Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Is God a Material Being? A Sketch for a System of Theological Naturalism

For who will deny that God is body, even though God is spirit? For spirit is a particular kind of body in its own image.

-Tertullian, Against Praxeas: Chapter 7

Setting Aside Some Quibbles

I expect that the idea of God being a material being would be greeted with considerable scepticism and even outrage and to that end I shall set aside some minor quibbles before developing a sketch of my own theory.

First as far as the Bible itself is concerned, spirit is never contrasted with matter but with the flesh. So the distinction is not so much between that of Spirit and matter, substance or being, but rather Spirit and flesh or organic bodies and all its lusts, etc.

Not quite what I had in mind... but close. Source:

Not quite what I had in mind… but close.

The idea of God as a material being has actually quite a long and respectable tradition. The ancient Stoics for example did conceive of God as a corporeal being which somehow permeates all of the world. The Church Father Tertullian, whom we just quoted at the start, continues in that tradition although he is almost alone in its advocacy. However it is important to note that everyone thought of God as a “substance” or “being” or just “stuff”, whether it is a “material” stuff or an “immaterial” stuff was another question. Tertullian himself believed that all substance had to be corporeal and since God is a substance ergo he had to be material. Anyway in the 17th century Thomas Hobbes briefly revived the corporeal God of the Stoics and Tertullian once again in an age reacting against Aristotelian metaphysics. Hobbes interestingly thought of God as a sort of infinitely subtle fluid or “spirit” which permeates all creation. For a more in depth study I would recommend the essays of Geoffrey Gorham on Hobbes’s Corporeal God.

Suffice to say, I do not have much interest in reviving, in exact form, the corporeal God doctrine of old. My mentioning them is simply to point to fact that my arguments are not unprecedented but is a continuation of a long and prestigious tradition. However what I will be sketching is a modern form of these past theories, a theory which I shall be calling Theological Naturalism.

The Framework of Theological Naturalism Summarised: One World Realism

A modern summary of Hobbes’s conception of a material God has been given by the philosopher Gaskin in his introduction to Hobbes’s Leviathan

…[Hobbes’s] argument in Leviathan goes an astonishingly long way towards affirming a species of theistic materialism. Spirits are bodies of a sort. The soul is life. God is corporeal. I will call this meta-philosophy, whether Epicurean or Hobbesian, one-world realism. It is one-world because it explicitly excludes any other order of being: all that is has to be explained within one system. It is realism because it both minimizes philosophical problems concerning the relation between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ experience, and because it excludes as unreal all that is not of this, the natural, world. Hobbes does indeed retain and use the term ‘supernatural’, but it is in order to indicate an epistemological distinction between scientific knowledge and the way in which God ‘speaks’ or conveys a revelation to a few, and only a very few people. The supernatural is a rare source of extraordinary knowledge, not an order of being metaphysically distinct from this one. (See III.7; VIII.22; XII. 19, 22, 24; XV.8; XXIX.8; XXXIV.20, et al.)

The basic idea is that God is simply part of the natural world as any buzzing bees or protons or particles. God would be an infinite being and possessed of many qualities unique to himself such a omnipotence and omnipresence, etc. He however would not be outside the natural world but within it and is not made of a fundamentally different “stuff” or substance from which the world is made. He interacts with the natural world as a being who is part of it acting locally upon natural events instead of being transcendentally located.

To that end I shall discuss, very briefly, the following components of the system of Theological Naturalism:

(1) Creation Ex Deo; The Personhood of God

(2) Divine Goodness and Empirical Goods of the Divine

(3) Natural Indeterminacy and Neo-Pelagian Providential Grace

Creation Ex Deo; The Personhood of God

Creation ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing, is one of the core metaphysical doctrines of traditional theism. However, the most curious thing is that this doctrine has virtually no support from the biblical texts. There is at most one passage from Hebrews 11:3

By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

To say that the universe was not made out of things that are visible is not the same as to say that it was made out of nothing. The alternative suggestion of course is that the universe was simply made out of things that are invisible, that is, it was made out of God’s infinite substance or life. Both Thomas Hobbes and John Milton suggested this “creation ex deo”, creation out of God, as an alternative to creation ex nihilo or out of nothing.

This is of course not to suggest that God is made of particles or atoms as the universe is. It is merely to suggest that at some fundamental level both God and the universe are made of the same “stuff” or substance and therefore cannot be that radically different, and that includes us.

How does this exactly lead to the personhood of God? As I argued in another note of mine:

Suppose, following Daniel Dennett and other functionalists and reductionists about the mind, there is nothing so qualitatively special about human consciousness or human subjectivity, the mind just is a set of certain objective functional features, e.g. information processing system, cognitive structure, etc, which can be applied to anything which “performs the same functions” or “exhibits the same objective traits”, e.g. A.I. any other system which exhibits the same traits. Thus, consciousness is not a qualitative binary, yes or no, which someone, or something, possesses, it comes in various degrees and types which resembles each other in their complexity, extent, etc.

Functionalists use the term “multiple-realisability” to describe the idea that the same “mind-like” features or cognitive system can be “realised” or applied to many other different mediums or entities, other than humans.

From here it is pretty easy to see how Daniel Dennett can in fact be enlisted for the cause of theism. If being mind-like is simply a matter of possessing a certain rational/cognitive structure, then one can immediately infer from the rational structure or the universe a “like mind” governing the cosmos. If one objects that this is merely a mind like and not literally a mind or otherwise one would be guilty of anthropomorphism, etc, etc, then we can push Dennett’s argument that a mind just is this ordered structure or system without any special remainder or qualitatively exotic extra “qualia” needed to make something a mind.

The long and short of this argument is that if both the world, including us, are made of the same substance as God, then that would entail that minds and consciousness are as much a part of the natural world as any other atom or particle. If something counts as a mind simply by virtue of possessing certain natural structures, then anything else in nature, including the whole of the universe, can also be said to exhibit mind-like personhood qualities indicating a divine mind behind it.

Thus ironically in some sense, theological naturalism provides a better ground for conceiving God as a person and being able to discern the hand of a personal agency in nature by virtue of reducing minds and mind-like structures to simply another feature of the natural world which can be applied to any other phenomenon of the universe or the universe as a whole.

Divine Goodness and the Empirical Goods of the Divine

How does theological naturalism conceives of divine goodness? There are two ways of thinking about divine goodness. One is the platonic conception whereby God’s nature consists of a certain form which determines a certain pattern of behaviour. To say that God is good just is to say that God will definitely behave a certain way. Since we are committed strictly to theological naturalism and God simply as a simple undifferentiated substance without transcendent forms from any other world beyond the natural world, therefore we are compelled to reject the platonic conception of God’s goodness as a form of behaviourial pattern.

That leaves us with the idea of divine goodness as providing us with empirical goods. Thus in creating the world God also implants and creates us with this-worldly desires for other things from within this natural world. To say that God is good just is to say that he provides us with the empirical goods for the fulfilment of our desires.

How does God however provide such goods to us? God does two things, first, he governs nature according to certain rationally discernible laws of nature which allows us to predict the motions of nature and all that therein is. Then he grants us minds and cognitive capacities to be able to discern these laws and use them to work and gather empirical goods from nature. Thus, for example, from a discernment of physical laws, we have the hard sciences and therefore technology to have mastery over nature to gather crops, medicines, ores, etc, to make houses and art pieces. From a discernment of human nature and we can formulate civic laws and rules for the creation of civic ordinances and manners for the enjoyment of each other’s society and fellowship.


However it is clear that even with the laws of nature and our rational capacities we are not always able to gather all the goods necessary for the fulfil of our needs and desires. It is here where we come to our next section.

Natural Indeterminacy and Neo-Pelagian Providential Grace

It is evident that even with the great arts and science of man we are not able to secure all our goods from God, both civil and natural. It is from here where we get an idea of Neo-Pelagian Providential Grace where both our goods and our ability to gather them are subject to divine grace or the divine decision to arrange our particular empirical circumstances, which are often beyond our power, to allow us to work and receive those goods. To understand this we need a little background into the Augustinian-Pelagius dispute. As I have put it in another post:

…contra the unjust slanders of Augustine, Pelagius did not deny the necessity of grace in our salvation. He merely had a different conception of what that grace consists in. For Augustine, the grace which he thinks is necessary is some mysterious spiritual movement in us or psychological moment wrought by some gooey Spirit infused grace into our souls.

Pelagius on the other hand locates the grace of God in the external empirical gifts which God decides to favour us with, e.g. true preaching and teaching of the Gospel, loving Christian witnesses whose charitable deeds and virtues towards us moves us to believe the Gospel, or any other material or empirical resources we need to sustain our lives and faith, etc. As Proverbs 31 puts it, we ask God to give us bread needful to our lives lest we despair and deny the Lord, but not too much lest we grow arrogant towards him.

…For Pelagius, our regeneration does not consist in some esoteric spiritual movement in our souls but the reception through faith of the knowledge of the Gospel. This preaching and teaching of the Gospel, granted to us anterior to subjective agency and the crowning gift of God’s grace (Luther’s External Word), constitutes the entirety of our justification and is given utterly without works. Thus it is difficult to see in what sense of the word is Pelagius, erm, Pelagian, since he emphasies the need for the gracious gifts of God for our salvation which is given anterior to our subjective agency or works, whether that gift consists of good faithful teaching of the Gospel or loving Christians to exhibit the love of Christ to us in charitable deeds or literally physical bread to keep us from despairing of life.

Later Reformed thinkers have been a little more nuanced in that while they do not wish to deny the necessity of “Pelagian Grace”, they have attempted to reframe it by calling it mere “common grace”, which while necessary for salvation, is not sufficient for the same. An extra Augustinian boost in our souls is still necessary for us to believe in the Gospel.

However the term “common grace” is rather puzzling in that the gifts which constitutes this so-called “common grace” is anything *but* common. Do all have faithful and good teachers of the Gospel? How common are virtuous or charitable witnesses of Christ? Is economic security necessary for bread common given the amount of poverty and economic disparity in the world? Thus, it seems that “common grace” is in fact rather UNcommon, it’s distribution is unequal, in some cases completely absent or exceedingly rare, all subject to God’s contingent providential decrees.

The root intuition behind this tenacious conviction in the necessity of esoteric grace seems to stem from the observation that people who seemingly receive every external empirical help yet still deny the Gospel. (George Herbert’s poem “Sin” where he lists out all the empirical help God has provided only to be blown away by a single sin describes this conviction very well.) But this observation can still be rightly interpreted under the Pelagian frame in the following way: God’s grace isnt the bare giving of certain disjointed gifts but involves the providential configuration of one’s empirical circumstances as well to lead one to faith. Remember the Proverbs 31 prayer, it is not the mere giving of bread which constitutes the grace of God, but giving of “needful” bread which does, for giving too much may lead to complacency and arrogance, leading one to deny the Lord.

Therefore the idea basically is that even our abilities to acquire civil goods, righteousness or material goods, are empirically delimited and finite. Eventually whether we can acquire them or receive them are due to providential configurations of the empirical factors which enable them.

Thus even with the laws of nature the history of the one is not “determined”. There is a certain amount of contingency of the configuration of particular events and factors which is subject to providential agency to provide or take away our empirical goods, which contingency is beyond the limits of our human management and control. That we receive them is truly the product of divine grace, that is, the divine favouring us with the appropriate arrangement of empirical events and goods to enable our reception of them.


This is merely a very brief outline of a larger systematic program which I am reflecting right how. I shall of course need to do a lot more reading and thinking before I can fully flesh out all its implications and work out all the details and inconsistencies. I trust however that it should provide an interesting project in attempting to reconcile modern materialism/naturalism with theism.


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This entry was posted on September 28, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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