Gordon Clark and the “Proofs” for God’s Existence

In chapter one of his book A Christian View of Men and Things, Gordon Clark brings up the discussion of the traditional “proofs” for God’s existence (e.g., cosmological, teleological, ontological, etc). He writes:

To one who has just begun to philosophize and who wishes to defend theism, it might seem most natural to prove the existence of God right at the first… But are the arguments valid? Some people maintain that they are; but even if they are, the more they are studied, the harder it becomes to state them in an unobjectionable form… [If] there is a valid inference from the world to God [vis-à-vis the cosmological argument], the god so proved can be assigned only those qualities sufficient to produce the observed effects. Such an argument might prove the existence of a very powerful god, but it could not prove the existence of an omnipotent God. (Introduction)

I remember well sitting in my first undergraduate course in doctrine and having to memorize the historical proofs for God set forth by Aquinas and others; yet even then, they did not sit right with me. At best, they could set forth a case for a creator, designer, or other, but they failed because they cannot prove Yahweh, the One True God presented in Scripture. They fall short in this regard. Clark quotes Hume to this end:

A body of ten ounces raised in any scale may serve as a proof that the counterbalancing weight exceeds ten ounces, but can never afford a reason that it exceeds a hundred. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section XI)

To be certain, evidence of the One True God’s existence is found in nature. The Apostle Paul tells the reader of Romans as much: [God’s] invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made (1:20). This is what we refer to as general revelation: the non-verbal disclosing of God’s existence and perfections to all people by means of nature.

This is problematic for two reasons. First, that same passage in Romans also says that man in his natural state suppresses the truth: For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them (vv. 18-19).

Second, we cannot know more than what the created world tells us. Existence and identification are two separate entities, and the identification of the One True God can only be found in Scripture. Try as we might to identify God through these proofs, the ultimate authority — the Word of God — is ultimately the only authority. At some point, the unbeliever will need to choose to either believe Scripture or not.

Often the reason for these proofs is said to be for the sake of the unbelieving atheist, but the atheist is right in rejecting these “ways” to proving God’s existence. Even if they proved the existence of God, belief in the propositions found in Scripture are still necessary for eternal life. The redemptive work of the second Person of the Trinity is only revealed to us in Scripture, and must be accepted on the basis of its testimony alone. Either way, knowledge of Scripture is paramount, and we are dependent upon the Holy Spirit to illumine Scripture to us.

Clark concludes his discussion of these proofs with the following:

[C]riticism is also directed against the validity of any inference from effect to cause — a matter that was granted for the sake of argument — will be even less easy to place confidence in the proofs of God’s existence. The more the arguments are studied, the less valid they seem. Because of this, the argument for a theistic worldview cannot begin with the traditional proofs of God’s existence. These proofs are seen to raise many questions; and if they should be valid they could not be shown to be valid without a great amount of prior discussion of metaphysics, epistemology, and other elements of a well-rounded system. (Introduction)

The final sentence is most crucial in any dialogue. A great deal of talking past one another happens because our epistemologies — our understanding of knowledge and how we obtain it — differ. To the believer, Scripture should permeate our worldview. We should be reasoning from the Scriptures, for those words alone bring life. Scripture should be the basis and foundation of all that we do, and we would do well to let God do the talking through His Word.