God, concepts of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K030-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 15, 2024, from

6. Classical theism

Classical theism’s ancestry includes Plato, Aristotle, Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism. It entered Judaism through Philo of Alexandria (§4), reaching its apogee there in Maimonides (§3). It entered Christianity as early as Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria and became Christian orthodoxy as the Roman Empire wound down. Though more and more challenged after 1300, it remains orthodox. Classical theism filtered into Islam as early as al-Kindi (§§1–2). Al-Ghazali attacked it as the view of Islamic Aristotelians, and it suffered in Islamic orthodoxy’s successful reaction against Aristotle.

Much of classical theism’s concept of God unfolds from the claim that God is the ultimate reality. According to classical theism, God is:

A se – wholly independent of all else. God is absolutely the first being. He exists before there is anything else for him to depend on. So he must need or depend on nothing in any way other than himself (see Aseity). (Classical theism sits well with intuitions that, as perfect, God is self-sufficient.)

Simple – completely without parts. Whatever has parts depends on them for its existence and nature; bricks make a wall and make it what it is. So a God wholly a se has no parts (see Simplicity, divine).

Having no parts, God is:

Immaterial – whatever is made of matter has parts, for the matter of which it is made has parts. So a partless God cannot be made of matter, or include matter in any way which makes its parts his.

Not spatially extended – whatever extends through space has parts covering the parts of the space through which it extends (or so most think).

Without accidents – lacking non-relational contingent attributes. If God has attributes distinct from himself, he depends on them for his nature and existence. So if he is entirely a se, he has no such attributes: God’s attributes = God. Nothing can be identical with a contingent attribute. For if one has an attribute contingently, one can only be contingently identical with it. But all genuine identities are necessary. So God has no accidents.

If so, God is:

Immutable – or unable to undergo real, intrinsic change. For real, intrinsic change is change in accident (see Immutability).

If a se, God is also:

Impassible – unable to be affected by beings other than himself. For if we affected God – if, say, our suffering made him sorrowful – his emotional state would depend on us, and so God would not be wholly a se.

According to classical theism, God is also:

Eternal – in the sense of timeless, that is, alive without past or future, living a life neither containing nor located in any series of earlier and later events. Much traditional perfect-being theology converges on this claim. Boethius, for instance, argued that a perfect being must be timeless because timeless existence is superior to temporal existence. Temporal beings lose their pasts and lack their futures, and so enjoy only an instant-thin slice of their existences at any one time. Timeless life has no past or future. A timeless being enjoys its entire life in one timeless present. Thus Boethius saw timeless life as ‘the all-at-once and perfect possession of interminable life’ (The Consolation of Philosophy V, 6), and so most appropriate to a perfect being (see Eternity).

Necessarily existent – perfect-being theology yields divine necessity. To exist contingently is to be able not to exist. A being is more perfect if wholly immune to nonexistence (see Necessary being).

Omnipresent – present in all space and time, though not contained by either (see Omnipresence). This follows via perfect-being theology: a God not in some way everywhere and everywhen would be more limited and less perfect than a God with these attributes. As creator and sustainer, God is present everywhere and everywhen in the sense that he sustains in being and knows immediately every place and time and their contents.

Classical theism thinks God personal enough to have intellect and will. Perfect-being theology backs this if nothing incompatible with intellect and will adds more value to the concept of God. If God has intellect and will, perfect-being theology ascribes to him also the perfect versions of these.

Perfect intellect includes perfect wisdom and rationality and perfect knowledge. It thus includes omniscience, variously defined as knowing all truths and/or all facts, or all that is knowable, or having the greatest amount of knowledge possible for a single individual (see Omniscience). Classical theism typically holds that God’s knowledge includes knowledge of free creaturely actions that, with respect to us, are future; this raises the question of how such knowledge is compatible with creaturely freedom. Perfection in knowledge also includes having knowledge in the best possible way (perhaps immediately rather than inferentially, or by direct intuition of fact rather than through grasping some representation such as a proposition) and on the best possible grounds. As perfectly wise or rational, God makes optimal use of his knowledge.

Perfect will includes perfect power and perfect goodness. Perfect power includes omnipotence, defined roughly and with some qualifications as the power to actualize any broadly logically possible state of affairs (see Omnipotence). Perfect goodness includes always acting as moral norms dictate, doing great supererogatory good and having perfect versions of at least some moral virtues (justice, mercy, altruistic love). The claim that God is perfect in knowledge, power and goodness sets up the various versions of the problem of evil (see Evil, problem of). The simplest version is this: if God knows that and when each evil will occur if he does not intervene, and God has the power to prevent each evil, and God is perfectly good and so does not approve of evil, how then can evil occur?

Classical theism constrains what we make of God’s personal attributes. For instance, if wholly a se, God cannot know creatures by observing them, since states of observational knowledge causally depend on the objects observed. If I know that Fido is here by seeing Fido, then as Fido helps cause my seeing, Fido helps cause my knowing. Perfect-being theism also affects our view of God’s personal attributes. It would be better to be necessarily omniscient, omnipotent and so on than merely contingently so. So perfect-being theism pushes us to say that God has necessarily his personal perfections. This can raise questions about, for example, God’s goodness: some argue that if God necessarily does no wrong, he does not qualify as a morally responsible agent (see Freedom, divine).

Classical theism holds God wholly discrete from the world in substance. Classical theists differ over God’s relation to the world. Aristotle held that God is merely a final cause, a lure who draws the universe’s efficient causes into action (Metaphysics XII, 6–7). But most classical theists hold that God efficiently causes the world to exist by creating it from no pre-existing material; classical theists often compare this with our thinking up imaginary worlds just as we choose (without implying that the universe is a figment of God’s imagination).

Most classical theists hold that God created freely and directly rather than via an intermediary. Other classical theists demur. Plotinus, for instance, argued that his ultimate reality, the One, creates necessarily (Enneads II, 9, 3), and has as its direct effect only a second deity, the divine mind, which creates all ‘lower’ beings. Both claims have had later partisans in classical theism – for example, such Arabic Aristotelians as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd.

Most classical theists who hold that God creates also hold that God conserves the world – that is, they hold that the universe depends on God for its being not merely in its first instant of existence (if any), but equally throughout its duration. For classical theists, God would not have to do anything positive to annihilate the universe. He would merely have to stop doing what he is always doing to keep it in existence. As a book falls to the floor once a supporting hand is withdrawn, so the world would fall back into nothingness were God’s supporting power withdrawn (see Creation and conservation, religious doctrine of §5). If God conserves the world, God also is provident for his creatures, at least in keeping in being the things they need. Creation and conservation raise again the problem of evil: if all things stem from God and God actively preserves them, how can God avoid responsibility for the evils things bring?

Classical theism’s God is infinite or unlimited in not depending on other things, and in perfection, power, knowledge, goodness and creative responsibility. Thus, to some, the God of classical theism is personlike but not a person (as some say of Brahman, conceived as being, consciousness and bliss). Some have denied classical theism because they see God as limited in some of these ways and more like the persons we know. Some deists denied divine providence, and perhaps conservation (see Deism §§1–2). Plato held that the Demiurge ‘found’ a disordered cosmos, and ‘created’ only by bringing it into better order (Timaeus, 30a), thus freeing him from responsibility for evil (Republic II, 379c). Theists such as John Stuart Mill and William James (§4) tried to free God of this responsibility by supposing that God has only limited power and/or knowledge.

Citing this article:
Leftow, Brian. Classical theism. God, concepts of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K030-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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