How to evaluate the impersonal God and the personal God?

Aristotle holds the former view, while Aquinas, Islam and Judaism in the Middle Ages hold the latter view.

  • In the Bible, Jesus tells in John Chapter# 3, "if I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things (spiritual about God, my Father and His Kingdom)" and in the chapter# 16 He tells, "I still have many things to say to you, but cannot bear them now". God is the Supreme Divine Person. In Bh.Gita ajuna was not able to understand God and His Supreme Personality, so He Himself granted arjuna His own transcendental senses. Your question is almost what arjuna has asked Krishna in the very next chapter (Bh Gita, ch# 12). – user30612 Jan 8 '20 at 14:13

This is big topic with plenty of support for both ideas.Even within Islam and Christianity both views may be found. I don't know quite what you mean by 'evaluate', but I would evaluate the idea that God has or is a personality to be implausible.

In the in end there's not really any need to evaluate. Either we find out or we don't know.

  • +1. I, too, am uncomfortable with the idea of evaluation. I might answer the question, not sure yet, but your answer gives a good steer: GLT – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 31 '19 at 13:55

The impersonal God fulfils, if may put it so, a metaphysical role which neither entails nor precludes a joint personal religious role. If this appears paradoxical, it is not really so.

In Descartes' Meditations, for example, God guarantees the truth of our clear and distinct ideas. I mean, since I am not on site to parade my views about God, that Descartes takes God to do so. Equally in the cosmological argument for the existence of God, God fulfils the role of first cause, the idea being that since everything that exists has a sufficient cause of its existence and the process of sufficient causation cannot stretch back to infinity, it has to start at a certain determinate point, namely with the first cause. God fulfils the role of first cause. (I am aware of a hornets' nest of problems here; I am citing the metaphysical role of the cosmological argument, not endorsing it.) The impersonality of God here involves that God does not need to be a person if God is to fulfil the relevant role.

On the other hand, there is nothing to exclude personality from metaphysical agency. There is no contradiction in saying that: 'There was a first cause, and that cause was the person of God' or that: 'God guarantees the truth of our clear and distinct ideas, and God is a person'.

How one makes the positive connexion between the metaphysical role of God and God's nature as a person (if one does) is another matter. In relation to your question, my point is however that these need not be competing conceptions of God that require comparative evaluation. Logically the impersonal God of (say) the cosmological argument need not deny God's personality; the argument merely does not need to assume or explicate God's personality in order to make its point with whatever cogency there may be about the metaphysical necessity for a first cause.


Since you tagged this with the "Christianity" tag: if you want to look at some arguments for and against the impersonal view of God in the Christian tradition, Google "classical theism vs theistic personalism". Classical theism is the view that God is metaphysically ultimate and "simple" in the sense of the doctrine of divine simplicity; God is without parts or distinction, his existence is identical with his essence, he is pure actuality. Theistic personalism is the view that God is a person, meaning that God has beliefs and intentions.

For arguments in favor of the classical theist's God, I recommend Edward Feser's Five Proofs of the Existence of God. (Feser also maintains a blog where he has written quite a bit on classical theism.) Classical theism is easier to argue for from first principles, as something like the act-potency distinction, the essence-existence distinction, part-whole distinction, coupled with the relevant principle of causality will via cosmological arguments get you to a God that is pure actuality, pure subsistent existence itself, or metaphysically simple. The problems are that it's notoriously difficult to understand what pure act or subsistent existence even are, and they seem to lack any sort of explanatory power (how does pure actuality or pure existence cause or "do" anything? And why would such a being even bring a world into existence anyways?) Even if you accept the arguments, it's not clear what else of spiritual or emotional significance immediately follows. As my atheist friend says, believing in pure act or subsistent existence isn't going to change the way he lives his life.

Theistic personalism is more difficult to argue for from first principles, but perhaps has greater explanatory power, since we could at least explain why a personal God might bring a world into existence with other persons. Usually the arguments are abductive (inference to the best explanation), and the strongest case for this view is made in Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God. Swinburne claims that one could define God as "the simplest kind of person there could be", and argues how the other divine attributes typically associated with God (omnipotent, omniscience, all good, etc.) follow from this definition. If we grant that God is the simplest possible person, I'm not so sure the gap between classical theism and and theistic personalism is as wide as it first seems (I guess it's about as wide as you believe the difference between person and being is).

Classical theists sometimes say disparagingly that theistic personalists demote God to a being among others, or merely a member of the genus of person. Theistic personalists usually reject the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical framework in which these accusations are made. For an engaging attempt to reconcile the two (or at least explain why there is a difference), see Marilyn McCord Adams' What’s Wrong with the Ontotheological Error?:

Augustine claims that Divine agency is intelligent voluntary agency, affirms that God is just and wise, merciful and kind. Does Augustine--by personifying God-- thereby make God too small? Augustine’s bold answer was ‘no’. In effect, he proposes a thought-experiment: think your way into Plotinus’ system. However big you think the ultimate explainer is for Plotinus, tumble to the realization that that bigness is personal. Augustine’s reintegration of platonizing philosophical frameworks identifies transcendent Goodness with Being Itself, and insists that personality, intelligent voluntary agency, is the heart of reality. God is paradigm intelligent voluntary agency. Angels and humans participate in it, are made in God’s image as less excellent copies.

One might protest that this thought experiment leads to philosophical incoherence. What is simple cannot be paradigm wisdom and paradigm justice, cannot be literally wise or just. This reaction is understandable enough! But let us look more carefully about what it is fair to demand. Augustine isn’t saying that we can take Plotinus as is and just add on the notion that the ultimate explainer is personal. He is launching a research program: start with Plotinus, save as much as possible while at the same time insisting that the heart of reality is personal. This demands a reintegration of philosophical and theological desiderata. Augustine himself made significant advances, but the effort to reach theoretical coherence kept philosophical theologians busy through the patristic period and the latin middle ages into reformed scholasticism, for over a thousand years.

  • +1 A very helpful analysis, although maybe a tad pessimistic. It is not too difficult to explain what follows for human life and ethics from classical theism, and one can study Middle Way Buddhism, Taoism or even watch non-duality teachers on youtube. In metaphysics it is a neutral metaphysical position, and this is why it is possible to approach classical Christianitty from metaphysics as a fundamantal theory with explanatory power, but but not commonplace Roman Christianity. . . – user20253 Dec 31 '19 at 17:47
  • @PeterJ Thanks. I'm not sure if you remember, but you recommended to me your article on a neutral metaphysical position a while back. The trouble I have with it is similar to my trouble with classical theism (I'm a theist and, to be honest, intellectually I'd rather believe in some kind of classical theism since it's easier to argue for with less "anthropomorphic baggage"). From nothing (no assumption or axioms), nothing follows. And nothing much seems to be attributable to the classical theist's God. As a theory, it seems too simple, and doesn't explain the existence of the world. – Adam Sharpe Jan 2 '20 at 21:51
  • @PeterJ I came across a discussion in a blog recently that illustrates my objection. Though the critique is of Brahman in Advaita Vedanta, I think it's similar enough to the classical theist's God to be applicable there too. See Kaamesh Singam's comment on October 22 and October 26, 2017, where he asks why a perfectly simple, non-dual being would create a world. – Adam Sharpe Jan 2 '20 at 21:51
  • @PeterJ Moreover, why create a world of persons and minds, where our goal is to "reunite" with God and obliterate our personal self? Why were we ever in a state of delusion and seperation in the first place? It's as though Brahman (or classical-theist God) erred by creating the world. Or, we're forced to say things like Alan Watts' (to my mind unsatisfactory) "God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with." Or stuff like "we can't ask those questions, they exist only in a state of delusion, etc". – Adam Sharpe Jan 2 '20 at 21:51
  • @PeterJ Anyways, perhaps I'm assuming too much about what your position is, and so am asking too much. Apologies if this is the case, and thank you for your comment. I find this stuff very stimulating and very fascinating. – Adam Sharpe Jan 2 '20 at 21:52

As I've said elsewhere recently, the concept of god is intractably relational. We don't just think about a god, we think about our relationship to that god, and that relationship is what defines the core of faith.

However, that relationship can be constructed in a number of different ways. Traditional religion relates to god on a community level, with god as a kind of protective elder in the tribe or congregation. More philosophical approaches relate to god as a more abstract, overarching force or principle which establishes the world as it is. This approach became more common with the rise of the large universalist faiths, when religion escaped the bounds of tribe and culture to convert and encompass all. There has been a modern trend in certain protestant sects to move in the other direction, relating to god on a purely personal, individual level. I suspect this trend is a function of the pressures of the secular-technological world we live in in the West, which highlights individualism and tears at most social bonds.

Each of these forms of relationship are perfectly fine in their own way; each has its strengths and weaknesses. Choosing between them is more a matter of personal inclinations and priorities than anything else.


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