Classical Theism Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Classical Theism

2 Conversations

Classical theism is a term frequently used by philosophers and theologians to describe God, and to make debate about the existence of God easier. It has replaced the term 'Judaeo-Islamo-Christian theism' simply for reasons of simplicity - 'classical theism' is rather easier to write and it reflects the idea of the religions sharing key aspects better. Classical theism attempts to capture the essence1 of God rather than the personal side, and this may make this view of God seem rather cold and impersonal.

There are five qualities that the God of classical theism is meant to have. These are:

  1. Transcendence
  2. Omnipotence
  3. Omniscience
  4. Omnipresence
  5. Absolute Benevolence


Transcendence has three distinct parts. Firstly, that God is separate from the universe, and is not limited by time and space within the universe. This seems partially to be an attempt to explain when God created the universe. God being separate from time, the question 'when did God create the universe?' makes no sense.

Secondly, God has no need of this world. Again, this seems rather impersonal, but God, the perfect being, should not have any need of anything external such as the universe - otherwise God would not be perfect. This does, however, create the rather interesting question of why the universe was created - if indeed God did create it.

The final part of transcendence is that God is incomprehensible2. This is partially because being rooted in time and space we cannot understand a timeless, non-corporeal being, but it goes further: transcendence says that there is no way anything could understand God, however intelligent it may be.


Omnipotence means 'all-powerful'. This means that God has the power to do anything. This can be by direct intervention, such as causing the Red Sea to part in front of Moses. Equally, it could be indirect intervention - the presence of a doctor on the scene of an accident in a remote location (as opposed to divine healing).

It is worth making a detour here into the ideas of logical and empirical possibility. Everything is logically possible except where there is a logical contradiction involved. For example, it is not logically possible that 2 = 3, or that x is not x. Equally, it is logically possible that a cup should rise unsupported into the air, that a man may turn into a pig, and that the moon turns into cheese whenever no-one is looking at it.

What is empirically possible is slightly different. It is determined by the limitations of matter. Whatever matter in all its various forms can do is empirically possible. Everything that is empirically possible is logically possible, but whatever is logically possible is not empirically possible. The problem with empirical possibility is finding what the limitations of matter are. For example: at the moment, we believe that metals expand when heated. This is because we have yet to find a metal that does not expand when heated. So it may yet be empirically possible for a metal not to expand when heated.

The point of this sideline is this: some theists3 believe that God cannot do what is not logically possible. This would seem to run against omnipotence, but these theists would argue that to claim that God can make two equal three is nonsense and God, therefore, cannot do it.


Omniscience means 'all-knowing'. This is the idea that God knows everything rather than just being incredibly wise or intuitive. It is a rather deterministic quality of God: If God knows everything, he knows how the future will turn out, and if he does not like it, he can change it (through being omnipotent as well). The combination of omniscience, omnipotence and complete benevolence do form part of a challenge to classical theism, which will be examined later.


Omnipresence means that God is everywhere at once at all times. It is also known as immanence. This is perhaps the source of God's omniscience - that if God has seen everything he knows everything. Humans often have the problem of seeing something and then drawing false conclusions. Having seen everything from every perspective, God knows everything and does not find misinformation a hindrance.

Absolute Benevolence

Absolute benevolence is expressed in many different ways and most of these use the words 'good' and 'benevolent' interchangeably - and the same goes for 'absolute' and 'completely'. They both aim to explore the same concept - that whatever God does is good. 'Benevolent' implies a further meaning to this, namely that whatever God does is good for us, in contrast to being good for the planet, for example.

This does seem to beg the question of why God allows bad things to happen. Generally, the name given to this is 'The Problem of Evil'. That something worse may happen if God does intervene should pose no problem to God, an omnipotent being - He could simply intervene again. The explanation is usually that God is acting for the greater good. Preventing something bad happening may mean that something worse happens. The story line of the popular computer game Command and Conquer: Red Alert was a take on this: that Hitler had been assassinated, and war broke out between the USSR and the West.

Objections to Classical Theism

You may have spotted some of the many objections that there are to classical theism. There are a few basic ideas, but part of the point of this Guide entry is to encourage you to think of your own objection to, and defences of, classical theism.

Furthermore, there were major reworkings of religious thought towards the end of the nineteenth century. Things that previously were held to be firm, such as the idea of immutability (part of transience), and within Christian tradition specifically, the idea of the Trinity and the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ, have been changed and subjected to rigorous criticism. As a result, it is questionable whether classical theism still has any coherence or relevance today.

If one treats these shake-ups as inconsequential, or ignores them, there are still several serious flaws within classical theism.

Logical Inconsistency

Some of the parts of classical theism seem to contradict each other, and, occasionally, themselves. Transcendence and omnipresence seem opposite: how can a being that is entirely separate from this universe also be everywhere within this universe? He must either be one or the other - and yet, without one of them the idea of God seems incomplete. Either God is part of the universe (indeed, being everywhere, one might even say he is the universe) which means that we can have more knowledge of him than we would pretend. Otherwise God is so separate from the universe that he could not act on the universe or start it. Certainly, the idea of a non-extended 4being acting on the universe in the first place is a difficult one.

Omnipotence's problem is this: can God create something he cannot destroy? It is certainly logically possible that he could create something - according to many theists he created everything, and also that he could destroy something (except where it conflicts with perfect benevolence). If He cannot create it, He is not omnipotent, and if He cannot destroy it, He is not omnipotent either.

The Definition - Existence Gap

The problem is this: we may define God, but that does not mean that God conforms to our definition. The task of classical theism has not necessarily been achieved. If the task has not been achieved, then debate based on this definition is useless and cannot move you any closer to the truth. Frequently, assertions about God do simply seem to be just assertions, and not backed up by anything but circularity. An example of this is timelessness: God created the universe, and he could be the first thing because he is timeless. It would require a timeless being to create the universe, and the universe has been created, therefore God must be timeless (and exist). It is a criticism both of the ontological argument and classical theism that one cannot move from definition to existence.

Religious Language

Languages and the philosophical problems of it (specifically religious language) have been largely influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). Wittgenstein developed the idea of 'language games'. He likened the rules of language to the rules of other games we play, such as tennis.

The Wittgensteinian criticism of classical theism is this: if you remove God from whichever tradition you are talking about, you risk twisting the definition of God into something completely different. Consequently, something that bears little or no relation to the entity one is attempting to define with classical theism. For Wittgenstein, words had their place, and as classical theism attempts to deal with God as abstractly as possible, when one removes the word 'God' from its proper context, one removes all meaning from it. It is rather like talking about the general rules of sport, and trying to include the idea of tennis sets and boxing rounds; removed from their proper context, they mean nothing.

1'Essence' in this context means: what one can't change about something whilst still leaving it as fundamentally the same thing. For example, the essence of a chair is that of a manufactured thing you can sit on. One could change its colour without changing its essence. Remove two of the legs, on the other hand, and it is no longer a chair, because you can't sit on it.2 There is a certain irony in that part of the understanding classical theism has of God is that we are not capable of understanding him.3 A theist (not to be confused with an atheist) is someone who believes in God. Here we're particularly talking about Muslims, Jews and Christians.4 An extended being is one that takes up a position in space and time that no other being can simultaneously occupy.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more