Is God a being among beings? It seems like the kind of question that only a fussy scholastic might worry about. Christians typically speak of God as if he were a being. We tell stories about him. We proclaim his mighty works. We refer to him by personal pronouns. He is the One to whom we direct our prayers and praises. Even as metaphysical a theologian as St Thomas Aquinas refers to him as ens and id quod est, a concrete entity and particular. Yet for Thomas this usage immediately needs to be qualified: God is ens perfectissimum, the perfect Being; ens summum and ens maxime, the supreme Being. Yet an even more drastic qualification remains necessary: Deus sit ipsum esse subsistens, “God is existence itself, of itself subsistent” (ST I.4.2). Unlike all other beings, God does not participate in being; he does not receive being; he is Being, or perhaps more accurately, he is the sheer act of being–eternal and self-existent, the infinite source and uncreated ground of finite reality. Whereas the entities we encounter within the universe are marked by composition of existence and essence (by their natures they need not exist), God is metaphysically simple: his existence is his essence; his essence, his existence. God therefore exists necessarily. Timothy McDermott puts it this way:
God exists as the doing of all being, the existence that acts in all existence, an existence in the world’s existing but not of it, no thing, but not therefore nothing. … God exists (as is proved by the existence of his effects) but he does not share existence in the way everything else does, he is not a member of the genus thing—he is no thing, though not nothing. He is his own existence: not even the existence that other things share, but the doing of that existence. (Summa Theologiæ: A Concise Translation, pp. xxxii-xxxiii)
In light of Thomas’s analysis, particularly in response to biblicist and analytic presentations of divinity, many modern Thomists have emphasized the radical difference of the divine Creator. God does not belong to a genus, not even the genus of being. He is neither a thing nor kind of thing; nor is he an instantiation of a nature. In the words of Etienne Gilson: “He is absolutely” (Christian Philosophy, p. 110). God thus transcends every philosophical category and surpasses all our schemes of classification. Even the identification of God as Being may be misleading, as it suggests a nominalization of divinity. Better to think of God as a verb. “To be God is to be ‘to be’ (esse),” remarks Brian Davies (Aquinas, p. 73). (Don’t worry if you can’t get your mind around this formulation–that is the point.) Because of their mutual incommensurability, E. L. Mascall argues we must not think of Creator and creatures as existing on the same metaphysical plane and therefore as addible entities:
The real difficulty for philosophy is not to explain the existence of God but to explain the existence of anything else. Whatever may be their respective nature, it might be urged, surely God plus the world is something more than God. Creation has increased the sum-total of existence. Hence God without the world must be something less than the fullness of being.
It must be replied to this objection that the statement, “God plus the world is more than God,” is not true of a God who is the unique self-existent and infinite Being, in the sense in which we have attributed those terms to him. Of any merely finite God, however great he might be, the objection would hold. The sum of any two finite beings is always greater than either of them taken separately. But if God is literally infinite this simply does not hold. God and the world being of radically different orders of reality cannot be added together.
To add beings together we must add them in respect of their common qualities. Two cows plus five cows make seven cows, for they are all cows. Even two cows and five horses can be added together in a certain way, for, although they are neither all cows nor all horses, they are all graminivorous quadrupeds; and the answer is seven graminivorous quadrupeds. We might even, passing to an extreme case, add together the four lions at the base of Nelson’s Column, the Thirty-nine Articles and the four cardinal virtues, and say that as a result we have forty-seven beings conceivable by the human mind, though the statement would be of no practical importance owing to the excessively small common content. But when it is a question of adding finite beings to God, the sum simply cannot be made. As Gilson says, God and the world “are, in all rigour, incommensurable, and that is also why they are compossible.” In Thomist terminology God is not in any genus and any argument that treats him as if he were is illicit at the start. (He Who Is, pp. 102-103)
Some scholars, however, have begun to push back against the apophatic interpretation of Aquinas, notably, Eleonore Stump. After quoting some of its well-known proponents, she writes: “But if God is not a being at all, not any kind of concrete particular, it is hard to see how a human person could have a personal relationship to God and engage in conversation with him, as Jonah does in the story” (The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, p. 31). All Christian believers must share her concern. Prayer, intercession, and obedience are integral to the life of the Church. If a proposed philosophical construal of divinity undermines these practices, then it must be ruled out of court. “God is characterized by one mind and one will,” Stump elaborates. “Anything with a mind and a will, however, is an entity, an id quod est” (p. 32). If God is only esse, then he is not a person and therefore is not the One whom Christians serve and love. “Nothing that is not even an entity could enter into any kind of personal relationship with human persons. In fact, it seems that no standard divine attributes such as being omniscient or being possessed of free will, for example, could apply to something that is not a being. Or, to put the same point another way, it is very hard to see how something which is not a being but which is characterized only as being itself could be capable of knowing or loving anything” (p. 32). But in fact, Stump tells us, Aquinas professes God as both Being and concrete particular. She goes on to suggest that we are presented here with a paradox analogous to the quantum paradox regarding light. Is light a particle or a wave? Yes, the physicist cryptically answers. Stump concludes:
For Aquinas, then, on the doctrine of simplicity, being (esse) and a being (an id quod est) are somehow the same in God. And for this reason, contrary to what some scholars have maintained about Aquinas’s view, for Aquinas God is not just being, but rather being which somehow also subsists as a being or an id quod est. … That is, it is acceptable to say that God is being, provided that we understand that this claim does not rule out the claim that God is an entity, a concrete particular, an individual, an id quod est. (pp. 86-87; also see “Athens and Jerusalem”)
We cannot explain how God can be both esse and ens, but we must affirm both. If we deny the latter, states Stump, then we effectively reduce God to the status of an abstract universal; and an abstract universal neither speaks nor acts nor commands nor saves.
Stump, however, has not yet persuaded me. It remains unclear why the description of God as ipsum esse subsistens (subsistent act of existing) entails the problems and consequences she mentions. As early as the 2nd century Christian theologians began to speak of the divinity in philosophical terms and affirmed that the divine essence is incomprehensible. In the fourth century St Gregory the Theologian identified the God of faith with the plenitude of metaphysical being: “For holding everything together in himself, he possesses being, neither beginning nor ending. He is like a kind of boundless and limitless sea of being, surpassing all thought and time and nature” (Or. 38.7). Yet Gregory did not see this affirmation as contradicting the witness of the Holy Scriptures or requiring changes in apostolic proclamation and praxis. And the same may be said of multiple theologians after Gregory, both in the Eastern and Latin traditions. The Dionysian strand in the Byzantine tradition is even willing to speak of God as beyond being. Thus this striking statement by St Maximus the Confessor:
Everything that derives its existence from participation in some other reality, presupposes the ontological priority of that other reality. Thus it is clear that the divine Cause of created beings–is incomparably superior to all such beings in every way, since by nature its existence is prior to theirs and they presuppose its ontological priority. It does not exist as a being with accidents, because if that were the case the divine would be composite, its own existence receiving completion from the existence of created beings. On the contrary, it exists as the beyond-beingness of being. For if artists in their art conceive the shapes of those things which they produce, and if universal nature conceives the forms of the things within it, how much more does God Himself bring into existence out of nothing the very being of all created things, since He is beyond being and even infinitely transcends the attribution of beyond-beingness. For it is He who has yoked the sciences to the arts so that shapes might be devised; it is He who has given to nature the energy which produces its forms, and who has established the very is-ness of beings by virtue of which they exist.” (Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice 1.6; in Philokalia, II:165)
In characterizing God as beyond being, Maximus is neither depersonalizing deity nor limiting the Church to abstract discourse about divinity. And I’m confident the same is true of Thomas with his identification of God as ipsum esse subsistens. Both theologians would have found Stump’s worries misplaced, perhaps because both had been formed by the thought of St Dionysius the Areopagite. Just a thought.
The question I wish to ask Dr Stump is this: When we call God a being, are we speaking literally or figuratively; and if literally, univocally or analogically? Stump apparently believes that if we do not construe God as an entity (ens), then we are restricted to speaking of him as a universal, like redness or goodness. But why must that follow? Once the analogical interval between Creator and creature is granted, the gamut of linguistic usage is opened to us. Here is my concern: finite entities are distinguished from each other as beings in multiple ways. The computer screen I am looking at right now is a being, distinct from all the other beings sitting on my desk. I can even count them. If I were God, I could even count all their subatomic particles. Surely, however, the infinite and transcendent Creator is not distinguishable from finite beings in the ways a finite being is distinguished from other finite beings. Yet when I insert that little indefinite article and declare “God is a being,” I appear to be locating him alongside the beings that make up our universe-—and this seems odd, especially given that I can neither sensibly apprehend God nor provide a definition of his nature. But the oddity disappears once this way of speaking is recognized as either analogical or metaphorical. I have not yet decided between the two options, but at the moment I lean toward analogy, given Thomas’s identification of esse and id quo est within the divine simplicity: “In simple things, in reality (realiter) esse itself and id quod est must be one and the same” (In De hebd. II.33; quoted by Stump, p. 86). So what might Thomas have meant when he referred to God as a particular entity? Gaven Kerr proposes the following:
Now an id quod est, an ens, is a concrete individual; and most entia that we come across are such because they are composed of metaphysical parts (like matter and form, nature and supposit) making them so. But what permits their being referred to as entia, as so many entities, is the fact that they are concrete individuals, capable of being signified particularly. Esse divinum is a concrete individual, not because it is composed of any metaphysical parts, but, owing to its utter lack of composition, because it is one, unique, and incommunicable, such that there is nothing at all that is like it. Its unicity then resides in the fact that everything else is unlike it. As such it can be signified in the concrete and thus particularly as a subsistent individual, and so it can be referred to as an ens. But its ens-hood is not like that of the other things that we take to be entia (e.g., composites of matter and form); rather, it is an ens given its special status as esse divinum. It is precisely because it is esse divinum and nothing else is like it that it is a unique, subsistent individual. Simply because the ens-hood of esse divinum is unlike that of all other entia with which we are familiar does not entail that it is incompatible with being an ens; it only entails that esse divinum, God, is unlike any other ens that exists. …
Thus, it is precisely because God is one, simple, participating in nothing, and subsisting in Himself—i.e., it is because God is esse divinum—that God is most properly an ens because it is most proper to Him to be unique, individual, and subsisting. (“Aquinas, Stump, and the Nature of a Simple God,” p. 10)
Whereas the id quod est, when applied to creatures, signifies distinct individuality, when applied to God it signifies the divine uniqueness and unicity. I find this a plausible interpretation. Thomas seems to be saying something like this in the Summa Theologiae: “And as God is simple, and subsisting, we attribute to Him abstract names to signify His simplicity, and concrete names to signify His substance and perfection, although both these kinds of names fail to express His mode of being, forasmuch as our intellect does not know Him in this life as He is“ (I.13.1). The simple fact is, Christians speak of God in both abstract and concrete, even corporeal, terms. That’s a given. Thomas’s concern is to help us to interpret this discourse rightly—hence his appeal to analogy and metaphor. I have yet to see a text where he makes a big deal about God as id quod est. I even wonder whether he would feel comfortable about Kerr’s notion of divine ens-hood? In any case, however Thomas may have understood the significance of the id quod est when attributed to divinity, it gets swallowed up in his decisive and fundamental assertion: Deus sit ipsum esse subsistens.
In my 2015 article “Absolute Deity,” I stated that “the claim that God is a being among beings is immediately ruled out … by the classical understanding of divine transcendence.” Dr William Vallicella, popularly known as the Maverick Philosopher, rightly rejoined that I had not yet demonstrated why the divine transcendence implies that God is not a being. “Why cannot it be like this?” he asks. “God, the self-existent One, creates beings distinct from himself. These beings ‘now’ (either temporally or logically) form with God a collection of beings. So although God has all sorts of properties that make him the supreme being such as omniscience, and the rest of the omni-attributes, he remains a being among beings.”
In the analytic way of looking at the world, a being is something which possesses properties. Since God presumably possesses properties, he too is a being (or is it the other way round?). Thus Vallicella:
First of all, what could it mean to say that God is a being among beings? As I see it, to say that God is a being among beings is to say that God is no exception to the logical and ontological principles (pertaining to properties, property-possession, existence, modality, etc.) that govern anything that can be said to exist. It is to say that God fits the ontological or general-metaphysical schema that everything else fits. It is to say that God is ontologically on a par with other beings despite the attributes (omniscience, etc.) that set him apart from other beings and indeed render him unique among beings. …
God has properties in the same way that creatures do. My first point was that there are some properties that both God and creatures share; my present point is a different one about property-possession: the having of these shared properties is the same in the divine and creaturely cases. (“God”)
So why shouldn’t we think of God as a being, the supreme being, with all sorts of nifty omni-properties? Why indeed? As mentioned above, that little indefinite article suggests a cosmos populated with countable entities. “Look, there’s a being. Oh, there’s another one. Now I see a third. Golly, the universe is being overrun with beings!” And not only are there zillions of beings in the universe, but they are different from each other, different not only by spatial and temporal location but by their respective natures. Photons are different from neutrinos, tigers are different from dogs, rocks are different from tomatoes. All this is commonsensical. Finite beings differ from each other by their respective natures and relationships. Now add the one God into the mix. We appear to have zillions of beings + one more being. To confirm, start subtracting, one entity at a time. Eventually you get down to you and God–two beings. Scratch yourself off the list. We have one being left, right? There’s a certain logic to all of this, because we are still thinking of God in relation to all the now-absent beings. But now imagine, if you can, the counterfactual of God never having created the world. Do we still have one being? Is God still countable, and if he’s not, was he ever countable? I suppose an analytic philosopher would insist that this solitary Deity is still a being, as he is the subject of properties and attributes. My thought experiment apparently hasn’t changed anything, but it has led me to suspect that the Thomists may be right: we really shouldn’t be thinking of the metaphysically simple God as an entity with properties.
When I was preparing three years ago to write the original version of this article, I took off the shelf my copy of Finite and Infinite by the formidable Anglican theologian Austin Farrer. I had never read the book and wondered if I ever would, knowing that it was way above my tiny metaphysical brain. But the engagement with Dr Vallicella pushed me through my reluctance. It is a dense and at times impenetrable book. Farrer opens his exploration in natural theology with the following description of Deity:
If God exists, He is unique, and if other beings are related to Him, that relation is also unique. By the ‘unique’ in this argument we do not mean simply that which alone exemplifies certain characteristics; we mean that which shares no identical characteristic with anything else, and so cannot be placed in a proper class with others. (p. 7)
Farrer then goes on to highlight the philosophical challenges posed by this construal of God. If God does not head or belong to a class of existents, if he is a truly a singular being, how can his existence be demonstrated? Answering that question is the burden of Finite and Infinite. Farrer is sympathetic to the insistence of Thomists that God cannot be included among the categories of Aristotle. He does not belong to a genus–with one possible exception:
Now, however many descriptions we may withold from God in their plain sense–however zealous we are not to place Him in genere–we cannot dispense with one: we must have a subject to whom these descriptions are thus oddly related; God must be agreed to be somewhat, to be an existent. (p. 28)
If God exists, then he is an existent, albeit one unique in his mode of his existence. I suppose that if presented with my above thought experiment, Farrer would affirm the last entity standing as a being because he is a subject of whom existence may be predicated. On this question of divinity and existence, Farrer and Vallicella would appear to be in agreement (see Vallicella, “Is God Beyond All Being?“). In an article written after our 2015 exchange, Vallicella proposes that God should be thought of as a “uniquely unique” being:
A truly transcendent God, however, must transcend the ontological framework applicable to everything other than God. So it must transcend the distinction between kind and instance. In a truly transcendent God there cannot be real distinctions of any kind and thus no real distinction between kind and instance, nature and individual having the nature. Now if God transcends the distinction between instance and kind/nature, and is uniquely unique, unique in a way that no other being is or could be unique, then that is equivalent to maintaining that God is ontologically simple. … Again, if God is the absolute, then he cannot be one of many; he must be the ONE that makes possible the one and the many. As such he transcends the Discursive Framework in which the one opposes the many. The ONE, however, is the ONE of both the one and many. It cannot be brought into opposition to anything. (“God as Uniquely Unique”)
If God is uniquely unique, then he is incommensuable with creatures, precisely in the way explicated by Mascall above. Even his mode of existence, as one whose existence and essence are identical, is radically different from the way all other beings exist. How could such a uniquely unique being be added to the world to make two?
Recall the critical point advanced by Robert Sokolowski: God is more fundamental than the Creator/creature distinction. Even if he had never created the cosmos, he would still be the infinite fullness of Being. As Thomas controversially asserts, the Creator does not stand in a real relation to the beings he has made and is conserving: “Since therefore God is outside the whole order of creation, and all creatures are ordered to Him, and not conversely, it is manifest that creatures are really related to God Himself; whereas in God there is no real relation to creatures, but a relation only in idea, inasmuch as creatures are referred to Him” (ST I.13.7). The asymmetrical relation between Creator and creature is here decisive. God is not just a necessary being that must, by stipulation, exist in all possible worlds. (Once the divine transcendence is properly grasped, I’m not even sure it makes sense to speak of “possible worlds.”) He is the ontological source and origin of everything. At every moment the contingent beings of the contingent universe are receiving their being from their infinite Creator. Or as Dionysius states, “For God is not some kind of being” (Divine Names 817D).
Vallicella has accurately identified the problem: a-being theists of the analytical school presuppose that “God is ontologically on a par with other beings” and thus affirm, at least implicity, a univocity of being. That is to say, they locate divinity alongside the universe, within the same metaphysical matrix (also see Barry Miller, A Most Unlikely God, chap. 1). What is missing is the ontological diastema that forms the traditional Christian apprehension of divinity and the world. Eleonore Stump is an exception, as she affirms the analogia entis; on the other hand, her affirmation would seem to undermine her quantum theology project.
(6 May 2015; substantially revised, retitled)