Thomas Schärtl, Christian Tapp, and Veronika Wegener, eds. Rethinking the Concept of a Personal God: Classical Theism, Personal Theism, and Alternative Concepts of God. Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2016, pp. 249, $76.00.
In this collection of essays, a set of German and English speaking theologians and philosophers come together to discuss competing conceptions of God. To be honest, this collection of essays was a bit of a struggle for me. There are several reasons for this that are worth noting.
In several of the essays, it was not clear that the authors were using demarcations that I would use to distinguish between competing conceptions of God. To be sure, this is not necessarily a strike against the book. It just shows a particular disconnect that I felt with the authors. For example, in Oliver Wiertz’s essay, “Classical Theism,” Wiertz takes the reader through a carefully nuanced account of perfect being theology for the purposes of defending classical theism. This is a well-written and rigorously argued paper. However, Wiertz makes it clear that the classical theism that he is defending is the God of open theism. On open theism, God is temporal, passible, mutable in certain respects, and lacks exhaustive foreknowledge of the future. This is quite different from classical theism. On most standard accounts of classical theism, God is taken to be timeless, impassible, immutable in all respects, and possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of the future. So although I found Wiertz’s essay to be a compelling defense of open theism, I did not find it to be a defense of classical theism. One might think that I am being nit-picky about terminology here, but there is a fairly widespread consensus that classical theism and open theism are distinct conceptions of God. (E.g., see the essays in Jeanine Diller and Asa Kasher, eds., Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities, 2013.)
Another problem that I discovered with encountering this book is a lack of clear definitions in terminology. Several of the essays in this collection do not offer definitions of key terms, nor present easily identifiable arguments for their position. In Gunnar Hindrichs’ “Proofs of God’s Existence as Self-Determination of Thinking” I am told that God is the uprooting of thought. After reading the essay, I am still not certain what this means. Though this essay is written in English, it contains quite a bit of untranslated German and Latin. So it might be the case that Hindrichs offered definitions for his terms, and that I missed them due to my ignorance of the German language. In Hans-Joachim Höhn’s “Divine Action in the World,” a substance ontology is rejected, and a relational ontology is put in its place. Höhn’s claims that relations and constellations are the fundamental categories in this ontology. However, there is no definition of ‘constellations’ to be found in the essay leaving me lost as to how to put the pieces of this ontology together.
Despite the theme of the book being about alternative concepts of God, several of the essays do not clearly present an alternative concept of God. Thomas Marschler’s, “Substantiality and Personality in the Scholastic Doctrine of God,” offers a useful history of the concept of substantiality and personality. However, it does not develop a robust concept of God. Hans Kraml’s, “The God of Philosophy—The God of the Qur’an: A Problem for Medieval Islamic Philosophy,” gives a bit of an overview of certain Islamic thinkers, but never goes into detail about what those thinkers believed about God. Howard Robinson’s, “Idealism and Orthodox Christian Theism,” offers a lucid articulation of idealism, but says very little about the nature of God.
That being said, there were several essays in this volume that stood out to me as developing clear and distinct conceptions of God that are worth considering. As I noted before, Wiertz’s essay offers a rigorous account of perfect being theology. I have already made it clear that I do not think that he has presented a defense of classical theism. However, it seems to me that he has offered a clear case for open theism on the basis of perfect being theology. Anyone who is interested in examining competing conceptions of God will want to consider this.
Peter Forrest’s, “God as a Person: A Defense of Anthropomorphic Theism,” develops his ideas on God as an embodied agent. I have been following Forrest’s work for several years. He is an entertaining thinker to read, and he always offers careful arguments for his views. In this essay, Forrest offers several arguments against Aristotelian and Thomistic conceptions of God, and then mounts a defense of his own version of personal pantheism. He considers issues related to religious language as well as the mind-body problem, and their relevance to the God-world relationship.
My main interest in this book is Benedikt Paul Göcke’s essay, “The Paraconsistent God.” In the introduction to this book, Göcke is referred to as “one of the most outspoken defenders of analytic panentheism in Germany” (p. 1). Over the years, Göcke has written several important essays articulating and defending panentheism as the most theologically adequate conception of God. In “The Paraconsistent God,” he develops his understanding of divine infinity in order to further develop his account of panentheism. Göcke distinguishes several different understandings of infinity before landing on the sense of infinity that he claims applies to God. God is infinite in that God possesses every property and its denial. As such, the law of non-contradiction does not apply to God. This is what Göcke means by God being paraconsistent—God possesses every property and its denial. Of course, this has a rather odd entailment that Göcke does not consider. If the paraconsistent God has every property and its denial, that means that the following statements are both true of God. It is true that <God is paraconsistent>. It is also true that <God is not paraconsistent>. Since the law of non-contradiction does not apply to the paraconsistent God, this may not be a problem for the view, but it certainly sounds odd to the say the least.
For readers of this journal, Rethinking the Concept of a Personal God may not be the most useful for delving deeper into competing conceptions of God. For some seminary students, a few of these essays may prove useful for your studies.
R. T. Mullins
University of St Andrews
Conceptions of God in monotheist, pantheist, and panentheist religions – or of the supreme deity in henotheistic religions – can extend to various levels of abstraction:
- as a powerful, human-like, supernatural being, or as the deification of an esoteric, mystical or philosophical entity or category;
- as the "Ultimate", the summum bonum, the "Absolute Infinite", the "Transcendent", or Existence or Being itself;
- as the ground of being, the monisticsubstrate, that which we cannot understand; and so on.
The first recordings that survive of monotheistic conceptions of God, borne out of henotheism and (mostly in Eastern religions) monism, are from the Hellenistic period. Of the many objects and entities that religions and other belief systems across the ages have labeled as divine, the one criterion they share is their acknowledgement as divine by a group or groups of human beings.
Hellenistic philosophy and religion
Main article: Aristotelian view of God
In his Metaphysics, Aristotle discusses meaning of "being as being". Aristotle holds that "being" primarily refers to the Unmoved Movers, and assigned one of these to each movement in the heavens. Each Unmoved Mover continuously contemplates its own contemplation, and everything that fits the second meaning of "being" by having its source of motion in itself, moves because the knowledge of its Mover causes it to emulate this Mover (or should).
Aristotle's definition of God attributes perfection to this being, and as a perfect being can only contemplate upon perfection and not on imperfection, otherwise perfection would not be one of his attributes. God, according to Aristotle, is in a state of "stasis" untouched by change and imperfection. The "unmoved mover" is very unlike the conception of God that one sees in most religions. It has been likened to a person who is playing dominos and pushes one of them over, so that every other domino in the set is pushed over as well, without the being having to do anything about it. Although, in the 18th century, the French educator Allan Kardec brought a very similar conception of God during his work of codifying Spiritism, this differs to the interpretation of God in most religions, where he is seen to be personally involved in his creation.
Main article: The All
"The All" is the Hermetic version of God. It has also been called "The One", "The Great One", "The Creator", "The Supreme Mind", "The Supreme Good", "The Father" and "The Universal Mother". The All is seen by some to be a panentheistic conception of God, subsuming everything that is or can be experienced. One Hermetic maxim states that "While All is in THE ALL, it is equally true that THE ALL is in All." (Three Initiates p. 95) The All can also be seen to be hermaphroditic, possessing both masculine and feminine qualities in equal part (The Way of Hermes p. 19 Book 1:9). These qualities are, however, of mental gender, as The All lacks physical sex.
According to The Kybalion, The All is more complicated than simply being the sum total of the universe. Rather than The All being simply the physical universe, it is said that everything in the universe is within the mind of The All, since The All can be looked at as Mind itself (Three Initiates pp. 96–7). The All's mind is thought to be infinitely more powerful and vast than humans can possibly achieve (Three Initiates p. 99), and possibly capable of keeping track of every particle in the Universe. The Kybalion states that nothing can be outside of The All or The All would not be The All.
The All may also be a metaphor alluding to the godhead potentiality of every individual. "[God]... That invisible power which all know does exist, but understood by many different names, such as God, Spirit, Supreme Being, Intelligence, Mind, Energy, Nature and so forth." In the Hermetic Tradition, each and every person has the potential to become God, this idea or concept of God is perceived as internal rather than external. The All is also an allusion to the observer created universe. We create our own reality; hence we are the architect, The All. Another way would to be to say that the mind is the builder. Freemasonry often includes concepts of God as an external entity, however, esoteric masonic teachings clearly identify God as the individual himself: the perceiver. We are all God and as such we create our own reality. Although others believe God to be abstract. Meaning he is not seen in reality, but understood through deep contemplation. He is all around us everyday, just hiding in the miracles and beauty of our Earth.
Main article: God in Abrahamic religions
Judaism, Christianity and Islam (and also the Bahá'í Faith) see God as a being who created the world and who rules over the universe. God is usually held to have the following properties: holiness, justice, sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, benevolence and omnipresence. It is also believed to be transcendent, meaning that God is outside space and time. Therefore, God is eternal, unchangeable and unaffected by earthly forces or anything else within its creation.
Main article: God in Judaism
Jewish monotheism is a continuation of earlier Hebrew henotheism, the exclusive worship of the God of Israel (YHWH) as prescribed in the Torah and practiced at the Temple of Jerusalem. Strict monotheism emerges in Hellenistic Judaism and Rabbinical Judaism. Pronunciation of the proper name of the God of Israel came to be avoided in the Hellenistic era (Second Temple Judaism) and instead Jews refer to God as HaShem, meaning "the Name". In prayer and reading of scripture, the Tetragrammaton YHWH) is substituted with Adonai ("my Lord").
Judaism traditionally teaches that God is neither matter nor spirit. God is the creator of both, but is Himself neither, and is beyond all constructs of space and time. There are two aspects of God: God Himself, who in the end is unknowable, and the revealed aspect of God, which created the universe, preserves the universe, and interacts with mankind in a personal way. In Judaism, the principle statement of monotheism is the Shema, a passage in the Torah which states, "Listen, Israel, HaShem is our God HaShem is one." Maimonides stated in his 13 principles of faith that God is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created, that He is One, there is no unity in any manner like His, and He alone is God; that He is free from all the properties of matter and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever; that He is eternal, and is the first and the last; that He knows all the deeds of human beings and all their thoughts; that He rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those that transgress them; and that at a time when it pleases God, He will revive the dead.
Some Kabbalistic thinkers have held the belief that all of existence is itself a part of God, and that we as humanity are unaware of our own inherent godliness and are grappling to come to terms with it. The standing view in Hasidism currently, is that there is nothing in existence outside of God – all being is within God, and yet all of existence cannot contain Him. Regarding this, Solomon stated while dedicating the Temple, "But will God in truth dwell with mankind on the earth? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You."
Modern Jewish thinkers have constructed a wide variety of other ideas about God. Hermann Cohen believed that God should be identified with the "archetype of morality," an idea reminiscent of Plato's idea of the Good.Mordecai Kaplan believed that God is the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled.
Main article: God in Christianity
Within Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity states that God is a single being that exists, simultaneously and eternally, as a perichoresis of three hypostases (i.e. persons; personae, prosopa): the Father (the Source, the Eternal Majesty); the Son (the eternal Logos ("Word"), manifest in human form as Jesus and thereafter as Christ); and the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete or advocate). Since the 4th Century AD, in both Eastern and Western Christianity, this doctrine has been stated as "One God in Three Persons", all three of whom, as distinct and co-eternal "persons" or "hypostases", share a single divine essence, being, or nature.
Following the First Council of Constantinople, the Son is described as eternally be gotten by the Father ("begotten of his Father before all worlds"). This generation does not imply a beginning for the Son or an inferior relationship with the Father. The Son is the perfect image of his Father, and is consubstantial with him. The Son returns that love, and that union between the two is the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is consubstantial and co-equal with the Father and the Son. Thus, God contemplates and loves himself, enjoying infinite and perfect beatitude within himself. This relationship between the other two persons is called procession. Although the theology of the Trinity is accepted in most Christian churches, there are theological differences, notably between Catholic and Orthodox thought on the procession of the Holy Spirit (see filioque). Some Christian communions do not accept the Trinitarian doctrine, at least not in its traditional form. Notable groups include the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christadelphians, Unitarians, Arians, and Adoptionists.
Within Christianity, Unitarianism is the view that God consists of only one person, the Father, instead of three persons as Trinitarianism states. Unitarians believe that mainstream Christianity has been corrupted over history, and that it is not strictly monotheistic. There are different Unitarian views on Jesus, ranging from seeing him purely as a man who was chosen by God, to seeing him as a divine being, as the Son of God who had pre-existence. Thus, Unitarianism is typically divided into two principal groups:
- Arianism, which believes in the pre-existence of the Logos, and holds that the Son was God's first creation.
- Socinianism, the view that Jesus was a mere man, and had no existence before his birth.
Even though the term "unitarian" did not first appear until the 17th century in reference to the Polish Brethren, the basic tenets of Unitarianism go back to the time of Arius in the 4th century, an Alexandrian priest that taught the doctrine that only the Father was God, and that the Son had been created by the Father. Arians rejected the term "homoousios" (consubstantial) as a term describing the Father and Son, viewing such term as compromising the uniqueness and primacy of God, and accused it of dividing the indivisible unit of the divine essence. Unitarians trace their history back to the Apostolic Age, arguing, as do Trinitarians and Binitarians, that their Christology most closely reflects that of the early Christian community and Church Fathers.
Main article: Binitarianism
Binitarianism is the view within Christianity that there were originally two beings in the Godhead – the Father and the Word – that became the Son (Jesus the Christ). Binitarians normally believe that God is a family, currently consisting of the Father and the Son. Some binitarians[who?] believe that others will ultimately be born into that divine family. Hence, binitarians are nontrinitarian, but they are also not unitarian. Binitarians, like most unitarians and trinitarians, claim their views were held by the original New Testament Church. Unlike most unitarians and trinitarians who tend to identify themselves by those terms, binitarians normally do not refer to their belief in the duality of the Godhead, with the Son subordinate to the Father; they simply teach the Godhead in a manner that has been termed as binitarianism.
The word "binitarian" is typically used by scholars and theologians as a contrast to a trinitarian theology: a theology of "two" in God rather than a theology of "three", and although some critics prefer to use the term ditheist or dualist instead of binitarian, those terms suggests that God is not one, yet binitarians believe that God is one family. It is accurate to offer the judgment that most commonly when someone speaks of a Christian "binitarian" theology the "two" in God are the Father and the Son... A substantial amount of recent scholarship has been devoted to exploring the implications of the fact that Jesus was worshipped by those first Jewish Christians, since in Judaism "worship" was limited to the worship of God" (Barnes M. Early Christian Binitarianism: the Father and the Holy Spirit. Early Christian Binitarianism - as read at NAPS 2001). Much of this recent scholarship has been the result of the translations of the Nag Hammadi and other ancient manuscripts that were not available when older scholarly texts (such as Wilhelm Bousset'sKyrios Christos, 1913) were written.
Main article: God in Mormonism
In the Mormonism represented by most of Mormon communities, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "God" means Elohim (the Father), whereas "Godhead" means a council of three distinct gods; Elohim, Jehovah (the Son, or Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. The Father and Son have perfected, material bodies, while the Holy Spirit is a spirit and does not have a body. This conception differs from the traditional Christian Trinity; in Mormonism, the three persons are considered to be physically separate beings, or personages, but united in will and purpose. As such, the term "Godhead" differs from how it is used in traditional Christianity. This description of God represents the orthodoxy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), established early in the 19th century. However, the Mormon concept of God has expanded since the faith's founding in the late 1820s.
Main articles: Allah and God in Islam
Islam's most fundamental concept is a strict monotheism called tawḥīd. God is described in the Qur'an as: "Say: He is God, the One; God, the Eternal, the Absolute; He begot no one, nor is He begotten; Nor is there to Him equivalent anyone."." Muslims deny the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and divinity of Jesus, comparing it to polytheism. In Islam, God is beyond all comprehension or equal and does not resemble any of his creations in any way. Thus, Muslims are not iconodules and are not expected to visualize God. The message of God is carried by angels to 124,000 messengers starting with Adam and concluding with Mohammad. God is described and referred in the Quran by certain names or attributes, the most common being Al-Rahman, meaning "Most Compassionate" and Al-Rahim, meaning "Most Merciful" (see Names of God in Islam).
Muslims believe that creation of everything in the universe is brought into being by God’s sheer command “‘Be’ and so it is.” and that the purpose of existence is to please God, both by worship and by good deeds. He is viewed as a personal God who responds whenever a person in need or distress calls Him. There are no intermediaries, such as clergy, to contact God: “We are nearer to him than (his) jugular vein”
Allāh (Arabic: الله Allāh), without plural or gender is the divine name of the lord mentioned in the Quran, while "ʾilāh" (Arabic: إله ellāh) is the term used for a deity or a god in general.
Main article: God in the Bahá'í Faith
Bahá'ís believe in a single, imperishable God, the creator of all things, including all the creatures and forces in the universe. In Bahá'í belief, God is beyond space and time but is also described as "a personal God, unknowable, inaccessible, the source of all Revelation, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent and almighty." Though inaccessible directly, God is nevertheless seen as conscious of creation, possessing a mind, will and purpose. Bahá'ís believe that God expresses this will at all times and in many ways, including Manifestations, a series of divine "messengers" or "educators". In expressing God's intent, these manifestations are seen to establish religion in the world. Bahá'í teachings state that God is too great for humans to fully comprehend, nor to create a complete and accurate image. Bahá'u'lláh often refers to God by titles, such as the "All-Powerful" or the "All-Loving".
Main articles: Apophatic theology and Cataphatic theology
Some Jewish, Christian and Muslim Medieval philosophers, including Moses Maimonides and Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as many sages of other religions, developed what is termed as apophatic theology or the Via Negativa, the idea that one cannot posit attributes to God and can only discuss what God is not. For example, we cannot say that God "exists" in the usual sense of the term, because that term is human defined and God's qualities such as existence may not be accurately characterized by it. What we can safely say is that it cannot be proven empirically or otherwise that God is existent, therefore God is not non-existent. Likewise God's "wisdom" is of a fundamentally different kind from limited human perception. So we cannot use the word "wise" to describe God, because this implies God is wise in the way we usually describe humans being wise. However we can safely say that God is not ignorant. We should not say that God is One, because we may not truly understand Gods nature, but we can state that there is no multiplicity in God's being. In the Holy Quran it is stated that God possess no quality of God's creation, which means that there cannot be a He or She used to describe God. To say that God is angered or feels any kind of emotion is a misunderstanding. Emotion is in common to all humans; it is what gives them their essence, though to feel love, anger, jealousy, or happiness clouds and misguides our judgment and may lead us to make a weak decision or do something unfair. Therefore, One who sees all and can feel all does not need any emotion to make a decision. God is beyond emotion and other human biases.
The reason that this theology was developed was because it was felt that ascribing positive characteristics to God would imply that God could be accurately described with terms that were used to describe human qualities and perceptions. As humans cannot truly comprehend what kind of wisdom an eternal transcendent being might have, or what infinity might be like, we cannot in fact know or characterize his true nature. It is beyond human ability and would only mislead people. The proponents of this theory often experienced meditation, which they viewed as the only effective way of having a personal relationship with God. It involved trying to reach beyond the words commonly used to describe him and his more ineffable characteristics, and to comprehend in a mystical manner the truths about him which could not be achieved through religious language. Thus many sages and saints of both monotheistic and other traditions described mystical trances, or raptures and stated they were unable to describe God or their visions fully.
Main article: God in Jainism
Jainism does not support belief in a creator deity. According to Jain doctrine, the universe and its constituents—soul, matter, space, time, and principles of motion—have always existed. All the constituents and actions are governed by universalnatural laws. It is not possible to create matter out of nothing and hence the sum total of matter in the universe remains the same (similar to law of conservation of mass). Jain text claims that the universe consists of Jiva (life force or souls) and Ajiva (lifeless objects). Similarly, the soul of each living being is unique and uncreated and has existed since beginningless time.[a]
The Jain theory of causation holds that a cause and its effect are always identical in nature and hence a conscious and immaterial entity like God cannot create a material entity like the universe. Furthermore, according to the Jain concept of divinity, any soul who destroys its karmas and desires, achieves liberation/Nirvana. A soul who destroys all its passions and desires has no desire to interfere in the working of the universe. Moral rewards and sufferings are not the work of a divine being, but a result of an innate moral order in the cosmos; a self-regulating mechanism whereby the individual reaps the fruits of his own actions through the workings of the karmas.
Through the ages, Jain philosophers have adamantly rejected and opposed the concept of creator and omnipotent God. This has resulted in Jainism being labeled as nastika darsana (atheist philosophy) by rival religious philosophies. The theme of non-creationism and absence of omnipotent God and divine grace runs strongly in all the philosophical dimensions of Jainism, including its cosmology, concepts of karma and moksa and its moral code of conduct. Jainism asserts a religious and virtuous life is possible without the idea of a creator god.