“I believe in God”
Thus opens one of the oldest prayers in the Christian Tradition: the Apostles’ Creed. Tradition states that the prayer dates back to the time of the Apostles, if not to the Apostles themselves. “I believe in God.” That’s how the prayer begins. All of our actions, all of our daily lives, everything we think, do, say, everything about us centers on that one phrase, that one belief: there is a God. The more specific phrase “I believe in one God” comes from the later Nicene Creed, formulated from the First Council of Nicea, held in 325. This emphasis on there being only one God stems from the controversies that led up to the Council of Nicea. The heretic Arius had denied the divinity of Christ, saying that to say Christ was divine would imply that there were two gods, not one. The Council Fathers denied such a claim; hence the emphasis of there being one God.
Early on in Christian history, the believers in Christ had to express their belief in one God. One could see the possible confusion. Was there only one God? The pagans in Greco-Roman culture seemed to say otherwise. Was Jesus really God, and if so, why not someone else? These were issues that the earliest Christians, those who followed the Apostles, had to answer. One sees this in St. Paul’s trip to Athens (Acts 17:16–34). Paul preached to the Athenian philosophers about the “Unknown God,” to whom the Athenians had an altar in the Areopagus. This was the one true God, Paul preached. He was unsuccessful, for the most part: “When they [the philosophers] heard about the resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, ‘We should like to hear you on this some other time’” (Acts 17:32). Paul wasn’t entirely successful, but we can see in this episode the early conflict between paganism and Christian monotheism. This conflict predated Christianity, of course, for the Jews faced a similar conflict with their monotheism, and since the Christian is the spiritual heir of the Jew, he must expect the same conflicts.
If only people today were as polite as the Athenians were to St. Paul.
Today there is a renewed atheism and a renewed paganism. The agnosticism of today’s world spits in the face of the ancient Greeks and Romans because at least the pagans believed in something, even if it was multiple gods or the spirits of nature. Even some sort of bizarre mythology where Zeus or whoever had affairs with humans was a step above new atheists and agnostics because at least the pagans knew there was something beyond them, some spiritual realm. Today’s “New Atheists” don’t believe in anything. Today we must turn to basic proofs for God’s existence, renewing our basic belief in one God.
Now, fortunately for those speaking with someone who dismisses the Bible as a collection of myths and superstitious stories written down over the centuries, one can prove that God exists using logic, reason, and the natural world, without having recourse to the Scriptures. St. Thomas Aquinas did just that, borrowing from the metaphysics of Aristotle. He presents five classic arguments for the existence of God: from Motion, from Efficient Causality, from Necessity, from Perfection, and from Governance. Since the gist of the arguments all boils down to the same point, I will focus on the first argument, based on Motion.
By Motion, St. Thomas is referring to the tendency of things in creation to go from a state of potency (able to do/be something) to actuality (being/doing something) and then back to potency. This process occurs throughout creation, and can be seen in all things, living or non-living. However, as both Thomas and Aristotle note, something cannot be potentially and actually the same thing. A log cannot be potentially on fire and on fire at the same time. It is either one or the other. Things move from one state to another, and in order for a thing to move from potency to actuality, some other force must act upon it (the log doesn’t spontaneously combust; a pyromaniac lights it on fire). Tracing the series of movements, one ultimately reaches an Unmoved Mover, a thing which is pure Act. This must be the case, since if there was any potency in this Unmoved Mover, it would not be able to have any actuality in it, since in order for it to move from potency to actuality, an external force must affect it. This Unmoved Mover is pure Act, and is what people commonly call God.
This proof does not provide a perfect description of God; the other four proofs expand our understanding of God. The proof from Causality follows the same process as that from Motion, only this second proof focuses on how one cause leads to an effect; however, following the links of causes back to the beginning of time, one must conclude there is an Uncaused Cause, that is, God.
By Necessity, St. Thomas brings the issue of being into the discussion of God. All things in the universe exist, but they don’t have to. Things come into existence and they go out of existence, all without the universe collapsing. Things in the universe share in existence. They are not existence itself; their essence is something particular to them, but their essence is not existence. They had to have gotten their existence, their being, from some other source. There must be something beyond everything else, something which has as its essence existence, which is in its nature Existence itself. That would be God.
The other two proofs are very simple. St. Thomas uses Perfection to prove that, because we know something is better than another, there must be a perfect Entity that transcends all other things. Our understanding of perfection must stem from a perfect source. That’s God. At the same time, the argument from Governance states that the order in the universe points to the fact that the universe could not have come to being by accident. There must have been a great mind behind the universe; that Mind is God.
So God exists. But what about the specific nature of the first line of the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God.” How do we know Hindus aren’t correct? How do we know there are not multiple gods out there, or that we all become gods upon our death? Let us look back at the argument from philosophy just discussed. You cannot have multiple first causes, multiple sources of being. You just can’t. Try to think of a universe with two infinite, perfect sources of all existence. Two perfect beings would be identical, and there cannot be two purely identical beings; they would be the same being. It doesn’t make sense to have more than one god. If it doesn’t make sense to have two gods, it doesn’t make sense to have a whole pantheon, nor to have everything be “God” as found in pantheism.
One God. Basta, as the Italians say. Enough.
But don’t Christians say there are three persons in God? Doesn’t that mean we think there are three gods?
It’s hard to discuss the Trinity. It’s one of those mysteries of Faith that truly transcends full comprehension. God’s like that. The Trinity is not one of the truths of the Faith that is knowable by Reason alone. We need Faith in order to know God fully, and by knowing God through Faith, we are able to come into close communion with Him.
And we will focus on the Trinity in the next post in this series.
For further reading/listening:
Catholic Encyclopedia, “God” – Note: This provides links to other articles about God in the Encyclopedia.
Sabatino Carnazzo, “Catechism 102: The Creed”
William Saunders, “Alpha & Omega: God the Father, Creator of the World”
Paul Scalia, “Credo: I Believe in One God”
Robert Barron, et. al, “Faith Seeks Understanding Pt.1: What Is God?” – This is part 1 of a series discussing God, the Trinity, and other aspects of the Faith. There are links to other parts of the series from this video.
Robert Baron, Catholicism, Episode 3: “THAT THAN WHICH NOTHING GREATER CAN BE THOUGHT – THE INEFFABLE MYSTERY OF GOD” – An episode from the popular series about Catholicism. See a clip from the episode here.