Is there such a thing as a ‘God in General’ ?

“When God was conversing with Moses, He did not say, “I am the essence”, but “I am the One Who is.” Thus it is not the One Who is who derives from the essence, but essence which derives from Him, for it is He who contains all being in Himself.”

Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts III.ii.12

46 Responses to Is there such a thing as a ‘God in General’ ?

  1. Karl Holsberg says:

    Arin Hatfield please contact Chaplain Holsberg at
    Thank you!

  2. Joseph Schmitt says:


    Is there anywhere online where I can read this. The book is going for $110 on Amazon. Yikes.


  3. JLM says:

    In response to Joseph’s question regarding Swinburne’s conversion to orthdoxy; Swinburne became Orthodox in 1996. Strangely his volumes ‘Responsibility and Atonement’ (1989) and ‘Revelation’ (1991) seem more like what one might expect theologically from an Orthodox philosopher of religion/philosophical theologian moreso than what he has written since his conversion. But his most recent book ‘The Resurrection of God Incarnate’ seems to me to bear the most bold and hopeful of his Bayesian probabilistic demonstrations for the claims of Chrisitan theism. However, in line with Joseph’s thinking, it is worthy of note that Swinburne’s project culminates in the analysis of the particulars of revealed religion rather than religion natural. In Alan Padgett’s (ed.) Fetschrift for Swinburne, Swinburne himself offers lengthy intellectual biography that accounts for much of his life of faith — definitely worth the read.

  4. Mick says:

    Thanks Photios. That was very helpful.

  5. Photios Jones says:

    “I can see making Bradshaw’s (I think that was his name) case to other Christians, but what about agnostics or atheists?”

    The same apologetic would apply. We know about This God–working in salvation history–doing These Acts for These People. Don’t find a synthesis between your view and theirs. Stand fast in your first principles, not with theirs.

    “How do you know that the energies you participate in are those of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and not Allah, or Aten, or someone else?”

    Well there is no mechanism or logical proof that will guarantee it, but does our action bear witness to the faith and experience of the prophets, apostles, and saints? Does our experience bear witness to that same experience?

    This is also where dialectic is helpful. If dialectic is useless in grasping the divine and obtaining it, perhaps its useful for “dragging” the adversary down. In fact, it is. Give an internal critigue. Show where the presuppositions and philosophical commitments give absurd results. After they recognize that their system is wrong and inadequate, invite them to liturgy.


  6. Ian says:


    I’ll check out Aquinas. Thanks for the info. By virtual I meant what you said about a quality being a “judgement” as opposed to inherent.

  7. Mick says:


    Thank you for the link to that excellent paper. I suppose the answer can be summed up as: “I know God because I live God” (or something like that).

    I can see making Bradshaw’s (I think that was his name) case to other Christians, but what about agnostics or atheists? I imagine that if I made Bradshaw’s argument to an agnostic/atheist they would ask two main things. 1-How do you know that when fasting, praying, etc, that you are participating in the energies of God? 2-How do you know that the energies you participate in are those of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and not Allah, or Aten, or someone else?

    Any thoughts?


  8. Perry Robinson says:


    Go read Summa Theologia 1, 3, 7 and see how it compares with CVT. I don’t think that there is a significant difference.

    Properties are inhering qualities whereas attributes are judgments made by us. And what do you mean br “virtual?” I know how Hodge uses it in line with the formal distinction, but how are you using it?

  9. Ian says:


    My understanding of ADS is (briefly…possibly inaccurately as well) a collapse of activity into essence, and a mashing together of all properties into a singularity. Properties are virtual. Attributes are things said about a object. They are ascribed or calculated statements about a thing. Are those passable definitions?

  10. Cyril says:


    I think the double ultimates is necessary to the dialectical structure inherent in the ADS system (I’m being suppressed!). The Cathars differed wildly from the earlier gnostics in that they denounced the idea of intermediaries.

    Ian and Arin

    As for Van Til and Bavinck, if you compare Van Til’s Intro to Systematic Theology to Bavinck’s Doctrine of God you will see that were Van Til and grad student he would have been kicked out of school for plagiarism. The one proviso that it is in the Intro to Sys that Van Til makes his postulate that God is One Person adn Three Persons, otherwise, he says, the being of God would be undifferentiated, brute factuality: he never seemed to realize that the Three Persons were differentiated and far from brute. He seemed so stuck on the one that he could not proceed to the Three. His ADS would be held de fide as he embraced the WCF without reservation, and that would include the chapter on the Holy Trinity which only gets to the Triad after a definition of “God in general”.

    Perry and Photios,

    These have been some good posts of late. My commendations.


  11. Photios Jones says:


    This paper here will get you headed in the right direction:


  12. Mick says:


    This may be too broad of a question to ask, but all of this “God in general” talk has me wondering. When one asks, “How do you know God exists?” or, “How do you know God?” is there an Orthodox answer (or answers) to the question that is fundamentally different from Western Christianity?
    Or, maybe, I should simply start by asking how would you answer the above questions regardless of what differences it reflects between East and West.


  13. Perry Robinson says:


    Well what do you think ADS as a concept is? What do you think an attribute is?

  14. Photios Jones says:

    Perry stated:

    “Without ADS and its consequents, namely that persons are either instances of their natures or relations to them, I don’t see how one generates predestinarianism in the first place.”

    St. John of Damascus said:

    “[T]his is what leads the heretics astray, viz., that they look upon nature and person as identical.” –An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith Book III c.3


  15. Ian says:


    I guess my problem is that my radar is not fine tuned to pick up on the echoes of ADS, I’ll defer to the insights of others in this case. I do see what you’re saying about eternal punishment and how it is rendered across a predestinarian landscape. I can practically hear the shrill voice,”God must punish eternally otherwise he would not be the eternal punisher of the wicked.” If God is actus purus then he must stand against the sinner eternally and always and forever.

  16. Perry Robinson says:


    I don’t buy your counter example. First, Gnosticism generated an infinite number of intermediaries because the ultimate deity was ultimately one and therefore opposed to its infinite effects. The disputed point between Plotinus and the Gnostics centered around this. For Plotinus, the Gnostics violated the principle of parsimony by postulating hypostases beyond number whereas Plotinus thought reason demanded only three. (three is the number and the number is three!!) Gnostics were “dualists” par excellance, predestinarians and held to a species of ADS, which is one of the reasons why Plotinus argued against them so vociferously-he saw much of his own system in theirs. While I am no expert on the Cathars, their dualism isn’t much different in schema from Gnosticism and so I see no reason to think that the mere adherence of dualism ruled out ADS. Why would it? Two realms or two deities even wouldn’t imply that the deities weren’t simple.

    As for “equal ultimacy” I don’t take that to do any kind of serious explanatory or argumentative work. It doesn’t seem to affirm anything that other advocates of ADS affirm. That doesn’t imply that they are entitled to do so.

  17. Ian,

    The point was to show that while CVT rejects the “God in General” method, he is just on the other fork in the road. As for his works, you can find ADS in lots of places. Try his “Christian Apologetics.” It is most certainly there, among other places.

    I know it seems as if all you need to get predestinarianism going is an infinitely effective will, but I disagree. Without ADS and its consequents, namely that persons are either instances of their natures or relations to them, I don’t see how one generates predestinarianism in the first place. This is why I asked for an example because I think that any example brought forward will be committed to some form of ADS.

    As for your comments to Arin, I am not sure what in the citation wouldn’t amount to a clear committment to ADS. CVT’s terminology is certainly classical among the Reformed as well as the Latin scholastics in picking out the notion of ADS. What after all does…

    “The attributes of God are not to be thought of otherwise than as aspects of the one simple original being; the whole is identical with the parts”

    mean if not ADS? What else would we have to add to get that concept?

    As for your comments to Daniel, think about the issue this way, whya re the wicked raised to eternal existence/life? Why isn’t it the case that God extinguishes them? Must they be punished? If so, why? Would God fail to be just if he didn’t? If so, what is the nature of the relation between God’s justice then and the wicked’s eternal existence?

  18. Ian says:


    I haven’t read Bavinck but given Van Til’s dependence on his thinking I can concede that he possible would have affirmed ADS or looked favorably on it. But as you are probably aware, Van Til is not loved for his doctrine of the Trinity and I think partially because his writings imply a sort of essential plurality in God, that doesn’t jibe well with ADS (see his thoughts on the “equally ultimate” One and the Many for example).

  19. Oh, By the way I mistook you for someone else who is part of the Van Til blog ring on Xanga.

  20. Ian,

    I am not exactly sure how one would establish the seemingly incipient connection of ADS with the theology proper of Van til, such that you would accept the conclusion. If a statement explicating as much is desired (“I believe in ADS”) then I confess (in my own reading) it is not there. But if we assert a theological connection with other Dutch Calvinists (of which I am sure you would agree) then by assessing some of the more formal statements we might be able to arrive at an understanding of the loci that no doubt informed Van Til’s own construction.

    For instace in Bavinck’s (Van TIl was a appreciative of his work openly) treatment of the subject he writes, “…hence wisdom, grace, love, etc. are ‘identical’ with his being…all attributes are divine attributes and hence identical with His being.” This for Bavinck was ‘Divine simplicity’ and seems to be commensurate with Van Til’s own understanding of the matter. ISTM this is part and parcel with ADS, and this statement functions much the same way as Aquinas’s.

  21. Ian says:


    Thanks for the quote. I don’t think that the eternal necessity of God’s properties (the unity of simplicity signifies that God is in no sense composed of parts or aspects that existed prior to himself) or the full presence(The attributes of God are not to be thought of otherwise than as aspects of the one simple original being; the whole is identical with the parts) equal ADS. That is to say I may be misreading Van Til here, but that seems to be the intent of his writing.


    I’ve can’t say that I’ve seen many predestinarian arguments that necessitate judgement for the sake of God actualizing some sort of power of retributive justice necessarily. I think there is a distinction that can be made between those arguments which state that God did reprobate some creatures to display his justice, and those arguments which say that God necessarily did so. I think Arthur Pink might be an example of the kind of an Orgenistic Augustinian you describe.

  22. Photios Jones says:


    Most of the Reformed doctrine of predestination that I’ve seen believe that the wicked are the manifestation of God’s attribute of justice, while the blessed are of his mercy. Philosophical justification for this view, or so it seems to me, is that God couldn’t save everyone as there wouldn’t be creatures over under Him to manifest and exercise his justice. To me this is Origenism, redefined Augustinian style.


  23. “Fourthly, we speak of the unity of God. We distinguish between the unity of singularity (singularitatis) and the unity of simplicity (simplicitatis). The unity of singularity has reference to numerical oneness. There is and can be only one God. The unity of simplicity signifies that God is in no sense composed of parts or aspects that existed prior to himself (Jer 10:10; 1 Jn 1:5). The attributes of God are not to be thought of otherwise than as aspects of the one simple original being; the whole is identical with the parts.” Now the assertion is no longer vague…

    (Defense of the Faith, pg. 10 ‘Doctrine of God.’)

  24. Ian says:


    There’s a Van Til blogring on Xanga of which I’m a member?


    I’m not faulting you for criticizing Van Til,( Though I might for your vague assertion that Van Til held to ADS. As I said above, I just am not seeing it.) I just don’t know what your criticism had to do with my original comment about Van Til. It was non-sequitur.

    As for the alleged inevitable union between predestination and ADS: I don’t know why it would defy imagination that predestinarianism could exist apart from a commitment to ADS. There’s nothing about the concept of God by the excercise of his will ordaining all events that necessitates a commitment to ADS. Certainly if it were argued that God MUST do so in order to be God such would be the case that one was clinging to ADS behind the velvet curtain. Maybe I’m being dense.

  25. Photios Jones says:

    “but the Cathars, who were absolute dualists and thus no believers in ADS”

    Yes, but as you indicate at the end of your post Gary, I wouldn’t put such a thesis outside the doctrine of ADS and its problematic, no more than Eunomius who had a “Trinitarian” structure of each “Being” as “more” or “less” absolutely simple. Each “person” is still collapsible and identified with Being. The key I think is if you start with Being or essence in your theology, one is going to have deterministic and hierarchical framework. Very dialectical structure in Cathars and Voltaire.

    As Gregory of Nyssa stated, they start from “data that is not granted,” and think first of “being instead of person.”


  26. Cyril says:


    I don’t know if this falls within the stated parameters, but the Cathars, who were absolute dualists and thus no believers in ADS, were also adament believers in determinism. Granted, this arose out of a denial of freewill, and their own deities seem just as determined as we mortals. Voltaire, while positing a simple god in his “il faut prendre un parti” has his god also determined and makes freedom an aspect of his power: more power equals more freedom, but in the end, still a pretty impotent power in that his god is not outside the universe. This type of equivocation makes me wonder whether he was not an atheist trying to pass himself off as a deist. Anyway, I offer the Cathars as a counter-example, but who can take seriously anyone who believes in equal ultimates? Of course, this would touch CVT as well since he liked to think that the one and the many within the Blessed Trinity were equally ultimate, but this gets back to confusing Persons and Nature again.

    In Christ,

  27. Perry Robinson says:


    I criticize people’s ideas. I quite agree that CVT talks about the plurality in God but like other advocates of ADS, I think that what they give with the one hand they take with the other. Historically, Predestinarianism has always been linked to ADS in one way or another. If you think that Predestinarianism can be generated in other ways I’d be interested in seeing a sketch here if you wouldn’t mind reproducing one or at least citing a historical example.

  28. Ian,

    Sorry if I misunderstood, but I was not discussing what ‘might’ be the case; I was responding to the intrinsic connection between ADS and determinism that you referred to. I too am fond of Van TIl (I belong to the Van Til Xanga blog ring you do) but the connection which Perry speaks about (Mondadic personality) and determinism in Van Til seems to be evident from the sources he cited.

    But in reference to the epistemic primacy that Van Til gives to the Triune reality I think we can both appreciate the nature of that claim.

  29. Ian says:


    I agree, if the mode of willing and faculty of the will are collapsed into each other determinism follows necessarily, but this is not the only way to formulate a predestinarian worldview, and I’m not suggesting that one should form one per se, but it is certainly conceivable that one could.

  30. Ian,

    If you start with ADS (Equating ‘will’ with ‘essence’) whatever is true of the ‘will’ is ‘true’ of the essence. If the essence is had by God necessarily, then the will would be had by God necessarily and thus you have determinism. Your ‘link’ is incipient to the doctrinal (definitional) formulation of ADS.

    To see it more clearly (something I have had to do) define ADS, and that which is concomittant with your definition. You cannot avoid the predestinarian impetus which Perry is talking about.

  31. Ian says:


    I think Van Til was foolishly narrow-minded, but so are most, MOST, conservative Reformed Theologians. But I feel like I know Van Til personally, all of my mentors within the Reformed faith were themselves pupils and friends of Cornelius during his later years. So maybe therein lies my reluctance to criticize him as you do

    I don’t know how you can say that Van Til’s God was a Monad. His doctrine of the Trinity may be crude as I said earlier. He writes in his Intro to Systematic Theology,”The Plurality of God is as eternal as the unity of God”. I’m not yet convinced that any form of a predestinarian view comes linked with a commitment to ADS, though ADS does naturally lead to a predestinarian view.

    At any rate I don’t know how this even came up, Van Til was only mentioned because of his criticism of “God in General” apologetic methodology. I’m sure there are a hundred other things that we could criticize Van Til about, but he was definitely on the money about starting off with an impersonal “god” category and building up towards the personal triune God of scripture.

  32. Brad Davis says:


    I agree on both points. I would only add that it’s been my experience that psychology about proving a belief is a bigger barrier than demonstrating the belief. But I guess that’s what I get for primarily dealing with Mormons and angry atheists. I definately see the problem with extracting the what from the who and the preference of determining the what before the who.

    I was only saying that most people start out with a who (or possibly multiple whos) in mind when they end up developing the “God in general” argument. It just doesn’t translate into and out of the argument (like you mentioned). For example, I don’t think Anselm and Aquinas wanted to demonstrate the existence of Allah or Ahura Mazda, in spite of the fact that a generic argument might easily lead one that way. I think they started with what they believed and created an argument for it from that. So those arguments will carry an implicit presumption about their belief, like ADS or that creation needs sustaining.


    I’m not suggesting we use “God in general” arguments to evangelize people. I’ve only suggested that creation of the arguments themselves could have a basis in evangelism. I don’t think, again, that Aquinas was interested in proving an a-christian or non-christian God.

  33. Perry Robinson says:


    I disagree. Van Til is just as much a victim of ADS as anyone. In fact, it was working with Van Til’s Transcendental Arguments for Christianity against other paradigms, Islam in particular, that got me thinking about ADS in the first place.

    I don’t give people credit, especially people smart enough to know better, for being so arrogant as to not read outside their own tradition.

  34. Ian says:


    I guess I’m just prone to read Van Til charitably. 🙂 He seems to be attempting however crudely to reassert the personhood of God contra the notion of an absolutely simple god of the philosophers ( Plato, Plotinus, etc). Granted he ought to have stuck to the Nicea-Constantinople formulation but I’d give him credit for being idiosycratic within the dutch Reformed traditon.

  35. The problem for Van Til, is that his God ends up being the Monad, which is why he believes in personalistic predestinarianism. Just read his stuff on the Trinity about God being “one person” and three persons. You can see the dialectic at work because of ADS in his thinking in his Introduction to Systematic Theology and other works.

  36. Joseph Schmitt says:

    “In fact if they are smart, they’ll turn the whole dialectic right around on you and show that it results in something like Polytheism”

    ….or maybe even end up one day in some Community Church doing the 40 Days of Purpose. Full blown Orthodoxy is, from my experience, getting the job done apologetically. Could it be any other way??

  37. Photios Jones says:

    “In other words, if I can convince you that “God in General” exists.”

    That’s just the point though. What one has shown by dialectical proofs is ontologically nothing. Some metaphysically simple essence doesn’t exist. There is no such thing. You’ll be playing a ping-pong match of dialectics until eternity with the atheist. In fact if they are smart, they’ll turn the whole dialectic right around on you and show that it results in something like Polytheism. Think St. Photios’ argument in the Mystagogy.

    “About the existence of “God” tend to start with a Who in mind anyway.”

    I don’t think they have in mind the patristic ordo. Is this ‘Who’ the Hypostasis of the Son?


  38. Brad

    Or . . . they could simply lead to a selection of some other name(d deity) as the most helpful instantiation of the God in general.

    Don’t get me wrong, we do need to speak in ways that people can “get” (the “baby steps” if you will), but we ought be wise as serpents in honestly acknowledging how rife with danger are the roads travelled with “baby steps.” The law of unintended consequences and all that.

  39. Brad Davis says:

    I listened to a recording of a series of lectures Dr. Greg Bahnsen gave awhile back (which have some basis in Van Til’s thought) and took a class on Continental Philosophy, and I’ve been thinking that most (popular) arguments about the existence of “God” tend to start with a Who in mind anyway.

    As mentioned, the problem is that it never gets back to the Who that prompted the existence of the argument to begin with. Bahnsen seemed to think it was possible by eliminating all other options (which seemed like an awful lot of work)…

    Since then, I’d always figured what prompted “God in General” arguments was an evangelistic method that worked by getting you to be willing to accept the tenets of the belief system in small steps (which would probably enable the other person to overcome their cognitive dissonance). In other words, if I can convince you that “God in General” exists, I may be able to more easily convince you that a particular God exists. Generic arguments might still be useful in that context, so long as they lead back to a Who.

  40. Ian says:

    Good conversation so far. The dutch Reformed philosopher Cornelius Van Til made some similar arguments against a “God in General” prolegomena. According to Van Til, starting with “God in General” would never lead us effectively to a personal Triune God, and so we should be concerned first with our Kerygma, the Church’s testimony as a whole. Van Til also argued against the notion of a “mere Christianity”.

    Those following Van Til’s thought have exegeted Paul’s adress at the Mars Hill as an affirmation of this methodology of apologetics. Paul argues that the Romans worshipped an “unknown god”, a God they did not know, a God who sent His Son. I think this is a far superior route than a blockhouse method (Absolute Truth>God in General>A Christian God), though certainly as we present Christ in our witness we inevitably will need to further articulate who exactly he is more precisely. However, we do so by our unfolding the idol-subverting story of His activity and self-disclosure to the listener.

  41. Joseph Schmitt says:

    And if I recall, the literal translation from the Hebrew spoken from the burning bush was, “I will be what I will be.” God was telling Moses that he is beyond names, not that he was identified with Being.

  42. Photios Jones says:

    “The historical proofs for Christianity are the only ones worth arguing for. Christian apologists should spend more time dealing with specifically Christian data. After all, we believe that God really did reveal all of himself in Christ. Why bother with abstractions when we have the real thing?”

    Precisely, any “proof” for God is “horizontal” and not “vertical.” It’s about THIS God doing THESE things for THESE people, i.e. salvation history.


  43. Photios Jones says:

    The whole motivation for a ‘God in General’ theology is because of an ordo theologiae that starts with being or essence, independent of and before considering persons. The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as a God that is ‘Absolute Being’ or ‘Supreme Being.’ In a sense, I’m a scholastic’s worst anti-thesis. An encounter with God is always an encounter with a ‘Who’ never a ‘what.’ The ultimate telos of the ‘God in General’ theology is gnosticism. Any name is just as good as any other, and there is nothing that ultimately governs the system. It might be thought that scripture would for a faithful ‘natural’ theological enterprise, but scripture will be manipulated to affirm the system. Hence, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, can now be named Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Old terms are now given new meanings. Or terms like hypostasis=prosopon=person that designate what is absolutely unique are now ‘relative’ terms about an absolutely single “Being.” The Augustinian filioque theology soiled a fertile gnostic ground in the west which is why you have so many people today that are open to gnostic teaching and writing.

    It is worthy to note that all the major heresies have a ‘God in General’ theology.


  44. Joseph Schmitt says:

    Back in my undergraduate days, I had a good dose of apologetics stuffed in to my head by my philosophy courses. My professor, Dr. Mark Linville, was very attracted to the axiological (moral) argument for the existence of God. It seemed that no matter what branch of philosophy we were discussing, everything came down to morality. He was, of course, a big fan of both C.S. Lewis and Kant. Everything we talked about seemed to be prefixed with somew reference to one of Lewis’ works or Kants Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. I saw quickly that of all the “proofs” for God’s existence, only the moral argument came close to getting past the “god in general,” and getting somewhat closer to the “personal god.” But now I’m quite convinced that the only real “proof” that closes the deal is Christ. Moreover, the Saints are the best proof for the existence of God. They perpetuate the real experience of God – they are truly God-bearers. The historical proofs for Christianity are the only ones worth arguing for. Christian apologists should spend more time dealing with specifically Christian data. After all, we believe that God really did reveal all of himself in Christ. Why bother with abstractions when we have the real thing?

    By the way, does anyone know what becoming Orthodox has done to Richard Swinburne’s apologetics?? I also read a lot of his work in school, and was attracted more to his probabalistic arguments than many of the other proofs out there, but I cannot help but think that Orthodoxy has radically changed the way he does things.


  45. David:

    I wholeheartedly endorse your tracing of one of the implications of a lack of “God-in-general.” Indeed, I think the whole notion of “natural theology” itself somewhat problematic. To say that God is revealing himself via Creation (Romans 1; Psalm 19) is not quite the same thing as natural theology, for natural theology lacks the authority of the community of God and therefore its accuracy is limited to the capacity of the individual to know God.

    Too, natural theology tends to focus narrowly on only one way of knowing God, and a problematic way at that: dianoia or discursive thinking.

    Natural theology seems to always end up in the philosophers’ God and not the Personal Triune God.

  46. David Richards says:

    I was talking on the phone to Perry about this — the difference between the conception of a ‘God in general’ and the Eastern view that God is always the personal Triune God of Christianity. Still, I’m having some difficulty tracing out exactly the implications of this. One that comes to mind is that if there is no ‘God in general,’ then theistic proofs cannot start off with proofs for a general God, as does Thomas Aquinas. So it would seem to affect natural theology quite a bit.

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