A portrait painting of Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza’s View of God

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Benedict de Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish-Dutch philosopher, probably most famous for his pantheistic leanings. Pantheism is the view that reality and God are one and the same. In the past I have read plenty of secondary material about Spinoza, and have for a long time been wanting to read his most famous publication, a book entitled ‘Ethics’. I downloaded the audiobook version of Ethics a few months ago but it’s been gathering virtual dust on my phone. Today I finally got around to giving it a listen.

The audiobook is over eight hours long, and I’m only a couple of hours in, so I may return to write another post about Spinoza’s philosophy in the not-too-distant future when I have a more comprehensive understanding of his thought. For today, I wanted to present a few quotes from the book that really resonated with me, and also a few quotes that I found problematic.

Let’s begin, then, with some phrases from the book that I found particularly compelling. I will present a few quotes, followed by a few brief comments. I don’t need to elaborate on every quotation as I go along, as they are fairly self-explanatory. Please forgive me for being unable to provide page references, but such is the nature of the newfangled world of audiobooks.

Spinoza’s belief that God isn’t embodied:

For all who have in anywise reflected upon the divine nature deny that God has a body. Of this, they find excellent proof in the fact that we understand by body a definite quantity — so long, so broad, so deep, bounded by a certain shape — and it is the height of absurdity to predicate such a thing of God, a being absolutely infinite.

Why God isn’t a substance:

If extended substance is infinite, let it be conceived to be divided into two parts. Each part will then be either finite or infinite. If the former, then infinite substance is composed of two finite parts, which is absurd. If the latter, then one infinite will be twice as large as another infinite, which is also absurd.

Extended substance must necessarily be finite, and consequently cannot appertain to the nature of God.

The Freedom of God:

Without God, nothing can be nor be conceived, but that all things are in God. Wherefore nothing can exist, outside Himself, whereby He can be conditioned or constrained to act. Wherefore God acts solely by the laws of His own nature and is not constrained by anyone.

God is the sole free cause, for God alone exists by the necessity of His nature.

God is not separate from existence:

God is the indwelling and not the transient cause of all things.

All is God:

Individual things are nothing but modifications of the attributes of God, or modes by which the attributes of God are expressed in a fixed and definite manner.

So far, so good! I can really relate to many of Spinoza’s statements concerning the nature of God. For many years now I have believed that God cannot be embodied, because a body would mean God is limited. I mean, think about it. Can you envisage a place where God physically exists, where there is an end to His being? It seems obvious to me that there are no boundaries in existence, and that God must therefore be boundless.

There are also some aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy that I disagree with. He seems to argue that God doesn’t have free will, and that things couldn’t exist in any way that is different to the manner in which they do exist. This is counter-intuitive to me, as I certainly believe creation could have been very different — it all depends on what God freely chooses to manifest.

Spinoza wrote,

Although it be granted that will pertains to the essence of God, it nevertheless follows from His perfection that things could not have been by Him created other than they are or in a different order.

And another statement I find difficult to agree with…

Whatsoever we conceive to be in the power of God necessarily exists.

I believe God has infinite power, but it doesn’t logically follow from this that everything within God’s power exists. I believe God could create alternate realities where different aspects of His power are displayed.

All things are predetermined by God, not through His free will or absolute fiat, but from the very nature of God or infinite power.

I disagree with the above quotation because I don’t believe everything is predetermined by God. I see God as living and acting in the eternal now, unfolding all events as He wills in this moment. It’s perfectly possible that God makes plans, but I believe He is also free to improvise and change things depending on what He wills for His creation at any given time. This view of mine seems to be quite different to that of Spinoza.

Everything in nature proceeds from a sort of necessity.

I simply disagree with this. What is it that Spinoza believes is making everything in nature necessarily proceed in the way it does? There is no such constraining force or power. God acts to bring about all events in existence, not by necessity, but by free choice.

As I continue to listen to the remainder of the audiobook, I’m looking forward to learning more about Spinoza’s conception of God, because while I can relate in many ways to his pantheism, I don’t yet feel I fully understand the way in which he views God’s relationship with the unfolding events of reality.


What are your views on pantheism and the quotations from Spinoza presented above? Feel free to leave a comment below. Thank you for reading!

18 comments

  1. I dabbled in the Determinist vs Libertarian view of free will a bit, and I think Spinoza is coming from that Determinist point of view that because Nature itself is ordered and fixed (laws of nature cannot possibly be violated, for instance), then life must be so as well. I don’t agree with this at all.

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    1. Hi Peter! That’s very interesting, as if you’re correct and Spinoza believes nature is ordered and fixed, I would want to ask Spinoza what he believes God is doing right now. I find it hard to reconcile God being everywhere with an ordered and fixed universe. I believe the laws of nature only operate on any particular occasion if God wills it (which is admittedly quite an unusual perspective, although there are theologians called ‘occasionalists’ who also hold this view). Thanks so much for your comment!

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  2. Although it is interesting to read others’ POV on God, I don’t adopt anything that freelances outside of the Bible. But that’s just me. Also, curious timing, since last night I tried to read “The Philosophy of Spinoza” (free on Kindle) but ended up falling asleep 😁 Oops!

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    1. Hi Yari! I can certainly understand why, as a Christian, you wouldn’t want to stray from Biblical teaching. That is a coincidence that you were reading about Spinoza last night! Not that I believe in coincidences, as God is in control of all things 😉

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  3. Spinoza’s an interesting character from Enlightenment rationalization. I personally don’t think he was a pantheist, but believed in a hard form of panentheism. This is from Wikipedia:
    “According to German philosopher Karl Jaspers, when Spinoza wrote “Deus sive Natura” (God or Nature) Spinoza did not mean to say that God and Nature are interchangeable terms, but rather that God’s transcendence was attested by his infinitely many attributes, and that two attributes known by humans, namely Thought and Extension, signified God’s immanence. Furthermore, Martial Guéroult suggested the term “panentheism”, rather than “pantheism” to describe Spinoza’s view of the relation between God and the world.”

    To that, he comes closer to Christian theology. You could say that Christian theology is a weak form of panentheism. God interacts with His creation through His divine energies but not His divine essence. And the latter is where I think Spinoza is right. God’s essence is infinite (divine simplicity), but I think he’s wrong about nature, which is not necessary but contingent and limited.

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    1. Very interesting, Mel. Spinoza seems to use the term ‘attributes’ in quite an unusual way. Interesting that you describe Spinoza as a kind of ‘hard panentheist’ — someone used that phrase in relation to my own perspective recently and I think it could be quite accurate. I actually identify with both pantheism and panentheism, and feel as though there is truth in both terms. In any case, I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of Ethics, if I have the patience to get through it! 🙂

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  4. Thanks for the this educational post. I have heard Spinoza’s name, but have never read anything by him or even read a summary of his thought that I can remember. Clearly a huge hole in my education.

    I agree with other commenters that Spinoza seems to be espousing a very deterministic view of God, in which God is not so much a person as an “it.” It also seems to me that this philosophy, if it is consistent with the quotes you posted, necessarily excludes the existence of beings that are not God but nevertheless are persons who have thoughts and free will.

    We know this view is not true because of our own experience of being persons who can make choices and alter events in the world. And, if we accept the authority of Scripture, the Bible clearly portrays a world in which persons exist and are able to choose for good or ill … and in which God is a person first and foremost, and in fact we see Him reacting to the choices of other selves as well as appealing to them to make certain choices and reject others.

    I will say that Spinoza’s deterministic philosophy is perfectly logically consistent. That’s the appeal of determinism. The arguments make so much sense and seem irresistible. The only problem is that they have all these implications that clash badly both with how God addresses us in Scripture and with our own experience of the world.

    This reminds me of the satire Candide, in which the characters are assured they are living in the “best of all possible worlds,” when they clearly aren’t.

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    1. Hi Jennifer!

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. There’s so much I could say in response, but I’ll stick to one or two thoughts. Your comment highlights something that has been a struggle for me spiritually, which is whether to follow and believe arguments that seem reasonable, or whether to exercise ‘blind faith’ in Scripture and follow Jesus to the best of my ability. Of course, it’s really not that simple, because there is no one correct interpretation of Scripture. People who call themselves Christians disagree with one another on pretty much every area of doctrine, so faith is more complicated than if someone were to simply say they follow the teachings of Scripture.

      Actually, after thinking deeply about Scripture and the issue of interpretation, I realised that meaning is not inherent in the words of Scripture, as though somehow markings on a page contained ideas within their ink (or pixels!). Instead, understanding works because God brings thoughts and ideas to our minds as we read and reflect. This is the case when we read anything, including the Scriptures of religions other than Christianity. Seeing interpretation in this way depends on an understanding that God is in control of everything that happens (including the thoughts of all thinking beings), which I firmly believe is the case, but is a troubling proposition for Christians who believe in free will.

      I’d like to elaborate further, but will end my comment here for the sake of brevity. This is all discussed at length in my book God’s Grand Game, should that be of interest to you or anyone else reading.

      Thanks again, Jennifer!

      Steven

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  5. Regarding free will: I don’t know Spinoza but it sounds like he’s drawing on the idea that the virtuous cannot help but be virtuous. By extension God in His perfection can only will what is perfect.
    There is nothing outside of God that could constrain his will, so in that sense he is “free”. But often we interpret free will to mean “could have done otherwise”, and in that sense God is arguably not free.
    It sounds wrong to say that God is not free. But proponents of that view would say its an absurd definition of freedom.

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    1. Hi Zalstin!

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      There is nothing outside of God that could constrain his will, so in that sense he is “free”. But often we interpret free will to mean “could have done otherwise”, and in that sense God is arguably not free.

      That’s interesting that you believe God arguably couldn’t do otherwise. It seems to me that He is free to manifest any creation He chooses. He seems to be able to bring material objects, for instance, in and out of existence in any way He chooses (although perhaps you would disagree?).

      I do believe there are some constraints on God. For instance, I don’t believe God could create another omnipresent god, because to have two omnipresent gods is logically impossible. Also, I don’t think God has the power to cease existing, as I think existence is part of His nature. These are just a couple of examples.

      I like to say God is omnipotent in respect of everything that is possible in reality.

      Anyway, just a few thoughts in response to your thought-provoking comment!

      Best wishes,

      Steven

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      1. Hi Steven.
        I don’t worry about the theology too much these days 😉 but your post on Spinoza just called to mind some of my past studies on free will.

        When you write “It seems to me that He is free to manifest any creation He chooses”, for me that is also true in terms of God’s power to do what he chooses, but it still leaves unaddressed the question of what he chooses and how he chooses it. And that’s the domain of will and questions of free will.
        To my mind it’s like asking a master artist about their greatest painting and asking “could you have painted it differently?”
        The answer I imagine would be a bemused “of course, but this is the way I chose to do it, as the most authentic expression of my art”.

        This is probably all academic, but for all intents as purposes I believe God created the universe in the most perfect way possible (whatever that means) so we can have faith in his providence no matter how things might look from our perspective at times.

        Thank you for the conversation 😊
        Zac

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  6. What fascinates me is how humankind’s views and beliefs about God evolves with time and one’s culture. It’s good that we think deeply and debate on what form God may take and ‘his’ attributes. Speaking for myself, I lean on a personal experience of God. I hope I have contributed something to the discussion as I’m no philosopher! ☺

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    1. Hi Lesley! If you think deeply about life’s big questions then you ARE a philosopher, and of course it’s great to get your thoughts 🙂 Personal experience of God is very important. As I say in God’s Grand Game, people won’t believe in God unless He reveals Himself in some way, and this is often experiential (although, admittedly, it can be an intellectual choice, purely as a result of reasoning from what’s presented in Scripture, for instance). Take care and thanks for reading! 🙂

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  7. This concept that God is in everything is popular today, as it has been in eastern religions as well. It’s draw is that it rightly attributes infinite power and presence to God, but it denies or conveniently ignores a personal loving God. Yeshua resolved those issues completely and utterly. The question of free will came up, which does not apply to God who’s will is overriding in all matters and outside the bounds of nature, time, space, or the other dimensions we can not concieve. For me Sovereignty explains predestination and reduces free will to a choice between coffee or tea. Nice post.

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  8. I definitely see the commonality between the first few quotes and your views from your recent book! The assertions about nature are perplexing to me. Philosophy and theology are too deep for me sometimes, haha. It is interesting to ask whether God is controlling nature all the time or whether He created the laws of nature “run themselves” most of the time.

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    1. Hi Lily! Spinoza’s style is very dry (too dry for me!). I struggled to finish his book. I’m glad I wrote this post though as this was the bit I could get my head around! As for the question of God’s involvement in nature, I think it helps to consider what exactly God is, and where He is, and what He is doing right now. It’s by considering these questions that I got to where I am philosophically. Thank you for your comment, you’re such a star! 🌟

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