Sunday, July 30, 2017

Some Thoughts on Deism

James Sire has a fine analysis of deism in his work The Universe Next Door, 5th edition (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 47-65.  He makes a distinction between “cold deists” and “warm deists.”  Cold deists, like Voltaire were hostile to Christianity whereas warm deists, like Benjamin Franklin and John Locke, were friendly to Christianity.  Some warm deists believed in some form of providence.  Sire aptly notes:

Deism is the historical result of the decay of robust Christian theism.  That is, specific commitments and beliefs of traditional Christianity are gradually abandoned.  The first and most significant belief to be eroded was the full personhood and trinitarian nature of God.  Reducing God to a force or ultimate intelligence eventually had catastrophic results.[1]

Later Sire concludes:

[D]eism has not been a stable compound.  The reasons for this are not hard to see. Deism is dependent on Christian theism for its affirmations.  It is dependent on what it omits for its particular character.  The first and most important loss was its rejection of the full personal character of God.  God, in the minds of many in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, kept his omnipotence, his character as creator and, for the most part, his omniscience, but he lost his omnipresence (his intimate connection with and interest in his creation).  Eventually he lost even his will, becoming a mere abstract intelligent force, providing a sufficient reason for the existence of the universe whose origin otherwise could not be explained.[2]

Avery Dulles has also, pointed out some weaknesses in the deistic conception of God (at least in its 17th and 18th century versions) in his article “The Deist Minimum.”[3]  A few of Dulles’ criticisms are as follows:

(1) “Deism also suffered from grave philosophical weaknesses… Their epistemology was a shallow empiricism and their cosmology a universalized physics, both of which crumbled when faced with the penetrating critiques of David Hume and Immanuel Kant.”  (2) Deism “suffered from some internal tensions.  If there is an omnipotent God, capable of designing the entire universe and launching it into existence, it seems strange to hold that this God cannot intervene in the world He made or derogate from the laws He had established.”  (3)  “If God was infinite in being, moreover, it was unreasonable to reject the notion of mystery.  It would seem quite natural to suppose that there are depths of the divine being surpassing all that could be inferred from the created world.  We cannot know what is going on in the minds of our fellow human beings unless they manifest it by word or deed.  How much less, then, could we grasp the thoughts of God unless He were to disclose them to us by revelation?  Since God knows far more about Himself and His plans than His creatures do, it is difficult to see why He could not reveal truths hidden from reason that would be important for persons such as ourselves.”  (4) “[T]he deist God, who ceased to be active after launching the world into existence, seemed to be a useless vestige of the God of biblical religion.  If God never intervened in the world, His existence could only be, from a human perspective, superfluous.  It would be pointless to pray to Him or expect any blessings from Him.... Thus deism came to be a halfway house on the road to atheism.”  (5)  “Deism also fails as a religion.  Its static deity was a pallid reflection of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus Christ.  The religion of the New Testament and of orthodox Christianity offered hope and consolation that lay far beyond the powers of deism.  The gospel assures us that God never ceases to be active in the world: He freely calls us to Himself, hears our prayers, and enriches our lives with His grace.  The doctrine that God became man in order to raise us to share in His own divine life satisfied a deep desire of the human heart to which deism could not respond.  It was impossible to enter into communion of life and love with the cold and distant God of deism.

     [1] James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog—5th ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 53.

     [2] Sire, The Universe Next Door, 59.

     [3] Avery Dulles, “The Deist Minimum” First Things (January 2005)—available online: