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In apologetics,epistemology,God,Jason D. Crowder,philosophy,theology

The Origin of the Idea of God

by Dr. Jason D. Crowder

“Without doubt, the mightiest thought the mind can entertain is the thought of God,” notes A. W. Tozer, “and the weightiest word in any language is its word for God.”[1] The idea of God is the foremost and grandest concept that has preoccupied the thoughts of men for centuries. Every nation and all people possess some notion of God.[2] The reason why humanity places such emphasis on the word God is because man is out of necessity a religious being as created by God.[3]

Within philosophical discourse, the topic of God is popular—particularly in the area of philosophy of religion, which examines the central themes and concepts found within religious traditions. One of the primary areas of study in this field is the existence and nature of God. Arguing for God’s existence, the ontological argument states that even if there is only a concept of something, it exists. This argument is often criticized as a bare assertion fallacy because the conclusion relies on the premise, and the premise relies on the conclusion.[4] The ontological argument, however, brings to the forefront a vital question: Where does the concept of God originate?

Is the idea of God an outgrowth of mundane social or psychological processes? Is God a reality? Is the idea of God an emotional crutch? Did God create man, or did man create God? Or is the belief in God properly basic?[5] In other words, is the notion of God innate knowledge within human beings?

The question of whether and to what extent God can be known has been vigorously debated in both philosophy and theology. There are many theories regarding the existence of God throughout history. While this does not prove God’s existence, it does indicate that there is an intrinsic proclivity within the human mind for thinking about God.[6] In philosophy, some arrive at an agnostic position, while others reach atheistic conclusions.[7] At times the objection is nothing more than the assertion that man cannot comprehend God, which is true. Man cannot fully realize God with “all-comprehensive knowledge.”[8] It is incorrect, however, to believe that the incomprehensibility[9] of God means that man cannot have any knowledge of God. In theology, on the other hand, the possibility of man knowing God has seldom been doubted or denied. Theologians are more concerned with the extent to which God can be known[10] and how one can come to a true knowledge of God. Basing their beliefs on passages such as Psalm 19:1-6 and Romans 1:18-23, theologians argue that every human has some knowledge of God.[11] Despite the limitations of this knowledge, it is genuine. The question is whether finite beings are willing to acquiesce to this knowledge.

The concern is how man comes to a true knowledge of God. Here epistemology intertwines with both philosophy of religion and theology. Philosophers desire to ascertain what knowledge is and how to attain it. This impetus is due to the assumption that investigating the origins of knowledge would reveal something about its nature.[12] Essentially theologians desire to know how individuals gain knowledge but from a biblical perspective rather than a philosophical one.[13]

Christian theology distinguishes between acquired knowledge of God and innate knowledge of God. In the case of acquired knowledge, it argues that all human knowledge of God is possible only because of God’s self-revelation (1 Corinthians 2:10-11). If God had not chosen to reveal himself, individuals would know nothing about him. In this sense, all human knowledge of God can be considered acquired knowledge. It also affirms that reflection upon the self-revelation of God is needed in order to gain a fuller understanding of who God is. Christian theology also acknowledges that “belief in a personal God is both natural and normal; it arises in human consciousness spontaneously and universally.”[14] It is in this sense that knowledge of God can be considered inborn. Despite the fact that theologians often allude to and discuss this universally known knowledge of God apart from special revelation as intrinsic, Christian theology stops short of calling it innate.

Guarding against two dangers, Christian theology avoids designating this knowledge as intrinsic. The first danger is rationalism, which is the reliance upon reason rather than experience, authority, or revelation as the primary basis of knowledge.

If human beings at birth came fully endowed with clear and distinct knowledge of God, being, or all ideas, they would be completely autonomous and self-sufficient, needing neither God, the world, nor revelation. The logical conclusion of this kind of thinking is idealism, which considers reality itself to be a creation of immanent human thought processes.[15]

The second danger is mysticism, which is the belief that direct knowledge of God is attainable through subjective experience such as prayer.

These potential dangers do not necessarily warrant Christian theology’s hesitancy to call it innate knowledge, especially when there is biblical support for man’s knowledge of God being twofold. A deeper understanding of the idea of God is acquired knowledge, which is derived from general and special revelation of God. The simplistic notion of God, however, is inborn knowledge.[16]

The Christian understanding of intrinsic knowledge is distinct from that of the philosophical thought. The two views differ on their presuppositions regarding the source of knowledge. Philosophical thought presumes that knowledge is ultimately found within the human being—whether inborn or through experience or reason. Christian theology affirms that the source of knowledge is God.[17]

The statement that man has an innate knowledge of God does not merely mean that he has an inborn capacity to know God. It indicates something more than that. At the same time it does not imply that man at birth brings a certain knowledge of God with him into the world. The innate knowledge of God is inborn in the sense that, under normal conditions, it develops spontaneously in man as soon as he comes in contact with God’s revelation. It is a knowledge which man, as he is constituted, develops of necessity and not as the result of any choice on his part. Naturally, such knowledge is of a rather general nature.[18]

While the Bible contains no formal argument for the existence of God, it presumes that the reader has inherent knowledge of God’s existence. The Bible opens with “in the beginning God. . . . let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:1, 26), which indicates that God gave humans instinctive knowledge of himself. Job 32:8 further supports this notion when it claims that the “breath of the Almighty” gives humanity understanding since it refers back to Genesis 1:26. Additional support is found in Ecclesiastes 3:11-22, where King Solomon proclaims that God set eternity in the heart of man (cf. Revelation 1:8, 11). The apostle Paul gives the fullest account concerning the knowledge of God being innate in Romans 1:18-32, even if it is suppressed. In this passage, Paul repeatedly states that humanity possesses knowledge of God (cf. Acts 14:16-17 and 17:24-28). Paul continues giving support for this belief in the next chapter (Romans 2:14-15).[19]

Church history affirms the biblical teaching that humanity has intrinsic knowledge of God. Tertullian expresses that certain knowledge of God is a primordial endowment of man’s soul.[20] John of Damascus says “the knowledge of God’s existence has been implanted by Him in all by nature.”[21] Anselm of Canterbury argues that God’s nonexistence is unthinkable.[22] Aquinas concurs that man has some natural knowledge of God.[23] And John Calvin supports the view that the idea of God is implanted in the minds of men.[24] William G. T. Shedd[25] and others after him, such as Louis Berkhof, maintain that humans have intrinsic knowledge of God.

Scripture clearly teaches that the knowledge of God is part of the compositional nature of man—it is inherent. And church history affirms this biblical truth. While it has not and likely cannot be proved, it is possible that the reason the idea of God is innate knowledge is due to the fact that human beings are created in the image of God.

Jason D. Crowder holds a Doctor of Theological Studies in Philosophical Theology and Apologetics from Columbia Evangelical Seminary. He begins a research PhD in philosophy with the University of the Free State in South Africa. He also has a research proposal accepted to pursue another research PhD in dogmatics at a different institution in South Africa. He is an adjunct professor for Columbia Evangelical Seminary and an adjunct instructor of religion with Butler Community College.

1. A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life (New York, NY: Walker and Company, 1996), 3.

2. James F. Anderson, Natural Theology: The Metaphysics of God (Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing, 1962), 3; Hiram Erastus Butler, “The Idea of God,” Seven Creative Principles (Applegate, CA: The Esoteric Fraternity, 1913), 1-3; and Paul Carus, The Idea of God (Chicago, IL: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1896), 4.

3. Butler, “The Idea of God,” 3.

4. Graham Oppy, “Ontological Arguments,” last modified 2007, accessed June 6, 2010, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ontological-arguments/. For an illustration of this, see Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1936), 31: “If God does not exist it would of course be impossible to prove it, and if he does exist it would be folly to attempt it. For at the very outset, in beginning my proof, I have presupposed it. . . .”

5. John V. Apczynski, “Belief in God, Properly Basicality, and Rationality,” Journal of American Academy of Religion 60, no. 2 (1992): 301-312; Stewart C. Goetz, “Belief in God Is Not Properly Basic,” Religious Studies 19, no. 4 (1983): 475-484; Gregory Paul, “Why Belief in God is Not Innate,” The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2010; Alvin Plantinga, “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” Noûs 15, no. 1 (Spring 1981): 41-51; and Michael Shermer, “Why Belief in God is Innate,” The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2010. For clarity, the phrase properly basic refers to a concept that is a self-evident axiom or incorrigible. In other words, the belief does not require justification to support its claim. This phrase is commonly used in discussions within Reformed Epistemology. René Descartes’ statement “I think; therefore, I am” is an example of a properly basic argument or belief.

6. Anderson, Natural Theology, 3.

7. Here are three of the works written in the past decade which question and deny the possibility of knowing God: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Michael Martin, The Impossibility of God (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003); and Michael Martin, The Improbability of God (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006).

8. Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine (1933; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1993), 53; and Louis Berkhof, Summary of Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1938), 27.

9. For further discussion on the ineffability and incomprehensibility of God, see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, ed. John Bolt and trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 27-52; James Petigru Boyce, Abstract to Systematic Theology (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1887), 8-12; Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2003), 245-251; and Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1974), 159-193.

10. The extent to which God can be known deals with the incomprehensibility and ineffability of God.

11. For more on the universal knowledge of God, see Boyce, Abstract to Systematic Theology, 12-15; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (1871; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 195-197; and Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1967), 151-155.

12. Two historically important debates arise from the problems that are found within this discussion. One of them concerns the question of whether knowledge is innate or acquired through experience. The second concerns itself with the ultimate source of human knowledge, reason or experience. Even though these debates are of importance to epistemology, the scope of this post does not warrant elaborate discussion. For further discussions on these issues, see René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies, trans. Michael Moriarty (1641; repr., New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008); Carl F. H. Henry, “The Ways of Knowing” in God, Revelation and Authority: Volume 1: God Who Speaks and Shows, Preliminary Considerations (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 70-95; David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature (1739; repr., New York, NY: Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2005); and David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1772; repr., New York, NY: Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2004).

13. For more the relationship between philosophy and theology, see Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1985); Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Main Thinkers and Schools of Thought from the Middle Ages to the Present Day (London, England: Tyndale Press, 1969); J. V. Casserley, The Christian in Philosophy (London, England: Faber and Faber, 1949); and Avery Dulles, “Can Philosophy Be Christian?” in First Things 102 (April 2002): 24-29.

14. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 53.

15. Ibid., 54.

16. Berkhof, Manual, 53; and Berkhof, Summary, 27.

17. Van Til, Introduction, 31-42 and 194-199.

18. Berkhof, Manual, 53. For more on this understanding of innate knowledge, see Boyce, Abstract, 15-20; “Innate Knowledge,” Embraced by Truth, last modified 2011, accessed April 10, 2011, http://www.embracedbytruth.com/Man/Crown%20of%20Creation/Innate%20Knowledge.htm; A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (1860; repr., Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 30-32; and Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 191-194.

19. For additional information on Paul’s treatment on how the knowledge of God is innate, see Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (London, England: The Religious Tract Society, 1838), 21-36 and 46-48; and Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 85-87.

20. Tertullian, The Five Books Against Marcion, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 278.

21. John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd ser., vol. 9, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, MI: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 1.

22. Anselm, Proslogion, A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, ed. and trans. Eugene R. Fairweather (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1982), 74-75.

23. Thomas Aquinas, “The Existence of God,” Summa Theologica, vol. 1 (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1948), 12. It should also be noted that Aquinas at times argues for the notion that man is born as a tabula rasa. According to this perspective, man’s mind is a blank slate at birth. As man matures his mind is filled with data from experiences of life and information gathered via sensory perception. This view has its roots in Aristotle.

24. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (1559; repr., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 43ff.

25. William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed., ed. Alan W. Gomes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 186.

  • This was really helpful! I was recently preaching on Romans 1 and talked about the innate knowledge of God, which I believe is taught in the Bible, but in the back of my mind I was thinking that there must be a difference between what the Bible teaches and idealism. Your article was really helpful in explaining that.

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