Western Concepts of God
Dr. Brian Morley
Western concepts of God have ranged from the detached transcendent demiurge
of Aristotle to the pantheism of Spinoza. Nevertheless, much of western thought
about God has fallen within some broad form of theism. Theism is the view that
God is unlimited with regard to knowledge (omniscience), power (omnipotence),
extension (omnipresence), and moral perfection; and is the creator and sustainer
of the universe. Though regarded as sexless, God has traditionally been referred to
by the masculine pronoun. Concepts of God in philosophy are entwined with
concepts of God in religion. This is most obvious in figures like Augustine and
Aquinas, who sought to bring more rigor and consistency to concepts found in
religion. Others, like Leibniz and Hegel, interacted constructively and deeply with
religious concepts. Even those like Hume and Nietzsche, who criticized the concept
of God, dealt with religious concepts. While Western philosophy has interfaced
most obviously with Christianity, Judaism and Islam have had some influence. The
orthodox forms of all three religions have embraced theism, though each religion
has also yielded a wide array of other views. Philosophy has shown a similar
variety. For example, with regard to the initiating cause of the world, Plato and
Aristotle held God to be the crafter of uncreated matter. Plotinus regarded matter
as emanating from God. Spinoza, departing from his judaistic roots, held God to be
identical with the universe, while Hegel came to a similar view by reinterpreting
Christianity. Issues related to Western concepts of God include the nature of divine
attributes and how they can be known, if or how that knowledge can be
communicated, the relation between such knowledge and logic, the nature of divine
causality, and the relation between the divine and the human will.
A. Sources of Western Concepts of God
Sources of western concepts of the divine have been threefold: experience,
revelation, and reason. Reported experiences of God are remarkably varied and
have produced equally varied concepts of the divine being. Experiences can be
occasioned by something external and universally available, such as the starry sky,
or by something external and private, such as a burning bush. Experiences can be
internal and effable, such as a vision, or internal and ineffable, as is claimed by
some mystics. Revelation can be linked to religious experience or a type of it, both
for the person originally receiving it and the one merely accepting it as
authoritative. Those who accept its authority typically regard it as a source of
concepts of the divine that are more detailed and more accurate than could be
obtained by other means. Increasingly, the modern focus has been on the
complexities of the process of interpretation (philosophical hermeneutics) and the
extent to which it is necessarily subjective. Revelation can be intentionally
unconnected to reason such that it is accepted on bare faith (fideism; cf.
Kierkegaard), or at the other extreme, can be grounded in reason in that it is
accepted because and only insofar as it is reasonable (cf., Locke). Reason has
been taken as ancillary to religious experience and revelation, or on other
accounts, as independent and the sole reliable source of concepts of God.
Each of the three sources of concepts of God has had those who regard it as the
sole reliable basis of our idea of the divine. By contrast, others have regarded two
or three of the sources as interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Regardless of
these differing approaches, theism broadly construed has been a dominant theme
for much of the history of Western thought.
B. Historical Overview
At the dawn of philosophy, the Ionian Greeks sought to understand the true nature
of the cosmos and its manifestations of both change and permanence. To
Heraclitus, all was change and nothing endured, whereas to Parmenedes, all change
was apparent. The Pythagorians found order and permanence in mathematics,
giving it religious significance as ultimate being. The Stoics identified order with
To Plato, God is transcendent-the highest and most perfect being-and one who
uses eternal forms, or archetypes, to fashion a universe that is eternal and
uncreated. The order and purpose he gives the universe is limited by the
imperfections inherent in material. Flaws are therefore real and exist in the
universe; they are not merely higher divine purposes misunderstood by humans.
God is not the author of everything because some things are evil. We can infer that
God is the author of the punishments of the wicked because those punishments
benefit the wicked. God, being good, is also unchangeable since any change would
be for the worse. For Plato, this does not mean (as some later Christian thought
held) that God is the ground of moral goodness; rather, whatever is good is good
in an of itself. God must be a first cause and a self-moved mover otherwise there
will be an infinite regress to causes of causes. Plato is not committed to
monotheism, but suggests for example that since planetary motion is uniform and
circular, and since such motion is the motion of reason, then a planet must be
driven by a rational soul. These souls that drive the planets could be called gods.
Aristotle made God passively responsible for change in the world in the sense that
all things seek divine perfection. God imbues all things with order and purpose, both
of which can be discovered and point to his (or its) divine existence. From those
contingent things we come to know universals, whereas God knows universals
prior to their existence in things. God, the highest being (though not a loving
being), engages in perfect contemplation of the most worthy object, which is
himself. He is thus unaware of the world and cares nothing for it, being an
unmoved mover. God as pure form is wholly immaterial, and as perfect he is
unchanging since he cannot become more perfect. This perfect and immutable God
is therefore the apex of being and knowledge. God must be eternal. That is
because time is eternal, and since there can be no time without change, change
must be eternal. And for change to be eternal the cause of change-the unmoved
mover-must also be eternal. To be eternal God must also be immaterial since only
immaterial things are immune from change. Additionally, as an immaterial being,
God is not extended in space.
The Neo-Platonic God of Plotinus (204/5-270 A.D.) is the source of the universe,
which is the inevitable overflow of divinity. In that overflow, the universe comes
out of God (ex deo) in a timeless process. It does not come by creation because
that would entail consciousness and will, which Plotinus claimed would limit God.
The first emanation out of God (nous) is the highest, successive emanations being
less and less real. Finally, evil is matter with no form at all, and as such has no
positive existence. God is an impersonal It who can be described only in terms of
what he is not. This negative way of describing God (the via negativa) survived
well into the middle ages. Though God is beyond description, Plotinus (perhaps
paradoxically) asserted a number of things, such as that virtue and truth inhere in
God. Because for Plotinus God cannot be reached intellectually, union with the
divine is ecstatic and mystical. His thought influenced a number of Christian
mystics, such as Meister Eckhart (1260-1327).
2. Early Christian Thought
Early Christians regarded Greek religion as holding views unworthy of God, but they
were divided as to Greek philosophy. Christian philosopher Justin Martyr (c. 100-c.
165) saw Christianity as compatible with the highest and best Greek thought,
whereas Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225) dismissed philosophy, saying that Jerusalem
(faith) could have nothing to do with Athens (philosophy).
Having been born out of Judaism, Christianity was unambiguously monotheistic and
affirmed that God created the material of the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo).
But it also affirmed the Trinity as multiplicity within unity, a view it regarded as
implicit in Judaism.
Consistent with theism, Augustine (354-430) regarded God as omniscient,
omnipotent, omnipresent, morally good, the creator (ex nihilo) and sustainer of
the universe. Despite these multiple descriptors, God is uniquely simple. Being
entirely free, he did not have to create, but did so as an act of love. As his creation,
it reflects his mind. Time and space began at creation, and everything in creation is
good. Evil is uncreated, being a lack of good and without positive existence.
Though God is not responsible for evil even it has a purpose: to show forth what is
good, especially what is good within God. Augustine developed a theme found as
early as Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno of Citium, that God is a perfect being. After
enumerating a hierarchy of excellencies (things to be "preferred") Augustine affirms
that God "lives in the highest sense" and is "the most powerful, most righteous,
most beautiful, most good, most blessed" (On the Trinity, XV, 4). When we think
of God, we "attempt to conceive something than which nothing more excellent or
sublime exists" (Christian Doctrine, I, 7, 7). But where Aristotle concluded that the
greatest being must be aware only of himself, Augustine emphasized an opposite
and distinctly Christian theme: God loves creatures supremely to the point of
becoming incarnate in Christ in order to be revealed to them and to reconcile them
to himself. Moreover, God is providentially active in history, from an individual level
(Confessions) on up to dealings with entire nations (City of God). So as to the
important subject of God's relationship to the world, Christian thought could not be
more opposite Aristotle's view of a Being who contemplates only himself.
John Scotus Erigena (c. 810-c.877) had stronger affinities for Neo-Platonic
thought. God created the universe according to eternal patterns in his mind and it is
an expression of his thought, however incomplete an expression the cosmos may
be. Erigena's pantheistic tendencies can be seen in his notion that God creates out
of himself and "God is in all things." Creation is not in time but is eternal. In the
process God used universals and made them particulars (e.g., humanity became
individual persons). Immortality is the reverse process of particulars going back to
universals. In Erigena's terms, division is the process of differentiating universals
into particulars; analysis is the reverse, a return to unity and thus to God. These
are not mere mental activities but mirror reality and God's relationship to the
world. God is ultimately unknowable, being beyond all language and categories.
Aristotle's predicates and categories cannot apply to God because they assume
some type of substance. Nevertheless God can be described, albeit inadequately,
using both positive and negative statements. Positive statements are only
approximate but can be made more exact by adding negative statements. For
example, it can be said that God is good (positive), but also that he is not good
(negative) in that he is above goodness. These can be combined in the statement
that he is "supergood." In spite of these approximations, God must be reached by
3. Medieval Thought
Islamic Neoplatonist al-Farabi (875-950) held that universals are in things and have
no existence apart from particulars. Objects are contingent in that they may or
may not exist; they do not have to exist. Therefore there must be something that
has to exist-that exists necessarily-to ground the existence of all other
(contingent) things. This being is God. The world evolves by emanation, and matter
is a phase of that process. The potential in matter is made actual, and over time
God brings out its form. Thought is one emanation from God, and through it
knowledge arises in humans. The actualized human intellect becomes an immortal
Avicenna (Ibn Sina; 980-1037), a Muslim, also distinguished between God as the
one necessary being and all other things, which are contingent. The world is an
emanation from God as the outworking of his self-knowledge. As such it is eternal
and necessary. God must be eternal and simple, existing without multiplicity. In
their essence, things do not contain anything that accounts for their existence.
They are hierarchically arranged such that the existence of each thing is accounted
for by something ontologically higher. At the top is the one being whose existence
is necessary. From contingent things we come to know universals, whereas God
knows universals prior to their existence in things.
Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) challenged any joining of theology and philosophy, holding
that because the mind and senses are subject to error, truth must come by divine
grace. Rather than the world existing necessarily in a Neoplatonic sense, it exists by
the will of God alone. It is in no way autonomous, and even causal relationships are
non-necessary. He rejected as un-Islamic Avicenna's view that things like souls or
intellects could be eternal.
Anselm (1033-1109), archbishop of Canterbury, raised the perfect being concept
to a new level by making it the foundation of his celebrated ontological argument.
He accepted that God is the highest level of being under which there are, by
degrees, lesser and lesser beings. Similar to Plato, Anselm assumes the realist view
that entities which share an attribution, such as "good," also share in being. And
somewhere there must be a perfection of that being (e.g., perfect goodness). That
perfection is God.
Though a Muslim and an Aristotelian, Averroes (Ibn Rushd; 1126-1198) added to
the growing concept of emanation by claiming that the universal mind is an
emanation from God. Humans participate in this universal mind and only it, not the
soul, is immortal. The mind of the common person understands religious symbols
in a literal way, whereas the philosopher interprets them allegorically.
Consequently, something understood as true philosophically may be untrue
theologically, and vice versa.
Working from Judaism, Maimonides (1135-1204) accepted creation rather than an
eternal universe. He drew from philosophic traditions to formulate three proofs
based on the nature of God, and these were developed further by Aquinas.
Following Aristotle Maimonides demonstrated the existence of a Prime Mover, and
with some inspiration from Avicenna, the existence of a necessary being. He also
showed God to be a primary cause. Though he considered God's existence
demonstrable, he held that nothing positive could be said about God.
Bonaventura (John of Fidanza, c. 1221-1274) argued that the Aristotlean denial of
Platonic ideas would entail that God knows himself but not the world. As such God
could not be its creator. Furthermore, because some change in the universe is
cyclic and therefore unexplainable by chance, change would have to be
deterministic. But this would deny God's providence as well as human moral
responsibility. So a proper concept of God must include Platonic ideas. Reason can
prove God as creator since an eternal universe entails both that the amount of
time of its existence is infinite and that it is increasing. Yet there cannot be both an
infinite and a larger infinite (a view not held in modern times).
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) accepted both Aristotle and Christian revelation. He
accepted both reason and revelation as sources of knowledge of God. Over the
neo-Platonic notion of a hierarchy of reality in which lower existences are less real
and a mere shadow of the divine, Aquinas accepted gradations of form and matter.
Atop the hierarchy is God as pure form and no matter. As pure actuality and no
potentiality, he is perfect and therefore changeless. He is also pure intelligence and
pure activity. To these Aristotelian concepts Aquinas added Christian convictions
that God is loving, providential, and ruler of the universe. Reason and revelation are
in harmony because they have the same divine source, and revelation is not
unreasonable. Perception is also in harmony because the world's origins are divine.
This being the case, God as cause can be known through the world as effect. For
this reason empirical facts ground Aquinas's theistic proofs.
The God that can be known in part from the universe is fundamentally different
from it. Only God is identical to his essence, being neither more nor less than it. By
contrast, a being such as Socrates is transcended by humanity because there are
other people. On the other hand, Socrates has qualities ("accidents") that are not
part of his essence; for example, he may be sitting. So unlike God, Socrates is
both greater than and less than his essence. There is nothing that transcends God
so nothing is greater than his essence. And there are no accidents in God because
accidents are caused by something else (just as part of the cause of Socrates
sitting is a chair).
God is not (completely) knowable because he is not material, whereas our
knowledge is normally dependent on our senses. Furthermore, we normally know
things by knowing their genus and species, yet God is unique and so cannot be
known in that way. We can know something of God the negative way (via
negativa) by removing limits, concluding for example, that God is unmoved, and
unlimited by space. What we can know of God positively is neither exactly like our
knowledge of temporal things (univocal) nor entirely different (equivocal). Rather, it
is analogical, being in some ways the same and in other ways different. God knows
x in a way that is both like and unlike the way in which Socrates knows x. God
knows, but in a way that is, among other things, complete, immediate, and
timeless.That God created is evident (though not provable) because a material
universe cannot emanate from an immaterial being. The universe exists to
manifest God, who created the fullest possible range of beings because in them he
can be revealed to the fullest extent. Beings range from angels, who are
immaterial; to humans, who are material and immaterial; to animals, who are
purely material (and both eat and move); to plants, to inanimate objects.
God as primary cause works through such created things as secondary causes.
Nevertheless, creatures with a will remain free and responsible. God can also work
apart from secondary causes in what we call miracles. Being good, God created
the best possible world in the sense that it has the best kinds of things. Evil is a
privation or lack of good and as such God did not cause it the way he causes other
things. So we cannot ask why God brought about evil, but we can ask why he did
not bring about more good. He did not bring about more good in order that he
could be revealed through the greatest range of things, and as well, to allow for
certain types of good (such as compassion, which can exist only where there is
Aquinas and others grounded the scholastic synthesis of knowledge in the view
that truth, morality, and God himself could be known by reason because the divine
will itself is guided by reason. What is reasonable is therefore what is true and right.
But John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) claimed that in humans and in God it is the
will--not the intellect--that is primary. Evidence of this is that a being must will what
to think about, thus something must act on the intellect; whereas nothing need act
on the will. The view entails that there is no reason why God acts or wills as he
does. This makes truth and morality essentially arbitrary and thereby unknowable
through reason. God could have willed different moral standards. Scotus's view
makes our knowledge of God a matter of revelation and faith, not of reason.
Another concept about God's will further destabilized the medieval world view.
William of Ockham (1285-1347) held that omnipotence means God can do literally
anything. Accordingly, a person could perceive something by sheer act of divine
will, without the object being there at all. On his view, faith and reason can be
contradictory. Ockham's "razor" sought to cut from explanations those entities
that are unverifiable thereby making simpler explanations preferred. This was later
used to cut out of world views such things as divine purposes, which had been
central to explanations since the Greeks. Eventually, even concepts of a divine
being would be optional--or even unnecessary--to explanations and world views.
The connection between reason and God was further undermined by Meister
Eckhart's (1260-1327/28) view that God is "above being" and that human unity
with the divine must be suprarational. Knowledge is a matter of proceeding from
particulars to unity, beyond which is a unity with the divine surpassing all
differences, "a silent desert." The divine being is therefore inexpressible. God knows
all things in their unity, timelessly; but on our temporal level it makes sense to
differentiate time as well as events.
4. Renaissance Thought
God moved out of the intellectual center of knowledge as faith was no longer
grounded in reason and reason was no longer supervised by faith. The power of
the church waned and society found inspiration in the classical world. Interest in this
life and the world drove interest in science, which soon uncovered mathematically
describable physical regularities. This development shaped the concept of God in a
way that further undermined the Aristotelian world view, with its emphasis on such
things as divine purpose. Regularities such as those discovered in Kepler's laws of
planetary motion and Newton's laws implied a supreme engineer. Early in these
developments, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) emphasized God as immanent in the
universe as an active principle, a trend in the conception of God that would increase
along with the ever more detailed understanding of natural processes to be
achieved in the scientific revolution.
The Reformation period saw an emphasis on divine sovereignty over human affairs
as a corollary to its emphasis on fallen humanity's inability to achieve a right
standing with God. If humans cannot come to God unaided, then it is God who
must choose some to be right with him. Since the Reformers affirmed that divine
choice cannot be based on merit, love must be the central divine attribute
operating in salvation. This view of divine predestination brought new questions,
both theological and philosophical, about the relationship between the human and
divine wills. The question of how people could be free and responsible if
predestination ultimately determines fate was resolved in John Calvin's (1509-64)
tradition partly by distinguishing between God's irresistible and resistible will. The
latter consists of human choices which God allows (for a higher divine purpose) to
run counter to his perfect will. Thus God is entirely sovereign and humans are
responsible for their deeds. James Arminius (1560-1609) objected that Calvinism
made God responsible for sin, and he proposed instead that God predestined those
whom he foresaw would repent.
The Reformers' emphasis on the fallenness of the will led to their distrust in reason
as a source of information about the spiritual realm, including God. An unfallen mind
would see God everywhere through His creation, but our fallen minds cannot find
God. Being therefore hidden, as Martin Luther emphasized (1483-1546), God
must reveal Himself in revelation and deed. Humanity must resist the temptation to
go beyond what is revealed, especially since God reveals only what we need to
know, not all that we wish to know. The Reformers' reluctance to use reason to
narrow the gap between the spiritual and physical realms continued the Augustinian
tradition (which faintly echoed Plato's two realms), challenging the Scholastics' high
view of reason and of Aristotle. That reason has a limited role in the spiritual realm
was later emphasized by Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) and Karl Barth (1886-1968).
Philosophy began splitting from religion as the two moved in opposite directions
with regard to reason. Religion was retreating from reason both by emphasizing
the divine will over the divine intellect, and in the human realm, by emphasizing
faith over reason. Meanwhile, broad elements in the culture turned away from the
authority of the church and Aristotle to regard reason as the main source of
knowledge. The wisdom of this seemed confirmed in the discoveries of scientists
like Newton and Kepler, who had great success using observations to find
mathematical regularities in nature. Discoveries were revealing a highly ordered
universe, implying a highly reasonable God.
Deism rose as a philosophical form of theism that used reason as its source of
knowledge of God. Without revelation to give detail to natural theology, knowledge
of God was minimal. Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) claimed simply that
there is one supreme God, who should be worshiped; virtuous living constitutes
worship, people should repent, and God rewards good and punishes evil. The
emerging Newtonian universe was one of mechanical precision and predictability,
with no room for outside causes. Accordingly, there seemed to be little or no room
for divine intervention. Deism, then, held that God caused the universe but did not
intervene thereafter. Prayer and miracles were deemed unnecessary because of
God's superior engineering.
The emphasis on God as a perfect designer entailed that waste and suffering were
only apparently pointless. The plan and wisdom of God were seen in the grand
scheme of the universe, hence God is known best in generality and abstraction.
In a time of upheaval, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) famously sought to ground all
knowledge on a foundation he could not doubt: that he was a thinking being. The
success of his approach depended crucially on God's benevolence: because we can
be sure that the divine being would not mislead us, we can trust that our clear and
distinct ideas are true. God's character thus forms the basis for our certainty that
there is indeed a reality corresponding to our ideas. God's omnipotence entails the
ability to do even what is logically impossible. Descartes also regarded God as not
merely uncaused, but somehow the cause of himself.
John Locke (1632-1704) held a view reminiscent of scholasticism, that revelation
reveals about God what cannot be known by reason alone--yet neither does
revelation violate reason. He went beyond the scholastics to affirm that what
violates reason cannot be accepted as revelation. His motive was to rule out what
he called "enthusiasm," which would include supposed private revelations about
God held on the sole authority of an individual's intuition that a revelation is true.
Reason must judge whether a supposed revelation is true. His view further welded
the concept of God to reason.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) agreed with Descartes that clear and distinct ideas
indeed reflect reality, but he thought that philosophy must start with God, not the
self. This is because God is first in the order of things. God's primacy is also the
reason Spinoza rejected Bacon's method of beginning with observation. He
abandoned his judaistic roots by affirming that God is the whole of reality, and
neither transcendent nor personal.
Aquinas had concluded that God exists on grounds that the universe needs
something outside itself as a cause. But Spinoza believed that there can be only
one thing--God--because wholes alone are independent and there can be only one
whole (or "substance"). There is nothing outside the whole on which the whole can
depend. That whole is a network of truths connected by implication. That being the
case, everything is either necessary or impossible. Since to be free is to be
undetermined by anything outside oneself, God is free because nothing can be
outside him; and God alone is free because everything within the whole is the way
it is by necessity. There is no need to prove the existence of God beyond the need
to prove the existence of the one substance. For Spinoza, God is not an external
initiating cause of the world and so is not demonstrable as such. He is nonetheless
an immanent and continuing cause of the world. Nor could God be the world's
designer or one who imbues it with purpose. That is because wanting to bring
something about implies lack, and God can lack nothing. Lacking purposes, God
can have no moral goals for humanity. God is the network of all truths, not a
personal being who gives revelation. Still, to know God-which is necessarily a
matter of reason-is an essential good. As Spinoza said, "the highest virtue of the
mind is to understand or to know God" (Ethics, Part 4, prop. 28; trans. Elwes).
Where Spinoza explained reality in terms of a singular substance that is divine,
Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) proposed innumerable instances of the same types
of substance. These monads as he called them, are centers of psychic energy.
They do not act causally on each other but are coordinated in a grand harmony
preestablished by God. That so many diverse elements act in harmony is proof for
God's existence. Because God operates on a principle of sufficient reason, there
must be a reason why he chose to create just this world: it must be the best one
possible. While many things are possible individually, even God is limited in what can
be brought about together (just as a man can be a father or childless, but not
both). Since God alone is perfect, created things have limitations, which is a source
of evil. Nevertheless, we find that evil is often a prerequisite for some types of
good. God's choice to create this particular world is a matter of his internal moral
necessity. He made this world because it has the greatest variety and can, as an
act of love, reveal his nature in the greatest possible way.
Leibniz made God the source of causality, George Berkeley (1685-1753) made
God the source of perception. He denied the existence of physical substances
(because he regarded belief in the physical world as a root of atheism) and claimed
that God directly gives us our ideas of the world. The orderliness of our ideas is
testimony to the power of God.
David Hume (1711-1776) accepted Berkeley's empiricism, which claimed that our
ideas are of particular things and not universal things; but Hume's empiricism led
him to skeptical conclusions. He held that our observations about the world do not
warrant belief in the God of theism. Design, for example, is manifestly imperfect;
furthermore, a good God would not allow evil. If our observations point beyond the
world at all it might be to a finite god, or even a number of gods. So the concept of
God must be rooted not in reason but in emotion and the will.
6. Modern Period
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) also rejected empirical knowledge as a way of
knowing God. In fact, he maintained that God cannot be demonstrated at all, yet
neither can his existence be disproved. As humans we typically go beyond what we
can rightly infer, and our idea that God can be objectively known is an example.
Nevertheless, as an idea, God has regulative value for our thinking in that it acts
heuristically and gives a sense of unity to our experience. Practically, too, the idea
of God grounds important moral beliefs. Specifically, it is fitting that those who do
what is right are happy; and since that is not reliably attained in this life, we can
rightly posit that there is life in a sphere beyond this one. We can make the
practical assumption too that God exists to ensure the connection between virtue
God was considered to be an objective issue before Kant. After him there was a
greater tendency to consider it a subjective issue, one that is irreducibly a matter
of interpretation. It was associated with discussions of ethics and values rather
than of science and facts. This accompanied a change from the Enlightenment's
emphasis on objective knowledge of God as a transcendent engineer, to
Romanticism's emphasis on personal experience of God as a Spirit immanent in
everything. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) accordingly emphasized a
feeling of dependence on God, while Albrect Ritschl (1822-1889) emphasized God
as a source of moral freedom and values.
Whereas Kant and those he affected regard God as elusive to our rationality, for G.
W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) God is the essence of rationality. Furthermore, Spirit
reveals itself and its development through the world, being visible for all to see in
the very events of history. Thus the categories which Kant regarded as being
limited to the human mind Hegel regarded as part of the Absolute Mind. As such,
the very structure of that Mind (or Spirit) can be known. Hegel challenged views
that had been dominant since Aristotle, that God and truth are unchanging, and
that logic deals with dichotomies that are properly kept apart by the principle of
non-contradiction (according to which A cannot also be non-A). For Hegel,
dichotomies are united in a higher reality. For example, Being and Nothing are
transcended in Becoming. That is because Being is a general term and has no
qualities, so it passes over into the concept of Nothing. That passing over is
Becoming. The original opposition is thereby transcended.
Hegel believed that reality divides into dichotomies and contradictions that are
resolved in a dynamic synthesis. Spirit thus moves from homogeneity to
differentiation to unity in diversity. He therefore rejected Schelling's idea that the
Absolute is undifferentiated. Because for Hegel Spirit is more than matter, he
rejected Spinoza's view that the Absolute is substance only. For Hegel it is more
than that; it is developing consciousness. In this process God comes to self-awareness through mankind's awareness of him--God thinking of himself through
Kant had claimed that ultimate reality (the thing-in-itself) is unknowable, but Arthur
Schopenhauer (1788-1860) said it is knowable because it is will. We can know it
directly because we can know our own will. Will manifests itself with increasing
sophistication in the physical world (through gravity, for example), in plants and
animals, and in human nature. But because the will is completely free it is irrational
and blind. He rejected Hegel's optimistic belief in the ultimate victory of rationality,
and in contrast to Leibniz, he held that this is the worst of all possible worlds.
Hegel's view that Spirit is in process and not a static state was continued in Alfred
N. Whitehead (1861-1947). Whitehead held that God is necessary to each act of
becoming, and in turn God develops through each act of becoming. God strives to
enrich the world as well as himself by nurturing harmony and order while preserving
values that enhance truth, beauty, and goodness. He strives to eliminate evil from
the world using persuasive (rather than coercive) power. In this sense, "He does
not create the world, he saves it." He leads it by means of his vision, rather like a
The so called right wing Hegelians rejected pantheism and interpreted Hegel in a
way consistent with theism. Left wing Hegelians associated the Absolute with
material reality. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) said that people create the
concept of God and project it onto reality. Karl Marx (1818-1883) made religion
both a product and a tool of oppression, the "opium of the people." People
formulate religion in response to the sufferings caused by society's inequities. Like a
narcotic, it insulates them from the pain but it also makes people incapable of
dealing with the cause of that pain. Furthermore, religion legitimates the status
Friedrich Nietzsche (1884-1900) rejected belief in God as weak and untenable. He
believed his times witnessed the death of God as a cultural force, yet at the same
time he feared the outcome. He did not think that God died in the sense that He
once existed and at some point ceased to exist, but that modern society regarded
God as irrelevant.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) regarded God as a projection of the mind, a product
of wishful thinking. The pre-scientific mind, for example, finds it easier to cope with
an anthropomorphized universe. It is easier to suppose that a personal being is in
control than to face seemingly capricious forces of nature. But when humanity
grows into a more scientific understanding of the universe, such beliefs will be
Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and others thus did not try to rationally defeat
belief in God. Rather, they sought to explain its origins and the personal motives of
In the early twentieth century, logical positivism narrowed the scope of meaning in
a way that made belief in God subjective by definition. Besides tautologies only
empirically verifiable statements were said to be true or false.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was initially sympathetic to linking meaning to
verifiability. He held that language is static and pictures reality. This limits what can
be meaningfully expressed in language and excludes propositions about such things
as ethics, aesthetics, and the meaning of life. On such topics, "one must be silent."
Wittgenstein later came to the view that meaning comes not from a link to the
world but from usage. In this way language is more like doing than picturing.
Because this necessarily gives language and meaning a social dimension, concepts
of God are bound to their use within, for example, a believing community. On this
view it is possible to claim that to know "God" is not to know the existence and
attributes of a metaphysical being, but the use of a term and its connections to a
C. Divine Attributes
Classical theism is found in the Greeks since Plato; in the Judaism of Philo,
Maimonides, and others; in Christian orthodoxy generally, and in Islam as early as
al-Kindi. Discussions of God in classical theism have centered on a number of
specific attributes. The working assumption from the Greeks onward has been that
God is the most perfect possible being. There is an implicit question as to whether
perfections are coherent such that they can exist in one person. If they are not,
God would have all perfections possible for a single being. In more theologically
oriented thinkers, the assumption that God is a perfect being serves not to
formulate the concept of God but only to fill in what is given in revelation. The
Reformers, for example, depended heavily on revelation because of their conviction
that the human mind is darkened by corruption and therefore is inadequate to
shape concepts of God.
1. Incorporeality. God has no body (from Latin, incorporale), or is non-physical.
This is a central tenet of monotheistic religions, which insist that any references to
God's eyes, ears, mind, and the like are anthropomorphic. Christian belief in the
incarnation is a unique case in which God takes on human form in Christ.
While some regard God's incorporeality as true analytically (that is, true by the
very definition of the word "God"), others derive it from one or more other
attributes. Accordingly, God cannot be corporeal because that would preclude his
being eternal, immutable, and simple, for example. Furthermore, if God were
corporeal and omnipresent, it would seem that all physical things would be part of
God. Others derive divine incorporeality from an apparent incorporeal element of
human nature, termed the soul or spirit.
2. Simplicity. God has no parts or real distinctions. The neo-Platonist Plotinus
regarded God as therefore characterless, but Christianity generally recognizes the
legitimacy of talk of attributes. For Aquinas, to be simple God must be (among
other things) incorporeal as well as identical to his nature, not a member of a class
that shares a common nature. Aquinas said that God has the perfections we
ascribe to him, but that they exist in him in an incomprehensible unity such that we
cannot understand the reality behind our statements. When we ascribe goodness
to God, goodness does not mean exactly what it does when we ascribe it to a
creature (univocal meaning), nor does it mean something entirely different
(eqivocal meaning). Its meaning is analogical: in some sense the same and in
some sense different. Maimonides insisted on equivocal meaning only, with the
result that negative attributes alone can be ascribed to God. Yet he recognized that
even negative attribution gives some understanding of the divine being. In Islam,
most philosophers (such as al-Farabi) accepted divine simplicity, whereas most
theologians rejected it. Some used it to reject the Trinity. Augustine had recognized
a potential conflict between simplicity and the Trinity, but believed the resolution lay
in proper understanding of the Trinity.
3. Unity. Monotheism maintains that there is one God. To this Christianity adds
that there is a threefold distinction within one God. Stated roughly, God is one
substance in three persons. Aquinas argued that there cannot be two gods
because neither would be absolutely perfect since one would have a quality that
the other lacked (Summa Theologica Ia, 11, 3). Richard Swinburne says that
theism is a simpler hypothesis than polytheism, the latter positing more beings with
various capabilities and relations. Theism is therefore more likely since simpler
hypotheses turn out to be true more often. Moreover, the universe exhibits a
unity, in its universal natural laws for example. This unity argues for one deity as its
originator (The Existence of God, 1991, pp. 141-2).
4. Eternity. Biblical authors spoke of God remembering the past, knowing the
future, and acting in the present. According to early Christian thought, God exists
forever, without beginning or end. For him events are past, present, and future.
Later Christian thought, under the influence of Platonism it is said, held that God
exists not inside time, but outside it. God is atemporal in that for him everything is
simultaneous, there being no past, present, or future. This later view was held by
Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas; and classically expressed by Boethius, "Eternity is
the complete and total possession of unending life all at once" (Consolation of
Philosophy, V, vi). Boethius regarded a timeless being as superior because it does
not lack a past and future; its entire existence is in a timeless present.
In modern times the timeless view has been defended by E. L. Mascall, Norman
Kretzmann, Eleanor Stump, Paul Helm, and Brian Leftow. Arguments in favor
include: it makes God more transcendent, it simplifies foreknowledge, it proposes
the same divine relationship to time as to space--God is outside it; furthermore it
allows for the creation of time along with matter. Arguments for the earlier view,
that God is eternal but exists within time, include: personhood requires existence in
time because only in time can there be intending, acting, knowing, remembering,
and the like; it is difficult to explain how a timeless God can know or respond to
events; and the notion of timeless eternity is incoherent.
5. Immutability. Those who accept the view that God is outside time are able to
argue that God cannot change because any change would have to take place inside
time. The view that God is an absolutely perfect being can also lead to the
conclusion that he cannot change: if he is perfect he could change neither for the
better nor for the worse. Simplicity can be grounds for accepting divine
immutability since the only things subject to change are things with parts.
Immutability has been taken in a strong sense to mean that if a predicate p applies
to God at any time then it must apply at every time. But this is so broad that it
brings into the discussion of immutability things that, while changing, are in no way
changing within God. For example, "Smith believes in God" could be false yesterday
and true today, yet nothing within God has changed. God is immutable in a weaker
and less problematic sense if it is required only that he does not change in his
character and purpose. The weaker sense fits well with the view that God exists in
time, since he could be considered immutable yet begin an action, forgive a person,
and so on. Thus, predicates like, "God is protecting r from harm" could be the case
at one time but not another and God would still be immutable. The stronger sense
of immutability fits well with a God outside of time.
6. Omnipotence. The claim that God can do anything has been the subject of a
number of qualifications. First, many affirm the biblical view that God cannot do
what is morally contrary to his nature. Similar to Anselm (Proslogion 7), Aquinas
says that God cannot sin because he is omnipotent, since sin is a falling short of
perfection (Summa Theologica, Ia.25.3). Nelson Pike says that it is logically
possible for God to sin but he would not do what is against his nature. Aquinas also
says that God cannot do other things that corporeal beings can do. And, he cannot
do what is logically impossible, such as make a square circle. Descartes is one of
the few to hold the contrary view, that the laws of mathematics and logic are
subject to the will of God (Descartes' Conversation with Burman, 22, 90). Perhaps
the most significant challenge to omnipotence involves the existence of evil. It
seems evil would not exist if God is both good and omnipotent. Process theology
denies omnipotence, Christian Science denies the ultimate reality of evil, and some
post-Holocaust thinking seems to question the goodness of God. Augustine
defends the orthodox Christian concept of God on grounds that he did what was
good in creating free beings yet they used their freedom to do evil. Some suffering
is the just consequence of sin. Furthermore, where evil is a lack of good we cannot
ask why God created it since it is merely the absence of something. Aquinas,
Leibniz and others recognize that some good things exist only in the presence of
certain types of evil. For example, forgiveness exists only where there is sin. In the
light of these secondary goods, Leibniz argues that out of all the possible worlds
God created the one with the best possible balance of good and evil. Some
thinkers appeal to a future life to settle apparent discrepancies in the balance of
good over evil. God's future blessing, it is said, can more than make up for
suffering in this world. William Alston develops the idea that as limited beings we
are incapable of discerning-and therefore questioning-whether God has sufficient
reasons for allowing the evil that exists.
7. Omniscience. While a few like Avicenna and Averroes seem to have held that a
God who lacks certain types of knowledge would be more perfect, most have
claimed that God knows everything. This is sometimes refined, for example, to the
claim that God knows everything that is logically possible to know. An area of
concern going back to Aristotle (On Interpretation 9) is the claim that propositions
about future contingent events (i.e., those whose causes are not determined by
past events) have no truth value. If so they are unknowable, even by an
omniscient being (a view held in modern times by so called Open Theism). Some
have claimed that even if future events have a truth value, they are logically
unknowable. Of special concern is the relationship between omniscience and human
free will: if yesterday God knew infallibly that I would do x today, it seems I have
no alternative but to do x today--a conclusion that seems to violate free will. To
solve this, Boethius and Aquinas appealed to the concept of God's timelessness,
which entails that none of God's knowledge is past or future. Aquinas also said that
God determines all events and determines that they will be done freely. De Molina
objected that this amounts to removing free will. He constructed his own view,
which said that God's knowledge is logically prior to his decree of what will be. God
knows what an individual will do in all possible circumstances (a capacity called
middle knowledge), and he decrees those circumstances in which a person freely
cooperates with the divine plan. Thus foreknowledge is compatible with free will.
Others have conceded that foreknowledge is incompatible with free will but claim
that God voluntarily limits his knowledge of future events so that there can still be
freedom. This makes omniscience a matter of having an ability to know rather than
having specific knowledge. Another solution to the problem of omniscience and
freedom challenges the idea that God's knowledge limits future free actions in any
way. While God knows necessarily that I will do x tomorrow that does not entail
that it is necessary I do x. What God knows is what I will freely choose to do. So
God knows today that I will do x tomorrow because tomorrow I will freely choose
to do x. But if tomorrow I choose to do y, then today God knows that tomorrow I
will do y. This view is consistent with what we know about less than infallible
knowledge of future events. I may know that a person will choose steak over
bologna though I in no way influenced their choice.
8. Impassibility. Various views have been held as to whether God can be affected
by outside influences. Because Aristotle regarded change as inconsistent with
perfection, he concluded that God could not be affected by anything outside
himself. Furthermore, God engages not in feeling, but thinking, and he himself is the
object of his contemplation. God is thus unaffected by the world in any way. The
Stoics ruled out divine passibility because they regarded imperturbability as a virtue,
and God must be the supreme example of it. John of Damascus agreed that God is
imperturbable, but stressed it is because he is sovereign, not because he is
uncaring. Aquinas accepted Aristotle's view that God cannot change and is
impassible. He can act, but nothing can act upon him. So emotions that proceed
from God, such as love and joy, are in God; but other emotions such as anger and
sadness can be ascribed to him only metaphorically. Early, medieval, and
Reformation Christianity generally affirmed that because God could not suffer,
Christ suffered in his humanity but not in his divine nature. However, the idea that
God is unaffected by the world is being rethought in modern times. Moltmann, who
was for a time a German prisoner of war, and Kitamori, a Japanese thinker, both
witnessed World War II and its aftermath. They concluded that God must be
moved by suffering. Richard Creel defends impassibility as being uncontrolled by
outside influences. He says, among other things, that: God has emotions but they
are not controlled by anything outside himself, he takes into account the ultimate
good that will come from suffering, suffering does not make love more admirable,
a God who suffers would be more appropriately an object of pity than of worship,
justice does not require passibility because it need not be based on emotion; and
omniscience does not require passibility because God need know only that a
person has an emotion, he does not need to experience it. A mediating position
would allow emotion in God but not control of him in any way by creatures. God
would be affected by the world but only in the way and to the extent he allows.
9. Goodness. Whereas classical Greek religion ascribed to the gods very human
foibles, theism from Plato onward has affirmed that God is purely good and could
not be the author of anything evil (Republic). In Judaism divine goodness is thought
to be manifested especially in the giving of the law (Torah). In Islam it is thought to
be manifested in divine revelation of truth through the prophets, especially as
revealed in the Qur'an. And in Christianity it is manifested in the gracious granting of
Christ as the way of salvation.
While goodness encompasses all moral perfection (e.g., truth telling, justice),
benevolence is that particular aspect of goodness that wills the benefit of another.
The Reformers, and Protestantism generally, stressed that God's desire for the
benefit of creatures is dependent not on their merits but purely on divine love.
Divine love is not only irrespective of merit but it is shown most clearly where it is
entirely unmerited, as in grace shown to fallen humanity. Therefore divine
forgiveness and redemption are taken as the highest expressions of benevolence.
Benevolence intersects with omnipotence in providence, wherein God orders
events for good ends. It also raises the possibility of a clash between the divine and
human wills, as when a person spurns God's action in the world.
Divine goodness raises the question of whether God wills x because it is good, or x
is good because God wills it. The former seems to weaken divine sovereignty, but
the latter seems to make goodness arbitrary. The arbitrariness may be somewhat
relieved if God's will is understood as bounded by his unchanging character. God
would not, for example, decide to make torturing for enjoyment right since his
nature forever condemns it. The issue has implications for divine command ethics,
according to which acts are right or wrong because God commands or forbids
them (as opposed to, for example, a competing view that acts are right or wrong
according to whether they promote the greatest happiness).
As to our knowledge of divine goodness, Aquinas separates the order of being
from the order of knowing: all goodness derives from God but we understand
divine goodness by extrapolating from the goodness of creatures. For Aquinas, this
requires an analogical (as opposed to an equivocal) relationship between divine and
human goodness. For Kant, divine goodness is known as a postulate of pure
practical reason: God must be there to reward virtue and punish evil.
The greatest challenge to belief in divine goodness has been the fact that evil
exists, or more recently, the amount and type of evil rather than the mere fact of
it. The problem is lessened if it is acknowledged that divine goodness does not
require that each creature always be made to experience as much happiness as it
is capable of experiencing. Reasons may include, for example, that: it is impossible
that all creatures collectively experience maximal happiness (e.g., because the
maximal happiness of one precludes the maximal happiness of another), or that
there is some higher good than the happiness of all creatures (e.g., John Hick's
view that maturity is that higher good, and acquiring it may entail some
displeasure), or that some forms of good are manifested only when certain types
of evil exist (for example, forgiveness requires wrongdoing; mentioned in "6,"
above); or because God's favor is undeserved and not given in response to merit,
it cannot be owed and God cannot be faulted for not giving it.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Davis, Stephen T., Logic and the Nature of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1983). (Deals with challenges to the logical consistency of theism.)
Fiddes, Paul S., The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford, 1988). (In-depth treatment
Hasker, W., God, Time and Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
Hick, John, Evil and the God of Love, rev. ed (San Francisco, CA: Harper &Row,
1978). (Overview of major historical views on evil; concludes that the world is a
place of soul-making.)
Kelly, Joseph F., The Problem of Evil in the Western Tradition: From the Book of
Job to Modern Genetics (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002).
(Comprehensive and accessible survey of western thought on the subject.)
Kenny, A. The God of the Philosophers (Oxford, 1979).
Morris, Thomas V., Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991). (Basic introduction to issues such as
perfect being theology; God's goodness, power, and knowledge.)
Quinn, Philip and Charles Taliaferro eds. A Companion to Philosophy of Religion
(Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997). (Contains 620 pages of articles by authorities;
many of them introduce various aspects of theism, including attributes of God,
pluralism, theism and modern science, and the problem of evil.)
Swinburne, Richard, The Coherence of Theism (Oxford, 1977; rev. 1993).
(Discusses many aspects of theism to show its logical consistency.)
This article can also be found in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
© 2003 by Brian Morley