Sunday, 24 November 2013

God of the philosophers versus God of revelation


CS Lewis cited by Martin Moynihan

From a memoir I sleep but my heart watcheth - in the collection We Remember CS Lewis edited by David Graham , 2001:

[A questioner]: "Well, what is God?"

That's a facer, one thought.

"God", said Lewis, "is self-subsistent being, cause of himself."


Lewis's definition is of the God of the Philosophers - a philosophical definition of God. Thus an inferred definition, a definition which could be made only by a trained intellectual, and only be understood by a trained intellectual.


Blaise Pascal in the appendix to Pensees, describing his religious experience as noted down and carried by him:

"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob - not of the philosophers and scholars." 

Pascal's answer to the question of 'What is God' is therefore NOT to describe God in terms of a philosophical definition nor of His Properties; but to say God is He that is told-of in the Bible, He that is Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ - and also our Father - we being his children. 

Pascal's answer is history, fact, story - explicitly not philosophy. 


Lewis's answer was designed to be acceptable to, find common ground with, a non-Christian intellectual who already believed in the categories and methods of Classical Philosophy - but the cost was to build-into Christianity, from its very axiomatic definitional basis, a set of philosophical categories and assumptions which have nothing to do with actual revelation - nothing to do with the described experiences of the ancient Hebrew Prophets of the Old Testament and how they knew God; nor with the teachings and actions of Christ and the Apostles in the New Testament. 


Pascal (himself one of the greatest of philosophers) was teaching that the proper answer to What is God is to refer to revelation, to our knowledge and understanding of the experiences and teachings of scripture and Christian authorities. 

It is NOT to answer with philosophical definitions that 1. Beg all the most important questions and 2.  Put God onto an intellectual plane incomprehensibly far above 99 percent of humans - past, present or future. 



  1. I quite agree. The philosophical approach when taken to its limiting extreme lures one in to incomprehensible abstraction. The biblical approach when taken to its extreme immerses the believer in limitless love. That is how you know which path to follow and rely on.

  2. “God”, said Lewis, “is self-subsistent being, cause of himself.”
    "Cause of himself" is ambiguous and a bad explanation of the word missing. The scholastic definition “ipsum esse per se subsistens” should be translated as “the very Being self-subsistent”.

    “Cause of himself’ is a bad paraphrase of the “ipsum… per se,” and the main error introduced in philosophy by Descartes. The term is right and licit when used in the meaning of free-willed beings as cause of their own actions (“per se”). But when it is taken in the literal sense of a will pre-existent to itself, it is nonsense (Maritain said: worthless). We should rather say “uncaused”, which would correspond better to the Latin “ipsum… per se.” The right explanation is in Latin the term “a se”, a property (aseity) exclusive to God.

    There are in fact at least two gods of the philosophers and many more than two gods of the believers: the One True and the false ones. We have for the One True God two sets of rightful definitions from two different and complementary approaches. The philosophical approach (metaphysical and ontological, to be precise), attained by the light of human reason aided only by the general revelation (object of the philosophical discipline of theodicy, or natural theology) does not predate, but is parallel to, and not directly influenced by, the theological approach. The properly theological definition (not the OT one, which is good, but complementary to that of the NT) is condensed in the Credo (Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so on). It is given to our conscious reason by the divine light of faith through the public and historical Revelation: Jewish people (OT), Christ (NT), Church and Tradition, Bible, in that order.

  3. Lao Tzu wrote of the tao as being older than God, which threw me, for quite some time. How could anything be older than God, if God was the creator of all things? I judged-not, and let it ride...
    At length it became clear:
    God is non-existent, as far as whatever God is, is concerned. Because God is a man-made label for the eternally mysterious, which is what is, in fact, being referred to as 'tao'.
    Tao gives birth to all things, including man, and man's labelling of the eternally mysterious as 'God'.
    Ergo, God is not as old as the thing the term refers to.
    This, of course, is genuine revelation, as valid as the revelation of any ancient vessel of revelation.
    Unless, of course, the Bible is taken to be the literal word of God, which is about as likely as Noddy, or Rupert The Bear, being considered in the same way.

  4. Christian in Hollyweird24 November 2013 at 23:53

    Jesus described God the best -- Our Father...who art in heaven. Personal and holy, imminent and transcendent, Immanuel and Yahweh. The philsophical definition is an attempt to make sense of I AM THAT I AM.

  5. @Crow - Your argument about the pre-existence of the Tao would make Lewis's version of God of the Philosophers wrong; but it is not that different from the Common Sense/ Pragmatist/ Mormon understanding of the nature of God - which I hold.

    A lot hinges on whether creation is supposed to mean 'creation from nothing' (a non-intuitive idea but the standard Classical Philosophers view of God in mainstream Christianity); or whether creation means the forming/ shaping/ ordering of pre-existing stuff (the Tao) - which is the common sense/ pragmatist/ Mormon view.

  6. @CiW - Your comment provoked today's post - but I would add that it is the totality of the mass media (especially its leadership positions) which is analogous to The One Ring. Doing good within the mass media is more equivalent to the active power-using resistance of groups like Gondor, Rohan, Lorien, Dale - to Total Power.

    There is no paradox - although of course there is a danger that in using partial power (that is, power whose exercise is subordinated to greater Good - not power-at-any-price) to fight Total Power someone might be corrupted one way or the other: into evils such as total-power-seeking (Saruman) or despair (Denethor).

  7. Christian in Hollyweird25 November 2013 at 07:53

    The eternal Tao become flesh and dwelt among us! The mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations has now been manifested to His saints . The Tao that gave birth to all things, and for whom all things are created, and which is before all things, and in which all things hold together... is Jesus.

    He is the image of the invisible God, the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being. He is the "door to all wonders". If anyone enters through Him, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. Do you see? The Tao that cannot be spoken had a voice. The Tao that cannot be named had a name. And because of that, no one believed the Tao could be the true Tao! Thus, the glory of the Tao was hidden in crucified flesh. The Tao became a Man.

    Now there's a mystery for you to caw about!

    @BC - Thank you for the clarification and the warning. You do realize that in this analogy you are the ever-vigilant Gandalf, right? :0

  8. @CiH - Naturally...

    (Fool of a Took!)

  9. God as the shaper of pre-existing matter (demi-urge) is Plato's image in the Timeaus dialogue.

  10. @daniel - most Christians who adhere to classical theology would say that the demiurge was a 'god' rather than the God - perhaps an angelic being - because they believe that creation from nothing is a necessary characteristic of the God - but that is a philosophical assumption, and probably only a tiny minority or (real) Christians have ever actually *believed* in creation from nothing, since it is such an abstract notion - and the demiurge idea comes naturally to mens minds.