Deism and the Personal God

The Greek conception of deity and eternity from the golden age of Greece through the coming of Christianity was one rooted in Eternity. Platonic notions of the Ideals, abstracted but concrete (in an idealic realm) and atomic these anchor reality. The Universe was (in their view) eternal and any creator or originator had too be as well unchanging and eternal as those ideals.  The truths of these claims were established by the inexorable logic of a philosophical framework on which their civilization/culture was based. Modern deism is very close to these notions with the exception that creation is not, as the Greeks apprehended, eternal but has a beginning (and likely an end). It might be noted I’m unaware of how modern deists deal with the conflict between a God which creates a universe and is at the same time unchanging and eternal (or perhaps the unchanging part is dropped).

The Jewish concepts of deity was concrete by comparison. Rooted in history, prophecy, promise and compact. If not personal it was apprended and comprehended by persons. The history and its narrative validated its truth. A God which speaks to a people or persons in an individual way was seen as incompatible and very different in character from the Greek Ideal for God (or gods).

Modern arguments as they appear between deists, atheists and Christians bring up notions of deity that can be  brought into sympathy with both of these two very different notions. That this is impossible is a common mistake that is made in the modern discussion that surround these notions which the following might be viewed as an attempt to bring the Christian viewpoint on the nature of deity into relief (and to contrast with the above).

In the first century AD an individual in Israel and his followers arrived at a new notion of truth and deity which was located in a particular man, Jesus as witnessed him and the events of short span within history. This particular notion was incompatible with both the Jewish and Greek notions of deity and eternity … or they were at first glance. Over the next centuries Christian philosophers and theologians worked out this idea they called the Trinity which surrounded and included all three notions of deity.

The abstract eternal unchanging uncomprehensible deity of the Greek (and essentially the modern deists) is in just about all the essential details known to the Christian as “the Father” as an person/hypostasis of the Trinity. There is no human contact, no touching or comprehending the Father. The problem of a non-eternal universe with an unchanging creator is solved in that the Father via his person enact creation. As John put it, In the beginning was the Word …. and Logos, translated (not-so-accurately as the Word) was Christ, was Jesus (the second person of the Trinity). It was the Word that created … not the Father, who remains unchanged by the act of Creation.

And while this merely touches peripherally on what is understood by Trinity, the point being made is that the deistic God of which the philosopher’s refer, in Christian context is the Father. The personal God that interacts through and within history, that acts and speaks to us is the Son (and for completeness that which moves and acts within us is the Spirit).

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  1. Interesting. You kind of gloss over Judaism as if its concept of God has been consistent. I think it changed very much, starting with a tribal, personal God that we see in the Torah/Bible (with clues that he was considered one of many gods in the precursors to the Torah/Bible) and gradually shifting to more of the deist, single God with various rationalizations for how prayer, miracles, and the like happen(ed.)

    I hadn’t thought about the trinity addressing that issue, pretty interesting. Funny how Christianity is considered by Orthodox Jews to be idolatry because of Jesus and the Trinity, while Islam is not.

    Do you know about the Meshichist movement in Judaism? The parallels to early Christianity are pretty interesting in my opinion.

  2. Boonton says:

    So wait a minute, who spoke to Moses then? From what you’re saying it can’t be God the Father since the Father is eternal, unchanging and basically operates in a way that’s removed from our ability to understand or comprehend…. Also where does the Holy Ghost fit into this?

  3. Boonton says:

    If I read your last line correctly, the Spirit is what ‘motivated’ Moses to act while Jesus is the entity that actually conversed with him? (For that matter who spoke to Job? The Bible clearly identifies himself as the creator of the world….)

  4. Mark says:


    For that matter who spoke to Job? The Bible clearly identifies himself as the creator of the world….John

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, [1] and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

    Trinitiarian theology identifies Logos/Word as Christ/Jesus. In the East the Hesychast movement (debates between St. Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria) in which they hesychasts claim direct experience of God … the distinction between the unknowable Father and the Son/Spirit is made very clear. Jesus notes that one of the disciples identifies him as the Son of God as an act of the Spirit … and also says that you see the Father through Him.

    While the Western iconography will sometimes draw the Father as an elderly wise man … there are no icons of the Father recognized in the East. He is cannot be represented in pictorial form (one exception might be the Rublev Trinity icon … but I think that is something different as the three figures are interchangeable and indistinguishable).

  5. Boonton says:

    But isn’t the unchanging, eternal, more Platonic aspect of God supposed to be removed from human comprehenshion and even experience? Job wasn’t just spoken too but actually had a conversation, even mini-debate with God.

  6. Mark says:


    But isn’t the unchanging, eternal, more Platonic aspect of God supposed to be removed from human comprehenshion and even experience?

    And those are exactly the words (specifically unchanging, eternal, removed from human comprehension and experience) used to describe the Father. To put bluntly, Job spoke with the Son. He believed because of the Spirit.

  7. Boonton says:

    I take it this is the Orthodox position on things? It does strike me as a nifty bit of retconning. Job spoke with Jesus, then so did Noah, and Moses and Adam, and Abraham and so on….yet none of them noticed this and all of their stories seemed to be recorded in such a way to indicate that it was the father that they were speaking too…the idea of the father being so eternal and unchanging so out of touch with the real world because he could only interact in the Platonic universe of pure forms was pretty much a Greek idea was it not?

    JA care to interject here? How did the Jewish religion address the Greek idea that God was just too Godly to actively take part in the world’s history? Did they just reject it outright or did they accept it and seek to find a way to reconcile Plato to the Old Testament?

  8. According the Orthodox Judaism, God has always been a Being who is abstract, eternal, and unchanging while at the same time who also did things like speaking to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and indeed the whole Jewish people (the first two commandments.) (Stories are largely taken as literally by Orthodox Jews as they are by Christian young-earth creationists, much more literally than the Catholic church, although some Orthodox Jews accept evolution and rationalize a way for it to fit.) The Orthodox position, for example, is that god literally dictated the five books to Moses, perhaps without the last few verses.

    In MY opinion, the oldest forms of Judaism/proto-Judaism were henotheistic. I am the LORD your God, don’t put any others before me, not I am the LORD the only God. Let US create, in OUR image, etc. etc. Even in the later stories in the OT about the time of the Temple, various people and even kings openly worshiped other gods.

    After the second Temple was destroyed, the rabbis basically reinvented the religion from scratch. They threw out sacrifices, instituted regular prayers, etc. They certainly had greek influence and I think they solidified the transition to a more abstract monotheism. You pray to God, but you no longer expect him to talk back. You ask for miracles, but understand that God won’t do anything that’s obviously miraculous any more. Read miraculousness into benevolent coincidences, don’t expect any more burning bushes, etc.

    There’s a ton of literature in traditional Judaism, describing various traits while at the same time saying he’s indescribable, etc. etc. None of it is any more coherent than the Trinity, and much is probably even less. Following Jewish law became the way to become close to God.

    In the last few centuries, various movements but especially Hasidic Judaism have arisen that understand God in a fundamentally different way. They brought in panentheism and mysticism which hadn’t been a part of Judaism for a while. They’re all considered Orthodox, though, although the Meshichists, who I mentioned in my first comment, are really pushing the boundaries.

  9. Boonton says:

    Minor side question….what’s the deal/logic with the Hasidic clothing? Being that all Jews know their religion originated in the Middle East thousands of years ago, why decide that 1800’s black outfits that may have fit in Germany at the time should now be the standard dress for the rest of time?

  10. I think the main idea is to kind of have a de facto uniform (as compared to the outside world) while also dressing conservatively. And tradition for its own sake, no matter how shallow or inauthentic that tradition. Introspection and critical thinking is not their strong suit. 🙂

    Some of the hasidim have really crazy ones, with stockings (for men) etc.

    It is especially comical when they depict ancient rabbis and prophets dressed in those clothes.