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On the Coherence of Christian Atheism1

  • Colin Lyas (a1)


I begin with some remarks on Christian Atheism and the Death of God Theology. These are not, as might be thought, identical movements. Rather, as I shall try to make clear, Christian Atheism is one form that the Death of God theology has assumed.



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2 Vahanian, Gabriel, The Death of God (New York: Braziller) 1961, Cox, Harvey, The Secular City (New York: Macmillan Paperbacks) 1965, Hamilton, William, The New Essence of Christianity (New York: Association Press) 1961, Altizer, Thomas, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (London: Collins) 1967 and van Buren, Paul, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (London: S.C.M. Press) 1963. It should be stressed that the work by Hamilton cited here is not representative of his present views but represents an earlier theistic stage in his thinking, cf. footnote 5 below.

3 See The Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press) 1967, p. 7.

4 For more on the classification of the Death of God Theology see Pailin, J., “A Christian Possibility of proclaiming the ‘Death of God’”, Church Quarterly I (1969) and Montgomery, John Warwick, The ‘Is God Dead?’ Controversy (Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan) 1967. Although my classification is somewhat like that proposed by Montgomery, I do not think he makes sufficient distinction between what he calls “literalists” and “non-literalists”. Van Buren, Hamilton and Altizer are all classed together by Montgomery whereas I want to show that Altizer is a man on his own in the Death of God movement. I do not think that either Pailin or Montgomery fully realize the fundamental philosophical issues raised by Altizer's attempt to assert that God is literally dead.

5 See Hamilton, William, “The Shape of Radical Theology” in The Christian Century LXXXII 1965 and van Buren, op. cit. p. 103.

6 See Altizer, op. cit. p. 113.

7 See Mehta, VedThe New Theologian. I. Ecce Homo”, The New Yorker XLI 11 13, 1965, p. 153. This is reprinted in his book The New Theologian, (New York: Weidenfeld) 1965.

8 See The Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue, op. cit. p. 22ff.

9 Altizer also relies heavily on the work of Mircea Eliade, in particular on Eliade's notion of concidentia oppositorium. Apparently Eliade is not happy with the use that Altizer has made of his work and finds difficulty in understanding Altizer's theology, see The Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue, p. 27.

10 The Gospel of Christian Atheism, p. 86.

11 Ibid. pp. 79–80.

12 The Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue, p. 8.

13 Ibid. p. 17.

14 The Gospel of Christian Atheism, passim., e.g. pp. 42 ff.

15 The Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue, p. 17. Such passages are not uncommon in Altizer's work. The work “energy” in particular seems to have some mystical significance for Altizer, e.g., “The Christian in response to death knows full well that he must die … and therein enters into a final union with the word, not in an immortal transcendait realm, but rather somehow finally in the centre of everything that we know is life and energy” (ibid. p. 78, see also p. 14, 13, and the particularly purple passage on pp. 71–72).

16 Ibid., pp. 71–2.

17 Ibid., p. 69.

18 Ibid., p. 60. Later when asked what to do about competing accounts, e.g. Marxist accounts, his reply is, “I didn't repudiate Marxism”. The question is should he repudiate Marxist accounts, and if not why not?

19 Cf. The Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue, pp. 910.

20 See the footnoted references in Frankfort, Harry's “The Logic of OmnipotencePhilosophical Review LXXIII 1964, pp. 262263. For more on omnipotence see Mavrodes, George I., “Some Puzzles Concerning Omnipotence”, Philosophical Review LXXII 1963, pp. 221223 and Savage, C. Wade, “The Paradox of the Stone”, Philosophical Review LXXVI 1967, pp. 7479.

21 Miller, Leonard, ‘Descartes, Mathematics and God’, Philosophical Review LXVI 1957.

22 Proslogion, ch. VIII.

23 Summa Theologia, Q. XXV, Art. 3.

24 For more on the notion of necessary being see Kenny, Anthony, “God and Necessity” in British Analytical Philosophy (eds. Williams, and Montefiore, ) (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul) 1966 and “Necessary Being”, Sophia I, 1962. See also Hughes, and Rainier, “Can God's Existence be Disproved” in New Essays in Philosophical Theology (eds. Flew, and MacIntyre, ) (London: SCM Press), 1963 and Anscombe, G. E. M. and Geach, P. T., Three Philosophers (Oxford: Blackwell), 1961, pp. 77ff. and pp. 121ff.

25 “Can God's Existence be Disproved?” in Flew, and MacIntyre, , op. cit.

26 Ibid., p. 52.

27 “Anselm's Ontological Arguments” reprinted in Hick, John (ed.), The Existence of God (New York: Macmillan Paperbacks). Page references are to this edition.

28 Proslogion, ch. III.

29 Op. cit., p. 56.

30 Malcolm claims more than this of course on the grounds that the statement, “If God exists He necessarily exists” is out of order, but cf. Plantinga, Alvin, “A Valid Ontological Argument?” in Philosophical Review LXX, 1961. I shall restrict myself to a consideration of the restricted claim “If God exists, he necessarily exists”.

31 Cf. Pailin op. cit., Altizer's talk of kenosisas the emptying of one realm and the filling of another suggests the transformation of God rather than His death. That Altizer nonetheless wishes to insist on the death of God rather than his transformation is made clear by the passage quoted in Section I above, see footnote 6.

32 Cf. Williams, Bernard, “Tertullian's Paradox” in Flew, and MacIntyre, , op. cit., especially pp. 203–5.

33 From a contradiction anything follows (including Altizer's philosophy!) see Copi, , Symbolic Logic (New York: Macmillan) 1954, p. 56, or any other introductory text in logic.

34 For more remarks on this see Hepburn, Ronald, Christianity and Paradox (LondonWatts) 1966, chs. 9 and 10, and Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology (London: Nisbet) 1955, Vol. 1, pp. 231 ff.

35 Some may have difficulties with the notion, apparently essential to my case, of God as a moral agent. They are of course all sorts of difficulties here, in particular difficulties about anthropomorphism. I don't think we have to make the case in terms of God as a moral agent, though I would prefer to since this allows me to talk of the God of love. Professor Smart has pointed out to me that we can construct the case I have in mind by reference to many other sorts of acts, e.g. the supremely impressive act might conceivably not be possible for a being that could not cease to exist. This still of course leaves difficulties about anthropomorphism, but those I do not consider here. I am interested hi beliefs about God that are held by many religious people and with certain difficulties raised in the context of these beliefs.

36 Cf. Plantinga op. cit. and Henle, Paul, “Uses of the Ontological Argument”, Philosophical Review LXX 1961.

37 Malcolm, op. cit. pp. 66–7.

1 Earlier versions of this paper were read to a Deanery meeting in Workington and to the Society for the Study of Religion at the University of Lancaster. I am grateful for helpful comments made at these meetings.

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