There are several problems related to referring to God. Here are two: first, if we have no acquaintance with an entity can we refer to it successfully? Some believe that we experience God in something like a perceptual state. Perhaps we have a sixth sense in virtue of which we can claim to perceive God in the same way I am perceiving my computer screen. But what if we can’t? An alternative would be to develop an a priori concept of God through theologizing about him. Is a concept sufficient for reference? Furthermore, how correct does such a concept have to be in order to refer to the God who actually exists rather than one that is merely a concept?
Second, there are many religious people who say that their use of the term, ‘God’, successfully refers to God. Yet many Christians believe that people from other religions are unsuccessful. Their beliefs about God are deficient in such a way as to render their reference empty or successful only at referring to some other entity, a demon, for example. This problem has led many to say that only certain references that satisfy some core set of descriptions can successfully refer to God. Is there a way to distinguish reference, belief, and worship so that Christians can coherently say that Muslims and Christians refer to the same God but do not worship the same God? In what follows I shall argue in the positive and offer some analysis of what the Bible says about idolatry and worship to support my claim.
Reference is the semantic relation between a term or expression and entity for which it stands. For example, the demonstratives, ‘this’ or ‘that’, refer to entities to which one points given certain circumstances. Proper names refer to the entities those names are attached to. Definite descriptions such as, ‘the student of Plato’, are also said to refer. Finally, pronouns refer to their respective entities, ‘I’ to me, ‘you’ to you and so on.  All such referring expressions are said to be singular terms, expressions that denote particular entities in contrast to general terms, expressions that apply to more than one entity. In the statement, ‘Socrates is wise’, the entity picked out by the term, ‘Socrates’, is said to be the referent of the term. It is a particular entity not a kind of thing and is referred to with a proper name. We are said to be able to do the same with God as in a similar statement, ‘God is wise’, whereby we pick out the entity, God, and attribute the property, wisdom, to him. In this case, I shall assume we are using ‘God’ in the same way as we are using ‘Socrates,’ namely as a proper name.
There are three general theories of reference: the theory of descriptions, the causal theory of reference, and the direct theory of reference. In agreement with Saul Kripke, I shall argue that the theory of descriptions is unworkable for referring to anything with a proper name and, therefore, insufficient to refer to God. The direct theory of reference entails much of the causal theory and is sufficient for referring to God. However, if one holds to this theory it entails that a broad scope of religious references are successful. Due to theological reasons—namely, that Christians have good theological reasons to reject the view that Muslims and Christians worship the same God—the entailment that they do so must be blocked. I will consider one way to do this—through an analysis of what we mean by worship, heresy, and idolatry—and conclude that we can allow that a broad scope of religious references to God are successful but that their worship is not.
The theory of descriptions, according to which an entity is successfully referred to only if the entity satisfies a description uniquely true of that entity, entails that proper names are synonymous with those descriptions. The term, ‘bachelor’, refers to whatever is picked out by human, male, and unmarried. This implies that a person refers successfully to a Bachelor only if that person knows some definite description of a bachelor. If a person says ‘bachelor’, that person must know that a bachelor is male, human, and unmarried. On this view, a word stands for whatever the descriptions associated with that word uniquely identifies. Both general terms like ‘bachelors’ and proper names like ‘Aristotle’ are considered to have descriptions associated with them. For example, ‘Aristotle’ is referred to with the associated descriptions, “student of Plato” and “teacher of Alexander the Great.” Those descriptions are unique to the entity in question, Aristotle, and are sufficient, if known by the speaker, for successful reference.
The theory of descriptions has been largely discredited by Saul Kripke. Descriptions require the user to have knowledge of the description of the referent. If a speaker is competent to use the term, “Aristotle” the speaker must have sufficient knowledge of the description of Aristotle—the teacher of Alexander the Great, for example—to correctly refer to Aristotle. Kripke argued that there are many terms that either the user of which does not have sufficient knowledge of descriptions associated with the term or has false beliefs things about the referent. But in neither case would the speaker fail to refer to the right entity even if they had little knowledge of the descriptions or were mistaken in their knowledge of the referent. Consider Kripke’s example drawn from Donellian:
“So you may say, ‘The man over there with the champagne in his glass is happy’, though he actually has water in his glass. Now, even though there is no champagne in his glass, and there may be another man in the room who does have champagne in his glass, the speaker intended to refer, or maybe, in some sense of ‘refer’, did refer, to the man he thought had the champagne in his glass.”
In the case of God, it is not clear what would count as a description sufficient for successful reference. Do we say, for example, that omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence are sufficient? What then of God’s triunity? If one holds to a descriptivist theory of reference, then to refer to God one must have a sufficient knowledge of the descriptions of God, omnipotent, omniscient etc. In other words, the descriptivist holds that if there is successful reference then must be sufficient knowledge of the referent. However, it is not clear as to what would count as sufficient content. Would we, for example, include the doctrine of the Trinity? If so, then only those who hold to the doctrine of the trinity successfully refer to God. If not, then it is not clear at what point the speaker fails to refer. Is there a minimum quantity of descriptions? If so, how should they be determined? Answers to these question are not easily forthcoming and run the risk of descending into a survey of theists in order to find the common denominator. For this reason and the above objections to the theory in general, descriptivism is not preferred as a theory of divine reference.
The causal theory of reference, advanced as an alternative by Kripke, suggests that a term is introduced either ostensively or through an initial description. The term is then ‘borrowed’ by subsequent users in order to refer to that entity. Aristotle was named (presumably by his parents) and a causal chain began in virtue of which we are able to refer to Aristotle today. This theory enables speakers to successfully refer even if the speaker has insufficient knowledge of any descriptions of the referent or if they are mistaken in some of those descriptions.
Applied to divine reference, this theory entails an initial baptism of the name ‘God’ and a causal chain, passed on from generation to generation, that secures the successful reference of subsequent users of the term. This view entails that even if a user of the term has a wildly different concept of God he or she still succeeds in referring to God if he or she intends to use the name with the same denotation as the one from whom he or she learned the name. The latter point is important since it implies that though the reference succeeds, beliefs about that referent can be divergent. What is at stake are not the beliefs about the entity in question—in this case, God—but the intentions of the agent using the name and the source from whom the agent learned to use the name. On this view, a causal chain implies that reference is not a matter of beliefs about an entity but beliefs obtained in the acquisition of words from those who teach them.
This latter point may prove to sustain a weakness in this view when it comes to God. Does the view entail that we can succeed in referring to God if we have wildly divergent beliefs about God? Does a person succeed in referring to God even if she believes that God is evil, lacking in power, and absent minded? On the face of it, the causal theory of reference implies that even these wildly divergent beliefs do not entail a failure of reference. The view entails successful reference to God if the speaker intends to refer to the same entity that her teacher taught her to refer to by using the name ‘God.’ This is true even if that teacher believes God to be good, all-powerful, and omniscient. We will return to this objection and entertain a modification after we consider William Alston’s direct theory of reference.
According to the direct theory of reference, an entity is referred to successfully if reference is tied to direct experience or communal practice. According to William Alston, as we are inculcated by a community into referring to God correctly we—by means of the practices of the community—come to gain an experience of God that counts as acquaintance. Such a direct acquaintance is then the start of another chain of reference. Though Alston’s view implies that there will be much commonality between religions, his view also entails that different religions—Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam—successfully refer to the same entity, God. The reason for this is that a direct theory of reference denies that there is any more to a name than the entity to which it refers. In other words, a name does not require any conative content. This was the theory of John Stuart Mill about proper names. Mill wrote: “Proper names are not connotative: they denote the individuals who are called by them; but they do not indicate or imply any attributes as belonging to those individuals.”
Jeroen de Ridder and Rene van Woudenberg argue that this conclusion gives us good reason to modify Alston’s theory. They argue that Alston’s theory entails the view that many world religions successfully refer to God: “According to biblical testimony, God revealed himself specially already in pre-Abrahamic times, e.g., to Adam and Eve and later to Noah. So to the extent that pre-Abrahamic baptismal events started communication chains that branched out into the world’s religions, there is universally shared reference to God in all world religions.” However, de Ridder and van Woudenberg argue that the consequence of such a view is that we must also say that those world religions all worship the same God. This conflicts with a central theme of scripture that idolatry is the worship of false gods and warrants strong condemnation. Indeed, Christians go so far as to suggest that “only Christian belief is now the appropriate response to God’s general and special revelation.” De Ridder and van Woudenberg argue that idolatry involves a failed reference: “To call a form of worship idolatry is most plausibly interpreted as saying that it involves fictional or failed reference.” If the direct theory is true, then no reference to God fails. And if so, then those religions that are not Christian religions are not practicing idolatry. However, on most orthodox Christian views, many world religions do commit idolatry.
De Ridder and van Woudenberg note that Alston takes this conclusion to be a positive one. Indeed, Alston comments that the benefit of such a view is that there is a common referent among Christians, “Hindus, and the ancient Greeks and Romans.” De Ridder and van Woudenberg argue that what is considered by Alston to be an argument for a purely causal theory of reference is actually a reductio against it. The disagreement between Alston’s and de Ridder and van Woudenberg’s view is most clear when considering Alston’s thought experiment. It goes as follows: Suppose a significant baptizer of the name God is mistaken and the actual entity that he encounters is Satan. In this case, the significant baptizer is referring to Satan by using the name, “God.” Alston concludes that the reference fails to pick out God and instead picks out Satan. If it turned out that the baptizer of the name ‘God’, Abraham for example, was actually picking out Satan, then we would all have many false beliefs about the entity in question (that he is wise and good), and we would indeed be worshipers of Satan not Yahweh. De Ridder and van Woudenberg see this as sufficient to reject the direct theory.
De Ridder and van Woudenberg think the solution is to make two modifications. The first change is to require that the speaker not be “fundamentally mistaken about the kind of thing she is referring to.” Given this modification, a reference would fail if the kind of thing being picked out was different to what was intended. Given that Satan is not a kind of god, the reference would fail on that count. Consider by way of an example a rather embarrassing moment from my school days. I was daydreaming during a Geography class when my teacher pointed to me and asked me where a certain ship had gained a hole and sunk. I responded by saying, “in the hull, sir.” “Correct” replied my teacher. Of course, I wondered how I could have been wrong? where else does a ship spring a leak but in its hull? As the class went on, however, I realized that the ship had gained a hole while in the port located in the city of Hull. In this case I had false beliefs about the kind of thing in question yet had used the right term. The divergent factor was what category of thing we were talking about. Intuitively, I offered an answer that failed to refer to the correct entity—the city of Hull—and instead referred to a part of the ship. However, on a theory of direct reference, the name is all that counts. It does not matter if I made a mistake about the kind of thing in question; it merely matters whether I uttered the correct name. The modification de Ridder and van Woudenberg have in mind is analogous to saying that I did indeed fail to refer to the correct answer not in virtue of my lack of descriptions for the city of Hull but because I failed to pick out some entity of the correct kind. In the same way de Ridder and van Woudenberg argue that successful references to God must be made by referring to an entity of the right kind. This would not be contingent on any definite description of the particular entity but only on some general description of the kind to which the entity belongs.
The second modification de Ridder and van Woudenberg suggest is that if the significant baptizer is to successfully refer, then she must have some minimal descriptive content of her beliefs about the kind of entity to which she refers. For example, if S has beliefs about God that are actually true of Satan, then S is referring to Satan and not to God. Her false belief is about which name attaches to which entity. This modification follows from the idea that it is not sufficient for a speaker to pick out an entity of the right kind without having some beliefs about that kind. Only if a speaker has some minimal beliefs about the kind in question can she correctly refer to an entity that belongs to that kind even if she does not have any descriptive beliefs about the particular entity in question. Analogously, in order for me to have a successful reference to the city of Hull I would have to know that Hull is a kind of location.
The main objection to such a modification is that it is difficult to see how de Ridder and van Woudenberg’s view does not entail a return to descriptivism. For what is true of naming particular entities is surely true of descriptions of kinds of entities. Just as one might enquire as to what beliefs about an entity are sufficient for successful reference one might equally ask what descriptions are sufficient for a successful reference to a kind of entity. How might de Ridder and van Woudenberg reply? One way would be to note the distinction between the proper naming of a referent and an a priori concept. In the latter case the question is: what role or description would an entity have to satisfy in order to count as God? An example of this kind of theologizing is found in ‘perfect being’ theology according to which for some x to count as God, x must have the “greatest array of great-making properties.” In the former case, one begins with the experience or data about a particular entity that is named ‘God’ and then form a concept out of that data. De Ridder and van Woudenberg are suggesting that we determine the referent not only through the proper naming of an individual but also through the a priori method of concept formation available through perfect being theology. Since descriptivism is a theory about naming individuals and not a priori concept formation, the objection fails.
It is not clear such a reply would help. On the descriptivist account of reference descriptions are said to ‘fix the referent.’ So, for example, the term ‘Plato’ is said to refer successfully to Plato iff either a single definite description or a sufficient number of the total cluster of descriptions are true of Plato. Candidate descriptions include, ‘teacher of Aristotle’, ‘student of Socrates’ and alike none of which are a priori concepts. But why couldn’t the descriptive content be from a priori concept construction? This may not be possible with ‘Plato’ but it is surely possible with ‘God’. Indeed, that is what perfect being theology suggests: that successful reference is only possible if the concept derived from perfect being theologizing attaches to an existing entity. If the entity fails to exhibit the qualities derived from perfect being theology, then reference fails. And surely that is the point of de Ridder and van Woudenberg modification to the causal theory of reference.
The ideas of Devitt and Sterenly offer an intriguing response. They argue that the point of beliefs about kinds is neither to identify nor fix the reference. Rather, the import of categories in theories of reference serve two quite different roles. First, having some beliefs about kinds makes it possible to refer to a whole entity even though our contact with such an entity is only ever partial. For example, if one catches a glimpse of a person passing in the hallway and is told that his name is ‘Jim’ one’s knowledge of the kind of entity Jim is (human, male) does not determine the reference but allows us to refer to the whole of Jim rather than the back of his head as he passed us in the hall. Knowing what kind of entity God is would allow us to refer to the whole God not merely one part. Second, if a person makes a mistake about the entity in question, then the error can be discovered by an investigation into what kind of entity we are talking about. However, such an investigation does not imply that knowledge of kind determines the reference. For example, imagine spotting a bear in the woods at a zoo and then later being told that what you saw was only a domestic cat that patrons often mistake for a bear. It is not that a discovery of the mistake leads to a different determination of the reference; the experience has already done that task. Rather, the mistake is revealed in what category you placed the cat into. If someone is confronted by some revelation that is from Satan but mistakenly attributes it to God, the person’s reference could be corrected by appealing to a priori theologizing about what kind of entities God and Satan are. On Devitt and Sterenly’s view, the correction could be made without returning to a descriptivist theory of reference. Therefore, I am inclined to think the objection fails. If one modifies the causal theory of reference so as to include as a necessary condition for success the a priori concept of God, then one does not necessarily implicitly rely on a descriptivist theory of reference. One can appeal to a priori knowledge of God in a way that avoids determining a reference but only affects the beliefs we have of God.
One might instead consider previous modifications to be modifications of a descriptivist theory but one that is not subject to Kripke’s objections to Fregian or Russellian descriptivism. Jerold Katz argued that terms can have senses that do not determine reference and are, therefore, not subject to Kripkean criticisms. On Katz’s view, senses of names have only one property that of ‘being the bearer of N’. On this view the sense of ‘the entity which is the bearer of “God”’ is the sense of the name, ‘God’. Such a view tells us nothing of what it is to refer to God using the name, ‘God’ but, asks Katz, what of it? Katz responds by saying “not all description theories are intended to be theories of reference.” If this is what de Ridder and van Woudenberg have in mind, then they could claim to hold to descriptivism when it comes to names but not to reference and thus be free of Kripke’s objections to descriptivism and continue to apply a priori theologizing to correct beliefs about the concept of God.
It is not clear that de Ridder and van Woudenberg do have either Katz’s view or Devitt and Sterenly’s view in mind. When they consider what it is to refer to God some people have beliefs about God that entail that reference is fictional, no such entity exists. Consider a Muslim who refers to God. According to de Ridder and van Woudenberg, he holds to beliefs about the kind of entity referred to that entail a failed reference. Consequently, the Muslim can be said not to worship God. De Ridder and van Woudenberg are troubled by which beliefs about God count as reference excluding beliefs. Consider a newly converted Christian and an average adult Muslim. What exactly would be the cutoff point between the two? Furthermore, at what point would a person who has been filled with the Spirit commence correct reference to the deity to which she credits her salvation. Presumably, there are some young Christians who have an inadequate knowledge of God is and therefore fail to refer to him. On the other hand, a Muslim presumably has sufficient knowledge of the kind of entity that God is and succeeds. On such a view, it is difficult to discern what would block the inference that the Muslim succeeds while the Christian fails to refer to God.
My view at this time is to concentrate not on reference as the distinguishing factor but additional factors such as appropriate worship of God. Worship, on de Ridder and van Woudenberg’s view “is participation in an individual or collective practice that minimally requires belief in the existence and worthiness of the object of worship, as well as certain attitudes of reverence towards the object of worship.” For our authors, idolatry is worship of an entity that does not exist. Yet if every religion succeeds in referring to God, then they also worship the God that exists.
What then of idolatry? Plausibly, idolatry is committed when someone worships something that is not God. To worship something is to highly value something. More formally, S commits idolatry iff S highly values some x and x is not God. For example, the Bible calls valuing money (Col 3:5) and the belly (Rom 16:18) idolatry. On this view, idolatry is what Martin Luther described as “whatever your heart clings to and relies upon.” An idol is a created entity that is treated as if it is God. For example, idols may be fashioned out of wood or metal. The latter appears to be implied by the prohibition found in Exodus 20:3 and Deuteronomy 5:7. The main point being that there is one God and it is to him that we owe worship. To commit idolatry is to replace the object of worship with something that is not God. Plausibly, a worshiper of Athena has failed to refer to an existent entity. There is no such thing. Likewise, a worshiper of an object made in a woodshop worships something that exists but that object is not God. Both clearly fail to worship the kind of entity that is God. According to a priori theology both attempts fail to name the right kind of entity with the name, ‘God.’ As de Ridder and van Woudenberg suggest, “if people worship X and hence believe in X, but X doesn’t exist or has fundamentally different characteristics from what people assume, then their worship is (unbeknownst to them) misguided.”
It is not as clear, however, when it comes to Abrahamic religions, those religions whose object of worship is of the kind consistent with those features made available through special revelation and a priori theology. What should we say about the Muslim? Should we say that he is worshiping something that is not God? If so, what grounds the claim? On the proposed view some Muslims successfully refer to God and succeed in passing the a proiri test for a maximally great being. But surely since some Muslims successfully refer to God, they are worshiping God and not committing idolatry. In other words, if we say that some Muslims successfully refer to God, then they have not replaced God with some other object even though he has some false beliefs about God (God is not triune, for example). How is it that they commit idolatry? If one insists that Muslims’ beliefs must include a certain set of descriptions that include ‘God is triune’ in order for the reference to be successful (as a descriptivist might argue), then one would be confronted with the same problem for Christians who have insufficient knowledge of God even though their worship is appropriate. For example, Calvin’s view of God is at odds with many of Aquinas’ beliefs about God. We would not want to say that Calvin and Aquinas refer to different Gods, one existing and the other not.
If Muslims succeed in referring to God, then the religion is not analogous to a false religion such as ancient Roman polytheism. Rather, Islam would be a kind of heresy, a religion with roots common to Christianity but which has deviated from core Christian beliefs. If a Muslim and a Christian are worshiping using the names, ‘Allah’ and ‘God’ respectively, we cannot tell merely from their uses of those names whether (i) ‘Allah’ and ‘God’ refer to the same entity but the Muslim has many false beliefs about ‘Allah’ or that (ii) Allah does not exist and God does exist. What we want to say is that Muslims fail in their worship though they might succeed in referring to the God. The entailment in question is if a Muslim refers to the same God as the Christian, then he worships the same God as the Christian. This is not the same as saying that the worship of both Muslim and Christian is equally acceptable. Indeed, the acceptability of worship is highly stringent. It must be carried out in response to the truth (John 4:24), in obedience to the commands of scripture (Matt 15:9), and in fear of God (Heb 12:28). Worship is unacceptable if it is carried out to honor a false god (Ex 34:14) or it is carried out for God but in the wrong way (Exodus 32:7–9), with a wrong attitude (Malachi 1) or in the wrong manner (Matt 15:3). On this count, many Christians fail to worship appropriately, but, on the one hand, we would not want to say that whenever they fail to worship appropriately they fail to refer God in their wordship. On the other hand, perhaps when a Christian fails to worship God appropriately it entails that they are in fact honoring something else above God. For example, as is common in highly Christianized cultures a person worships at a church but does so as a means to further his social standing in a community. In such a case, the man has replaced God with his own social standing in the community. It is plausible to say, then, that the man does, despite appearances, worship a false god, an entity that is not God. The man’s references to God may even successfully refer to God, but his god is not that God. One might make the case for an analogous feature of worship in other religions and, therefore, conclude that though Muslims refer to God and practice worshipful rituals as if they value God above all other things they do not in fact honor him above all things but some other entity or desire. If it possible for someone attending a Christian church to be so self-deceived as to think one honors God above all but in fact holds something else in higher esteem, then it is possible to consider non-Christian religions to be cases of mass self-deception. Indeed, Paul argues that some who say they worship some god are in fact beholden to a demon (1 Cor 10:20).
What I have said is supposed to block the entailment from successful reference to successful worship. If so, then the causal/direct theory of reference is not subject to the objection and goes through without entailing a theological compromise. It is not clear that it does so for there remains something at odds with the claim that Muslims and Christians refer to the same God despite the conjoined claim that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God. At this time I am not able to provide any further light on this. So far as to say that it may be that the descriptivist theory of reference may ultimately be preferable to either the causal or direct theories. If descriptivism is true, then Muslims do not refer to the same God as Christians do. If they do not refer to the same God, then they do not worship the same God. However, it is not clear from the literature I have seen so far that Kripke’s objections can be successfully blocked.
 Teresa Robertson, “Reference,” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Language ed. Gillian Russell and Delia Graff Fara (New York: Routledge, 2012), 189.
 William Lycan, Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2000), 13.
 Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1981), 25.
 Gareth Evans, The Varieties of Reference (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 191.
 William Alston, “Referring to God,” in Divine Nature and Human Language: Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York: Cornell Press, 1989), 103.
 John Stuart Mill in Micheal Devitt and Kim Sterenly, Language and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 29.
 Jeroen de Ridder and Rene van Woudenberg, “Referring to, Believing in, and Worshiping the Same God: A Reformed View,” in Faith and Philosophy (Jan 2014) 31: 62.
 Alston, 115.
 Ibid., 63.
 In this context, I mean descriptive beliefs about the particular entity that are unique to that entity and distinguish it from other entities of its kind.
 Michael Murray and Micheal Rea, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 4–5.
 Ibid., 8.
 Jerold Katz, “The End of Millianism: Multiple Bearers, Improper Names and Compositional Meaning” The Journal of Philosophy (2001) 98: 137-168
 de Ridder and Rene van Woudenberg, 52.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Large Catechism (Minneapolis: Luther Press, 1908), 44.
 de Ridder and Rene van Woudenberg, 54.
 I should point out that there are multiple versions of Islam some of whose beliefs diverge radically from each other. I have no particular version in mind. I only stipulate that such a version holds to a set of beliefs sufficiently similar to the set of beliefs produced by a standard model of a priori theology. However, one way to block the inference presupposed by the problem would be to say that all versions of Islam fail to refer to the right kind of deity on a priori grounds. I do not consider that possibility here.
 John MacArthur, Worship: The Ultimate Priority (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 29–39.
 Ibid., 20–26.