Q.1: Who is the first and chiefest being?
God is the first and chiefest being.1
1Isaiah 44:6; 48:12; Psalm 97:9
In January of 2012, I had the honor of taking a winter course on “The Theology of the Word of Faith Movement” with Justin Peters at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The class was memorable to me for several reasons. I had been following the career of Mr. Peters for a while with great interest. One night, my wife and I even had the honor of having him into our home and serving him chicken pot pie. I recall sitting in my living room laughing and singing Ray Stevens’ The Mississippi Squirrel Revival together while my wife rolled her eyes.
I also recall one of the first statements he made in front of the class. I recall it because I wrote it down. He said, “Your worship of God will only be as deep as your theology.” Then he said, “Let me rephrase that. Your worship of God will only be as deep as your knowledge of Him.” In making this statement, Mr. Peters was answering one of the most important questions a Christian should ask himself: “Why do I study theology?”
What is theology? Theology, simply put, is the study of God. The word is derived from two Greek terms: ὁ θεὸς (ha theos) and ὁ λόγος (ha logos). ὁ θεὸς means God or the divine, and ὁ λόγος can be translated word, message, knowledge, and many other similar terms. In modern English usage, –ology (derived from ὁ λόγος) has come to mean “the study of. . .” When combined into one word, then, theology means the study of God.
Why do we study God, though? Well, as Mr. Peters so eloquently stated, we study God so that we might deepen our worship of Him. As The Westminster Catechism teaches, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” This is why we study theology. This is our end goal in all our study and apprehension of God and the things of God. If a man is to glorify God and enjoy Him, he must first take hold of some knowledge of Him.
A great many people in this world claim a high level of piety, claiming to have reached new heights of spirituality through private contemplation and stimulating conversation. However, if they have not tapped into the actual truth of God as revealed directly from God, all their musings are a mere pooling of spiritual ignorance. They may speak with flowery language and elevated tones, but they have no real knowledge of the One whom they claim to represent. They have speculation. They have imagination. They have fantasies and rhetorical prowess, but they do not have God.
“20Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God,” (1Cor. 1:20-24; NKJV).
All proper knowledge of God must have God as its Source. The world will tell us that this is circular reasoning and that we cannot point to God as the authority that establishes His own authority. We must ask in return: “What then stands as the prime authority above God that would be sufficient to establish His authority?” If they answer reason, we must ask what gives reason its authority and, in order to assist them to remain consistent, we must ask that they not use reason to argue for the authority of reason. If they answer evidence, our response is the same. We ask them to prove evidence as a sound authority by which to judge God without the use of evidence.
How is the authority of God different, then, from evidence or reason? While our interpretation of evidence can be flawed and our reason will inevitably fail us, God never fails. Wherever we find God, whether in Scripture, or in nature, or in our own consciences, we find that He always ultimately lines up with what He has spoken about Himself in His word: the Bible. Apart from His word, we are destined to run into error.
“God is the source and fountain of all our knowledge. He possesses an archetypal knowledge of all created things, embracing all the ideas that are expressed in the works of His creation. This knowledge of God is quite different from that of man. While we derive our knowledge from the objects we perceive, He knows them in virtue of the fact that He from eternity determined their being and form,” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, Grand Rapids. 1996, pp. 93-94.).
We have limited knowledge; God has exhaustive knowledge. God knows all things perfectly, fully, and truly. There are many things we know truly. There are many things we know falsely. There are many things that are true that we don’t know. There are many things that are untrue that we don’t know. It is not our place to strive to know all things. “It is totally inconsistent with creatureliness that man should strive for comprehensive knowledge; if it could be attained, it would wipe God out of existence; man would then be God,” (Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith. P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ. 2008, pg. 36). Rather than comprehensive knowledge, we ought to strive after the apprehension of true knowledge. We cannot know all things but, by God’s grace, we can know true things.
All that there is to know, including the depths of God Himself, are known by God. “God’s knowledge is primary, and whatever man is to know can only be based upon a reception of what God has originally and ultimately known,” (Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready. Covenant Media Press, Nacogdoches, TX. 2011, pg. 19). Thus, if we are to have any assurance that what we know about God is true, we must receive affirmation of its truthfulness from Him. We must do the impossible and reach into the heavens to pull down truth. Rather, God must condescend to us in order that He might reveal His truth to us.
The Baptist Catechism starts with the question, “Who is the first and chiefest being?” This question is necessary because it starts with the origin of all proper thought about God: God Himself. “God is the first and chiefest being.” This recognition is key. As finite, material creatures, we are incapable of grasping the truth of an infinite, immaterial God (Isa. 55:8-9; Rom. 11:33-36). We are wholly inadequate for these things, unless God graciously enables us. Out of recognition of our human impotence, The Baptist Catechism begins by highlighting our supremely omnipotent God. We are fallen, sinful, finite beings; God is the first and chiefest Being. Thus, we do not start with man, but with God.
In recognizing God as the first and chiefest of beings, we recognize in Him a particular otherness. He is completely unlike all His creatures. Specifically, He is from everlasting to everlasting. He is the only Being without beginning. Thus, He is the only Being who can rightly claim to be both the first and the last, and He does so time and again.
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
‘I am the first and I am the last,
And there is no God besides Me,’” (Isa. 44:6; NASB; cf. Isa. 41:4; 48:12; Rev. 1:8; 2:8; 21:6; 22:13).
No creature can lay claim to being first and last over all creation. All of creation has a beginning and, were it God’s design, all creation would have an end. God not only created all things, but He sustains and directs them, too (Col. 1:17). All of creation is God’s creation and, with it, He does as He pleases (Ps. 115:3; 135:6). How shall man stand as a mere spectator of the vast scope of God’s creation and not give Him due honor and praise for all of His mighty works?
God is distinct from all of His creation. However, He is not merely distinct from it in His eternality, His creation, and His providence; He is also distinct from it in His majesty. God is the first Being; He is also the chiefest Being. By this, the catechism means to draw our attention to God’s preeminence over all things.
Our tendency, as fallen creatures, is to worship the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). As a Master Artist, God has adorned His creation with His divine signature. We are like art critics who stand in awe of a masterful painting and give credit to the individual brush strokes and arrangements of color rather than to the painter who gave the painting life. Credit for Symphony No. 5 does not go to the individual trumpet blasts, but to Beethoven himself. How much more is the God of creation due His proper exaltation and adoration for the works of His hands?
“For You are the Lord Most High over all the earth;
You are exalted far above all gods,” (Psalm 97:9; NASB).
Let the pagans sing the praises of their false gods, but let our praises of the one true and living God far exceed theirs. Let us exalt Him as the Lord Most High over all the earth! Let us sing with the saints of old:
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise Him, all creatures here below.
Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Let our study of theology always stem from a heart of doxology. Let our pursuit of head knowledge always spring from a wealth of heart praise. Let our desire to take in greater truth about God never be to the end of puffing up the student, but that of lifting up the Creator in praise, and adoration, and worthy exaltation. He truly is worthy, for He truly is the first and chiefest of beings. As J.I. Packer writes:
“We need to ask ourselves: What is my ultimate aim and object in occupying my mind with these things? What do I intend to do with my knowledge about God, once I have it? For the fact that we have to face is this: If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us. It will make us proud and conceited. The very greatness of the subject matter will intoxicate us, and we shall come to think of ourselves as a cut above other Christians because of our interest in it and grasp of it; and we shall look down on those whose theological ideas seem to us crude and inadequate and dismiss them as very poor specimens,” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God. IVP Books, Downers Grove, Il. 1993, pg. 21.).