Understanding Divine Omnipotence

UnknownA cursory scan of the Bible seems to affirm the following regarding God’s power

  • Nothing is too hard for God
  • With God all things are possible.

For example, we learn in Psalm 24:8 that God is “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.” When he appeared to Abram to reaffirm his covenant, God identified himself by saying “I am God Almighty” (Genesis 17:1). The rhetorical question, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14) implies that nothing is. In the New Testament, the angel Gabriel says to Mary, “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). And Jesus says, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

It would seem then, that the biblical data suggests the following initial understanding of divine omnipotence:

(1) God can do anything.

But, theists are quick to add that (1) cannot be correct, in fact, there are many things that God cannot do which do not count against God’s omnipotence. For example, Augustine claims that God is unable to die or be deceived, “it is precisely because He is omnipotent that for Him some things are impossible.”[1] Anselm adds that God “cannot be corrupted, or lie, or cause what is true to be false (as for example, to cause what has been done not to have been done), or many other such things?”[2] And most importantly, there are passages of Scripture that suggest things God cannot do. In his letter to Titus, Paul grounds the believer’s hope in the promise of eternal life on the fact that God cannot go against his promises, for God is a “God, who does not lie.” (Titus 1:2) Or again, in God’s oaths and promises, the author of Hebrews says “it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). And in 2 Timothy 2:13 we learn that it is impossible for God to deny himself: “he cannot disown himself.”

This suggest the following explication of divine omnipotence:

(2) God can do anything, subject to certain restrictions.

But, what are the required restrictions to a definition of omnipotence? Most theists think at least the following two restrictions are necessary in developing a fully satisfying and biblically faithful understanding of divine omnipotence.

Restriction #1: God cannot do the logically impossible. 

Few thinkers, except perhaps Descartes, have been willing to affirm that divine omnipotence means God can do literally anything, including the logically impossible.[3] If God can do the logically impossible, then God could bring about impossible states of affairs such as being a square circle, being an unmarried bachelor, being created by God and not being created by God, changing the past, making it such that 2+2=5, or being created by God and being in a world where God does not exist. And most theists, upon reflection, do not want to affirm that God can in fact perform any of the actions listed here. Suppose God could make any proposition true by divine fiat in virtue of his power. If so, then it could be argued that the following states of affairs are possible: God is personal and not personal; God is spirit and not spirit; Jesus is God and Jesus is not God. Talk about relativism run amok! The implications of (even) God being able to do the logically impossible are unacceptable for the theist who affirms that God has an essential nature (as Scripture clearly teaches) and has created the world in such and such a way (independent of how we think about the world).

Restriction #2: God cannot do anything incompatible with his nature.

This second restriction seems to place more substantive restrictions on God. For now, there seems to be many things God cannot do. For example, many theists who believe God is omnipotent also hold that God is unable to sin, or to do morally wrong. And this seems correct. Consider, for an essentially morally perfect being, doing what is morally wrong is really just a special case of doing what is impossible for that being to do. Further, a God who could in fact do morally wrong would seem to be a less perfect—less worship worthy—God. And there is more. Since God exists necessarily, then he cannot commit deicide (i.e., suicide in God’s case). Since God is essentially an immaterial spirit, then he can’t drink a Root beer. And so on. The moral to the story is that God’s nature places ‘limits’ on what God can or can’t do. But these limits are not really limits, since they are not imposed upon God ‘from the outside.’ Rather, it is God’s essential nature that limits what is possible for God to do. If the above considerations are correct, this suggests a final definition of divine omnipotence as follows:

God is omnipotent = (df) God can do anything that is logically possible and consistent with his essential nature.

All of this leads to the question I’d like to consider in my next post: Can God create abstract objects?









[1] Augustine, City of God, V, 10, trans. Gerald Walsh et. al., ed. Vernon Bourke (Garden City, N.Y.” Image Books, 1958), 109.

[2] Anselm, Proslogion, Chapter 7, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2007), 84.

[3] For a helpful discussion of Descartes view, see Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature? (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1980), especially section IV.

5 Responses to Understanding Divine Omnipotence

  1. Pingback: Understanding Divine Omnipotence | Truth2Freedom's Blog

  2. Pingback: Can God Create Abstract objects? | Paul Gould

  3. Pingback: Our Longing for Omnipotence | Paul Gould

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