CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Can God Do Anything? Further Reflections

Jan 16, 2017

It was not my intention to offer more discussion on a topic I wrote about yesterday, but various responses to it on the social media have led me to take it further. The original piece was about how we understood the concept of God’s omnipotence. I urge readers to peruse that piece first before going on with this one. It is found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/01/15/can-god-anything/

The replies to my first piece indicated that some folks did not even bother to read the article, but others who may have done so still were rather indignant that I suggested that God could not do certain things. While some may have come to this conclusion after years of prayerful reflection and study of the topic, I suspect that others simply had a knee-jerk reaction.

OmnipotenceThey have always believed that God can do anything, and anyone who dares to offer a different point of view becomes a bit threatening to them. But as always, the biblical Christian is to have a teachable spirit and stay humble. That means being open to other ideas that may rattle our cage a bit.

Not that I am claiming to be entirely right here, but we all need to use the brains God has given us to pursue truth wherever it may lead, and not just emote or take offence when a new way of thinking about something comes along. So let me elaborate a bit more on what I wrote earlier. What follows is built upon and is a further elaboration of what was written yesterday.

Those who objected to my piece tended to say one of two things: God can do anything, end of story. Or, a bit more subtle and helpful, God can do anything, but he sometimes chooses not to. As to the first type of objection, simply reading again the verses I listed yesterday makes it clear that God in fact cannot do some things.

Read just two of them again:

-2 Timothy 2:13 if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
-James 1:13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.

Notice what the texts do and do not say. They both say God “cannot” do these things. They do not say, ‘God has chosen not to do these things’. But let me take this even further. In my first piece I mentioned that there are at least two categories in which we can speak about a God who can and cannot do certain things: logical and moral.

Logical impossibilities

If we look at the two passages above, we see that the first one involves a logical category, while the second involves a moral category. God is by definition (and by biblical revelation) a God who is eternal and infinite, one who cannot change. Thus it is impossible for God to deny himself.

He cannot even choose to do that. If he could choose nonexistence, he would not be God. So this is a logical impossibility, and is in fact a nonsense statement, as I said in the first article on this. In the same way God cannot make 2+2=5. He simply cannot choose to do this.

That is because God is a God of truth, of consistency, and of order. He can never make that which is true become false. Nor can God make a two-legged triangle. This has nothing to do with God not being powerful enough, but God being forever true, and forever logically consistent. A triangle by definition has three legs and three interior angles. If it does not have these features, it is simply not a triangle.

Let me offer just one quote here. Millard Erickson puts it this way:

God’s will is never frustrated. What he chooses to do, he accomplishes, for he has the ability to do it. . . . There are, however, certain qualifications of this all-powerful character of God. He cannot arbitrarily do anything whatsoever that we may conceive of. He can do only those things which are proper objects of his power. Thus, he cannot do the logically absurd or contradictory. He cannot make square circles or triangles with four corners. He cannot undo what happened in the past, although he may wipe out its effects or even the memory of it. He cannot act contrary to his nature – he cannot be cruel or unconcerned. He cannot fail to do what he has promised. In reference to God’s having made a promise and having confirmed it with an oath, the writer to the Hebrews says: “So that, by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we … may be greatly encouraged.” (Heb. 6:18). All of these “inabilities,” however, are not weaknesses, but strengths. The inability to do evil or to lie or to fail is a mark of positive strength rather than of failure.

Moral impossibilities

The second passage I offer above deals with a moral impossibility: God cannot lie. But some will say that God just chooses not to sin, rather than being unable to sin. They argue that it may simply be the case that God chooses to always do that which is right, and always chooses to not do that which is evil.

This discussion too is rather complex and nuanced, and anyone familiar with theology and philosophy (especially as they intersect in what we call the philosophy of religion) will know that this has been debated for centuries. Simply take one aspect of this debate: the peccability of Christ.

Before you run to your dictionary, or google, let me save you a bit of time. The Latin word peccare means to sin. So peccability has to do with being peccable, that is, being capable of sinning. The theological question therefore is this: could Jesus have sinned?

It is not my intention to fully enter into this big discussion here. But let me say just a few quick things about it. The reason why Christians can be divided on this one is because of the relevant, somewhat limited, and seemingly contradictory, biblical data we have on this.

The key text here is Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.” Yes Christ was indeed sinless. But was that because he was not able to sin, or because he was able not to sin? That is, was it impossible for him to sin, or did he just choose not to sin?

Yet this very same passage also says he was tempted just like we are. So how real were those temptations if he could not sin? But as I say, that is another debate which will have to have its own article or two to elaborate upon. So if you want to know my view on this, you will have to wait till then!

But let me say a bit more about God and whether he simply chooses not to sin, or whether he is incapable of sinning. God is a perfect being. Perfection admits of no change or deficiency. A God who could sin would not be a perfect being. One text I cited in my previous piece is Numbers 23:19:

God is not human, that he should lie,
not a human being, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
Does he promise and not fulfill?

John Frame says this in relation to that passage:

Balaam’s questions are obviously rhetorical. It is unthinkable that God should lie or fail to keep his promise. He “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). He “cannot be tempted with evil” (James 1:13). God does, of course, have some moral prerogatives that human beings do not have, such as the right to take human life for his own reasons. But for the most part, human morality is an imaging of God: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, quoting Lev. 11:44; cf. Lev. 11:45; 19:2; 20:7; Matt. 5:48). God is the standard of human morality, so he cannot be less than perfect in his holiness, goodness, and righteousness.
Again, we may speak of God’s inability here, but we are really talking about something admirable – moral excellence and consistency. These are the only qualities that “prevent” God from engaging in immoral actions. So again, the term inability is misleading.

Or as Wayne Grudem has written:

God’s omnipotence means that God is able to do all his holy will….However, there are some things that God cannot do. God cannot will or do anything that would deny his own character. This is why the definition of omnipotence is stated in terms of God’s ability to do “all his holy will.” It is not absolutely everything that God is able to do, but everything that is consistent with his character. For example, God cannot lie….
This means that it is not entirely accurate to say that God can do anything. Even the Scripture passages quoted above that use phrases similar to this must be understood in their contexts to mean that God can do anything he wills to do or anything that is consistent with his character. Although God’s power is infinite, his use of that power is qualified by his other attributes (just as all God’s attributes qualify all his actions).”

Chad Meister nicely summarises things:

Given the belief that God cannot perform certain actions (neither immoral ones nor logically impossible ones, for example), many theists have held to the traditional, Anselmian view of omnipotence as meaning perfect power rather than absolute power. On this view, mere power itself is not praiseworthy, but perfect or excellent power is. Since it is no perfect power to be able to break promises, or lie, or violate contradictions, even though these actions cannot be performed by God, God is nonetheless omnipotent.

Conclusion

As stated in my first piece, when dealing with the infinite, eternal and perfect God, all of us fallen and finite creatures must approach any discussion about him and his attributes with great caution and reverence. Yet we do have his revealed truths as found in Scripture to help us get a good grasp of these sorts of topics.

When it comes to God’s omnipotence, there is often some rather fuzzy thinking out there, and on these sorts of topics one can spend a lifetime of careful and prayerful study and reading, and still not fully fathom things. But we are called by God to use our minds for his glory and to think God’s thoughts after him.

On this topic it should be clear on the issue of what God can do logically, there are certain things he just cannot do. It is not that he chooses to not try to make a square circle, but that it is a nonsense which we need not even spend effort on contemplating. As to the moral impossibilities, there may be a bit more room to move, but I still lean to the side that says God cannot sin or do evil, because that would be a violation and repudiation of his very character and nature.

Related discussions, such as whether Christ could have sinned or not, are rather different, since we have there other biblical truths to consider, including the two natures of Christ in one person. Suffice it to say, with Grudem and others, that God can do all that his holy will wants to do.

And that alone should make us all the most grateful and the most worshipful.

[1957 words]

11 Responses to Can God Do Anything? Further Reflections

  • Just a thought – maybe the issue is to do with the understanding of what it means to be ‘all powerful’ or to have ‘all power’. The focus in the debate about God’s power to do (or not to do (things) centres on an understanding of the word ‘power’ in the sense of ‘ability’ – the ‘power’ to do something is the same as the ‘ability’ to do something.
    However, to be ‘all powerful’ also implies having ‘power over’ all things, or ‘authority over’ all things. This is how I have traditionally understood ‘omnipotence’, rather than meaning God’s ability or inability to do anything. When the notion of being ‘all powerful’ or ‘omnipotent’ is understood that way, I can’t think that there would be much debate about the issue. So while I am interested in the discussions about what God can and cannot do, I haven’t really equated that as being a debate about ‘omnipotence’ as such. Maybe ‘omnipotence’ incorporates both understandings of what it is to be ‘all powerful.’ Plenty to ponder on, Bill.

  • Hi Bill,

    It does Bill, I am so very grateful that Jesus was fully God and fully hu-man (the God-man), having been tempted in every way yet being without sin so that he can experience all that we go through without sinning, the perfect role model, if not the perfect sacrifice for sin. Only a basic theologian, I’m sure that, had not the Fall into sin in the garden of Eden have happened, man would have been without sin–the sin we inherited, the way God created us, good and without sin, remember we live in a sinful world though and back when Jesus walked the earth it was less corrupted by sin than it is now, there would have been far less diseases and impurities genetic and environmental, for man/us to contend with.

  • I agree with essentially all that you’ve written in these two articles, Bill. I think I first realised that there were some things God cannot do when someone pointed out the obvious that God cannot sin.

    I’ve also found helpful the concept that omnipotence doesn’t mean the ability to do anything, but rather that there is nothing that God can’t do because of insufficient power. That is, if something is too hard for God, but a more powerful being could do it, God couldn’t be said to be omnipotent. But not being able to do something logically contradictory (such as create a rock too big to lift) is nothing to do with a lack of power. More power wouldn’t help. God is all powerful, but power is not the issue here.

    I’m not convinced that God’s inabilities fall into the two categories of the laws of logic and God’s nature. The first could imply that there is something outside of God to which He must submit—logic. Rather, God IS the source of logic, and thus the first category is really a subset of the second: defying the laws of logic would be defying God’s nature.

    Similarly, I don’t accept Millard Erickson’s claim that God “cannot undo what happened in the past”, as this would make God subject to time, rather than time being part of His creation. Rather, God is outside of time. A past event is in the past for us, but not for God. So if we in 2017 asked God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah and for some reason He decided to grant our request, He would be changing what happened c4000 years ago, but he wouldn’t be changing it now, but then, because although that is in our past, it’s not in His past because He does not traverse time like we do. Rather, He is all-present, which must mean everywhere and at every time simultaneously. This might seem to be going beyond the Scriptures, but I think the only alternative is that God is subject to time, which can’t be the case. Especially if, as seems to be necessary, time is part of His creation.

  • Thanks Philip. Yes I am basically with you. As to the issue of God being beholden to logic, I take the same view as how we would answer the Euthyphro Question put forward by Plato – see here: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/13/god-and-goodness/

    As I wrote in that article:

    The question comes down to this: is something good because God commands it, or does God command that which is good? Put another way, is something good because God approves of it, or does God approve of what is good… For the Christian, problems can be found with both positions. In the first, it seems to make morality arbitrary. In the second, it seems that morality is something greater than God, and something which even He must appeal to. Thus goodness is independent of God. So what is the biblical position? Actually, it is to argue that this is a false dilemma, and that there is a third position: what is good or right is based on God’s unchanging nature – God wills what is in accord with his own nature.

    I take a similar view with the issue of God and logic. Logic is not greater than God, something he is bound to and under. Nor is it an arbitrary creation of God. Rather the laws of logic are a reflection of the true and unchanging character of God.

    As to God and time, that of course is the subject entire libraries have sought to figure out! Christian thinkers have differed on this. Many have argued that God is outside of time, and/or is atemporal. Some like Lewis have pushed the “eternal now” concept. Some, like Craig and others, hold that God is temporal. It is a quite complex and nuanced discussion of course. And while space is seen by most as a creation of God, the view of time and God’s relation to it is rather different, and not so easily resolved.

    But it is another discussion on which only the hard-core may want to tread! Here is a brief reading list on this that I put together a while back:

    Beilby, James, ed., Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. IVP, 2001.
    Craig, William Lane, Time and Eternity. Crossway Books, 2001.
    Cullman, Oscar, Christ and Time. SCM, 1962.
    Deweese, Garrett, God and the Nature of Time. Ashgate Publishing, 2004.
    Ganssle, Gregory, ed., God and Time: Essays on the Divine Nature. Oxford University Press, 2002.
    Ganssle, Gregory, ed., God and Time: Four Views. IVP, 2001.
    Hasker, William, God, Time and Knowledge. Cornell University Press, 1989.
    Helm, Paul, Eternal God. Clarendon Press, 1988.
    Padgett, Alan, God, Eternity and the Nature of Time. Palgrave Macmillan: 1992.
    Pike, Nelson, God and Timelessness. Schocken Books, 1970.
    Tapp, Christian and Edmund Runggaldier, eds., God, Eternity, and Time. Ashgate, 2011.

  • I didn’t comment on your last article because you said it much better than I could but you were completely correct. Unfortunately people who think that God can make wrong right or the impossible possible are in fact believing in the concept of magic and what we learn from the scriptures is that magic does not exist; not in our world nor God’s realm. The concept of magic is at complete odds with God’s teaching on truth and unlike animals we were made to know the difference. It is this fundamental belief in magic that allows a world where relativist ideas abound and questions of right and wrong are not decided by evidence and truth. Satan, Disney and the ABC constantly push the idea of magic because only by believing in magic can you oppose truth. This is also why the enlightenment could only ever have emerged from Christian culture because you need an appreciation of the concept of absolute truth before you can start looking for it. When Pilot said “what is truth?” he was reflecting the opinion of most people in his culture who could not comprehend the idea of an absolute truth and unfortunately, our culture is reverting to that same destructive and immoral idea.

    The problem with human philosophy is not our inability to reason correctly. It is simply because of our lack of understanding and knowledge. E.g. Einstein showed mathematically (and therefor logically) that space is curved but to an ancient Greek philosopher that concept would have been anathema and absurd. How can space be curved when in our original definition of it it is straight? When people ask questions like can God make a rock that is too big for Him to lift they do not realize that there is nothing a rock can be made from except God’s energy (or Word) which is in fact part of God Himself because God is all; nothing can in fact exist outside of God. When people complain that God should not have made Satan or should have dealt with him already they do not understand that Satan was created by God and has rights and authority and power that God has given and these must be dealt with justly because in God, there is “no variableness nor shadow of turning” (Jas 1:17). There is no frame of reference other that God that allows magic or any “variableness” outside of God that would permit this. You cannot sidle up to God and take His measure because you and whatever you try to use to measure is part of God and can only have been created by His Word, so any philosophy or mind game that starts from the assumption that this sort of thing is possible, must inevitably fail.

  • I like how you put it Michael. Yes, too many believers have a magical view of God, not a biblical view.

  • Hey Philip, if you prayed for God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, and he did, then there would be no issue for you to pray about now.
    So God doesn’t answer prayers about the past because they would mess with the present, and it would be a logical impossibility.
    We’re stuck with the past as it was writ.

  • I am so glad you mentioned the following; We all need to use the brains God has given us to pursue truth wherever it may lead, and not just emote or take offence when a new way of thinking about something comes along.
    I remember a time when people would start a sentence with “I think …” Now it’s “I feel …” In my experience people are quick to respond on the emotional level without thinking things through properly, so let’s hear it more often: “You’ve got a good head – now use it!”
    Thank you Bill.

  • Mal 3:6 For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.

    I thank the Lord all the time that He “changes not.” The fact that he never changes is vital to our very existence. To me, it seems apparent that If God ever changed at all, even in an infinitesimally small amount, the entire Universe would immediately be thrust into total chaos, or even nonexistence, and us along with it. God is our Rock, a Rock that cannot be split, chipped or broken in any way. He is infinitely faithful and trustworthy. I shudder to think what it would be like if He were not.

  • @Dennis said, “I shudder to think what it would be like if He were not.”
    Clearly we would have Allah. Sends shivers down my back.

Leave a Reply