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God Can’t!—and the Bible Says So

I sometimes hear the argument that we should not speculate about the attributes of God’s nature. Overall, I don’t find this argument convincing.

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Feb

24

God Can’t!—and the Bible Says So

I sometimes hear the argument that we should not speculate about the attributes of God’s nature. Overall, I don’t find this argument convincing.

A couple of the underlying assumptions of the argument seem on target, however. One assumption is that humans often overreach in their claims about who God is.  Finite minds should not pretend to grasp entirely the essence of an infinite God. I agree with this. There is always a role for mystery in theology.  Folks just don’t always agree about what that role is.

This assumption to the argument reminds us “we know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12).  We should remain humble in our words about God. After all, we occasionally realize in hindsight that our previous claims are not as helpful or accurate as we once thought.

The second assumption against speculating about the attributes of God’s nature is justified by the inadequacies of the ancient Christian tradition. This assumption says that many Christians today identify ancient theological claims they no longer find plausible. 

For instance, a good number of theologians today think the ancient Christian claim that God does not suffer (i.e., is not affected by creatures) is faulty. Although this claim was common among ancient theologians, the Bible suggests otherwise. Sometimes abstract speculation about God’s nature fueled ancient theological claims that most Christians now believe erroneous. 

As another example, take the issue of God’s power and creaturely freedom. Many if not most ancient theologians implicitly or explicitly denied that creatures are free.  Many if not most contemporary theologians argue otherwise.

Given these concerns, some Christians today say we should resist making any claims whatsoever about God’s nature.  We should restrict ourselves instead, they say, to descriptive comments about the way God has acted in history.

I disagree with the view that we should refrain from making claims about God’s nature. Instead, I think we ought to offer humble hypotheses about what we believe God’s nature is like.  In humility, we ought always be ready to modify our views. “We know in part,” not in full.

My primary argument for why we are justified in speculating about God’s nature comes from the Bible.  Biblical authors OFTEN make statements about God’s nature or attributes. They don’t just describe God’s actions.  Here are a few:

“God is love” (I Jn 4:16).  “God is spirit…" (Jn. 4:24). “The Lord our God is holy” (Ps. 99:9).

"The Lord is one" (Deut. 6:4). “God … knows everything” (1 Jn. 3:20). “God is just” (2 Thess. 1:6).   “God is not unjust” (Heb. 6:10).

In God’s nature “there is no change or shadow of alteration” (James 1:17). “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33).

“Since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20)

The last biblical passage I cite is especially powerful. Paul claims our observations of the world – not just the Bible – can tell us something about God’s invisible qualities and divine nature.

Most Christians also believe that Jesus Christ reveals important information about God’s nature. In part, this belief fuels Christians to claim that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  The Bible witnesses to the revelation of God’s nature through the life of Jesus. 

Here are two passages from the many I could quote to support the idea that Jesus reveals God’s nature:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). The Word "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).

“We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:20).

I mention the issue of speculating about God’s nature to get to a question I’ve been asking for some time: Is there something about God’s nature that makes it impossible for God to act in certain ways? 

To put it succinctly:  Should we say God CAN’T do some things?

A number of theologians are comfortable saying God voluntarily chooses not to act in certain ways.  God voluntarily self-limits, creates space for creation, and gives creatures freedom, say theologians as influential as Jurgen Moltmann and John Polkinghorne. This limitation is based on God’s free decision.

Instead of wondering whether God could or would do something, however, I’m wondering if God essentially CAN’T do some things. There’s a big difference between “can’t” and “won’t.”  I’m asking the can’t question.

The distinction between “God can’t” and “God won’t” is especially important for accounting for God’s action or inaction to prevent genuine evil. I try to account for this in light of the genuine evil caused by pain and suffering in our world.  The recent Haiti earthquake and the million or more people negatively affected brought the problem of evil to the fore of my mind again.

If God won’t prevent evil even though God could, we’re left with the same essential questions about evil. But if God can’t prevent the evil, a completely new way of thinking emerges.

For some people, of course, merely asking the question, “Should we say God CAN’T do some things,” is blasphemous.  For them, the Bible clearly indicates that God can do all things. 

A few passages – but not many – explicitly support the view that God can do anything. The most well known is probably when Jesus says, “with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26 and elsewhere).  In this passage (and the other gospels reporting the same conversation), Jesus seems to be saying that offering salvation is always possible for God. That would be different that saying literally nothing is impossible for God to do.

There are passages in the Bible that specifically say God CAN’T do some things. Notice: these passages aren’t saying God voluntarily chooses not to do some things. They say God simply cannot do them.  Here are four biblical verses as illustrations:

"It is impossible for God to lie" (Heb. 6:18).  See also Titus 1:2.

“God cannot be tempted by evil" (Js. 1:12).

"If we are faithless, [God] remains faithful -- for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).

I personally think the statement in the last of these passages -- God cannot deny himself -- covers the others.  Paul seems to be saying that God’s own nature places limits on what God can do. God must be God, and God cannot be otherwise.

We must come to terms with the fact that the Bible says God can’t do some things. Christians like me who privilege the Bible on theological matters can’t ignore statements that seem to tell us something about God’s nature and God’s inherent limitations.

If we think about it a bit, however, these limitations based on God’s nature aren’t that big a deal. They shouldn’t shock us, even if we haven’t thought much about it previously.

Does it diminish our view of God, for instance, to admit that God can’t lie?  I doubt it.  And I doubt our view of God is diminished if we consider other attributes we typically think apply to God.

For instance, I doubt many of us worry that God can’t voluntarily decide to be 671 instead of triune. Most Christians assume that trinity is part of what it means to be God. (By the way, if to be three is to be triune, what’s the word for 671?!)

Or, for another instance, we probably don’t think it’s a significant limitation that God must be omnipresent rather than confined to one place or another. And we probably don’t worry about God being limited to leading an everlasting life instead of being able to choose to have a beginning or end. 

Upon reflection, the fact that God can’t do or be some things doesn’t seem so bad after all.

One of the most important biblical statements about God’s nature is that God’s eternal and unchanging nature includes steadfast love.  God cannot not love, to use the double negative.

Here’s where I wonder if thinking about God’s nature as love helps with the problem of evil. Here’s the love theo-logic I’m proposing: perhaps we are justified in speculating that part of what it means for God to love others is that God never controls others entirely. To put it positively, God’s love always involves giving freedom and/or agency to creatures. Because God's nature is love, God cannot do otherwise.

I was reading the works of John Wesley the other day. I came across a line of argumentation from him that supports my view of God’s nature making God incapable of controlling others entirely.  Wesley writes, “were human liberty taken away, men would be as incapable of virtue as stones. Therefore (with reverence be it spoken) the Almighty himself cannot do this thing. He cannot thus contradict himself or undo what he has done.”

If God’s loving nature prevents God from controlling others entirely, we might have to rethink how we understand God’s mighty acts recorded in Scripture and evident in our contemporary lives. We don’t have to reject that God acts in mighty and miraculous ways.  God still acts providentially and miraculously. But we might need to think of God’s acts as not involving the entire control of others. 

Admittedly, looking at God’s power through the lens of God’s love and not total control is new to some people.  But I know of nothing in the Bible to suggest that thinking in this way does injustice to the overall biblical witness.  After all, most folk think God always acts lovingly – even when biblical writers report God being angry with sinners.

I don’t have it all figured out. I see through a glass darkly. And I admit there are a few biblical passages that aren't easily explained by the idea that God always acts loving. They are the exceptions.

But I am trying to propose a biblically supported view of God’s nature that helps us make sense of why God doesn’t prevent genuine evil. God can't prevent genuine evil, because God's nature of love always gives freedom and/or agency to others.

My speculation is based upon the biblical witness that God can’t do some things. I have the Bible as my primary resource. I affirm with the Bible that God’s inabilities to do some things come from the truth that God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).


John Wesley, “On Divine Providence,” Sermon 67, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 2 (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1985) paragraph 15.

Posted in 2010 under Open and Relational Theology

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Comments

Lori Ward

02.24.2010
6:23pm

On a tangential thought . . . if “God cannot be tempted by evil” as James submits, what do we do with the God-Man who was tempted in the wilderness of his 40-day fast?  Was that not God?  Were his temptations not of evil?  Was he not truly tempted? 

I am convinced that Jesus, of one being with the Father, was in fact tempted by evil to do evil (perhaps this is a stretch of the term, “evil”?  Surely he was tempted to go against the “will of the Father.”). 

I also wonder then, was it impossible for Jesus to sin?  While among us would it be true to say, “Jesus CAN"T sin,” because that is outside his nature?  Is Jesus an exception to the “God rule”? 

I don’t necessarily disagree with your argument, but I am concerned about the implications it has regarding God in Christ Jesus.

 

Todd Holden

02.24.2010
8:40pm

You write that, “God can’t prevent genuine evil…” What difference would it make if you were to say, “God doesn’t prevent genuine evil”? To me it does not appear that your argument would be interfered with in any meaningful way.

In addition, how do you define “genuine evil”?

 

Kevin

02.24.2010
11:02pm

“Many if not most ancient theologians implicitly or explicitly denied that creatures are free.”

Who?  I’m working on an article on free will skepticism, and would like to know who you are thinking of here.

 

Hans Deventer

02.24.2010
11:11pm

Tom,

I agree that God can’t do certain things, and that he cannot entirely control others. But like a prison warden who cannot entirely control his prisoners, he definitely can avoid them causing harm in society. In fact, that is part of the very purpose of the prison. God doesn’t, however (yet). I’m still left with the question why.

 

Curtis

02.25.2010
9:37am

Tom,

Very nicely stated. I make a similar argument in my thesis that creation (I know we disagree on the nature of this) was a risk and act of faith for God because once God created God would never be able to “uncreate.” That is, God would forever be different by God’s act of creation. God would for ever be a creator and unable to ever erase this fact. I also agree that God had no choice but to create humans to be free. God could have created a world full of nonrelational objects and creatures but to create a being in God’s image that was relational meant that God could not do otherwise than create them to be free. In other words, I don’t speak about the “gift” of free will but the necessity of it.

All this to say, very nicely said and I think I will share this with my class…assuming this is alright with you.

 

Dave H

02.25.2010
12:41pm

Thanks for this thought provoking post.

I think Bart agrees with you!
http://www.recycleyourfaith.com/2010/02/08/god-is-not-in-control/

 

Mark W. Wilson

02.25.2010
7:41pm

It is interesting that in I Cor. 13 Paul doesn’t simply tell us what love does, but what it does not do. Because God is love, there must be things He doesn’t or can’t do. Open Theists have insisted that creaturely freedom is a prerquisite for genunine love and relationship. Is this true of God? Does he choose to love us, or does he love us because his nature constrains Him to? Can he not love us? If his nature constrains him to love us, why couldn’t God have made our nature so we are constrained to love and obey him? Or must we ascribe to God the freedom to not love us? I fear I see through a glass even more darkly.

 

Michael Lodahl

02.25.2010
8:19pm

Thanks for all your hard work, Tom. I agree with Kevin’s bewilderment, though. (I’m guessing Timpe.) What is striking to me is just how adamantly human freedom is affirmed and protected in early Christian theological writings, from Justin Martyr to Irenaeus to Athanasius to the Cappadocians, and many others. So I think you have more allies among the early theologians than you’re suggesting. And that’s a good thing!

 

John King

02.26.2010
12:47pm

A very interesting topic.  From a more philosophical perspective is a paper by Phillip Clayton on “Can there be Theology after Darwin”, Prof Clayton has some interesting comments about what God can and cannot do.  However, he does not ignore the Bible entirely.  He relates his view to the ancient hymn found in Phil. 2 to present a kenotic theology.  The apophatic theologian from Harvard, Gordon Kaufman has some interestint ideas about the nature of God also.  I think Kaufman’s books “In the Beginning…Creativity” and “Jesus and Creativity” are very readable

 

Grant Miller

04.11.2013
10:23pm

Dr. Oord, I love the tone of this piece and of the logical progression you take us through. I also appreciate your use of Scripture and your effort to acknowledge the necessarily humble attitude that any theory about God’s nature must be accompanied with.

However, I think I’d like to offer that God’s decision not to intervene in a “won’t” sense can be just as powerful as a God “can’t” understanding. I find this especially poignant in light of the idea of God’s active suffering. What could it mean if God is actively protecting human free will by refusing to interact with us in a way that jeopardizes it? How much more might God be suffering, especially when it could be theoretically in God’s capacity to act and prevent evil, but God can’t because our free will is the most loving thing God can offer us? Thank you for your thoughts here!

 

Gordon Knight

09.25.2013
8:25am

On determinism in the history of the Church: Augustine is a prime example of a theological determinist. Aquinas wiggles a bit but in the end a consistent Thomist has to adopt theological determinism (after all its one simple divine act that results in all of creation as its laid out temporally for us, but is, as it were laid out as a big banquet table before God.. fixed and determined. Remember that the Dominicans rejected Molinism not, as some of us do, because, even if it made sense, it would render God the greatest possible manipulator, but because they thought the existence of counterfactuals of freedom negated God’s sovereignty. I don’t need to mention Luther and Calvin (but I did anyway)
On the other hand the Greek Fathers—I have in mind theCappadocians and Origen.. were all about libertarian free will.

 

Tony Scialdone

09.25.2013
8:46am

Tom:

I truly appreciate that you consider God’s nature an appropriate topic of discussion. I’m often surprised at what people avoid discussing. In my opinion, it’s perfectly acceptable that we ask, “What is God really like?”

As valuable as speculation can be, it should never trump revelation. The musings of a follower of Christ should be both constrained and tempered by Scripture. Along those lines, would you please clarify the following?

>> I disagree with the view that we should refrain from making claims about God’s nature…Biblical authors OFTEN make statements about God’s nature or attributes.

Here’s why I ask: you seem to suggest that, because the writers of Scripture ‘made statements’ about God’s nature, we should engage in the same kinds of activities. I may have misunderstood, of course…but you seem to have reduced Scripture to the musings of ancient men, subject to revision. I’d like to know whether I’ve misread you.

Thanks for making us all think. Have a great day!

 

Linsey M.

09.26.2014
8:29am

Tom-
I would have to agree with your thoughts here. Because God is good and God is love (things I think most Christians are okay saying even if they suggest they don’t know everything about Him), would in essence suggest there is a long list of non-loving, evil, and bad things God cannot do. It is important we realize that the simple things we say God IS also imply there are certain things God IS NOT and therefore there are certain things He CANNOT do. Thanks for your thoughts.

 

Dustin J.

09.26.2014
8:36pm

The idea of God not being able to do certain things has been growing on me since your Philosophy of Love class. This idea of God not being able to interfere with freedom in creatures which would violate some form of characteristics of God’s essential nature makes sense. The one question I do have is does this thought process somehow limit God’s ‘God’ ability? If we put a limitation which makes sense for us does it diminish the power of God?
I enjoy the idea that characteristics of God are boiled down to love. That which goes against the ultimate love God shares to creation cannot happen. Love always plays the role of final word or authority, if it goes against love, as holding authority of our free will would,  it cannot happen.

 

Jared Trygg

09.27.2014
4:17pm

Tom

That was a very logical approach to why affirming God as able to do anything does not fit with biblical evidence as well as affirming that God can do all things in God’s nature of love. The verse that God cannot deny himself is crucial in defining that nature for God means complete identity. We often use the word nature for people as a way that they act most of the time, not necessarily all the time. For example, it may be in the nature of someone who has experienced entire sanctification to obey God but they are also able to sin. Sin is within their bounds as opposed to anything outside of God’s loving nature to be within God’s bounds.

 

Austin Lamos

09.27.2014
5:51pm

As I read this blog post I thought of the children’s song I used to sing in Sunday School and at Children’s camp.
“My God is so great, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do…”
I think that this is a helpful way of thinking for a child, and even a new Christian. However, I think, and I believe that Oord thinks, that this avenue of thinking and believing are the equivalent of “spiritual milk” (Hebrews 5:12-14). It may be a helpful rubric as one explores the basics of Christianity.
However, as one grows and matures as a Christian one must move on to “spiritual meat” (see above scripture reference). One moves from a children’s bible to an adult bible; from cute pictures to the ugly reality of sin and the cross (not that it can’t be argued that the cross can be seen as beautiful in it’s message). One moves from the idea that God can do absolutely anything without reserve to understand that there are some things that God cannot, not just will not, do.
I believe that Oord illustrates this well.

 

Mary Forester

09.27.2014
7:29pm

I think an interesting point that I feel you have brought to light, as I read this, is how it is in the way that we say things that makes a difference. You wrote, “Is there something about God’s nature that makes it impossible for God to act in certain ways?” I feel that this sounds different than a description of God which states that “it is impossible for God to act”. Clearly, the intention is the same, but the perception of the reader/hearer is different when comparing these ideas.

Your suggestion of why genuine evil exists makes sense to me when we consider that a loving God can’t interfere with the free will that He has given humankind.

 

Mark Mounts

09.27.2014
8:15pm

I totally agree with the assumption that God cannot do some things because He is love and love just would not complete some of the actions of evil.  I also learned this week that God is, most likely, an isolated spirit that does not take human form thus, partaking in some human decisions would not be like God.  I do believe that God intensely wanted to have a relationship with all of humankind so He sent Jesus to suffer evil and relate to humankind in a more intense way. 

God also would never associate himself with evil and suffering as a choice to partake in that evil and suffering.  I am not sure we could totally say that there are things God cannot do, but things that do not match His nature nor would He associate with those decisions.  Does that mean He cannot do them or that He has never thought or even considering doing those things?

 

David Hater

09.27.2014
8:59pm

This is an interesting perspective, and really was informative in certain ways.  I struggle with the idea of God cannot do something, because it seems limiting to say that, unless of course it is God who self-limits for the sake of his character.  In the essence of things that are evil, it is counter to God’s character to be or do any of those things, so I guess in a way that is that he cannot do those, as it is Biblical, it just seems like it could become a gray area if we are not careful to explain in depth the meaning when referring to God can’t.  This is an interesting thought that I need to look at more to hopefully understand on a deeper level.

 

Paul Darminio

09.27.2014
9:34pm

Again, I think that Tom presents a very strong argument here.  When it comes to essential kenosis, I have no difficulty accepting that God is loving by nature or that God suffers with us.  As he notes, I share the struggle of many others in saying that there are certain things that God cannot do.  I appreciate his approach, and I agree with some of the assertions he makes.  For instance, I had not considered if God could be something other than Triune, but I guess I would be comfortable saying God cannot violate this part of his nature. 

The issue of necessary evil vs. genuine evil is one that I am still struggling with, and I am beginning to wonder if natural evil falls under the umbrella of necessary evil since it allows for the kind of world that we live in.  Either way, I think this essay does an excellent job of acknowledging the tension created by this perspective and relating it back to Scripture.

 

Jerimy W

09.27.2014
9:38pm

The logic behind this argument makes sense: there are certain things that God cannot do because God said God cannot do them.  These certain things cannot be done because they would go against the very nature of God.  God, who creates in love, for love and out of love, created each of us with a free will.  In doing so, God granted each one of us the ability to choose, sometimes moment by moment, whether to seek God or seek evil.  If God is truly love, as the Scriptures point out, God cannot create in any other way.  And, if God is that love, I can understand how God cannot step in and change that which God created in and out of God’s own nature.
This, in my mind, does not diminish the power of God.  In fact, for me, it actually reinforces the character of God.

 

Melinda

09.27.2014
10:30pm

This was a very interesting piece.  The “can’t” and the “won’t” are so intertwined with each other it is almost impossible to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.  God won’t because He gave us free-will-His gift to us.  Because He values that, as do we, He will not intervene on certain levels, causing the “can’t” to appear.  It seems that one causes the other to take place.  Would it be different if God have not given us free-will?  Would “can’t” even be an issue anymore?  And if that is the case, could there actually be a “can’t”.  If we no longer had free-will; just woke up one morning and it was gone, would God change?  Would He become different and be capable of everything?

 

Kelli Simmons

09.28.2014
6:25pm

Tom,
I appreciate the fact that you are willing to ask “the hard questions” regarding Gods nature and the issue of evil. Overall, I would agree with your statements, especially when examined in the light of 2 Tim. 2:13. I am one of those people who have difficulty (or at least in the past)using the words “God” and “cannot” in the same sentence.  However, I am am of the opinion that the gift of free will that was given to us from a loving Creator plays a huge role in the circumstances, both good as well as evil, that we encounter in this world.  Thank you for this insightful essay.

 

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Thomas Jay Oord is a professor, author, and theologian from the Northwest. Read more