Christianity Minus Theism
Lloyd Geering (October 2000)
Is Christianity dependent on theism?
To most people, both in and out of the Church, it seems self-evident
that Christianity stands or falls with belief in God. Belief in God can
mean a wide variety of things. I am going to refer to that form of belief
in God known as theism.
Can there be a Christianity without theism and if so what is it like?
Although this is a very serious question I am going to discuss it, at
times, in a more light-hearted way. This is to try to demonstrate that we
should not take theology too seriously. The reason is that all theology is
a human construction. If we take our constructions or mental creations too
seriously we become idolaters. It is often forgotten that the most heinous
sin in the eyes of the Bible writers was not atheism but idolatry.
So it is a very healthy practice, from time to time, to laugh at our
religious creations. That is exactly what some of the ancient Israelite
prophets did. One of them poked fun at the religious sacrifices which
Israelites were taking so seriously. Another, during the Exile, poked fun
at the religious images humans created (read Isaiah 44).
So, while what I say does have a very important and serious intention,
it will be mingled with a bit of tongue-in-cheek comment.
A graven image should never itself be worshipped but recognized for
what it is - a man-made object, a symbol. In the same way mental images,
theological concepts and doctrines, should never be regarded as the
ultimate truth. They are human attempts to say something of ultimate
importance. But they never wholly manage it.
Theology is highly symbolic. It is more like poetry than descriptive
statements. There is good poetry and bad poetry. Similarly, there is good
theology and bad theology. What may be regarded as good theology in one
age may seem very bad theology in another.
Moreover theology can be highly deceptive. It can give the appearance
of being very profound, even deceiving the theologian himself. Yet it can
be gobbledygook saying nothing at all.
It is wise to take some theology with a grain of salt. When we find
that the Emperor has no clothes on we should say so.
Sometimes we need to laugh at our own theological statements. So do not
take anything I say too seriously but decide for yourselves if you find in
it that which speaks to you.
I am going to fly two kites. They are both on the same string. I am
going to contend
To do this, I shall first look at theism and then at Christianity.
that traditional Christianity, when examined, is not really
theistic anyway; and
that Christianity should be seen, not only as humanistic but also
as the rejection of theism
What is theism?
This term, strangely, did not come into use until the 17th century. That
was the time when the concept of God was beginning to undergo modern
critical examination. The first modern atheists declared themselves in the
18th century. That tells us something. Prior to that the notion of God
seemed to be so self-evident that only a fool would reject it.
Theism is primarily a philosophical term. It can be contrasted with
alternatives such deism, pantheism, and mysticism, along with atheism -
its polar opposite.
In theism, the word "God" names the supernatural personal being
who created the world and who continues to have oversight
(providence) over its affairs. Being personal, he enters into
personal relationships with humans who are made in his image.
Christian orthodoxy today strongly affirms theism. Evangelical
Christians use it as one of the essential tests of orthodoxy. "Do
you believe in a personal God?"
In deism "God" is the name of the creator of the universe. But
this God is not involved in the world in any personal way. Deism
appealed to thinkers in the time of the rise of modern science. It
became quite widespread at the Enlightenment. There was even a deist
Archbishop of Canterbury. It is now strongly rejected in theological
circles but lingers on quite widely as a vague popular belief. It is
the type of God referred to by some modern physicists.
Pantheism identifies God with all that there is, regards all
finite things as parts, modes, limitations, or appearances of one
ultimate Being, which is all that there is. It originated with the
Jewish philosopher Spinoza who was roundly condemned by Jew and
Christian. Yet it has continued to surface from time to time.
Teilhard de Chardin and Paul Tillich were both accused of pantheism.
Mysticism has associations with both theism and pantheism. The
only reality is one un-diversified Being. In mystical thought, and
in much of its practice, the multiplicity of things is ultimately
repudiated. Mysticism has been dallied with both in medieval and
modern times. But it has generally rejected in the circles of
Christian orthodoxy, which likes to affirm an unbridgeable gap
between God and all whom he has created, including ourselves.
Though it is primarily the rejection of theism, atheism is often
used to deny that the concept of "God" has any meaningful use.
For a very long period before this modern examination of the concept of
God, the reality of God seemed so self-evident that it went unquestioned.
It was nevertheless claimed that it was possible to demonstrate the
reality of God on rational grounds. They later became known as the Four
Proofs of the Existence of God. They are the cosmological,
teleological, ontological, and moral arguments. They are worth a brief
look at, since several of them still carry a certain amount of weight at a
Proofs of existence of God
The Cosmological Argument
The world is seen as dependent upon some being beyond it for its
intelligibility and existence. From the existence of the world, the reality
of God is inferred as the ultimate cause.
The Teleological Argument
This proceeds from the observation of order and design in the
universe. Things in the world seem to function as if designed for a
purpose. This points to a designer.
The Moral Argument
It rests upon the experience of obligation or moral duty. Immanuel
Kant argued that a God must be postulated as the being who rewards
worthiness and enables moral life to be rationally understood.
The Ontological Argument
It tries to show that the very concept of God implies the
of God's existence. St Anselm defined God as "that than which nothing
greater can be conceived". Since God must embrace all perfections, God
The following is a simple reductio ad absurdam proof:
- Let God be the name for the highest reality one can conceive.
- God either exists or does not exist.
- If he does not exist, it is possible to conceive of one who does.
- This is impossible by definition.
- Therefore God exists.
It is generally agreed that none of these arguments proves the
existence of God in any strict sense.
But it is worth noting:
- Though invalid as a proof, the initial premise of the Ontological
argument is very close to the non-realist use of the term "God" often
found in the contemporary theology .
- Even if the four classical proofs of the existence of God had more
validity than they do, the most they would ever support would be deism
and not theism.
- From at least Aquinas onwards, theologians have all argued that,
however much we may arrive by reason at deism or theism, we cannot
reason our way to the Christian God. We would not know the Christian
God if he had not revealed himself to us and this God has done so in
Thus, in order to be able to speak about God, we are dependent on God's
revelation of himself to us. What that revelation is we shall question
It is often said that theism is common to Jew, Christian and Muslim.
Yet the Christian God and Allah are very different. Jews and Muslims may
well be theists, but Christians abandoned pure theism in the early
centuries. If the classical Christian teaching in the creeds is said to be
theism then it is theism in a radically modified form. The doctrine of the
Holy Trinity is not theism.
Those Christians who defend theism today do not appear to understand
the implications of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I carefully used the
word "implications". I doubt if anyone has ever understood the
doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
I like the story of the theological student who was so delighted by the
lecture on the Holy Trinity he had just heard that he jumped up to thank
the lecturer. "Thank you, sir" he said excitedly, "you put it so clearly.
I have never before been able to understand the doctrine of the Trinity as
I do now". The lecturer sighed, "If you understand it as clearly as that,
I shall have to start and explain it all over again".
Thus those who think they understood the doctrine of the Holy Trinity
have got it wrong. Its a bit like the Tao in the Tao Te Ching:
He who speaks does not know,
And he who knows does not speak
Let us look at the 39 Articles [of the Anglican Book of Common
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts
or passions; of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the Maker and
Preserver of all things visible and invisible.
That is theism and is more Greek than Jewish. But it goes on:
And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance,
power and eternity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Notice the subtle change, from "God" to "Godhead". There is a bit of
sleight of hand going on here.
What has just been said about God does not fit at all well with what is
said about the Godhead. If we ask what is meant by Godhead we have to say
it is not a being at all, so much as a quality - the quality of being
The purpose of this subtle transition from God to Godhead is to enable
the theism to become modified into something else. Pure theism is now
being transformed into Trinitarianism.
The Christian view of God is not belief in one divine creator, full
stop (that would be theism). The Christian view of God is that of Father,
Son and Holy Spirit in one Godhead.
So when Christians try to defend a pure theism today, they
unconsciously select out the Father Creator and identify the Father alone
with God. For example, it is the Creator/Provider God to which all the
above so-called proofs are directed.
Of course this is supported by the Lord's Prayer, which encourages us
to pray to "Our Father who is in heaven". This is a theistic prayer
because it is a Jewish prayer, formulated before the doctrine of the Holy
Trinity was put together.
What people do not seem to realise is that this tendency to select out
the Father as the Creator God and identify that with God was called in the
ancient world "monarchianism" (belief in one divine ruler). It was
declared heresy in the early centuries and remains heresy to this day.
But of crucial importance to the Christian view of the Godhead are also
the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of
the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the
Father, took Man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her
substance; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say the
Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be
divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man; who truly
suffered, was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father unto
us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original sin, but also for all
actual sins of men.
Theism was radically modified by the incorporation of the Christian
doctrine of the Incarnation. It took the church some three centuries or
more to carry this through.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity which it arrived at is no more than a
humanly devised formula to safeguard certain very important areas of
Christian experience which were thought to be beyond human understanding.
Christian experience of the first centuries was very varied, fluid and
Christianity had inherited from the Jews the iconoclastic
rejection of the many gods as supreme beings. The one God they
worshipped was related to the world and to human history.
They had inherited from the apostles the influence of the man
Jesus of Nazareth.
They experienced within the fellowship of the church a new
vitality which they called the Holy Spirit.
The Trinity was a humanly devised formula which seemed to safeguard all
three and affirm the underlying unity of all three. But it was no longer
Moreover this solution was arrived at only after bitter debate. In the
course of the debates many solutions were offered which seemed to make a
lot more sense than their final solution. For example, patripassianism
held that it was really the Father who suffered on the cross. Arianism
held that Christ was less than the Father but more than a human.
When the doctrine of the Trinity was finally adopted it was not
adopted unanimously and unity was achieved only by casting out of the
Church those who disagreed. It is not clear just how much sense it made
even to those who adopted it. Was it really intended to make sense? Was it
not primarily intended to reconcile warring parties in the Church by
finding some verbal compromise which would be accepted by the majority?
It served for a thousand years. It became the great Christian mantra,
recited in creeds and sung about in hymns and anthems. I have become very
fond of it myself. As a mantra it was not meant to be understood. During
that long period ordinary Christians were not expected to do any thinking
of their own, but to leave it to Church officials.
But we humans like to make sense of things. So when from the
Renaissance onwards, and particularly from the Enlightenment, more and
more people gained the freedom to think for themselves, they faced a
dilemma. Either they simply repeated the traditional creeds - including
the doctrine of the Trinity - and pretended they understood it, or they
thought for themselves and fell into one of the ancient heresies.
So from the Enlightenment, if not before, the doctrine of the Holy
Trinity began to fall apart. That is why a purer form of theism began to
reappear at one pole and atheism at the other. In popular Christian
thought in the Church, on the other hand, all the old heresies have
reappeared. They tend to go undetected simply because so little is
generally known about early church history.
This brief examination of theism has been the first step in showing
that traditional Christianity is not really wedded to theism. Whereas
theism affirms a great gulf between God the Creator on the one hand, and
the world and humankind on the other, the Christian doctrine of the
Trinity conceived the divine in the form of a relationship - Father, Son
and Holy Spirit - a relationship which united God and humanity in one.
Now we take the second step in showing that traditional Christianity is
not really wedded to theism by looking at Christianity itself.
 See Realism