Ambiguity Of The Term “GOD”

By | March 17, 2010

Part I: Varieties in Conceptualizations of God:

A look at the relevant literature reveals that theologians and philosophers hold a variety of concepts of deity. A number of writers on the subject have pointed out that, even when we limit ourselves to Western-style monotheism, the meaning “God” is equivocal and ambiguous.

Here I offer examples of variety in god concepts.

John Hick, a well-known and respected philosopher of religion, states (in his book, Philosophy of Religion) that the Judaic-Christian concept of God is “conceived as an infinite, eternal, uncreated, personal reality who has created all that exists other than himself, and who has revealed himself to his human creatures as holy and loving.” (page 14)

Compare that to what my ‘Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Collier-Macmillan, 1967, ed. Paul Edwards)’ states as the concept of God:
It lists the attributes of God as a being who possesses: infinity, unity, simplicity, incorporeality immutability, eternity, perfect goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence.

In other words, God is an eternal, unlimited, spiritual being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. A variety of opinion remains as to whether God is transcendent or immanent, as to the nature of his relationship to the world, and his status as a personal being.

One could argue that despite a variety of views regarding God’s relationship to the world, Hick and the writer of the encyclopedia article agree on the core attributes of deity.

But when we look at other writers and theologians, it is variety and differences that jump out at us. Consider the overview of Hartshorne and Reese in their book, Philosophers Speak of God, in which they offer the following classification of theistic doctrines: The Supreme Being can be conceived as

• Eternal-Temporal Consciousness, Knowing and including the world (Panentheism, Plato Sri Jiva, Whitehead, Radhadrishnan.)
• Eternal Consciousness, not knowing or including the world: Aristotelian theism.
• Eternal Consciousness, knowing but not including the world: Classical, Philo, Augustine, Anselm, al-Ghazzali, Aquinas, Leibniz.
• Eternal beyond consciousness and knowledge: Emanationism, Plotinus.
• Eternal Consciousness, Knowing and Including the world: Classical Pantheism, Sankara, Spinoza, Royce
• Eternal-Temporal Consciousness, knowing but not including the world: Temporalistic theism, Socinus, Lequier.
• Eternal-Temporal Consciousness, partly exclusive of the world: Limited panentheism, James, Ehrenfels. Brightman.
• Temporal and nonconscious: Wieman

One could say that eternity, at least, marks the deity, except that the last concept makes God a temporal being.

Next consider the categories given by Donald A. Wells, in his book: God, Man, and the Thinker (Philosophies of Religion): Limiting himself to monotheism, Wells lists the following general categories of god-concepts:

• Pantheism: Everything is God
• Deistic supernaturalism: The far-off God (a remote, absolutely unknowable deity whose sole contact with the universe was to create it)
• Naturalism: The Process God (“God” as the tendency toward greater order in the universe)
• Neo-Orthodoxy: The Ground of Being (found in the theology of Bonaventura and Tillich)
• Orthodox Personalism: An all-knowing, perfectly good personal Being who is all-powerful (deity portrayed as a person-like being (Father, Lord, King) with unlimited power)
• Limited Personalism: An all-knowing, perfectly good personal Being whose powers are limited

(Which one shall we select as the correct concept?)

Following his look at theological doctrines that characterize God as the ground-of-being or being-in-itself, Walter Kaufmann, in his impressive book, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, summarizes the reasons for holding that the term “God” is bound to be ambiguous.

“God” is not a univocal term. The deeds and words of God, the visions phrases, and relations into which God enters; and the thoughts and feeling about Him which are recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures add up to a conception overcharged with meaning. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not simply “being-in-itself.” And now there have been added to this overrich conception of the Hebrew Scriptures the sayings of Jesus and stories of the Gospels, the theologies of the fourth evangelist and Paul, the ideas of the other authors of New Testament Epistles, the visions of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, and the vast lore, if not of the Talmud, Midrash, and the Jewish mystics, of the church fathers and Christian mystics, the scholastics, and innumerable theologians and philosophers.
Seeing that “God” is so far from being a univocal term and that the terms applied to him by theologians are admittedly not intended to mean what they generally mean, it is no exaggeration if we conclude that most statements about God are essentially ambiguous. They cannot be called true or false. Interpretations of them which are true are usually ingenious or trivial or heretical —- often all three. The propositions themselves defy translation.”

(Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Doubleday, 1961 pp. 180-181)

Can we say that at the very least we have some reason for doubting the view that all philosophers, theologians, and reputable religious writers agree on the basic meaning of the concept of “God”? But maybe the three major monotheistic religions can at least agree on the core attributes of God. This is the issue of Part II.

Part II Monotheism and claims of the “same God”

Proposition A: The God of Christians, Jews, and Muslims is the same God.

Propositions A is likely false, and certainly cannot be verified., although most people assume that it is true and (from all appearances) do not spend any time worrying about how anyone could show that it is true.

But could one ever demonstrate that the three major monotheistic religions all point to the same supernatural entity (Proposition A), referred to by the term “God”? What would be the criteria by which all observers, including neutral parties, would agree that, indeed, the same entity was referenced by the term “God”? We cannot say that they all attribute the same properties to this one God. Someone might assert that, although each religious tradition knows him by way of different properties, they still refer to the same being. But how would one ever show that proposition to be true or even rationally well-grounded?

Corollary A1: Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe in a God to whom they assign the same set of core properties.

The corollary proposition is that all adherents of these monotheistic faiths identify their deity by the same essential (“core”) properties. This is an empirical claim which can easily be tested by empirical means, namely, checking various representatives to see whether they all conceive of their deity in the same way. The evidence, easily available, indicates the A1 also is false. A friend with special interest in Judaism, has shown me numerous sources and reasons for concluding that from a Judaic perspective A1 is false: the ‘G-D’ of Judaism does not share core properties with the deity of Christians. It would be an easy task to show similar reasons for denying that Allah, the God of Muslims, shares core properties with either the God of Jews or that of Christians.

In Part I above, I offered various sources and examples of people, mostly a variety of Christians, who held notions of deity that refute A1. Below, I offer one more. This is a selection from an essay, “Eschatological Verification,” (Theology Today, April 1960) by John Hick, a respected Christian philosopher/theologian. He writes:

“There are many different concepts of God, and it may be that statements employing some of them are open to verification or falsification while statements employing others .. are not.”

In addition, he states:

“The strength of the notion of eschatological verification is that it is not an ad hoc invention but is based upon an actually operative religious concept of God. In the language of Christian faith, the word “God” stands at the center of a system of terms, such as Spirit, grace, Logos, incarnation, Kingdom of God, and many more; and the distinctly Christian conception of God can only be grasped in its connection with these related terms. . .”

(my emphasis)

So, according to Hick, this concept of God is surely not one which could be affirmed by either Jews or Muslims. He lists what he, as a Christian thinker, regards as core properties of this ‘God’: including the distinctly Christian notions of grace, Logos, incarnation and such.

I find that that each of these religious cultures has its distinctive concept of deity, and that within each one there is more variety in the ways that people actually conceive of their deity. Furthermore, I do not see how any theology or theistic philosophy can make good the claim that, despite the variety of descriptions, all people of monotheistic faith point to the same God.

2 thoughts on “Ambiguity Of The Term “GOD”

  1. john mize

    Hi Juan,

    You might find the following quote interesting. It is from Jan Van der Veken, in an article "ultimate Reality and God: The Same?" in The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, p. 204. "The word God is used by the religious person in order to refer to the ultimate source of meaning and value."

  2. Lyle Speegle

    Complexity theory, like so many other historical developments, provides yet another angle on the concept of God. The following quotation from Publisher's Weekly is printed on's page on Reinventing the Sacred, a new book by Stuart Kauffman.

    "Kauffman, a complexity theorist at the University of Calgary, sets a huge task for himself in this provocative but difficult book: to find common ground between religion and science by redefining God as not a supernatural Creator but as the natural creativity in the universe. That creativity, says Kauffman, defies scientific assumptions that the biosphere's evolution and human activity can be reduced to physics and are fully governed by natural laws. Kauffman (At Home in the Universe) espouses emergence, the theory of how complex systems self-organize into entities that are far more than the sum of their parts. To bolster the idea of this ceaselessly creative and unpredictable nature, Kauffman draws examples from the biosphere, neurobiology and economics. His definition of God as the fully natural, awesome, creativity that surrounds us is unlikely to convince those with a more traditional take on religion. Similarly, Kauffman's detailed discussions of quantum mechanics to explain emergence are apt to lose all but the most technically inclined readers. Nonetheless, Kauffman raises important questions about the self-organizing potential of natural systems that deserve serious consideration.

    This raises a question about the distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism. Kauffman argues that the biosphere's evolution and human activity are not fully governed by natural laws. That would be a hard pill for naturalists to swallow. If they are not fully governed by natural laws, how can they be explained? Maybe they can't be explained. Maybe they derive from a cause that transcends human understanding. The concept of a cause that transcends human understanding has figured in many traditional concepts of God and/or the supernatural.


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