Taking Offence at God
The sovereignty of Man is the end game of all idolatry. Systematic, rigorous atheism is the final objective. When a culture reaches this end point, Satan has it more in his grasp, than save only direct, demonic possession. There is no culture so gulled by the Evil One as one which denies the existence of either the Living God or Satan.
In the nineteenth century, the West tipped from Belief to Unbelief. There was a particular archimedean point; the transition appeared suddenly. In one decade it was fashionable to believe in a god, called God; in the next it no longer was. The power and credence of Unbelief appeared all the more compelling because its victory was sudden, all-embracing and complete. Belief crumbled like a dessicated biscuit. But as with the fall of all great kingdoms, it had been long coming; Unbelief had been seeping into the vapours of Christendom for over two hundred years, gradually extending its poisonous fumes.
As always, it began with idolatry. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries God–His being and attributes–began to be recast and reformulated by the creature in such a way as to make more “sense” to men. In particular, this involved banishing God to the netherworld, whilst man focused upon the natural world which was increasingly seen as independent of God, and autonomous.
The culture did not cease to speak of God; rather, it “recast” Him to resemble a Baal–an idol. By the nineteenth century, this Baal-as-god of Unbelief had developed to where the god was seen as being primarily interested in morals and upright living. It was the last point of contact between the deity and man–the last bit of interference of Baal-as-god with the world. But the framework for morals and morality in the nineteenth century no longer came from the Scripture: like everything else, morality was what men conceived it to be. The god was reduced to a “warranting concept” to give the socially accepted morality some bite or weight.
Now, we must be clear. Everywhere in the early nineteenth century the culture in both the US and the UK spoke of “God”: in their discourse and narratives virtually the entire population understood that they were speaking of the same God self-revealed in Holy Scripture, and believed in the historical Christian Church. This, however, was a subtle lie that would reveal itself later. But the ground was shifting: God was no longer the transcendent Living and eternal God, infinite and unchangeable, the Creator of all things from nothing, but the objectified god–an object of natural knowledge, as accessible to the mind of man as were the precepts of geometry. As James Turner, in Without God, Without Creed remarks:
A southern Presbyterian, John Holt Rice, grumbled in 1829 that religion “is becoming cold calculating” and prophesied that this would leave the church “in a deplorably desolate and barren condition.” But neither the weepiness of Evangelical hymns or the fiery emotional pitch of revival meetings should deceive. Through heart-religion ran an iron seam of conviction that knowledge of God flowed from the same rational means that ensured knowledge of physical reality.
James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1985), p. 104. Emphasis, ours.
Those attributes and aspects of God which could not be grounded in human rationalizations ended up being cut out of the faith, which brought Rice’s predictions to pass. Unsurprisingly the first overt separation from the true and Living God came in conceptions of morality. The culture had reduced God to a being who originated and enforced morals; then moved on to running all morals through the filter of human approbation and rational warrant. The upshot was to conclude that God Himself was immoral, and therefore not to be believed. The lunatics had taken control of the asylum.
Consider carefully this telling passage from James Turner:
One of the earliest and most prolific sources of doctrinal doubts . . . was the growing humanitarian sensibility. The same revulsion from suffering that had undermined Calvinism corroded other, even more ancient Christian beliefs. Victorians typically expected God to be kind, generous and fair. In the context of their moralism, an inhumane God amounted almost to a contradiction in terms. Yet insistence on His humaneness was not easily reconciled with the old creeds.
What, for example, could one say about a Father who handed over His Son to torture and death to pay for crimes that he never committed? Yet the doctrine of the Atonement specified precisely this abomination. Original sin presented a similar picture and cruelty and caprice. Orthodoxy alleged that God had laden unborn generations with the guilt of their remotest ancestors. Was this kind, generous, and fair? Would a properly compassionate God deny salvation to heathen never reached by missionaries? . . .
Lurking behind the uneasiness over these doctrines was . . . Hell. . . . Within a few decades . . . in many of the major denominations, it became acceptable to preach nearly universal salvation or some kind of probation after death; by the 1870’s, the theological flight from hell was in full swing. And, increasingly, people simply assumed that dead folk they cared about had gone to heaven.
Turner, ibid., p. 142,3.
When God no longer did things the way men thought He ought to, God was jettisoned. Why? Why so easily? Because the real god–the real source of authority, law, and truth–had become man.
Contrast the response of authentic, genuine, non-idolatrous Christianity when confronted with actions of God which did not fit alleged human rationalistic sensibilities. When Paul is dealing with the doctrine of sovereign election in Romans 9, he confronts the moralising objector who moans that it is unfair of God to elect some to everlasting life, whilst passing over others to eternal damnation. He writes (to his imagined objector), “So, then, He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” Romans 9: 18-20
Who are you, O man, indeed? This the correct, proportional response of the creature, when face to face with the infinitely just God. As Bavinck pointed out, if we are not face to face constantly and repeatedly with mysteries (impenetrable to finite rationality) when dealing with the Living God, then it cannot be the Living God we are dealing with. The constrained understood god is an idol of man’s creation; the transcendent ineffable unknowable unapproachable God alone is the Living and true God–to be worshipped, adored, obeyed, and served. But this offended the nineteenth century, for long ago it had elevated human reason to an authority to which God Himself had to conform, if He were to gain the honour and respect of the new model, enlightened humanity.
When a culture has the chutzpah to become offended at God, it has passed into Unbelief. Atheism will be the inevitable, idolatrous outcome. No matter how much that culture may continue the old forms, liturgies, rituals, holidays, or practices, Belief has died. Jeroboam tried to maintain a semblance of outward respect for the God of our fathers, by setting up his new model, rationalistic modes of belief and worship. He became ever after known as “Jeroboam, the son of Nebat who made Israel to sin”. And so it was in the West in the nineteenth century as a generation arose that “knew not Joseph”.
But–and here is the point we must grasp–one can only take offence at God if we have already presumed that we are foundationally more wondrous than God Himself, and that to our sensibilities and perceptions God, if He is to be God at all, must conform. Christendom was crumbling: terrors from the lurking deep awaited.