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Western Concepts of God

Western Concepts of God

Publisher: Rafed Network


Western Concepts of God

Author: CulturalRafed Network



This versionis published on behalf of www.alhassanain.org/english

The composing errorsare not corrected .

Table of Contents

Introduction 5

A. Sources of Western Concepts of God 6

B. Historical Overview 7

1. Greeks 8

2. Early Christian Thought 10

3. Medieval Thought 12

4. Renaissance Thought 16

5. Enlightenment 18

6. Modern Period 21


1. Incorporeality 25

2. Simplicity 26

3. Unity 27

4. Eternity 28

5. Immutability 29

6. Omnipotence 30

7. Omniscience 31

8. Impassibility 32

9. Goodness 33

Suggestions for Further Reading 35


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, Godhas traditionally been referred to by the masculine pronoun.

Concepts of God in philosophyare 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 hisjudaistic 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.

Experiencescan 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.

Revelationcan 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). Reasonhas 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

1. Greeks

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 toParmenedes , all change was apparent.

ThePythagorians found order and permanence in mathematics, giving it religious significance as ultimate being.

The Stoics identified order with divine reason.

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 universeis 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 inan of itself.

God must be a first cause and a self-moved moverotherwise 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 planetmust 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 contingentthings 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 asperfect 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, Godis 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 (exdeo ) 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 impersonalIt 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 truthinhere 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 theywere 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 (exnihilo) 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 forevil 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 ofCitium , that God is a perfect being.

After enumerating a hierarchy ofexcellencies (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.

JohnScotus 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 tendenciescan 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 theprocess 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 butcan 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 mystical experience.

3. Medieval Thought

IslamicNeoplatonist 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 overtime God brings out its form.

Thought is one emanation from God, and throughit knowledge arises in humans.

The actualized human intellect becomes an immortal substance.

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.

Assuch 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.

Theyare 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 contingentthings 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 aNeoplatonic 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 thatentities 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, andthese 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 positivecould be said about God.

Bonaventura (John ofFidanza , c. 1221-1274) argued that theAristotlean denial of Platonic ideas would entail that God knows himself but not the world.

Assuch 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 Aristotelianconcepts 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 isnot unreasonable .

Perception is also in harmony because the world's origins are divine.

This being the case, God as causecan be known through the world as effect.

For this reason empirical facts ground Aquinas's theistic proofs.

The God thatcan be known in part from the universe is fundamentally different from it.

Only God is identical to his essence, being neither more nor less thanit .

By contrast, a being such as Socratesis 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 socannot be known in that way.

We can know something of God the negative way (vianegativa ) by removing limits, concluding for example, that God isunmoved, 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 revealedto 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 some suffering).

Aquinas and others grounded the scholastic synthesis of knowledge in the view that truth, morality, and God himselfcould 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 DunsScotus (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 medievalworld 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 ofworld 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 andworld 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 besuprarational .

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 temporallevel it makes sense to differentiate time as well as events.

4. Renaissance Thought

God moved out of the intellectual center of knowledge as faithwas 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 Aristotelianworld view , with its emphasis on such things as divine purpose.

Regularities such as those discovered inKepler'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 tobe 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, thenit is God who must choose some to be right with him.

Since the Reformers affirmed that divine choicecannot 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 thefallenness of the will led to their distrust in reason as a source of information about the spiritual realm, including God.

Anunfallen 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 realmwas later emphasized bySoren Kierkegaard (1813-55) and Karl Barth (1886-1968).

5. Enlightenment

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 seemedconfirmed in the discoveries of scientists like Newton andKepler , 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 ofCherbury (1583-1648) claimed simply that there is one supreme God, whoshould 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 miracleswere 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 Godwere 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 wouldnot 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 asnot merely uncaused , but somehow the cause of himself.

John Locke (1632-1704) held a view reminiscent of scholasticism, that revelation reveals about God whatcannot be known by reason alone--yet neither does revelation violate reason.

He went beyond the scholastics to affirm that what violates reasoncannot 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 hisjudaistic 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 animmanent 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 calledthem, are centers of psychic energy.

They do not act causally on each other but are coordinated in a grand harmonypreestablished 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 andcan, as an act of love, reveal his nature in the greatest possible way.

Leibniz made God the source ofcausality, 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 atall 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.