Systematic Theology: A Compendium Designed for the Use of Theological
Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1976 (originally, Philadelphia: The
Griffith and Rowland Press, 1701 Chestnut Street, May 1907), 52-70.
The text is taken from Volume I, Part II, Chapter I, “The Existence of
God.” I have excised the many long paragraphs of bibliographical
reference that follow the expository paragraphs, for it is
to Strong's line of exposition that I wish to draw attention:
. . . the
knowledge of God’s existence . . . is presupposed in all other knowledge
as its logical condition and foundation.
This is “homegrown” presuppositionalism about twenty years before
Cornelius Van Til and sixty before Greg Bahnsen.
September 12, 2009
The whole text of
Systematic Theology is now
August 30, 2011
Origin of Our Idea of God’s Existence
Augustus Hopkins Strong, D.D., LL.D.
the infinite and perfect Spirit in whom all things have their source,
support, and end.
existence of God is a first truth; in other words, the knowledge of
God’s existence is a rational intuition. Logically, it precedes and
conditions all observation and reasoning. Chronologically, only
reflection upon the phenomena of nature and of mind occasions its rise
I. First Truths in General
Negatively—A first truth is not (a) Truth written prior to consciousness
upon the substance of a soul—for such passive knowledge implies a
materialistic view of the soul; (b) Actual knowledge of which the soul
finds itself in possession at birth—for it cannot be proved that the
soul has such knowledge; (c) An idea, undeveloped at birth, but which
has the power of self-development apart from observation and
experience—for this is contrary to all we know of the laws of mental
Positively—A first truth is a knowledge which, though developed upon
occasion of observation and reflection, is not derived from observation
and reflection—a knowledge on the contrary which has such logical
priority that it must be assumed or supposed in order to make any
observation or reflection possible. Such truths are not, therefore,
recognized first in order of time; some of them are assented to somewhat
late in the mind’s growth; by the great majority of men they are never
consciously formulated at all. Yet they constitute the necessary
assumptions upon which all other knowledge rests, and the mind has not
only the inborn capacity to evolve them so soon as the proper occasions
are presented, but the recognition of them is inevitable so soon as the
mind begins to give accounts to itself of its own knowledge.
Their criteria.The criteria by which first truths are to be tested
Their universality. By this we mean, not that all men assent to them or
understand them when propounded in scientific form, but that all men
manifest a practical belief in them by their language, actions, and
Their necessity. By this we mean, not that it is impossible to deny
these truths, but that the mind is compelled by its very constitution to
recognize them upon the occurrence of the proper conditions, and to
employ them in its arguments to prove their non-existence.
Their logical independence and priority. By this we mean that these
truths can be resolved into no others, and proved by no others; that
they are presupposed in the acquisition of all other knowledge and can
therefore be derived from no other source than an original cognitive
power of the mind.
II. The Existence of God a First Truth
the knowledge of God’s existence answers the first criterion of
universality is evident from the following considerations:
is an acknowledged fact that the vast majority of men have actually
recognized the existence of a spiritual being or beings, upon whom they
conceived themselves to be dependent.
Those races and nations which have at first seemed destitute of such
knowledge have uniformly, upon further investigation, been found to
possess it, so that no tribe of men with which we have thorough
acquaintance can be said to be without an object of worship. We may
presume that further knowledge will show this to be true of all.
conclusion is corroborated by the fact that those individuals, in
heathen or Christian lands, who profess themselves to be without any
knowledge of a spiritual power or powers above them do yet indirectly
manifest the existence of such an idea in their minds and its positive
influence over them.
agreement among individuals and nations so widely separated in time and
place can be most satisfactorily explained by supposing that it has its
ground, not in accidental circumstances, but in the nature of man as
man. The diverse and imperfectly developed ideas of the supreme Being
which prevail among men are best accounted for as misinterpretations
and perversions of an intuitive conviction common to all.
the knowledge of God’s existence answers to the second criterion of
necessity will be seen by considering:
men, under circumstances fitted to call forth this knowledge, cannot
avoid recognizing the existence of God. In contemplating finite
existence, there is inevitably suggested the idea of an infinite Being
as its correlative. Upon occasion of the mind’s perceiving its own
finiteness, dependence, responsibility, it immediately and necessarily
perceives the existence of an infinite and unconditioned Being upon whom
it is dependent and to whom it is responsible.
men, in virtue of their humanity, have a capacity for religion. This
recognized capacity for religion is proof that the idea of God is a
necessary one. If the mind upon proper occasion did not evolve this
idea, there would be nothing in man to which religion could appeal.
he who denies God’s existence must tacitly assume that existence in his
very argument by employing logical processes whose validity rests upon
the fact of God’s existence. The full proof of this belongs under the
the knowledge of God’s existence answers the third criterion of logical
independence and priority may be shown as follows:
is presupposed in all other knowledge as its logical condition and
foundation. The validity of the simplest mental acts, such as
sense-perception, self-consciousness, and memory, depends upon the
assumption that a God exists who has so constituted our minds that they
give us knowledge of things as they are.
more complex processes of the mind, such as induction and deduction, can
be relied only by presupposing a thinking Deity who has made the various
parts of the universe and the various aspects of truth to correspond to
each other and to the investigating faculties of man.
primitive belief in final cause, or, in other words, our conviction that
all things have their ends, that design pervades the universe, involves
a belief in God’s existence. In assuming that there is a universe, that
the universe is a rational whole, a system of thought-relations, we
assume the existence of an absolute Thinker, of whose thought the
universe is an expression.
primitive belief in moral obligation, or, in other words, our conviction
that right has universal authority, involves the belief in God’s
existence. In assuming that the universe is a moral whole, we assume
the existence of an absolute Will, of whose righteousness the universe
is an expression.
repeat these four points in another form—the intuition of an Absolute
Reason is (a) the necessary presupposition of all other knowledge, so
that we cannot know anything else to exist except by assuming first of
all that God exists; (b) the necessary basis of all logical thought, so
that we cannot put confidence in any one of our reasoning processes
except by taking for granted that a thinking Deity has constructed our
minds with reference to the universe and to truth; (c) the necessary
implication of our primitive belief in design, so that we can assume all
things to exist for a purpose, only by making the prior assumption that
a purposing God exists—can regard the universe as a thought, only by
postulating the existence of an absolute Thinker; and (d) the necessary
foundation of our conviction of moral obligation, so that we can believe
in the universal authority of right, only by assuming that there exists
a God of righteousness who reveals his will both in the individual
conscience and in the moral universe at large. We cannot prove
that God is; but we can show that, in order to [explain?] the existence
of any knowledge, thought, reason, conscience, in man, man must
assume that God is.
III. Other Supposed Sources of Our Idea of God’s Existence
proof that the idea of God’s existence is a rational intuition will not
be complete until we show that attempts to account in other ways for the
origin of the idea are insufficient, and require as their presupposition
the very intuition which they would supplant or reduce to a secondary
place. We claim that it cannot be derived from any other source than an
original cognitive power of the mind.
from external revelation, whether communicated through (a) the
Scriptures or (b) through tradition; for, unless man had from another
source a previous knowledge of the existence of God from whom such a
revelation might come, the revelation itself could have no authority for
from experience, whether this mean (a) the sense-perception and
reflection of the individual (Locke), (b) the accumulated results of the
sensations and associations of past generations of the race (Herbert
Spencer), or (c) the actual contact of our sensitive nature with God,
the supersensible reality, through the religious feeling (Newman Smyth).
first form of this theory is inconsistent with the fact that the idea of
God is not the idea of a sensible or material object, nor a combination
of such ideas. Since the spiritual and infinite are direct opposites of
the material and finite, no experience of the latter can account for our
idea of the former.
second form of the theory is open to the objection that they very first
experience of the first man, equally with man’s latest experience,
presupposes this intuition, as well as the other intuitions, and
therefore cannot be the cause of it. Moreover, even though this theory
of its origin were correct, it would still be impossible to think of the
object of the intuition as not existing, and the intuition would still
represent to us the highest measure of certitude at present attainable
by man. If the evolution of ideas is toward truth instead of falsehood,
it is the part of wisdom to act upon the hypothesis that our primitive
belief is veracious.
third form of the theory seems to make God a sensuous object, to reverse
the proper order of knowing and feeling, to ignore the fact that in all
feeling there is at least some knowledge of an object, and to forget
that the validity of this very feeling can be maintained only by
previously assuming the existence of a rational Deity.
from reasoning, because
actual rise of this knowledge in the great majority of minds is not the
result of any conscious process of reasoning. On the other hand, upon
occurrence of the proper conditions, it flashes upon the soul with the
quickness and force of an immediate revelation.
strength of men’s faith in God’s existence is not proportioned to the
strength of the reasoning faculty. On the other hand, men of greatest
logical power are often inveterate skeptics, while men of unwavering
faith are found among those who cannot even understand the arguments for
There is more in this knowledge than reasoning could ever have
furnished. Men do not limit their belief in God to the just conclusions
of argument. The arguments for the divine existence, valuable as they
are for purposes to be shown hereafter, are not sufficient by themselves
to warrant our conviction that there exists an infinite and absolute
Being. It will appear upon examination that the a priori
argument is capable of proving only an abstract and ideal proposition,
but can never conduct us to the existence of a real Being. It will
appear that the a posteriori arguments, from merely finite
existence, can never demonstrate the existence of the infinite. In the
words of Sir Wm. Hamilton (Discussions, 23—“A demonstration of the
absolute from the relative is logical absurd, as in such a syllogism we
must collect in the conclusion what is not distributed in the
premises”—in short, from finite premises we cannot draw an infinite
Neither do men arrive at the knowledge of God’s existence by inference;
for inference is condensed syllogism, and, as a form of reasoning, is
equally open to the objection just mentioned. We have seen, moreover,
that all logical processes are based upon the assumption of God’s
existence. Evidently that which is presupposed in all reasoning cannot
itself be proved by reasoning.
IV. Contents of This Intuition
this fundamental knowledge that God is, it is necessarily implied
that to some extent men know what God is, namely, (a) a Reason in
which their mental processes are grounded; (b) a Power above them upon
which they are dependent; (c) a Perfection which imposes law upon their
moral natures; (d) a Personality which they may recognize in prayer and
maintaining that we have a rational intuition of God, we by no means
imply that a presentative intuition of God is impossible. Such a presentative intuition was perhaps characteristic of unfallen man; it
does belong at times to the Christian; it will be the blessing of heaven
(Mat. 5:8—“The pure in heart . . . shall see God”; Rev. 22:4—“they shall
see his face”). Men’s experiences of face-to-face apprehension of God,
in danger and guilt give some reason to believe that a presentative
knowledge of God is the normal condition of humanity. But, as this presentative knowledge of God is not in our present state universal, we
here claim only that all men have a rational intuition of God.
to be remembered, however, that the loss of love to God has greatly
obscured even this rational intuition, so that the revelation of nature
and the Scriptures is needed to awaken, confirm, and enlarge it, and the
special work of the Spirit of Christ to make it the knowledge of
friendship and communion. Thus from knowing about God, we come to know
God (John 17:3—“This is life eternal, that they should know thee”; 2
Tim. 1:12—“I know him whom I have believed”).
Scriptures, therefore, do not attempt to prove the existence of God,
but, on the other hand, both assume and declare that the knowledge that
God is, is universal (Rom. 1:19-21, 28, 2; 2:15). God has inlaid the
evidence of this fundamental truth in the very nature of man, so that
nowhere is he without a witness. The preacher may confidently follow
the example of Scripture by assuming it. But he must also explicitly
declare it, as the Scripture does. “For the invisible things of him
since the creation of the world are clearly seen” (καθοραται–spiritually
viewed); the organ given for this purpose is the νους (νοουμενα); but
then—and this forms the transition to our next division of the
subject—they are “perceived through the things that are made” (τοις
ποιήμασι Rom. 1:20).