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God Is Not God

Karen Armstrong, in her book The Case For God, quotes the Greek philosopher Aristotle as writing in Metaphysics, “The act of contemplation [theoria] is what is most pleasant and best. If, then, God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are, this compels our wonder; and if in a better this compels it yet more. And God is in a better state. And life also belongs to God; for the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God’s self-dependent actuality is life most good and eternal. We say therefore that God is living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God.”

jehovahReading Karen Armstrong, you’d think that Aristotle was writing about God, but actually, that’s not what Aristotle was writing about at all.

“God” is a proper noun. That’s why it’s capitalized. It refers to a specific deity. Yet, when Aristotle wrote Metaphysics, no one was worshipping any deity called “God”. “God” wasn’t a word used by the ancient Greeks at all. It’s a word that comes from germanic languages, referring to Germanic deities as a general class.

The word that Karen Armstrong translates as “God” is actually a phrase: “ho theos” (in Greek lettering, of course). “Ho theos” is translated into English not as the name of a deity, but as a referral to the realm of deity in general or as a reference to one particular deity without naming that deity. The ancient Greeks, in Aristotle’s time, despite some philosophers’ skepticism, worshipped multiple deities. In Metaphysics, Aristotle argues for “ho theos” as an impersonal cosmic source of creation. Aristotle’s use of the term “ho theos” does not refer to Yahweh, the prime deity of the Jews.

Neither can Aristotle’s ho theos be said to refer to Jesus Christ, or to any Christian deity or belief. Aristotle was writing hundreds of years before Christianity even came into existence.

Ho theos is a phrase that was centuries later appropriated by Greek Christians to refer to the Christian deity, but to suggest that Aristotle was referring to either Yahweh or to the germanic “god” concept is profoundly anachronistic. Aristotle was writing out of a native Greek tradition of philosophy. He wasn’t referring to German deities or to Jewish ideas.

Neither can it be said that the Yahweh deity of the ancient Jewish texts is “God”. The name “God” never appears in any of the original documents related to the Bible. The germanic deities aren’t in the Torah.

So, when Karen Armstrong is making the case for “God”, which god does she mean?

Yahweh is not God. Ho theos is not God. God is not God.

6 comments to God Is Not God

  • __LOW_KEY__

    Unfortunately, you can’t tell these people anything. They have no idea what context is.

    • Yeah – once you look into the actual language being used, you see that the term “God” is used as a generic cover to make it seem that ideas that are quite specific and distinct from one another are somehow all the same. They really aren’t the same, historically or conceptually.

  • WeatherServo9

    Armstrong is one of a few intellectual Christians (like Spong and others) whose definition of the word God is so broad that they might as well be atheists. I’m sure in Armstrong’s mind, she believes that God is the non-specific concept described by as ho theos. That’s nice and all, but as you point out, that’s not the Judeo-Christian God.

    She and others like her are, I believe, the last intellectual practitioners of theistic religion. And all of her writing, like this example, while crafted intelligently, seems to me like so much grasping at straws.

  • Ralph

    To someone who believes in one god, there is a single referent for the terms ho theos, God, Jesus, spirit, Yahweh, etc. The single referent is the one true god, and any variation in attributes ascribed to this single god is due to imperfect understanding on the part of various imperfect people. Since they know God better than the poor pagan ancient Greeks, they find themselves in the ironic position of knowing what Aristotle meant better than Aristotle himself did.
    And that, folks, is how the amazing Pocket Baby Jesus gives you the special power to understand others better than they understand themselves. Of course, with that power comes the resposibility for making sure other people live their lives the way you know they want to live them, even if they say they want something different…

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