The following article is taken from Mr. Jim Pierce’s presentation at the Wyoming District’s Tell the Good News About Jesus Convocation held on January 31, 2014 through February 1, 2014. This is part six (and the final installment) of his speech, “What the Atheist Can Know About God.” (Each article of this series may be found at this link.)
Engaging the Atheist
We have now heard several ways in which we can engage the atheist’s arguments and I would now like to discuss why that is possible. In particular, I want to discuss the distinction between a natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God, since understanding this distinction may help us to understand why apologetics is not only useful, but should also give us direction in how to engage the atheist. I would then like to conclude my presentation commenting upon why we can’t merely engage the atheist philosophically, but the goal is to give the atheist of any stripe a reason for the hope that we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).
As Lutherans we understand that the Holy Spirit communicates faith to us through hearing His word (Rom. 10:17) and as we confess in the Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, …” (1).
At the same time we do not reject that all of humanity has a natural knowledge of God. As the great apostle Paul writes in the epistle to the Romans:
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:19-23).
Martin Chemnitz explains this natural knowledge of God in his Loci as follows:
“Paul called this natural or universal or general knowledge of God, which is gathered from indications and evidences in nature, the ‘ignorance’ of God, Gal. 4:8; cf. 1 Cor. 1:21. But ‘to know God and Him whom He has sent, His Son Jesus Christ, this alone is eternal life,’ John 17:3. Thus no one is saved by this natural knowledge.
There is therefore another knowledge of God which is saving, through which we gain eternal life, namely, that knowledge which is revealed through the Word, in which God reveals both Himself and His will and confirms this revelation by notable events which are clearly miraculous. Concerning these points the following testimonies speak clearly: John 1:18; Matt. 11:25–27; 1 Cor. 1:21” (2)
According to Chemnitz there are two sources of knowledge of God: a natural knowledge of God which is “gathered from indications and evidences in nature, the ignorance of God” and “that knowledge which is revealed through the Word,” i.e. the revealed knowledge of God.
Listen to what the sainted Francis Pieper has to say about these two sources of knowledge of God in his Christian Dogmatics:
“Man knows by nature not only that there is a personal, eternal, and almighty God, the Creator, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe, but also that this God is holy and just, who demands and rewards the good and condemns and punishes the evil. This natural knowledge of God is derived” (3).
Pieper goes on to write that this “natural knowledge of God is derived” from three points of contact God has with all His creation: from the divine works of creation, “From God’s continuous operation both in the realm of nature and in human history” (4) and, from the divine law written in the hearts of all men.
It is interesting that Pieper goes on to argue in his section on our natural knowledge of God that there is no such thing as a real atheist; instead there are only those working hard to suppress this innate and experiential knowledge we all have of God. I concur with Pieper’s observation for I have as yet to find an atheist who can satisfactorily explain why they believe it necessary to attack God as they do. Why don’t we see them arguing against the existence of imaginary beings such as Unicorns, Santa Claus, or the Great Pumpkin? The answer is simple; none of those imaginary beings wrote a law on the atheist’s heart.
As we have heard, Francis Pieper and Martin Chemnitz confirm from the Scriptures (in particular Romans chapter 1), that mankind knows by nature that there is an almighty God. Recall that this natural knowledge of God is derived from God’s works of creating and sustaining the universe, from His operations in human history, and from His divine law written on the hearts of all people.
It is this third way in which we all have a natural knowledge of God that convinces me that the atheist truly works to suppress what he knows to be true about God. By writing God’s law on our hearts, God confronts us all. He informs mankind that He is their Creator who is both perfectly Holy and Good. However, engaging the atheist here alone is insufficient, since he cannot by his own strength or reason come to believe that Jesus Christ is his savior. In short, we would be making a mistake if we stopped at presenting philosophical arguments to the atheist and didn’t present the gospel to him.
The exercise of entertaining the strong atheist’s arguments is not to simply turn over his deep skepticism, but it is to show him that belief in God is not irrational. After all, there are millions of non-Christian theists who can put together a coherent explanation for their pagan belief in a God. This, too, is an enormous opportunity for explaining to the atheist that there really is only one true God in the world. Indeed, had the atheist not known the law, he would not have been able to set up his objection from the inconsistency of revelations discussed earlier. Obviously, the atheist has some idea of what is meaningful and therefore some kind of understanding of what the truth looks like where the existence of God is concerned.
Yes, the atheist knows that there is a lawgiver, but he will not admit it out loud to anyone, because what the atheist is holding onto is the lie of self-certainty. The lie of self-certainty is the humanistic worldview that the human mind is the greatest explanatory power in the universe. The lie of self-certainty allows the atheist to demand the right to criticize God and His Holy Word. What is really going on is that the atheist is merely parroting the age old lie of the Devil, “Did God really say?” as he secures for himself the knowledge of good and evil. Indeed, the atheist doesn’t want to be like God, he wants to be God.
Having tackled the atheist’s central arguments from skepticism, we will want to move the ball down the field and talk about Jesus Christ and why He had to die such a horrendous death culminating in His glorious resurrection from the dead. We can explain that the nagging of the law which is written on our hearts is there to let us know that we truly are in need of the Savior who exists in time and space and that savior is Jesus Christ!
This morning we have heard what the atheist can know about God. We also learned there are two different types of atheism: weak atheism (not to be confused with agnosticism) and strong atheism. I then presented the foundation for strong atheism which is empirical skepticism and the weak verification principle. From there I presented three common objections to belief in God and presented my thoughts as to why we can engage the atheist through natural reason and finally, and most importantly, with law and gospel.
What can the atheist know about God? What he knows about God is what is shown to him through the law. He knows he is in trouble with God and he works night and day to suppress that knowledge, since it condemns him. What he can’t obtain through his reason alone is faith in Jesus Christ and the peace that comes from the Gospel. This is why it is of paramount importance we engage the atheist primarily with law and gospel.
I think the following Scripture fitting to end my speech here at the Tell the Good News About Jesus Convocation. It is Mark 5:19: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
Thank you all for having me here this morning and for patiently listening to my presentation. May God bless you all!
1) McCain, P. T. (Ed.). 2005. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions , p. 330, St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House
2) Chemnitz, M., & Preus, J. A. O. 1999. Loci Theologici, electronic ed., p. 54, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
3) Pieper, F. 1953. Christian Dogmatics, electronic ed., Vol. 1, p. 371. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House