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There was a quote of ex-South Carolina governor Mark Sanford in his victory speech in the House vacant seat election in the New York Times article (May 13) written by Gail Collins under the title “Guess who’s back”:

“I want to acknowledge a God not just of second chances, but third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth chances,”

I thought the word, ‘God’ is an uncountable noun, - unless you are in a polytheist world.

(BTW, according to Japanese myth, there are 8 million! gods and godess in the universe).

Is it grammatically right to place an infinite article before the capitalized 'God'?

Did he mean that there is a merciful God who awarded him many chances albeit a lot of scandalous misconducts he had committed among many Gods, or there is a merciful aspect of God in the God?

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Since answer correctness might be dependent on a belief in God or gods, this can only be answered subjectively. –  Dynrepsys May 9 '13 at 22:22
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As an aside, 'God' or 'god' is not a mass noun in English. There may be some contentious theology but syntactically 'God' is a proper noun (a name) and 'god' is a count noun. –  Mitch May 10 '13 at 12:10
    
@Dynrepsys I think the question can be answered in the context of the speaker's avowed religions beliefs; given that Mark Sanford is an Episcopalian, and thus believes in a single God, how can we explain his chosen turn of phrase? –  Michael Edenfield May 10 '13 at 15:03
    
It takes a John Lawler to give a systematic answer to this, but the indefinite article here has nothing to do with God being just one. I'm sure a good answer will come forth on ELL as much as a generic answer can be found on most references on writing. (Apologies, if need be, to Prof JL for invoking the name as an apt example.) –  Kris May 10 '13 at 15:08
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8 million factorial? Do you have any idea how big of a number that is? –  Lincoln Bergeson May 24 '13 at 1:24
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10 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The structure "a God of [X]", when referring to "the God" is in fact Biblical. See for example:

  • Psalm 68:20 "Our God is a God of salvation"
  • Gen 16:13 “You are a God of seeing”
  • Isa 30:18 "For the Lord is a God of justice"
  • 1 Cor 14:33 "For God is not a God of confusion but of peace."
  • Jer 51:56 "for the Lord is a God of recompense"
  • Deut 32:4 "A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,"
  • 1 Sam 2:3 "for the Lord is a God of knowledge"

In fact, although the Jewish/Christian Bible is monotheistic in that it acknowledges only one true God, it also understands that surrounding cultures are polytheistic. So, often scripture will speak of other "gods", even though it insists that they are false gods. See, for example Isa 37:19:

[the Kings of Assyria] have cast their gods into the fire. For they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone.

So despite it's recognition of the polytheistic cultures of the day in forms like "a god", at the end of the day the Bible will continue to insist on the uniqueness of God (Jude 1:25):

to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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+1 for Bible as a source for this structure. –  Jeff May 10 '13 at 14:44
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I would also add that he might very well be quoting from a Veggie Tales song: "Our God is a god of second chances!" –  Jon Ericson May 10 '13 at 16:43
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Earliest reference I could find to the phrase is from a sermon from 1985, but there it is "the God of second chances", which is a bit different from the "a God of X" form. Bill Clinton used "a God of second chances" in 1994 on World News Tonight. Surely he's not the first politician to turn disapproval around with references to Christianity, but he does seem to have set the precedent doing so with this particular phrase. –  Ray May 10 '13 at 17:06
    
That said, his sons would have ranged in age from about 3 to 9 at the time Veggie Tales release the Jonah movie, which contained the song @JonEricson references. It is not at all unlikely that his exposure to that song was far greater than a sermon or political reference from years prior. –  Ray May 10 '13 at 17:08
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Excellent biblical citations! Bravo! –  rhetorician May 11 '13 at 2:45
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I would suggest that "a god" (small "g") is perfectly acceptable, meaning one god out of (possibly) many gods, whereas I would understand "God" (capital "G" as for a personal name or other proper noun) to be referring to one specific god (often, but not necessarily, the Christian God).

On the other hand, in the particular context you quote (“I want to acknowledge a God not just of second chances, ..."), I think the usage of the indefinite article is normal, as in the song "There'll always be an England, and England shall be free, ...". Equally you could say "I want an America that is free of guns ..." (just to pick a topical subject - not expressing an opinion!).

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+1 for showing that this question doesn't actually depend on the definition of "God". –  Marthaª May 10 '13 at 21:50
    
This is a good answer - it always slightly annoys me when an atheist characterises their position as "not believing in God". For me, a much better definition is "not believing in gods". –  tinyd May 20 '13 at 10:32
    
@tinyd Atheists differ from monotheists by only 1 in the number of gods whose existence they deny. –  Dilip Sarwate May 20 '13 at 12:23
    
@DilipSarwate Arguable! Surely atheists deny the existence of the Christian god, the Muslim god, the Hindu god, ... ? So you could equally argue that atheists deny the existence of an infinite number of gods. –  TrevorD May 20 '13 at 12:31
    
@DilipSarwate - you're making the exact point that I was disagreeing with. Atheists aren't usually 'anti' a single religion. If they were, you'd get "Christian atheists" and "Muslim atheists" and so on. As TrevorD says, atheists deny the existence of all past, current and future gods. –  tinyd May 20 '13 at 14:12
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Not knowing anything about Governor Sanford's beliefs in a Supreme Being, I can only guess (as did Dynrepsys, above) he is speaking of God in the abstract.

Perhaps an illustration would he helpful. Let's say a young person who has just graduated from college is thinking about entering the teaching profession. He might say to himself,

"What kind of teacher do I want to be? Well, I'd like to be a teacher who is excited about his subject matter, who cares about his students, and who considers teaching to be a true calling in life."

Similarly, Mr. Sanford, at some point, has also asked an abstract question:

"What kind of a God do I worship?"

He perhaps answered the question in this way:

"I worship a God who forgives, and a God who forgives us more than just once, because that is the kind of God He is--a forgiving and merciful God."

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You've got some big nuts. I think you could strike everything starting with "To confess means" and still have a decent answer to OP's question. –  Jim May 10 '13 at 6:05
    
@RhysW: No offense intended for my lengthy answer, and none taken for your edit. My primary--my only--motivation was to give the OP--and any other person who cared to read it--a succinct summary of the meaning and possible implications--granted, from my perspective and based on my presuppositions--of referring to God in the abstract, particularly as a forgiving and merciful God. My heart goes out to people who sincerely want to know more about "a God" of the second chance. If only one person besides yourself and Jim read my answer, I am more than a little satisfied. –  rhetorician May 10 '13 at 16:04
    
judging by your three upvotes, youve had some readers :) My edit wasn't intended to silence your views or anything, was just trying to cut down on the words so that everything that remained was relevant to the question, so that those with short attention spans dont skip right over an otherwise good answer –  RhysW May 10 '13 at 16:06
    
@Jim: 'Not sure about the size of my gonads, but as the Apostle Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the [non-Jew]" (Romans 1:16 NASB, Updated Edition). That's it in a nutshell. –  rhetorician May 10 '13 at 16:10
    
@RhysW: Gotcha. –  rhetorician May 10 '13 at 16:21
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Since answer correctness might be dependent on a belief in God or gods, this can only be answered subjectively.

It is acceptable for even a strict monotheist to use the phrase "A God" when speaking about the deity in abstract. In Sanford's quote, he's assessing his belief in his God (the God, according to him) using the suggestion that, in abstract, more than one god of a type might potentially exist, and if so he would want the one with the quality he chooses (mercy) to actually exist.

(Hope that wasn't too much emphasis.)

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Frank Wedekind came up with the very quotable

God made man in his own image, and man returned the favour.

There are probably as many different views of God as there are people holding any. And doubtless all of them are deficient - as Tony Ling has said, "Of course, you're on a loser with theology - it's man trying to understand God."

The monotheistic religions hold that there is only one God (though Christianity teaches three persons in one God) and that His nature is independent of the various views religious people hold. Saying "I want a God who ..." really means "I want God to be exactly this way". It's really presuming to instruct God on how He'd better run things for us - assuming we know better than He does.

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The Christian God, at least here in the USA, is occasionally referred to as "The God of Second Chances". It isn't the typical way of addressing God, but you'll hear it sometimes in the context of talking about somebody who has presumably screwed up their life somehow. There are even a few books floating around by that name.

Whatever his personal beliefs, Sanford's district he represents is heavily Evangelical Christian, so whenever possible he tries to make his public statements using language his Evangelical voters will identify with.

Typically you will hear Christians say "a God" when they are trying to contrast the God they believe in with the version of God other people (even perhaps other Christians) believe in.

At first blush, the statement doesn't make much sense if you think of God as the one-and-only God that exists in the universe, as Christians supposedly do. However, Evangelical Christians tend to place an emphasis on everyone having their own personal relationship with God.

So basically what he's saying (assuming he said "A God" rather than a "The God" which you misheard), is most likely something along the lines of "The God I (and probably you folks too) believe in", while the "of Second Chances" is referencing a popular conception amongst his district's voters of God in the context of forgiveness.

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In other cases, you would say:

I am a man who...

or

I am a woman who...

The difference here is that you are a man or woman. There are a lot of those. In the mindset of a monotheist, saying

I believe in a God who...

would not make a lot of sense. Many answers have already hit on this, but I wanted to add two things that may have been communicated in this statement.

  • How many things in your universe have only one of that thing?

I tried to come up with another example of something that is truly unique, and the only thing I could come up with was the earth. It would be perfectly grammatical to say:

I believe in an earth that lives free from pollutants.

In that sentence you are comparing the existing earth to a non-existent second earth with no pollutants. While there is no other earth, you are creating a figurative one. I believe the speaker was doing something similar. He was comparing the God he believes in to a non-existent God that only gives second chances. In that sense, there were two Gods--the one he believes in, and one that cuts you off after two chances (or whatever the rest of his speech said).

  • Perhaps he was acknowledging that his God was not the only one that people believe in.

I think the argument for this is much weaker than the first point I made, but the speaker could have been stating it this way because he realizes his constituents come from varied backgrounds. Since it would be politically foolish to come out and say, "My God is it, if you believe in another god, you are wrong," he softened his statements by saying "a God."

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"How many things in your universe have only one of that thing?" Following my earlier answer, there is only one "England" (as a country); there is only one "America"; there is only one "Sun"; etc.. And if you're talking about the planet Earth, shouldn't it have a capital "E"? –  TrevorD May 10 '13 at 15:12
    
You are right. I must have overlooked the obvious. At any rate, the point stands, if you say, "I imagine an England where..." you are comparing a current existing England to one that could exist, but does not. As to earth being capitalized, I wasn't sure. dictionary.reference.com/help/faq/language/s05.html –  Jeff May 10 '13 at 15:17
    
Thanks. I agree with your comparison example. I've also had a look at the reference, which raises points that hadn't occured to me. Personally, I would read that article as referring ONLY to the expression "the earth". In your 'quote' I would have put "I believe in an Earth ..", just as you did for "a God" in the previous quote. Likewise, in your following paragraph, I would have been consistent between "earth" and "god" - either BOTH with initial capital, or BOTH without. –  TrevorD May 10 '13 at 16:38
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In my experience this is a common turn of phrase that doesn't require a god, The God, gods, or God, but simply a proper noun used in the singular indefinite. So you could say, "There'll always be an England..." as TrevorD mentions above, when you want to refer to the subject hypothetically, as a concept, the object of aspiration, foreboding, etc. As we used to say in high school, "A Mr. Dahl without the drawl, is no Mr. Dahl at all." (He had a noteworthy drawl. Without it we wouldn't have noticed him much.)

Since capital-G God is a proper noun, it fits this (idiomatic?) usage.

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Yoichi asks, "Is it grammatically right to place an infinite article before the capitalized 'God'?"

Referring to the utterance:

“I want to acknowledge a God not just of second chances, but third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth chances,”

Yoichi suggests that this might be because the word "god" is uncountable.

Well, the word "god" appears to be countable since there is a plural form, though there are uncountables with plurals: waters, cheeses, monies and so on. In this case, the plurals acquire some additional shades of meaning. This is not the case with god/gods where the plural is just more than one.

The second objection might be that "god" is a proper, not a common noun: hence the capital letter. This is true in some religious traditions, where "God" means a specific instance of a deity: generally Jewish or Christian, though Muslims do also say "God" despite pernickety objections from the rigidly righteous. Arab grammarians are also divided on this question of Allah / ilah common or proper noun - and the Arabic form also has plural, dual, and feminine forms - this supports the common noun party.

Assuming that this is a common noun, and the quote uses it as a common noun, then it must have an article either definite (the) or indefinite (a / an). So grammatically, we could not avoid saying "I want to acknowledge a God of second chances."

Since the said god is further qualified as being the one of second chances we assume that there are other gods not of second chances... which reinforces the message that this is, indeed, a common not a proper noun.

"I want to acknowledge God of second chances" would be a nonsense.

The only remaining question concerns the use of a capital letter? We know that common nouns are not capitalized.

Well, this could be "the God of Second Chances" following the same rule as "The Patron Saint of Travelers" where the entire phrase is treated as a proper noun. Or, it could be a mere barbarism: the writer, fearing to bring cosmic retribution onto the personage of the last-chance Governor, hesitates to use a small 'g' for God, not even a mythical god of second chances.

Who knows?

It is usage though, not grammar.

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The construction, 'a God' is commonly used in manner identical to that illustrated in the quote you gave. He ought not to have said 'a god', because he was referring to specifically to THE god ('God') of Christianity, rather than to one of many existing gods. What Mr. Sanford meant, more or less, was 'of the many conceptions of God that exist, my conception of God is'

So yes, God is a non-count noun, but what's being referred to are the many ways that 'God' can be thought of.

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