By John Baskette, ©Copyright 1994 by John Baskette.
That old objection to the doctrine of the omnipotence of God was raised recently on USENET in the newsgroup soc.religion.christian. USENET is an enormous collection of electronic discussion groups distributed as “network news” through a world wide computer network known as the internet. Many of you may not be familiar with computer networks and bulletin boards, and I won’t be explaining about them here, but I will say, the on-line debates in these newsgroups between atheists and believers of all types are quite lively and often informative.
The Christians in that newsgroup answered the objection very well. To speak of an almighty God creating an object that He cannot lift is to posit a logically contradictory state of affairs. It is a variation on the old question, “What happens when an immovable object (the stone) meets an irresistible force (God)?” The answer is that both an irresistible force and an immovable object cannot exist together in the same universe without creating a logical contradiction. If reason is valid then to speak of the two in the same sentence is to speak nonsense. Similarly, it is nonsense to speak of God creating a stone that he cannot lift.
Another equally valid answer offered in the newsgroup is that God cannot do anything whatsoever. God can only do what is logically possible.
These answers did not satisfy the objectors. Their retort was to accuse the Christians of equivocating. “You admit that there are things that God cannot do, therefore you are admitting that God is not really omnipotent! You have only proved the case against the self-contradictory and self-stultifying Christian conception of God.”
At this point I entered the fray to point out that the definition of omnipotence has never meant what the objectors say it meant. The historical understanding of omnipotence never meant that God can do anything whatsoever. The objection is at best a misunderstanding, and at worst, merely an intellectually dishonest straw man argument.
My response did not go unchallenged. Here is what one poster (David) asked:
However, I gather from the discussions that, in spite of the logical contradictions involved, many people are arguing that god is omnipotent in the all-inclusive sense you wish to avoid.Also, just how would you properly define this ‘historical sense’ of omnipotent? The paragraph above just says that it is not really omnipotence as defined in all the dictionaries. How, precisely, should it be defined?
Here was my response:
My earlier post pointed out that the historical sense of terms such as omnipotence were never construed to be an all-inclusive anything at all which, if true, renders mute the various objections to Christian teaching based on various logical paradoxes.
To demonstrate my point further and to answer David’s question, I will give various definitions of omnipotence as found in various theologians. First, however, I would like to point out that the Oxford English Dictionary (if not some of the less authoritative available dictionaries) does recognize a specifically Christian and theological use of the term.
Here are three definitions given in _The Compact Edition Of The Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically, Volume I A-O_, Oxford University Press:
- Strictly said of God (or of a deity) or His attributes: Almighty or infinite in power.
- gen. All-powerful; having full or absolute power or authority; having unlimited or very great power, force, or influence; exceedingly strong or mighty. b. humourously. Capable of anything; unparalleled; utter, arrant; huge, ‘mighty’.
- absol. or as sb. An omnipotent being; spec. (with the) the Almighty God.
The first definition is the one used in Christian theology. It is not the same as “Capable of anything”.
Infinite should be thought of in terms of the primary dictionary definition of “subject to no limitation or external determination”. I’ll give an explanation of the Infinity of God from Berkhoff shortly, but in order to illuminate the concept of “Power”, I would like to first quote from _A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, Volume One_ by James Oliver Buswell, Jr., Ph. D.; a professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis.
On pages 63-63 he explains omnipotence this way:
“There are indeed certain problems with reference to the meaning of Omnipotence which need to be considered. In the first place, omnipotence does not mean that God can do anything, but it means that He can do with power anything that power can do. He has all the power that is or could be.””Can God make two plus two equal six? This is a question which is frequently asked by skeptics and by children. We reply by asking how much power it would take to bring about this result. The absurdity of the question is not too difficult to see. Would the power of a ton of dynamite make two plus two equal six? Or the power of an atom bomb? Or of a hydrogen bomb? When these questions are asked it is readily seen that the truth of the multiplication tables is not in the realm of power. Power has nothing to do with it. When we assert that God is omnipotent, we are talking about power. In the discussion of the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable truth of God we shall show that truth is of the very essence of His character but not in the realm of power; and we shall consider those Scriptures which plainly declare that ‘it is impossible for God to lie’ (Heb. 6:18)”
Most of the “paradoxes” commit this same basic error. Even those that seem to deal with “power” such as “Can God create an immovable stone” are actually asking if God can bring about a logically contradictory state of affairs. The answer is no, but it does not show that God does not have infinite power or that God cannot do with power anything that power can do. Power cannot bring into being a contradictory state of affairs.
Some understanding of the Infinity of God would be helpful at this point. From _Systematic Theology_ by L. Berkhoff, (revised version 1941, reprinted 1979 by Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids), pp. 59-60″
“C. The Infinity of God. The infinity of God is that perfection of God by which He is free from all limitations. In ascribing it to God we deny that there are or can be any limitations to the divine Being or attributes. It implies that He is in no way limited by the universe, by this space-time world, or confined to the universe. It does not involve His identity with the sum-total of existing things, nor does it exclude the co-existence of derived and finite things, to which He bears relation. The infinity of God must be conceived as intensive rather than extensive, and should not be confused with boundless extension, as if God were spread out through the entire universe, one part here, and another there, for God has not body and therefore no extension. Neither should it be regarded as a merely negative concept, though it is perfectly true that we cannot form a positive idea of it. It is a reality in God fully comprehended only by Him. We distinguish various aspects of God’s Infinity. 1. His Absolute Perfection. This is the infinity of the Divine Being considered in itself. It should not be understood in a quantitative, but in a qualitative sense: it qualifies all the communicable attributes of God. Infinite power is not an absolute quantum, but an exhaustless potency of power;…”
With a definition like that, you may think that Berkhoff by saying that God is “free from all limitations” means that God can do anything at all. Yet even Berkhoff says on p. 80:
“In that sense we can speak of the potentia absoluta, or absolute power, of God. This position must be maintained over against those who, like Schleiermacher and Strauss, hold that God’s power is limited to that which He actually accomplishes. But in our assertion of the absolute power of God it is necessary to guard against misconceptions. The Bible teaches us on the one hand that the power of God extends beyond that which is actually realized, Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:27; Zech. 8:6; Matt. 3:9; 26:53. We cannot say, therefore, that what God does not bring to realization, is not possible for Him. But on the other hand it also indicates that there are many things which God cannot do. He can neither lie, sin, change, nor deny Himself, Num. 23:19; I Sam. 15:29; II Tim. 2:13; Heb. 6:18; Jas. 1:13,17. There is no absolute power in Him that is divorced from His perfections, and in virtue of which He can do all kinds of things which are inherently contradictory.”
When we speak of “no limitations” we are talking about rational categories or limitations within a rational category. Within the realm of power, we mean that God can do anything that it is logically possible for power to do. I.e., There is no limit on which powers in the category of “powers” that God can exercise. The category of powers, however, is itself restricted to the realm of things that are logically possible. This is why we are justified in using the “omni” prefix while maintaining that God cannot do anything whatsoever.
That is why even Berkhoff, while maintaining a “no limits” definition of infinite says, “There is no absolute power in Him that is divorced from His perfections”. I.e., he supports the idea that there are rational restrictions on the category of “powers” when he says that there is no power of a certain kind.
Here is a definition for omnipotence as given in _The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology_ edited by Alan Richardson and John Bowden, 1983, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, in an article by Brian Hebblethwaite who is in turn quoting from “A.Kenny, _The God of the Philosophers_,1979:
“A more satisfactory definition has been provided by A. Kenny: omnipotence is ‘the possession of all logically possible powers which it is logically possible for a being with the attributes of God to possess.”
Here is a definition given in _Christian Theology, Systematic and Biblical_, arranged and compiled by Emery H. Bancroft, D.D., Late professor of Bible Doctrine and Systematic Theology at the Baptist Bible Seminary, Johnson City, New York, revised edition, 1925, on p. 68:
“C. Omnipotence. By this we mean the power of God to do all things which are objects of power, whether with or without the use of means, Gen. 17:1.NOTE He performs natural wonders, Gen 1:1-3; Isa 44:24; Heb. 1:3; Spiritual wonders, II Cor. 4:6; Eph. 1:19; Eph. 3:20. He has power to create new things, Matt. 3:9; Rom. 4:17; after his own pleasure; Psa. 115:3; Eph. 1:11. There is nothing impossible to Him: Gen. 18:14; Matt. 19:26.
- Omnipotence does not imply power to do that which is not an object of power; as, for example, that which is self-contradictory or contradictory to the nature of God.
NOTE Self-contradictory things are not included in the exercise of God’s omnipotence.- such as the making of a past event to have not occurred (hence the uselessness of praying: “May it be that much good was done”); drawing a shorter than straight line between two given points; putting two separate mountains together without a valley between them. Things contradictory to the nature of God; for God to lie, to sin. to die. To do such things would not imply power, but impotence. God has all the power that is consistent with infinite perfection – all power to do what is worthy of Himself.”
So far I have quoted only Protestants. Here is a Roman Catholic author. From _The Voice from the Whirlwind, The problem of Evil and the Modern World_ by Stephen j. Vicchio, professor of philosophy at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, Maryland, Christian Classics, Inc., Westminster, Maryland.
(BTW – this is a terrific book on the “problem of evil”, it is essentially his Phd dissertation put out in book form.)
On p. 47, after quoting from Frederick Ferre’s _Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion_, Vicchio writes:
“Ferre rightly suggests that when we say that God is omnipotent, philosophers, as well as the common man, may mean by the term one of two things. Either (a) an omnipotent being is one who can do absolutely anything, or (b) an omnipotent being is one who can do anything that is logically possible. For reasons that will become apparent later, we must also offer a third formulation of God’s omnipotence: (c) an omnipotent being is one who can do anything that is logically possible and is consistent with his other attributes.”
Vicchio goes on to examine each of these definitions in turn. Definition (a) which is what has been used in postings to raise objections to the existence of the Christian God, Vicchio finds used in the writings of Descartes, but not in the writings of Christian theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas.
This leads to one of the main points of my earlier brief posting. The historical definition or understanding of omnipotence has always recognized the problems inherent in definition (a) which is why it is not the definition used by the church historically. It maybe that some Christians have held and tried to defend such a definition (such as Descartes), but for the most part, this definition is imposed on Christianity by those who wish to refute Christian conceptions by raising various objections. The objections (whether by intention or ignorance) are straw man arguments.
The definition of omnipotence like that of (b) or (c) which limits omnipotence to the category of things logically possible is the definition used by the church historically. My earlier quote from Augustine indicated as much. Here it is again, from my abridged version of _The City of God_, an abridged Version from the Translation by Gerald G. Walsh, S.J.; Demetrius B. Zema, S.J.; Grace Monahan, O.S.U.; and Daniel J. Honan on p. 109 which quotes from Augustine’s book 5, chapter 10:
“We do not put the life of God and the foreknowledge of God under any necessity when we say that God must live an eternal life and must know all things. Neither do we lessen his power when we say He cannot die or be deceived. This is the kind of inability which, if removed, would make God less powerful than He is. God is rightly called omnipotent, even though He is unable to die and be deceived. We call Him omnipotent [here is the definition you did not acknowledge from the earlier post David!] because He does whatever He wills to do and suffers nothing that He does not will to suffer. He would not, of course be omnipotent, if He had to suffer anything against His will. It is precisely because He is omnipotent that for Him some things are impossible.”
Aquinas has a similar conception of omnipotence. On p. 163-164 of _Summa Theologica, Volume I, ques. 15 ans. 3, (Mcgraw Hill, New York, 1963, Aquinas says:
“Whatever implies being and nonbeing simultaneously is incompatible with the absolute possibility which falls under divine omnipotence. Such a contradiction is not subject to it, not from any impotence in God, but because it simply does not have the nature of being feasible or possible. Whatever, then, does not involve a contradiction is in the realm of the possible with respect to which God is omnipotent. Whatever involves a contradiction is not within the scope of omnipotence because it cannot qualify for possibility. Better, however, to say that it cannot be done, rather than God cannot do it.”
An excellent old Puritan work is _The Existence and Attributes of God_ by Stephen Charnock (1628-1680). I read a small portion of a 1979 reprint of this work published by Klock & Klock Christian Publishers of Minneapolis. He defines omnipotence in terms of God having infinite power, yet he too gives a lengthy consideration to things that are impossible for God to do.
My point is that when Christians respond to various objections to the various “omni-xxx”s of God in a way that appears to lessen the particular “omni” in question, they are not equivocating, conceding or redefining terms at all. They are only explaining what is the historic Christian teaching as found in all branches of the faith.