When Thomas Aquinas and Baruch Spinoza write about the God of the Old Testament, they write about numerically the same Biblical character using the same Latin word, Deus. They write about this character, refer to it, and indeed succeed in referring to it. But Aquinas and Spinoza do not believe in the same divine reality. Of course they both believe in a divine reality; but their conceptions of a divine reality are so different that it cannot be maintained -- or so I argue here contra F. Beckwith -- that it is one and the same reality that they believe in. Nor do they succeed in referring to the same reality. Since it cannot be the case that both divine realities exist, one of the two philosophers fails to refer to anything at all. It follows that they cannot be said to worship the same God: one of them worships an idol.
God, Adam, Moses, "and all them prophets good and gone" (Bob Dylan, Gospel Plow) actually exist qua characters in the Biblical narrative. But of course it does not follow that they exist 'outside' the narrative in reality.
A few months ago in the wake of the Wheaton contretemps we were much exercised over the question whether the God of the Christians is the same as the God of the Muslims. I wonder if the distinction between God as Biblical character and God as divine reality can help in that dispute. Perhaps some variants of the dispute arise from a failure to draw this distinction. Perhaps the following irenic proposal will be acceptable:
Christians and Muslims write about, talk about, and refer to one and the same Biblical character when they use 'God' and 'Allah.' In this sense, the God of the Christians and that of the Muslims is the same God. It is one and the same Biblical character, God. But Christians and Muslims do not refer to one and the same divine reality by their uses of 'God' and 'Allah.' This is because extralinguistic reference is conceptually mediated, not direct, and no one item can instantiate both the Christian and the Muslim conceptions of God. Nothing can be both triune and non-triune, to mention just one important different in the two conceptions.
So either the Christian is failing to refer to anything such that his worship is of an idol, or the Muslim is failing to refer to anything such that his worship is of an idol. The situation is strictly parallel to the Aquinas-Spinoza case. The two philosophers are clearly referring to the same Biblical character when they write Deus. But their conceptions of God are so different that they cannot be said to be referring to the same being in external reality.
My suggestion, then, is that some may have got their knickers in a knot for no good reason by failing to make the above-captioned distinction.
According to Ed Buckner over at Dale Tuggy's place,
. . . there is at least one sort of case where it is clear they [Aquinas and Spinoza] are using the name ‘God’ in exactly the same way, namely when they discuss the interpretation of the scriptures. Aquinas does this many times in Summa Theologiae, using the words of the Bible and the Church Fathers to support complex theological and philosophical arguments. Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise is an extensive commentary on the text of the Bible and its meaning, also supported throughout by biblical quotation. So when Thomas writes
According to Chrysostom (Hom. iii in Genes.), Moses prefaces his record by speaking of the works of God (Deus) collectively. (Summa TheologiaeIª q. 68 a. 1 ad 1)
and Spinoza writes
As for the fact that God [Deus] was angry with him [Balak] while he was on his journey, that happened also to Moses when he was setting out for Egypt at the command of God [Dei]. (Tractatus ch. 3, alluding to Exodus 4:24-26)
it is clear that they are talking about the same persons, i.e. they are both talking about God, and they are both talking about Moses. It is somewhat more complicated than that, because Spinoza has a special theory about what the word ‘God’ means in the scriptures, but more of that later. In the present case, it seems clear that whenever we indirectly quote the scriptures, e.g. ‘Exodus 3:1 says that Moses was setting out for Egypt at the command of God’, we are specifying what the Bible says by using the names ‘Moses’ and ‘God’ exactly as the Bible uses them. Bill might disagree here, but we shall see.
I agree that they are both talking about the same persons qua characters in the Old Testament. The fact that Ed puts 'God' and 'Moses' in italics suggests, however, that he thinks that there is more here than reference to Biblical characters: there is also reference to really existent persons, and that our two philosophers are referring to the same really existent persons. But here I suspect that Ed is attempting a reduction of bona fide extralinguistic reference to what I will call text- and discourse-immanent reference, whether intertextual (as in the present case) or intratextual (as in the case of back references within one and the same narrative). If Ed is proposing a reduction -- or God forbid an elimination -- of real extralinguistic reference in favor of some form of discourse-immanent reference, then I have a bone to pick with him.
The issues here are much trickier than one might suspect. They involve questions Ed and I have been wrangling over for years, questions about fiction and intentionality and existence and quantification and logical form and what all else.