How ought we think about God? (Part 1)

What is the best way to align our concept of God to the reality of God? Is there a methodology that we should use? Or, should we just “wing it” and hope for the best? What are the prospects for us arriving at the truth about God anyhow?I think that we can and do know things about God, and know them truly, even if we can’t know God exhaustively. In this post I want to share approaches that we should avoid in our attempts to model God. In my next post, I’ll share an approach to modeling God that we should employ—and approach with a rich history and much promise for us in our attempt to think accurately about the divine.

For now, let me suggest four sure-fire ways to get it wrong; four bad methods that we ought not employ in attempting to discover and fully articulate what God is like.

Bad approach #1the “purely historical” approach. This approach begins with the assumption that the concept of God is a human construction in some way. There is no objective reality/truth about God that can be known. Hence, all we can do is study man’s concept of God. As Karen Armstrong states in the introduction to her widely read A History of God: [1]

[T]here is no one unchanging idea contained in the world ‘God’; instead, the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutually exclusive….religion is highly pragmatic. We shall see that it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound.”

This view is a kind of conventionalism—there is no truth of the matter regarding God’s nature on this view, so all we can do is model God in such a way so that it is “workable” for us. But, this is leads to relativism and thus an historical approach to the idea of God can’t be considered normative, although it is interesting as an empirical question, namely, “how have people traditionally understood God?”

Bad approach #2: the “purely Biblical” approach. We should go to the Bible, and only the Bible, for our idea of God. As I’ll make clear in my next post, we must begin with Scripture, but we shouldn’t end there if we are trying to go as far as we can in modeling God. There are two worries with this approach: First, it is not clear that we are able to engage in just purely Biblical theology (as articulated). The problem is that in our capacity as rational agents, we are naturally led to ask philosophical questions about the nature of God, questions that the biblical documents do not answer—such as God’s temporal mode of being, simplicity vs. complexity in the divine substance, the nature of divine freedom, etc. Second, Scripture itself seems to mandate a broader revelation of God’s existence and character. Specifically, we are told in Romans 1:20 that God’s “invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature” have been revealed to us though creation.

Bad approach #3: the “purely rational” approach.  There is an a priori method and an a posteriori method here. On the first approach, we sit in our armchairs, close our eyes and think about the concept of God. In doing so, we begin with a purportedly self-evident conception of God as the greatest possible being and then proceed to derive all the traditional divine attributes from this maximal conception of God. On the second approach, God is to be understood as the ultimate creator of all reality distinct from himself. By examining creation, we can learn about God’s nature. Both approaches, on their own, are incomplete. Plato’s Prime Soul or Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover that thinks thoughts about Himself is in the right direction, but (ultimately) religiously inadequate.

Bad approach #4: the “purely experiential” approach. Religious experience can be understood as the direct experience of the divine, or what William Alston calls the “perception of God” or “mystical perception.”[2] But, as a normative approach to thinking about God, this approach is unhelpful for the simple fact that our experiences are undetermined and need to be interpreted in light of some objective standard. Religious experience is too private and too various to claim a universal authority of its own.

Still, each of these approaches hints at an important methodological truth we can employ in developing a fully satisfying approach to thinking about God, an approach that was articulated nicely by Anselm in his preferred title to the Proslogion, Faith Seeking Understanding. In my next post, I shall unpack how we might incorporate the above sources (historical, revelation, rational, and experiential) in such a way that we have the best chance to arrive at an accurate understanding of God.








[1] Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), xx-xxi.

[2] William Alston, Perceiving God (Cornell University Press, 1991).

2 Responses to How ought we think about God? (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: How ought we think about God? (part 2) | Paul Gould

  2. Pingback: Traditional Theology, Apologetics, and the Gospel: Or “Should we be traditional theologians?” | Paul Gould

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