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Lecture II: The One God

(Art. 1a)
Of God

We confesse and acknawledge ane onelie God, to whom only we must cleave, whom onelie we must serve, whom onelie we must worship, and in whom onelie we must put our trust.


“We confesse and acknawledge God . . . .” So begins the Scottish Confession. Who or what lies hidden behind this word “God”—a word with which indeed we are only too familiar? All confessions of all churches and religions purport to treat of “God.” What is conceived by all other “believers,” past, present and future, whatever the manner, place and date of their belief, is certainly not what the Scottish Confession means by the object of its profession. The Confession does not conceive its object at all, it acknowledges it: “We confesse and acknawledge.” And before we have time to ask it how and where it acknowledges God, it has already singled out a part of this knowledge of God,—or should we not rather say the whole of it?—and placed it before us in the words “We confesse and acknawledge ane onelie God.” It thus puts to us, so to speak, the counter question whether we ourselves do not acknowledge this same one and only God, and whether we have not long known how and where He, the one and only God, was to be acknowledged. But a Confession cannot wait for the assent of its hearers. This, it says, this is God, the one and only God, “to whom only we must cleave, whom onelie we must serve, whom onelie we must worship, and in whom onelie we must put our trust.” The note struck here is characteristic of all confessions of the Reformed church; the French and Dutch confessions for instance begin in an exactly similar way. Yet this note is struck with special emphasis in the Scottish Confession, and we shall meet it time and again in our text.

It will repay us to halt here for a moment and to consider this phrase “ane onelie God” carefully. It is not an innovation or a discovery of the sixteenth century which is put forward here, but it is certainly a renewal, a rediscovery and a restoration of knowledge long forgotten and denied. The voice of the Old Testament becomes articulate here once more, “Hear, O Israel, Jahweh our God is Jahweh the one and only God” (Deut. 6, 4). The voice of the New Testament becomes audible too, “We know that there is none other God but one” (1 Cor. 8, 4). So, too, the voice of the early church: “Deus si non unus est, non est” (Tert. adv. Marc. 1, 3). Therefore to speak of God is to speak of the one and only God. To know God means to know the one and only God. To serve God means to serve the one and only God. This is what Reformed teaching brings to light again. In and along with everything else which it says, it says this also.

In saying this what does Reformed teaching mean? It does not mean that God alone exists. It does not deny the world. It denies neither its variety nor its unity in itself, neither its splendour nor its fearful secrets, neither the profundity of nature nor the profundity of spirit. The world exists, but the world does not exist alone. And if the world does not exist alone, because it exists through God and therefore as having God behind, above and before it, as Him without whom it would not exist, so God does not exist alone, because the world exists through Him. It exists through Him, Who, without the world, would yet be in Himself no less what He is. The difference in the relation between them is this—God exists along with the world as its free creator, whereas the world exists along with God as the creation founded on His freedom. By recognising this difference we recognise God as the one and only God. At the conclusion of our confession we find the invocation, “Arise, O Lord, and let thy enimies be confounded . . .” Knowledge of the one and only God becomes possible and real, because this does happen, because God does “arise” and makes Himself visible in the world and distinguishes Himself from the world as its creator, thereby making the world visible and distinguishing it as His creation. Whatever the world may be as a whole and whatever separate entity may exist within the world—be it its final grounds and principles—this is not creative in the way in which God is creative, nor free as God is free, nor Lord as He is Lord. For it exists through God and, unlike God, does not possess its specific existence in itself. “We acknawledge ane onelie God”—that is the description of how we know the One Who becomes knowable in this distinction, consummated by Him Himself. Our knowledge will only be able to follow the drawing of this distinction. “Arise, O Lord.” Our thought in so far as it follows this “arising” attains to this knowledge of God, and can attain to this knowledge alone. “We acknawledge ane onelie God”—this is no mere part of the knowledge of God, but rightly understood is itself the sum of all true knowledge of God and for that reason this sentence may legitimately stand at the head of the confession.


Let us, in the first place, make clear to ourselves the far-reaching importance of this sentence. I repeat, it does not mean the negation, the denial or the depreciation of that which is not God. But it does mean that this latter factor is criticised, limited and made relative. It says precisely that this factor is not God. Whatever else it may be, only illegitimately can it conduct itself as God, and only illegitimately can it be regarded and treated as God. Whatever else it may be, we are free to abandon it; we are not compelled to serve it or worship it and we cannot in any sense or on any account put our hope of salvation in it. The greatness, beauty and importance which it may have in itself and also for us within the world is indisputable. That is expressly acknowledged in the New Testament passage previously cited, “There are (in heaven and on earth) gods many and lords many” (1 Cor. 8, 5). But these are gods so-called (λεγόμενοι θεοί) and the knowledge of the one and only God means that they are unmasked as such.

The god “so-called,” which the proposition about the “ane onelie God” was designed to combat, is above all man himself. We cannot help seeing this to-day even more clearly than was possible in the sixteenth century before the Cartesian revolution had taken place. It is man's self-assertion which is the source of the possible or actual denial of the one and only God—not perhaps in the form that man denies the existence of the one and only God but very simply in the form that he identifies himself with the one and only God. Man can regard himself and treat himself as the measure of all things, just as if he were Creator or free or Lord like Him to whom he owes his being. He can therefore think that he dare not abandon himself but must serve and worship himself, and that he can therefore put his hope of salvation in himself. Without denying God, man can consider himself as having power over God. And not only can man do that, but he actually does it. Eritis sicut Deus. This voice was heard and obeyed by man long before the time of Descartes. Now the knowledge of the one and only God means the limiting of this human self-assertion. “We acknawledge ane onelie God” means simply, we men are not gods or are merely gods so-called or make-believe gods. We are forced to retire within the bounds of our own creatureliness and our own human nature. The modern world has failed to hear the warning of the Reformed confession precisely at this point and has thought fit to exchange the mediæval conception of the world as geocentric for the much more naïve conception of the world as anthropocentric.

The gods so-called, which the proposition about the “ane onelie God” was designed to combat, are, however, also the gods and godheads of all the human ideologies and mythologies, philosophies and religions. With the well-known ambition of a devoted father, man decks the children of his self-assertion with the same authority with which he has previously decked himself. These are the systems by means of which he proposes—at least in phantasy and fancy—to exercise his divine freedom and lordship. They might also be described as costumes, each one more beautiful than the other, which man dons in turn in his rôle as the one and only reality. And just as fathers must sometimes accommodate themselves to their children, and just as each costume constrains the actor to adopt a definite attitude, so the systems woven in man's phantasy and fancy come to possess and keep a definite power over him. His conception of the world and thus his world become full of ideas and principles, points of view scientific, ethical and æsthetic, axioms, self-evident truths social and political, certainties conservative and revolutionary. They exercise so real a dominion and they bear so definitely the character of gods and godheads, that not infrequently devotion to them actually crystallises into mythologies and religions. (Universities are the temples of these religions.) But each one of these claims at the moment to be the one and only reality with monopoly over all systems. It is now considered impossible to abandon them either. Service and honour are offered them also and it is believed that the hope of salvation should be put in them. To recognise the one and only God means to make all these systems relative. “We acknawledge ane onelie God” means that the principles and objects of these systems, whatever they may be, are in reality no gods or at best gods so-called. Are they to be annihilated? Perhaps not at all, perhaps not yet. But the end of their authority is within sight. When the knowledge of God becomes manifest, they can no longer possess ultimate credibility, and real, serious and solemn reverence cannot be shown them any longer. “What askest thou Me concerning the good? One is good” (Matt. 19, 17). “The destruction of the gods” comes down upon them then. In any case they can henceforward prolong their existence only as symbols and hypotheses, perhaps as angels or as demons, perhaps only as ghosts and comical figures. This makes clear to us how it was possible for the early Christians to have been accused of atheism, and the Christian church would be in a better position if she had remained suspect of atheism in this sense of the word in modern times as well. All that we can say is that this is not the case. The church has much rather played a most lively part in the game of dressing up in different costumes a mere counterfeit of the one and only reality.


Knowledge of the truly one and only God gains this meaning when it is brought about by this truly one and only God Himself. God is the one and only One and proves Himself to be such by His being both the Author of His own Being and the source of all knowledge of Himself. In both these respects He differs from everything in the world. A God who could be known otherwise than through Himself, i.e. otherwise than through His revelation of Himself, would have already betrayed, eo ipso, that He was not the one and only one and so was not God. He would have betrayed Himself to be one of those principles underlying human systems and finally identical with man himself. But the Confessio speaks not of one of those principles nor of man but of God, and therefore of One through whom all things exist, and who wills to be known through no one except through Himself.

There exists a conception of the unity of all being in its totality. All human thought takes this into account. And this conception can even gain remarkable depth and richness by means of the conception of the uniqueness (the one-and-onlyness) of all being in its individuality. All human thought has taken this also into account from the start. We may adopt this hypothesis of the one, and we may recognise and formulate this cosmic problem of the one as such. Yet in doing so we have done absolutely nothing that would have even a distant connection with the knowledge of God. The secret fire of all or almost all philosophies and religions is kindled by the charm of the idea of mathematical unity, intensified by the charm of the principle of individuality—not to speak of the fire which political domination has needed, whenever the world or a part of it has been ripe for such a domination. But a wrong is done and a strange fire is brought to the altar, if men seek to kindle the fire of the knowledge of God by this charm—and from time to time the Fathers did do this. Thomas Aquinas's sentence that “Deus non est in aliquo genere” (Sum. Theol. 1, Ques. 3, Art. 5) must be rigorously applied to the genus “unity” or “uniqueness” (one-and-onlyness) also. What falls under this genus is as such not God, even if it were the ultimate and highest conceivable or perceptible unity of the world. The God of Mohammed is an idol like all other idols, and it is an optical illusion to characterise Christianity along with Islam as a “monotheistic” religion.

True knowledge of the one and only God, knowledge of Him in the sense of our Confession, is based on the fact that the one and only God makes Himself known. Everything is through Him Himself or is not at all. He makes Himself known through Himself by distinguishing Himself in the world from the world. Otherwise He cannot be known at all. He can be known, because He arises—“Arise, O Lord”—in human form and therefore in a way that is visible and audible for us, i.e. as the eternal Son of God in the flesh, the one and only God in Whom we have been called to believe, Jesus Christ. He proves Himself in Jesus Christ to be the One to whom no one and nothing is to be preferred or even to be compared, “cuius neque magnitudini neque maiestati neque virtuti quidquam, non dixerim praeferri, sed nee comparari potest” (Novatian, De Trin. 31). Because He manifests Himself thus, He makes Himself knowable to us not through revelation of some sort or other, but through the fact of His self-revelation. On this Paul also has based the knowledge of God as the one and only God in contrast to the many “gods” further on in the passage already quoted. “But to us there is but one God the Father, of whom are all things, and we in Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ by whom are all things, and we by Him.” This “but” which belongs to the self-revelation of the one and only God, is what brings about “the destruction of the gods,” of which we have spoken.


Let us conclude by putting this to the test. And in this connection it is quite legitimate to turn our thoughts to the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). Which will prove itself to be the one and only reality—man and his principles or He whom the Confession contrasts to them on the ground of His self-revelation? Is man able to sustain his part as the one and only reality and thus do justice to his claim to freedom and lordship? This he is unable to do, because in the very playing of this part he has to furnish and fill his picture of the world with the objective principles above mentioned, and they in their turn win and exercise dominion over him; for he has to live in the world which corresponds to his picture of it. They will remind him forcibly enough of the fact that he is not the one and only reality and that he is not free and does not possess any power. Man must live as a slave to those powers whom he has made his masters. But do these world powers then—nature or spirit, destiny or reason, desire or duty—possess the character of being the one and only reality and therefore that of lordship? And which of them really does so? All previous experience seems to teach that their mutual conflict does not reach any decision. But even if a decision were one day to be reached, which of these world powers could—or could they all together?—be powerful enough to make a real prisoner of man and of human self-assertion? Spirit, nature, reason, duty, desire—which of these has power to make man completely prisoner? And though man is powerless to maintain himself as the one and only reality, does he not at least possess sufficient power to set his own subjective self-assertion against the world powers which are after all the offspring of his mind? Does he not therefore possess sufficient power at least to call in question their claim to be the one and only reality? When and where did mankind really entrust or commit themselves totally and without reservation to nature or spirit, destiny or reason, desire or duty? Man may not know how to escape them, but he does know how to make reservations for himself in relation to them, “si fractus illabitur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae.” The conflict between these two parties, man and the powers of his world, over their right to be the one and only reality cannot be settled but ends in indecision. But the conflict is settled already where the parties to the conflict are man on the one hand and the one and only God in His self-revelation on the other. As these two stand face to face, there is decision, a command and a choice which commit man at this point, where man stands before God in His revelation. A claim to lordship is put forward possessing the power to achieve its end. Here man can obey completely, trust completely and commit himself completely and here he can worship. Here man will be able to recognise the one and only God by the fact that He is the one and only God, and here He is the one and only God because He reveals Himself as such. To achieve this result as the conclusion of this test is something which is in no one's power. The decision, with which it does reach its conclusion, is faith in Jesus Christ, and in saying that we are saying once more that the one and only God Himself is He Who reveals Himself as the one and only God. But in saying that we are saying also what is decisive—what in the sense of the Confession must be said about the words “We acknawledge ane onelie God.”