The Judaic-Christian Concept of God
John H. Hick, Philosophy of Religion (3d edition), 1983
The terms used for the main ways of thinking about God are formed around either the Greek word for God, theos, or its Latin equivalent, deus.
Beginning at the negative end of the scale, atheism (not-God-ism) is the belief that there is no God of any kind; agnosticism, which means literally”not-know-ism,” is in this context the.belief that we do not have sufficient reason either to affirm or to deny God’s existence. Skepticism simply means doubting. Naturalism is the theory that every aspect of human experience,including one’s moral and religiousjife, can be adequately described and accounted for in terms of our existence as gregarious and intelligent animals whose life is organic to our material environment.
Moving to the positive side of the scale, deism can refer either to the idea of an “absentee” god who long ago set the universe in motion and has thereafter left it alone or, as an historical term, to the position of the eighteenth-century English deists who taught that natural theology1 alone is religiously sufficient. Theism (often used as a synonym for monotheism) is strictly belief in a deity but is generally used to mean belief in a personal deity. Polytheism (many-gods-ism) is the belief, common among primitive peoples and reaching its classic expression in the west in ancient Greece and Rome, that there are a multitude of personal gods, each holding sway over a different department of life.2 A person whose religion is a form of henotheism believes that there are many gods but restricts his or her allegiance to one of them, generally the god of one’s own tribe or people. Pantheism (God-is-all-ism) is the belief, perhaps most impressively expounded by some of the poets, that God is identical with nature or with the world as a whole. Monotheism (one-God-ism) is the belief that there is but one supreme Being, who is personal and moral and who seeks a total and unqualified response from human creatures. This idea first came to fully effective human consciousness in the words, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”3 As these historic words indicate, the Hebraic understanding of God, continued in Christianity, is emphatically monotheistic.
The “Old Testament” (which constitutes the sacred writings of Judaism and, along with the New Testament, the sacred writings of Christianity) documents the rise of monotheism in constant but never fully resolved struggle with polytheism and henotheism. The God of the Hebrews was originally worshiped as a tribal god, Jahweh of Israel, over against such foreign deities as Dagon of the Philistines and Chemosh of the Moabites. But the insistent, though at first incredible, message of the great prophets of the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries before Christ (above all, Amos, Hosea, first Isaiah, Jeremiah, and second Isaiah) was that Jahweh was not only the God of the Hebrews but the Maker of heaven and earth and the Judge of all history and of all peoples. The Hebrew prophets taught that although God had indeed summoned their own nation to a special mission as the living medium of his revelation to the world, he was not only their God but also Lord of the gentiles or foreigners. A great biblical scholar says, “Hebrew monotheism arose through the intuitive perception that a God who is righteous first and last must be as universal as righteousness itself.”4 The service of God must involve a responsibility not only to fellow members of the same “household of faith” but to all one’s fellow creatures of every race and group.
It is a corollary of the prophets’ teaching concerning the lordship of God over all human life that there is no special religious sphere set apart from the secular world but that the whole sweep of a person’s existence stands in relation to God. Thus religion is secularized, or—putting it the other way about—ordinary life takes on a religious meaning. In the words of H. Niebuhr:
The counterpart of this secularization, however, is the sanctification of all things. Now every day is the day that the Lord has made; every nation is a holy people called by him into existence in its place and time and to his glory; every person is sacred, made in his image and likeness; every living thing, on earth, in the heavens,and in the waters is his creation and points in its existence toward him; the whole earth is filled with his glory; the infinity of space is his temple where all creation is summoned to silence before him.5
The difficulty involved in maintaining such a faith in practice, even within a culture that has been permeated for centuries by monotheistic teaching, is evidenced by the polytheistic and henotheistic elements in our own life. A religiously sensitive visitor from another planet would doubtless report that we divide our energies in the service of many deities—the god of money, of a business corporation, of success, and of power, the status gods, and (for a brief period, once a week) the God of Judaic-Christian faith. When we rise above this practical polytheism, it is generally into a henotheistic devotion to the nation, or to the American way of life, in order to enjoy our solidarity with an in-group against the out-groups. In this combination of elements there is no continuity with the pure monotheism of the prophets and of the New Testament, with its vivid awareness of God as the Lord of history whose gracious purpose embracing all life renders needless the frantic struggle to amass wealth, power, and prestige at the expense of others.
1 For a definition of natural theology, see p. 61.
2 For example, in the Greek pantheon, Poseidon (god of the sea), Ares (god of war), and Aphrodite (goddess of love).
3 Deut. 6:4-5. Earlier than this, in the fourteenth century B.C., the Egyptian pharaoh Ikhnaton had established the sole worship of the sun god Aton but immediately after Ikhnaton’s death this early monotheism was overcome by the prevailing national polytheisn. Note: All biblical quotations, except where otherwise noted, are reprinted by permission and are taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible (New York: Thomas Nelson * & Sons). Copyright 1946, 1952 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches.
4 C. H. Dodd, The Authority of the Bible, 1929 (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Torchbooks, 1958), p. 111.
5 H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (New York: Harper & Row,pp. 52-53.
This monotheistic faith, finding its primary expressions in the commands and prayers, psalms and prophecies, parables and teachings of the Bible, has been philosophically elaborated and defined through the long historyor Christian thought; and because Christianity has become a more theologically articulated religion than Judaism, most of our material will be taken from this source.
A basic idea which recurs at innumerable points is that God is infinite or unlimited.
It is this insistence that God is unlimited being that led Paul Tillich to hold that we should not say even that God exists, since this would be a limiting statement. “Thus the question of the existence of God can be neither asked nor answered: If asked, it is a question about that which by its very nature is above existence, and therefore the answer– whether negative or affirmative—implicitly denies the nature of God. It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God is being-itself, not a being.”6 This paradox, as it must sound in the mouth of a theologian, that”God does not exist” is however not as startling as it may at first appear. Itoperates as a vivid repudiation of every form of /belief in a finite deity. Tillich means, not that the term “God” does not refer to any reality, but that the reality to which it refers is not merely one among others, not even the first or the highest, but rather the very source and ground of all being.Tillich was, in effect, urging a restriction of the term “exists” to the finite and created realm, thereby rendering it improper to ask whether the infinite creator exists, or to affirm or deny such existence. But it is only on the basis of this restricted usage that Tillich repudiated the statement thatGod exists. He was emphasizing the point, which was familiar to the medieval “scholastics, that the creator and the created cannot be said to exist in precisely the same sense.
God then, according to Judaism and Christianity, is or has unlimited being, and the various divine “attributes” or characteristics are so many waysin which the infinite divine reality is, or exists, or has being.
First among these attributes we may place what the scholastics called aseity (from the Latin a se esse, being from oneself), usually translated as “self-existence.” The concept of self-existence, as it occurs in the work of the great theologians, contains two elements.
1. God is not dependent either for existence or for characteristics upon any other reality. God has not been created by any higher being. There is nothing capable either of constituting or of destroying God. God just is, in infinite richness and plenitude of being as the ultimate, unconditioned, all-conditioning reality. In abstract terms, God has absolute ontological independence.
2. It follows from this that God is eternal, without beginning or end. If God had a beginning, there would have to be a prior reality to bring God into being; and in order for God’s existence to be terminated, there would have to be some reality capable of effecting this. Each of these ideas is excluded by God’s absolute ontological independence.
The divine eternity means more, however, than simply that God exists without beginning or end, as is indicated in this passage from Anselm (1033-1109): Indeed You exist neither yesterday nor today nor tomorrow but are absolutely outside all time. For yesterday and today and tomorrow are completely in time; however, You, though nothing can be without You, are nevertheless not in place or time but all things are in You. For nothing contains You, but You contain allthings.7
6 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Welwyn, Hertfordshire: James Nisbet & Company Ltd. and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 237. Copyright 1951 by the University of Chicago.
7 Proslogion, Chap. 19, tr. M. J. Charlesworth, St. Anselm’s Proslogion (Oxford: Clarendon Press,1965), pp. 141-43.
God is conceived in the Judaic-Christian tradition as the infinite, self-existent-Creator of everything else that exists. In this doctrine, creation means far more than fashioning new forms from an already given material (as a builder makes a house, or a sculptor a statue); it means creation out of nothing—creatio ex nihilo—the summoning of a universe into existence when otherwise there was only God. There are two important corollaries of this idea.
First, it entails an absolute distinction between God and the creation, such that it is logically impossible for a creature to become the Creator.That which has been created will forever remain the created. To all eternity the Creator is Creator and the creature is creature. Any thought of human beings becoming God is thus ruled out as meaningless by the Judaic-Christian conception of creation.
A second corollary is that the created realm is absolutely dependent upon God as its Maker and as the source of its continued existence. Hence we find that this radical notion of creation ex nihilo expresses itself in prayer and liturgy as a sense of dependence upon God from moment to moment. We have a part in the universe, not by some natural right, but by the gace of God, and each day is a gift to be received in thankfulness and responsibility toward the divine Giver.
What are the scientific implications of this idea? Does it entail that the creation of the physical universe took place at some specific moment in the far distant past?
Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274.) held that the idea of creation does not necessarily rule out the possibility that the created universe may be eternal. It is, he thought, conceivable that God has been creative from all eternity, so that although the universe has a created and dependent status, it is nevertheless without a beginning. He also held, however, that although the concept of creation does not in itself imply a beginning, Christian revelation asserts a beginning; and on this ground he rejected the idea of an eternal creation.8 A different and perhaps more fruitful approach is suggested by Augustine’s thought that the creation did not take place in time but that time is itself an aspect of the created world.9 If this is true it may also be, as relativity theory suggests, that space-time is internally infinite—that is to say, from within the space-time continuum the universe is found to be unbounded both spatially and temporally. In that case it has no initial state. It may nevertheless, although internally infinite, depend for its existence and its nature upon the will of a transcendent Creator. This is the essence of the religious doctrine of creation: namely, that the universe as a spatiotemporal whole exists in virtue of its relation to God. Such a doctrine is neutral as between the various rival theories of the origin of the present state of the universe developed in scientific cosmology.10
Needless to say, the magnificent creation story in the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis is not regarded as a piece of scientific description by responsible religious thinkers today. It is seen rather as the classic mythological expression of the faith that the whole natural order is a divine creation. Indeed, this way of reading religious myths is very ancient, as the following passage, written by Origen in the third century, indicates:
For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden,towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under atree, I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries. . . .11
8 Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 46, Art. 2. There is a good discussion of Aquinas’s doctrine of creation in F. C. Copleston, Aquinas (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1955), pp. 136f.
9 Confessions, Book 11, Chap. 13; City of God, Book 11, Chap. 6.
10 Some of the current theories about the origin of the universe are discussed in Ian Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966).
11 De Principiis, IV, I, 16. The Writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, IV, 365.
The conviction that God is personal has always been plainly implied both in the biblical writings and in later Jewish and Christian devotional and theological literature. In the Old Testament God speaks in personal terms (for example, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”)12 and the prophets and psalmists address God in personal terms (for example, “Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer.”).13 In the New Testament the same conviction as to the personalcharacter of God is embodied in the figure of fatherhood that was constantly used by Jesus as the most adequate earthly image with which to think of God.
Although belief in the Thou-hood of God thus pervades the Judaic-Christian tradition, the explicit doctrine that God is personal is of comparatively recent date, being characteristic of the theology of the nineteenth and especially of the twentieth century. In our own time the Jewish religious thinker Martin Buber has pointed to the two radically different kinds of relationship, I-Thou and I-It;14 and a number of Christian theologians have developed the implications of the insight that God is the divine Thou who has created us as persons in God’s own image and who always deals with us in ways that respect our personal freedom and responsibility.15 (This theme will be taken up again in the discussion of revelation and faith in Chapter 5.)
Most theologians speak of God as “personal” rather than as “a Person.” The latter phrase suggests the picture of a magnified human individual. (Thinking of the divine in this way is called anthropomorphism, from the Greek anthropos, man, and morphe, shape—”in the shape of man.”) Thestatement that God is personal is accordingly intended to signify that God is”at least personal,” that whatever God may be beyond our conceiving, God is not less than personal, not a mere It, but always the higher and transcendent divine Thou.
By implication, this belief raises the question of the analogical or symbolic character of human speech about God, which will be discussed further in Chapter 6.
12 Exod. 3:6.
14 I and Thou, 1923, trans. 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scnbner’s Sons, 1958).
15 Among them, John Oman, Grace and Personality, 1917 (London: Fontana Library, 1960, and New York: Association Press, 1961); Emil Brunner, God and Man (London: Student Christian Movement Press Ltd., 1936) and The Divine-Human Encounter (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1942, and London: Student Christian Movement Press Ltd., 1944); H. H. Farmer, The World and God (Welwyn, Hertfordshire: James Nisbet & Company Ltd., 1935) and God and Men (Welwyn, Hertfordshire: James Nisbet & Company Ltd., 1948, and Nashville, Tenn. Abingdon Press, 1961).
Goodness and love are generally treated as two further attributes of God. But in the New Testament God’s goodness, love, and grace are all virtually synonymous, and the most characteristic of the three terms is love.
In order to understand what the New Testament means by the love of God, it is necessary first to distinguish the two kinds of love signified by the Greek words eros and agape. Eros is “desiring love,” love that is evoked by the desirable qualities of the beloved. This love is evoked by and depends upon the loveableness of its objects. He loves her because she is pretty,charming, cute. She loves him because he is handsome, manly, clever. Parents love their children because they are their children. However, when the New Testament speaks of God’s love for mankind, it employs a different term, agape. This word already existed in the Greek language but was not generally used to convey any special meaning distinct from eros until New Testament writers, through their use of the word, imprinted upon it the meaning of “giving love.” Unlike eros, agape is unconditional and universal in its range. It is given to someone, not because she or he has special characteristics, but simply because that person is there as a person. The nature of agape is to value a person in such ways as actively to seek his or her deepest welfare and fulfillment. It is in this sense that the New Testament speaks of God’s love for mankind. When it is said, for example, that “God is love”16 or that “God so loved the world . . . ,”17 the word used is agape and its cognates.
God’s universal love for human creatures, a love not rooted in their virtue or desert but in God’s own nature as agape, is the basis for that side of theistic religion that knows God as the final succor and security of a person’s life: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”18 The ultimate of grace is believed to be also the ultimate of power, the sovereign love which guarantees our final fulfillment and well-being.
The infinite divine love also gives rise to that side of religious experiencein which God is known as claiming the total obedience of a person’s life. God is thought of as “Lord” and “King” as well as “Father.” The divine commands come with the accent of absolute and unconditional claim, a claim that may not be set in the balance with any other interest whatever, not even life itself. This element of demand can be viewed as an expression of the divine love, seeking the best that lies potentially within the creature. Even between human beings there is nothing so inexorably demanding as a love that seeks our highest good and cannot be content that we be less than our potential best. Because it is infinite, the love of the Creator for the creatures made in the divine image implies a moral demand of this kind that is absolute and unqualified.
In this exposition we have subsumed the goodness of God under the love of God. But this does not avoid an important philosophical problem concerning the belief that God is good. Does that belief imply a moral standard external to God, in relation to which God can be said to be good? Or alternatively, does it mean that God is good by definition? Is the Creator offered as the final standard of goodness, so that God’s nature, whatever it may be, is the norm of goodness?
Either position involves difficulties. If God is good in relation to some independent standard of judgment, God is no longer the sole ultimate reality. God exists in a moral universe whose character is not divinely ordained. If, however, God is good by definition, and it is a tautology that whatever God commandsjs right, certain other implications arise which are hard to accept. Suppose that beginning tomorrow, God wills that human beings should do all the things that God has formerly willed they should not do. Now hatred, cruelty, selfishness, envy, and malice are virtues. God commands them; and since God is good, whatever God wills is right. This possibility is entailed by the view we are considering; yet it conflicts with the assumption that our present moral principles and intuitions are generally sound, or at least that they do not point us in a completely wrong direction.
Perhaps the most promising resolution of the dilemma is a frankly circular one. Good is a relational concept, referring to the fulfillment of a being’s nature and basic desires. When humans call God good, they mean that God’s existence and activity constitute the condition of humanity’s highest good. The presupposition of such a belief is that God has made human nature in such a way that our highest fulfillment is to be found in relation to God. Ethics and value theory in general are independent of religion in that their principles can be formulated without any mention ofGod, yet they ultimately rest upon the character of God, who has endowed us with the nature whose fulfillment defines our good.
In connection with the goodness of God, reference should also be made to the divine “wrath,” which has played so prominent a part in pharisaic and puritanical thought. “Flee from the wrath to come” has long been the warning burden of much religious preaching. Some of this preaching has, ironically, embraced the very anthropomorphism which Saint Paul, whose writings supply the standard New Testament texts concerning the Wrath of God, so carefully avoided. C. H. Dodd, in his study of Saint Paul, pointed out that Paul never describes God as being wrathful, but always speaks of the Wrath of God in a curiously impersonal way to refer to the inevitable reaction of the divinely appointed moral order of the Universe upon wrongdoing. The conditions of human life are such that for an individual’s, or a group to infringe upon the structure of the personal order is to court disaster. “This disaster Paul calls, in traditional language, ‘The Wrath,’ or much more rarely, ‘The Wrath of God.’ . . . ‘The Wrath,’ then, is revealed before our eyes as the increasing horror of sin working out its hideous lawof cause and effect.”19
16 I John 4:8.
17 John 3:16.
18 Psalras 46:1.
19 C. H. Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today, 1920 (New York: World Publishing Company, Meridian Books, 1957), pp. 63-64.
Taken separately, each of these characteristics of God, as God is conceived in the Judaic-Christian tradition, presents itself as an abstract philosophical idea. But the religious person, conscious of standing in the unseen presence of God, is overwhelmingly aware of the divine reality as infinitely other and greater. This sense of the immensity and of otherness of God was expressed with unforgettable vividness by Isaiah:
To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him1?
The idol! a workman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and casts for it silver chains.
He who is impoverished chooses for an offering
wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
to set up an image that will not move.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nought,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing . . .
To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?20
Again, God is “. . . the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy.”21 whose “… thoughts are not your thoughts, neither arey our ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”22 The awareness of God as holy is the awareness of One who is terrifyingly mysterious, an intensity of being in relation to which men and women are virtually nothing, a perfection in whose eyes “. . . all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags,”23 a purpose and power before which we human beings can only bow down in silent awe.
We may now sum up the Judaic-Christian concept of God: God is conceived as the infinite, eternal, uncreated, personal reality, who has created all that exists and who is revealed to human creatures as holy and loving.
20 Isa. 40:18-23, 25-26.
21 Isa. 57:15.
22 Isa. 55:8-9.
23 Isa. 64:6 (King James Version).