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Religion: Classical Theism, Part 1 (Two Conceptions of God)

In this video, Elmar Kremer (University of Toronto) introduces two theories of the nature of God: classical theism and theistic personalism. In part 1, he considers the arguments that have been made for each theory.

Speaker: Dr. Elmar Kremer, Emeritus Professor, University of Toronto.

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Video transcript

(intro music) Hello! My name is Elmar Kremer. I'm a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Toronto. Today, I'm going to be talking about different philosophical ideas of the nature of god. Philosophers who talk about god usually focus their work on the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But not all philosophers think about this god in the same way. Their approaches can be divided into two broad types: classical theism and theistic personalism. Classical theists emphasize that god is the one on whom everything else depends, and who himself does not depend on anything. They take this to imply that god is profoundly different from all other things, so different that there is a constant need to purify our language and thought about god. We can truly say, for example, that god is wise. But St. Thomas Aquinas cautions us that this term “wise” is not applied in the same way to god and to man. When we say that god is wise, we are extending the meaning of the word “wise” in something like the way we extend the meaning of the word “line” if we say “a point is a line of zero length.” Theistic personalists, in contrast, hold that god is a person who differs from created persons only degree, not in kind. God's wisdom, for example, is very much greater than the wisdom of a created person, and yet the two can be put on the same scale. A teenager's wisdom, the wisdom of Socrates, and god's wisdom are related in the way that a car's speed, a jet airplane's speed, and the speed of light are related. The speed of light happens to be the fastest speed around, but it is a speed in the same sense of the term as the speed of a car or a jet airplane. Classical theists and theistic personalists also differ in the way they think about creation. Classical theists say that since everything other than god depends on god and he depends on nothing, it follows that he creates and sustains the world ex nihilo. The idea that god causes the world and everything in it ex nihilo is elusive, because causing something, in the usual sense of the word, means changing what already exists, as when you make a table by joining pieces of wood together or turn on the lights by flipping a switch. But god does not act causally in that way, and so god and creatures are not causes in the same sense of the word. Theistic personalists, in contrast, do not see such a profound difference between god's causing and creaturely causing. Richard Swinburne, for example, says that it is “easy to imagine what god's creating things ex nihilo is like.” Creation ex nihilo, Swinburne thinks, is god's willing that things exist and, lo! their existing! And that, Swinburne says, is a lot like a human being willing that his hand should have a sixth finger, and lo! his hand having a sixth finger. Classical theists, of course, would say that the analogy throws no light on the idea of causation ex nihilo. Causing a person's hand to have a sixth finger would be an example of acting on something, on the hand, and therefore not an example of causing ex nihilo. And in any event, if a person were to say, “Let there be a sixth finger on my hand!” and lo! a sixth finger appeared, that would hardly be a clear-cut example of causation. On the contrary, the reasonable reaction would be to ask where the finger came from. In the next segment, I'm going to give you an argument in favor of classical theism. Subtitles by the Amara.org community