What We Talk About When We Talk About God


Over the weekend several readers asked me to do a dedicated theology post. I’m not entirely convinced they know what they’re asking for. Western culture is now so estranged from basic theological knowledge–purposefully, it bears noting–that most people don’t even know what theology is. Of those who fancy they have some idea, most think it’s a curious branch of philosophy wherein old men in silly robes endlessly debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

To disabuse you of that notion, angelology is a separate discipline. Nor are questions of Petrine primacy or congregational structure theology in the strict sense. Those are ecclesiological issues. Thought experiments about whether or not a Christian can lie to the Nazis about the Jews hiding in his attic aren’t theology, either. That’s Christian moral philosophy. Even the study of Christ’s saving work is soteriology, not theology per se.

These opening paragraphs do provide an introduction to the key method of theology, which by necessity begins with what its subject is not.

What is theology, then? Theology is the science of obtaining true knowledge with certainty about God. In its pure sense, theological inquiry properly deals with the godhead itself.

That means today we won’t be urging absentee pastors to defy Susan from the parish council, shaming Millennial women for browsing SnapChat in church, or commanding the demons riding SJWs to disclose their names. We’ll have plenty of time for all that later.

Today I thought we’d wade into the shallows before diving in the deep end. Because the academy has been asleep at the wheel for 300 years, almost everyone on the internet is so theologically illiterate, if we mapped their theological literacy to real literacy, they’d be writing their names in finger paint–with multiple misspellings.

Let’s start with the most basic and vital definition. What is the meaning of God? Specifically, what do theologians mean by God?

The meaning of God is a deceptively contentious subject. The whole of modern atheism is really just a word game that arbitrarily ignores the consistent understanding shared for over 2000 years and substitutes a handy tackling dummy.

First we need to lay a little groundwork. There are two fundamental aspects of every really existing being: what it is and that it is.

Everything that exists has intelligible qualities. Empirical science relies on that fact. Those qualities come in two types: optional attributes that could be otherwise, and necessary qualities determined by what the thing possessing the quality is.

Here’s a blue triangle.

Blue Triangle

It is blue and three-sided. You can discern which quality is necessary by performing this fun experiment at home. Simply ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Would this shape still be a triangle if it were red?
  2. Would this shape still be a triangle if it had four sides?
A a green triangle is still a triangle. A four-sided triangle is an absurd contradiction in terms. We know with certainty that a triangle necessarily has three sides. A three-sided figure is what it is.

You may well ask, if every existing thing possesses some qualities by necessity, can the same be said of any being’s existence?

I answer: Yes, O intellectually curious and insightful reader.

Once again approaching our subject by defining what it is not, consider that it is in no way absurd to ask why the triangle above exists or to posit circumstances under which it would not exist. I could edit the post and erase it, for example. The triangle doesn’t possess existence necessarily–like it possesses three-sidedness. Its existence is contingent.

Every contingent being is so called because its existence relies on some other being. The source of its existence is outside itself.

But there must be a being whose existence is self-explanatory. It must exist in the same way a triangle must have three sides. Otherwise, contingent being would be groundless with no ultimate cause of its existence. No motion could take place. No qualities inhering in contingent beings could unfold and mature. The cosmos would be an infinite chain of boxcars with no locomotive.

A being that exists by necessity is called necessary being. It possesses no variable qualities. Instead, what it is is that it is.

In metaphysical terms, necessary being’s existence is its essence.

That means it’s just as absurd to deny necessary being’s existence as it is to deny that a triangle has three sides.

And necessary being is what theologians mean by God.

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