The Nature of God: Moses Maimonides

Moses Maimonides

The Basic Philosophical Problem

How is God not just a powerful alien?

  • Plato's complaints against Homer's Gods
  • Plato's challenge in the Republic (Virtue is intrinsically desirable), combined with a duty of reverence.

Perfection Theology

Plato's Strategy

Starting Point

Divine Perfection

The Divine is

  1. Unchanging
  2. An absolute unity
  3. In some respects, infinite (ἄπειρον---unlimited)

Duty of reverence is rather natural.

Might conflict with traditional religious teaching (e.g. in the case of the pre-eternity of the world, doctrine of Aristotle and Falsafia)


Biblical Challenges

  1. God's Body: Sits on a throne in revelation, has lapis lazuli under his feet when viewed by Moses in Exodus
  2. Appears to act, but action seems to require change
  3. Undergoes emotional changes (becomes angry, is appeased)

Mu'tazilite hermeneutic tradition: When scripture conflicts with reason, we read allegorically.


Augustine The Literal Interpretation of Genesis

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world... may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.

What then, can we say about God?

Maimonides' Forms of Predication

  1. By Definition
  1. By Essential Attribute
  1. By Quality
    1. Intellectual and Moral
    2. Physical
    3. Passive or Emotional
    4. Relating to Quantity
  1. By Relation

Appears not to require plurality

But, requires commensurability

  1. By Action

A plurality of actions does not imply plurality of actors. Consider fire, or the human mind.

Mental Attributes

When God performs an action,

we ascribe to God that emotion which is the source of the act when performed by ourselves, and call Him an epithet which is is formed by a verb expressing that emotion.

The Via Negativa (Way of Negation)

Problem: Aren't you contradicting yourself, when you describe God as indescribable?

Solution: Only negative things---God is not composite, God is not limited, God is not definable, God is not feeble, God is not ignorant

Negative predication does not imply plurality.


  1. Is there really a difference between negative and positive predication?

  2. Is "the infinite" an essentially negative concept? (or is negation essentially tied up with infinity?)