Book Review – Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology by Thomas Morris (Pt. 2)

Last time we began to look at  Thomas Morris’ book Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology. Today I will present a brief sketch of what Morris does throughout the book, showing how the chapters contribute to his project of describing God.

Our Idea of God

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Our Idea of God: A Rough Sketch

This book is divided up into nine chapters. The first two chapters are primarily methodological, the last seven chapters represent the natural progression of using the method which Morris proposes. Because it is the case that chapters three to nine follow from the what is argued for in chapters one and two, we must get a good grip on what Morris is arguing for in the first two chapters of his book. Thus we will concentrate on these two chapters.

Morris titles chapter 1 “The Project of Philosophical Theology.” He begins this chapter by laying out what theology is and how there are different areas and specializations within theology. He gives a pretty uncontroversial definition for what theology is, “rational discourse about God.”[1] This would seem uncontroversial if one were a realist about one’s theology or if one believed that “God” actually has a referent. However, as this book is directed at Christians these are issues he can sidestep. Among the various specializations of theology, Morris presents us with “philosophical theology.” He defines philosophical theology as the branch of theology that employs “the best philosophical methods and techniques for the purpose of gaining as much clarity as possible concerning the content of the major concepts, presuppositions, and tenets of theological commitment, as well as the many connections that exist among them.”[2] However he makes it clear that as a Christian the conclusions made using philosophical theology must also be biblically faithful.

The first question that he turns to is whether or not it is even possible to engage in rational and accurate discourse about God. This is an issue of epistemology. He lays out three positions which one could take regarding the possibility of theology. The first position is theological pessimism, the position that all attempts at engaging in rational discourse about God are bound to fail. The second position he presents is moderate theological pessimism, of which negative theology is a species. On this view, one can only make negations or denials about God. Any positive assertions about God are not true. Morris presents arguments against both of these positions and concludes that some form of theological optimism must be true. According to Morris, we can have knowledge about God and we can truly engage in rational discourse about God. Because it is the case that we can have knowledge about God and we can truly engage in rational discourse about God, the project of philosophical theology is a worthwhile project. By engaging in philosophical theology we are coming to know the God whom we worship.

Having argued that rational discourse about God is possible, Morris turns to method in chapter two: “The Concept of God.” He begins his discussion of method by proposing a problem, namely the problem of how we can come to arrive at an accurate and true idea of God. Since it is possible to engage in rational discourse about God, humans should attempt to construct a rational and true concept of who God is and what he is like. However, as history shows us, theists, and more specifically Christians, have had different methods for constructing their idea of God. Some have attempted to arrive at an accurate concept of God by using a method called “universal revelational theology.” Others have advocated for the use of the Bible alone, as our only reliable source of knowledge about God. Thus people who use “purely biblical theology” will not admit anything outside of the Bible to inform their concept of God. Still other theists have used what can be called a “creation theology.” These theists will use the concept of God as ultimate creator of reality, as a springboard for making other claims about God. Some however would argue that “creation theology” does not give us a robust enough conception of God, thus they try to augment their conception with other things. There are at least two ways to broaden the conception of God, as it is given through a “creation theology.” The first is to have a “comprehensive explanatory theology.” This method supplements creation theology with history. The second way to do this is to use a “perfect being theology.” It is this final method that Morris advocates for, and ends up using throughout the rest of the book to clarify the concept of God.

Perfect Being Theology begins with the proposition: “God is a being with the greatest possible array of compossible great making properties.”[3] He then clarifies this proposition by explaining what is meant by compossible and by “great making.” A “great making property” is any property which it is intrinsically good to have, thus endowing the bearer of the property with value or greatness. He defines compossible as any collection of properties that can all be had by the same individual at the same time.[4]

Having clarified the proposition, he explains that the task of perfect being theology is to fill out the concept we have of God as defined by this proposition. The perfect being theologian will fill out this proposition by creating a list of great making compossible properties. And this is exactly what Morris does throughout the book. Morris fills out the proposition by adding to it great making properties like: goodness, power, knowledge, existence, and eternality. He suggests that in order to fill out this conception we should “begin to consult our value intuitions.” We should ask ourselves “what properties can we intuitively recognize as great making properties?”[5] However, he concedes that revelation should be allowed to overturn, or correct, contrary value intuitions.

Morris proceeds to use this method to clarify his conception of God. In chapter three he shows how perfect being theology can help us understand what we mean when we say that God is good. In chapter four he uses perfect being theology to clarify what is mean by omnipotence. Chapter five answers the question of what it means for God’s knowledge to be complete, and takes on the problem of God’s foreknowledge and free will. Chapter six takes on issues of ontology and answers the question of what it means for God to be a necessary being. It also examines what it means for God to be simple. Chapter seven is an attempt to clarify what I means for God to be eternal. Here he lays out two competing positions (sempiternity and timelessness), and concludes that perfect being theology does not force us to believe one over the other. In chapter eight Morris covers the ideas of creation and dependence. Finally in chapter nine he takes on the metaphysical problems presented by the incarnation and the trinity, and argues that the best way to understand these concepts is compatible with perfect being theology.

Morris concludes by saying that we can in fact know and make progress in our thinking about the concept of God, and that the best way to do that is with perfect-being theology.

Next time I will make some comments on the positive aspects of this book.


[1] Morris, Our Idea of God, 15.

[2] Morris, Our Idea of God, 16.

[3] Morris, Our Idea of God, 35.

[4] Morris, Our Idea of God, 37.

[5] Morris, Our Idea of God, 38.

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