God is not a god

One thing I’ve found interesting in my study of classical Christian theology, and more recent foray in various Christian apologetics, is how few people really understand the classical arguments for God…including Christians, but especially atheists.

As David Bentley Hart points out succinctly, God is not a god. 

“As it happens, the god with whom most modern popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a “demiurge” [from Plato’s “Timaeus“]….Suffice it to say that the demiurge is a maker, but not a creator in the theological sense: he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo.

It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God. And the same is true of all the other new atheists as far as I can tell. (Hart, “Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss,” p. 36 *)

“Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question….by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe…So Hawking naturally concludes that such a being would be unnecessary.” (ibid, p. 40)

This is important because most, if not all, of the attacks leveled by atheists are not actually against God as described in classical theism.

The New Atheists seem to be arguing against some Cartesian form of dualism or Gilbert Ryle’s “ghost in the machine,” not the robust classical metaphysics of philosophers and theologians going back to Plato and Aristotle, and which was given a more modern Christian definition under Thomas Aquinas (called “Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics”). It’s this deductive argument that seems to be the least understood, yet the most maligned.

In fact, I found an appalling representation of it on the Internet, even among some Christian apologists and philosophers. For instance, I’ve seen over and over again, that the Thomistic argument claims that “everything needs a cause.” This is not the claim at all. Aquinas claimed that everything that goes from potential to actualization (motion, actuality) has a cause, and that at the bottom of this is the first mover or Ground of Being, which we could call “God.”

As I mentioned in the last post, we’ve all inherited a 17th Century worldview that sees a mechanized universe, and even in Christian circles that saw God like a designer, William Paley’s watchmaker, which is deistic more than theistic. This is the demiurge that Dawkins and his ilk actually fight against.

Ancient philosophers and theologians understood God in the way Paul referenced when he spoke to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill:

28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ (Acts 17:28 NKJV *)

A better analogy that represents classical Christian theology would not be that of a watchmaker but of a musician playing music. As long as the musician is playing, the music continues to exist. As soon as the musician stops playing, the music stops existing. Likewise, if God stopped holding all thing together, the universe would cease to exist.

16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col.1:16-17 NASB *)

If you’re interested in a quick study on classical Christian theology, I would like to bring your attention to a YouTube playlist by Mathoma called, “A Defense of Classical Theology.” His is one of the few I’ve seen on the Internet who actually gets Thomistic theology correctly. According to Mathoma’s autobiography in the first clip, he was an atheist who studied philosophy and eventually became a Christian when he finally understood the argument.

Here’s part of the Thomistic Argument from Essence-Existence Distinction given in the video below:

  • For the full formal argument and explanation, go here.

Notice that an ACT of existence (that a thing is) must be joined to essence (what a thing is). We cannot give ourselves existence. Furthermore, at the bottom of this causal chain there must be a Fundamental Member (see 6 and 7 above), and it cannot be like the others in which essence is distinct from existence (contingent). This is what is meant by Subsistent Existence Itself (the “I Am”). And since this is fundamental and not temporal, Big Bang cosmology is not relevant to the argument.

What classical theism argues for is that this Subsistence Existence Itself is what we call “God,” and this is how God actually defined Himself to Moses:

14  And God spoke to Moses, saying, I am THE BEING [ἐγώ εἰμί]; and he said, Thus shall ye say to the children of Israel, THE BEING [ἐγώ εἰμί] has sent me to you.” (Exod.3:14 LXX, brackets added)

Which is exactly how Jesus defined Himself (see also Col.1:16-17 above):

58 Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM [ἐγώ εἰμί].” (John 8:58 NKJV, brackets added)

The diagram from the video below illustrates this categorical distinction:

The distinction made here is that the cosmos is in God, not some “maximally great” god in the cosmos. When we get this straight, we begin to talk about God instead of a god.

And this brings me to one of the many reasons why I believe that atheist’s ontology is incoherent (if they even have stated one). What they have is essentially a removal of the absolute cause of their continuing existence! The diagram below shows this incoherence.

Hopefully, you can see the ontological problem atheists have, and that they’re not actually arguing against God but against the gods of mythology…a god of the gaps, which is a category error. What’s ironic is that the ancient Aristotelian-Thomistic view is actually more compatible with quantum mechanics than the modern mechanistic materialist worldview (more on that another time).

I highly recommend you watch the whole playlist mentioned above, or at least watch this clip below, to help you properly understand what we mean by God. Especially if you’re a Christian because this is the foundation of classical Christian theology. Don’t accept poor representations of this argument. Of course, you could read Summa Theologica yourself but that may take a lot longer (3,500 pages) and it may be a bit harder to understand.

* All emphasis added.
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About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 38 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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27 Responses to God is not a god

  1. John Branyan says:

    The chart is extremely helpful for visualizing the somewhat confusing concept of “essence” and “existence”. So it will be summarily ignored by the nitwit atheists reading your blog.

    You (and Bentley Hart) have put your finger on the problem of conversing with a modern heathen. They never get around to discussing “God”. They can’t get out of The Pantheon. Their concept of God is the angry old man hurling lightning at non-believers. Then they accuse Christians of believing in Unicorns and Fairies.

    It will be interesting to see if the godless representatives engage on this subject. I’m going to wager they will not.

  2. jim- says:

    Demiurge is more of a Mormon stance than a mainstream Christian stance. They teach god organized the world from existing materials over a six period creation. Christians have been mostly opposed to agreeing to anything Mormon in nature. I’d say individual Christians are at about 50/50 on this, but nothing to make a blanket statement about. Just like Athiests, not like atheists with a small a. There is my hairsplitting for the day.

    • jim- says:

      And you guys can’t even agree on what you agree on, so it’s a stretch for you to categorize atheists as to what type of god/God they don’t believe in.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Technically true. I believe Hart is using demiurge in a categorical sense, not in the specific sense. In other words, this is not a God who is categorically different than contingent beings of Greek mythology. This ‘god’ would be more like Plato’s demiurge than that of classical theology. This is the “god” that Dawkins and Hawking had argued against in their popular books, which Hart goes into detail to show in his book.

      Yes, I agree that there are differences in views among Christian theologians because the study involves human beings, so we won’t see it perfectly. Although, I would not include Mormons on the list of orthodoxy for that and several other reasons. There is agreement in orthodoxy where it matters.

      The “blanket statement” about atheists is because that’s all I’ve seen as an argument against theism. It’s not against the classical position but against a particular (straw man) position that’s easy to knock down in a rather vacuous way without even really grasping the philosophical argument being made.

  3. Mark Dohle says:

    Good post, thank you. I have often wondered how atheist could equate Zeus and the other ‘gods’ with ‘God’. It is an everlasting mystery, that is why Christ Jesus had to incarnate in order to let us know about the Infinite Love of God. Any ‘God’ once understood, becomes truly a ‘god’. Usually a scary one. I guess we Christians have made the mistake of making God into our own image and likeness, instead of allowing grace to bring to full maturity God’s life and love in our souls.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Good point on why the incarnation of Christ. This is also Paul’s argument for why this particular “God” as he tied this event with what the Athenian philosophers already understood:

      28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
      29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:28-31)

  4. I think it’s interesting that some Christian philosophers, in the contemporary era, have stayed away from classical theism. This includes people like William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Swinburne.

    Ed Feser has been critical of theists wanting to abandon classical theism in favor of “theistic personalism”.

    • Mel Wild says:

      That is interesting. William Lane Craig said that he was trained in Thomistic metaphysics but “didn’t buy it.” Quite a strange thing to say when you realize his own particular position is a lot weaker on this standpoint (or, at least, more confusing the categories).

      Ed Feser is another good philosopher/theologian to read. I believe he says these things because he was also was an atheist for awhile and came back to Christianity as soon as he understood the classical argument.

  5. It’s also annoying to hear some people not understand the difference between “deism” and classical theism. In our times, “deism” is a term that is just thrown around whenever some person is talking about some form of generic theism.

  6. “A better analogy that represents classical Christian theology would not be that of a watchmaker but of a musician playing music.”

    Very interesting, Mel! I’ve been intuitively saying the same thing since forever. Here in atheist-ville, the mechanical universe is very prevalent. Steampunk is now very popular, an artistic manifestation of that watchmaker mentality. I am forever saying, “but we need to close our eyes and feel the music!” Once you hear the music, you realize there really is a Musician.

    I enjoy steampunk, rusty gears, the victorian flavor and romance of the mechanized watchmakers, but they also make me really sad, too. They cannot hear the music, they argue against it’s very existence! Why? That’s like trying to reason away love! Who does that and why? Tragically,we have Christians today, doing that very same thing.

    Obviously, I am floating out in the more emotional, intuitive side of apologetics, but it brings me to the same place, “for in Him we live and move and have our being…”

    • Mel Wild says:

      Exactly. This is what renders the atheist’s question, “Why do I need God?” absurd. You might as well say, “Why do I need to exist?” It’s the ultimate hubris! Unfortunately, most Christians argue the watchmaker analogy which is very weak and inaccurate (and obsolete in light of quantum mechanics). I actually agree with atheists who don’t believe in that version of ‘god.’ But when we understand the classical argument, these comparisons become irrelevant–a category mistake. They are arguing against a “god of the gaps,” a deist god who did something 14 million years ago and is irrelevant to our everyday lives now. But, when you fully understand Aquinas’s argument, he totally destroys this notion of God. And it also makes clear why God defined Himself as “I am.”

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