Doctrine of God (part 17)July 25, 2010 Time: 00:38:15
SummaryI. C. 4. a. (2) Systematic Summary . . . I. C. 4. b. Application.
1. Attributes of God
[Note: For some unknown reason the lesson on Divine Omnipotence is taught again here with variations after being covered in Lecture 16.]
The Scripture teaches both that God is almighty and that God can do all things. Indeed, one of the names of God in the Old Testament is “El Shaddai,” or God Almighty. Let’s do a systematic summary of this attribute and see how we should understand God’s being omnipotent or all-powerful.
Paradoxes of Omnipotence
This raises immediately certain paradoxes of omnipotence that you have probably heard of. For example, does God’s being all-powerful mean that God can act contrary to his own nature? Can God contradict his own nature because he is all-powerful? Specifically, could God, for example, make another God (an idol, let’s say) and fall down and worship it? It seems inconceivable that God could engage in so blasphemous an activity as worshiping some other God. Could God commit adultery? Again, that seems impossible because that would be contrary to the essence of God. He is essentially holy and morally perfect and therefore cannot sin. So omnipotence should not be taken to mean that God can act contrary to his own nature. He cannot act against his own essence, which includes things like moral perfection. That would not be encompassed within omnipotence.
But what about logical impossibilities? For example, people will often ask if God can make a stone to heavy for him to lift. If he is all-powerful, shouldn’t God be able to make a stone that is so heavy that he is unable to lift it? If you say, “No, he can lift anything!” then that means there is something he can’t do – which is make such a stone. This is a logical impossibility. Could God bring it about that Jesus both died on the cross and did not die on the cross? That again seems logically inconceivable – that is a logical contradiction. Can God make a round square or a married bachelor? Those sorts of logical impossibilities are typically exempted from omnipotence. Omnipotence doesn’t mean the ability to do things that are logically impossible.
Indeed, something that is logically impossible isn’t really a thing at all, when you think about it. It is not as though there is some “thing” that God can’t do. Those are just contradictory combinations of words, and there is no such thing as a round square or a stone too heavy for God to lift. This is not an infringement of his omnipotence, as it is typically understood.
The one exception to this would be the French philosopher Rene Descartes. He thought that God could do that which is logically impossible. Descartes thought that God could bring it about that there are married bachelors or a four-sided triangle. But Descartes is almost alone in this. It seems that logical impossibilities really do not represent things at all, and therefore they are not things that God should be expected to do in virtue of being omnipotent.
Can God do the unactualizable? It is hard to find a word for this. We could call this the metaphysically impossible – something that is logically possible but is unactualizable. It is metaphysically impossible. Can God do something that is unactualizable? For example, it is logically possible that every person in the world always chooses to do the right thing. So it is logically possible that there be an absolutely sinless world, which is a world populated by people with freedom of the will who just always freely do the right thing. Sin is not logically necessary, so there is a logically possible world in which no sin exists and everyone freely chooses to do the right thing. Such a world would not be a puppet world; it would be a world of genuinely free creatures, but they would just always freely choose the right thing.1 So it would be logically possible that there be a sinless world. But maybe God cannot actualize such a world. Maybe, given man’s freedom, such a world is not within God’s power to actualize because if God tried to create such a world, the creatures would freely go wrong. It would be possible for them to always do the right thing, but maybe they wouldn’t cooperate. Given that God grants them genuine freedom, God cannot guarantee how they will use that freedom. Therefore, there may be worlds that are logically possible in and of themselves but are not actualizable for God given human freedom. Of course, God could intervene and force them to do the right thing, but then they would not be acting freely – they would be puppets. Thus, things that are unactualizable would also not be within the scope of God’s ability.
How, then, should we understand omnipotence? One of the insights of modern philosophy of religion, in dealing with the subject of omnipotence, is the realization that we shouldn’t think of omnipotence in terms of quantity of power or of specific tasks. Rather we should think of omnipotence in terms of the ability to actualize states of affairs. A state of affairs is just a way something might be – for example, the state of affairs of there being chairs in this room, or the state of affairs of our being in the lower story of the church building, or there being a piano here. Those are all states of affairs that actually obtain. Omnipotence should be understood in terms of the ability to actualize states of affairs. To be omnipotent means the ability to bring about any state of affairs which is logically possible for any one in that situation to bring about. A person with that kind of power is omnipotent.
How does this apply to some of these paradoxes of omnipotence? No one can actualize a state of affairs which consists of an all-powerful being’s inability to lift a stone. That is impossible. No one can actualize the state of affairs of an omnipotent being’s being incapable of lifting a stone. So that would mean that omnipotence would not require God to be able to create a stone too heavy for him to lift. That would not fall within the scope of omnipotence.
No one can actualize the state of affairs of a morally perfect being’s sinning. It is logically impossible for a morally perfect being to sin. So no one can actualize the state of affairs of a morally perfect being’s committing a sin. So that would not fall within the scope of omnipotence.
It seems that this definition of omnipotence is adequate to capture the intuitive idea of being all-powerful, and yet it won’t commit you to saying that God can do these absurdities like worship another God or make a stone too heavy for him to lift or make a round square and things of that sort. To be omnipotent is to be able to bring about any state of affairs which is logically possible for anyone in that situation to bring about.
Question: Did Descartes give any examples of the logical inconsistencies that could come about?
Answer: Yes, he used the example of a triangle. That was actually his example. He thought that God could bring it about that a Euclidean triangle would exist whose angles did not add up to 180 degrees. He thought that the laws of logic and mathematics were simply, in a sense, chosen by God arbitrarily and that God established these laws and that he could have set up just any sort of laws of logic and mathematics.2 Sometimes this view is called “universal possibilism” by contemporary philosophers because it means that literally anything is possible, that God could have set up things so that anything is possible. That would mean that there is a possible world in which God does not exist and yet God created everything other than himself, which is just mad. How can there be a possible world in which God doesn’t exist and yet he created everything? Yet Descartes’ view commits you to that kind of absurdity.
Followup: Doesn’t that mean definitions go out the window? The concept of a triangle, for example. If God can change a triangle, then it isn’t a triangle.
Answer: Exactly! That is what is so crazy about trying to grasp this view. It is literally incomprehensible. But Descartes would say that it is simply because we have been created by God with these sorts of mathematical laws that we do find it inconceivable for triangles’ angles not to add up to 180 degrees. He thinks that is just a limitation of our finitude because God created us in this way. But it really is quite inconceivable; it is incomprehensible – he would even admit that.
Question: Can you comment on the omnipotence of God in relation to the “begotten-ness” of Christ?
Answer: I’m not sure what you are driving at with the question. The classical doctrine of the Trinity that is enshrined in the Nicene Creed is that the persons of the Trinity are all equal manifestations of the divine nature, and so all would be omnipotent. Omnipotence is an essential property of God. So the Son is omnipotent, the Father is omnipotent, and the Holy Spirit is omnipotent. But nevertheless, in the classical doctrine of the Trinity, the Son derives from the Father in that the Father begets the Son. So there is a kind of dependence of the Son upon the Father. And then the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or directly from the Father, depending on the Orthodox or Catholic views of that.
Followup: This is like the analogy of the Father/Son relationship where a light ray shoots forth from the sun. Can you talk about that?
Answer: Yes, the Son would be like the ray, and the Father would be the body of the sun. The sun and the ray cannot be separated, but nevertheless the ray derives from the sun and not vice versa. That is the analogy that is often used for the Trinity.
Followup: A skeptic could say, “Well, you believe in this begotten Son of God, who was given all authority in the universe – for him to worship the Father seems odd.”
Answer: Two things can be said by those who defend this classic doctrine. First, they would say we are not talking about another God. The Son and the Father are the same God; they are just not the same person. So it is not an example of God’s creating another God and falling down and worshiping it. Rather these persons are the same God. There are three persons who are one God. But then, second, they would want to differentiate very sharply between creating and begetting. Creation is a matter of making an artifact of a different nature than one’s self. For example, the carpenter creates a chair, or the artist creates a painting. These are of a different nature than the artist or the carpenter. But in begetting, the thing that begets begets something of the same nature. Cats beget cats, dogs beget dogs. So we don’t think of this as a creator/creature relationship between the Son and the Father. Rather this is a more intimate relationship where they share the same nature.3 And therefore it would be different from God’s creating some other being like himself. This is an internal relationship within God that exists between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. That is not to say that this isn’t a problematic doctrine. I do think that the doctrine of the begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit is a problematic doctrine. But I do think it is different from this idea of creation and from creating a different God that is distinct from God himself.
Question: About the fact that there is a logically possible state of affairs that can’t be actualized. In the future, there is going to be a sinless world, so does that imply that we will lose our freedom of will?
Answer: Let me qualify that. In one sense there will not be a sinless world, there will be a sinless realm. But the damned will still continue to exist in hell, and they, by their continual hatred of God and continual rejection of God, continue to sin. So in that sense, sinning does go on forever in hell. So the world is never going to be freed of sin, though there will be a sinless realm, which will be heaven. The question you are asking is, in heaven, will people have the freedom to sin? There are a couple of possible ways of dealing with that. One would be to adopt a middle knowledge solution. Remember middle knowledge is the doctrine that says that God knows how every person would freely choose under any circumstances in which he might place him. So God could have chosen to create persons who he knew, if they were glorified in heaven, would always freely choose the right thing from that point on. So given his middle knowledge, God is able to create a world in which there is a realm of saved and glorified persons who, from that point on and in those circumstances, always freely choose to do the right thing. Another possibility is the following. It seems that it is possible that once the saved in heaven are, so to speak, beatified – or see the vision of God or Christ – in all his beauty and holiness, the freedom to sin is effectively removed. Freedom to sin is something that characterized them during this vale of decision-making through which we pass in this life, during which God creates us at a sort of epistemic arm’s distance. His glory and holiness and loveliness are veiled so that we have the freedom to rebel against him and to sin. But when we go to heaven and we see God in all of his majesty and his glory and beauty, he will be so irresistible, so attractive, that the freedom to sin will be effectively removed. I do not find that at all implausible. I think that is a very plausible solution – that the freedom to sin is something God gave us during this vale of decision making; but then after our having made our decision, God effectively removes the freedom to sin by giving the vision of his nature to those whom he has saved.
What does it mean, then, for us by way of practical application that we are loved by an omnipotent God? What difference does that make that there is an omnipotent God who is our Savior and our Lord?
First of all, it means that the same almighty God who spoke the world into existence lives and works in you. So you are like a walking stick of dynamite – you have the power of the omnipotent God living and working within you.
Let me read a couple of passages.4 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 is saying that despite all of the afflictions and all of the abuse and all of the sufferings that we experience in this life, we have within these earthen vessels (these frail mortal bodies) the same power of God residing that first spoke the universe into being. That is a tremendous encouragement to us, to trust God for great things in our lives.
In Ephesians 1:19-21, Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians, that they 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.
The same resurrection power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated him in heaven is now in us who believe. His immeasurable power lives within you.
Then, over in Ephesians 3:20-21, Paul gives this doxology which, for Jan and me, has been very meaningful in our personal lives. “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.” Notice the words there – by the power at work within us he is able to do far more abundantly than all that we can think or ask. This is the power of God that works within us.
So, in Christ, we are tremendously powerful. 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 the abiding, inner power of the omnipotent God can give us strength to do what God calls us to do.
However, there is a caveat here. And that is that very often God’s power does not mean a kind of triumphal, health and wealth success story. Rather it can mean the power to endure and accept tremendous suffering. In 2 Corinthians 12:7ff, Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh, a sort of physical impairment (either a disease or a disability that he suffered with) and that he prayed that God would remove:
And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.5
In weakness, God’s power is displayed most manifestly. So Paul accepted all the more gladly the weaknesses and the sufferings that were his lot because God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
I can think of no better example of this than the story of Mabel, which was shared with me by one of my former colleagues at Westmont College, where I taught for a year. Some of you may have heard this story when we talked about the problem of evil, but I want to share it again because I think it illustrates the point that I am trying to make here about the perfection of God’s power in suffering.
Tom, my colleague, had the habit of visiting nursing homes in the area where he would try to bring some cheer into the lives of the people who were there. And he talks about how one Mother’s Day he visited a particular nursing home. He says:
On this particular day I was walking in a hallway that I had not visited before looking in vein for a few who were alive enough to receive a flower and a few words of encouragement. This hallway seemed to contain some of the worst cases. Strapped onto carts or into wheelchairs and looking completely helpless.
As I neared the end of this hallway I saw an old woman strapped in a wheelchair, her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discolored and running sore covering part of one cheek and it had pushed her nose to the side, dropped one eye and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly. I also learned later that this woman was 89 years old and that she had been bedridden, blind, nearly deaf and alone for 25 years. This was Mabel.
I don’t know why I spoke to her. She looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, “Here is a flower for you, Happy Mother’s Day.” She held the flower up to her face and tried to smell it and then she spoke and much to my surprise her words, though somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously produced by a clear mind. She said, “Thank you, it’s lovely, but can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it you know, I’m blind.”
I said, “of course,” and I pushed her in her chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one and stopped the chair. Mabel held out the flower and said, “Here, this is from Jesus.”
It was then that it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being. . . . Mabel and I became friends over the next few weeks and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. . . . It was not many weeks before I turned from a sense that I was being helpful to a sense of wonder. And I would go to her with a pen and paper to write down the things she would say. . . .
During one hectic week of final exams, I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once with all of the things that I had to think about. The question occurred to me, what does Mabel have to think about? Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it is day or night. So I went to her and asked, “Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?”
And she said, “I think about my Jesus.”
I sat there and thought for a moment about the difficulty for me of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes. And I asked, “What do you think about Jesus?” She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote, and this is what she said,
I think how good he has been to me. He has been awfully good to me in my life, you know. . . . I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied. . . . Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus, he is all the world to me.
And then Mabel began to sing an old hymn:
Jesus is all the world to me,
My life, my joy, my all.
He is my strength from day to day,
Without him, I would fall.
When I am sad, to him I go.
No other one can cheer me so.
When I am sad, he makes me glad.
He’s my friend.
This is not fiction. Incredible as it may seem, a human being really lived like this. I know, I knew her. How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening – and she laid there and sang hymns. How could she do it?
The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don’t have much of. She had power. Lying there, in that bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to talk. . . , she had incredible power.6
I think that that is such a beautiful illustration of this point:7 God’s power is made perfect in weakness and manifested there. So we are, indeed, walking sticks of dynamite; but this may not evidence itself in great triumph or great success in some persons, who are called upon to suffer for the Lord. It may manifest itself in incredible strength and perseverance in hardship.
Secondly, God’s omnipotence means that nothing can defeat God’s purposes. Ephesians 1:11 speaks of God as him who “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will.” In Matthew 16:18, Jesus 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.” God’s purposes will be accomplished. If God wants something for you, you will get it. You can count on it, he will accomplish it.
Think of the illustration of Joseph in the Old Testament. Joseph’s brothers hated him, they kidnapped him, sold him into slavery in Egypt, lied to their father that he had been killed by a wild animal, and thought they had washed their hands of their younger brother forever. Instead, God was with Joseph, elevated him through prison to Pharaoh’s right hand, and eventually he became the instrument of his own family’s salvation when famine hit Palestine and they came down to Egypt looking for food. Joseph says to his brothers when he meets them again, finally disclosing his identity, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good and has brought this to pass.” God’s purposes will prevail because he is omnipotent.
But again, here’s the caveat. God’s will for your life can include failure. Don’t think that God’s will for you is that you will always succeed in the purposes to which you are called. God can will that you fail, and he can lead you into failure. Why? Because there are things that God has to teach you through failure that you can never learn through success. And his purposes can be accomplished through your failing even though this may not be your plan or desire. God’s purposes are much larger than our petty plans and desires. It will be God’s purposes that will not be defeated, it will be God’s purposes that will be accomplished, and we need to seek to align our wills with his so that our projects and purposes can fit in with his. But we go out in the confidence that God’s purposes will be accomplished; it will be done.8
Finally, number three, God’s omnipotence means that God is adequate to all of your needs. There is no hurt too deep, 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 that God cannot meet it fully. God is capable of meeting all of our needs – physical, emotional, spiritual, whatever. Therefore, we need to be trusting in him, totally committed to him and walking in the center of his will for our lives.
To bring to a close this section on God’s omnipotence, I want to simply repeat again that wonderful benediction that Paul gives to the Ephesian church, from Ephesians 3:20-21, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Question: I believe that we can never fully appreciate God unless we have lived in this world and gone through its trials and tribulations that we face here.
Answer: Yes, Jesus said, “He who has been forgiven much, loves much; he who has been forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47) I think there is truth in what you say. Those of us who have spent time as non-Christians and came to faith as adults, I think sometimes have a deeper sense of that from which we’ve been saved than folks who have been brought from the cradle up into the Christian faith. Though they know the blessings of a Christian home and all that that brings, still, as you say, there is greater appreciation for Christ’s salvation and God’s love and what he has done if you’ve tasted that other side as well, the hardship, misery, and sin that life apart from him brings.9
6 Thomas E. Schmidt, Trying to Be Good: A Book of Doing for Thinking People (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 180-183.
9 Total Running Time: 38:14