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How Should We Speak of God? A Response to Daniel Linford


Last December, an article by Daniel Linford entitled "Do Atheists Reject the Wrong Kind of God? Not Likely" appeared at Scientia Salon. Certain recent "popular books,” according to Linford, have advanced a "mystical" notion of God, arguing that contemporary atheists have directed their disbelief only toward "smaller" conceptions of the divine. Three contemporaries are singled out: Karen Armstrong, John Haught, and David Bentley Hart.

On what Linford denominates the "mystical" view, God is radically transcendent, not a being within the cosmic order, and cannot be circumscribed by human language. Many of the atheist assaults are directed against a God who is, more or less, a being among beings, and a person much like us. Linford believes that sophisticated thinkers have sought to outflank such arguments by moving to higher ground, positing a God who escapes our language and ways of thought.

But the higher ground strategy fails, according to Linford, for three reasons. In the first place, it is unclear (to Linford) why God must transcend our language and our concepts, rather than having some other sort of transcendence. Instead of expanding on this objection, Linford merely directs the reader to arguments made elsewhere by Alvin Plantinga.

The second reason the retreat to mysticism fails, according to Linford, is that God’s revelations to us cannot be trusted if we cannot really know God’s character for truthfulness. After all, if we must deny that God is good or true in any sense that we can recognize, we can't very well claim that our defective notion of God's goodness or truthfulness precludes divine trickery (for leading one to err is precisely what a defective understanding of something does).

As a third ground for rejecting the notion of a radically transcendent God, Linford claims that God's absolute unknowability deprives us of any criteria with which to determine what phenomena would count as evidence for God. In the case of a more anthromorphic God—a God who is good like us, compassionate like us, thinks like us, and so on—we could know what would count as evidence for his activity. If we know what God is like, we can know what God is likely to do. But if we cannot know God's nature, then we cannot know what God would do. We could not determine in advance what effects such a God would render in the world, and therefore, could not know what to look for.

I suspect some readers will find these arguments puzzling on their face. I do. Who, for instance, thinks that assertions of God's transcendence of space and time, the web of language, or finite minds is limited to mystical theology? In fact, the vast majority of the great theistic traditions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, many forms of Hinduism, certain forms of Buddhism, the classical philosophical tradition, and so on—regard God as transcendent in precisely such a sense. The misapprehension that belief in God's transcendence is a recent concoction from university educated theologians who have modified theology to their more sophisticated tastes—or to escape atheistic criticism—is almost as widespread among popular atheistic tracts as the notion divine transcendence is in the theology, spirituality, scriptures, etc. of the great theistic traditions. Aside from the Mormons who doggedly visit my home with some regularity, I know of no religious believers who believe God to be a finite spirit within the imminent order—with the probable exception of the aberrant (historically speaking) tradition of theistic personalism.

But these are mere quibbles compared to the real difficulty with Linford's case. Linford confuses the claim that what God is, God's essence, cannot be captured in language with the claim that we can have no knowledge of God whatsoever. Put in a more technical vocabulary, Linford confuses the claim that earthly minds cannot have quidditive knowledge of God’s essence with the claim that we cannot have any knowledge of God.

Over and over again, one finds Linford supposing that God is powerful or loving "in no way that we can understand ...," or that God's goodness "cannot be understood by finite humans," or that if "the mystical theologians wish to say that God is truthful and trustworthy ... this would involve knowing things about God's goodness which the mystical theologian maintains we cannot know."

But do mystical theologians claim we know nothing about God? Let's consider the example of St. Thomas Aquinas, apparently regarded by Linford to be a mystic. Linford claims that Aquinas believes that "we do not even know what it means to say that God exists," and he cites the Summa Theologica Ia, Q. 3, prologue as proof. Such a claim seems, to anyone who has read Aquinas, misleading at best. The prologue Linford cites runs as follows:

"Once we have ascertained that a given thing exists, we then have to inquire into its mode of being in order to come to know its real definition (quid est). However, in the case of God we cannot know His real definition, but can know only what He is not; and so we are unable to examine God’s mode of being, but instead can examine only what His mode of being is not….
By excluding from God certain things that do not befit Him, e.g., composition, change, and other things of this sort, it is possible to show what His mode of being is not. So, first of all, we will inquire into His simplicity, by which composition is excluded from Him (question 3). And because among corporeal things the simple ones are imperfect and mere parts, we will inquire, second, into His perfection (questions 4-6); third, into His infinity (questions 7-8); fourth, into His immutability (questions 9-10); and fifth, into His oneness (question 11)." - ST Ia, Q. 3, Prologue (Freddoso Trans.)

The very text that Linford cites as evidence that "we do now even know what it means to say that God exists" says that we can know that God exists, is metaphysically simple, that he is perfect, infinite, and one. Linford's unwary readers might, I think, feel misled. If we know nothing of God, how can we know God is simple or infinite? The answer is that Aquinas hardly believes we don’t know what it means to say that God exists, but rather that we don’t comprehend God’s essence. This sort of misleading conflation is foundational for Linford's whole argument.

Such logic fails even for our finite, worldly knowledge. No one would say, for instance, that the pre-moderns knew nothing of water, even though they did understand its essence (H20). Nor did the ancients grasp the essence of the stars, but they could nevertheless predict celestial movements. One can lack knowledge of the essence of a thing while still observing many of its properties, characteristics, effects on other things, and so on. One can know quite a bit about something without grasping the thing’s essence.

Linford's mistake seems to come from a misunderstanding of how negation works in theology (mystical or otherwise). He recognizes the alternation between apophatic and cataphatic movements briefly, but misses what is going in the dialectic. One can affirm, for example, that God is like the sun (in that he brings life) but then deny that God does so as a physical entity without going back to square one. The original affirmation is preserved; its limitations denied. Or again, to affirm that God is good, but not good as we are (as relatively fragile beings that must achieve perfection or beatitude from a certain poverty in our being) does not simply negate the whole of the original sense of God's goodness. It only negates the limitations in the original sense, while preserving the affirmation.

Perhaps this sounds more of the soft strains of poetry than the more substantial power of reason. Linford's primary target is Karen Armstrong—though he cites others, such as David Hart and Denys Turner—and Armstrong does sometimes overemphasize the apophatic way beyond what is metaphysically reasonable. However, the central insight that God is radically transcendent, not an entity in the cosmic order, etc. is not only the cornerstone of mainstream theism, it is eminently susceptible rigorous metaphysical accounts. By way of illustration, let us reconsider Linford's three objections.

Response to Linford's First Objection

Linford's first objection to the transcendence of God is that it is unclear why "God has this sort of transcendence—the sort where we do not possess words adequate to describe God—and not some other." Yet, it is immediately and abundantly clear why God—at least the God of classical theism—transcends the sense of ordinary words. Our language is adapted for finite entities and their relations. When we say X is Y, for example, we generally mean that some determinate thing, a this or that, has some relatively determinate property. Gold is yellow, rather than some other color, for example. Ordinary language relies on the finite determinations of finite things.

We use language, then, in light of the finite mode of things, their properties, and their relations. But God—what the great theistic traditions mean by God—is not finite. God is qualitatively infinite, meaning that his nature is not limited or qualified in any way. If there is a God, then, it is perfectly clear why he would transcend our ordinary linguistic habits. The inadequacy of language to express God’s nature follows straightforwardly from the ontological difference between finite and infinite being.

Response to Linford's Second Objection

Linford's second objection is that the restrictions of our knowledge of God on which the "mystical" theologians insist render any revelation unreliable. If we cannot understand the truth or goodness of God, how can we appeal to God's goodness or truthfulness to secure the authority of revelation?

It will be immediately evident to the reader that this again trades on the conflation of essential knowledge, or perhaps perfect knowledge, and non-essential, or perhaps imperfect knowledge. I know hardly anything about tapirs, and certainly don't grasp precisely what it is that makes tapirs tapirs, but I know they do not read Shakespeare. Or, to use a previous example, though premoderns did not understand water in its essence, they knew that it existed and what it could be expected to do. Similarly, we may not fully grasp God's goodness, but this hardly means we have no idea of God's goodness or what it means for us. Our notion of God’s nature can be inadequate as essential knowledge, but nevertheless more than enough to ensure the trustworthiness of revelation.

Response to Linford's Third Objection

Linford's third objection is only slightly more substantial than the first two. Since we do not know what God is in himself, then—so Linford argues—we cannot know what would count as evidence for God. Were "made by God" coded into the genetic code of living beings, we could not use this as evidence of God's existence unless we know that God is the type of deity who would do such a thing. This objection, like the second, conflates essential knowledge with accidental knowledge, and fails for the same reason.

This objection is interesting, though, because it provides an opportunity to illustrate how we can reach negative knowledge of God. Consider the following argument from contingency by way of illustration. Note that by “contingent being,” I mean any being whose essence does not explain its existence.

Premise 1: only contingent beings have a restricted mode of being (i.e., have a determinate, finite, way of existing, e.g., existing this way rather than that).

Premise 2: the existence of a contingent reality caused by a set (whether finite or infinite) of solely contingent realities is inexplicable.

Premise 3: nothing exists inexplicably.

Premise 4: a non-contingent cause must be posited to explain the existence of a given contingent thing (from premises 2 and 3).

Premise 5: there can be no more than one being with an unrestricted mode of being.

Conclusion: there exists one infinite (i.e., unrestricted) being who causes contingent things to be (from 1 and 4).1

I hasten to add that this argument won't be compelling without auxiliary arguments to establish the premises. The point is to see how an argument for God can move from the existence of contingent beings to the existence of a qualitatively infinite, absolute being (or beings) negatively. If the premises are defensible, one can infer the existence of an infinite being without ever needing to conceive of the essence of that infinite being, simply from the inadequacy of finite being's ability to account for itself. If it is evident from a consideration of the finitude of contingent beings that contingent beings cannot account for their existence, then we can infer (by negation) the need for non-finite, non-contingent being.

On such an account, it would be clear what would count as evidence (indeed, conclusive evidence) for God’s existence: the existence of any contingent, finite thing. And this without the need to grasp God's essence, except apophatically—understanding God as neither finite nor contingent. And, indeed, this "negative way" is often how God's simplicity, infinity, perfection, and absoluteness are traditionally established.


Well, I have complained that Linford has made elementary mistakes about divine transcendence. What constructive suggestions have to offer? How might the interested reader get a foothold in the notion of divine transcendence?

Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses is a wonderful account of the ascent to God by apophatic spiritual practices, using the story of Moses as a metaphor. Readers interested in learning about the more Eastern, mystical notion of God would do well to start there. For those seeking a more philosophical account, Pseudo-Dionysius' Divine Names and Mystical Theology are a wonderful statement of the metaphysics of the East.

Those who prefer a more familiar philosophical style could consult W. Norris Clarke's The One and the Many for a lucid argument for the existence of God using the Thomist categories of essence and existence. Clarke both argues for the existence of God and offers a clear account of the relation of the finite to the infinite. For the more advanced reader, Erich Przywara's recently translated Analogia Entis is perhaps the best statement of God's transcendence. Przywara employs Thomist categories but engages with philosophers such as Husserl and Heidegger, who still loom large on the philosophical scene.
(Image credit: Telegraph)


  1. See Karlo Broussard’s argument for the existence of God on Strange Notions. Note, however, that I believe there to be an implicit and highly questionable premise in the second step, and have offered what I consider to be a more sound version of that step here: http://thinkingbetween.blogspot.com/2014/09/simplicty-of-god.html
Thomas M. Cothran

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Thomas M. Cothran is a writer that lives with his wife and son in Lexington, KY. He blogs occasionally at thinkingbetween.blogspot.com.

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