Absolute Deity: Being, Beyond Being, or a Being?


Is God a being among beings or Being itself? This is the question presently being discussed by philosophers Bill Vallicella and Dale Tuggy. If this is a question that interests you, please jump over to Vallicella’s website and read his article “God.” Then jump over to Tuggy’s site and read the two articles he has posted: “God is a being (part 1)” and “(part 2).” And then see Vallicella’s follow-up: “God and Socrates.” Not being trained in philosophy, analytic or otherwise, I find the arguments dense, difficult, and more than a little bit weird; but I imagine this happens all the time when laymen read chats between analytic philosophers.

That God, as conceived by Christians (and I’m not really interested in any other God), is not a being among beings is so utterly obvious to me that I honestly do not know how to argue against it. One of the very first theology books I read back in the 70s was He Who Is by Eric Lionel Mascall. When I look back now on my theological development since then, I have come to realize how profoundly he influenced my understanding of God, even though it was decades later before I read even a little Aquinas. My paperback copy of the book is filled with underlining (ditto for my copy of Existence and Analogy). Here’s one passage that I underlined:

We cannot lump together in one genus God and everything else, as if the word “being” applied to them all in precisely the same sense, and then pick out God as the supreme one. For if God is the Supreme Being, in the sense in which Christian theology uses the term, “being” as applied to him is not just one more instance of what “being” means when applied to anything else. So far from being just one item, albeit the supreme one, in a class of beings, he is the source from which their being is derived; he is not in their class but above it. … In the technical term, when we apply to God a term which is normally used of other beings, we are using it not univocally but analogically; for he is not just one member of a class with them, but their ground and archetype. (p. 9)

04_doura_sacrifice_of_elijah-1.JPGThe claim that God is a being among beings is immediately ruled out, so it seems to me, by the classical understanding of divine transcendence: if all beings have been created from nothing by the self-existent One, then this One cannot be classified as one of them, as sharing a world with them. To think of God as a being would thus represent nothing less than a return to paganism. We would be back at Mt Carmel with Elijah and the priests of Ba’al. Among theologians of the first millennium, the question was never “Is God a being?” but “Is God Being or beyond Being?” I know that having just written this, someone will now come back at me with a quote from one or more of the Church Fathers; but even if excep­tions are identified, I think my generali­zation stands.

Reading through Vallicella’s article, I kept asking myself, Would Mascall agree with the proposition “existence exists”? I find the proposition odd. What about the assertion of Pseudo-Dionysius that God is beyond all Being? Aquinas would certainly agree that the Creator transcends created being; but I suspect that Dionysius is trying to say something more. I wonder what the Maverick Philosopher thinks about “beyond Being” language  (I can pretty much guess what Tuggy thinks about it).

I look forward to hearing your thoughts about Vallicella’s and Tuggy’s arguments. Please do not be reluctant to avail yourself of the comment box. I, for one, need to hear from you. Perhaps even Vallicella and Tuggy might join us. Probably not, but who knows? Even the Lord of Hosts deigned to make an appearance at Mt Carmel.

(30 April 2015; mildly edited)

(Go to “To Be or Not to Be”)

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10 Responses to Absolute Deity: Being, Beyond Being, or a Being?

  1. My thoughts on your posting, and not on the “dense” articles is that the transcendence of God is of utmost importance. God is ontologically different. He was when there was not– to flip the Arian quote on its head.

    The Athanasian Creed is a great “resource” on this discussion.

    Scripture is fairly silent on this philosophical discussion. It assumes God’s transcendence, his difference, and his eternality.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    My thoughts quickly went to the Trinity and the incarnation. These ideas are difficult enough to think through in the light of divine transcendence, but seem incoherent if God is on the same ontological plane as creatures.


  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    The problem is they are using terms differently. They both refer to this supposed “inconsistent triad”:
    1. Existence itself exists.
    2. God exists.
    3. God is not (identical to) existence itself.
    The problem to me is that they both assume that proposition 1 has some meaning, and one which is distinct from proposition 2, and then proceed to argue over whether it is true or not. Neither of them deal with the more fundamental problem of what it is supposed to mean in the first place.
    All it can really mean is that things exist by virtue of some externality that enables / causes them to do so. Calling this externality “existence in itself” doesn’t further define or explain what it is, or what it is like. It amounts to no more than saying “created things require a creator” and is therefore as a statement indistinguishable from proposition 2. Proposition 3 is therefore false, saying “God is not God” but its converse “God is existence itself” is only true because the way Vallicella defines “existence itself” is indistinguishable from the definition of God.
    Duffy’s assertion that God is a being amongst beings is equally to my mind simply a product of the definitions he is using. Duffy uses “beings” to refer to the sum total of all that is. Since there is a God, he is a “being” in Duffy’s terminology, and he is a “being amongst beings” because there is God and also some things which are not God. Duffy affirms that God is uncreated with no external cause or requiring any, and that everything else derives its existence from God, he just doesn’t (because of how he defines the category of “things”) consider that thus disqualifies God from being a “thing”.
    They seem to be arguing a distinction without a distinction.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It seems to me that a denial of the tenants of classical theism would not only be flat out heresy but also blasphemous in light of the doctrine of creation. One would have to literally deny the position that God alone is eternal in order to come to such erroneous conclusions.


  5. Jack says:

    Maximus the confessor stated that God is beyond being and even “infinitely transcends the attribute of beyond beingness”. I think Aquinas was basically pointing in the same direction in his “whereby we proceed to God by way of remotion, we deny of him all things corporeal, intellectual, even that he is (an abridged quote).” The analogia entis par excellance, it seems to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ben W says:

      Beyond ousia. Epekeina tes ousias: supersubstantial. People seem to forget that we use the word “being” to translate things with very diverse meanings in Greek and Latin (etc.). Aquinas believed both that God is “super substantiam” (“beyond being” or “beyond substance”) and was also “ess” or “actus essendi” (“to-be,” “the act of to-be-ing”).


  6. Robert Fortuin says:

    I surmise that the reason analytics think about God as they do is for the instinctive fear of a complete agnosticism, a radical apopathicism run amok if you will. If God is completely other (i.e. not a being among beings) upon what basis then can theology be conducted? How can creatures truthfully and validly say anything that concerns the Uncreated? This is a valid concern, no question about it. The solution proffered is to validate theology on the basis of a univocal understanding of God and creature. God is (His mode of being, existence,knowledge, etc.) fundamentally like the mode of being of the creature and upon this unvocity theology is validated, purchased at the cost of making God in the image of the creature.


  7. Lee faber says:

    I”ve always had difficulty apprehending what the claim ‘God is not a being among beings’ amounts to. here it just seems to be denial that God and creatures are in the same genus. But such a claim Scotus himself affirms, devoting a lengthy question to the topic. Yet Scotus affirms (conceptual) univocity of God and creatures.


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Lee, per se it is not meant to be a contra-Scotus position.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Lee, I would think that the “God is not a being among beings” becomes relevant when counterposed to contemporary personalist presentations of deity (either analytic or pop-biblical).


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