What is Called God? Classical Theism & Theistic Personalism

saint-augustine-portrait-2In my previous article, I discussed questions concerning the nature of God within the context of doing apologetics when confronted with the “one less god” argument used by many contemporary atheists. I concluded that the “one less god” argument is a failed attempt at refuting the existence of God because it is a mischaracterization of his true nature. The mischaracterization is ultimately the result of treating the nature of God as a mere being along side other beings in the natural order.

This mistake, however, is not entirely the fault of contemporary New Atheists. To be sure, these atheists are at fault for their intellectual errors concerning the nature of God, but these atheists are largely interacting with an apologetic methodology associated with theistic personalism, rather than the classical theism articulated, yet not identified as such, in the previous article. A brief survey of these two theistic traditions is in order to properly understand the differences surrounding these schools of thought.

Brian Davies provides a good starting point for our understanding of the classical theistic tradition,

“Classical theism is what you can find endorsed in the writings of people like the Jewish author Moses Maimonides (1153-1204), the Islamic author Avicenna (980-1037), and the Christian author Thomas Aquinas (1224/6-74). Classical theism is what all Jews, Christians, and Muslims believed in for many centuries (officially, at least). And numerous philosophers have taken it for granted that God is as defenders of classical theism take him to be. From the time of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) to that of G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716), philosophers almost always worked on the assumption that belief in God is belief in classical theism. And their understanding has been shared by many theologians. The major tenets of classical theism are part of the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. They were also taught by most of the major sixteenth-century Protestant reformers and by heirs of theirs, such as Jonathan Edwards, the famous eighteenth-century American Puritan divine.”[1]

In addition to these great names listed above, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Thomas Aquinas, Franciscan masters St. Bonaventure and Bl. John Duns Scotus can also be added to the list of classical theists.

The heritage of the classical theistic tradition is as vast as it is rich. The arguments of the classical theist, especially of the Roman Catholic apologist, then, are aimed toward demonstrating the existence of God as he has been revealed in the deposit of faith given by Christ to his Apostles, and they in turn to their successors down through the ages. Roman Catholic theology and philosophy, participating in this classical theistic tradition, achieved its greatest prominence during the scholastic era. Arguments demonstrating the existence of God were constructed in such a way that the conclusions presented God has he has revealed Himself, rather than an argumentative programmatic truncation useful for philosophical comfort. Moreover, these arguments, St. Thomas’s Five Ways for example, set the stage to further demonstrate necessary attributes of God, such as divine simplicity.[2]

The doctrine of divine simplicity is important for the classical theistic tradition. It is an aspect of apophatic theology which tells us what God is not, that is, God is not made up of parts – whether spatial, temporal, or metaphysical – otherwise God would be a being rather than Being itself. On classical theism, God is also immutable, impassable, transcends time, and is everywhere present in his sustaining causal activity in the created order. So understood, God does not “intervene” in the created order because He cannot intervene in something that he is already doing.

The theistic personalist view of God is significantly different than the classical understanding. And it is this modern theological concept of God that allows for the “one less god” argument of the New Atheist movement to get its foot into the door of our contemporary discourse concerning the existence of God.

Brian Davies is once again helpful for understanding theistic personalism,

“Turning, however, to what I am calling theistic personalism, we get a very different picture. Take, for instance, the contemporary Christian author Alvin Plantinga. According to him, the teaching that God is simple is false since God possesses different properties and is a person, not a ‘mere abstract object.’ Then again, according to Richard Swinburne (also a Christian), a theist is ‘a man who believes that there is a God’ and by ‘God’ the theist ‘understands something like a person without a body.’ That God is a person, yet one without a body, seems, says Swinburne, ‘the most elementary claim of theism.’ Both Plantinga and Swinburne count as theistic personalists on my understanding of the expression. And one reason for saying so is that, unlike classical theism, they think it is important to stress that God is a person.”[3]

In addition to Plantinga and Swinburne, the worlds most recognized Christian apologist, William Lane Craig, falls into the category of a theistic personalist. In this video, Craig interacts with classical theists Edward Feser (a Thomist), and David Bentley Hart (Eastern Orthodox). Throughout the duration of this interaction, an even more stark contrast can be recognized between the classical theist and the theistic personalist. During the conversation Craig not only entirely misrepresents Thomism as being “deeply agnostic” concerning knowledge about God, but he also states that the classical theistic understanding of God is not the God of the bible at all. This statement in particular would be a great surprise for the overwhelming majority of Christians doing theology and philosophy prior to the 20th century. Even more damaging to the theistic personalist position, Craig seems to be dismayed at the understanding of God as Being itself, and insists that God is a being. This notion that God is a being rather than Being itself is intimately linked to the theistic personalists rejection of the simplicity of God. Craig explicitly states that this doctrine is not only incomprehensible, but unacceptable and unintelligible.

To the contrary of the theistic personalist, when God revealed his name to Moses as “I AM WHO AM” and “HE WHO IS”, their view has already been refuted by divine revelation.

Denying the simplicity of God also has potential, if not immediately actual, unintended consequences further eroding the true nature of God. If God is not simple, and is a being existing along side other beings in the created order, the idea that God is impassable and immutable are also at risk of being defined as “unacceptable” by popular trends in analytic philosophy. For God to not be impassable means that his creation, most notably human beings created in his image and likeness, can effectively prompt changes in the divine being, and in allowing God to be changed in this manner of anthropomorphic demand, results in the denial of the immutable nature of God as such. Retooling our conceptual understanding of God in this manner pushes him to the outskirts of his own creation, and reframes the “I AM” into a seemingly blasphemous and heretical demiurgic “i am.”

It is relatively obvious that the classical theistic understanding of God is deeply at odds with the theistic personalist concept. For our purposes here, it can also be understood why the New Atheist is under the impression that the “one less god” argument works well against their contemporary theistic apologetic rivals. The God in which they think they are defeating when debating some of the most influential names in the philosophy of religion is a being assigned the attributes of a super human, anthropomorphically concocted deistic demiurge. And while the atheist may in fact be justified in thinking that this particular understanding of God does not exist, it is not the case that they have in fact refuted the necessary existence of God as he has revealed himself. With the help of mainstream Christian apologists, they are simply aiming at the wrong target.

The classical theistic position, then, is resting upon a solid foundation, namely, divine revelation. David Bentley Hart offers this explanation of God from the classical theistic tradition,

“To speak of ‘God’ properly, then – to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Bahai, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth – is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a ‘being,’ at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is ‘beyond being,’ if by ‘being’ one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is ‘being itself,’ in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence, much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.”[4]

Hart also lends a literary hand in describing the god in which New Atheists contend,

“As it happens, the god with whom most modern popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a ‘demiurge’ (demiourgos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but that came to mean a particular kind of divine ‘world-maker’ or cosmic craftsman. In Plato’s Timaeus, the demiurge is a benevolent intermediary between the realm of eternal forms and the realm of mutability; he looks to the ideal universe – the eternal paradigm of the cosmos – and then fashions lower reality in as close a conformity to the higher as the intractable resources of material nature allow. He is, therefore, not the source of the existence of all things but rather only the Intelligent Designer and causal agent of the world of space and time, working upon materials that lie outside and below him, under the guidance of divine principles that lie outside and above him. He is an immensely wise and powerful being, but his is also finite and dependent upon a larger reality of which he is only a part. Later Platonism interpreted the demiurge in a variety of ways, and in various schools of Gnosticism in late antiquity he reappeared as an incompetent or malevolent cosmic despot, either ignorant or jealous of the true God beyond this cosmos; but none of that is important here. 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. And he is a god who made the universe ‘back then,’ at some specific point in time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal gift of bing to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence in every moment. 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.”[5]

Given what I have said thus far, and provided these two lucid descriptions by David Bentley Hart, it should be quite obvious that the classical theist and the theistic personalist are worlds apart in their conceptual understanding of God. Moreover, atheists of our contemporary variety are not interacting with the classical theistic tradition described above; rather, they are dealing with the theistic personalist tradition, which is a newly invented god that nicely fits into the spectrum of modernist analytical philosophy.

The Roman Catholic apologist, who is participating in this wider tradition of classical theism, has a lot of work to do in their defense of the one, true faith. Not only do we have to correct the misunderstandings of the atheist, but we also have to correct the heretical proclamations of evangelical Protestants shaping the culture with their ill contrived “renaissance” in Christian philosophy.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religious, 3rd ed., Pg.2

[2] And simplicity here entails the fact that God has no parts, composites, or potentialities, that he is Pure Act.

[3] Ibid, Pg. 9, 10

[4] The Experience of God: Being, Conscious, Bliss, Pg. 30, 31

[5] Ibid, Pg. 35, 36

5 thoughts on “What is Called God? Classical Theism & Theistic Personalism

  1. I have been exploring religion at my university in my ‘Philosophy of Religion’ unit. I have always been considered by others as an academic, and the smart individual in the cohort. As such, I was wonderfully predisposed to arrogant atheism. Given the cultural climate and my affinity for books, I read The God Delusion and God is not Great in my 11th grade. As you can imagine, I was classically insufferable. Smart enough to use my low-resolution picture of reality to dismantle Theistic Personalist arguments, but neither wise nor humble enough to investigate deeper truths.

    After just over a year enrolling myself in every available elective philosophy unit, I have found myself much tormented. Having just finished reading Aquinas I was on the precipice of revelation.

    But I thought that you, the author of this article, are responsible for the revelation that I had moments ago…

    I think…if I am correct about my assessment…that I am a Classical Theist.

    Liked by 1 person

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