainly, to show what that Being is; that He is a personal Being, self-conscious, intelligent, moral. All this may lie inclosed in the primary intuition, but it needs to be brought out and established.

Secondly. Another class of objections against all theistical arguments, relates to the arguments themselves. They are pronounced fallacious, as involving a petitio principii; or declared to be invalid as derived from false premises; or leading to conclusions other than that intended to be established. Of this every man must judge for himself. They have been regarded as sound and conclusive by the wisest men, from Socrates to the present day. Of course the argument on the principle of causation must be invalid to those who deny that there is any such thing as an efficient cause; and the argument from design can have no force for those who deny the possibility of final causes.

Most of the objections to the conclusiveness of the arguments in question arises from a misapprehension of what they are intended to prove. It is often assumed that each argument must prove the whole doctrine of Theism; whereas one argument may prove one element of that doctrine; and other arguments different elements. The cosmological argument may prove the existence of a necessary and eternal Being; the teleological argument, that that Being is intelligent; the moral argument that He is a person possessing moral attributes. The arguments are not designed so much to prove the existence of an unknown being, as to demonstrate that the Being who reveals himself to man in the very constitution of his nature must be all that Theism declares him to be. Such writers as Hume, Kant, Coleridge, and the whole school of transcendental philosophers, have more or less expressly denied the validity of the ordinary arguments for the existence of a personal God.

 Hodge, C. (1997). Systematic theology (Vol. 1, pp. 194–203). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

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