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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > G > The Existence of God

The Existence of God

The topic will be treated as follows:

I. As Known Through Natural Reason
A. The Problem Stated
1. Formal Anti-Theism
2. Types of Theism
B. Theistic Proofs
1. A Posteriori Argument
(a) The general causality argument
(b) The argument from design
(c) The argument from conscience
(d) The argument from universal consent
2. A Priori, or Ontological, Argument
II. As Known Through Faith
A. Sacred Scriptures
B. Church Councils
C. The Knowability of God

As known through natural reason — ("the God of the philosophers")

The problem stated

Formal anti-theism

Had the Theist merely to face a blank Atheistic denial of God's existence, his task would he comparatively a light one. Formal dogmatic Atheism is self-refuting, and has never de facto won the reasoned assent of any considerable number of men. Nor can Polytheism, however easily it may take hold of the popular imagination, ever satisfy the mind of a philosopher. But there are several varieties of what may be described as virtual Atheism which cannot be dismissed so summarily.

There is the Agnosticism, for instance, of Herbert Spencer, which, while admitting the rational necessity of postulating the Absolute or Unconditioned behind the relative and conditioned objects of our knowledge declares that Absolute to be altogether unknowable, to be in fact the Unknowable, about which without being guilty of contradiction we can predicate nothing at all, except perhaps that It exists; and there are other types of Agnosticism.

Then again there is Pantheism in an almost endless variety of forms, all of which, however, may be logically reduced to the three following types:

Thus to accomplish even the beginning of his task the Theist has to show, against Agnostics, that the knowledge of God attainable by rational inference — however inadequate and imperfect it may be — is as true and valid, as far as it goes, as any other piece of knowledge we possess; and against Pantheists that the God of reason is a supra-mundane personal God distinct both from matter and from the finite human mind — that neither we ourselves nor the earth we tread upon enter into the constitution of His being.

Types of theism

But passing from views that are formally anti-theistic, it is found that among Theists themselves certain differences exist which tend to complicate the problem, and increase the difficulty of stating it briefly and clearly. Some of these differences are brief and clear.

Some of these differences are merely formal and accidental and do not affect the substance of the theistic thesis, but others are of substantial importance, as, for instance, whether we can validly establish the truth of God's existence by the same kind of rational inference (e.g. from effect to cause) as we employ in other departments of knowledge, or whether, in order to justify our belief in this truth, we must not rather rely on some transcendental principle or axiom, superior and antecedent to dialectical reasoning; or on immediate intuition; or on some moral, sentimental, emotional, or æsthetic instinct or perception, which is voluntary rather than intellectual.

Kant denied in the name of "pure reason" the inferential validity of the classical theistic proofs, while in the name of "practical reason" he postulated God's existence as an implicate of the moral law, and Kant's method has been followed or imitated by many Theists — by some who fully agree with him in rejecting the classical arguments; by others, who, without going so far, believe in the apologetical expediency of trying to persuade rather than convince men to be Theists. A moderate reaction against the too rigidly mathematical intellectualism of Descartes was to be welcomed, but the Kantian reaction by its excesses has injured the cause of Theism and helped forward the cause of anti-theistic philosophy. Herbert Spencer, as is well known, borrowed most of his arguments for Agnosticism from Hamilton and Mansel, who had popularized Kantian criticism in England, while in trying to improve on Kant's reconstructive transcendentalism, his German disciples (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel) drifted into Pantheism. Kant also helped to prepare the way for the total disparagement of human reason in relation to religious truth, which constitutes the negative side of Traditionalism, while the appeal of that system on the positive side to the common consent and tradition of mankind as the chief or sole criterion of truth and more especially of religious truth — its authority as a criterion being traced ultimately to a positive Divine revelation — is, like Kant's refuge in practical reason, merely an illogical attempt to escape from Agnosticism.

Again, though Ontologism — like that of Malebranche (d. 1715) — is older than Kant, its revival in the nineteenth century (by Gioberti, Rosmini, and others) has been inspired to some extent by Kantian influences. This system maintains that we have naturally some immediate consciousness, however dim at first, or some intuitive knowledge of God — not indeed that we see Him in His essence face to face but that we know Him in His relation to creatures by the same act of cognition — according to Rosmini, as we become conscious of being in general — and therefore that the truth of His existence is as much a datum of philosophy as is the abstract idea of being.

Finally, the philosophy of Modernism — about which there has recently been such a stir — is a somewhat complex medley of these various systems and tendencies; its main features as a system are:

Now all these varying types of Theism, in so far as they are opposed to the classical and traditional type, may be reduced to one or other of the two following propositions:

But an appeal to experience, not to mention other objections, is sufficient to negative the first proposition — and the second, which, as history has already made clear, is an illogical compromise with Agnosticism, is best refuted by a simple statement of the theistic Proofs. It is not the proofs that are found to be fallacious but the criticism which rejects them. It is true of course — and no Theist denies it — that for the proper intellectual appreciation of theistic proofs moral dispositions are required, and that moral consciousness, the æsthetic faculty, and whatever other powers or capacities belong to man's spiritual nature, constitute or supply so many data on which to base inferential proofs. But this is very different from holding that we possess any faculty or power which assures us of God's existence and which is independent of, and superior to, the intellectual laws that regulate our assent to truth in general — that in the religious sphere we can transcend those laws without confessing our belief in God to be irrational. It is also true that a mere barren intellectual assent to the truth of God's existence — and such an assent is conceivable — falls very far short of what religious assent ought to be; that what is taught in revealed religion about the worthlessness of faith uninformed by charity has its counterpart in natural religion; and that practical Theism, if it pretends to be adequate, must appeal not merely to the intellect but to the heart and conscience of mankind and be capable of winning the total allegiance of rational creatures. But here again we meet with exaggeration and confusion on the part of those Theists who would substitute for intellectual assent something that does not exclude but presupposes it and is only required to complement it. The truth and pertinency of these observations will be made clear by the following summary of the classical arguments for God's existence.

Theistic proofs

The arguments for God's existence are variously classified and entitled by different writers, but all agree in recognizing the distinction between a priori, or deductive, and a posteriori, or inductive reasoning in this connection. And while all admit the validity and sufficiency of the latter method, opinion is divided in regard to the former. Some maintain that a valid a priori proof (usually called the ontological) is available; others deny this completely; while some others maintain an attitude of compromise or neutrality. This difference, it should be observed, applies only to the question of proving God's actual existence; for, His self-existence being admitted, it is necessary to employ a priori or deductive inference in order to arrive at a knowledge of His nature and attributes, and as it is impossible to develop the arguments for His existence without some working notion of His nature, it is necessary to some extent to anticipate the deductive stage and combine the a priori with the a posteriori method. But no strictly a priori conclusion need be more than hypothetically assumed at this stage.

A posteriori argument

St. Thomas (Summa Theologica I:2:3; Cont. Gent., I, xiii) and after him many scholastic writers advance the five following arguments to prove the existence of God:

To these many Theists add other arguments:

One might go on, indeed, almost indefinitely multiplying and distinguishing arguments; but to do so would only lead to confusion.

The various arguments mentioned — and the same is true of others that might be added — are not in reality distinct and independent arguments, but only so many partial statements of one and the same general argument, which is perhaps best described as the cosmological. This argument assumes the validity of the principle of causality or sufficient reason and, stated in its most comprehensive form, amounts to this: that it is impossible according to the laws of human thought to give any ultimate rational explanation of the phenomena of external experience and of internal consciousness — in other words to synthesize the data which the actual universe as a whole supplies (and this is the recognized aim of philosophy) — unless by admitting the existence of a self-sufficient and self-explanatory cause or ground of being and activity, to which all these phenomena may be ultimately referred.

It is, therefore, mainly a question of method and expediency what particular points one may select from the multitude available to illustrate and enforce the general a posteriori argument. For our purpose it will suffice to state as briefly as possible

(a) The general causality argument

We must start by assuming the objective certainty and validity of the principle of causality or sufficient reason — an assumption upon which the value of the physical sciences and of human knowledge generally is based. To question its objective certainty, as did Kant, and represent it as a mere mental a priori, or possessing only subjective validity, would open the door to subjectivism and universal scepticism. It is impossible to prove the principle of causality, just as it is impossible to prove the principle of contradiction; but it is not difficult to see that if the former is denied the latter may also be denied and the whole process of human reasoning declared fallacious. The principle states that whatever exists or happens must have a sufficient reason for its existence or occurrence either in itself or in something else; in other words that whatever does not exist of absolute necessity - whatever is not self-existent — cannot exist without a proportionate cause external to itself; and if this principle is valid when employed by the scientist to explain the phenomena of physics it must be equally valid when employed by the philosopher for the ultimate explanation of the universe as a whole. In the universe we observe that certain things are effects, i.e. they depend for their existence on other things, and these again on others; but, however far back we may extend this series of effects and dependent causes, we must, if human reason is to be satisfied, come ultimately to a cause that is not itself an effect, in other words to an uncaused cause or self-existent being which is the ground and cause of all being. And this conclusion, as thus stated, is virtually admitted by agnostics and Pantheists, all of whom are obliged to speak of an eternal something underlying the phenomenal universe, whether this something be the "Unknown", or the "Absolute", or the "Unconscious", or "Matter" itself, or the "Ego", or the "Idea" of being, or the "Will"; these are so many substitutes for the uncaused cause or self-existent being of Theism. What anti-Theists refuse to admit is not the existence of a First Cause in an indeterminate sense, but the existence of an intelligent and free First Cause, a personal God, distinct from the material universe and the human mind. But the very same reason that compels us to postulate a First Cause at all requires that this cause should be a free and intelligent being. The spiritual world of intellect and free will must be recognized by the sane philosopher to be as real as the world of matter; man knows that he has a spiritual nature and performs spiritual acts as clearly and as certainly as he knows that he has eyes to see with and ears to hear with; and the phenomena of man's spiritual nature can only be explained in one way — by attributing spirituality, i.e. intelligence and free will, to the First Cause, in other words by recognizing a personal God. For the cause in all cases must be proportionate to the effect, i.e. must contain somehow in itself every perfection of being that is realized in the effect.

The cogency of this argument becomes more apparent if account be taken of the fact that the human species had its origin at a comparatively late period in the history of the actual universe. There was a time when neither man nor any other living thing inhabited this globe of ours; and without pressing the point regarding the origin of life itself from inanimate matter or the evolution of man's body from lower organic types, it may be maintained with absolute confidence that no explanation of the origin of man's soul can be made out on evolutionary lines, and that recourse must be had to the creative power of a spiritual or personal First Cause. It might also be urged, as an inference from the physical theories commonly accepted by present-day scientists, that the actual organization of the material universe had a definite beginning in time. If it be true that the goal towards which physical evolution is tending is the uniform distribution of heat and other forms of energy, it would follow clearly that the existing process has not been going on from eternity; else the goal would have been reached long ago. And if the process had a beginning, how did it originate? If the primal mass was inert and uniform, it is impossible to conceive how motion and differentiation were introduced except from without, while if these are held to be coeval with matter, the cosmic process, which is ex hypothesi is temporal, would be eternal, unless it be granted that matter itself had a definite beginning in time.

But the argument, strictly speaking, is conclusive even if it be granted that the world may have existed from eternity, in the sense, that is, that, no matter how far back one may go, no point of time can be reached at which created being was not already in existence. In this sense Aristotle held matter to be eternal and St. Thomas, while denying the fact, admitted the possibility of its being so. But such relative eternity is nothing more in reality than infinite or indefinite temporal duration and is altogether different from the eternity we attribute to God. Hence to admit that the world might possibly be eternal in this sense implies no denial of the essentially finite and contingent character of its existence. On the contrary it helps to emphasize this truth, for the same relation of dependence upon a self-existing cause which is implied in the contingency of any single being is implied a fortiori in the existence of an infinite series of such beings, supposing such a series to be possible.

Nor can it be maintained with Pantheists that the world, whether of matter or of mind or of both, contains within itself the sufficient reason of its own existence. A self-existing world would exist of absolute necessity and would be infinite in every kind of perfection; but of nothing are we more certain than that the world as we know it, in its totality as well as in its parts, realizes only finite degrees of perfection. It is a mere contradiction in terms, however much one may try to cover up and conceal the contradiction by an ambiguous and confusing use of language, to predicate infinity of matter or of the human mind, and one or the other or both must be held by the Pantheist to be infinite. In other words the distinction between the finite and the infinite must be abolished and the principle of contradiction denied. This criticism applies to every variety of Pantheism strictly so called, while crude, materialistic Pantheism involves so many additional and more obvious absurdities that hardly any philosopher deserving of the name will be found to maintain it in our day. On the other hand, as regards idealistic Pantheism, which enjoys a considerable vogue in our day, it is to be observed in the first place that in many cases this is a tendency rather than a formal doctrine, that it is in fact nothing more than a confused and perverted form of Theism, based especially upon an exaggerated and one-sided view of Divine immanence (see below, iii). And this confusion works to the advantage of Pantheism by enabling it to make a specious appeal to the very arguments which justify Theism. Indeed the whole strength of the pantheistic position as against Atheism lies in what it holds in common with Theism; while, on the other hand, its weakness as a world theory becomes evident as soon as it diverges from or contradicts Theism. Whereas Theism, for example, safeguards such primary truths as the reality of human personality, freedom, and moral responsibility, Pantheism is obliged to sacrifice all these, to deny the existence of evil, whether physical or moral, to destroy the rational basis of religion, and, under pretence of making man his own God, to rob him of nearly all his plain, common sense convictions and of all his highest incentives to good conduct. The philosophy which leads to such results cannot but be radically unsound.

(b) The argument from design

The special argument based on the existence of order or design in the universe (also called the teleological argument) proves immediately the existence of a supramundane mind of vast intelligence, and ultimately the existence of God. This argument is capable of being developed at great length, but it must be stated here very briefly. It has always been a favourite argument both with philosophers and with popular apologists of Theism; and though, during the earlier excesses of enthusiasm for or against Darwinianism, it was often asserted or admitted that the evolutionary hypothesis had overthrown the teleological argument, it is now recognized that the very opposite is true, and that the evidences of design which the universe exhibits are not less but more impressive when viewed from the evolutionary standpoint. To begin with particular examples of adaptation which may be appealed to in countless number — the eye, for instance, as an organ of sight is a conspicuous embodiment of intelligent purpose — and not less but more so when viewed as the product of an evolutionary process rather than the immediate handiwork of the Creator. There is no option in such cases between the hypothesis of a directing intelligence and that of blind chance, and the absurdity of supposing that the eye originated suddenly by a single blind chance is augmented a thousand-fold by suggesting that it may be the product of a progressive series of such chances. "Natural selection", "survival of the fittest", and similar terms merely describe certain phases in the supposed process of evolution without helping the least to explain it; and as opposed to teleology they mean nothing more than blind chance. The eye is only one of the countless examples of adaptation to particular ends discernible in every part of the universe, inorganic as well as organic; for the atom as well as the cell contributes to the evidence available. Nor is the argument weakened by our inability in many cases to explain the particular purpose of certain structures or organisms. Our knowledge of nature is too limited to be made the measure of nature's entire design, while as against our ignorance of some particular purposes we are entitled to maintain the presumption that if intelligence is anywhere apparent it is dominant everywhere. Moreover, in our search for particular instances of design we must not overlook the evidence supplied by the harmonious unity of nature as a whole. The universe as we know it is a cosmos, a vastly complex system of correlated and interdependent parts, each subject to particular laws and all together subject to a common law or a combination of laws as the result of which the pursuit of particular ends is made to contribute in a marvellous way to the attainment of a common purpose; and it is simply inconceivable that this cosmic unity should be the product of chance or accident. If it be objected that there is another side to the picture, that the universe abounds in imperfections — maladjustments, failures, seemingly purposeless waste — the reply is not far to seek. For it is not maintained that the existing world is the best possible, and it is only on the supposition of its being so that the imperfections referred to would be excluded. Admitting without exaggerating their reality — admitting, that is, the existence of physical evil — there still remains a large balance on the side of order and harmony, and to account for this there is required not only an intelligent mind but one that is good and benevolent, though so far as this special argument goes this mind might conceivably be finite. To prove the infinity of the world's Designer it is necessary to fall back on the general argument already explained and on the deductive argument to be explained below by which infinity is inferred from self-existence. Finally, by way of direct reply to the problem suggested by the objection, it is to be observed that, to appreciate fully the evidence for design, we must, in addition to particular instances of adaptation and to the cosmic unity observable in the world of today, consider the historical continuity of nature throughout indefinite ages in the past and indefinite ages to come. We do not and cannot comprehend the full scope of nature's design, for it is not a static universe we have to study but a universe that is progressively unfolding itself and moving towards the fulfilment of an ultimate purpose under the guidance of a master mind. And towards that purpose the imperfect as well as the perfect — apparent evil and discord as well as obvious good order — may contribute in ways which we can but dimly discern. The well-balanced philosopher, who realizes his own limitations in the presence of nature's Designer, so far from claiming that every detail of that Designer's purpose should at present be plain to his inferior intelligence, will be content to await the final solution of enigmas which the hereafter promises to furnish.

(c) The argument from conscience

To Newman and others the argument from conscience, or the sense of moral responsibility, has seemed the most intimately persuasive of all the arguments for God's existence, while to it alone Kant allowed an absolute value. But this is not an independent argument, although, properly understood, it serves to emphasize a point in the general a posteriori proof which is calculated to appeal with particular force to many minds. It is not that conscience, as such, contains a direct revelation or intuition of God as the author of the moral law, but that, taking man's sense of moral responsibility as a phenomenon to be explained, no ultimate explanation can be given except by supposing the existence of a Superior and Lawgiver whom man is bound to obey. And just as the argument from design brings out prominently the attribute of intelligence, so the argument from science brings out the attribute of holiness in the First Cause and self-existent Personal Being with whom we must ultimately identify the Designer and the Lawgiver.

(d) The argument from universal consent

The confirmatory argument based on the consent of mankind may be stated briefly as follows: mankind as a whole has at all times and everywhere believed and continues to believe in the existence of some superior being or beings on whom the material world and man himself are dependent, and this fact cannot be accounted for except by admitting that this belief is true or at least contains a germ of truth. It is admitted of course that Polytheism, Dualism, Pantheism, and other forms of error and superstition have mingled with and disfigured this universal belief of mankind, but this does not destroy the force of the argument we are considering. For at least the germinal truth which consists in the recognition of some kind of deity is common to every form of religion and can therefore claim in its support the universal consent of mankind. And how can this consent be explained except as a result of the perception by the minds of men of the evidence for the existence of deity? It is too large a subject to be entered upon here — the discussion of the various theories that have been advanced to account in some other way for the origin and universality of religion; but it may safely be said that, abstracting from revelation, which need not be discussed at this stage, no other theory will stand the test of criticism. And, assuming that this is the best explanation philosophy has to offer, it may further be maintained that this consent of mankind tells ultimately in favour of Theism. For it is clear from history that religion is liable to degenerate, and has in many instances degenerated instead of progressing; and even if it be impossible to prove conclusively that Monotheism was the primitive historical religion, there is nevertheless a good deal of positive evidence adducible in support of this contention. And if this be the true reading of history, it is permissible to interpret the universality of religion as witnessing implicitly to the original truth which, however much obscured it may have become, in many cases could never be entirely obliterated. But even if the history of religion is to read as a record of progressive development one ought in all fairness, in accordance with a well-recognized principle, to seek its true meaning and significance not at the lowest but at the highest point of development; and it cannot be denied that Theism in the strict sense is the ultimate form which religion naturally tends to assume.

If there have been and are today atheistic philosophers who oppose the common belief of mankind, these are comparatively few and their dissent only serves to emphasize more strongly the consent of normal humanity. Their existence is an abnormality to be accounted for as such things usually are. Could it be claimed on their behalf, individually or collectively, that in ability, education, character, or life they excel the infinitely larger number of cultured men who adhere on conviction to what the race at large has believed, then indeed it might be admitted that their opposition would be somewhat formidable. But no such claim can be made; on the contrary, if a comparison were called for it would be easy to make out an overwhelming case for the other side. Or again, if it were true that the progress of knowledge had brought to light any new and serious difficulties against religion, there would, especially in view of the modern vogue of Agnosticism, be some reason for alarm as to the soundness of the traditional belief. But so far is this from being the case that in the words of Professor Huxley — an unsuspected witness — "not a solitary problem presents itself to the philosophical Theist at the present day which has not existed from the time that philosophers began to think out the logical grounds and the logical consequences of Theism" (Life and Letters of Ch. Darwin by F. Darwin, II, p. 203). Substantially the same arguments as are used today were employed by old-time sceptical Atheists in the effort to overthrow man's belief in the existence of the Divine, and the fact that this belief has withstood repeated assaults during so many ages in the past is the best guarantee of its permanency in the future. It is too firmly implanted in the depths of man's soul for little surface storms to uproot it.

A priori, or ontological, argument

This argument undertakes to deduce the existence of God from the idea of Him as the Infinite which is present to the human mind; but as already stated, theistic philosophers are not agreed as to the logical validity of this deduction.

As stated by St. Anselm, the argument runs thus: The idea of God as the Infinite means the greatest Being that can be thought of, but unless actual existence outside the mind is included in this idea, God would not be the greatest conceivable Being since a Being that exists both in the mind as an object of thought, and outside the mind or objectively, would be greater than a Being that exists in the mind only; therefore God exists not only in the mind but outside of it.

Descartes states the argument in a slightly different way as follows: Whatever is contained in a clear and distinct idea of a thing must be predicated of that thing; but a clear and distinct idea of an absolutely perfect Being contains the notion of actual existence; therefore since we have the idea of an absolutely perfect Being such a Being must really exist.

To mention a third form of statement, Leibniz would put the argument thus: God is at least possible since the concept of Him as the Infinite implies no contradiction; but if He is possible He must exist because the concept of Him involves existence. In St. Anselm's own day this argument was objected to by Gaunilo, who maintained as a reductio ad absurdum that were it valid one could prove by means of it the actual existence somewhere of an ideal island far surpassing in riches and delights the fabled Isles of the Blessed. But this criticism however smart it may seem is clearly unsound, for it overlooks the fact that the argument is not intended to apply to finite ideals but only to the strictly infinite; and if it is admitted that we possess a true idea of the infinite, and that this idea is not self-contradictory, it does not seem possible to find any flaw in the argument. Actual existence is certainly included in any true concept of the Infinite, and the person who admits that he has a concept of an Infinite Being cannot deny that he conceives it as actually existing. But the difficulty is with regard to this preliminary admission, which if challenged — as it is in fact challenged by Agnostics — requires to be justified by recurring to the a posteriori argument, i.e. to the inference by way of causality from contingency to self-existence and thence by way of deduction to infinity. Hence the great majority of scholastic philosophers have rejected the ontological argument as propounded by St. Anselm and Descartes nor as put forward by Leibniz does it escape the difficulty that has been stated.

As known through faith — ("the God of revelation")

Sacred Scriptures

Neither in the Old or New Testament do we find any elaborate argumentation devoted to proving that God exists. This truth is rather taken for granted, as being something, for example, that only the fool will deny in his heart [Psalm 13:1 and 52:1]; and argumentation, when resorted to, is directed chiefly against polytheism and idolatry. But in several passages we have a cursory appeal to some phase of the general cosmological argument: v.g. Psalm 18:1 and 93:5 sqq., Isaiah 41:26 sqq.; II Mach., vii, 28, etc.; and in some few others — Wis. xiii, 1-9; Rom., i, 18,20 — the argument is presented in a philosophical way, and men who reason rightly are held to be inexcusable for failing to recognize and worship the one true God, the Author and Ruler of the universe.

These two latter texts merit more than passing attention. Wis., xiii, 1-9 reads:

But all men are vain in whom there is not the knowledge of God: and who by these good things that are seen, could not understand him that is, neither by attending to the works have acknowledged who was the workman: but have imagined either the fire, or the wind, or the swift air or the circle of the stars, or the great water, or the sun and moon, to be the gods that rule the world. With whose beauty, if they, being delighted, took them to be gods: let them know how much the Lord of them is more beautiful than they: for the first author of beauty made all those things. Or if they admired their power and effects, let them understand by them that he that made them, is mightier than they: for by the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby. But yet as to these they are less to be blamed. For they perhaps err, seeking God, and desirous to find him. For being conversant among his works, they search: and they are persuaded that the things are good which are seen. But then again they are not to be pardoned. For if they were able to know so much as to make a judgment of the world: how did they not more easily find out the Lord thereof?

Here it is clearly taught

Substantially the same doctrine is laid down more briefly by St. Paul in Romans 1:18-20:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice: because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, his eternal power also and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.

It is to be observed that the pagans of whom St. Paul is speaking are not blamed for their ignorance of supernatural revelation and the Mosaic law, but for failing to preserve or for corrupting that knowledge of God and of man's duty towards Him which nature itself ought to have taught them. Indeed it is not pure ignorance as such they are blamed for, but that wilful shirking of truth which renders ignorance culpable. Even under the corruptions of paganism St. Paul recognized the indestructible permanency of germinal religious truth (cf. Romans 2:14-15).

It is clear from these passages that Agnosticism and Pantheism are condemned by revelation, while the validity of the general proof of God's existence given above is confirmed. It is also clear that the extreme form of Traditionalism, which would hold that no certain knowledge of God's existence or nature is attainable by human reason without the aid of supernatural revelation, is condemned.

Church councils

What the author of Wisdom and St. Paul and after them the Fathers and theologians had constantly taught, has been solemnly defined by the Vatican Council. In the first place, as against Agnosticism and Traditionalism, the council teaches (cap. ii, De revelat.)

that God, the first cause (principium) and last end of all things, can, from created things, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1785-old no. 1634)

and in the corresponding canon (can. i, De revelat.) it anathematizes anyone who would say

that the one true God our Creator and Lord, cannot, through the things that are made, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1806-old no. 1653).

As against Agnosticism this definition needs no explanation. As against Traditionalism, it is to be observed that the definition is directed only against the extreme form of that theory, as held by Lamennais and others according to which — taking human nature as it is — there would not, and could not, have been any true or certain knowledge of God, among men, had there not been at least a primitive supernatural revelation — in other words, natural religion as such is an impossibility. There is no reference to milder forms of Traditionalism which hold social tradition and education to be necessary for the development of man's rational powers, and consequently deny, for example, that an individual cut off from human society from his infancy, and left entirely to himself, could ever attain a certain knowledge of God, or any strictly rational knowledge at all. That is a psychological problem on which the council has nothing to say. Neither does it deny that even in case of the homo socialis a certain degree of education and culture may be required in order that he may, by independent reasoning, arrive at a knowledge of God; but it merely affirms the broad principle that by the proper use of their natural reasoning power, applied to the phenomena of the universe, men are able to know God with certainty.

In the next place, as against Pantheism, the council (cap. i, De Deo) teaches that God, "since He is one singular, altogether simple and incommutable spiritual substance, must be proclaimed to be really and essentially [re et essentia) distinct from the world most happy in and by Himself, and ineffably above and beyond all things, actual or possible, besides Himself" (Denzinger, 1782-old no. 1631); and in the corresponding canons (ii-iv, De Deo) anathema is pronounced against anyone who would say "that nothing exists but matter"; or "that the substance or essence of God and of all things is one and the same"; or "that finite things both corporeal and spiritual, or at least spiritual, have emanated from the Divine substance; or that the Divine essence by a manifestation or evolution of itself becomes all things; or that God is universal or indefinite being, which by determining itself constitutes the universe of things distinguished into genera, species and individuals" (Denzinger, 1802-4; old no. 1648).

These definitions are framed so as to cover and exclude every type of the pantheistic theory, and nobody will deny that they are in harmony with Scriptural teaching. The doctrine of creation, for example, than which none is more clearly taught or more frequently emphasized in Sacred Scripture, is radically opposed to Pantheismcreation as the sacred writers understand it being the voluntary act of a free agent bringing creatures into being out of nothingness.

The knowability of God

It will be observed that neither the Scriptural texts we have quoted nor the conciliar decrees say that God's existence can be proved or demonstrated; they merely affirm that it can be known with certainty. Now one may, if one wishes, insist on the distinction between what is knowable and what is demonstrable, but in the present connection this distinction has little real import. It has never been claimed that God's existence can be proved mathematically, as a proposition in geometry is proved, and most Theists reject every form of the ontological or deductive proof. But if the term proof or demonstration may be, as it often is, applied to a posteriori or inductive inference, by means of which knowledge that is not innate or intuitive is acquired by the exercise of reason, then it cannot fairly be denied that Catholic teaching virtually asserts that God's existence can be proved. Certain knowledge of God is declared to be attainable "by the light of reason", i.e. of the reasoning faculty as such from or through "the things that are made"; and this clearly implies an inferential process such as in other connections men do not hesitate to call proof.

Hence it is fair to conclude that the Vatican Council, following Sacred Scripture, has virtually condemned the Scepticism which rejects the a posteriori proof. But it did not deal directly with Ontologism, although certain propositions of the Ontologists had already been condemned as unsafe (tuto tradi non posse) by a decree of the Holy Office (18 September, 1861), and among the propositions of Rosmini subsequently condemned (14 December, 1887) several reassert the ontologist principle. This condemnation by the Holy Office is quite sufficient to discredit Ontologism, regarding which it is enough to say here

In the decree "Lamentabili" (3 July, 1907) and the Encyclical "Pascendi" (7 September, 1907), issued by Pope Pius X, the Catholic position is once more reaffirmed and theological Agnosticism condemned. In its bearing on our subject, this act of Church authority is merely a restatement of the teaching of St. Paul and of the Vatican Council, and a reassertion of the principle which has been always maintained, that God must be naturally knowable if faith in Him and His revelation is to be reasonable; and if a concrete example be needed to show how, of logical necessity, the substance of Christianity vanishes into thin air once the agnostic principle is adopted, one has only to point the finger at Modernism. Rational theism is a necessary logical basis for revealed religion; and that the natural knowledge of God and natural religion, which Catholic teaching holds to be possible, are not necessarily the result of grace, i.e. of a supernatural aid given directly by God Himself, follows from the condemnation by Clement XI of one of the propositions of Quesnel (prop. 41) in which the contrary is asserted (Denzinger, 1391; old no. 1256).

About this page

APA citation. Toner, P. (1909). The Existence of God. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06608b.htm

MLA citation. Toner, Patrick. "The Existence of God." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06608b.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tomas Hancil.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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