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God, man, and classical theism


Could the God of the philosophers possibly be the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? A follow-up to my recent post on classical theism.

Comments (50)

A thought occurs to me, and I wonder what a Thomist take on it would be: Should we not consider that there are levels of anthropomorphism and analogy? What I mean is this: Could not a Thomist agree that it is _less anthropomorphic_ to speak of God as having wrath than to speak of God (not incarnate) as having hands?

To me that seems correct. That is, there is _something_ in God that corresponds to or is analogous to wrath, but there is _nothing_ in God that corresponds to hands. The phrase "seated at the right hand of God" is a _pure_ figure of speech intended to indicate Christ's relation to the power and authority of the Father. "The wrath of God abides on him" is not by a pure figure of speech in anything like the same way.

And similarly with knowledge and with thoughts, both of which Scripture attributes to God. It would be, I think, confusing to say that a reference to God's thoughts in Scripture is anthropomorphic as we would say of a reference to God's hands. It isn't necessary for us to take it that when we say God knows things or has thoughts we are simply saying that God has experiences exactly like ours--that, in other words, we know what it's like to be God. (After all, we don't even know what it's like to be a bat!) God says that his ways are higher than our ways and that His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. That's got to count for something and make us hesitant about ascribing _type identical_ mental states to God and ourselves. On the other hand, if we are too hesitant we could end up seeming to deny that God _has thoughts_ in _any_ sense that we have _any_ notion of. So again, I think we should be reluctant to say that references to God's thoughts are just the same as references to God's hands, eyelids, chariot (the clouds), etc. There seems to be a distinction here to be made and that we should say that there really is something in God that corresponds to thoughts but nothing in God that corresponds to eyelids.

I'm _guessing_ Thomas would agree.

You're right, Ed: the argument from authority is weak except when the authority appealed to is God. So I'll appeal to it.

According to Jesus, "no one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him." (Matt 11:27). "No one," of course, is utterly exclusivistic. It admits of no exceptions, including another of your favorite "A" thinkers, Aristotle. He is in the same predicament as are we all. Unless we get our knowledge of God from the Son, we do not get it, period. It is impossible. The words are not mine; they are His. They are words from the Divine authority whom you yourself identify as the highest authority, He cannot be gainsayed. No one at all knows the Father by any other means. That's because only God knows God. If He does not tell us about him, we cannot know Him. He has told us about Himself, He says, in Christ. That's another way of saying what Jesus says elsewhere: No one (There it is again - no one) comes to the Father except by means of Him.

To underscore the point from another dominical saying, the connection between Father and Son is so complete, so intimate, so enduring, and so exclusive that when His disciples asked Him to show them the Father, all He had to say was "He who has seen me has seen the Father." "I and my father are one." He did not tell them that, in order to know or to see God, they should sit quietly and contemplate nature, or that they should read Aristotle's philosophy. Living centuries after Aristotle, He easily could have made the suggestion, had he thought it a good one, and they easily could have carried it out. But He did not, because that simply won't work. If you want to see the Father, you have to see the Son. God is Christologically defined and revealed and Christologically revealed -- and according to Him, exclusively so. Epistemologically, the Father and Son are a package deal. You cannot have One without The Other. "No one" can.

Even in the prologue to the Gospel of John, which is the most philosophically sympathetic passage in the NT (at least toward the Stoics) the net result is the same: despite all that the Logos does inside every man (v. 9), when He arrives, they do not know Him and they do not receive Him (v. 10). They kill him. As Paul says in Romans 1, we suppress the truth, crucifixion of the Logos being the ultimate form of suppression.

Here's how you can tell if someone is suppressing the truth about God, here's how to tell if they know God: Do they recognize the irreducible plurality of God? To begin where the Bible begins, when God first speaks about Himself, He says, "Let us make man in our image." The real God, the one God who is, the only God who is, the one beside whom there is no other, is communal: "us," "our." If you do not have that, you do not have God. You might have false gods, non-existent Gods, like Moloch or Allah, but you do not have Yahweh. Yahweh is not like a prescription drug -- He has no generic equivalent. You have Him or you do not. If you have Him, you have a commnunal God. If your God is not communal -- and no philosophically devised God is , you do not have the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Indeed, even the name Elohim is a plural form.

Mr. Bauman, I hope I am not being rude by pointing out that you haven't made an actual argument. You have simply asserted that no knowledge of God can be had independent of revelation. An assertion, though, is not an argument.

For instance, if I say that:

All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore Socrates is mortal

You can do one of two things. You can show that one or both of the premises are false or you can show that the conclusion does not follow from the premises even if they happen to be true. What you cannot do, however, is simply assert that we cannot know whether or not Socrates is a mortal, for if the premises are true and the conclusion logically follows from them we have what most people would call knowledge.

If the philosophical reasoning behind the arguments for God's existence, immutability, immateriality, simplicity, etc. are sound then they are sound. You cannot simply deny that we have knowledge when the argument shows that we do indeed have knowledge. Either demonstrate how the reasoning is faulty somewhere or acknowledge their truth. These are your only two options if you intend to contribute to a rational discussion.

Another mistake in your reasoning is confusing the ways of considering with the object considered. I do not know of any theologian or philosopher who claims that perfect knowledge of God is attainable through natural reason. In fact, Church tradition claims the exact opposite. It is not enough, then, to show that you cannot arrive at the Trinity, or God as revealed to Moses through natural reason since natural reason does not consider God in this way. Natural philosophy considers God in many ways: ultimate good, pure act, first cause, etc. This does not, however, exclude God as revealed simply because it does not consider him as such. That is like saying that to consider man biologically is to say that he cannot be considered politically or chemically. This is obviously false. In the same way, showing that the way natural reason considers God is different from the way revelation considers God is, in a certain sense, absolutely trivial. What you have not done is show that these different ways of considering are incompatible with one another, which would involve arguing on Edward Feser's terms. You have not done this for the reasons I have shown in the first three paragraphs.

What did reason ever do to you that you should hate it so much?


Yes, a Thomist would agree, though I suspect that we might differ on how to interpret the claims in question. E.g. since for a Thomist God is simple and timeless, His "thoughts" cannot be construed as involving reasoning from premises to conclusions, recalling past events to His mind, deliberating about what to do, etc. God doesn't have to "reason," "remember," or "deliberate"; He just knows everything, all at once as it were.


You're right, Ed: the argument from authority is weak

Then you might try responding to the other four arguments I gave. I won't hold my breath.

E. R. Bourne,

Bauman never makes an actual argument. Nor does he ever reply to the arguments presented against him. I've made the points you've made, and responded to the assertions Bauman makes here, many times in the past, as have others. He never answers the objections, but just keeps repeating himself. Don't waste your time.

EF - many thanks for another wonderfully clear account of some very difficult ideas.

More headaches for my students!

Michael Bauman - I second E.R. Bourne's question (if I understand it correctly). Is some version of the cosmological argument, as it has come down to us from Aristotle by way of Aquinas, convincing, or not?

(Personally, in the last couple of years, I've gone from finding the first three of the "Five Ways" no-more-than-slightly-interesting to almost-completely-persuasive, largely thanks to EF.)

And if the argument *is* convincing, than must not this metaphysically ultimate being, or force, or however we're supposed to think of him, be identical to God - whom-or-whatever else we may take him to be?

Or does the Triune God of Christianity somehow coexist with this metaphysically ultimate being, or force?

Or is there no successful version of the cosmological argument?

Or are there other possibilities I'm missing?

Best - Steve

Thanks, Steve!

btw - I see, and admire, in Michael Bauman the blazing faith of some of my own ancestors, who would have spurned all scholastic hair-splitting as a snare & delusion.

And, you know what? They were better men than me. (Not that that's a particularly strong claim).

Still, I have questions...

God doesn't have to "reason," "remember," or "deliberate"; He just knows everything, all at once as it were.

I completely agree with that statement. Which is what makes it impossible actually to envisage what it's like to be God. ISTM that "timeless" together with omniscient will give you the above even without simple, won't it?


I'm sure Michael is a good guy. And I like brick walls too -- I just don't like banging my head against them!


Perhaps so, but simplicity adds the idea that God is like Isaiah Berlin's hedgehog -- He has one big thought, as it were, rather than a bunch of little ones.

It's funny you should bring that up about God's thoughts, Ed. I was just informed by a student of Thomism (though not a Thomist himself) of something that would never have occurred to me--namely, that the Thomistic view of Divine simplicity means that not only God's essence but God's thoughts must also be simple. Now, this is really strange to me, and I would have thought it runs up against the following problem: God knows about all sorts of complicated things (pick any one you like--some extremely complex man-made thing, maybe). How can one say that all of God's thoughts, including God's knowledge of all complex things, are themselves simple? I don't even know what that could mean.

I don't hate reason. Who could? But reason requires that we employ it in pursuit of things it actually can do. This is not one of them, as God Himself seems to indicate. God, of course, does not hate reason either. He simply tells us that we cannot get to a knowledge of Him that way. On that point, He is explicit, and it is no instance of hating reason to accept his proclamation.

I'm simply repeating the teachings of Christ. I did so because Ed rightly extolled the authority and finality of dominical pronouncements. I merely produced a few. Either refute Christ or else show that his words do not mean what I say they mean. But this has nothing at all to do with hating reason, and everything to do with Divine pronouncements that let you know what things cannot be accomplished by it.

Yes, indeed, I did make an argument. I made an appeal to divine authority, which Ed said he regarded as a quite telling argument. I also explained the meaning and implications of the words of Christ (and of Scripture elsewhere) so that the point of His pronouncements was clear. If you wish to refute Him, please feel free.

I made the type of argument that you yourself said was compelling -- an appeal to divine authority. Now that we see your position is not at all compatible with the divine pronouncements, you seem to think that an appeal to divine authority is no argument at all. What is no argument at all is your specious non-response to the words of Christ, which flatly and completely eliminate the truth of your contention. If He is right, you are not -- and He is. So make an argument that takes His explicit teachings into account or else refutes them. Of course, if you think an appeal to the teaching of the Bible on a topic you yourself raise is no argument, then so much the worse for your allegedly Christian thought. If you will not conform your views to His, then your thought is not authentically Christian.

No, that argument does not work, if by "work" we mean that it leads to Yahweh. The non-communal, inarticulate, unhistorical god at the end of that argument is incompatible with Yahweh, who is irreducibly all those things. An argument that does not end up there, with the communal, articulate, historically involved and revealing Yahweh, does not end up with the only God who is. That argument is, however, compatible with Allah, and Allah, you'll notice, does not exist. Further, Yahweh, with whom we here seek philosophical compatibility, said that there was no way to get knowledge of Him except through revelation from His Son. In other words, not all god talk is actually talk about God, though it is intended to be. This is just the sort of god talk that is not. How do we know? We have God's own word on it: If it doesn't come via the Son, it's not really knowledge about God. If, however, one does not conclude that Christ is divine, or that that his words are determinative and conclusive because they have divine authority, then Christ's words do not settle the issue. It comes down to this: "What think ye of Christ? Whose Son is He?" (Matt 22:42.

Mike writes:

According to Jesus, "no one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him." (Matt 11:27). "No one," of course, is utterly exclusivistic. It admits of no exceptions, including another of your favorite "A" thinkers, Aristotle. He is in the same predicament as are we all. Unless we get our knowledge of God from the Son, we do not get it, period. It is impossible.

I don't know how this is a brief against natural theology. I, for example, do not know Barack Obama. But I do know who he is and I am able to describe attributes of him. So knowing someone is different than knowing about someone. Hence, Paul on the Areopagus and in Romans 1 and 2 can speak of pagan knowledge of theological truths apart from special revelation. Since John had not been written yet, perhaps Paul did not know what he was doing was unbiblical.


We agree that Christ's words are authoritative. We disagree about what He meant. E.R., Frank, I, and others, both in the current exchange and in past exchanges on this topic, have explained why. You continue to ignore our responses and instead simply repeat, without argument, that Christ meant what you say he meant and not what we say he meant.

But I think I'll go back to biting my tongue...

If those who do natural theology do not get their knowledge about God from the Son, then, because the Son is the only way by which the Father can be known by us, the natural theologians do not and cannot know God. They have missed the only path by which such knowledge can be gotten. Natural theology, we all agree, is not theology drawn from the revelation of God in Christ, a revelation that, according to Christ, is both exclusive and indispensable. Yet natural theology tries to dispense with it. As a result, natural theology yields god talk that is not actually talk about God, nor can it be. If no one at all knows the Father but the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him -- and we have the word of God Himself that it is so -- and if, nevertheless, one tries to know God by some other means, one is doomed to fail. Natural theologians attempt to do what the Son Himself explicitly deems impossible, namely, claiming to know God by some means other than Him. They are, each and every one of them, engaged in a vain and futile enterprise.

The God of Acts 17 is an "unknown god." That "unknown god" Paul tries to make known by talking about Jesus and the resurrection because there is no other way to know God, and most assuredly not the way of Romans 1, a text which indicates not that nature is insufficient to the task of revelation, but that we are. We suppress the truth, it says. We do so willingly, habitually, and without exception. We are vile truth suppressors, which is why, in that text, we all are justifiably condemned. That universal condemnation includes, of course, Aristotle, who, like us all, is a wicked suppressor. Romans 1 is the death of natural theology, not its justification. We ourselves are the reason natural theology does not work, and we cannot stop being who we are. Unless the Son speaks, we are utterly hopeless and groping around in self-imposed darkness, a darkness we have chosen and produced, and to which God now gives us over. From that darkness we cannot extricate ourselves, even though we flatter ourselves by thinking that we, as natural theologians, actually have done so, and done so without Christ.

If I say that being X is a mammal with four appendages, lungs, brown hair, brown eyes, and an extended family that lives happy and healthy in the United States, we wouldn't know if I were talking about the president of MIT or a prairie dog, even though what I have said might actually be true about them both, and about 800 million or so other beings, for all I know. The fact that something I say might be compatible with the facts about the president and the prairie dog does not mean that I actually either "know" or "know about" either one of them. The issue is not compatibility but identity. And if you happened to find out that the same set of attributes mentioned above was true about William Anderson of Topeka, you could not say that Michael Bauman either "knows" or "knows about" William Anderson. I have no idea if there is such a person as William Anderson of Topeka, even if what I say is true concerning him. That's because the point is not compatibility but identity.

When the prophets of Baal contested with Elijah on Mt. Carmel, they prayed to Baal and he prayed to Yahweh. Just because both sides believed in God, and just because there is only one God, that does not mean that, even though some of the notions the prophets of Baal had about God were actually true of Yahweh too, that they were therefore praying to Yahweh. They weren't. That's because mere compatibility of ideas is not identity. The difference, in the end, was enormous: He called down fire from Heaven and they did not, despite the compatibility of some of their ideas with the facts about Yahweh. Elijah had Yahweh; they did not, compatibility notwithstanding. So it is with the natural theologians, the truth suppressors who, in their misguided and futile quest, sometimes actually say things that turn out to be true about Yahweh.

Hi everyone,

I hope I'm not gate-crashing or anything, but I'd just like to make a few comments on God's simplicity and God's concepts. Let me say at the outset that I have no theological qualifications whatsoever.

I've just been looking through the decrees of various ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church, relating to God's simplicity. This is what I found:

(a) "We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable, Father, Son and holy Spirit, three persons but one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature."

Confession of Faith (Fourth Lateran Council, 1215) at

(b) "1. The holy, catholic, apostolic and Roman church believes and acknowledges that there is one true and living God, creator and lord of heaven and earth, almighty, eternal, immeasurable, incomprehensible, infinite in will, understanding and every perfection.

"2. Since he is one, singular, completely simple and unchangeable spiritual substance, he must be declared to be in reality and in essence, distinct from the world, supremely happy in himself and from himself, and inexpressibly loftier than anything besides himself which either exists or can be imagined."

First Vatican Council (1869-1870), Session 3, Chapter 1, paragraphs 1 and 2 at

And that's it, as far as I can tell. Curiously, I found absolutely no mention of God's simplicity in the documents of the Second Council of Lyons (1274) and the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence (1431-1445), which are the only two ecumenical councils at which a doctrinal agreement was hammered out between the Catholics and the Orthodox. This silence on the issue of God's simplicity can only mean that it was not an issue between the two churches at that time. Since the Orthodox were making a distinction (drawn by Gregory Palamas) between God's essence and God's energies from the mid-fourteenth century onwards, I conclude that the Church at that time had not decided that this distinction was a heretical one. "What about Lateran IV and Vatican I?" you ask. Lateran IV speaks only of God's essence as being absolutely simple. Vatican I uses the phrase "completely simple," but it goes on to say, "completely simple and unchangeable spiritual SUBSTANCE." To me, it sounds as if Vatican I was merely repeating what Lateran IV asserted, when it declared that God has "one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature."

I am completely in agreement with Ed when he maintains that the Divine attributes, such as omnibenevolence, omniscience and omnipotence and infinity, are all identical with the essence of God. The best explanation I've found is "Making Sense of Divine Simplicity" (available online, and forthcoming in "Faith and Philosophy") by Dr. Jeffrey Brower, of Purdue University, which argues that because these attributes all have the same truthmaker (namely, God Himself), we can speak of them all as being identical with the essence of God. That doesn't mean that God's omnibenevolence is the same as God's omniscience, as such; it simply means that each Divine attribute is identical with the essence of God.

It is quite another thing, however, to claim that God is the same as His concepts of finite and complex beings. As far as I can tell, this claim is not Church dogma, and I would also agree with Lydia that it appears to be an unintelligible claim. The finite can be contained within the infinite; but the complex cannot be contained within the simple. I am of course aware of St. Thomas' argument that God can have no accidents, as anything which is of God is uncaused; consequently, anything which is ascribed to God must be ascribed to His substance. I'd like to make two points in response.

First, when we are saying that God has a concept of what it is to be a human being, or of what the game of soccer is, are we ascribing anything at all to God, either substantially or accidentally? "Of course," you might answer. "We're ascribing a concept to Him. Concepts have to be in the mind of the knower." Or do they? Maybe that's the unexamined premise we should be questioning. Maybe God's concept of soccer isn't "in" God (whatever that physicalistic metaphor might mean); maybe it's "in" soccer games, and nowhere else - just as the world's being created by God is (as Ed argues) a property of the world, and not of God. Ditto for God's concept of humanity. I would argue that we should reject the idea of God's having a vast mental storehouse of "possible things" He could create, and "subsequently" (in a logical sense) selecting some of these things when He creates the world. Likewise, I'd suggest that we should reject the view that God's concept of an X is (logically) PRIOR to His act of making an X. Perhaps it isn't. Perhaps it's logically simultaneous with His act of making an X. Perhaps God can make an X "on the fly," as it were - i.e. without having to "think it up" "first."

Second, perhaps God does indeed have concepts of complex things which are timelessly generated from His Mind, but which are not "in" His Mind. Of course, these concepts are not to be identified with God's essence. Rather, they are timeless abstract creations of God - and hence, external to God. I can't see any problem with thgis view, from a dogmatic standpoint, at any rate.

But of course, I'm not a theologian. I don't possess a copy of Ott; but I do have a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as an old copy of Neuner & Dupuis. I can't see anything in either text which requires us to believe that God is identical with His thoughts - or for that matter, His free and contingent actions.

My two cents,


No, that argument does not work, if by "work" we mean that it leads to Yahweh. The non-communal, inarticulate, unhistorical god at the end of that argument is incompatible with Yahweh, who is irreducibly all those things.

Michael, I don't really understand your answer to Steve. Does any form of the cosmological argument (I prefer something more Kalam-ish than the version Ed uses, myself, but whatever) work in the sense of strongly supporting/entailing the conclusion that a first cause exists? If it does, is it _in fact_ the case that that First Cause is (even if the person doing the cosmological argument doesn't know that) the same thing as Yahweh?

Let's take your prairie dog example: Suppose that I have a good argument that shows that a "mammal with four appendages, lungs, brown hair, brown eyes, and an extended family that lives happy and healthy in the United States" came to my picnic table and ate part of my sandwich. Even if I don't know whether that mammal with all of those characteristics was a prairie dog or, let's say, a squirrel, if a prairie dog _did_ come to my picnic table and eat part of my sandwich, the argument has led me to know something that is indirectly "about" the prairie dog, even though I don't know for sure that it's about the prairie dog. Right? I've in fact succeeded non-accidentally in figuring something out about the eater-of-the-sandwich. I mean, how could it be otherwise?

In light of Vincent Torley's remarks here, and those of Perry Robinson in the earlier thread, it seems I need to make a clarification: I have said that divine simplicity is essential to classical theism and also that it is the de fide teaching of the Catholic Church. But I have NOT denied that there are different ways to interpret divine simplicity. By no means does "anything go," but that does not mean that I think that any classical theist or Catholic must agree with every claim made by this or that Thomist. (Indeed, in my earlier post I noted that Scotists, who are classical theists, disagree with Thomists about analogy.)

These posts have been intended only to draw attention to the distinction between classical theism and theistic personalism, for both atheists and Christians who are unaware of the distinction. They have NOT been intended to take a side in disputes between different schools of classical theists (though my own Thomistic sympathies are obvious) or to settle the dispute between East and West (contrary to what Robinson seems to think). Can't do everything in a blog post, sorry.

OK, that is all. Carry on...

Vincent, I'm not really following very well about the soccer game. I myself like the automobile engine or something like that even more. God presumably knows the rules of soccer. God also knows the structure of my car's engine. Right? Is the structure of my car's engine complex? Yes.

Now, I have no problem with any of this. Does someone have a problem with it who believes that God can have no complex thoughts?

I'm pushing on the man-made stuff here because for that we aren't talking about God's timelessly generating that himself, alone. It requires the action of other free beings, which action God must eternally know.

Ed, would you consider it to lie between schools of classical theism whether one considers God's thoughts to be simple or not? If "simple thoughts" are an essential part of any notion of divine simplicity (in your view) how does that work vis a vis God's knowledge of complex (say, man-made) contingent things?

Hi Lydia,

Thanks for your question about soccer vs. automobile engines. I'm quite happy with your example of the car engine, and I agree that it's complex - as are the rules of soccer. The reason why I chose soccer as an example is that someone might plausibly claim that God has an implicit concept of a car engine, independently of (and logically prior to) His decision to create the world. How? Well, God might have a mental inventory of all possible 3-D shapes, which would allow Him to generate a mental inventory of all possible shapes for structures with 2 parts, 3 parts, 4 parts and so on. (How many parts does a car engine have, by the way? Does anyone know?) Presumably somewhere in that inventory, there would be a car engine. God could as it were rationally deduce all this from first principles; there's no need for him to keep an explicit concept of a car engine "in His head," so to speak.

But that "way out" won't work for the game of soccer. God could perhaps have (or be able to generate) a mental inventory of all possible 3-D structures, but He cannot possess or generate a mental inventory of all possible games. Why not? To specify a game, you need to specify the requirements (what you need for the game - e.g. a ball, a net and so on), the aim of the game, and the rules, as well as the number of players, of course. However, there is an infinite number of dimensions for specifying possible requirements for games, as well as possible aims for games, and possible rules for games. Please note that I'm not just saying that there are an infinite number of possible things you might require for a game; I'm also saying that the properties of each of these things can vary along an infinite continuum (e.g. the length of a soccer net); that's why there's an infinite number of dimensions. What's more, there's no way of enumerating these dimensions in any logical order. It's not as if soccer could be described as possible game number (3,4,7,41,7,9,3), for instance, as if it occupied a point in some space of possible games. So to say that God knows all possible games (and hence soccer) in the act of knowing Himself, just won't fly. I conclude that God's knowledge of the game of soccer is logically (not temporally) posterior to human beings' creation of the game of soccer - in other words, God wouldn't have a concept of soccer if we hadn't invented it. (Incidentally, I'm adopting a Boethian view here, of how God timelessly knows our choices.)

I'm afraid I don't understand the point you are making with the prairie dog response, so I don't know how to answer. I suppose I need you to help me out with it, if possible.

No, I don't think the arguments work, whether Kalam-ish or otherwise. I am saying that, despite our stated intentions when we pursue such arguments, they are, instead, a way of fleeing God. They are evidence not for God, but against us, and indicative of our failure to understand the danger of talking about God on that basis.

I want to alter my last sentence to read:

"They are evidence not for God, but against us, and indicative of our failure to understand the danger and shameless effrontery of talking about God on that basis."

Vincent, I see why you pick the soccer game. So, I'll do the question this way: What does it mean for _God's_ concept of a soccer tame to be _in_ the soccer game? That just doesn't make sense to me.

Michael, I'll give one more shot at the prairie dog example: If you find out from an argument that a four-legged thing ate your sandwich, but you don't know whether it's a prairie dog or not, don't you at least know _something_ about the sandwich-eater, even though you don't know it was a prairie dog? In the same way, if you find out by argument that an eternal personal being (let's say) is the First Cause of the physical universe, don't you know _something_ about the first cause, even if you don't know that it was the God of Abraham?


Good question. I suppose there are four possibilities: (a) God's concept of a soccer game is "in" God; (b) it's not "in" God, but "in" some abstract (non-spatio-temporal) object generated by God; (c) it's not "in" God or anything generated by Him, but "in" some abstract object generated by human beings; and (d) it's only "in" the particular events we call soccer games, and not in God or any abstract objects.

I think (a) is unintelligible. I don't know what it means to say that God's concept of a soccer game is "in" God, as the inherently complex cannot reside "in" the simple. (b) makes more sense, but to suppose (b), you'd have to suppose that God had generated all possible games - otherwise why would he have generated the game of soccer in particular? But as I argued above, there's something wrong with the idea of God generating the set of all possible games. That leaves (c) and (d). I certainly think (c) is possible - maybe when we create a new game, we thereby generate an abstract object ("The Game of Soccer") that transcends space and time, even though the game itself was invented at a particular point in time. But if that sounds a bit Platonic for some, then I guess that leaves (d).

Is (d) intelligible? Does it make sense to say that God's concept of a soccer game is "in" soccer games themselves? I suppose it does if soccer games have properties which make them essentially dependent on God. Contingency would certainly be such a property: there might not have been a game of soccer, because nobody might have invented it. Hence soccer is essentially dependent on God, the Necessary Being, for its existence. Is that enough? I think so. But to be honest, I've done very little philosophical work on universals.

Vince, does it make a difference if one is a Cartesian dualist? I certainly don't think of the notion that ideas are "in" a mind as physicalist or even quasi-physicalist, because that can't be what it means for _my_ mind.

the argument from authority is weak except when the authority appealed to is God. So I'll appeal to it. According to Jesus, "no one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him." (Matt 11:27). "No one," of course, is utterly exclusivistic. It admits of no exceptions
If those who do natural theology do not get their knowledge about God from the Son, then, because the Son is the only way by which the Father can be known by us, the natural theologians do not and cannot know God. They have missed the only path by which such knowledge can be gotten.
Michael, I think you are over simplifying things. To illustrate, I'll see your appeal to scriptural authority and raise you one:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Romans 1:18-21

So either A) only Jesus can reveal God to us, or B) God is revealed through what he has made, or C) both.

If A, then Romans 1:18-21 is spurious and we must use the "pick and choose" method of scriptural interpretation.
If B, the Matt 11:27 is spurious and we must (again) use the "pick and choose" method of scriptural interpretation.
If C, then both are correct and Jesus is revealing God to men through what has been made.

I submit that Jesus (the Word of God through whom everything was made) reveals God via everything that was made.

Thanks. I appreciate the extra effort.

By adding the sandwich eater to my illustration, you have altered it significantly, and proved my point. You've added historical action and encounter to the recipe (as does the Incarnation). Now that "being X" has done something in space and time and has encountered you, and, by doing so, has let you know which, if any, of your propositions about X were actually true, you have authentic knowledge, or justified belief. But if there's no picnic, no sandwich eating, or no historical encounter, then there's no authentication. Without those things, you can't distinguish your real sandwich eating prairie dog from all other prairie dogs (imaginary or otherwise) or from either the president of MIT or my fictional Walter Anderson of Topeka, and (as a result) you won't know if what you think you know about X is true, partly true, or utterly false. You're still in the dark.

What your addition of the sandwich-eating prairie dog does not do, however, is take into account the damnable universal human tendency to suppress the truth about X. You forgot to mention that the sandwich owner is a wicked, truth suppressing liar who, in Paul's words, exchanged the truth for a lie (Rom. 1:25), and who cannot be trusted to use his or her own mind well regarding X. The sandwich owner habitually, willingly, and wrongly invents false Xs based upon nature. They cannot and do not resist putting natural things, things like prairie dogs eating sandwiches, in the place of X (Rom. 1:23).


You've radically misread both me and Paul.

I have said that the problem with natural theology is not nature but natural theologians. I have said, like Paul, that nature does the job of revealing God quite well. When it does, what do we do with it? We damnably suppress it and exchange its truth for a lie. To that condemnation of natural theologians, Paul admits no exceptions. It seems like you do.

In other words, Jesus is right and Paul is right: There's no knowing the Father without the Son (as Jesus says), and whatever knowledge is possible about God from nature gets shamefully and damnably suppressed by us (as Paul says). Ultimately, natural theology does not yield human knowledge about God because natural theologians do not let it. The problem is not with revelation but with them. They exchange the truth about God for a lie (Rom 1:25). They make God over again into the image of earthly things, sometimes human, sometimes not (Rom. 1:23). They worship earthly things, whether things in the image of creatures, or mental concoctions they invent and put in God's place, things like uncaused causes, unmoved movers, or things than which no greater can be conceived -- all lame, reductionistic, self-glorifying, and self-serving man-made substitutes for Yahweh.

Hi Lydia,

As far as I can tell, if you're a dualist, the only way that an idea can be "in" your mind is if it's an activity that makes you the kind of being you are, or a corollary of such an activity. The activity that makes God What He is is His act of knowing Himself. I argued above that the act of understanding the rules of soccer does not and cannot follow from God's simple act of knowing Himself.

I don't know: Is my idea of a chocolate cake an activity that makes me the kind of being that I am? I suppose it depends on what we mean. Do we mean the _very general type_ of activity? For example, do we mean that "having ideas of something or other" is an activity that makes me the kind of being that I am? (Not specifically ideas of chocolate cake.)

In any event, I'm not even sure that this is true of contingent beings, since contingent beings can suffer privation or harm such that they never actually carry out the activities that are "proper to" them--for example, a human being who dies at an early embryonic stage and thus never gets the opportunity to carry out the activities of thinking and feeling that are proper to him as a human being. So the activities "proper to" them are not necessary to make them the kind of being that they are (i.e., a human being).

But suppose we waive that point, and suppose arguendo that I grant that "an idea can be in the mind of at least some non-contingent being only if it's an activity that makes that being the kind of being that he is." Now, even granting all that, why grant further that the _only_ activity that makes God what he is is an act of knowing himself? Why cannot knowing ideas which are ideas of something other than himself, including contingent things, activities of free beings, game constructs by free beings, etc., wherever and whenever those other things are true _also_ be a type of activity that makes God what he is? We might generalize this as "knowing all truths" (including the truth about what rules people set up for soccer games) or something like that.

"They worship earthly things, whether things in the image of creatures, or mental concoctions they invent and put in God's place, things like uncaused causes, unmoved movers, or things than which no greater can be conceived -- all lame, reductionistic, self-glorifying, and self-serving man-made substitutes for Yahweh."

What about burning bushes, consuming fires, Gods with backsides, hands, feet, tongues, and eyes, all of which are attributed to Yawheh in the OT? Or the God who changes his mind, seems surprised, and creates sin, all of which are attributed to Yahweh in the OT?

In order to get out of this (unless you don't want to) is to do theology. Both the East and the West did this and both came up with roughly the same understanding of the divine, classical theism, with virtually no dissent until the beginning of the free church sola scriptura revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. We soon get unitarianism, Christological heresies, process theism, Brightman's personalism, Mormon finitism, and finally the crowning achievement, the openness view. All of them, firmly committed to anticeptically ridding the Faith of philosophy, but winding up with quite a theological mess.

I'm suspicious of anyone who wants to reinvent the wheel with compass in hand.

God doesn't have thought -s. Thoughts occur in time. God may be said to think only by analogy.

The Chicken

Okay, Chicken, no problem: Does whatever-it-is-in-God-that-is-analogous-to-thought-in-man (call this thought*) have to be perfectly simple? If so, doesn't this mean that God cannot have thoughts* (and hence cannot have knowledge) concerning non-simple contingent things?

The medieval scholastics, because of divine simplicity, would all agree that there is only one divine act of thinking. There was considerable debate however on how the single act can extend to multiple objects (God+creatures). It was a common view at the time that the divine intellect generated the essences of creatures in a kind of qualified being, which they called intelligible being or diminished being. Scotus even went so far as to distinguish logical stages which went from knowing the divine intellect, to generating the created essence, to the divine intellect knowing the created essence (this arose in the context of the common view of a divine ydea as the essence known as imitable by a creature [aquinas] and it subsequent modification by Henry of Ghent).

MB: You've radically misread both me and Paul.
I don't think so. First, Paul is not talking about Christians in Romans 1: "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness"

He goes on to describe them thus: "Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another... God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion."

Do you really think Paul is talking here about theologians?

The people you are accusing of worshiping "earthly things... mental concoctions they invent and put in God's place... lame, reductionistic, self-glorifying, and self-serving man-made substitutes for Yahweh" are Christians, not godless suppressors of the truth.

I'm sure you know who the "accuser of the brethren" is!

If so, doesn't this mean that God cannot have thoughts* (and hence cannot have knowledge) concerning non-simple contingent things?

God has knowledge of everything, all at once, so his knowledge doesn't divide, just as his thought does not divide. His knowledge is simple as his thought is simple. God's act of sustainment of created things is a single act, not multiple acts.

The Chicken

Hi Lydia,

Sorry for the delay in my reply. A few points in response:

(1) I can't get my head around the idea of a non-physical container, so the notion that ideas could be "in" an immaterial mind seems mystifying. The only possible way in which I can imagine ideas might be "in" an immaterial mind is if they are somehow constitutive of it - i.e. part and parcel of its very nature.

(2) My idea of a chocolate cake is certainly mine while I am thinking of a chocolate cake, but it need not be "in" me. It could just be something I can access.

(3) You ask why God's having ideas of things outside Himself (e.g. ideas of contingent beings), could not also be a type of activity which makes God what He is, in addition to God's activity of knowing Himself. I have to say that find this problematic. It would imply that contingent beings - or more precisely, the knowledge of them - help to make God (the Necessary Being) what He is. On the face of it, that sounds contradictory, although I may be wrong here.

But knowledge of this particular thing or that doesn't help to make a knowing being "what he is." For example, God's knowledge that I am typing this comment doesn't "make him what he is," but God's ability to know all truths is part of God's nature--i.e., omniscience--and it is, in fact, true that I'm typing this comment. I just don't see a problem with that at all. It seems to me that this is making problems where there are none prima facie by beginning with a premise like, "All God's thoughts must be simple; therefore they must all be knowledge of himself," which on the face of it contradicts omniscience and Scripture both.

Ed (and all),

In case you didn't notice, this guy thought your original post was one of "the best philosophy blog posts" he's read in awhile:


In think you must be doing something right!


I've just been having a look at your husband's latest article on miracles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Absolutely brilliant.

I'm not attempting to argue that all God's thoughts are simple; all I would say is that if any of God's thoughts are not simple, then they must be outside God - abstract entities generated by Him, and therefore distinct from the absolutely simple essence of God Himself.

Why cannot knowing ideas which are ideas of something other than himself, including contingent things, activities of free beings, game constructs by free beings, etc., wherever and whenever those other things are true _also_ be a type of activity that makes God what he is?

Seems to me that it cannot be the case that knowledge of contingent beings as they actually are (as opposed to, how they theoretically can be in all their possible manifestations) can be said to be constitutive of what God is, except by lumping those truths in more generally as "knowing all there is to know."

I think the sticking point is that while we know that God's thoughts are different from ours, we have no intuitive grasp for what this actually implies. But we have (limited) ways of considering this difference. For example, although a dogs mate to produce offspring, and humans mate to produce offspring, it is not the case that the term "mate" means (or should) the exact same thing in both instances. In the case of a truly human act, the mating is conscious and intentional, the union an act of love for each other and for the offspring. Thus in humans the act of mating is a higher-order reality than it is in dogs: it participates in the functionality the dogs manage, but exceeds that functionality with a higher level that puts that functionality into a context of persons relating on a personal level. If dogs were able to wonder about us, would they wonder how it is that one and the same act is, all at the same time, an act of physical reproduction, and an act of love for the spouse, and an act of love for the child? How can an act of love for spouse BE an act of love for child, instead of 2 acts?

In the realm of thought, we are the lowest creatures that share it, so we are left unable to reflect directly on the different ways or modes of having thought, but we are confident that there ARE different modes of it. Even as limited as we are, we catch glimmers when we realize that things that are separate acts of thought in us need not be always separate acts in a higher creature: if angels can perceive both premises and conclusions by one single activity, then they unite that which we come to only in parts or in dis-united mode. We also catch glimmers of it when we realize that a person who has true mastery of a science not only knows the principles and the primary and secondary conclusions, but he also knows in a mode of habitual keen readiness (which is not totally actual knowledge but is a lot more real than the potential knowledge held by a new student), all those specific applications that are the result of simply carrying out the science in a specific case: thus knowledge is said in multiple senses, for different modes of thought.

One last example: when we think about things scientific, we are thinking about things under a mode of abstraction from the actual things themselves, and instead thinking about them as X, where X might be as extended in lenght, width, and height; or as having mass, or as having temperature and color; or as having life. All of these ways of thinking about the dog are valid, but are modes of knowing the thing without exhausting knowing the thing. If the man puts together all these modes by being a good mathematician, and physicist, and chemist, and biologist, the man's thoughts about the dog are many, but insofar as being diverse and complex they fall short of knowing the dog as such, because the dog is one being, one substance, one essence. In other words, we know that our multiplicity in knowledge is, itself, a defect in our mode of knowing. (Or, we know that man is in the kingdom animal, and in the order vertebrate, and in the family mammal, and in the genus primate: many thoughts, all separate acts, for one measly thing MAN). A higher mode of comprehending the dog will be to comprehend the dog in a united way that does not make into many what is one in itself.

Even though we cannot SEE that mode of knowing, we know that it ought to be there. If God can know in His mode under a single act what we know only by many acts, then why should we not think think that He can know ALL that He knows under a single act?

Paul is talking about human beings who do theology on the basis of nature, including you and me, if we do it. Natural theology is doomed to fail because of the resolute sinfullness of the humans who do it -- Christians included. no one who posts on this blog is exempt form th failings of human nature.

Put it this way: The ancient Jews had the benefit of remarkable revelation. They saw the sea parted, Pharaoh drowned, the pillars of cloud and of fire, the manna, the plagues in Egypt, the deliverance of the promised land into their hands, the giving of the law at Sinai, etc -- and the benefit of all that to them when it came to knowing God was nearly nothing at all. They knew so little of God that when He showed up they killed Him. That's what sinners do. And if the ancient Jews, with all their advantages do not know God, neither do those who have none of the Jews' advantages -- and for the same reason: Human nature suppresses the truth and exchanges it for a lie. Natural theologians, those who do theology from nature, are no better off than anyone else when it comes to knowing God apart from Christ. Whether they are modern or not, Christian or not, they are subject to the same shameful, damnable, God-distorting shortcomings.

The difference, of course, is that the things you mentioned were divinely chosen agents or means of revelation, not human inventions. Because revelation is historical and literary, doing theology means understanding those various means in their historical and literary context, not doing natural theology, which is quite different. Refusal to do natural theology is a refusal to do theology. Neither is the refusal to theology as if it were a branch of philospohy. One's theology ought to be cut from the same piece of cloth as the revelation from which it is drawn and which it intends to explicate, articulate, and defend.

In other words, divinely inspired anthropomorphisms, accommodations, etc. are not the same as humans inventing such things on their own. If you let humans invent theology, the will botch it up horribly every time.

I disagree quite fully with your history of theology and the consequences you have drawn from it.

I am in flight to Denver. The onboard internet is about to shut down. I will stop here.

In other words, divinely inspired anthropomorphisms, accommodations, etc. are not the same as humans inventing such things on their own. If you let humans invent theology, the will botch it up horribly every time.

Divinely inspired revelation tells us about the Trinity. Divinely inspired (He "breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul.") nature tells us about the uncaused cause. Truth is true all the way around the block, because God is one and true. It is not MAN's doing that nature tells us about God, that is God's doing. Natural theology is no more of man's invention than natural physics. Would Michael declare than when man "invents" physics he will botch it up horribly every time?

This argument about nature revealing God is a proxy argument for the real one that undegirds it. Michael Bauman, from what I can tell, believes that man's mind was so darkened by the Fall that he is incapable of knowing God except by divine revelation.

Catholic's believe that man's mind was weakened, but not totally darkened. Until the conflict between this foundational axiom are resolved, the nature/revelation debate is moot, since it depends on it.

The Chicken

MC is right: To a substantial degree, the debate hinges upon some prior fundamental conclusions, among them the nature and extent of human depravity. On the issue of human depravity, I think that many Roman Catholics lean a little too far toward Pelagius. They think I lean too far toward Augustine. Fair enough. But we all cannot be right, and right matters. Put differently, I think, and many late medieval Roman Catholics thought, that Thomas Aquinas was far too confident about the utility of philosophy as a theological tool.

Tony, are you saying that physics is natural theology? If so, you'll notice that modern physics has not yielded a Trinitarian God (or even any god at all, if the majority of physicists can be trusted regarding their own discipline. If you are not saying that physics is natural theology, then why bring it in? If you do not have a Trinitarian God, you do not have God, period. There is no generic god. God is not a prescription drug. He has no generic equivalent, despite natural theology's persistent error on this point. The only God who is, is irreducibly and and fundamentally Trinity. The Trinity, the communal nature of God, is neither optional nor dispensable regarding God, and classical theism does not have it, nor do any of natural theology's manifestations, past or present. Call your non-trinitarian, reductionistic, suppression of God "Christian" if you wish, but I will not. Your non-Trinitarian deformities of truth are compatible with the non-Trinitarian Allah perhaps, but not with Yahweh, whose irreducibly communal nature is revealed even in the very first chapter of Scripture. Between the irreducibly communal God who is, and all other gods -- all of which are non-existent -- the chasm could not be greater. Yahweh exists. They do not. Yahweh is communal. They are not. Your non-Trintarian natural theology is compatible with them, not with Him. The problem here is that one could take the Trinity out of some folks' theology and it wouldn't alter their theology in any significant way. That is an enormous failure.

"I submit that Jesus (the Word of God through whom everything was made) reveals God via everything that was made."

Right. One sees "the glory of God shining in the face of Christ" either first hand (directly) or second hand, as it were -- reflected in the Creation.

The god of the philosophers is only an "idol" in as much as he is being worshipped, which as far as I can tell, he isn't. Michael B. is correct in that reason won't get you to the Father. But I think he's wrong in stating that the God one can reason to is therefore an idol. No one stops, so to speak, at the god of the philosophers and builds a temple.

Tony, are you saying that physics is natural theology?

No, I was presenting a comparable example. The comparable was physics.

If you do not have a Trinitarian God, you do not have God, period.

Did the ancient Jews understand God as Trinity? None of them SAID it, so we must presume that they didn't. In which case, according to you, they must not have worshiped the God of revelation. But that is irrational, because they are the people through whom God revealed himself. If He revealed Himself to the Jews, then the Jews worshiped Him. Since they did not worship Him qua Trinity, they worshiped Him in an incomplete understanding, with an imperfect Revelation (because, before Christ, that Revelation had not yet been completed). God imperfectly revealed in the Old Testament was not know to the Jews as Trinity, but He WAS STILL the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and the God of Revelation. Therefore, it is flatly wrong to say that if you don't worship Trinity you don't worship God.

Nature too reveals God. But does so incompletely, as does the Old Testament. Therefore, the recognition of God that we come to in nature is true, but not perfect.

Let me ask Michael this: Nature proves that there is an uncaused Cause of all other beings. I won't insist that this Causer is God, but I will ask the question of you: is this uncaused Cause God the Trinity, or is it something Other? If other, then did it cause God Who Is Trinity? (We know that God the Trinity did not cause it, because it is uncaused.) So, either Michael is willing to allow that there is something that God the Trinity did not cause, or God the Trinity is the same One as the uncaused Cause.

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