To Be or Not to Be: The Christian Distinction

“‘It ain’t obvious what’s obvious,’ at least not in philosophy,” quips Bill Vallicella, quoting Hilary Putnam. I walked right into that friendly gibe. After all, I did remark that “God, as conceived by Christians, is not a being among beings is so utterly obvious to me that I honestly do not know how to argue against it.” Yet I walked into it with my eyes wide open, hoping it might elicit a thoughtful response from the Maverick Philosopher–and he has not disappointed. Vallicella has surveyed and analyzed the arguments, pro and con, and has concluded that a definitive judgment, at least for himself, is presently impossible. While he is inclined to believe that God is best identified as Being, he acknowledges that theistic personalists like Dale Tuggy and Alan Rhoda have presented a good case for their position. They could just be right … or not.

anselm_2.jpg~original.jpegI am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s great eureka moment in 1894. He had gone out to buy a tin of pipe tobacco. While walking along Trinity Lane, he threw the tin up in the air and exclaimed, “Great God in Boots!–the ontolog­ical argument is sound!” The illumination immediately led to Russell’s conversion to … no, not God … but Hegelianism, which lasted, he says, about three or four years. Sometimes arguments are persuasive, sometimes they aren’t; but as Vallicella observes, they are rarely obvious.

Of course, I ain’t no philosopher, yet I remain convinced that a properly Christian understanding of divine transcendence denies, or at least dramatically qualifies, the theistic-personalist claim.

We begin with “the Christian distinction,” as articulated by Robert Sokolowski in his book The God of Faith and Reason (also see “God+World≠2” and “Creatio ex Amore“). The Christian understanding of divinity, he argues, is best appreciated when contrasted with pagan religion and philosophy. Modernity can be a hindrance, for it is partly, if not largely, defined by its rejection “of both Christianity and antiquity, and many of the teachings we find in modernity could hardly be understood except as subsequent to Christian belief” (p. 22). The kind of theology articulated, for example, in the writings of analytic philosopher Richard Swinburne is inconceivable apart from the deism and atheism generated by the Enlightenment. The Church Fathers would no doubt have found Swinburne’s presentation of God alien, disturbing, despite the employment of traditional terminology. Consider how Swinburne defines deity:

There exists necessarily and eternally a person essentially bodiless, omnipresent, creator and sustainer of any universe there may be, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and a source of moral obligation. … An individual of the kind defined I shall call a divine individual or a God. (The Christian God, p. 125)

“Divine individual,” “a God”? Perhaps you find this way of speaking as odd as I do. Yet Swinburne is considered to be one of the premier Christian philosophers in the world. There is something strange going on here. The Christian faith is not just being translated into a modern idiom. It is being rendered in a way that theologians would have eschewed 1,500 years ago. Preachers have always spoken of God as a divine individual—it’s inevitable when one proclaims the gospel in narrative mode–but patristic and medieval theologians quickly realized that they could not remain at that level of discourse. Apophatic qualification was necessary. In the Eastern Church theologians came to speak of God as beyond Being; in the Latin Church, as Being. In speaking this way they were not subjecting their understanding of deity to the strictures of Greek philosophy but rather appropriating and adapting metaphysical conceptuality for the elaboration of the Christian distinction between deity and the world. Sokolowski formulates the distinction as follows:

Christian theology is differentiated from pagan religious and philosophical reflection primarily by the introduction of a new distinction, the distinction between the world understood as possibly not having existed and God understood as possibly being all that there is, with no diminution of goodness or greatness. (p. 23)

That God might not have created the world, without diminishment of being and glory, represented the introduction of a new vision of divinity and the cosmos. Pagan critics of the gospel recognized its novelty. In the second century, for example, the physician-philosopher Galen took Christianity to task for its rejection of demiurgic creation of the cosmos from preexistent matter. He was scandalized by the claim that God created the world freely from out of nothing, thereby portraying the Deity as arbitrary and capricious and thus undermining the rationality of the world (see Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, chap. 4).


The Christian distinction was given its verbal formulation by theologians and philosophers; but it did not, Sokolowski reminds us, first emerge in a purely theoretical context. It was formulated in “reflective thought because it had already been achieved in the life that goes on before reflective thinking occurs” (p. 23). Before the distinction came to word in the Church’s dogmatic teaching, it was experienced and known in the sacramental, ascetical, and moral practices of the Church. The distinction flows from the depths of the Church’s existential and spiritual life. Hence we are not speaking here of metaphysical speculation but of a fundamental apprehension of Creator and creature, as revealed in Jesus Christ and his Spirit. We do not think our way to the Christian distinction; we receive it by faith and live it in faith.

“In pagan religion and philosophy,” Sokolowski explains, “distinctions are made within the context of the world or the whole, the matrix of being in which one thing comes forward as differentiated from others” (p. 31). Beings within the world are identified by their differences. Each is what it is by not being what it is distinguishable from. But the Christian doctrines of God and creation confront us with a distinguishing that transcends the world:

But in the Christian distinction God is understood as “being” God entirely apart from any relation of otherness to the world or to the whole. God could and would be God even if there were no world. Thus the Christian distinction is appreciated as a distinction that did not have to be, even though it in fact is. The most fundamental thing we come to in Christianity, the distinction between the world and God, is appreciated as not being the most fundamental thing after all, because one of the terms of the distinction, God, is more fundamental than the distinction itself.

In Christian faith God is understood not only to have created the world, but to have permitted the distinction between himself and the world to occur. He is not established as God by the distinction (whereas pagan gods are established by being different from other things). No distinction made within the horizon of the world is like this, and therefore the act of creation in terms of any action or any relationship that exists in the world. The special sense of sameness in God “before” and “after” creation, and the special sense of otherness between God and the world, impose qualifications on whatever we are to say about God and the world, about creation out of nothing, about God’s way of being present and interior to things and yet beyond them. All the names and syntax we use for such theological discourse have to be adapted from their normal use in the element of the identities and differences within the world. …

The Christian distinction between God and the world is therefore a distinction that is, in principle, both most primary and yet capable of being obliterated, because one of the terms of the distinction, the world, does not have to be. To be God, God does not need to be distinguished from the world, because there does not need to be anything other than God alone. (pp. 32-33)

I have travelled far from the Maverick Philosopher’s analysis of God as being and Being–but perhaps not too far.

(4 May 2015; mildly edited)

(Go to “Is God “a” being among beings?)

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13 Responses to To Be or Not to Be: The Christian Distinction

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Reading some of the arguments, it seems to me that to an extent the fundamental disagreement is less about God and more about what it means to ascribe properties to something, particularly if “existence” is viewed as a “property”.
    There seems to be an unstated assumption in the “God as being” crowd that to say something has a particular property, for example being red, implies the existence of some prior abstract quality of “redness” existing independently of any actual red thing and which red things partake of in order to be described as “red”.
    There is also almost the assumption that simply by applying a single description to a group of things, you necessitate the existence of some quality external to all of the those things and independent of any of them. With this assumption you end up with very, very convoluted ways of avoiding applying the same thing to God, since if God has any properties, even that of existence, suddenly there is something (the property of existence itself) which now exists independently of God.
    If you don’t think properties have their own independent existence, and are merely descriptions of shared characteristics of what a particular thing is like, the problem of whether God exists in the same sense that created things exist disappears, indeed becomes largely meaningless: to say God or anything else exists is not to assign a preexisting and independent property of “existence” to God, but only to say that God is in the set of “all things that are” rather than the set of “things that don’t exist at all”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Yes, but what is meant by ‘God is in the set of “all things that are”’? Does ‘to be’ in the set mean the same thing for God as it does for all other things to be in that set? Of what consists the (dis)similarity of existence?


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have further edited the article. I deleted a couple of sentences that now appear to me (three years later) to be a bit pretentious. But for good or ill, I haven’t touched the substance of the piece.


  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I have no idea what you mean by the phrase “similarity of existence”. I even tried Googling it in the hope it was some technical theological term, but nothing came up. I really can’t understand anything you just said.
    I think you are using to verb “to be” in a very different way to that with which I am familiar, and the result is we are essentially not speaking the same language.


  4. Robert Fortuin says:

    Iain, what I meant is when we speak of God (‘theology’) we must have some basis in truth upon which our reflection is founded, it must at some level rest on similarity between us and God. For example, if we claim that ‘God’s exists’, for that to be meaningful and intelligent at all, ‘existence’ must bear, must signify, some point of commonality between what existence is to God as existence is to the creature. If God is completely other, without similarity, then we have no basis at all to intelligently and validly think and speak of the divine. The claim that ‘God’s exists’ then is devoid of meaning and truth, such that ‘God’s exists’ may at any rate mean ‘God does not exist’ or any other claim for that matter. This then raises the question as to the precise nature of the similarity (and dissimilarity) between God and creation. Is the similarity conceives univocally, such that for God to exist is for the creature to exist? And thus we come the point where we say that, ‘God is in the set of “all things that are.”’ But we haven’t answered anything as to what this ‘is’ is for God as this ‘is’ is for all things (forgive me for waxing Clintonian). The question remains – we must inquire as to what it means for God to be in the set of all things that are. This all to say that I question your observation that, ‘the problem of whether God exists in the same sense that created things exist disappears.’


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      I would disagree. You are adding to “exists” a greater degree or shade of meaning than the word is normally given, certainly in ordinary discourse. I think you are using the question “in what way does God exist?” as a less intelligible surrogate for the more straightforward “what are the similarities and difference between God and created things?”. I would agree that “God exists” is not of itself that informative, because it is only the minimum possible statement you can make about something, but I don’t think that arguments over what the definition of “is” is take you much further.


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Even with ordinary usage it is not that simple, requiring careful parsing. How does God’s existence differ from, and/or is similar to, the existence of an idea in my mind? Perfectly ordinary yet perfectly lacking perspecuity. The conundrum remains – one must explicate the nature of the (dis)similarity. Lumping God, ideas and whatever created ‘thing’ together into ‘all things that exist’ helps precious little in that regard – I would argue it only further obfuscates, unless one is blissfully happy that God exists like a thought. I’m not willing to settle for that, neither do I have to. At any rate, I suspect you discount what divine existence may signify, but I don’t mean this as a criticism but as a point for further reflection.


  5. Robert Fortuin says:

    typo: ‘God exists’


  6. Iain Lovejoy says:

    There seem to me to be two (or two and a half) stories of God here: First, the pagan (and Swinburne?) one of a God or gods who is formed out of or with the primal chaos and goes on to form the rest of creation out if the same stuff from which he / they were made. Second, the story of Genesis, where God alone is preexisting and eternal, and produces the universe out of nothing first formless and then formed and ordered by his work within it. There is also the further issue of to what extent (if any) creation is self-sustaining or is and must be continually sustained and recreated by God from moment to moment.
    Understanding which is true is crucial in understanding what God is, but I don’t think arguing about whether God is being or beyond being or what the meaning if “is” is a helpful way of taking the question much further. This is demonstrated to me by the debate Fr Kimel has posted, which seems to me a lot like two people with the same understanding of the story arguing with each other because they are using words differently in describing it.


  7. John H says:

    Since the ontological argument was mentioned in Father’s original post I have a question regarding the compatibility of that argument with the classical Christian conception of God. Do all formulations of the ontological argument, from Anselm through Plantiga, presuppose a univocal conception of being? Whether one says that God is a being greater than which no other can be conceived or a being that has the quality of maximal perfection in every possible world, one is still talking about “a being” and not being as such, correct? It seems to me that the argument must fail from a classical Christian perspective because it attempts to prove that the greatest conceivable being must possess the quality of necessary existence and not that God simply is ipsum esse subsistens. Once one sees that, than the question of God’s existence becomes virtually tautological: after all, if God truly is the self-subsistent act of existence as such, than how can He possibly not exist. Granted, He does exist in a fashion which utterly transcends the mode of existence of each one of His contingent creatures, but exist He surely does since He is the pure act of Being itself.
    Do you think that all of the proponents of the ontological argument through the centuries have actually been attempting to prove the existence of Zeus, Odin or Isvara, and not the God Who Simply is that I AM ?


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      John, of course one has to be careful lumping such a wide selection of thinkers into one group and making sweeping conclusions (for one, there are many varieties of the ontological argument), but that said, in my estimation these arguments fail on a very fundamental level. God and creation is thought of as belonging to the same order of existence and mode of being, failing to think beyond a univocal conception of existence. These arguments overlook, or at the least tend to discount, the distinction or dissimilarity between how it is for God and creature to be. This then results in or is a consequence of a conception of God and the divine mode of existence as a human (or a god) writ-large. God and creature are in the same category of existing things. Consequently, cornerstone ancient Christian notions of the perfect coincidence of existence and nature in God, divine simplicity, divine transcendence, divine immanence, divine perfect, etc., are – if not categorically rejected – reinterpreted to fit the demands of the various univocal equations and schemes. Placher’s ‘The Domestication of Transcendence’ and of course Sokolowski’s ‘The God of Faith and Reason’ are helpful in looking further into the history and development of this regretful turn in theology.


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