The innate idea and knowledge of God

There is no formal argument for the existence of God in the Bible. Shedd argues that the Scriptures rely on ‘the immediate and universal consciousness of the human soul’ for their defence of divine existence. (Dogmatic Theology: 186) This argument is most clearly seen in Paul. Shedd refers to Roms 1:19-20; c.f. Acts 17:24-28; 14:16-17. He goes on to make the following points:

Humans as humans know basic attributes of God, including his eternity and his benevolence. This knowledge is not perfect but it is reliable. It is the foundation for human responsibility. All people are ‘obligated to love and serve [God] so far as [they know] him’. (DT: 186)

‘The idea of God is natural to the human mind…’ It is built into the human mind, and ‘is a product of the reason, not of the sense’. (DT: 187) Shedd defends this statement by pointing to Paul’s description of the invisible qualities of God: these attributes ‘are not objects of the senses’, and so they can only be recognized immediately. Those who do not know the Scriptures can only know God’s invisible qualities in this way. Without this mindset objective knowledge would make no sense anyway.

I take all this to mean that Shedd would minimise the importance of natural theology. This is confirmed by Shedd’s discussion of arguments against an innate human knowledge of God. Shedd draws a distinction between the ‘existence of an idea’ and ‘its development in the consciousness’. (DT: 191) The idea always exists, but it can become distorted depending on the ‘degree of human depravity’ in an individual or a nation. (DT: 192)

Human depravity does not conflict with the innate idea of God, because humans choose to ignore their reason in their moral behavior. Also, the idea of God is a gift from God. It does not rest on human thought. Shedd’s argument relies on a distinction between reason and will. Our minds may know that God should be obeyed as far as our knowledge of him allows, but our affections will determine whether or not we actually obey.

Consciousness of God, and human self-consciousness refute atheism. This leads Shedd to a fascinating conclusion: humans have ‘the same kind of evidence for divine existence’ that they have for their own personal existence. (DT: 195) Shedd cites Berkeley and Locke to defend his assertion. He believes that pantheistic systems deny human self-consciousness. This argument points to the importance of the immortality of the human soul for Shedd.

The section concludes:

‘Spinoza and Hegel have defended this theory, with an energy of abstraction and a concentration of mental power unequaled in the annals of human error. That the denial of a true and real self-consciousness for man has been comparatively an esoteric doctrine and has not had so much currency as the atheistic doctrine arises from the fact that man has not so strong a motive for disputing his own existence as he has for disputing that of the deity. Men are not so afraid of themselves as they are of their maker and judge - although if they were fully aware of the solemn implications of a personal and responsible existence, they would find little to choose between denying their own existence and that of God.’ (DT: 195-96)

W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (Edited by A.W. Gomes. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), pp. 185-196.


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