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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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IDEA OF GOD, 1400-1800
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IDEA OF GOD, 1400-1800

We will now take a conspectus of the period
1400-1800, since these centuries not only mark the
formation of the modern mind but also the time of
emergence for modern conceptions of God. The early
stirrings are described in the first three sections: (1)
God in the Mathematical Analogy, (2) The Renaissance
Spectrum on God, and (3) The God of Reformers and
Skeptics. Then the concluding three sections analyze
the fully matured positions: (4) God as a Function in
Rationalist Systems, (5) God Neutralized by British
Empiricism, and (6) God in the Crucible of the En-
lightenment and Kant.

1. God in the Mathematical Analogy. Cardinal
Nicholas Cusanus (also “of Cusa”) in the fifteenth cen-
tury already presages, by his treatment of God, that
fresh formulations are underway. For he seeks guidance
from the mathematical model of cognition and its
method of limits rather than from played-out meta-
physical arguments, mounted around causal demon-
stration and theories of essence as related to existence.
Although accepting several sources for our meaning
of God—faith, mystical experience, reflection on the
universe—he does not regard their claim to knowledge
as indisputable, but seeks to justify that meaning by
allying it with the mathematical way of knowing.

Five aspects of mathematical thinking furnish a
symbolic basis for learning how the human mind ap-
proaches God. (1) It starts somehow with aspects of
the perceivable world. For all his stress on the interi-
ority of our path to God, Cusanus requires that this
journey begin humbly with a pondering of everyday
experience. (2) Mathematics induces the mind to with-
draw somewhat from physical immediacy into the
sphere of reflective meanings, thus preparing for our
further move toward God's invisible reality. (3) In
epistemological terms, we get reoriented from the
uncertainties of sense perception to the clear and cer-
tain concepts and theorems in mathematics. Although
not reducing God's reality to a mathematically pro-
portionate expression, Cusanus does seek to render the
theory of God more determinate and patterned.

(4) His chosen model for reforming the approach
to God comes from the mathematical way of dealing
with infinites, such as the geometrical study of the
infinite line and of the parabolic curve's approach to
its limit. Reflecting upon this analogy, Cusanus suggests
five distinctive names of God which will reconstitute
the entire tradition of the naming of God. The lin-
guistic sensitivity underlying his theological reform
stands forth in this declaration of purpose: “I will
endeavor, by the power of language, to lead you to
God in the simplest and truest way I know” (De
[1450], 2).

First, we can call God the absolute maximum. He
is infinitely simple and actual unity, which totally
includes the being of all things and is formatively active
within them all. To appreciate the sense of Cusanus'
next and most famous name—God as coincidentia
or the reconciling unity of all opposites—
we must conceive of God's relationship to the many
different entities in the universe as one of active con-
tainment and generation, analogous to the manner in
which the infinite line contains and generates the de-
terminate lines, triangles, circles, and other geometrical
figures. God also surpasses all things, since he includes
them without their finitude, restrictive otherness, and

To show that we can affirm this unifying divine
transcendence, without apprehending how it exists,
Cusanus offers as the third primary name of God: the
This warns that although the math-
ematical analogy elucidates, it does not violate the
divine mystery and does not penetrate rationalistically
into the divine essence itself. We can attain only to
a dark knowing, to use language familiar to Dionysius
and Eckhart and soon to be thematized by John of the
Cross. Yet Cusanus adds that it is a docta ignorantia,
a well-instructed unknowing which combines a firm
awareness of our noetic limits and of the divine mystery
with a sturdy effort to know still more.

The human mind's effort to plumb deeper gets
embodied in the fourth and fifth divine names: the
and the can-be of all that is (as announced
by Cusanus' treatises De non aliud and De possest).
Although God is unknowable in his own substantial
being, we can name him relationally. Our world is the
realm of differences or the other-than; God is that
reality whereby the world achieves its plurality and
differences; hence God can be named negatively, yet
significantly, as being not-other-than-the-not-other. To
show that this signifies the intelligent powerful source
of all things, we must add that God is the can-be, the
internal patterning and shaping principle of all forms
of being. Using more prosaic terms, Galileo and
Leibniz will signify this same ordering activity by


calling God the divine geometer of the universe, the
mathematizing source and goal of all relationships.

(5) The final use of the mathematical comparison
is to suggest that, corresponding to technological ap-
plications of mathematical physics, there are important
practical consequences of a well conducted study of
God. Cusanus the social reformer treats his studies on
the vision of God, the nature of wisdom, and the peace
of faith as helpful tools for overcoming religious divi-
sions and social antagonisms among men. To conceive
of God as the generative source and reconciling unity
of all human ideals is to foster religious ecumenism
and the social unification of humanity. In the measured
words of De pace fidei (1453), xvi: “The voice of God
speaks forth in all of us, urging that we love him from
whom we have received our very being, and urging
that golden rule, that we do not do unto others what
we would not wish them to do to us.”

2. The Renaissance Spectrum on God. The Renais-
sance contribution to the theory of God consisted not
so much in specific doctrines as in two general insights.
First, the recovery of many classical philosophies and
their different methods led to explicit and vivid recog-
nition of the very broad range of alternate conceptions
of God open to us and worthy of exploration. Second,
the modern mind was made aware of the strict correla-
tivity between the meaning of man and that of God,
between various forms of humanism and proportionate
variations in the theory of God. Just as options were
developed on the significance of human life, so were
they developed in corresponding manner about God's
significance for us.

Marsilio Ficino and Pietro Pomponazzi represent a
contrast between the Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian
views of man and immortality, but do so in harmony
with their contrasting ways of stating the God-and-man
relationship. Ficino's God closely harmonizes the paths
of faith and philosophical reasoning, so that man's
dignity will correspond with God's free creativity,
personal providence, and purposive unifying of our
moral life. What makes the claim of human immor-
tality intelligible is not just our love for eternal life
but, more specifically, our love for sharing such life
with a personal God who can respond with acts of
knowing and loving directed toward men.

But from Pomponazzi, we learn the consequences
of muting the faith view of man and God, and rethink-
ing their relationship in terms of philosophic natural-
ism. A God who is caught up in the toils and determin-
ing laws of nature does not function as the direct
liberating goal of men. Hence in the closing pages of
De immortalitate animae (1516), Pomponazzi ordains
men morally toward this-worldly virtue. His synthesis
of Aristotelian naturalism and Stoic moral values is
philosophically coordinated with an assimilation of
God's reality to the workings of an impersonal cosmic
order, devoid of miracle and the special ordinations
of a caring God.

A striking instance of the delicate mutual adjustment
between the themes of man and God is furnished by
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's two main works. The
central thesis of his Oratio de hominis dignitate
(published posthumously, 1496) is that human dignity
does not rest upon what man is already or what place
he statically occupies in the universe, but rather upon
what he can freely become and make of himself. This
is not a Promethean autonomizing of human freedom,
however, since the latter both originates from the
divine creative intent and achieves value by orienting
man and the universe jointly toward God. God serves
here as the measure of human dignity, and not as its
devaluing rival.

When Pico tries to revitalize metaphysics in De ente
et Uno
(1491), his strategy is simultaneously to human-
ize the transcendental notes of being and to “theize”
their significant reference. Thus in its humane basis,
unity of being signifies the human spirit's constant
search for the good and powerful spiritual reality of
God. Conversely, to call God the One is not to render
him remote from us, but to affirm him as our creative
source and beckoning homeland. “In the being of
things, we can admire the power of God working; in
truth, we can venerate the wisdom of the artisan; in
goodness, we can love in return the liberality of the
lover; in unity, we can receive the unique (as I may
say) simplicity of the founder” (De ente et Uno, 8).
Christian Platonism and the hermetic tradition lead
Pico to temper the One's exaltedness by the reciprocal
love binding men with the creative personal God.

The highpoint of Renaissance philosophizing on God
is reached in Giordano Bruno, who interweaves many
classical and medieval sources with his own original
complementarity of the universe with God. His dia-
logue De la causa, principio e uno (1584) furthers man's
highest destiny of contemplating and loving the infi-
nite, by regarding the universe itself as infinite and
divine. To sustain this vision, he amends the Christian
God along noetic, metaphysical, and ethical lines.

(1) Epistemologically, Bruno uses the Copernican
reversal of everyday perspectives in order to criticize
sense perception and every theory of God based on
sense-reliant reason. Only after we overcome the
separatist and substantializing tendencies of sensuous
reason, can we reach the plane of spiritual under-
standing and its comprehension of the universe as being
one, infinite, and truly divine. Our mind learns to seek
God in and as the immanent center of the ever active
cosmic process. Like Cusanus, Bruno makes a reform


of knowledge the key to every reform in philosophical

(2) His metaphysico-cosmological aim is both nega-
tive and positive. The critical side looms large in De
l'infinito universo e mondi
(1584), where Bruno argues
against the reality of substantial change and the
plurality of substances in the many world-systems con-
stituting the one universe. After establishing the
monism of substance, he identifies God with the sole
substantial reality at the heart of the universe. What
we experience are not distinct substantial existents but
aspects, affections, or relative patterns of change within
the all-embracing substantial being of God himself.
Bruno thus removes the transcendent remoteness of
God with a vengeance, since all forms of reality are
configurations and active expressions of the divine
nature, are its modular and temporary actuations.

Since some tension still remains between the unicity
of the divine basis and the many changing things of
experience, Bruno attempts a positive reconstruction
in De la causa (1584). He absolutizes the root metaphor
of matter and form, so that it is a tool of theological
as well as physical explanation. God is the absolute
identity of universal matter and form, the infinite
ground in which they are indifferently one, and out
of which they can emerge to structure the modal
entities and events of experience. By divinizing the
material principle, Bruno prepares for Spinoza's attri-
bution of infinite extension to God, as well as for a
religious interpretation of the scientist's study of the
universe. And by applying universal form to God, he
achieves the double effect of rendering the divine
world-soul totally immanent to the universe and also
filling every cosmic event with the spark of divine life
and minded activity.

Yet in order to account for our human sense of
estrangement and striving for a divine union, Bruno
also maintains some distinction between God and
modal phenomena. God is both the transcendent cause
and the immanent formal principle of the universe. As
its intelligent cause, God retains some distinction from
the world of modal expressions and affections; but as
internal formative principle, God enjoys a basic iden-
tity with the totality of things in their patterns of order
and active change. Bruno restates this relationship in
language adapted from Cusanus. God transcends things
insofar as he is omnia complicans or their base of
containment; and yet he is essentially one with them
insofar as he is omnia explicans or taken in the aspect
of active unfolding and differentiation. Just as the
universe receives a divine quality from this correlativ-
ity, so does the Brunonian God receive a germ of
finitude and change from being one with the striving
totality of modal things and happenings.

(3) An ethico-religious dimension must be added to
this relationship, both because Bruno's dialectic of
identity remains speculatively unexplicated and be-
cause of his own drive toward practical realization.
He reinterprets the schema of substance and modal
aspects in moral terms as man's recall from il-
lusion, as the return of our fragmentary finite mind
to the infinite whole of spiritual life (a theme to be
developed by Hegel), and in some definite sense as a
soaring of the human lover to his beloved. In De gli
eroici furori
(1585) and other ethico-religious dialogues,
Bruno makes room in this necessarily unfolding universe
for heroic human efforts at purging vices and sharing
in eternal life. Just as moral man becomes aware of his
condition as a free and loving mind, so does the cosmic
term of his searching manifest itself as a divine principle
able to meet man's act of love and surrender. Bruno
best expresses this belief in the poem contained in his
Prefatory Epistle to De la causa, principio e uno (1584),
trans. Jack Lindsay, as Cause, Principle and Unity

Through you, O Love, I see the high truth plain.
You open the doors of diamond and deep night.
Through eyes the godhead enters; and from sight
Is born and lives, is fed, holds endless reign.

That the humanization of the divine and the diviniza-
tion of the human spirit are perspectives upon the same
cosmic process, is Bruno's deepest conviction.

3. The God of Reformers and Skeptics. It would be
misleading to concentrate solely on the constructive
speculations on God reaching from Cusanus to Bruno.
For there is a strong concurrent note of distrust for
our capacity to make any cognitive headway in the
study of God, and this note also characterizes the
modern attitude. The no-confidence verdict has several
roots: the very diversity of philosophical theologies and
the threat of naturalism; theological strictures of the
reformers, anxious to reserve a saving knowledge of
God for the economy of grace; and the application
of skeptical tropes to the theory of God.

Erasmus prefaces his Greek and Latin edition of the
New Testament with the Paraclesis, his exhortation to
shift one's guides on God and religion from pagan
sources and contentious schoolmen to the Bible and
the Fathers. As spokesman for the Devotio moderna and
biblical humanism, he distinguishes sharply between
conflicting human opinions on God and the real certi-
tude found in the philosophy of Christ. The latter is
a discipline of the heart, rather than still another
speculative theological school.

Although Erasmus and Luther clash on many issues,
they agree that all human philosophies of God are both
noncertitudinal and deforming of the divine reality.


Luther does concede that men of every era are natively
equipped with some basic notions about God. But this
is a nonsaving knowledge, which only fitfully illumi-
nates its object and inevitably leads to self-serving
idolatry. As Martin Luther's Lectures on Romans
1:21-23 (1516) puts it: “People even today come to
commit spiritual idolatry of a more subtle kind [than
that of pagan thinkers], and it is quite frequent: they
worship God not as he is but as they imagine and desire
him to be.” For a true and liberating understanding
of God, we must turn from the philosophers to Scrip-
ture and spiritual life.

Although basically accepting this dichotomy, John
Calvin reflects his own classical training and sensitivity
to skepticism by assigning considerable (if nonsalvific)
work to human reason inquiring about God. In his early
commentary on Seneca's De clementia ([1532], I, 1),
he commends Plato for making “God a sort of com-
mander of the human race, assigning to each his station
and military rank.” And there are many sound points
in the Stoics. They “... attribute the superintendence
of human affairs to the gods, assert providence, and
leave nothing to mere chance.”

The Calvin of the Institutio Christianae Religionis
is much more reserved about philosophical doctrines
on God and morality, lest they corrupt or render
superfluous the revealed word of God. Yet he does
admit that, even in that ruin of the divine image which
is fallen man, there remains a basic instinct or sense
of the reality of God. And on the objective side, God
continually manifests himself in the natural world as
being good and powerful. Still, as far as the human
interpreter of nature is concerned, Calvin requires him
to use the light of faith to discern God's presence in
experience and history. On similar theological grounds,
Francis Bacon reduces natural theology to a faint
glimmer, reserves any elaborate treatment of God and
the spiritual side of man for Christian theology, and
supposes that the pious scientist will study nature
through the lenses of faith for its religious significance.

The problem of God undergoes radical modification
with the recovery of Sextus Empiricus' report of skep-
tical argumentation and its persuasive rephrasing in
modern terms. In his Examen vanitatis doctrinae
(1520), Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola
(nephew of Pico) rejects the ideal of harmonizing all
philosophies and religions into one ecumenical wisdom,
and finds in skepticism a potent weapon for disinte-
grating all human certitudes, especially those about
God. Whether it be a philosophy or a reasoned theol-
ogy of God, whether it be based on sense experience
or on an intellectual criterion, every human doctrine
on God is infected by incertitude and can rise no higher
than to a restricted personal opinion. Gianfrancesco
Pico is a Savonarola among the philosophers of God,
herding them all away from the truth found exclusively
in Christian faith and discipline.

Much more humane in its general atmosphere, but
just as separatist in treating human theories of God
as alien to Christian faith, is the skeptical fideism of
Michel de Montaigne and Pierre Charron. It is no
accident that the former's Essais devotes a long analysis
to the incoherencies, absurdities, and equivocations
which mark all human talk about God.

We say indeed “power,” “truth,” “justice”; they are words
that mean something great; but that something we neither
see nor conceive at all. We say that God fears, that God
is angry, that God loves—“Marking in mortal words immor-
tal things.” Lucretius—These are all feelings and emotions
that cannot be lodged in God in our sense, nor can we
imagine them according to his. It is for God alone to know
himself and to interpret his works

(Essais [1580; 1588], II,
12, trans. Donald Frame).

This saying sinks deeply into the mind of Blaise Pascal
and the Christian skeptics of the seventeenth century,
who attune our heart to the Scriptural self-revealing
of God rather than to the rationalist philosophical
concepts of him. But they cannot fend off the objection
of freethinking skeptics that there is no human means
left for checking on such faith-centered assertions
about God, and that in any case such separatist asser-
tions are unrelatable to our lives.

4. God as a Function in Rationalist Systems. The
reintegration of the God-inquiry into its human context
of thought and practice is a prime objective of the
great seventeenth-century rationalists. However widely
Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz may differ, they con-
cur on the need for a fully employed God in their
philosophies. What they develop is a completely func-
tionalized meaning for God, one that has important
tasks to perform within their systems. We can observe
how the concept of God gets transformed, by examin-
ing its instrumental relation to these new systematic
aims in method and knowledge, in theory of nature
and man, and in the ethical order.

(1) One major point in methodology concerns the
proper starting point of philosophy. God is intimately
involved in this question, since it concerns whether or
not to begin our philosophizing with God. Descartes
is reluctant to do so, since as a safeguard against skep-
ticism he seeks to found philosophy upon the directly
experienced reality of the thinking self. The specific
quality of Cartesian thought comes from ordering
every inquiry about God from some basis and implica-
tion found in the Cogito. In this way, Descartes seeks
to communicate a new rigor to the theory of God, so
that it will share in the resistance of the Cogito to
skeptical doubt and in its evidenced truth. Because the


Cartesian God is approached across the horizon of the
reflective human self, he remains personal in nature
and intimately present in human concerns. Moreover,
this God is functionally fitted to guarantee the veracity
of our memory and the reliability of our belief in the
external world. A God who performs this epistemo-
logical work earns a central place in the Cartesian

Why, then, does Spinoza trace all of Descartes'
shortcomings to his treatment of God as having human
desires (final causes)? In methodic terms, philosophy
must either begin with God or not really begin at all
as a full discovery of truth. As Spinoza explains in his
Tractatus de intellectus emendatione (1660-65; 1677),
philosophical method

... will be absolutely perfect when the mind gains a
knowledge of the absolutely perfect being or becomes con-
scious thereof.... In order to reproduce in every respect
the faithful image of nature, our mind must deduce all its
ideas from the idea which represents the origin and source
of the whole of nature, so that it may itself become the
source of other ideas.

Unless philosophy founds itself upon the idea of God,
it lacks the fertile and powerful principle whereby the
order and linkage of things can be expressed through
the order and linkage of philosophical truths. Hence
Spinoza must replace the Cartesian thinking self with
God, as the originative truth from which the rest of
the Ethica flows forth. Furthermore, a God which is
charged with these systemic responsibilities must ex-
press its power necessarily and entirely in the produc-
tion of the universe, lest the gap made by divine
transcendence and freedom be translated into a gap
in the philosophical argument itself. God cannot func-
tion fruitfully in Spinoza's thought and still retain the
image of a free, personal creator.

Ever the diplomat, Leibniz seeks to retain that reli-
gious image and still find enough necessity in God to
anchor his noetic principles and inferences. Hence
Leibniz begins with the composite substances of our
experience rather than with God, but soon invokes God
as the ground for holding that our first principles of
knowledge are also universal principles of the real
universe. God's own reality and action are subjected
to the sway of the principles of identity, continuity,
and sufficient reason, so that we can confidently apply
them everywhere else as well. Thus the Leibnizian God
functions as universal enforcer of those intelligible laws
which underlie the reality reference of all our ideas
and reasons.

(2) The remarkable thing about the rationalist proofs
of God's existence and nature is that they are directed
ultimately less to the understanding of God than to
the interpretation of man and nature. Their highly
functional reshaping is plainly visible in Descartes'
Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641). Here, the
number of proofs of divine existence is drastically
reduced, not only to increase their rigor but also to
restate them as aids in the study of the human thinking
self and the general structure of the world.

We miss the point of theistic functionalism, if we
think that Descartes is only reciting a pious litany when
he remarks: “By the word 'God' I mean an infinite
substance, [eternal, immutable,] independent, omni-
scient, omnipotent, and that by which I myself and
all other existent things, if it is true that there are other
existent things, have been created and produced”
(Meditationes de prima philosophia, 3). Descartes is
interested in proving, not the bare existence of God,
but the determinate existence of a God precisely so
qualified by these attributes bearing upon cosmic and
human problems. Divine omnipotence meets the price
by insuring the universal effectiveness of the primary
laws of mechanics. Immutability pays its way by keep-
ing these laws constantly operative and intelligible for
scientists. Most significant is Descartes' conditional
statement about existent things other than myself.
God's perfection and veracity are affirmed so as to
convert this conditional assertion into an apodictic
truth, as well as to go bond for the existential import
of the criterion of other clear and distinct ideas about
the existing universe.

Our modern piety toward everliving nature owes
much to Spinoza's great emendation of the God-nature
relationship. He renders this relationship fully con-
vertible and functional, naturalizing the divine reality
in such fashion as to give a divine glow to the entire
modal world of natural processes. An advance is made
beyond Bruno precisely because Spinoza's position is
built on careful argumentation and conceptual devel-
opment, not only on enthusiastic vision. The theory
of divine causality is revised to assure its necessary
immanence rather than its witness to a free, transcend-
ent creator. Divine substantiality is analyzed to the
point of showing its eternally necessary reality and
unique predication of God-or-nature as a totality. And
the problem of whether to admit unbounded extension
as well as thought among God's attributes gains human
significance and urgency, when Spinoza makes it the
foundation of man's striving for unity with God and
the active whole of nature. Herder, Goethe, and the
romantic pantheists may not be able to follow the
rigorous Spinozistic analysis of modal things. But they
do release for wider appreciation the key theme of
natura naturans: the living and divinely significant
reality of nature, of which men constitute both an
integral part and a unique base of evaluation.


(3) The ethical stress in rationalist philosophies of
God differentiates them both from previous theological
moralities (which adapt moral concepts to the idea of
God, rather than the converse) and from subsequent
naturalistic divorcement of moral norms entirely from
reference to God. Descartes cannot dispense with God
in the practical order, where he has manifold useful-
ness. Without God, there would be no real unifying
term to the human pursuit of wisdom, no reasonable
ground for advocating self-discipline and a hopeful
attitude toward eternal life, and no religious sanction
for man's technological penetration of nature. Carte-
sian humanism is a blending of scientific-moral-
religious motivations, based on a theistic conviction
that the scientific study and control of our world is
a vocation from God and a means of leading mankind
together toward God.

Spinoza's deliberate removal of personal traits of
mind and will from God is not made in a despoiling
spirit, but as a step toward assuring man's ultimate
practical unification with his divine center. Every step
in our self-understanding as active modal expressions
of the divine is also a liberating move toward our
virtuous (knowledgeable and powerful) union with
Spinoza's redefined God. There are religious and
mystical overtones in the great cry which fills the final
part of the Ethica ([1677], V, 36, scholium): “Our
salvation, or blessedness, or liberty consists in a con-
stant and eternal love towards God, or in the love of
God towards men.” Although every term in this state-
ment has metaphysico-ethical import as freeing us from
the illusions of Cartesian theism, it also signifies that
the God which is one with the incessantly active whole
of nature achieves the values of love through our
human response to its infinite power and necessity.

Perhaps the last word in the rationalist dialogue on
God can be reserved for Leibniz. For he steers a
mediating course between the Cartesian self-to-God
relationship, with its danger of individualistic isolation,
and the Spinozistic model of a mode-acknowledging-
its-substantial-ground, which remains too abstruse for
most moral agents. Leibniz finds balance in the inter-
personal community of men and God. Metaphysically,
community is co-constituted by all active centers of
existence; morally, it expresses the joint effort of men
and God to secure just relationships in practical life;
and religiously, it uses the image of the City of God
to symbolize the reflective communion of all finite
minds with the father of persons. “We must not there-
fore doubt that God has so ordained everything that
spirits not only shall live forever, because this is un-
avoidable, but that they shall also preserve forever
their moral quality, so that his city may never lose a
person.” This closing affirmation of the Discours de
métaphysique ([1685-86], 36) captures Leibniz' com-
munitarian theism better than do the tortuous justifica-
tions of God against evil made in his theodicy.

5. God Neutralized by British Empiricism. The
modern wars of religion deeply scarred the European
conscience, compelling it to find safeguards against
using differences over God as a basis for social conflicts.
The impact of the ideal of toleration and the deistic
minimum of belief was not only to remove the cause
of God from the social arena but also to lessen the
role of God in philosophical thought. Especially the
British philosophers found the topic of God less and
less essential for resolving their theoretical and practi-
cal issues. Thus there was a correlation between the
minimalizing and neutralizing of God as a philo-
sophical theme and the growth of some modern forms
of humanism and political life which permit no dis-
turbing influence from the idea of God.

Hobbes surrounds the theory of God with a formida-
ble, three-tiered wall. First, the human inclination to
reach God as first cause of motion is dampened by the
caution that the causal principle cannot be used with
strict existential necessity, and that a scientifically
attuned philosophy is bound to interpret God in cor-
poreal and mechanical categories. Next, Hobbes dis-
courages any appeal to God's spiritual attributes, since
these divine names refer to their human passional
source rather than to God's own being. Hence the
Leviathan ([1651], I, 12) concludes dryly: “In these four
things: opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes,
devotion towards what men fear, and taking of things
casual for prognostics, consists the natural seed of

Lastly, if one nurtures this fear-sown seed into a
religious institution, Hobbes appeals to the ancient
notion of civil religion. Whether a theory of God
belongs to the human or the divine politics of religion,
its social significance is not a matter of truth but of
the disposition of power within the commonwealth.
Paradoxically, Hobbes and Spinoza politicize the reli-
gious meaning of God to the extreme point of divorcing
it from any claim to truth and hence robbing it of its
strong practical allure.

Although John Locke grants some demonstrative
knowledge of God, his way of ideas notably advances
the process of defunctionalizing God. His critique of
innatism deprives philosophers and religious enthusiasts
alike of the sanction of a divinely implanted set of
truths and a pre-given meaning for God. Not having
any innatist status in the Essay concerning Human
(1690), the idea of God accepts a much
reduced role and submits to the common rule of devel-
oping its meaning out of the elements of human expe-
rience. Locke's quite shaky derivation of the ideas of


power, incorporeality, and infinity from our experience
affects the slender basis for a theory of God. Episte-
mologically, the idea of God is almost put out of play.
For Locke requires it to serve neither as a Cartesian
guarantor of memory and objective truth nor as a
Spinozistic basis of continuity and liberation, nor yet
as a Leibnizian mediator among monads and between
philosophical constructions and cosmic realities. What
attracts deists and Enlightenment thinkers to the Essay
is its pared-back approach to God. Breathing room is
found for the trials and errors indispensable for reach-
ing probable judgments in physical, moral, and political
questions. Yet Locke does maintain that God's existence
is demonstrable.

Eighteenth-century British discussion of God has
three main pivots: scientific theism, George Berkeley's
personalistic theism, and David Hume's critique of
theology and empirical reduction of religion. Under
new forms, the respective questions underlying these
positions are still facing us. Can we extrapolate from
some current scientific view of nature to its divine
source and goal? Can we take the interior journey to
God as correlate of the personal self and the interper-
sonal community? And yet does not our intellectual
and moral integrity depend upon keeping the idea of
God at the bare theoretical minimum and without
practical influence?

(1) The scientific theism of Newton, Clarke, and the
physicotheologians delivering Boyle's Lectures, is mul-
tiply instructive. It illustrates the tendency to ally a
study of God with the prevailing tendencies in science,
whether Newtonian or evolutionist. It also spells out
the price of such alliance to be a shrinking of the viable
meaning of God to a reflection of the current scientific
categories. Thus the God of Galileo is a divine
geometer, that of Newton is a very powerful mechanic,
that of Derham and Paley is a skilled designer or
watchmaker, and that of Teilhard in the post-
Darwinian age is a center of convergence for evolu-
tionary tendencies.

But Berkeley and Hume are already making two
criticisms of scientific theism, despite their own wide
differences on the leeway for a theory of God in
empiricist philosophy. First, it is epistemologically
naive to use the causal principle without determining
its meaning, range, and probative capacity. Berkeley's
point is that the mechanistic and physical-design
approaches never attain to genuine causation, which
resides in the spiritual agency of persons rather than
in the sequence of bodies. Hume's reduction of every
mode of causal belief to immanent habituations of our
mind shrinks, still further, the capacity of causal in-
ference to reach God. The second empiricist criticism
of God the mechanic and designer is that such designa
tions concern only his natural attributes (speculative
traits of intellect, will, and power). From this divine
artisan we cannot infer those moral attributes of good-
ness, justice, and mercy toward men which are the core
traits required for making religious response to God.

(2) Berkeley suggests that nevertheless we have an
alternative route leading to the God of theism and
religious belief. We do experience genuine causation
in our personal spiritual agency. This furnishes an
experiential analogate whence we can develop a per-
sonalistic conception of God as the infinite spiritual
agent, working both through physical events and
through human relationships. Berkeley construes the
physical processes in nature symbolically as the lan-
guage of God, as the manifestation of his presence and
care for men. “This visual language proves, not a
creator merely, but a provident governor, actually and
intimately present, and attentive to all our interests
and motions” (Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher
[1732], IV, 14). Thus on theistic grounds, Berkeley
advocates exchanging the metaphor of nature as a
machine for that of nature as a symbolic language
process. And to deepen the meaning of a morally
worthy and responsive nature in God, he seeks an
analogy in our personal moral ideals and the interper-
sonal relations which can be enlarged to include the
bond with God.

(3) But Hume is skeptical about making any quite
determinate theistic inference from the natural and
moral worlds of human experience. His most radical
move in Dialogues concerning Natural Religion ([1779],
XII) is not that against the a priori and design argu-
ments for God's existence, but rather that against
making any moral attributions whatsoever about God.
Provided that the inferences to God's existence are
deprived of all demonstrative pretensions, Hume will
concede this standing for philosophical theology: It
“... resolves itself into one simple, though somewhat
ambiguous, at least undefined proposition, that the
cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear
some remote analogy to human intelligence.
” But this
meaning is so indeterminate that it is compatible with
either a monotheistic or a polytheistic view of the
divine principle. And most importantly, it tells us
nothing at all about the moral quality of the divinity
which is inferred with such tenuous probability and

The evils in nature and human life stand athwart
every effort to expand this minimalist surmise into a
moral-religious recognition of God. Hence Hume
completes the neutralization of God by divorcing
moral principles and motives entirely from theistic
assent. The clear Humean lesson for subsequent think-
ers is that they must base morality upon the active


tendencies of human nature, and must newly relate the
idea of God to our moral experience or let it shrivel
up as useless.

6. God in the Crucible of the Enlightenment and
Immanuel Kant hailed the Enlightenment men
for daring to think for themselves, and on no subject
did they display this freedom with more verve than
on God. Despite continued political scrutiny, they
extended the logic of toleration from ecclesiastical
differences to those arising from conflicting theories
on God. With the Bible undergoing nascent criticism
through the cross-reference system in Bayle and
D'Alembert, with data on non-Christian religions and
deities flooding the reading public, and with the ge-
netic approach being taken to mankind's religions, the
climate was ripe for loosening and pluralizing the
meanings of God.

In this situation, no one view of God taken alone
represents “the” Enlightenment conception, since that
conception consists precisely in the interworkings
among the many diverse theories of God. At least the
opposing extremes are well marked by the rationalistic
theism of Christian Wolff on the one border and the
dogmatic materialism of Holbach on the other.

Wolff's Theologia naturalis (1736-37) is the grand
repository for a priori and a posteriori demonstrations
of God, conducted by abstract analysis of the meaning
of the most perfect being. But for all his deductive
certainties, Wolff stops short of dispelling the mystery
of the divine creative will. Hence he founds moral
obligation upon the intrinsic structure of human nature
rather than upon the elusive will of God. As a dove-
tailed opposite, Holbach's Système de la nature (1770)
treats the natural world as the proper subject for the
divine attributes of necessity, perfection, and essential
relationships. Since nature, or the active totality of
matter in motion, contains its own eternal energies,
repair operations, and peak achievements (especially
man), there is no need for the God of Newton and
Wolff. Our moral destiny is to seek happiness within
this natural scene, thus depriving theists of any moral
proof of God.

In between these extremes, there is room for consid-
erable variation among Enlightenment inquirers about
God. Voltaire restates the case for a revised scientific
theism, one that will admit greater limits in our study
of God's nature and even some limits intrinsic to
God's own knowledge and power, in the face of evil.
The Dictionnaire philosophique (1764-69, “Théiste”)
sketches this minimal moral theism: “The theist does
not know how God punishes, how he protects, how
he forgives; for he is not rash enough to flatter himself
that he knows how God acts; but he knows that God
does act and that he is just.” Denis Diderot is dissatis
fied with even this modest assertion. He oscillates be-
tween a vitalistic version of Holbach's naturalism and
an occasional flight of imagination in favor of some
unorthodox images of the divine nature. Perhaps we
are entangled in the web of some spider deity (as Hume
also surmised), engaged in blindly and remorselessly
spinning out this tangled heap of luck-pleasure-
injustice. Diderot faces up to the possibility (raised in
le Rêve de D'Alembert, 1769; 1782) of a literal death
of God. “Since it would be a material God—part of
the universe and subject to its processes—it might grow
old and even die eventually.”

Yet Rousseau presses the heart's search for a personal
God, having some reserved being of his own and
responding to our moral loyalty and religious affection.
The Savoyard vicar depicts a just and merciful God
correlated with the springs of morality in man's self-
love and conscience, even though infinitely beyond our
conceptualizations. “I worship his almighty power and
my heart acknowledges his mercies. Is it not a natural
consequence of our self-love to honor our protector
and to love our benefactor?” (Émile, IV, “Profession
de foi du vicaire savoyard,” 1762). With this question,
Rousseau tries to synthesize egoistic values and open-
ness to a moral God, rather than set the two principles
in opposition.

Kant weighs all these diverse currents on God, sub-
jects the whole topic to critical reconsideration, and
offers his own view of personal theism. In each of his
Critiques he studies a distinct facet of the question,
and in his theory of religion he presents a moralized
and religionized conception of God.

(1) Kant achieves three goals with his analysis of
speculative proofs of God's existence in the Kritik der
reinen Vernunft
(1781; 2nd ed., 1787). First, he shows
the impropriety of claiming to have demonstrative
knowledge of God, since “to know” concerns only
existents which are finitely present and connected in
a space-time context. Next, a morally and religiously
relevant meaning of God cannot be obtained from
either the ontological and cosmological routes (since
a necessary and ontically perfect being may not be
morally responsive) or from the study of physical de-
sign (which need not yield an infinite and morally
purposive agent). Thirdly, we can make a fruitful reg-
ulative use of the idea of God even in the theoretical
order. The idea of a wise and unifying God can give
the researcher confidence in seeking ever more com-
prehensive principles of explanation.

(2) In the Kritik der praktischen Vernunft ([1788],
Part I, Book II, ii, 5), Kant wholeheartedly accepts the
Enlightenment's refusal to base moral duty upon the
divine will and law, but adds that rejection of such
a “theological morality” tells only half the tale of moral


analysis. There is still need for a moral theism, which
anchors our belief in God upon certain aspects of the
human moral situation integrally considered. When our
moral will is considered, not in its autonomous law-
giving function but in that of seeking its realization
in a highest good, then a meaningful distinction de-
velops between the derived and the underived good
for man. “The postulate of the possibility of a highest
derived good (the best world) is at the same time the
postulate of the reality of a highest original good,
namely, the existence of God.” Such a postulate is not
a fictional device but an interpretation of the full
requirements for responsible moral action in the world.
Kant's Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790) adds that the idea
of God also has interpretive use in the study of organic
structures. It enables us to conceive of nature in terms
of living unified purposiveness, even though we cannot
convert the symbol from analogical to literal signifi-

(3) Finally, in DieReligion innerhalb der Grenzen
der blossen Vernunft
(1792; 1793), Kant shows how the
moral concept of God involves a religious meaning
related to our world of personal and social evils. In
this context, we think of a God of personal hope and
historical fidelity to the people of God. Kant makes
a crucial reorientation of the theory of God's moral
attributes. No longer can they be regarded as pro-
longations of a speculative ontology of the divine es-
sence: instead, they correspond with our basic moral-
religious interpretation of existence. Thus God's justice
correlates with moral conscience and religious fear; his
goodness with our search for happiness and our reli-
gious love; and his holiness with our moral experience
of lawgiving and religious reverence. Thus the Kantian
idea of God rests upon a thoroughly moralized and
religionized foundation.

As the story of the idea of God passes now into the
post-Kantian era of strenuous systematic reformulation
in idealistic, positivistic, and evolutionistic contexts, it
may be well to bear in mind a remark made by Kant's
fellow Königsberger and critic, J. G. Hamann. “Here
on earth we live on crumbs. Our thoughts are frag-
ments. Our knowledge itself is patchwork” (Brocken,
1758). This consequence of the human condition
applies to our inquiries about God with full force. We
have been given some fragmentary glimpses into the
meaning of God by the modern thinkers through Kant,
and we may reasonably expect that the prospects now
about to be opened up will also share this patchwork
and perspectival character.


1. General Studies. J. Collins, God in Modern Philosophy
(Chicago, 1959); idem, The Emergence of Philosophy of
(New Haven, 1967). J. Dillenberger, Protestant
Thought and Natural Science
(New York, 1960). C. Fabro,
Introduzione all'ateismo moderno (Rome, 1964), trans. A.
Gibson as God in Exile: Modern Atheism (Westminster, Md.,
1968). R. Kroner, Speculation and Revelation in Modern
(Philadelphia, 1961). W. Schulz, Der Gott der
neuzeitlichen Metaphysik
(Pfullingen, 1957).

2. Renaissance Studies. S. Dangelmayr, Gotteserkenntnis
und Gottesbegriff in den philosophischen Schriften des
Nikolaus von Kues
(Meisenheim, 1969). S. Greenberg, The
Infinite in Giordano Bruno
(New York, 1950). P. O. Kristeller,
Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (Stanford,
1964). J. Nelson, Renaissance Theory of Love (New York,
1958). R. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus
to Descartes
(New York, 1960; rev. reprint 1968). F. Wendel,
Calvin: Sources et évolution de sa pensée religieuse (Paris,
1950), trans. as Calvin: The Origins and Development of
His Religious Thought
(London, 1963).

3. Modern Studies. J.-L. Bruch, la Philosophie religieuse
de Kant
(Paris, 1968). F. England, Kant's Conception of God
(London, 1929). H. Gouhier, la Pensée métaphysique de
(Paris, 1962); idem, la Pensée religieuse de
(Paris, 1924). T. Greene and J. Silber, “Introduc-
tions” to the Greene-Hudson translation of I. Kant, Religion
within the Limits of Reason Alone
(New York, 1960), pp.
ix-cxxxiv. R. Grimsley, Rousseau and the Religious Quest
(New York, 1968). R. Hurlbutt, Hume, Newton, and the
Design Argument
(Lincoln, Nebraska, 1965). J. Jalabert, Le
Dieu de Leibniz
(Paris, 1960). R. Lauer, The Mind of Voltaire
(Westminster, Md., 1961). A. Leroy, la Critique et la religion
chez David Hume
(Paris, 1930). F. Manuel, The Eighteenth
Century Confronts the Gods
(Cambridge, 1959). J. Orr,
English Deism: Its Roots and Fruits (Grand Rapids, 1934).
B. Rousset, la Perspective finale de “L'Éthique” et le
problème de la cohérence du spinozisme
(Paris, 1968). E.
Sillem, George Berkeley and the Proofs for the Existence of
(New York, 1957). N. Smith, “Introduction” to his
edition of D. Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion
(New York, 1947; reprint 1963), pp. 1-123. J. Yolton, John
Locke and the Way of Ideas
(Oxford, 1956).


[See also Deism; God; Holy (The Sacred); Neo-Platonism;
Religion; Renaissance Humanism; Theodicy.]