Doctrine of God (part 16)
Transcript of William Lane Craig's Defenders 2 class.
1. Attributes of God
We have been thinking about the divine attribute of omniscience. We finally come to considering what difference this makes to our lives today. What application is there to our lives of this attribute of divine omniscience? Three things occur to me.
First of all, God’s omniscience is a basis for total trust in God’s guidance in your life. God, because he is all-knowing, never makes a mistake. He never changes his mind because of a lack of foresight. He never overlooks anything; nothing catches him by surprise. Therefore we can be fully confident in his guidance for our lives. Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” So based on God’s being all-knowing and infallible, we can trust him to guide us, to direct our paths as we make our way through life. In fact, his way and his will for us are perfect. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul tells his readers that they should present their bodies as a living sacrifice, pleasing and acceptable to God, and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds. Why? He says, “so that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” That is the description of God’s will for your life. It is good; it is acceptable, both to you and to the Lord; and it is perfect. That means that anything you do to try to improve upon God’s will can only damage it. It is perfect, and you don’t tamper with the perfect. So, on the basis of God’s omniscience, we can trust him totally for his guidance in our lives, even when this takes us through deep waters and the valley of the shadow of death.
Secondly, it is also a source of comfort in God’s knowledge of your heart. Often we find ourselves in situations where we may be unjustly accused of something. Or others misunderstand us and mistake our motives. They may malign us and speak evil of us, even though our intentions were good. In situations like this we can take comfort in the fact that God knows our heart. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “For the LORD does not look on things as a man looks on them; man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” God knows the motives of your heart, even when others misunderstand and malign you. God understands when we fail. Psalms 103:13-14: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” God knows that we are mere dust and fallible creatures, and so when we fail, he understands us. Also when our devotion seems low at times, God knows the truth. He knows our hearts. In John 21:17, Peter is confronted with the risen Christ, who asks him three times, “Peter, do you love me?” John records that Peter was hurt because Jesus asks him for the third time, “Do you love me,” and Peter said, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” Even when our devotion seems low, when perhaps our lives aren’t all that they should be, God knows our hearts. He knows that we love him, and he understands. This is a source of comfort to us.
Finally, God’s omniscience is a source of security in God’s love. There is no new information about you that could affect God’s love for you. There are no skeletons in your closet that he is unaware of. There is no future fall that you might commit that he doesn’t already know in advance that might affect his love for you. God knows us entirely and thoroughly; he knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows us warts and all – he sees things in us that are so evil and fallen and depraved that we don’t even recognize them ourselves. And yet he loves us unfailingly. He knows us thoroughly, and yet he loves us unfailingly.1
1 John 3:19-20 says, “By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Even at those times when we look at ourselves and think what spiritual failures we are and how we let the Lord down, God is greater than that, and his love is consistent. Therefore, that means that there is no need to try to hide from God. That is futile anyway; we have seen that God knows everything, even the secret motives of our hearts. Therefore, there is simply no point to try to hide from God and hide our failures and sins from him.
In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul says, “Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” God fully understands us and fully knows us, and thus in Galatians 4:9 Paul says, “You have come to know God, or rather, to be known by God.” It is God who truly and deeply knows us, even better than we know ourselves. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 8:3, Paul says, “If one loves God, then one is known by him.” God knows us thoroughly, and even when we fail and are sinful in our lives, God loves us unfailingly. Therefore, we can simply be open and honest with God about our failures – we can bring them to him and admit them.
In Psalms 32:3-7, the psalmist says,
When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin. . . . Thou art a hiding place for me, thou preservest me from trouble; thou dost encompass me with deliverance.
There is simply no reason to hide from God. It is futile anyway! He loves us anyway, and therefore we have security in him and in his love and his knowledge of us. We can bring our failures openly to him, be delivered of our guilt, and have security in his love for us.
Those are three applications of God’s being all-knowing or omniscient.
Personal – Volitional: Omnipotence
We now want to turn to the next set of attributes on our list of divine attributes. These would be God’s volitional attributes. This is connected with God’s will – what God wills to accomplish. This is not simply what he knows, but what he wills. This is where the attribute of God’s omnipotence, or his being almighty or all-powerful, belongs. We are going to talk now about divine omnipotence. In order to do so, we want to first look at an analysis of this attribute by looking at what the scriptural data are concerning God’s omnipotence.
First, the Scriptures indicate that God is almighty. For example, Genesis 17:1 – this is where God appears to Abraham –: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless’.” The word in the Hebrew here is “El Shaddai.” This is one of the names of God in the Old Testament. “El Shaddai” means “God Almighty.” So the very name of God is connected with God’s being almighty.
Also in the book of Revelation 19:6, we find God referred to in similar terms. This is the scene at the marriage supper of the Lamb: “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.’” Here, again, God is called “God Almighty.” This is one of the names of God, both in the Old and New Testament.2
God’s almighty power in the Scriptures is manifested most clearly in his creation of the world. In creation, God creates the universe out of nothing. He isn’t confronted with some sort of recalcitrant material substance – some sort of primordial matter – that he merely shapes into the world. Rather, God speaks the world into being out of nothing. No greater display of God’s power could be imagined than his ability to create the universe from nothing. In fact, this would be plausibly considered to be maximal power. I can’t imagine a power which would be greater than the ability to create from nothing.
This is found right at the beginning of the very first verse of the Bible. In Genesis 1:1 we read the familiar words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The psalmist reflects on this in Psalm 33:9, “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood forth.” Here it describes God’s creation by his word; he simply speaks the world into being.
Romans 4:17 also reflects on God’s creation out of nothing. Here it speaks of Abraham as being called to be the father of many nations. Paul says this was “in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” So God, by his almighty word, calls into being out of nothing the entire universe and thus creates the universe. I think no greater demonstration of God’s being almighty could be imagined than that.
Secondly, the Scripture also indicates in multiple places that God can do all things. For example, Genesis 18:14 is the promise that Sarah and Abraham will bear children in their old age. Sarah laughs at this promise. The Lord then says, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” He rebukes Sarah by implying that nothing is too hard for him. God can do it.
Jeremiah 32:17: “Ah Lord GOD! It is thou who hast made the heavens and the earth by thy great power and by thy outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for thee.” In effect, Jeremiah answers the question the Lord posed to Sarah, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” No, says Jeremiah, nothing is too hard for the Lord – you are the God who made the entire universe by your great power.
Also take a look at Job 42:1-2, in which God appears to Job out of the whirlwind and demonstrates his great power over the universe: “Then Job answered the LORD: ‘I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted.’” On Job’s understanding, God can do all things.3
Over in the New Testament, we have the same truth reaffirmed. In Matthew 19:26, Jesus is speaking about salvation, and the disciples are wondering if the rich cannot be saved, who can be saved? And Jesus said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Finally, in Mark 14:26 we find Jesus praying in the garden, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” Here Jesus says all things are possible to his heavenly Father.
So over and over and in different ways, the Scriptures affirm that God can do all things.
That is the scriptural data that is pertinent to divine omnipotence. Let’s do a systematic summary now of this attribute in an attempt to understand it.
Paradoxes of Omnipotence
Immediately, when dealing with the subject of omnipotence, we confront the so-called paradoxes of omnipotence. We have all heard these. For example, if God is omnipotent, can he make a stone too heavy for him to lift? If he can make a stone too heavy for him to lift, then there is something he can’t do, namely, he can’t lift the stone. But if you say he can’t make a stone too heavy for him to lift, then there is something that he can’t do, namely, he can’t make such a stone. So the idea is that omnipotence is an inherently paradoxical idea. How should we understand, then, divine omnipotence in such a way as to avoid these paradoxes?
First, we need to ask ourselves, “Can God act in ways that are contrary to his own nature?” For example, could God create another God and fall down and worship him? Could God commit adultery? These are obviously not things that God could do. God cannot act contrary to his own nature. So such actions are usually exempted from divine omnipotence. To say that God is omnipotent or almighty doesn’t mean he can contradict his own nature.
What about logical impossibilities? Can God do things that are logically impossible? For example, could God make a square circle? Could God make a married bachelor? Could God bring it about that Jesus both came and died on the cross and that he did not come and die on the cross? Could God make a round triangle? These sorts of things are also usually exempted from God’s omnipotence. Most theologians – the vast, vast majority of theologians – have not understood omnipotence to mean that God can do things that are logically impossible. Indeed, when you think about it, these really aren’t things at all. There isn’t any such thing as a married bachelor. There is no such thing as a round triangle. These are just combinations of words which, when put together, are incoherent combinations. They are just logical contradictions. Therefore, to say that God cannot do logical contradictions is not to say that there is some thing that God can’t do because these aren’t really things at all. Thus, to say that God can’t bring about a logical contradiction is not really to inhibit God’s omnipotence at all.
Having said that, there is one notable exception to this understanding of divine omnipotence. The French philosopher Rene Descartes thought that God could do that which is logically impossible. Descartes thought that God could bring it about that there are married bachelors or round squares if he wanted to. But the vast majority of Christian theologians have disagreed with Descartes on this and have not thought that God’s omnipotence means he can do logical impossibilities.4
In fact, Descartes’ view is demonstrably incoherent. It is self-referentially incoherent. That is to say, it refutes itself; it pulls the rug out from under its own feet; it saws off the limb on which it is sitting. Descartes’ view is often called “universal possibilism.” This would be the view that all things are possible. There are no necessary truths. For example, it is not necessarily true that a square has four sides. God could have made it so that a square is round, and yet it would be a square. It is not necessarily true that a bachelor is an unmarried man. God could have made married bachelors. In effect, this theory says there are no necessary truths. But think about that for a moment – what about that statement itself? “There are no necessary truths.” Is that necessarily true? If it is necessarily true, then it contradicts itself – it refutes itself because then there is at least one necessary truth, namely, that there are no necessary truths. So this cannot be necessarily true. But if it is not necessarily true, then that means that it is possible that there are necessary truths, that there is a possible world in which God has created necessary truths. But if it is possible that there are necessary truths, then there must actually be necessary truths because to say that there is a possible world in which there are necessary truths means that there is a possible world in which all worlds have this true statement in them. So it turns out that if it is even possible that there are necessary truths, then there must actually be necessary truths. So the statement actually turns out to refute itself. Therefore, I think Descartes’ position is simply incoherent. To say that God can do logical impossibilities is simply self-refuting and incoherent. To say that God is omnipotent doesn’t mean he can bring about logical contradictions.
Finally, what about what we might call “actual impossibilities?” Could there be things that are logically possible in and of themselves but they are actually impossible to bring about? For example, it is logically possible that human beings would always choose to do the right things – sin is not necessary. In any moral situation in which free agents find themselves, it is possible for them to choose to do the right thing and not to sin. What that means is that there must be a logically possible world in which no one sins, a logically possible world of free creatures in which everybody does the right thing. Therefore, this would be a sinless world. But does that mean that it is therefore within God’s power to actualize this world – in other words, to bring about this logically possible sinless world? Not necessarily. As we saw last time, God’s omnipotence is restricted by what hypothetical statements are true about the way free agents would act. Given human beings’ freedom to choose for and against God, it may be the case that there is no feasible world that God could create in which human beings always choose to do the right thing to bring about a sinless world. Given man’s freedom, God cannot determine unilaterally which possible world will result.
Philosophers usually distinguish two types of worlds. Possible worlds would be worlds that are logically possible in and of themselves. But worlds which are logically possible in and of themselves but are such that God could not bring them about are referred to as “infeasible worlds.” There is a difference between possible worlds and feasible worlds to God.
To give an example, suppose God knew that if Peter were to be created in precisely those circumstances in which he was created, he would freely deny Christ three times.5 That is the way Peter would freely act. It is not logically necessary that Peter deny Christ three times; there is a logically possible world in which Peter is precisely in those circumstances and yet he affirms Christ three times. But that is just not the way Peter would freely choose. If Peter were in those circumstances, then he would deny Christ freely three times. Given that that is the way Peter would freely choose in those circumstances, that means that a logically possible world in which Peter freely affirms Christ three times in those same circumstances is not feasible for God. God could certainly make Peter choose Christ three times in those circumstances, but then it would not be a free action on Peter’s part. Given that God wants Peter to decide freely to affirm or deny Christ, that possible world in which Peter freely affirms Christ in those circumstances is not feasible for God.
It is logically impossible to make someone freely do something. We are not positing any non-logical constraint upon God’s omnipotence here. It is logically impossible to make someone freely do something. That is as logically impossible as making a round square or married bachelor. But the difference is that in this case there are possible worlds in which Peter freely affirms Christ three times; but they are just not feasible because Peter would freely choose to deny Christ three times in those circumstances. Thus, there are certain things which in and of themselves are intrinsically logically possible but which are not actualizable by God. Therefore God’s omnipotence should not be taken to comprise these as well.
How can we define divine omnipotence then? Here is a rough and ready definition of what omnipotence means. It means that God is able to bring about any state of affairs which it is logically possible for anyone in that situation to bring about. God can bring about any state of affairs which is logically possible for anyone to bring about in that situation. What this would imply is that God cannot do things that are logically impossible. God cannot act contrary to his nature or bring about infeasible worlds. But he can bring about any state of affairs in which it is logically possible for someone in his situation to bring about.
What application does this attribute have to our lives? Let me mention three things.
First of all, it means that you are a walking stick of dynamite! For God’s power which created the universe out of nothing is at work in you. The same almighty Creator God who spoke the world into being lives and works in you. 2 Corinthians 4:6-10 says,
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
Here Paul says that it is the same God who said, “Let there be light!” who has shone in our hearts to give the knowledge of God in the face of Christ. This transcendent power is at work within us. Despite all of the afflictions and troubles of this life, God’s transcendent power can be manifested in us.6
Ephesians 1:19-21 contains a wonderful promise. Paul prays that we might know
what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come;
Here Paul says the same resurrection power that brought Jesus to life again is at work in our bodies.
Over in Ephesians 3:20-21, Paul gives this doxology which, for Jan and me, has been very meaningful in our personal lives. This is our theme verse in a way – on the back of my watch that Jan gave me, she had this reference engraved:
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.
Here Paul says that it is the almighty God who is at work within us to do far more abundantly than all that we can ask or even think through his unimaginable power.
So, in Christ, we have tremendous power. This is something of a paradox. Jesus says in John 15:5, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Apart from him we are powerless. We can do nothing. But Paul says in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” So apart from Christ we are powerless and impotent and can do nothing; but in Christ we can do all things through his indwelling power. Jan and I have found in our own lives over and over again how God is faithful to his promises and how he can do miracles through ordinary people, if we will simply trust him and believe him for great things. Sometimes God doesn’t always open doors of opportunity for us. Sometimes we have to knock down the doors! We can do this through the power of God and the power of Christ that is at work within us.
Secondly, God’s omnipotence means that nothing can defeat God’s purposes for you. Ephesians 1:11 says, “In him [Christ], according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will.” There it says that God accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will. Matthew 16:18, Jesus speaking to Peter, says: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” The powers of hell and Satan cannot prevail against God’s church and against his purposes. If God wants something for you, then he will bring it to pass in your life. You will get it, as long as you trust him.
Think again of Joseph. Joseph’s life was punctuated by failure and disaster – sold into slavery, cast into prison through an unjust accusation – and yet God was at work in Joseph’s life to bring about a powerful result that Joseph could never have imagined.
Having said that, I want to be very clear that failure does not always mean that somehow you are out of God’s will, that somehow you haven’t trusted in God’s power. Failure can be part of God’s will for your life. God can accomplish things in your life through failure that he could not accomplish through success. I am not saying that a life that is built upon Christ and filled with his Holy Spirit will be a life without failure. Not at all! But I am saying that nothing can defeat God’s purposes for your life. If he wants you to achieve something, if he has something in store for your life, there is nothing that can defeat God’s purpose’s being actualized in your life.
Finally, third, God’s omnipotence means that God is adequate to all your needs. There is no prayer too hard, no need that is too great, there is no temptation that is too strong, there is no misery that is too deep – God is adequate to meet our needs in those situations. God, through his omnipotent power that is at work within us, is going to be adequate to all our needs in life. That is why we need to found our lives firmly upon him, upon the solid rock.
I want to conclude this lesson with Paul’s words from Ephesians 3:20-21:
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.7
7 Total Running Time: 36:21