God, concepts of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K030-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

1. The logic of ‘God’

We use the term ‘God’ in two main ways. We use ‘God’ to address God, as in prayer. So used, ‘God’ seems like a proper name. We also use ‘God’ like a general predicate. For we can and do ask whether there is more than one God: the concept of God allows this question a ‘yes’ answer. The concept of Moses does not allow a ‘yes’ answer to ‘was there more than one Moses?’ One cannot use proper names this way, for there cannot have been two Moseses. If ‘two’ people are identical with Moses, they are one person, not two. ‘Was there more than one Moses?’ makes sense only taken as ‘was there more than one man called Moses?’ or ‘did one person do the deeds in the Moses story, or does the story conflate the deeds of many men?’

The ambiguity between name and predicate suggests that ‘God’ is a title-term, like ‘Pastor’ or ‘Bishop’. Many people can be bishops; in this way title-terms are like general predicates. But one can also address the office-holder by the title (‘Dear Bishop…’); one can use the title as a name for the person who holds the office. Thus, the concept of God is a concept of an individual holding a special office.

Thinkers have disagreed about what this office is. Aquinas (§9) suggests that to be God is to have providence over all (Summa theologiae Ia, q.13, a.8). But without obviously contradicting themselves, some philosophers (such as Aristotle (§16) and Plotinus (§§3–5)) deny that God provides for creatures. Some say that to be God is to deserve worship. But arguably one’s act cannot be an act of worship if one does not take its object to be truly divine, and something cannot deserve worship if it is not divine. If either of these claims is true, ‘to be God is to deserve worship’ amounts to something like ‘to be God is to deserve to be treated as God’ – which is true but not helpful.

The suggestion that this entry will explore is that the role or office of God is that of ultimate reality, than which no reality is more basic. Consider some claims on which Eastern and Western religions agree:

  • (1) Nothing made God; anything that was made is not God.

  • (2) God is the source or ground of all that is not God.

Eastern and Western religions also agree that God is the Supreme Being. They use ‘supreme’ to speak of God’s perfection and authority and so agree that:

  • (3) God rules all that is not God.

  • (4) God is the most perfect being.

(1)–(4) are necessary truths de dicto; they state requirements for counting as God. All express facets of God’s ultimacy. (1) states that nothing is causally more basic than God. On (1), no account of why things exist can go beyond God; if God explains anything, God is an ultimate explainer. On (2), all explanations of existence do in fact terminate in God. On (3), God has ultimate control over all things; on (4), God is ultimate in perfection. If (1)–(4) are near the core of the concept of God, so is ultimacy.

Quite diverse religious contexts tie ultimacy and deity. Revelation 21: 12 calls God ‘the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end’. To be last is to be ultimate. That is first to which nothing is prior. So being first is also a way to be ultimate, and being first is a prerequisite of being taken as God. John Chrysostom comments that ‘men most honour the eldest of beings which was before all, and account this to be God’ (Homilies on St John [1994: 7]). Pantheists claim not to twist the meaning of ‘God’ in calling the universe ‘God’ because, as they see it, the universe is the ultimate reality; there is nothing beyond it. Even believers in many gods sometimes distinguish mere gods from God on grounds of ultimacy. Thus, Hindus see their many devas (gods) as finally just creations and manifestations of the one ultimate being, Brahman (see God, Indian conceptions of); and Proclus (§4), a Neoplatonic polytheist, writes that:

God and the One are the same because there is nothing greater than God and nothing greater than the One…[Plato’s] Demiurge is a god, not God. The god that is the One is not a god, but God simply.

(Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides 641–3)

Proclus’ One counts as God precisely because it is, in Proclus’ view, the ultimate reality. Tillich (§§2–3) sums it up: ‘Only [an] ultimate reality can…be our unconditional concern [that is, a genuine God]. Faith in anything which has only preliminary reality is idolatrous’ (1955: 59). Thus, concepts of God are concepts of what the ultimate reality is and how it is related to the rest of reality.

Citing this article:
Leftow, Brian. The logic of ‘God’. God, concepts of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K030-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Articles