Philosophy of Religion: Perfect Being Theology

This is the first in a series of posts on the philosophy of religion. For an introduction to the series, see here: 

Introduction

THE CONCEPT OF GOD

Thomas Morris, “The Concept of God,” a chapter from his book, Our Idea of God[1]

From pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Xenophanes to psycho-analyst and philosopher Sigmund Freud, many have thought through the ages that we create God or the gods in our own images. Religious believers, of course, prefer to think that any knowledge of God’s nature comes from divine revelation coupled with reason. Nevertheless, for the believer there is always the danger that we present God too much in our own likeness, according to our own concerns and ways of seeing the world.

It’s important to understand that however we think about the divine, we must be aware that  we do so according to one model or another. We can debate about which model for thinking about God is best (and this article does precisely that) but at least we should be aware that we are doing so. Where we begin in whatever model we utilize, or what the underlying foundation of the model is, determines how we’ll proceed. So if we begin with the foundational principle that “God is perfect” we’ll think about God and God’s attributes primarily in terms of perfection. If we start with and place the most emphasis on “all-loving” we’ll talk about God primarily in terms of lovingness. Etc.

Most Christian philosophers have historically preferred to initiate their models with “perfection.” This follows, actually, St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote significant treatises on God’s power and “great-making” atrributes (Augustine has writings on this as well). This is traditionally called theism: God is a being who is all powerful (omnipotent) all knowing (omniscient) and all good or loving (omni-benevolent). Classical theism also adds immutability (unchangeableness), impassibility (not subject to feeling or passion), simple (lacking individual parts), timeless (not subject to time in any way), and necessary (not dependent on anything else in any way). This is known as the “Perfect Being” model, or “Perfect Being Theology.” In Perfect Being Theology (PBT) we ask what it might mean for God to be “perfect,” for God to possess or embody maximal amount of perfection in his attributes. What must perfection really entail? Can any of these attributes be tweaked and God remain God? PBT is a model for understanding God as perfect and applying intuitions about perfection to God’s attributes. However, Morris insists, our ideas about perfection should color how we read scripture, and at the same time scripture should color our ideas about perfection. In this way, philosophy and scripture become mutually constitutive.

Classical theism is essentially what we get when we subscribe to PBT as influenced by ancient Greek philosophical notions of perfection. One question, then, is: does Greek philosophy aid us in helping us interpret scripture, or is the God of the Philosophers utterly different than the God of the Bible? Morris will ultimately conclude that philosophy has been important for helping us think rationally about God, but we must be careful not to impose it too strongly on the Bible.

The Problem of Method

First, we need to select a method for helping us be clear about what we understand about God. Is there only one method or several? It helps to have the same idea of God in mind, even if there is real disagreement (between theists and atheists, for example). The burden of proof ultimately rests on the believer–she is the one with the most to lose, the one with the greatest stake in the argument. Ultimately, it will be the believer that must do the work of finding the best method for understanding the concept of God and persuading others to her views.

Morris begins with universal revelational theology. This is where one attempts to consult all purported revelations in all religions in order to draw a composite of God. Of course, as Morris indicates, at minimum this method isn’t sufficiently discriminatory. Revelations more often than not conflict. (Morris also assumes, it should be noted, a monotheistic understanding of God, the belief that there is only one, specific God, distinct from the world, specifically the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Of course there would be no room for multiple gods in this model). What about purely biblical theology: only the Bible (or scripture) must guide us. But the Bible provides us with a limited set of answers to our questions. Many questions that we must ask about the nature of God in order to arrive at a philosophically acceptable answer (and therefore a rational, universally understood answer) are not addressed in the Bible (or scripture generally). This is because the Bible is not a textbook of theology; it is a collection of how particular communities understood their revelations. Additionally, how do we interpret scripture? Scripture rarely if ever provides its own interpretations, and there are many instances where scripture itself insists that we ourselves work to provide interpretations, that this is part of the act of reading scripture. Nevertheless, it’s incumbent upon Christians to use every tool at their disposal in order to arrive at an accurate view of God. So, philosophical questions cannot simply be discarded but must be responded to. The challenge is to construct a philosophical theology that is in harmony with the Bible, not necessarily wholly derived from the Bible.

What about Creation Theology? God is ultimately the creator of all, so why not posit a first cause of everything that can then account for everything? This method of theology, however, seems inadequate for explaining God’s power or God’s character sufficiently. Nevertheless, much (maybe all) of human experience and knowledge of the universe would be accounted for in Creation Theology. A comprehensive explanatory theology could be added to explain items of religious significance. But this still falls short of the claims theists make for God.

Morris believes that there actually is a theological method that makes up for the shortcomings of other methods: Perfect Being Theology. God exhibits maximal perfection as the greatest possible being. The concept is biblical, but can be supported by rigorous philosophical examination.  In this model, God is a being with the “greatest possible array of compossible great-making properties.” A great-making property is any property possessing intrinsic goodness, that which is good of itself, and doesn’t depend on anything else for its goodness. “Compossible” means a collection of properties that can be held at the same time. God has the greatest number possible of these, and is the only being who can hold all intrinsically good properties simultaneously.

PBT takes up this question as basic: What properties can we intuitively recognize as great-making properties? By intuitively Morris means naturally formed belief, our most basic judgments about the world. Thus, through intuitive judgments, Morris eventually arrives at this basic definition of God:

A thoroughly benevolent conscious agent with unlimited knowledge and power who is the necessarily existent, ontologically independent, creative source of all else.

Morris admits that our intuitions have what he refers to as defeasible epistemic status: Our intuitions are in principle correctable. Our intuitions are not always trustworthy and we are often under the influence of powerful traditions that don’t necessarily coincide with the Bible. Revelation (for Morris, this means the Bible) should therefore be allowed to correct our intuitions as necessary. In the end, however, for Morris “Perfect Being Theology captures the most majestic conception of God imaginable” and this helps us to interpret scripture correctly.

One question that immediately comes to mind here: what kind of effect does a theology based on perfection have on the believer? For all Morris’ cautions about being too casual with Greek philosophy at the expense of the biblical text, his intuitions about perfection sound more Greek than Hebrew (not to mention Anglo-American). Some excellent thoughts about scriptural perfection can be found here.

Also, something that will nag some philosophers and theologians (as well as believers generally) about this method (and will constitute more or less responses to this view in future articles we discuss here) is that we seem to lose much of the personhood of God by focusing on our intuitions of what constitutes perfection. In other words, much of this method seems to be an all too narrow focusing on derivative attributes rather than the “personness” of God, and it becomes easy to confuse attributes with personhood.

Finally, from a Mormon point of view, the content of the method–the classical attributes of deity–doesn’t seem compatible with Mormon thought, but I do think we often find ourselves (or see it in others) following the method in general, simply nodding in agreement concerning what it means to be omnipotent and omniscient, and deciding that the presence of these attributes are what make God divine. In fact, as we’ll see later on, omnipotence and omniscience in Mormon thought can mean very different things than they do in classical Christianity.

For LDS articles on the concept of God:

Review of The Mormon Concept of God: a Philosophical Analysis, by Blake Ostler

(Review of the same book above by James Faulconer. A very different review)

Re-visioning the Mormon Concept of God, by Blake Ostler

Blake Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God is probably overall the best resource for Mormon engagement with Perfect Being Theology

One of Adam Miller’s reviews of Ostler’s books, specifically about the concept of God

[1] As found in Pojman and Rea, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th ed., pp. 11-21

Comments

  1. “Finally, from a Mormon point of view, the content of the method–the classical attributes of deity–doesn’t seem compatible with Mormon thought”

    Orson Pratt didn’t seem to think so. He taught in many occasions that there is only one God: the fulness of perfections and attributes. And that there is a plurality of Gods in that there are a plurality of temples (us) who can receive this Fulness and become God. This sits well with both the lectures on faith #5 where it is said “The Father being a personage of spirit, glory, and power, possessing all perfection and fullness” or D&C 93 that talks about how we become like God is taking on His Fulness: “The Father abecause he gave me of his fulness, and the Son because I was in the world and made flesh my tabernacle…The elements are the tabernacle of God; yea, man is the tabernacle of God, even temples” Also see things like Mosiah 15.

    So, God is the fulness of perfect attributes and temples (people) who inherit this fulness make up the plurality of Gods.

    I realize this isn’t what is often taught but I have a hard time thinking the idea that God is the fulness of perfect attributes is inconsistant with Mormonism when it has been taught by at least one Apostle and seems to resonate with certain scriptures.

  2. Hi Joseph, thanks for contributing. First, I would respond that it’s not necessarily that God in Mormon thought doesn’t have a fullness of perfection in some sense, but simply that that fullness is not the same as in classical Christianity. I don’t think we can say, in the fullest sense of how the classical Christian God is described, that the God of Mormonism is immutable, impassible, simple, or metaphysically necessary. To possess those attributes is to be fully God in the traditional sense. I don’t see any aspect of Mormon thought that is compatible with that.

    Further, Orson Pratt, like all early Mormon thinkers (most of whom were in positions of ecclesiastical authority) was quite the outlier. So much so that the First Presidency of his day officially condemned several of his doctrinal writings. Which, for me, doesn’t say a whole lot about their vitality in and of itself, but it does point to a time in Mormon history, up to, really, 1930, when more rigorous doctrinal and philosophical speculation was more the norm. So there were diverse (apostolic) competing voices on topics like these.

  3. Jacob. Thanks. I actually forgot to say I really enjoyed this post. I actually really like the philosophy of religion and am currently reading and enjoying Graham Oppy’s book.

    PS. I agree Orson is an outlier and was rebuked by people like Brigham Young for his crazy teachings. However, this same Brigham Young turned around and taught Adam was God and brought polygamous wives here from another world so everyone back then was crazy in his own way. :) (Though I admit Orson’s is my favorite form of crazy.)

  4. Joseph, exactly. Pick which crazy floats your boat, everyone, because whichever boat you choose is going to have railroad tracks and wings as well as sails :)

  5. Thank you for using ‘real-people words’ to discuss these concepts. Ostler is amazing, but he’s too close to the ‘perfection’ level in philosophy for mere mortals to comprehend.

    I’ve had real struggles lately with the feeling of creating God in our own image, even as far as questioning the need for a concept of ‘personness’ for God.

  6. Ant theology is similarly structured around perfection. Because sensing chemicals is their primary way of knowing the world, they believe God produces a pheromone that can be smelled everywhere–the first cause of all other scents. They put forward the “Antological Argument”: (a) God is emits that pheromone of which no greater can be smelled; (b) To be actually smelled is greater than being potentially smelled; (c) therefore God is actually smellable and therefore exists. This was first argued by the ant theologian Antselm.

  7. Nice, SteveP.

  8. Great post. I think the Mormon approach to God is much more interested in his paternal qualities. So we might not care that he is the perfect embodiment of all great virtues, but we want him to embody all of the virtues a heavenly father should have. Perhaps the end result is pretty similar to classical Christianity, but we give more space for God to laugh with us, shake his head and sigh at us, and, especially, weep for us.

  9. Blake’s review had some good thoughts about God not knowing the future. This is helpful to me because I can’t personally accept the existence of evil as well as the omnipotence and omniscience of God. I can’t accept this as the “best of all possible universes” when God has the power to intervene but doesn’t, nor do I accept the reasoning in many cases that God’s intervening somehow interferes with the will. So I recently took the approach that maybe God isn’t as powerful as we tend to think, that he can’t intervene and can only suffer with us. Or that our ability to empathize with others is so highly valued that God won’t intervene, lest we assume that those who are suffering deserve it.

    In the study of chaos it is strongly believed that many systems in the world have highly regular features or long term behaviors but unpredictable specifics (like the weather — it can only be reasonably predicted a few days in advance, but the general features of climate can be predicted months, years, decades, centuries in advance). This is a poor explanation, but it is believed that even with a perfect knowledge of every detail about a system at some initial time, there is no shortcut to discovering the exact state of the system in the future except through long calculations at least as complex as the system itself. What’s worse, is in this world there is no way of perfectly knowing any physical system, and the smallest errors in estimation make predictions beyond a certain time window (like 10 days for the weather) a complete shot in the dark. So the only long-term future knowledge possible of such a system is statistical, what it generally looks like and how it generally evolves minus the specifics.

    This is all to say, that if not even God can predict the short-term weather perfectly, which seems like a reasonable limitation to his omniscience, there is space for suffering and happenstance as necessary contingents in the construction of the world by a perfect and loving God. Which for me allows God to be powerful again, though I doubt exact knowledge of every possible future of every possible moment is necessary for him to move forward with his plans (exact knowledge of the probabilistic or possibilistic shape of the future, maybe). Which might be one reason he can truly suffer with us: he didn’t necessarily plan the exact trials we are facing, but rather was aware of the space of possibilities.

  10. WVS might get a kick out of section 6 of Blake’s review (the first link). He states that Cantor “elegantly” showed that “the set of even numbers is only half as large as the set of ordinal numbers”! =)

    The negativity, condescension, and lack of charity in his attempt to seem better and more erudite in all ways than Beckwith and Parrish remind me of how nice it is to not be living in the 80’s or 90’s anymore, and why I stopped reading FARMS reviews.

    Faulconer’s review, on the other hand, was fantastic, engaging, respectful, and more accurate in its discussion of infinity.

    Didn’t really accept what little I read in the re-visioning article. It didn’t seem to reflect my understanding of the BoM’s particular modalism, so it argued against what for me is a straw man, and didn’t replace it with anything compelling. If Exploring Mormon Thought is mostly more of what I’ve already seen, I probably won’t get it. Which is too bad, since Blake’s “BoM as a modern expansion” article was nice. The T&S review and comments were fun. Think I’ll stick to the selected readings of my old Phil 101 book and Jacob’s awesome posts for now.

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