Seven Observations on What We Mean by the Word God

It is right and just to sing of You, to bless You, to praise You, to thank You, to worship You everywhere in your domain. For You are God—ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing and ever the same—You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit.[1]

1. “God” is a word that can be used with deceptive ease. I have taught many students who have a great deal to say about where God acts (or does not), but when questioned about what they mean by the term “God” either find themselves struggling for words or talking happily away, unaware of the traps into which their words are leading them. My purpose here is to give some sense of what the classical account of God claims and then, second, to show how a certain sort of reasoning and a certain love for carefully chosen words should follow from that account.

When I ask the question “what do we mean by ‘God’?” some readers may immediately ask whether I am ignoring the Trinity by devoting this whole discussion just to “God.” Read again the quotation with which I began; when we say “God” we are talking about God the Father, and yet we are also talking about the Father with his Son and Spirit. In fact, what I say is also about the Son considered alone, or the Spirit. This short essay does not discuss how Father, Son and Spirit relate together and how they are one and yet three (that will come in the next piece of this series); this essay discusses what we mean by God whether we speak of one of these three, or all of them together.

As should be clear from my brief introduction to the incarnation, all talk about God must begin in awareness that God is not a thing in the world. Anselm of Canterbury famously wrote of God, in Latin, Et quidem credimus te esse aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit—in English, “we believe you to be something than which nothing greater can be conceived.”[2] This statement provides a wonderful point of departure for considering the task before us; as it is unfolded we will see that it reveals how our thinking of God (if done well) is always a labor, a work, a task for our contemplation which has no end. Right at the beginning of this essay we should call to mind that Anselm's attempts to shape our thinking about God flow from his life as a monk; his discussions are both arguments and prayers. As one who prays Anselm seeks to hone his understanding; and the one who prays is the one who he thinks will most fully grasp the power of these arguments, even as such a one knows the divine mystery remains mystery.

2. One of the most important claims of Christian belief is that God is the one source of all that is. Thinking about this claim in the light of Anselm's call on the imagination will prove helpful. If God is greater than what can be thought then we have to think hard about what God must exceed. God must be, to begin with, a unity more perfect and harmonious than any we can imagine. In the material world it is fairly obvious that some unities are more permanent than others. A heap of gravel has less permanence than one large lump of marble. But unities can be thought about in many ways beyond the purely material.

The unity between two wary enemies who come together against a third is far less dependable and long-lasting than the unity between two people who have come to know each other well, appreciate each other's gifts, and who share common goals. In friends and partners human beings quite naturally value love that is consistent, and attentive to that which a friend or partner needs if they are to flourish. There is a unity in such attention, a unity that for human beings exists alongside many other desires and call upon our time, but a unity nonetheless.

The contrast between these examples points us towards the truth that while existence, and life itself, come in many forms, we can also recognize that some forms of existence and life more fully exhibit the potential that is apparent in the created order. Thus, while life takes many forms, each of which has its own beauty and mystery, we also see a radical distinction between the potential of any plant and that of a bird able to construct its own nest and migrate thousands of miles. Similarly, we may abhor the idea that the non-human creation is there simply for our exploitation, and yet still confess that human creative and intellectual abilities (however evilly used) are of a different order to the behavior we see in the animal world. We need not downplay the reality of life in the body to confess that it is the possession of an intellectual life that makes possible the complexity of human loving, searching, desiring, and knowing.

Perhaps, then, we can see the world as constituted by signs pointing towards and making possible human thought and attentive love (even as we also confess a constant failure to attain that at which creation points). But when we speak of God as the one source of all we speak of one, we do not simply speak of God as one who exhibits the features of unity, intellect and loving attention that I have mentioned here. Remember Anselm; these signs point us toward one who must exceed these unities in all respects. At this point it may help to introduce another set of ideas.

3. One other feature of our created order that God transcends is number. God is not one in the same way that we might say that Christians believe in one God rather than two or three. When we think of one item, one jar of peanut butter or one person, we think of one among a field of others or potential others. When we say that God is one we mean that God precedes number and transcends number. The principle that true unity precedes and is the source of any multiplicity was one developed within Greek philosophical traditions over many hundreds of years and early Christian theologians came to find it an ideal way of expressing the divine transcendence (as we shall also see it is a helpful principle when talking about the Trinity). Reflecting on the differences between “one” as implying a multiplicity of objects that can be numbered, and “one” as the unity that transcends number may help us better grasp that God transcends, but it also helps us to recognize that the divine unity is beyond our experience and imagining. Precision in our thought about the ways in which God transcends can thus lead us to deeper awareness of the mystery that is God's life.

Something similar is true about another important plank of the classical account of God, divine simplicity. Most directly, the doctrine of divine simplicity teaches that God has no parts and is indivisible. But to say this is not to say only in other terms that God is not a material partite entity, it is also to say that, in the case of God, the distinction between being something and having something does not apply. In the case of human beings we can say that Jane is a human being and has black hair (which may well turn grey as she ages). We can also say that Jane is calm at Mass, but loses that calm when the priest decides to make up his own Eucharistic prayer. Having black (or grey hair), or calmness are things that Jane has, but they are not permanently what Jane is.[3]

To say that God is simple is to deny that God is the subject of such things: God does not have a goodness that God may lose; God is goodness. There is a complex philosophical discussion which follows here about whether all the qualities God simply is must be understood as identical, but we need not explore down that path. Here, however, it is important to note that when we say that the divine existence is simple in this way we are again identifying something of which we have no experience in the created order. Clearly enough, we have experience of realities that are less divisible than others—recall the example above of the difference between a heap of rocks and one lump of marble—and yet these analogies are only ever partial. Once again, our intellectual precision draws us to recognition of the divine mystery.

4. There is another fundamental way in which Christians speak of God as one; God is the superabundant one who gives continually but without loss. Wisdom 7 includes these verses:

For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty . . . Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things.

This statement, probably written around the time of Christ, is an early version of what is known as the doctrine of the “undiminished giver,” the conception of the one source of all as ordering all things benevolently, and yet as doing so without any loss. When we give ourselves to a project, energy is consumed and we must recharge physically or mentally. The undiminished giver gives and needs no replenishment because this is the one giver who is always full. But God's wisdom is a loving wisdom, and from this vision of the undiminished giver we should draw the thought that God's love both never fails, or is exhausted, and is always trustworthy.

Yes, of course, such a statement raises many questions about how we face the awful reality of the evil and tragedy that we experience in the world, but at the same time it provides the Christian imagination with a deep commitment that beyond all that we see and experience of evil the world is a good held in being by a loving creator, and that the signs of beauty that we see are signs of the world's true nature. This does not mean that Christians experience evil as being of no consequence, or may not feel overwhelmed at the darkness of the world; it means that through such times that may and should cling to the ever-powerful fullness of divine love that gives itself in our world.

It follows from the doctrine of the undiminished giver (as it does from the doctrine of divine simplicity) that there is in God no potential. Potential is all-important in Western civilization. We like to think our children have potential to learn more, be more. If a student hands in a truly awful paper for a class it will not do for me to say only “this is truly awful”; I should try to indicate potential for improvement. For us to see potential in ourselves and in others is to have hope. But to speak in this way is to admit the simple truth that human beings move constantly from lack toward fullness and (sometimes) back again. To grow in knowledge is to admit that we previously lacked that knowledge; to learn from our mistakes is to admit that we made them; to fall in love is to admit that we are now experiencing a love that previously we did not know. God is a superabundant fullness in whom such lack is not present. There is no need for us to worry that God needs to learn to love us or understand us. But if there is no potential in God, then God is pure act, pure loving act. Belief in God's utter fullness is not belief in a distant, “static” God (whatever that might mean) it is belief in a God who is love, is nothing but the act of love.

5. It is very easy to think of God's distinction from things in the world as implying God's distance from the world. One central statement of the classical Christian account of God, and one that has consequences for many other aspects of Christian teaching, is that because God is transcendent in the ways that I have described, God is able to be present in the world without restrictions of time and place. It is because God is transcendent that God can be fully present everywhere at once, present to all times at once, fully attentive, and closer to us than we are to ourselves. This principle is, then, one that concerns how we understand God and how we understand the created order; because of God's transcendence God enfolds all and all is present to God. If we confess God to be transcendent and yet slip into speaking about God as if God were an object in the world, then we have not yet exercised our minds sufficiently. Indeed, the great Christian theologians would also say that our thought and speech is so marked by our status as created beings that this exercise can never cease in this life.

To say that God is not an object in the world means also that God's presence is not like the presence of an object that we observe at a distance. Our natural mode of thinking about “other” realities is that they are present to us at a distance (otherwise we assume that we must compete for space; we cannot both be in the same place at the same time). One of the great themes that runs through the thought of Augustine of Hippo, the mighty fifth-century North African bishop, is a meditation on the task of thinking God's presence. The hardest part of this task is that of learning to avoid the inadvertent imagining of God as a different thing, as an object separate in space and thus just like all the other objects in the world. In different ways Augustine suggests that we must instead imagine ourselves is as present to God, as existing in God's presence, as existing because of God's presence. But this is an ongoing labor for us; the human mind loves to interpret all reality in the terms with which it is most familiar, rather than sticking with the task of reaching out and struggling towards the imagination of the one source of all who enfolds all but is itself enfolded by nothing.

As I noted above, the Christian understanding of God is also an account of the created order as existing in God, as constituted by signs that point to God. Faith in the God I have described here thus also calls us to a particular vision of the world itself. In a time when belief in God is (in the Western world) in retreat and an aggressively secular (if philosophically naive) conception of the world as the product of chance, and governed by laws that allow no “room” for God, has taken hold of the popular imagination, faith in God can seem a great wager in the face of what has come to be seen as obvious. And yet, perhaps this is one of the most important wagers that we can make if we are to see ourselves and our world in the round, to have hope for its future, and to look upon it rationally and as a home for our love.[4]

6. One question that some readers will have at this point concerns the origins of the principles that I have been discussing. Are these not principles whose origin is in “Greek” philosophical traditions and not the Biblical text or Jewish tradition? In a helpful recent essay Gary Anderson explores the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. There are a number of texts in the Hebrew scriptures that can seem to teach this doctrine (e.g. Gen 1:1-3; 2 Macc 7:28). In fact, the picture is far more complex and none teaches it clearly. Yet, these texts, along with many other key texts from later in Jewish tradition, do insist on and gradually expand on the key principle that all is under God's providential power, and that at the last day all will be ordered toward the unhindered display of the divine light (Isa 60: 19-20). These last texts may speak directly about whether God created from nothing or not, but they do show a trajectory in Israel's thought towards increasing recognition of what it means for all things to depend on God. Thus, statements about God's act of creation are full of implications for how God is understood as interacting with the creation, and implications for how we understand the end of all things.

To understand what the Scriptures say on any one doctrinal question we often need to consider a wider interrelated set of concerns and trajectories. Moving forward to the first hundred years of Christian thought, and against the background of Greek philosophical traditions, the idea that God might have created from pre-existing materials seemed only to indicate a limit on divine power. Because God's Lordship over creation was a vital theme in so many different ways, the doctrine of creation out of nothing seems to have emerged quickly as a way of securing all those different dimensions of belief, and thus capturing something at the heart of Scriptural teaching as a whole, something hidden in the depths of the texts that God had gifted the Church. 

Much the same is true when we consider the gradual articulation of the divine immateriality, fullness, and simplicity. These doctrines draw on earlier trajectories that may be found in Jewish and Christian Scripture (consider Wisdom 7, Malachi 3:6, John 1:1-3, Acts 17:24-28, James 1:17), but they make use of persuasive resources developed in other traditions of thought to draw out the depths of Scripture and tie together a vision of the whole. Christian thinkers have done this more or less well, and more or less coherently (and idiosyncratically), but as they have done so the Christian tradition gradually recognized some of those principles as a true reading of Scripture's depths.

7. Throughout this short piece I have circled back to the necessary incompleteness of any true meditation on the divine. When we speak truly of God we find ourselves thinking and speaking, but also aware that we work towards greater awareness of that which remains mysterious. That this is so should not somehow lead us to believe that Christian thought lacks rationality or persuasiveness. Learning to appreciate complexity, and learning to accept the mystery that attends on some of the great questions of human existence are actually two of the greatest intellectual tasks.

Modernity, and perhaps something deep in fallen human nature, pushes us to think that the greatest intellectual tasks actually involve mastering great problems, arriving at solutions and conceiving new tools. There is no doubt that this is, in some important cases, so. And yet, consider what is involved in knowing another person, or in appreciating one of the key events of Western history, or understanding the motivations involved in quite ordinary everyday expressions of love or dislike. In these cases recognizing the mysterious is simply intrinsic to good thinking. Similarly, in theology the greatest intellectual visions are those which have combined searching consideration of philosophical and theological problems, with an ability to confess with precision that when we speak of divine actions and being mystery necessarily attends.

When academic theologians seek to explain what it is that they do to colleagues in other departments they (quite fairly) like to find points of comparison: “some of what I do is historical investigation, rather like that which happens in your department,” or “I pursue the consequences and interconnections of ideas in a way similar to your own investigations.” These explanations are important, and help to show how theological argument is enmeshed in, and makes use of styles of argument developed within western traditions of thought and scholarship. And yet, this is not the whole picture, because if they are to be true to Christian tradition, theologians must also explain how theology is a rational activity that knows it circles mystery, and that it often works hard to confess the unknowable with real precision. If we are to produce an apology for our tradition of thought then we must convince our peers both of the intellectual fruitfulness of a vision of reality enfolded by the mysterious source of all, and of a mode of inquiry that is rational and attentive to the mystery of that source of all.

I spoke in the first paragraph of a love for words that should follow awareness of God's transcendence. I meant by this two things. First, the more we recognize the difficulty of speaking about God, the more (I hope) we recognize the need to develop good patterns of word-care (as the Cambridge philosopher of religion Nicholas Lash used to call it), good patterns of thinking carefully about how we choose our words. But, second, the more we recognize the transcendence of Father, Son, and Spirit, the more we also rest with the words given us to speak of God, in the Scriptures, in the liturgy. Indeed, the liturgy here is of great importance, containing much that hymns God, drawing together titles and names and phrases from Christian tradition, not so much that we may better understand them, but so that we might train the gaze of our minds towards the divine mystery. The words of the liturgy are, of course, not simply read in the quiet of library or study; they are sung, chanted in procession, and prayed before the altar. In such contexts, our love for the words we are given may best recognize them as gift in the face of an ever present mystery, words that are used by divine action to draw us into Christ and into the life of Father and Son:

Trinity above being,
above goodness,
above divinity,
creator of all spiritual beings
and rational natures;
goodness itself,
the inaccessible light
enlightening all who come into the world,
shine in me, Your unworthy servant,
and enlighten the eyes of my understanding,
that I may make bold to praise
Your infinite benevolence and power.[5]

Suggestions for Further Reading

Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM Cap, Does God Suffer (Notre Dame IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2000), Chps. 3, 4, 5.

Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), Chps. 1, 3, 4, 5.

Gary A. Anderson, “Creatio ex nihilo and the Bible,” in Gary A. Anderson & Markus Bockmuehl (eds.), Creation ex nihilo. Origins, Developments, Contemporary Challenges (Notre Dame IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2018), 15-35.

Lewis Ayres, “Is Nicene Trinitarianism 'in' the Scriptures?,” Nova et Vetera 18 (2020): 1285-1300.

[1] From the anaphora (the Eucharistic prayer) of the liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

[2] Anselm, "Why Did God Become Man?" 2.

[3] In an important technical language that stems from Aristotle the distinction here is between substance and accidents. Accidents are things true of Jane at a particular moment, but not necessary features of what she is.

[4] There is not space here to address the question of how we should talk of God's involvement with the cross, the age-old question of how we should say that in Christ the God who is all that I have described embraces suffering—that will come in a future piece. But I have said enough, I hope, to show that it would be a mistake to say simply that God suffers. When we say God we speak of a reality whose eternal fullness and outpouring of love allows no place for the doubt, pain, loss of control and self that marks or human experience of suffering—and God does not need to suffer in order to “understand” our experience of the world. There is much to be said about what we should say about Christ on the cross, but perhaps the one thing to reiterate here is that to say that God does not suffer as we suffer is not to say that God stands aloof, as we might imagine a “detached” observer of the scene. All that we have said about the divine existence, love and presence so far should show that this would be a mistake, even without what I said about Christ, the incarnate Word, in the first piece in this series.

[5] From the Blessing of the Waters by St Sophronius of Jerusalem.

Featured Image: Viktor Vasnestov, Lord God Sabaoth; 1896; Photo:Source:Wikipedia / Shakko.


Lewis Ayres

Lewis Ayres is Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at the University of Durham, UK and Professorial Visiting Fellow at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia.

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