Repenting Of Our Agnosticism

For a few months I have been thinking about a phrase I first encountered in 1995 when I was teaching an introductory course in theology at Wheaton. We were using Alister McGrath’s reader as the primary text for the class and he quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45) as saying that, in Modernity, we must learn to live “etsi Deus non daretur” (as if God is not a given).

Bonhoeffer was trying to figure out how to be a Modern person and affirm Christianity in some sense.

Contra at least one recent evangelical rendering of Bonhoeffer, which follows a trend that has existed for some time of treating him as though he were educated in Moody Bible College rather than in the Universities of Tübingen and Berlin, Bonhoeffer did not hold the historic Christian faith. He was a Modernist, i.e., he accepted as a given the Enlightenment critique of the historic Christian faith and understanding of the world. What does that mean? It means, as one of my undergraduate profs said in 1979: “In the 18th century God went to the corner for a beer and never came back.”

Bonhoeffer, like Karl Barth and others, was trying to figure out how to be a Modern (Enlightened) person and affirm Christianity in some sense. As I understand him, Bonhoeffer was a dialectical theologian. He was proposing a kind of “death of God” theology and affirming a kind of belief in God simultaneously. This is the sort of thing dialectical theologians do.

Are Christians Living “Etsi Deus Non Daretur” (As If God Is Not A Given)?

The phrase etsi Deus non daretur comes to us from Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). He was a great Dutch polymath. He made contributions in biblical studies, legal theory, theology, and politics. He was one of the major figures in Dutch cultural and political life in the 17th century. His treatise, On The Law of War and Peace is still a basic text in international relations. He was also a Remonstrant and suspected of being a Socinian, i.e., a rationalist who rejected the essential Christian doctrines of the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, and the substitutionary atonement. This was perhaps because a number of Remonstrants did become Socinians so that the line between the two movements was blurred. It is also true, however, that Grotius wrote a treatise on the satisfaction of Christ to which the Socinian Crell responded. As I understand it, Grotius used the phrase etsi Deus non daretur to say that natural law would be in effect even if God were not assumed. Bonhoeffer took the phrase, mediated to him by German scholars such as Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) and put it to use in a rather different context (WWII and the Holocaust) and to a rather different end.

What has been troubling me about this phrase is the way it seems to describe so much of Modern and Late Modern life. How often do we Christians go about life as if we were practical agnostics, as if God were not a given? A major impetus of Modernity, i.e., the Enlightenment movements that swept across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, was to reject the historic Christian understanding of the world, to assert the autonomy of the human intellect and will, and to relegate God to an unnecessary hypothesis. Evangelicals have adapted to Modernity (and Late Modernity) by adopting a God-of-the-gaps approach: whatever cannot be explained naturally they explain with the God hypothesis: the supposition that God exists.

Our Rejection Of God In The Modern West Does Not Affect God At All.

Christians should reject Modernity (and Late Modernity, which is nothing more than the radically subjectivist turn of Modernity) and the God-of-the-gaps. We have a doctrine of providence in the Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 27:

Q. 27. What do you understand by the providence of God?

A. The almighty, everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by His Fatherly hand.

According to ecumenical, catholic, and Reformed Christianity, there are no gaps. God cannot “go” to the corner for a beer because he is omnipresent. Our rejection of God in the Modern West does not affect God at all. We are the ones who have changed. We have sold our heritage for a pot of stew (autonomy). God is sovereignly orchestrating all that comes to pass.

There Was A Sense After 9/11, If Only Momentary, That We Really Are Dependent Upon God.

It was striking how after 9/11 the churches were full and people called for prayer meetings, and there was a sense, if only momentary, that we are not in charge of things and that we really are dependent upon God. Now, however, in the face of a virus, obviously much smaller than a jet, there is a loud chorus of people speaking in messianic terms about an experimental vaccine about which most of us know almost nothing. It may well be (or it may not be) that through a fatal combination of hubris, negligence, and shame that an incompetent totalitarian regime, using a lab built by France, with money supplied by the United States, conducting (obviously) risky research into an already dangerous virus, has accidentally released upon the world a virus that will, because it is has been altered in a lab, continue to mutate for some time.

In short, this may be our life now. We are afflicted with a virus with the potential to kill the weak, the elderly, the infirm, and anyone with a “co-morbidity” (Is that not the word of 2020-21? Are not all born with co-morbidities? Did not God say: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die”?) for the foreseeable future. This time, unlike 9/11, however, there has not been even a temporary turn to God. One senses that there is a grim will to soldier on as if God were not.

How Often Do We All Conduct Our Lives As If We Are Not Actively Upheld And Sustained By God?

Mea culpa. How often have I demonstrated my own practical agnosticism by not even bowing to give thanks before a meal? How often have I presumed upon God’s grace in Christ and his merciful and generous providence in ways small and large? How often do we all conduct our lives as if we lived in some sort of closed universe not actively upheld and sustained by the God who is, who spoke everything into being?

I am haunted by the knowledge that the West lived with the plague for 400 years. It killed about 1/3 of the world’s population in the 1340s. Contra the typical popular presentations, it did not go away in the 14th century. It persisted. There were periodic outbreaks through the middle of the 17th century and beyond. It became a fact of life until we addressed the root causes (the evidence still favors the rat hypothesis) and literally began cleaning ourselves. Perhaps Covid-19 will persist? Perhaps it will not.

God Is Not A Theory. He Is The Fact.

Of course the pagans will talk and think about the world as if God were not but we, who have been bought with a price, dare not do so.

Whatever happens, God is not a theory. He is the fact. He is the one who necessarily is. Life is not random. God willed it and he will end it. Reader, you are not random. The universe is not closed. It is not a machine that we can manipulate as if God is not. Christ was raised on the third day. He ascended bodily after that. Those are historical facts. He is coming again to judge the living and the dead. That is a certainty. One day we will find out experientially how wrong etsi Deus non daretur really was. Fear God and receive his free favor in Christ. Ask him for wisdom, humility, and honesty for our governors and scientists. Ask him for mercy for the blind, agnostic West.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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15 comments

  1. Thank you, yet again. Several weeks ago, I heard the choir of 2nd Presbyterian, Greenville, SC sing “What God Ordains is Good Indeed,” the Trinity hymnal application of Bach’s “Was Gott tut ist Wohlgetan” (with apologies for spelling. That hymn has become my watchword. This article’s seemingly circuitous route to your ringing declaration in closing gives starch in the spine, strength in the armour, to remain steadfast and certain.

  2. Amen! “God is not a theory.” Someone has said, To the extent that you make God real in your life, God will make himself real to you; that is, he will make you aware of his presence, his reality. It’s another way of saying we Christian believers live by faith, trusting God’s infallible Word (Galatians 2:20)! Faith may easily be taken to be mostly intellectual assent, but it presupposes a real and personal relationship. John 5:39 perhaps needs to be preached more than it is. Our living by faith must not go beyond the Word of God, but it does need to take that Word very seriously!

  3. It’s difficult when the alternative to the dialectical approach feels like LARPing premodernity. I read the gospels and see how, “he has a demon,” or “they thought it was a ghost,” are conclusions that required no effort for the people in those accounts. Intellectual affirmation of providence and the spiritual world is a good start, but re-enchantment, as some call it, requires a tremendous effort of imagination, and imagination doesn’t seem too far from just pretending.

  4. If I could, I’ll tell to Bonhoeffer, that God is the most obvious thing in the whole world. And religious person never can make that trick in his mind, I mean that living as “God is not a given”. We quicker went to acosmism, than to this kind of practical aheism (“Atheist” Spinoza is better theologian than this poor lutheran(?) minister). Christian is always living with God, walking with God, seeing Him everywhere, and in every event of his life.

  5. Dear Dr Clark,
    As always, I’m grateful for your post. I’m a Dutchie, from the land of the castle ‘Loevestein,’ from which Hugo de Groot (Grotius) escaped in a book chest. For that reason he’s still considered a hero (and the Reformed are the bad guys according to tour guides at Loevestein). His Remonstrant ideas, however, are still eroding the faith in the Netherlands. Decades ago I asked a Dutch Remonstrant pastor what their denomination does in terms of mission (the Great Commission), and she had to laugh—‘we don’t do mission.’ They take ‘as if God is not a given’ more literally than ever.

    I’ve just finished reading the magisterial book ‘Evangelicalism Divided’ and the one page I copied happens to be related to your post. Iain Murray cites the well-known F. F. Bruce:
    ‘But inspiration is not a concept of which I have a clear understanding before I come to the study of the text, so that I know in advance what limits are placed on the meaning of the text by the requirements of inspiration.’ (1) Really? But we cannot approach any Bible text from a neutral, scientific standpoint, ‘as if God is not a given.’ Though Bonhoeffer’s biography is titled, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Man for His Times,’ the philosopher in Bonhoeffer has always trumped the theologian. In Murray’s book an insightful quote about Bruce follows: ‘Whilst for the most part reaching conservative conclusions, he appears to proceed on largely liberal assumptions.’

    About Covid: I’m 58 and my wife and I had the Delta Variant a few weeks ago (in Cambodia, where we do missionary work). We attacked it with ivermectin and some other supporting medicines and supplements, and it felt like a flu, lasting about two weeks. The lab-leak hypothesis has been suppressed for more than a year. Nowadays it’s increasingly allowed… Ivermectin has been laughed out of court as a horse medicine. Nowadays it’s increasingly allowed… Have a look at:
    https://covid19criticalcare.com/ivermectin-in-covid-19/epidemiologic-analyses-on-covid19-and-ivermectin/.
    Will Covid-19 persist?, you ask. It’s a matter of political will.
    ———————–
    (1) F. F. Bruce, In Retrospect, 311, in Ian H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), 180–81.

  6. Despite his theological inconsistencies with his denominational profession, confessional Lutheranism, I applaud him for his resistance to The Third Reich.

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