Some problems with defining God

By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, i.e., a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.

-- Baruch Spinoza

This month's God or Not Carnival's topic is "Definition of God." I find efforts to define God to be generally a waste of time for various reasons. To understand my reasoning, we need to be clear on the definition of "definition". According to Merriam-Webster's On-line Dictionary, "definition" is "a statement expressing the essential nature of something." With that understanding, here are some of the reasons I have difficulty with seeking a "definition of God."

First, the definition of God at which one arrives is often colored initially by the thinker's theological base. For example, if I were an atheist, the definition of God that I would devise would be rather simple: "God is a fictional being that is treated by many religious people as being real and worshipped by them, but who is supposed to have been the ultimate creator." To me, that would be a good definition of God if I were of that mind since it captures the essential elements of who God: the creator worshipped by religious people who is fantasy. This definition will obviously be rejected by those who don't believe that God is a fantasy.

Second, to define God requires that we consider the "essential nature" of God. On what basis does one decide what attributes of God are essential to His nature? Francis Schaeffer argued that if God were not a trinity he would not be worthy of worship because it would meant that God, being love, would have been required to create man to love. But if God were a trinity, then he would not need to create man as an object of love because the three persons of the Trinity could have been loving each other since time immemorial. Regardless of whether such rationale is compelling, it demonstrates that what one person considers to be essential to God's nature may not necessarily be seen as essential to another.

Third, definitions of God are often the result of logical/philosophical endeavors that lead one to a conclusion about God's nature, but which, necessarily, are extremely limited. Aristotle, for example, reasoned that the universe shows signs that each moving object requires a mover, but that ultimately there must be an unmoved mover. Thus, Aristotle reasoned that God is the "unmoved mover" -- not a particularly thorough definition, in my eyes, since God has been philosophically reasoned by other means to be definable as the "noncontingent being", the "uncreated creator" and the "source of all being". God, it seems, is all of these things and much more.

Fourth, God has a dual nature as both a specific and a category. A category can have a definition, but a specific may not be definable. For example, desks are a category. I can define (and Merriam-Webster has defined) the category of desk as "a table, frame, or case with a sloping or horizontal surface especially for writing and reading and often with drawers, compartments, and pigeonholes." This seems perfectly adequate as a definition since it does not apply to a particular desk, although all desks share these attributes. Also, I can define (and Merriam-Webster has defined) dolphins as "any of various small toothed whales (family Delphinidae) with the snout more or less elongated into a beak and the neck vertebrae partially fused." However, if the dolphin being defined is a specific, such as Flipper, there appears to be no adequate definition. Likewise, I can define "dog" but I cannot define my old dog, Heidi. Heidi was a dog, but the essential nature of Heidi was not fully defined by the definition of "dog" because she was more than a general description of dog. Perhaps I can describe enough of the attributes of Heidi that you would have recognized her if you had seen her, but I doubt that I would have been able to capture her essential nature in words.

Fifth, by the same token, defining God denies His personal nature. For example, I cannot define my Aunt Martha. Aunt Martha is a human being (definable), a woman (definable), an octogenarian (definable), a wife (definable), but she is also so much more because she is a person who has a particular personality and hopes and dreams and virtues and flaws and interests and all types of other things that each of us, as human beings with personalities, hold, but which differ for each of us. If we were to try to define a particular person, such as Aunt Martha, we would have to write a book about her and still could not get all of her essential attributes in writing. To attempt to define God necessarily treats God like an object instead of a person (or, more accurately, a Trinity of three persons) because God, being a personal being, has a particular personality and virtues and interests and all types of other things that come from being a person and not a thing. How does one gather all of those particulars about God into a general definition?

Sixth, following on the fifth, any definition of God necessarily is convoluted or overly simplistic, and in either case lead to problems in theology. The definition of God by Baruch Spinoza, above, is an example of a rather convoluted definition. To understand his definition would require reading his works. But Spinoza, following his definition (or perhaps, because his definition was informed by his prior theological base as described in point one) developed a concept of God that was untrue to his Jewish roots. Aristotle's idea of God being the "unmoved mover" is overly simplistic, and if accepted leads to a God who is probably limited to being the "clockmaker god" of deism.

I am sure that there are other difficulties, and I expect readers can develop them more thoroughly than I. But I don't want to leave readers with the idea that it is impossible to define God. Such a definition is possible, even if it can be frustrating to those who are looking for a definition similar to the types that Spinoza or Aristotle set forth. The definition I propose is necessarily incomplete, but is much more complete than Spinoza's, Aristotle's or any other one or two line definition. It is an "ostensive definition", i.e., "of, relating to, or constituting definition by exemplifying the thing or quality being defined." An example of an ostensive definition would be asking a person what a dog is, and having that person point to a dog and say "that's a dog." In the case of God, the best definition is to point to the Bible, ask the person to read it, and say "that's God."

That's the best definition I know.


Layman said…
Thoughtful post, BK. I think the point I appreciated the most was explaining how difficult it is to 'define' a person.
why do people try making theological defitions without consulting Westminster's theological dictionary? That would be the authoritative source for theological defitiontions.
Weekend Fisher said…
I'd point to Jesus and say "that's God."
BK said…

I agree that the Westminster Theological Dictionary would be a better source for a definition than most, but I think that Weekend Fisher hit it on the head with her use of the ostensive definition to define God by pointing to Jesus. If the Westminster Theological Dictionary differs in any material respect from the definition that comes from pointing to Jesus, I will prefer the latter.

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