What’s Two Times Five?

sunset-birds1[1]We’ve all experienced that moment when a sunset, a mountain vista, or the crashing waves of the ocean evoke the sense of God’s presence. The natural world seems to speak to us of God’s care for us in unique ways. But how much can we learn about God from nature?

Early Christians, among them the theologians of the fourth century, were skeptical about how useful the natural world could be in revealing God. Their doubt arose from the fact that nature seems to primarily provide us with statements about the Divine that are negative and vague. From observing the creation we could conclude that God is immortal (that is, “not mortal”) and we could conclude that God is unchanging, or that God has no beginning – but all these statements are negatives, not positives. They tell us what God is not (e.g. “not changing”) but they don’t tell us what God is.

Observations from nature are also necessarily vague. We might conclude from observing the universe that God is powerful, perhaps even going so far as to say “all-powerful,” but what does that mean in the end? If we don’t know whether God is good, bad, or neutral, then we don’t know whether that power will be deployed against us or for us. We might be able to create various negative statements about God from observing the natural order but we cannot make positive statements: we cannot, with any degree of confidence, positively state that God is love or God is good or God is on our side. In fact, nature – with its disease and capricious cruelty – could lead to the ultimately negative conclusion: there is no God at all.

Gregory of Nazianzus pointed out that “he who is eagerly pursuing the nature of the Self-existent will not stop at saying what God is not, but must go on beyond what God is not, and say what God is.” Gregory offers the following analogy: to speak of God merely in terms of what he is not is like being asked “what is two times five?” and replying “it’s not one, or two, or three, or four, and so on” but never actually saying that the answer is “ten.” (The Second Theological Oration, Oration 28, paragraph 9.)

Athanasius of Alexandria concluded that “it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” Athanasius stated quite simply that “we must take our knowledge of the Spirit from the Son.” (Against the Arians, Discourse I, chapter 9, paragraph 34 and Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit, Letter 3, paragraph 3.)

For these early Christians nature was not enough to tell them of the Father, Son, and Spirit, or enough to tell them of God’s abiding, faithful love for humanity. To truly know God as God is, they encourage us to look at the Son of the Father, Jesus Christ, through whom we receive the Holy Spirit. He is the image of the invisible God and in him we have a true and trustworthy revelation of the God who loves us without reservation.

~ Jonathan Stepp

 

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