Is it Possible God is Not Personal?

Is it Possible God is Not Personal?

Dr. Craig takes on two interesting questions on the personhood and nature of God.

Transcript Is it Possible God is Not Personal?

KEVIN HARRIS: Hi, there. Thank you for joining us. This is Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. We want to give a shout out to so many of our friends who listen to the podcast on their way to work every morning. All over the world so many of you have told us that that is the time that you kind of turn your car into a rolling seminary. We would just say thank you, and no texting and driving please!

Let’s look at some questions. There are two questions, Dr. Craig, that you’ve received. There is a little bit of an overlap here in these questions. When we look to this big batch of questions, what were you saying? You noticed that there are no questions on the problem of evil.

DR. CRAIG: Not in this batch at least. It was surprising to me that only one question asked about the evil and suffering in the world. This is supposed to be the big objection to the existence of God, but at least among our listeners it doesn’t seem to be an issue of paramount concern.

KEVIN HARRIS: There is plenty of work on the problem of evil in your work at and at other places. Here are a couple of questions on one particular theme – theistic personalism.

Dr. Craig, I recently ran across a video of David Bentley Hart, a philosopher whom I greatly admire and whose work has helped me greatly in my discussions with skeptics. In the video he seemed to distance himself quite clearly from your view of God calling you a theistic personalist along with Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga.

Stopping right there – at least you are in pretty good company there.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, I would say so!


This distinction seems to be between classical Thomist and more contemporary analytic philosophers. According to what I’ve read, theistic personalists are accused of denying divine simplicity. Also, according to Edward Feser at least, there is a tendency among theistic personalists to conceive of God as an interventionist being whose miraculous activity amounts to a kind of intervention in a natural order that would otherwise operate without him. I would like you to clarify your own position between these two camps. Do you accept the theistic personalist label? If not, in what ways (if at all) do you distance yourself from theists like Hart, Feser, and others who accept the Thomist view of God? I greatly admire your apologetics work, but Dr. Hart and Dr. Feser are also incredibly intelligent men. I am genuinely interested in knowing if there is a real difference here between their views and yours.

DR. CRAIG: This is a difference among brethren. While grateful for the work of Thomist philosophers, I myself (though trained under a Thomist – Norman Geisler) was in the end unpersuaded of Thomism and in fact quite the opposite. I don’t like the label theistic personalism. This is not a historic label for a person who is not a Thomist. Personalism was an early 20th century philosophy exemplified by a thinker like Borden Parker Bowne. I think it is misleading to make up labels like theistic personalism and attach those to those who don’t hold to Thomism. So I don’t like the label. At the same time one needs to recognize clear differences between the majority of philosophers and theologians who are Christians and that minority who accept the Thomistic concept of God.

The Thomist believes that God’s essence is existence – that God’s essence is to be (the act of being). If you find that difficult to understand or unintelligible, in one sense Thomists grant that we can’t understand what that is because our intellects grasp the essences of things (those essential properties that make a thing what it is), but in God’s case the Thomist says in one sense God doesn’t have an essence. Rather God’s essence just is the pure act of being which is not something that can be grasped by the intellect. So there is a deep agnosticism in Thomism about who God is and what he is like. All we really have are negative predications of God that are true. There are no univocal predications of God that are true. At best we can speak of God analogically in the same way that I can say that food is healthy on the analogy of a person’s being healthy. Clearly the food is not healthy in the same sense that a person is healthy.[1] In the same way the Thomist would say we can speak analogically of God being good, loving, holy, and so forth, but these are not univocal concepts when applied to God. We really have no univocal knowledge or concepts of God on Thomism because he doesn’t have an essence that we can grasp. It is just the pure act of being.

This is the doctrine of divine simplicity that they are talking about. In God there is absolutely no distinction between substance and accidents. He is his properties. God’s act of being just is what he is. I find this doctrine to be not only incomprehensible but, as I say, really unacceptable. It leads to a deep agnosticism about the nature of God, and I think that the biblical concept of God is one of a God about whom we can know a great deal as to his essential nature. I think it is ultimately unintelligible to say that God is his properties or that there are no distinctions within God. I’ve offered a criticism of the doctrine of divine simplicity in J. P. Moreland and my book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, published by InterVarsity. In the chapter on the coherence of theism I discuss the various attributes of God like goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, and so forth. One of those that I discuss is simplicity. If you are interested in finding a critique of this doctrine, take a look at that section of the chapter on the coherence of theism in Philosophical Foundations.

As for this charge that those who are not Thomists have an interventionist view of God whose miraculous activity amounts to a kind of intervention in a natural order that would otherwise operate without him, that is a misrepresentation. Anyone who believes that God conserves the world in being recognizes that apart from God’s conservation of the world in being, the world would simply be annihilated and there would be no natural order that would operate independently of God. Nevertheless, Thomists and non-Thomists alike recognize that God can act in the series of secondary causes to bring about events that would not be within the productive capacity of the natural causes in that order of secondary causes. These we call miracles. There is no doubt that God can act not simply as a primary cause sustaining the world in being, but Thomists and non-Thomists alike recognize that God can act in the series of secondary causes to bring about miracles. I think we both agree that apart from God’s sustaining activity, there would be no natural order. God preserves the world in being.

So while we have a great deal in common in believing in a Creator, Designer, and Sustainer of the universe, at the end of the day I am not persuaded that Thomism is the best form of Christian philosophy.

KEVIN HARRIS: I have to tell you a personal story. I was in Norm Geisler’s office several years ago. He has some shelves of books and papers and things. He had them labeled. One was labeled “Thomism” with all these books and papers. And I said, “Norm, you read all that?” He goes, “Unfortunately, yes I had to read all of them.” [laughter]

This is a similar question.

Hello, Dr. Craig. I have a question that concerns me deeply. I am a seminary dropout who is experiencing radical shifts in how I understand faith. I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical home, but no longer consider myself an evangelical. I would even say that I am very much against it. I just know that I am a Christian without knowing what kind of a Christian I am.

Let’s stop there. Anything that you can comment on that?

DR. CRAIG: He doesn’t tell us what led him to drop out, and he doesn’t tell us what his beliefs are today. I would just encourage this fellow (he doesn’t give us his name) that if his reasons for abandoning his fundamentalist evangelical background are cultural or social that he needs to hold to the essentials of biblical theology which I think is expressed in evangelical thinking.[2] He can do that without the cultural and social accouterments that often accompany the evangelical subculture. So I hope he is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

KEVIN HARRIS: He continues,

For the past few years I’ve been reading a lot about the doctrine of God, especially on how we should conceive of his being. At least two Christian authors I know – Herbert McCabe and David Bentley Hart – have made the claim that the God that you and I are used to worshiping isn’t the God of the Bible or in the least he isn’t the God that Augustine or Aquinas have worshiped.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let me interrupt at that point. I would say that the God of Thomism – the God of Aquinas – is the God that is difficult to reconcile with the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible is described, as I say, in univocal terms as holy, loving, the Creator of the world, related to us in various ways, knowing us, loving us, causing us. All of those things are denied by Thomism because its concept of God is so radically different than the biblical concept of God. Thomas’ concept of God is shaped by Aristotelian philosophy which had been newly discovered in the Middle Ages. It had been lost to the West but preserved in the Islamic world, and then began to be mediated back again into the Latin-speaking West from Jewish and Muslim thinkers. It constituted a tremendous threat to Christianity. This pagan Greek thought that antedated Christianity and had such an incredible metaphysical system that was so different from the Bible. This was a great threat to Christianity. What Aquinas did was to synthesize or baptize as it were Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology. That synthesis, I think, results in a concept of God that is very, very difficult to square with the Bible. It forces you to regard the descriptions of God in the Bible as very non-literal even in affirming that he is loving and just and holy and so forth. I would absolutely resist the idea that the God that I and this fellow are used to worshiping isn’t the God of the Bible. It is not the God of Aquinas I would say, but it certainly is the God of the Bible.

KEVIN HARRIS: This reminds me of a term that comes up when we are reading theology often – that God is “wholly other.”

DR. CRAIG: This is what this fellow is starting to get into. If God is wholly other – “wholly” here, for our listeners, is w-h-o-l-l-y other (entirely other) – then we have no positive concept of God, no positive knowledge of God. Really you can’t even say that God exists because he is wholly other. This current within contemporary or modern theology, I think, is wholly unbiblical. It is much more like the Hinduism or Buddhism concept of the absolute which is ineffable and beyond all distinctions. This is not a biblical concept of God. I think, as we’ll see, this is what this fellow seems to be falling into.

KEVIN HARRIS: We should not confuse this wholly other concept with God’s transcendence. I think that is what people are trying to say quite often – that God is transcendent. But to couch it with that term, that wouldn’t be accurate.

DR. CRAIG: Right. To say he is transcendent means, for example, that he is not dependent upon time and space, or any other thing that exists. He exists independently and beyond space and time. But wholly other means that he has no properties in common with us. He is ineffable – inexpressible.

KEVIN HARRIS: This reader continues,

McCabe emphasizes over and over that God is not the thing that explains why any one fact in the world is. He is solely an explanation for why anything at all is. To make God into an explanation of this or that (example: why I live in the USA, why my grandpa died, why Dr. Craig is smarter and better looking than me) is to conceive of God as a being and not Being, or the ground of being and therefore to commit the sin of idolatry.

DR. CRAIG: This is so typical of modern theology, and I just absolutely disagree with this. The Bible has the idea of God as “a being.” He is a being who sustains the world, has created the world, who loves you and me, and who is providentially active in the world. He is not only the sustainer of the world, the explanation of why anything at all exists, but he also providentially orders history toward his pre-visioned ends.[3] He sends his Son into the world in the person of Jesus Christ to die for the sins of the world. There is no reason to accept this idea that God is not a being but is Being (with a capital B, whatever that means) – this sort of ineffable, property-less, inexpressible, wholly other, something. You just shouldn’t accept this kind of unintelligible concept of God that McCabe is pushing.

What the theist can do to distinguish how God is so different than everything else is to distinguish between necessary being and contingent being. That will be enough to ensure God’s independence and transcendence and greatness so that one doesn’t lapse into idolatry. God is not just another being among many. He is a necessary being who exists a se – that is to say, independently of everything else. Everything else depends upon God for its existence and is contingent in its being and therefore created by God. So we don’t need to identify God with Being (with a capital B) which is not a being. He is a being, and the way in which we distinguish God from other beings is that he is the necessary being who exists a se whereas everything else is contingent and exists by his creative power.

KEVIN HARRIS: It gets a little more interesting here. The questioner continues, “At one point McCabe just flat out denies that God is a person.”

DR. CRAIG: Sure. Otherwise he would be a being – right? - if he’s a person.

KEVIN HARRIS: He continues,

We could call God a person as a kind of metaphor insofar as he is not an impersonal force under our control, but he is not really a person.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, that just follows from saying God is not a being because persons are things. So, yeah, that’s right.

KEVIN HARRIS: Continuing here,

The implication of this view of God has been very far reaching in my life. Now I don’t pray that God would cure me of my back problem. I pray that I would gain the serenity to accept it as a kind of self pep talk. I used to think that there must be a reason why I am good or bad at this point and that. Now I think at how lucky or unlucky I got. Before I thought of spirituality as a godward-facing thing, now I think it is a way of talking about ethics.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, see, this is so sad, but it illustrates the practical consequences of our concept of God. If God is not a person, is not a being who has no properties in common with us, then he just becomes a blur and becomes irrelevant to your life. You don’t believe in miracles. You don’t believe in providence. You just believe in luck. Spirituality becomes empty. What I would say to this fellow is he has correctly discerned the implications of McCabe’s view, but why adopt it? He seems to think that just because he read a book in which it is expressed that therefore it must be true. Well, there are plenty of books written from other perspectives. The first questioner mentioned Swinburne and Plantinga as well as my own work and the work of many Christian theologians. I think there are good reasons to believe that God is personal. Most of the arguments for God’s existence that I’ve defended – the Leibnizian argument, the kalam argument, the moral argument, the argument for design, the ontological argument, almost all of them – are proofs for the existence of a personal ground of being or moral absolute or Designer of the universe. Moreover, in the incarnation of Jesus, we have absolute grounds for thinking that God is personal because he entered into human history. You can’t make sense of the incarnation apart from a personal deity. So there are good reasons to believe that God is personal. I can’t think of any good argument for McCabe’s impersonalism.

KEVIN HARRIS: There are a lot of things going on with this person who is asking this question here.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, absolutely. There is more here than meets the eye.

KEVIN HARRIS: He is moving away from God in some ways because of some theology that he is reading.[4] He says,

In many ways my life is becoming more and more indiscernible from a naturalist’s life. To be sure, there are radical differences such as I believe that God, however you conceive him, is the meaning of the whole of and my own existence and that this at least partially means that I put ethics above all else. Yes, I do believe in the historical person of Jesus and his resurrection, and yes I have very conservative ethical views.

DR. CRAIG: Which is inconsistent with his impersonalism. Right? If he thinks it through to its implications, he is going to give up belief in the historical person of Jesus or his incarnation and resurrection, and he is going to have to probably give up these ethical views he has as well because I think moral values and duties especially needed to be grounded in a personal moral absolute. How he is going to ground the existence of moral values in an impersonal characterless being is beyond me. So he has not yet seen, I think, the truly dreadful consequences of this sort of view he is adopting. I want to say to this fellow that I suspect that there are non-intellectual factors at work here – emotional factors that are leading him to repudiate his fundamentalist evangelical background and that he is accepting too quickly views for which there is no good argument and he hasn’t explored the good arguments that there are for traditional theism. He needs to reassess the trajectory that he is on and come back to a biblical view of God.[5]

[1] 5:08

[2] 10:06

[3] 15:18

[4] 20:00

[5] Total Running Time: 22:29 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)