Doctrine of God (part 3)

March 15, 2010     Time: 00:35:43


[procedure for looking at God's attributes], I. B. 2. a. (2) (c) Challenge of Platonism.

1. Attributes of God
Lecture 3

How Christian Theology Determines a Divine Attribute

We have been talking about divine aseity. Before we look at this specifically, I want to say something more about how Christian theology determines a divine attribute. I think a question from last week helped to raise a point that needs clarification. Remember I said that the Scriptures are often underdeterminative with regard to these divine attributes. For example, Scripture teaches that God is eternal, but it doesn’t tell us clearly whether he is timeless or everlasting throughout time. Therefore, the issue cannot be decided simply scripturally.

Christian theologians have studied the doctrine of God under the exercise of two controls. The first and foremost would be holy Scripture: what do the Scriptures have to say about God’s attributes? The second would be what we would call “perfect being theology.” This is based on St. Anselm’s idea of God as the greatest conceivable being, or the most perfect being. Anselm quite rightly said that when you think about the concept of God, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being. If you could conceive of anything greater than God, then that would be God. So by the very concept of God, God is the greatest conceivable being – the perfect being. If we think of God that way, that means that in developing our doctrine of God, we will want to understand God’s scriptural attributes in the greatest fashion possible. He would have those attributes that would go to extol or magnify his greatness. These attributes would be what we might call “great-making” attributes; they would be consistent with God’s being the most perfect being.

When we come to the subject of God’s self-existence that we’ve been looking at, we can say that the Scripture clearly teaches that God is uncreated and independent of anything else. Everything other than God depends upon God for its existence, whereas God depends upon nothing. He never came into existence; he will never cease to exist. So there is what one might call a sort of factual necessity about God’s being. Factual necessity would mean that God exists necessarily in the sense that he is uncreated, he is eternal, he is incorruptible, and he is indestructible.

But there is an even stronger conception of God’s necessity, which we can call logical necessity. That is the necessity that would hold that God not only is uncreated, eternal, incorruptible, and indestructible, but that it is impossible for God to not exist. To say God does not exist is like saying a bachelor is married – it is just incoherent. It is logically necessary that God exists. So if God’s existence is logically necessary, the statement “God exists” isn’t just true accidentally – it doesn’t just happen to be true; it is necessarily true. It is a necessary truth. It is like “All bachelors are unmarried” or “The three angles of a Euclidean triangle add up to 180 degrees.”

Why should we think of God’s existence as necessary in the stronger sense – not just factually necessary, but logically necessary? The first reason would be because of perfect being theology. It is much greater to have logically necessary existence, than to just accidentally exist, even if that means you are eternal and uncaused and indestructible and incorruptible.1 It is more perfect to exist necessarily. It is greater to exist necessarily, and so perfect being theology would require that God exist necessarily.

The second reason is that many of the arguments for God’s existence conclude to God as a logically necessary being. We haven’t discussed these yet, but we will eventually. For example, the famous cosmological argument based upon the contingency of the world – why does something exist rather than nothing? – ultimately gets back to a being which must exist and is the sufficient reason for the existence of everything else and whose non-existence is impossible. So if this version of the cosmological argument is sound, it proves that there must be a logically necessary being which explains why anything else exists. Or a conceptualist argument for God’s existence where you think of God as an omniscient mind who is the grounding for all necessary truths and who is the grounding for mathematical objects. Things of this sort would require a God whose existence is logically necessary because some of these truths are logically necessary. If you have logically necessary truths and these need to be grounded in somebody’s mind, then that mind, that being, would have to be as logically necessary as the truths it grounds. Another argument for God’s existence, the moral argument, says that we need God to ground moral values. Since these moral values are necessary and not just accidental, you need a necessary being to ground these necessary moral values. For example, it is morally necessary that torturing a child for fun is wrong. That isn’t true just in this world; that is true in any possible world. That is a logically necessary, moral truth. If God has to exist in order to ground those moral truths, he has to be as logically necessary as those truths.

So I think we have very good reasons for thinking, as I explained last week, that God is self-existent, not just in the sense that he is eternal and uncreated and incorruptible and indestructible, but that it is literally impossible for God not to exist. His existence is logically necessary. I hope that clarifies a bit the procedure for looking at God’s attributes and why I say we ought to think of God as a logically necessary being.

The Challenge of Platonism

We now come to a challenge to the doctrine of God’s self-existence, the challenge of Platonism. This challenge to divine aseity is the center of my current [2008] research interest. I have been studying this now for several years and therefore am delighted to have a chance to share with you a little bit about this.

What is the challenge posed by Platonism to divine aseity? To motivate your grasp of this problem, let me ask a question: do numbers exist? What do you think? Does the number 3 exist? For example, there are three people at this table – Dennis and Jim and Donald. But does the number 3 also exist? I am not talking about the numeral “3” – certainly the numeral “3” exists. There it is, in that sentence right there. But does the number 3 exist?

Platonists say, yes. Plato was one of the most famous of the ancient Greek philosophers, and Plato believed that things like numbers and mathematical objects and geometric figures, like the perfect circle, exist more “really,” more robustly than the things around us in the physical world. Plato actually thought that the things in the physical world were like shadows, a mere shadowy existence, compared to the reality of these abstract objects like numbers and geometrical figures.2 He thought that these abstract entities were the ultimate reality.

What would be some examples of these sorts of abstract objects? Platonists today take their cue from Plato, though they don’t hold exactly the same view as Plato does. But they would say that there are these abstract entities. Mathematical objects would be the primary example of these things. Things like numbers or sets – if you remember set theory in your high school algebra class. Or functions. Or, in geometry, geometrical figures or different kinds of geometries – planar geometry or geometry of a sphere or of a saddle. All of these are different, competing geometries. And those geometrical objects would be abstract objects.

But there are other kinds of abstract objects besides mathematical ones, if they exist. Propositions would be abstract objects. What do I mean by that? A proposition is the information content of a sentence. For example, the sentence “Snow is white” and the sentence “Der Schnee ist weiß” are different sentences – one is in English and one is in German; they are not the same sentence – but they both have the same information content, namely, that snow is white. Philosophers will say that they both express the same proposition and that while these sentences are linguistic entities on paper or spoken into the air, propositions aren’t linguistic entities; they are abstract objects. It is the information content conveyed by those sentences. Even if no one had ever spoken the sentence, “Snow is white,” the proposition would still be true.

What would be another example of abstract objects? Some philosophers think that properties are abstract objects. The property of being green, for example. The greenness of one plant and the greenness of another plant are the same; they have the same property. But obviously, it is not the greenness that is in a leaf in the first plant which is the greenness in a leaf in the other plant because they are spatially separated. This one plant has its own greenness and that other plant has its own greenness. They are not the same greenness in the sense of the green that you see; nevertheless, they have the same color. So, in some way, they both have the same property. Some philosophers, like my colleague J. P. Moreland, think that greenness is an abstract object that exists beyond time and space and that these two plants both exemplify that abstract object of being green. So properties would be another example of abstract objects.

What is significant about this? Many of these abstract objects, if they exist, exist necessarily. They are not created; they exist necessarily. For example, if the number 2 exists, it exists necessarily. If propositions exist, they exist necessarily. They may be true or false in different worlds, but in the world in which there are no concrete objects – no space and time – the following propositions would be true: There are no concrete objects, or There is no space or time. You can’t get rid of these propositions. Propositions, properties, mathematical objects – these things exist necessarily, if they exist.

That is a threat to Christian theology because Christian theology says that God is the uniquely self-existent, necessary being and that everything else that exists depends upon him for existence. If you remember in John 1:3 it says that God created everything outside of himself. Remember, it said, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God. All things came into being through him and without him nothing came into being.” If these abstract entities exist, that means that they exist independently of God – they are self-existent, necessary in their being, and therefore God is reduced to just one being among many. In fact, God would be an infinitesimal part of reality compared to the infinity of numbers and mathematical objects. There are endless, infinities of infinities of these objects. God’s creation of the physical world would be an infinitesimal triviality compared to the realms of uncreated being over which he exercised no creative control at all.3

This view, Platonism, results in a sort of metaphysical pluralism. That is to say, there is no single metaphysical ultimate; there is no peak of the pyramid that is the metaphysically ultimate being that accounts for everything else. Rather there is just this diversity of necessary, self-existent, uncreated beings of which God happens to be one. It seems to me that that is deeply problematic for Christian theology. For that reason, a serious Christian cannot be a Platonist.


Question: You said J.P. Moreland agrees that abstract objects exist. He seems to be a fairly good Christian philosopher, so I am curious to know how he resolves this problem.

Answer: J.P. will adopt the first solution that I am going to propose. When we get to the solutions, that will be his way out. If you read our book, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, when you come to this section on the attributes of God on divine aseity, this was the only place in the book we couldn’t agree. So what we did there was I wrote one paragraph, J.P. wrote the next paragraph, saying, “Ah, but. . . !,” and I wrote the next paragraph responding to him, and then he wrote the final paragraph responding to me, and we just left it like that.

Question: I heard you say that abstract objects are effete, that they do not have any causal power. Do you still stand by that?

Answer: Yes. What makes an object abstract? It can’t be simply that it is beyond space and time because God is beyond space and time. But he is the paradigm of a concrete object! He is active in the world; he creates the world. Angels, too, would be concrete objects, even though they would be immaterial, or spiritual, substances. An abstract object doesn’t mean an immaterial entity. It doesn’t mean an entity beyond space and time. What is an abstract object anyway? The defining characteristic of an abstract object seems to be that it is essentially causally impotent. It doesn’t stand in causal relations to anything. The number 7 has no effects; it can’t cause anything. This seems to be generally agreed among metaphysicians. The defining characteristic that makes an object abstract is its causal impotency or its effeteness.

Question: That being said, you left out moral law as an abstract object. How do you define that? And what about laws of logic. Both seem to have an effect on the world – do you consider them abstract?

Answer: I would consider those abstract objects. I would say neither of those have causal effects. Take the moral law, for example. The moral law doesn’t cause people to do things. It doesn’t have any impact on the world. It is just that if you do things in violation of the moral law, then God will hold you responsible for that, and you will need forgiveness or punishment.

Question: Does that flow necessarily out of his nature, or have you shifted your view?

Answer: I have not. We will talk about that when we get to God’s goodness. I will ground moral values, not in a Platonic realm of abstract objects like Justice or Fairness or Compassion the way Plato would. I will ground them in God’s moral nature as features of God’s character. He is a concrete object.

Question: What would you say the perception of an abstract object is – is it a new abstract object?

Answer: This is a very, very interesting question! One of the main objections to Platonism is, if there are these objects out there, which have no causal impact on us, how can we know about them? They would be as inscrutable to us as what’s happening right now in a village in Nepal. How can anybody know? And yet we do know that 2+2 equals 4. How do we know that, if 2 and 4 exist beyond space and time and have no impact upon the world?4 This is a real problem for Platonism; but I am not going to talk about that because my objection to Platonism is theological, not epistemological. But that is a real problem – Platonism has real difficulty explaining how we can have mathematical knowledge of these objects.

Question: Have the philosophers considered human language? Numbers don’t exist without an intellect, either human or divine. Similarly, languages don’t exist without an intellect. If all people that could speak or knew a language were removed from the Earth, does that language exist?

Answer: We will see that some people sympathize with your point of view. Certainly the language itself wouldn’t exist unless it is some sort of abstract entity that may not be spoken by anyone. Let me turn to the solutions, and I think that you will see that some people sympathize with this point of view.

Solutions to Platonism

How can we deal with this challenge that is posed to Christian theology by Platonism? The first solution is what we might call “Absolute Creationism.” What this would hold is that God creates these abstract objects. They are, in fact, created by God, and he may even create them from eternity past. They depend for their being upon God’s existence. So there are these abstract objects, they really exist, but they are in fact created by God.

That is an obvious and seemingly very attractive solution – just make these things part of creation! But there seems to be a fatal problem with that solution. It seems to confront a vicious circle problem. Namely, in order for God to create some of these abstract objects, they would already have to exist. For example, suppose God wants to create the property of being powerful. He would already have to be powerful in order to create the property of being powerful. You are in a vicious circle: you can’t create the property of being powerful unless you already have the property of being powerful. Think about numbers. Suppose God wanted to create the number 1. Before he creates the number 1, how many Gods are there? Well, there is one. And so 1 is the number of Gods there are. Or how many persons are in the Trinity before God creates numbers? Three; so 3 is the number of persons in the Trinity. So the numbers already exist before God creates them. You are in a vicious circle! Frankly, I don’t see any way out of this. It seems to me this is a decisive objection to Absolute Creationism. It runs into this bootstrapping problem or this vicious circularity that makes it untenable as a solution of the problem.

That takes us to the next possible solution. Absolute Creationism is not, in fact, the view that Christian theologians have adopted with respect to this problem. Rather the majority of Christian theologians have opted for the second alternative: “Conceptualism.” St. Augustine, influenced by Plato, recognized the importance of these Platonic entities, these abstract entities, but he also understood this was incompatible with the Christian doctrine of God. So what did he do? He moved the realm of Platonic objects into the mind of God and said what these really are are God’s ideas. So he was led to the doctrine of divine ideas. So when we talk about the number 1 or the property of being green, what we are talking about is intellectual content of God’s mind. This has been the majority viewpoint of Christian theologians down through history, a kind of Conceptualism according to which abstract objects have being as the ideas of God.

This is a viable option today, although it is not without problems. For example, it doesn’t really solve the problem about how we actually can know about these things. Granted, they are not in some Platonic heaven, but they are in God’s mind. So how do we have access to these things to know that 2+2=4 if 2 and 4 are just an idea in the mind of God?5 Or if I talk about the set of three men at this table and I form the idea of that set, that is not the same set as the idea that God forms because if the set of three men is God’s idea, then that is not my idea. I have a different idea. Conceptualism is not without its problems, though I think it is a good position and a defensible position. But it is not as though it doesn’t face difficulties.

Some have been led to go even farther and to say, “Why think that these things exist at all? Why think that there are such things as numbers and properties and so forth?” This is the position of “Nominalism.” Nominalism says that these abstract objects are just useful fictions; they don’t really exist. They are just useful fictions, artifacts of language. It is just the way we talk. To give an illustration, suppose I say “The average American family has 2.5 children.” That’s true, right? But there isn’t any such thing as “the average American family,” much less two and a half children! There isn’t any family in this country that has two and a half children in it! So the average American family is just a kind of useful fiction that we use to describe the mean number of children in U.S. families.

A diagram depicting the metaphysical options concerning the existence of mathematical objects

Fig. 1: Some metaphysical options concerning the existence of mathematical objects.

There are three positions with respect to mathematical objects (Fig. 1). Either they exist (realism) or they don’t exist (anti-realism). The third position, in the middle, is that this is just a meaningless question. There is no answer to it because the question is meaningless.

Under those that think mathematical objects exist, there are those that think they exist as abstract objects (Platonism) or that they exist as concrete objects. If you say that they are concrete objects, they could either be physical objects or mental objects. If they are physical, that would be physicalism, where you think that numbers and other things are actual physical entities. If you think they are mental entities, then you are a Conceptualist – they exist only in the mind. If you think they exist only in the human mind, that would be a human form of Conceptualism. If you hold they exist in God’s mind, that would be divine Conceptualism. We’ve already described Platonism and divine Conceptualism as two options.

On the other hand, suppose you say they don’t exist – anti-realism. That is the Nominalist view – they aren’t real; they are just useful fictions. Here there is a whole plethora of alternatives – different kinds of Nominalism that are available. Let me just highlight two of them.

First, “Fictionalism.” Fictionalism says that these statements about mathematical objects and properties and so forth are literally false, but they are useful. They are like statements of fiction. For example, “Sherlock Holmes lived on Baker Street and he was a detective.” That is literally false because there was no such person as Sherlock Holmes. But it is true in the story of Sherlock Holmes. So it is fictionally true, even though it is literally false. It would be fictionally false to say, “Sherlock Holmes was a mechanic that lived on Peoria Street.” That would be fictionally false – he wasn’t a mechanic and he didn’t live on that street in the story. It would be both fictionally false and literally false. But to say he was a detective and lived on Baker Street would be fictionally true, though literally false. Similarly, Fictionalists would say about mathematical statements like “2+2=4” that this is literally false because there is no such thing as 2 and 4; they don’t exist. But it is fictionally true in the sense that, given the axioms of arithmetic, it follows in the story of arithmetic that 2+2=4.

“Figuralism” is the other view I want to highlight. It is different. Figuralists feel uncomfortable saying a statement like “2+2=4” is false – you have to swallow hard to tell someone “2+2=4” is a false statement.6 So Figuralists say that these statements are just figurative ways of speaking, but they are true. It is like someone who says “It is raining cats and dogs!” That statement is true, it is raining cats and dogs outside. But it is a metaphor. It is a metaphorical statement about how hard it is raining. So you shouldn’t think that that metaphorical statement is false. It is true. But the person that takes it literally is simply misunderstanding what is being asserted. In the same way, it is true that “2+2=4,” but that is a figurative way of speaking. When I say there are three men at the table, that is true literally. But if I say, “3 is the number of the men at the table,” that is just a figurative way of speaking. I don’t mean that there really is an object called “3” that exists in addition to the men.

Both of these are viable options for the Christian theologian today. I find both of them quite attractive, and I am torn about which one to go with. But my inclination is to go with some kind of an anti-realism of either a Fictionalist or a Figuralist sort – or, if that won’t work, to fall back on Conceptualism. I think you can see that there are a number of options open to the Christian theologian today to meet the challenge of Platonism, and therefore we do not need to lose sleep over this.


Question: How would the existence of evil fit in to all of this?

Answer: That would be a different subject in that evil, if it exists, isn’t an abstract object. It would bear on there being objective moral values and what you think they are. For example, cruelty and greed. Are these abstract objects in the way Plato thought? In other words, are they kind of “out there” and are existing objects? Or are they just characteristics of persons? I am inclined to the latter view for reasons quite independent of Platonism. When we talk about the goodness of God, I will offer a view according to which these moral values are grounded in God’s being – the way he is. And so what contradicts that is evil. Evil is a lack of, or absence of, right order in the creaturely will. Rather than being ordered towards God as the right good, the will is ordered instead towards lesser goods, and therefore, goes something that is wrong and falls into evil.

Question: I understand the Nominalism of William of Ockham had virulent strains that affected parts of Europe and especially where Luther was and that was part of Luther’s misunderstanding of Catholic theology because he admitted to being an Ockhamist. Can you say anything regarding that?

Answer: Nominalism has a very bad name in theology. But I think it is quite distinct from Nominalism in the way I have described it, as a view about abstract objects. William of Ockham was actually a Conceptualist. He held that these things have being in the mind of God. He was in line, I think, with the mainstream Christian position of thinking that properties and other abstract objects are in the divine mind as God’s conceptions. So it is hard for me to understand what is wrong with Ockhamism in that sense. I think that he was on the right track in holding to this sort of divine Conceptualism. But Nominalism took on a kind of broader theological significance, as you say, that was quite negative and is beyond our discussion here.

Next time we will look at some application to our lives of this attribute of divine self-existence. I hope that our study of God’s self-existence and necessity has served to exalt your understanding of God’s being and his greatness and to expand your mind to see how truly marvelous the Lord is as the self-existent, necessary source of all being other than himself.7




1 5:07

2 10:09

3 15:12

4 19:58

5 25:09

6 30:06

7 Total Running Time: 35:42