This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr Craig,
I have a very simple question: is "God" a proper name that we would use for God as if it's His first or given name? This might seem like a silly question at first but I think when you actually think about it deeply it really does cause some serious metaphysical problems, especially if you reject classical theism (simplicity, timelessness, asiety, etc.). For most of history, Christian theologians have said that 'God' is not a proper name and only gives an approximation to what the divine nature is, namely, the ultimate reality. But it seems to me that if you believe that God is a person like you do, then 'God' would have to be like God's first name which is a very strange idea to me.
Dr. William Lane Craig's Response
There is a surprisingly good discussion of your question in the atheist philosopher J. Howard Sobel’s Logic and Theism, chapter 1. As Sobel explains, the word “God” functions as both a proper name and a common noun. You can usually distinguish the two usages by the presence or absence of a definite/indefinite article prior to the word. So when we say, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” we are using “God” as a proper name. But when we say, “There is a God,” or “We worship the God of Israel,” we are using “God” as a common noun.
It seems to me that there are no lurking “metaphysical problems” here. I disagree that Christian theologians have said that “God” is not a proper name. Quite the contrary, it would be the use of “God” as a common noun that is relatively infrequent. When used as a common noun, “God” can be ambiguous. What properties go to make up the generic concept of a God? In some contexts, being the transcendent Creator and Designer of the universe may be what is meant by a “God.” In other contexts one would want to include perfect goodness as part of what is meant by a “God.” In still other contexts, yet more properties may be added for an entity to count as a God. I don’t see any metaphysical significance in this; we may simply need to clarify in a given context what we mean by the word.
I think that the use of “God” as a common noun almost always entails that God is personal. That’s what we mean by “a God.” But proper names can be given to impersonal entities as well as to personal ones, e.g., Mt. Rushmore, Titanic, Route 66. The reason that most people think that when using “God” as a proper noun God is personal is because they already think that the entity referred to by that term is personal.
This Q&A and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website.