The Prophets and the Search for God
Through the long centuries, the "search for God" has been the program of the Christian churches. "The books have gone on piling up ever since St. John wrote his Gospel and still there is no end in sight," writes Rufus M. Jones of works on the life of Jesus; "hardly fewer are the books that undertake to tell us about the reality and the nature of God. They are almost as numerous as 'the leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa. . . .' There is certainly no slackening of interest in this supreme quest." 1 In every sect and every age, the theologians describe themselves as engaged in this mighty quest, and repeatedly and increasingly the Latter-day Saints are held to be opinionated and narrow because they do not join in the search. Why should they? Consider the position of the early Christians on this subject. But first, perhaps, we should explain our practice in these talks of referring everything back to those early Christians as described in the Bible, the nine so-called apostolic fathers and the five early Apologists. We make no attempt at present to argue out the position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Here we are simply indicating briefly, as we must, that for better or for worse, the Mormons consistently find themselves in the company of the ancient saints and, accordingly, far removed from the ways of conventional Christians. That does not necessarily prove that the Mormons are right on every or any issue, but it more than implies that if the ancient Christians were on the right track, so are the Mormons. It is an historical, not a theological or philosophical, vindication of our prophets. It is merely one approach to the problem of the divine authenticity of the restored church, but it is an important one.
Take, for instance, this matter of the search for God. What did the early church think about it? For an answer we very properly go back to Justin, first and greatest of the early Apologists. In the famous dialogue with Trypho, one of the most valuable and often quoted of all Christian writings, Justin tells about his first conversation with a Christian. At the time, as he describes it, Justin himself was a professional philosopher who had never heard the gospel. The Christian, a venerable old man whom he met while out walking, asked Justin, "Do not the philosophers spend all their time talking about God? And don't all their investigations deal with the subject of his single rule and providence? Or is it not the proper business of philosophy to engage in the systematic search for God?" To all this, Justin, a philosopher and a pagan, be it remembered, unhesitatingly answers, "Yes."2 So, you see, the search for God is not a peculiarly Christian thing. In fact, it is not Christian at all! Was Peter's confession the reflection of a man feeling his way forward bit by bit out of the dark? Was Paul's testimony the guarded utterance of a man speculating on the possible existence and nature of God? When Stephen was stoned, was his consolation that there might be a something somewhere? Did the Lord take Peter, James, and John up onto the mountain of the Transfiguration with him to speculate on the probable existence of an indefinable essence that might be called God? Did the resurrected Lord instruct the Apostles for forty days in syllogistic exercises to prove his existence?
The thought that the Apostles might be searching for God is simply laughable. Yet that was one of the first danger signals to appear in the church—the predicted activity of those intellectuals who would be "ever seeking and never coming to a knowledge of the truth." Already, at the end of the first century, Ignatius of Antioch writes to the Trallians: "There are some Christ-betrayers, bearing about the name of Christ in deceit, and corrupting the word of the Gospel. . . . They do not believe in his resurrection. They introduce God as being unknown."3 And to the Smyrnaens he says: "Do ye, therefore, mark those who preach other doctrines, how they affirm that the Father of Christ cannot be known."4 The great crime of the heretics in general, according to the Apostolic Constitutions, is "that they blaspheme God by saying that he is unknowable and not the Father of Christ . . . but is indescribable, unutterable, unnamable, self-begotten. We, the sons of God [it is supposed to be the Apostles speaking] declare that there is one God alone, the Lord of the law and the prophets, the creator of things that are, the Father of Christ, not self-caused and self-begotten, as the Gnostics say, but everlasting and without beginning, dwelling in inaccessible light. He is not two or three or many, but one eternally, not unknown or unnamed but proclaimed through the Law and the Prophets."5 Irenaeus' first charge against the Gnostics is that "they say the Father cannot be known." 6
On the other hand, nothing shocked or scandalized the pagans more than the Christian insistence in knowing God; Celsus is outraged at such presumption, and to his charge, Origen replies that God is indeed unknown—to bad men.7 The fountain of all error in the world, according to Melito of Sardis, "is that man does not know God, and accordingly adores in his place something that is not God."8 Hilary reports with dismay that "with the exception of Bishop Elusius and a few others, the greater part of the ten Asian provinces where I now stay are ignorant of the true God."9 And those ten Asian provinces were the most populous Christian communities in the world. Whether Hilary's own knowledge of God was true or not is not the question—the point is that he feels it extremely important that Christians should know God. The first principle of the law which God has given to all men, says Lactantius, is to know God himself, and not to know him is the greatest of all faults. 10 We have already quoted Hilary and Athanasius in these talks as expressing the feeling that lay like a shadow over the fourth century: that there is something seriously wrong when Christians take to looking for God. And we have also noted Tertullian's remark that it is all right for philosophers to grope around for answers to the great questions of the universe, but that such behavior is unpardonable in a Christian, who is supposed to have the answers given to him direct from heaven.
To take as the basic assumption in one's search for God the premise that God is unsearchable may seem incongruous, yet the two propositions seem always to go together. The claim that God can never be known, far from discouraging the search for him, seems to whet men's appetites like nothing else. As surely as a theologian announces with ringing finality that God the Father and the Holy Trinity are mysteries, even to hint at a solution of which is unspeakable presumption, he will launch forthwith into deep researches of his own into the subject, often extending for thousands of pages. "The great Athanasius himself," wrote Gibbon in a well-known passage, "has candidly confessed, that whenever he forced his understanding to meditate on the divinity of the Logos, his toilsome and unavailing efforts recoiled on themselves; that the more he thought, the less he comprehended; and the more he wrote, the less capable was he of expressing his thoughts. In every step of the inquiry, we are compelled to feel and acknowledge the immeasurable disproportion between the size of the object and the capacity of the human mind."11 But how many thousands of columns of the Patrologia does Athanasius fill with his own speculations on the subject and his ferocious denunciations of those who differ from those laboriously contrived opinions? "God's greatness is beyond all comprehension of rational minds and spirits," says a liturgy attributed to Ignatius.12 Precisely therein lies the inescapable necessity for revelation; and precisely therein lies the irresistible challenge of the problem to the invincible ambition and vanity of the human mind.
Both Origen and Irenaeus make as clear as they possibly can the fact that the human intellect cannot hope even to approach remotely the slightest inkling of an idea of the true nature of God, and each then composes volumes on the nature of God! The same is true of Hilary and Basil, the latter filling several books with determined discourses on the exact nature of God even after he rebuked the Eunomians for "daring to try to comprehend the divine nature, when they cannot comprehend the nature of even the smallest animal." 13 The nature of God is incomprehensible, according to Chrysostom, not only his ousia (substance) alone, but his wisdom also is incomprehensible even to the prophets. He is not to be compared even to the supernal virtues or to anything else; it is crime and folly to presume curiously to explore his nature; he is incomprehensible even to the angels, and so forth.14 So what does Chrysostom do but devote the better part of seventeen volumes of the Patrologia to exploring and describing the nature of God! The Scholastic theologians were the worst offenders in this thing, but we will skip them to come down to the present, when Bishop Buchberger, in a new German Catholic Lexicon of Theology, declares as the official position of his church that "God cannot be 'seen,' but only known through the intellect. An adequate knowledge of God is impossible for us, since God is incomprehensible (unbegreiflich)." 15 Then he launches into a very long and interesting discourse on the various philosophical ways by which one must seek to comprehend God. We cannot in view of this be angry with Mr. J. B. S. Haldane, the great British biologist, when he writes, "It is also noteworthy that the God of Christianity is far more mysterious and self-contradictory than those of other religions," though we believe he might temper the charge if he looked more closely at the vagaries of the Moslem theologians. "Your solution," writes Mr. Haldane to a worthy opponent who is defending conventional Christian ideas of God, "is to take all these contradictions, or as many as you can, and 'solve' them by the hypothesis of a being who is at once self-explanatory and utterly mysterious, out of time but everywhere in space, three yet one, and so on. No wonder such a being is incomprehensible. It is incomprehensible because it is self-contradictory."16
The churchmen have always insisted that since God is incomprehensible to the mind, in the end our belief in him and our knowledge of him rest on faith alone. We can never know, says Hilary for example, how it was possible for Christ as God to be born, suffer, die, be resurrected, and shed tears—such things are totally beyond our comprehension. Still, we are required to believe that they happened—we must have faith.17 "There is no use," says Chrysostom, "knocking ourselves out [polypragmoneisthai] trying to comprehend these mysteries, since they are incomprehensible; when God chooses to reveal, then we know, and it is by faith and not by reason that we come to know divine things."18 The Catholic teaching regarding the Trinity today is Haec veritas revelata est mysterium: it is a revealed truth and a mystery.19
Granting that, then, why the everlasting search? Why the ceaseless quest that at best can only lead us back to what we believe in the first place? Almost every great intellectual search for God begins, significantly enough, with an apology for the undertaking. We are told that this investigation is not being undertaken because the church requires it—heaven forbid! How could a church claiming to have a true revealed religion admit for a moment that it was actually dependent on philosophy for its knowledge of God? No, we are told that the search along philosophical lines is necessary because there are unbelievers to be convinced who will not listen to arguments based on the scriptures alone. It is further explained that even professing believers may derive real benefit from a discipline by which, according to a famous formula, the true religion is "rendered more efficacious (saluberrima), is nourished, defended, and strengthened."20 Philosophy is not necessary, you understand, but it is a real help.
One cannot help asking at this point: Does the revealed truth require any such help at all? One of the great hallmarks of truth, as Milton teaches us, is that it can defend itself. It needs no special pleading, let alone battalions of technically trained experts, to render it effective. If men do not accept the gospel as it stands, there is no profit in dressing it up to make it more appetizing. "If they hear not Moses and the prophets," said the Lord, "neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (Luke 16:31). The gospel needs no "adorning," to use St. Augustine's word. If it is the supreme truth, it cannot possibly be helped but only harmed by the officious activities and extraneous ornaments of professional pleaders and skillful salesmen. What about the missionaries? you ask. An excellent case in point: in ancient as in modern times, the missionaries of the church have impressed the world before everything by their notorious lack of any special training or talent. To survive in such hands, the gospel must be its own advocate, and it is—it can safely be trusted to delivery by the weak and unpreposessing. Only when men are entirely without pretense, even when that means being without education or polish, can the Holy Ghost speak for himself. That the heathen must be impressed and the believers reassured by the offices of philosophy is an unconvincing argument.
But the commonest defense of the intellectual quest for God is that it was forced on the church as a necessary tool with which to meet the onslaughts of learned pagans—the world had to be met with its own weapons, fire fought with fire. But the early Christians had fought fire with water, not fire. Do not try to meet the world on its own grounds, the Apostolic Fathers had advised the saints; its weapons are not our weapons. The philosophic backfires which later churchmen set against heretic and pagan quickly spread and by the fourth century got completely out of hand—a mighty conflagration, says the historian Socrates, with the Christians carrying the vices of the philosophers to greater extremes than the pagans ever had. To use another figure: when at an early time the intellectual virus threatened the church, certain men took it upon themselves to inoculate the church against it, heedless of the warnings of the Apostolic Fathers that the untried serum would prove fatal—and so it did. The church promptly came down with a first class case of the morbus scholasticus which broke all records for virulence, and from which it never recovered.
Let us return to Justin's story with which we began. After Justin has admitted to the old Christian that the main business of philosophy is the search for God, the old man asks him point-blank: "What do you say God is?" Justin answers again without hesitation: "That which always has the same relationship to things and is always the same in itself, and which is the cause of all other things, that is God." Then the old man asks him how such a being can be known, leading him on with an interesting proposition: "If someone were to tell you," he says, "that there is in India an animal shaped like no other on earth, but of such and such nature, a complex and variegated beast, you wouldn't really know what it was like until you had seen it; and what is more you couldn't say anything at all about it unless you had talked with somebody who had seen it." To this Justin agrees. "Well then," says the old Christian, "how can the philosophers think correctly about God, or say anything true about Him, since they don't have any actual knowledge of Him, having at no time either seen or heard?" To this crass bit of early Christian literalism, our pagan Justin is quick to reply: "But my dear old man, God is not to be seen with the eyes, as are other living things, but only to be grasped with the mind, as Plato says, and I believe him." Then he goes on to explain how, according to Plato, God is seen with the mind's eye, "he being the cause of all perceptible things, (but himself) having no color, no shape, no dimension, none of such qualities as may be seen by the eye, but yet is that which exists, as I said, beyond all existence (ousia, substantia) unutterable, indescribable, and yet alone beautiful and good, coming as a direct intuition to properly disposed spirits because of their kinship and their desire to see him."21
Here surely is a strange state of things! Justin, the unenlightened heathen, defending what were to become strictly orthodox Christian ideas about God against a venerable Christian whose literal-mindedness was to become anathema to the churchmen of a later day! Justin, the pagan schoolman, devoting his life to the search for God while his first Christian friend with amused detachment comments on the obvious futility of such a course. Either Justin's account is confused or else the Christians did an about-face in their thinking about God. That the latter is the case is clearly proved by the behavior of Justin himself. "It is characteristic," wrote Heussi, "that after his conversion he retained the profession and even the costume of the travelling teachers of philosophy [the Sophists], and now as a Christian philosopher, sought to be effective through writing, teaching, and discussion. Thus the charismatic [that is, inspired] 'teachers' of the early Christian period were supplanted by a secular teaching profession."22 That is what happened. Justin was only one of many who in their own and the following centuries were to come into the church bringing with them as their most precious possession and esteemed contribution the heritage of classic philosophy with its basic program of the search for God.
If the Latter-day Saints have never joined the bemused company, groping for God in the wan half-light of a pagan limbo, it is because they have had prophets to speak to them. God, said Paul to Timothy, "will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). He predicts that the time is coming—and soon—when the church will harbor those who are "ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7). These became the exponents of the endless search for God.
1. Rufus Jones, Pathways to the Reality of God (New York: Macmillan, 1936), vii.
2. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho I, in PG 6:473.
3. Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians VI, in PG 5:679.
4. Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans IV—VI, in PG 5:710—12.
5. Apostolic Constitutions VI, 10—11, in PG 1:954.
6. Irenaeus, Contra Haereses I, 2, in PG 7:451.
7. Origen, Contra Celsum IV—VI, in PG 11:1036.
8. Melito, Fragmentum, in PG 5:1230.
9. Hilary, De Synodis 63, in PL 10:522—23.
10. Lactantius, De vero Cultu 9, in PL 6:662.
11. Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Harper, 1836), 440—41.
12. Ignatius, Liturgia, in PG 5:969.
13. Basil, Epistle 16, in PG 32:280.
14. John Chrysostom, De Incomprehensibili Dei Natura II, 3, in PG 48:714; III:3—4, in PG 48:721, 723—25.
15. Michael Buchberger, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (Freiburg i/B: Herder, 1960), 4:1081, 9:599.
16. Arnold Lunn and John Haldane, Science and the Supernatural: A Correspondence Between Arnold Lunn and J. B. S. Haldane (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935), 304, 314.
17. Hilary, On the Trinity (De Trinitate) IX, 71—73, X, 55, and XI, 67, in PL 10:338, 387, 395.
18. John Chrysostom, II, 2, in PG 48:710; see also 705—9.
19. Heinrich Denzinger, Index Systematicus, 19.
20. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Turin: Marietti, 1932), Question I, Article ii (quoting Augustine, De Trinitate, XIV, 7, in PL 42:1042—44).
21. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho III, in PG 6:481—84.
22. Karl Heussi, Kompendium der Kirchengeschichte, 6th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1928), 34.