The purpose of this short essay is to offer definitions of the word ‘god’. Whether or not we write it with a capital G. People use many different words to describe what they mean by God, god, or gods.
What do we mean when we use the word God – or god?
The question seems to be easy to answer. Christians probably we look to one of the creeds. For example, the Nicene Creed begins thus. “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth …”
But that sidesteps the question. Because the Christian Creeds were written to define exactly what kind of divine being Christians should believe in. The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds go on to assert that Christians believe in a Trinitarian (Three-in-One) God. They define God the Father/Creator; God the Son/Jesus; and God the Holy Spirit.
Yet there is a bewildering variety of beliefs, each with its own specific term. We need to begin more generally. So let’s look at some definitions of the word god, or what we can call “god-words”.
Theism comes from the Greek words theos (god). Its definition is: the belief in the existence of a Supreme Being or deities. Many theists (those who define God as theism) accept the concepts of divine revelation and miraculous interventions in human affairs. Divine revelation includes the visions of the Hebrew prophets and many mystics.
People who follow one-god religions include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are theists. More precisely, they are monotheists. But according to the broader definition, theists include people who follow polythesistic [many-gods] religions such as Hinduism. Hindus, for example, recognize a ‘pantheon’ of specific divine beings.
Many dictionaries define theism in a way that excludes polytheism. For example, “The belief in one God as the creator and ruler of the universe, without rejection of revelation”. The phrase, “without rejection of revelation” distinguishes theism from deism.
Deism is another of the definitions of the word god. It comes from the Latin word deus for god. In the Age of Reason (17th and 18th centuries), philosophers considered whether they could prove the existence of God just from observation of nature and intellectual reason. These “deists” rejected the idea that God interferes in worldly affairs through divine revelation and miracles. This separates deists from most monotheists. Many deists use the analogy that God is like a watchmaker who created the universe. Since winding up the watch, God has not interfered in its operation.
Thomas Jefferson was a notable deist. His book The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1820) removed from the four Gospels all references to Jesus’ divinity, and also to miracles, including the Resurrection.
Atheism simply means not-theism, thus rejection of God. We could say about belief in ‘god(s)’: Theism = yes; Atheism = no; Agnosticism = not sure (literally, not knowing).
Pantheism identifies God and the Universe, especially nature, as being one with each other. God (theos) in everything (pan). In this system of belief, God cannot be a Supreme Being, so pantheism and theism are different.
Panentheism (meaning, everything-in-God) views God as greater than the observable universe, but sees the work of the Creator in everything, both animate and inanimate. Some modern Celtic Christians lean towards panentheism or actively espouse it. However, early Celtic Christians were strict conventional monotheists, according to their writings.
It’s easy to get confused
First of all, the use of the capital G (God rather than god) distinguishes the Judeo-Christian concept of a single divine being. However, not all theists accept only one god. The ancient Romans and Greeks worshipped many gods, as did the Canaanites in Israel’s history. Some of those gods existed everywhere (a pantheon) but others were local. That practice is usually called paganism. The Hebrew Scriptures constantly commanded the Israelites to avoid pagan practices. They declared that the God of Israel is the one true god (God).
According to dictionaries such as dictionary.com, theism requires that one allows, or at least does not specifically reject, the supernatural aspects of God. These are personal revelation and divine action in human affairs. However, the broader definition of theism makes no reference to revelation, nor to whether one believes in one god or many. Those who accept the concept of god(s) but specifically reject revelation are deists. Those who reject the idea of god(s) altogether are atheists. Here is a definition of atheism: disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. That definition seems to cover rejection of both theism and deism.
It’s really a question of definition
Things get especially confusing when a person tries to say exactly what kind of God they believe in or don’t believe in. In our Canadian context, Rev. Gretta Vosberg of the United Church of Canada claims to be an atheist because she does not believe in a theistic, supernatural God.
I see a similar confusion in a recent article by, Rev. Jeffrey Frantz, who opined that he was an atheist who nevertheless believes passionately in God. Frantz wrote, “Generally, people think atheism means not believing in God. In fact, atheism means not believing in theism, which is different from not believing in God.” That statement is incorrect, according to the definition of atheism.
Variants of theistic belief
There are many variants of theistic beliefs, even within Christianity. To reject one specific variant does not necessarily make one an atheist. Atheism very clearly means rejecting belief in God or gods. Of course, in rejecting one type of divinity a person might decide to reject them all. However, to be a “Christian atheist” is an oxymoron.
It seems to me that Frantz wanted to say that he rejected the kind of God who cares for human beings personally and individually. Maybe he is actually a deist. But what he seems to have said, “I am an atheist, because I do not believe in your idea of a theistic God.”
Someone else might say, “You are an atheist because you do not believe in my kind of God.” That is exactly the position taken when the Romans criticized early Christians as atheists, because they rejected the Roman gods. But as a “passionate believer in God”, Frantz would hardly qualify as an atheist.
Personally, I do not believe in the (theistic) God of the Exodus who would punish people “to the third and the fourth generation”. My own belief is closer to the (equally theistic) God of Psalm 139, who has “searched me out and known me.”
Another axis of theistic belief is that between immanence and transcendence. Immanence means that God is very present to the believer. In the words of the old hymn, “And he walks with me and he talks with me …” This is the God who spoke directly to Moses, the Hebrew patriarchs, and the prophets. As a person’s beliefs slide along the axis towards transcendence, God becomes an increasingly remote figure, who interferes less actively in human affairs. One might think of deism as an extreme version of transcendence.
There are many definitions of the word god. I hope that this essay helps to distinguish the different kinds of “-isms” that people use to describe the kind of God (god) they believe in. Most Christians believe in a theistic God that may choose to reveal the divine self to human beings, and who may intervene miraculously in human affairs from time to time. But there are many shades of theistic belief within the conventional compass of “God” that includes the concepts of revelation and miracles. And even that is not the only option.