The concept of God:

The concept of God:
definitions, attributes and problems
Information Sheet
What do you understand by ‘God’?
If you had to describe God and his nature, characteristics and activities to someone who knew
nothing of God, where would you start? Would some of the suggestions below be helpful, or not?
- God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.
• God is nothing; there is nothing that is God.
• God is the ground of our being.
• God is omnipotent, omniscient, eternal and perfectly good.
These are all definitions of God which have been applied by philosophers of religion. The first is from the
Proslogion by Anselm (more of him in Thpic 4), the second from Gareth Moore, the third from Paul Tillich,
while the fourth is arguably the way in which most believers in the classical theistic God would describe his
central and vital attributes.
They are all rather complex ways of defining God, and in themselves need further explanation or discussion.
Using WS1, discuss attributes, activities or ideas associated with God.
You should now have a very complex mind map or spider diagram as a result of your work.
Consider how the different terms you have come up with fall into different categories:
• primary attributes of God, such as omnipotence and omniscience
• secondary attributes, such as mercy or wrath
• activities of God such as creation or judgement
• attitudes towards God, such as worship or awe
Work out which category the words you have chosen belong to. Some of them may belong to another category
altogether; decide what other categories there may be.
What you should have established from this exercise is that there are many different ways of understanding
God and of thinking about him. Some thinkers would even suggest that this last sentence exposes one of them:
is it right to speak of God only as him or should we consider whether it is appropriate to speak of God in terms
of any one gender?
the word God’ has been understood in different ways. So you should not assume that..,
discussions as to what God is are always proceeding on a set of shared assumptions when it comes to
the nature of the divine.
Brian Davies, Philosophy of Religion (OUP, 2000), p. 394
The problem of God
The different descriptions and attributes of God which you have talked about expose the nature of the subject
that you are going to be studying for 1 or 2 years. Everything which is said about God or which believers
believe about him is fraught with peril.
• If God is omnipotent, does it mean that he can do everything? If so, does that mean everything logically
possible, or everything, including the logically impossible?
• If God is omniscient and knows all things, then he must know what we will do in the future. Does this mean
we have no free will?
If God can perform miracles (surely a precondition of his being omnipotent), why does he not intervene
more often? Why heal someone who has a mild ailment and yet not step in to prevent the Holocaust?
If God exists, why does he not make himself more obvious to humankind?
If God is wholly good and all-powerful, why does evil exist?
If God is timeless, how can he influence things that are within time?
If God is simple or changeless, why does the biblical teaching about him suggest that he can change his
mind, or act in different ways according to different circumstances?
If God is so different from man, how can we describe what he is like?
What problems are posed for the believer in proving the existence of God?
These are all important questions in a discussion of the philosophy of religion, and they expose the fact that
you will mostly be dealing with problems about God throughout your study: the problem of his existence, the
problem of evil and the problem of religious language.
The concept of God:
definitions, attributes and problems
1 Take a sheet of plain A4 paper and in the centre of it write the word GOD. Enclose this in a box as shown
below. Around the class, suggest ideas which you associate with the concept of God that you might use to
introduce God to someone who had never heard of the concept, or had only a glimmer of what it meant.
Four words have been provided as a starting-point; discuss these first in class before you add any of your
2 Using the following headings, decide which categories your definitions and attributes of God fit
• Primary attributes
• Secondary attributes
• Activities of God
• Attitudes of believers
• Others
Then study Brian Davies’s quotation (see ISl). What do you think he means by a set of shared assumptions
when it comes to the nature of the divine’?
3 Think about some of the problems of God raised on IS1 and discuss them. Start to suggest how you might
solve these problems. Remember that you cannot solve a problem about God by changing his primary
attributes. Thus, if you maintain that the most important qualities of God are that he is omnipotent,
omniscient and omnibenevolent (perfectly good), then you cannot solve the problem of evil by saying that
perhaps God isn’t good after all. This would be qualifying Gods nature, and he is then not the God that was
originally described.
3 Are you offended by God being referred to in masculine terms? What is your reaction to referring to God as
she’? Is it possible for God to combine masculine and feminine in some way?
4 Can we know God or simply believe in God? What do you understand by a personal God’?
5 Does God predict the future or know what is going to happen?
6 Does God need to be timeless and eternal to be the cause of all things?