Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” Exodus 3:13-14
Why did God tell Moses his name is “I Am Who I Am?” No one knows completely and for sure. God’s nature is infinite; our understanding is finite. So, just like counting to infinity, we can approach an answer, but we can never expect to arrive at a full and complete one. Nevertheless, a true, partial answer is still progress from no answer at all. In this article series I offer a partial answer.
On the way we will touch on an ancient tradition of study called Natural Theology and (I think) a compelling reason to believe that God exists. I hope this series can be uplifting to readers who have faith in God, but also challenging to readers who are atheist. I will settle for just educational.
What is Natural Theology?
When Paul wrote his letter to the infant church in Rome he began by writing this:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Emphasis added).
I’ve heard some people interpret this passage to mean that everyone knows God exists deep down somewhere; that there are no honest to God atheists. I don’t think that is what it means. In my opinion, what it means is much more mundane than that. Quite simply, belief in God – capital “G” God, creator of heaven and earth – was the academic consensus of the time, and Paul was merely referencing this well-known fact.
Belief in God (called “Theism” by philosophers) was the foundation of two of the largest and most prestigious schools of thought in the Greco-Roman world: Platonism and Stoicism. But weren’t the Greeks and Romans polytheist pagans? Yes, they were. As strange as it may seem, Polytheism (belief in many gods) and Theism (belief in the one God) are perfectly compatible, and both were the paradigm in the time of Paul.
They no more contradict each other as believing that many rocks exist and believing that The Rock (as in the actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) exists.1 See, the capitals really matter, its what turns a common noun into a proper noun. For the Greeks and Romans, the term “god” referred to a spiritual being much nobler and more powerful than a human being, basically what the Hebrews and Christians would call an angel or a demon. By contrast, the term “God” used as a proper noun, referred to a being postulated by philosophers to have created everything that exists; the ultimate explanation of everything.
Of course, before the Apostles arrived no Greek or Roman philosopher that we know of had met God or knew anything about him besides that he existed. As far as we know God never revealed himself to them. To them he was truly The Unknown God (Acts 17:23).
So now we get to the important question: how did they know God existed without revelation or prophets? Well, we can find out by reading the writings of someone like Plato, still preserved today but the short version is it was exactly how Paul says it happened in Romans 1. That is, they reasoned backwards from what has been made (nature) to understand the being that made it. By the Middle Ages, Christian scholars came to call this kind of reasoning Natural Theology, the study of God through nature, which was in contrast to the much more valuable Revealed Theology, the study of God through his revelation.
Today, regrettably, Natural Theology is not well known or studied, especially in the Churches of Christ. I have found in it much comfort for my faith, and I hope to share a piece of that with you by examining what it potentially reveals about God’s name I Am That I Am. I will do that in the following parts of this series
To end this part of the series, it is perhaps useful for me to address some common questions on Natural Theology that are likely to trouble some readers. In particular, can Natural Theology add to Revealed Theology? That is, does it go beyond it? If it does, should we not be suspicious of any claim to go beyond what God has directly told us? And on the other hand, if it does not, then what is the point? What purpose could it possibly serve? We will answer these questions in order.
Can Natural Theology add to Revealed Theology? This is a very grand question for a very meagre theologian. To answer it I would need to know exhaustively everything that can possibly be known about God through the study of nature and through the study of scripture, then see if there is anything in the first category that is not in the second. I obviously can not do that, but I can say that I am open to the possibility of Natural Theology adding to Revealed Theology. I do not think that would threaten Revealed Theology in the least.
To see why, think of the search for Truth as like a murder investigation. Natural Theology is the kind of investigation Sherlock Holmes would do. It is examining the facts and making deductions and inferences to the best explanation. By contrast Revealed Theology is like a signed confession from the murderer. Perhaps Sherlock Holmes could deduce some details about the murder not included in the confession and thus we could say he added to the case. But once the trial is underway, those details would be unimportant compared to the signed confession which clinches the verdict. Likewise, God’s revelation is the deciding truth on which we depend, and nothing that Natural Theology teaches us can possibly threaten that.2
So then, what is the point of Natural Theology? My answer is that natural theology helps in understanding what we believe through faith. See, there is a long distance between (A) believing something is true because you are told and (B) understanding why what you believed is true. There is much wisdom to be gained in the journey from A to B, and Natural Theology is a part of that journey.
If you are skeptical, follow me in this series to see an example of what I mean.
1 Some readers may object to this comparison on the grounds that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is only a “rock” in an analogical sense, that is, because he exhibits rock-lock qualities, not because he is actually a kind of rock. However, the same holds between “gods” and “God” in classical Greeco-Roman philosophy. It is a result of their view that God is only a “god” analogically, that is, because he exhibits the god-like qualities of being an immaterial person much nobler and more powerful than human beings. He is NOT actually a kind of god though. In this worldview, God has as much in common with gods as The Rock has with rocks. Actually, he has much less in common, because at the very least both rocks and The Rock are creatures. God is the only being that is not created, and this means there is a very wide ontological gulf between him and every other existing thing.
2 What I hope this analogy illustrates is (1) the different methods of acceptance involved in each kind of theology and (2) that the two kinds of theology are not in conflict with each other. On (1), notice that Natural Theology is the study of God indirectly; it examines his works and reasons towards his character. By contrast, Revealed Theology studies God directly; it examines his own words and one can respond either by believing what he says or disbelieving what he says (i.e. through faith). On (2), God’s words and his actions will never contradict each other, so we need never worry that the two methods of theology will conflict. Sometimes the two kinds of theology are called “the book of nature” and “the book of God’s word” to emphasize that they are both from God, and thus cannot contradict. I avoid this cliché only because I want to emphasize Revealed Theology’s unique position as God’s direct speech to us. Ultimately, scripture is the only book of God’s word. Nature is from God in that it is his work, and we can learn a lot from studying his works, but it is not his word. Salvation is found through faith in his word.