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What is Theism?

Updated on December 26, 2016

Theism is generally equated with monotheism as the belief in one God who is personal and moral, who has created and sustains the universe, and who demands an unqualified response. The primary definition is derived from the concept of God in the Biblical religions. God transcends His creation and is not dependent upon it, and yet He is immanent, acting within and upon it. In contrast, deism insists on the purely transcendent nature of God, while pantheism insists on the purely immanent nature, identifying God with the cosmos. Polytheism affirms that there are many personal gods, each expressing specific forces and functions. See deism; pantheism; polytheism.

No arguments for the existence of God are offered in the Bible. God simply is. However, as a result of the impact of philosophy, certain arguments were developed that were effective in persuading those already convinced.

Ontological Approach

In the 11th century Anselm stated the ontological argument for the existence of God. He declared that God is a Being than which a greater cannot be conceived. Moreover, a Being that exists in fact is greater than one that exists only in thought. Therefore, God necessarily exists. In the 17th century Descartes rephrased the argument to say that since the idea of an infinite and perfect God could not have been thought of by finite man, the idea must have come from God. Therefore, God necessarily exists. However, existence is not an attribute or predicate that God either possesses or does not possess. Furthermore, the statement is contingent, since it deals with a fact and therefore can be denied without a logical contradiction.

Contemporary Discussions

The arguments for the existence of God have been criticized because they lead to a set of propositions. However, all beliefs are necessarily phrased in prepositional terms. More significant is the contention that the arguments, even if convincing, point to a god who is Necessary Being, a Perfect Being, a First Cause, and not to the god of love and mercy. The god who is worshiped in the theistic religions is told about in the sacred scriptures-books that have been preserved and given authority by a community of faith. The primary requisite for knowing God is trust, according to the scriptures. Man is declared to be free to accept or reject God. Trust and faith in God are not coerced. In such a context the question can be asked: What sort of proof is conclusive? The answer is, none, for to ask for irrefutable proof is to ask the impossible. According to the theistic religions, a man either has trust and faith or he has neither. If he has faith, then he sees the hand of God in all of history. The arguments, although fallacious as proofs, do indicate that God is the ultimate frame of reference for those who believe in him.

Atheism has been defined as the belief that no god exists. "Exist" has many meanings. When a reflective theist affirms that God does not exist, he is really protesting against the idea that God is a substance regardless of whether defined as Supreme Being, as Cosmic Personality, or the like. He affirms that the Creator does not exist in the same way that things exist. He adds that since God is infinite, predicates or positive assertions cannot be made without implying a limitation. For example, Paul Tillich, a 20th century theologian and philosopher, said that "God" refers to the source and ground of all being and that all other statements about him are symbolic. The picture of God constructed by men participates in ultimate reality but is not in itself ultimate.

Another approach is to limit the use of the term "God" to the picture that is constructed and to call the ultimate reality merely Being. In that case the attributes ascribed to God are tentative, and there is no allegation that they are final and complete. This posture enables one to preserve in figurative language a God "out there" who acts upon people and the world. In this sense it is proper to say that God as theistically defined exists in the minds of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Even more, God as defined makes a significant difference in the believer's view of himself, of others, and of the world.

Other Approaches

All of the classic arguments are deductive, which means that the conclusion is contained in the premises. St. Thomas Aquinas recognized this in the 13th century when he declared that an argument is persuasive only if the first principles, or premises, are accepted. Late in the history of apologetics the argument from religious experience was introduced. Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German Protestant theologian, declared in the early 19th century that the belief in the divine cannot be proved by arguments. It results from an experience shared by all men even though some fail to identify it, an experience of creatureliness or absolute dependence. This argument supposes that the believer correctly identifies the source of this experience, a dubious assumption.

There is also a moral argument for the existence of God, based on the assumption that moral values are not capable of naturalistic explanation or that the recognition of moral claims points to God as their basis and source. It has also been claimed that miracles and responses to prayer and mystical experiences point to God. The difficulty with these arguments is that the experiences can be interpreted in different ways and therefore cannot be considered proofs.

Cosmological and Teleological Approaches

The several parts of the cosmological argument relate to motion, first cause, contingency, and gradation in values. What is fundamental in all is the assumption that all things have causes and that, if the causal process is retraced, there is a First Cause. The question about this argument is why the process should not be infinite. Furthermore, cause and effect are meaningful terms only when both can be observed, which is hardly the case in this instance.

The teleological argument is a specialized application of the cosmological approach and focuses upon order and purpose in the universe. William Paley, an English theologian of the 18th century, argued that if you found a watch in a deserted plate, you would assume a watchmaker. It is a logical assumption because watches are known to be made by watchmakers. However, the universe is not a member of a class, as a watch is, and such an assumption cannot be drawn about the universe. Also, the profligacy of nature and the principle of natural selection militate against the idea of a perfect designer.

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