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Classical / Philosophical Theism

Understanding the God of Philosophers

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Although there is a potentially infinite variation in what people mean by "God," there are some common attributes which are often discussed, especially among those who come from a generally Western tradition of religion and philosophy. Because this type of theism relies heavily upon a long framework of intersecting religious and philosophical inquiry, it is commonly referred to as "classical theism," "standard theism," or better still "philosophical theism."

Occasionally one might see it referred to as just "theism," with some arguing that there isn't really a "general" sense of theism which is simply belief in at least one god of some sort. Instead, theism is supposed to refer to a god holding traditional Christian qualities like omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. Some have gone even farther: James Orr, in his book "Christian View of God and the World," argued that theism must properly include beliefs like trinitarianism and revelation because of the success and dominance of the Christian religion which also includes them.

Thus, religions like Judaism and Islam and even Christian denominations which stress unitarianism would not qualify as "theistic" - but that is obviously nonsensical. It is also just as nonsensical to exclude from the domain of theism other religions which incorporate belief in gods which don't happen to have the characteristics normally attributed to God in the Western philosophical and religious traditions. The ancient Greeks were theists, even if their gods were different from the God of Christianity.

What we are discussing here is not theism in general but a type of theism - the type developed by a particular tradition of theologians and philosophers in order to explain a particular tradition of religious experiences. This type of theism and this understanding of God are not inherently privileged enough to merit the broad label of "theism," but they are common enough to merit specific attention here.

Of course, even that is disputed by those who contend that this purely intellectual understanding of God is weak and ineffectual, unable to truly explain and conceptualize the reality of God. The God of the philosophers, it is argued, is not the God of faith - and attempts to identify one with the other will inevitably fail to help a person understand, much less critique, the positions of the religiously devout.

This is another reason why it is perhaps preferable to use the term philosophical theism rather than just theism - we are discussing particular theoretical and philosophical concepts which may, but need not, impact actual theistic beliefs. Philosophy and religion are not the same thing, although they do overlap in many areas.

A philosophical discussion about attributes of God which have been developed by philosophers and theologians may be interesting and it may provide some insight into the structure and coherence of the religious beliefs of actual people. On the other hand, it may not - their beliefs have to be addressed individually and cannot always be lumped together with all of the other beliefs that philosophers think belong in the Western tradition.

For a full explanation and evaluation of the nature of this type of theism through the attributes normally ascribed to this sort of God, please see the section on What is God?

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