The Infinity of God

New Perspectives in Theology and Philosophy

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Benedikt Paul Göcke, Christian Tapp
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , December
     444 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This important collection of essays, edited by renowned German philosophers of religion Benedikt P. Göcke and Christian Tapp, is the first of its kind to be exclusively devoted to the largely neglected concept of divine infinity. In a tentative minimal consensus definition, the two editors define the God of biblical revelation and philosophical reasoning alike as the creative and salvific first principle of all things. God’s infinity may be approached in a categorematic and a syncategorematic manner. According to the first, infinity is a divine quality in its own right. According to the second, infinity is not a quality added to God’s other perfections, but a major modifier of each one of them.

The historical first part traces the development of the Western doctrine of divine infinity from Pre-Socratic metaphysics to 20th century mathematics. As is shown by Franz Krainer, there has been a distinction between quantitative and qualitative infinity ever since the dawn of philosophical speculation in pre-Socratic cosmology. Only in the work ofGregory of Nyssa did infinity become a predicate of God in a largely negative theology. Adam Drozdek distinguishes various phases in Augustine’s thought. While initially subscribing to God’s spatial or quantitative infinity in his early Manichaean phase, Augustine came to reject it in favor of a more qualitative or apophatic account of this elusive divine attribute after his conversion to Christian Neoplatonism. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas’ subtle discussion of the concept of question is shown by William E. Carroll to hinge upon his emphasis upon God as creator. Thomas defines God’s qualitative infinity in terms of his transcendence vis-à-vis all forms on the eminent analogy of intelligible perfections like “whiteness.”

According to Christina Schneider, Gottfried W. Leibniz views God as infinite in contemplating all possible worlds and choosing to create the best of them in perfect omniscience and all-goodness. Leibniz adopts a cosmology of a world composed of an infinity of monads. Immanuel Kant is shown by Ruben Schneider to follow the scholastic tradition in targeting content-rich concepts of the first principle alone. In Georg W.F. Hegel, whom Robert M. Wallace reads as a Platonist, the divine spirit is revealed to be an infinite first ground of unlimited freedom, which the finite spirit is called upon to approach in all its products, whether scientific or aesthetical. Christian Tapp provides an in-depth account of Bernard Bolzano’s concept of infinity in mathematics, philosophy, and theology. God is defined in Bolzano’s natural theology as an “unconditional real” endowed with infinite power and knowledge, thus possessing the capacity to produce quantitatively unlimited effects and know quantitatively unlimited truths. It was on account of this deeply held faith that the mathematician Georg Cantor, as is detailed by Bruce A. Hedman, went to great lengths to distinguish the transfinite from the absolute infinity specific to God alone. Transfinite reality was believed by Cantor to be itself grounded in God’s absolute infinity.

The more systematic second part is introduced by Bernhard Lang’s survey of the coming-to-be of the concept of divine omnipotence in archaic, post-exile, and apocalyptic biblical literature. Richard Swinburne provides an analytic account of God’s omnipotence. Swinburne defines divine omnipotence as God’s capacity to bring about any possible contingent event on the basis of his intrinsic goodness and comprehensive knowledge about all necessary and contingent truths. An alternative account of the infinity of God’s power is furnished by Kenneth L. Pearce. Omnipotence is conceived of as an original first notion of infinite power prior to all finite powers arrived at by imposing restrictions upon a primordial power per se. In a defense of open theism, William Hasker rejects an inevitably pantheist concept of infinity prevalent in classical and contemporary theology. He opts for a qualitative understanding in which God’s power and knowledge are shown to be the greatest possible instantiations of the corresponding human perfections, including divine foreknowledge that is one of probability, rather than certainty.

By contrast, Paul Helm opts for divine atemporality. He applies the category of infinity to divine transcendence over all indefinite temporal duration. At the center of Brian Leftow’s essay is the question of God’s infinite goodness exercised in moral virtues. Leftow subscribes to Aquinas’ view of the infinity of goodness as the greatest possible instantiation of moral perfection. A qualitative maximum is shown to be compatible with quantitative differences in the number of good acts.

In addition, Ken Perszyk argues for the incompatibility of the two classical divine qualities of infinity and personhood. If personhood requires as sine qua non a form of agency with other agents, it is inapplicable to an infinite substance. Thomas Schärtl highlights the crucial relationship between divine infinity and simplicity. If it were not for the one God’s infinity, the three trinitarian persons, in Gregory’s view, might well erroneously be seen as three individuals. In response to A. N. Whitehead’s assumption of a complete symmetry between God and the world, Philip Clayton restates the categorical supremacy of the divine on the basis of its infinity. He places God’s qualitative infinity above the finite perfections of the world created and guided by God. In his concluding enquiry into the quantitative and the qualitative infinity of God, Benedikt Paul Göcke views the former as being of only limited systematic usefulness. Of crucial systematic significance is God’s qualitative infinity attached to him as the source of all finite reality. Whereas matter is underdetermined negative-qualitative infinity, possessing neither a quality nor its opposite, the infinite first principle is overdetermined positive qualitative infinity possessing both a quality and its opposite.

The essay collection by Göcke and Tapp provides a highly stimulating survey of a range of concepts of divine infinity. Special praise is due to the editors’ own introductory and concluding essays which treat the subject of divine infinity with particular metaphysical acuity and rare analytic conciseness. This essay collection is very likely to remain the standard reference book on a particularly demanding topic of the philosophy of religion as well as one of the finest recent publications in the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christian Hengstermann is Associate Lecturer at the Department of Classics at the University of Wuppertal.

Date of Review: 
November 27, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benedikt Paul Göcke is Professor of Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Religion at Ruhr-Universität Bochum and a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University.

Christian Tapp is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Interdisciplinary Questions in Philosophy and Theology at Ruhr-Universität Bochum.


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