In his review of An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar John Loftus claimed that Justin Schieber and I are debating “a belief system no one holds”. Loftus is referring there to the alleged irrelevance of God as defined in classical theism to God as understood in Christian devotion. We can summarize Loftus’ claim with the following enthymeme:
(1) The entity described in classical theism is a wholly different being than the entity that is the object of Christian devotion.
(2) Therefore, the entity described in classical theism is irrelevant to Christian devotion.
The obvious problem here is that Loftus doesn’t defend (1) in his review. Instead, he simply assumes that the deity described in classical theism is not numerically identical with the deity that is the object of Christian devotion. Of course, he’s free to assume that if he likes, but given that Schieber and I do not accept that assumption, his objection founders. If he wants an actual objection, he first needs to defend (1).
Interestingly, the term “classical theism” is of relatively recent vintage as it was coined just a few decades ago by the process theologian Charles Hartshorne. But the term took hold and now is regularly used to refer to a philosophical approach to the doctrine of God which traces back to the early church. Given that classical theism is more a tradition of inquiry rather than a discrete model or system, it is always important to consider what individuals mean when they appeal to the tradition. In other words, not all versions of classical theism are the same. And while some versions do indeed make it easier to defend (1), others do not.
When Schieber and I appeal to the classical theistic tradition, we end up defining God as follows:
God (classical theism dfn): a necessarily existent non-physical agent who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good.
Thus, it is the existence of the being as described in this definition which is under debate in our book. Of course, this definition doesn’t say all that a Christian would say about God. There is no mention of Trinity, incarnation, processions or missions, for example. But the salient question is not whether this definition is comprehensive of Christian belief but rather whether it is consistent with Christian belief. And on this latter question the answer surely is yes.
Not only is the definition consistent with Christian belief. In fact, it tracks closely with what lay Christians believe about God. Ask your average Christian: does God know everything? (Check, omniscience.) Is he all-powerful? (Check, omnipotence.) Is he perfectly good? (Check, perfect goodness.) Is he a spirit? (Check, non-physicality.) Is he personal? (Check, agency.) Granted, average folk will not have precise definitions of these attributes at their fingertips, but once the concepts are explained to them they will almost invariably agree with all the elements of the definition.
Conceptually speaking, the biggest challenge will likely come with the concept of necessary existence. The concept of different modal states of existence (necessarily existing; possibly existing; contingently existing) can be a bit challenging for some average folk to grasp. But the challenge is far from insurmountable. I’ve been teaching college students and seminarians for 15 years now and it really isn’t that difficult to help them grasp the difference between contingent and necessary existence. For example, is it possible that God cease existing? Is it possible that God would not have existed at all? Christians invariably say no to both questions. In other words, it is not possible that God could ever cease to exist. It is not possible that God would not have existed. But note that those answers entail a round-about affirmation of God’s necessary existence.
In sum, the concept of God that Justin and I debate in our book is not merely an abstract construct of philosophy which is irrelevant to Christian conviction. Rather, it is a concept rooted deep in the soil of Christian piety and of immediate relevance to Christian faith.