July 16, 2017

Must We Prove God’s Superlative Attributes?

Dear Dr Craig,

My question is this: how do you get from "very" to "omni"?

It strikes me that the arguments for God's existence that I have come across seem, at best, to demonstrate the existence of an extremely powerful, extremely knowledgeable, or extremely good being.

Such a God seems more comparable to the limited deities of polytheistic pantheons than the unconstrained powerhouse of traditional western monotheism.

It seems that, if it were proven that a being could create the universe, raise Christ from the dead, part the Red Sea or even be the first cause, that being would have to be extremely powerful, but no more power is implied than that which is necessary for the act, and it's certainly not clear why we should expect this power to be limitless.

Similarly, the fine tuning argument requires perhaps a God who is extremely good at physics and mathematics- to put it mildly, but the gap between this very high degree of knowledge and infinite knowledge remains, well, infinite.

Thus it seems to me that raising the bar from "very" to "omni" with any of these characteristics carries the burden of proof up with it- and this just makes apologetics and thus any principled, intellectually responsible evangelism infinitely more difficult. The house of cards topples at the demonstration of a single limitation.

The "greatest conceivable being exists by definition" argument I don't buy because greatness strikes me as too vague and subjective a concept to necessarily include existence. It also seems to be an attempt to carve a God out of language rather than observations of the universe and their extrapolation, which is a bit counterintuitive.

However, I would also question whether dropping the "omni" characteristics is such a bad thing. It neatly sidesteps some of theology's biggest minefields while also being more consistent with the Biblical picture of a God who frequently chooses otherwise unnecessarily indirect and inefficient methods, regrets creating humans, changes his mind, rests, gets surprised, and procrastinates on his plan for salvation for millennia. It may deprive Christianity of some of its compelling "force", but if such force cannot be justified honestly it shouldn't be justified at all.

I am very curious to find out what you think.



United Kingdom

I take your question, Joe, because it embodies what seems to be a common confusion. Success in natural theology (i.e., arguments for God’s existence) is not determined by whether one’s argument proves all of the attributes of God (much less His omni- attributes!). The argument needs to raise the plausibility or probability that God exists to count as successful.

To borrow an illustration from Timothy McGrew, professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University: suppose I tell my daughter that an Army buddy may be dropping by today for a visit. Sometime later she tells me, “Dad, there’s a man coming up the driveway!” Now this could be anybody, but the fact that someone is coming up the driveway increases the probability that my Army buddy is dropping by. Suppose she then says, “Dad, he’s wearing a uniform!” Now he could be a policeman or some other uniformed person; nonetheless the fact that he is wearing a uniform further increases the probability that my Army buddy is dropping by. Suppose my daughter then says, “Dad, he’s carrying a bouquet of flowers!” This further increases the probability that the person approaching the door is, indeed, my Army buddy and may well convince me that it is he. This is, as you put it, a “principled, intellectually responsible” inference.

Similarly, I have never claimed that the kalām cosmological argument, for example, proves the existence of an omnipotent being but rather the existence of extremely powerful being who created the universe out of nothing. It therefore substantially increases the probability that God exists. As I pointed out with regard to Richard Dawkins’ similar complaint, “It would be a bizarre form of atheism—indeed, one not worth the name—that conceded that there exists an uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and unimaginably powerful, personal Creator of the universe, who may, for all we know, also possess the further properties listed by Dawkins!” <http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-new-atheism-and-five-arguments-for-god>

I trust that it is obvious to you, Joe, that an argument’s failing to prove that God is omnipotent doesn’t imply that He is not omnipotent!

Of course, if the ontological argument is sound, as I think it is, it does give you all God’s superlative attributes, including omnipotence. In response to your retort, I think that metaphysically necessary existence is greater than merely contingent existence, so that a maximally great being must be a metaphysically necessary being. The ontological argument, as Plantinga formulates it, is not “an attempt to carve a God out of language,” since it depends on the crucial premiss that such a being is possible.

But apart from the ontological argument, “how do you get from ‘very’ to ‘omni’?” This is a requirement of Scripture and perfect being theology, both of which I have good reason to regard as true.

Your theological bent emerges in your final paragraph: you prefer some sort of limited deity, such as is featured in open theism, over the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God of traditional theism. But I don’t find any of the arguments for such limitations convincing (see my book The Only Wise God). The biblical motifs you mention have plausibly to do with the pervasive anthropomorphism of scriptural discourse about God, lest you wind up with the humanoid deity featured, for example, in Mormonism.

The overriding lesson, however, is that the success of the arguments of natural theology does not depend on their demonstrating all of the attributes of God.