It is better not to call God 'a Person'

In the Christian tradition, people have often referred to God as `a person'.

"The element of body is not essential to personhood. God is, therefore, rightly called a person in the sense of God being a Pure Spirit, a a personality without material defects.

God is a person without a body, i.e. a spirit, who is free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe"

See: R.SWINBURNE, The Coherence of Theism, Oxford 1982, p. 1; see also his The Existence of God, revised edition, Oxford 1991. Similar definitions are found with D.HIGH, Language, Persons and Belief, New York 1967, pp. 180-181; H.P.OWEN, Concepts of Deity, London 1971, p.18; J.J.SHEPHERD, Experience, Inference and God, London 1975, p.4.).

Before I can reply to this question, I will first have to define personhood more precisely. Some authors complain that it is `fuzzy', `an untidy term', `a word often used sloppily'. So here we go. The term person carries at least five connotations in ordinary usage:

1. A person is a thinking, intelligent being.

This is the classic definition favoured in the Middle Ages and much later (see: J.LOCKE, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689 AD), ed. Oxford 1924, p. 188).

2. A person is an individual who relates to other individuals.

We stress this feature when we say someone pays us "personal" attention, etc.

3. A person is a character or role.

Persona was a mask worn by actors in classical drama. An actor or actress presented a persona, a character. We still use this original sense when we state someone acted "in the person of . . ." , or someone "impersonated" someone else.

4. A person is an individual with rights and duties.

This is legal language. Even companies and institutions can be "a person" in law.

5. A person is the body of a human individual.

This is clear from such expressions as: "No gun was found on his person." "She had a stately person."

God is personal in the first two of these five senses. God has intelligence and God relates to us. The Ultimate Reality is not just blind energy, not a dark chasm of nameless power, not an unechoing chasm of boundless infinity. God is personal. But is God a person?

We should not call God 'a person'

There are three main reasons why I believe we should not refer to God as "a person": (1) however much we try to avoid it, our concept of "a person" includes bodiliness; (2) the expression "a person" obscures the impersonal features of God; and (3) the concept of God as "a person" implies the outdated dualistic two-world view.

Firstly, however much we try to dematerialise our concept of God as a Person, we cannot avoid introducing inner-worldly, materialistic elements.

"Given the use of 'God' as 'Pure Spirit', we cannot understand what it would be for such a being to act and thus be loving, merciful or just, for these predicates apply to things that a person does. But we have no understanding of `a person' without `a body' and it is only persons that in the last analysis can act and do things. We have no understanding of `disembodied action' and thus no understanding of `a loving but bodiless being'. "
K.NIELSON, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, New York 1982, pp. 36-37.).

Secondly, using the expression "a person" may obscure impersonal features of God.

If God is conceived too rigidly under the individualistic aspect of "person", important qualities within the overall notion of God are lost . . . God is impersonal in his dealings with the whole of what is. God does not show partiality. God's love is universal in scope and intent; particularistic love is not. Surely an adequate conception of God must view God as transcending the particularistic limitations that we as human persons experience in our finite love. God's love is impersonal in that it is directed at the whole of creation and is not (just) intended or directed to individuals in themselves.

C.D.GRANT, "Personal and Impersonal Concepts of God: a Tension within contemporary Christian theology", Encounter 49 (1988) pp. 79-91; here 81-82.).

Last but not least, the concept of God as "a person" necessarily evokes the traditional two-tier world view which no longer fits our modern, scientific understanding of the universe. As we have seen before, God as the supernatural Creator and Maintenance Man is dead. When we define God as "a person", we seem to imply philosophical concepts that contradict our modern world view.

"I criticize not belief in a personal God, but certain ways of expressing belief in a personal God which entail that God is a person . . . Christians do need to hold that God is personal: they do not need to hold that God is a person . . . Perhaps the biggest difficulty for bodiless theism is that the most respected theologians for the church, ancient and modern, have no use for the modern term `person' in relation to God . . . More importantly God is not called a person in the bible, not even by Jesus."
A.THATCHER, "The Personal God and the God who is a Person", Religious Studies 21 (1985) pp. 61- 73; here 70-71; J.MACQUARRIE, Principles of Christian Theology, London 1977, p. 116; see also G.LEGENHAUSEN, "Is God a Person?", Religious Studies 22 (1986) pp. 307-323.).

"God is not a person as a human being is a person. The primal ground, primal support and primal goal of all reality, which determines every individual existence, is not an individual person among other persons, is not a superman or superego. The term "person" also is merely a cypher for God. God is not the supreme person among other persons. God transcends the concept of person. God is more than person . . "

God is not less than a person. God is not neuter, not an "it", but a God of people. He is spirit in creative freedom, the primordial identity of justice and love, one who faces me as founding and embracing all interhuman personality.

It will be better to call the most real reality not either personal or nonpersonal but - if we attach importance to the terminology - transpersonal or suprapersonal."
H.KÜNG, Does God Exist?, London 1980, pp. 632-633.

Next? Go to:

Regarding the images of God Scripture needs to be read carefully

Still the lake of your mind Think aloud in God's presence Talk to God by talking to friends Join a community of believers Make selfless love your highest priority Feel God's presence in all the love you meet


The text in this lesson is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

The video clips are from Journey to the Centre of Love (scriptwriter & executive producer John Wijngaards) which was awarded the GRAND PRIX by the Tenth International Catholic Film Festival held in Warsaw (18-23 May 1995). It also received the prestigious Chris Award at the International Film Festival, Columbus Ohio, in 1997.