Latest Entry:

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.

Read more...

Archived Blog Entry

48 Comments

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

Add comment

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!

 

Kim Hersey

09.25.2013
12:21pm

I’ve spent much of my adult life teaching young adolescents and preteens to stop saying, “I can’t” and to start saying, “I won’t.”  The reason is that they need to own a sense of responsibility for their choices.  I’ve seen “I won’t” as a much more powerful statement than “I can’t.”

However, in this context, I have to reconsider.  I have never struggled with “God won’t lie.”  Faith in God’s character makes that easy.  It is a different thing to say that God “cannot” lie.  Frankly, in this context, it makes it all the more powerful.  A cannot is utter certainty, whereas “won’t” leaves room, however remote the chance, for the possibility.

 

Mike

09.25.2013
10:05pm

Facinating read.  I think that many people getting hung up on the can’t fail to think through the implications of won’t.  If I see my child running towards the busy street, and I won’t step in to save him,  I’m morally responsible for what ever happens next.  But if I can’t step in to save him, then I can’t be held responsible.

That’s the point of can’t vs won’t.  If God has the ability to stop evil, but won’t, then he is just as culpable for the evil.  If God doesn’t have the ability to stop evil, he can’t stop it, then he isn’t culpable for it.

There are lots of things God can’t do.  And Gods will is often thwarted.  Think about this.  Daniel started to fast and Pray to God.  God sent an angel to deliver a message to Daniel that he heard his prayers.  But what happened?  The angel was held up 21 days by a Prince….  Wait, what?  how can an Angel, with a message from God, be held captive/prisoner what ever?  That would be as obsurde as a man wrestling with an Angel and not letting him go…. oh wait, that happened as well.

God is very real, and he made us in his image.  Because he did that, he took a chance and just can’t do somethings.  Sure, God has the power to destroy creation, but that’s something he doesn’t want to do.  And because he doesn’t want to do that, there are things that God cant do.  God can’t destroy evil unless he destroys creation. 
So, as things Progress, God watches, and nudges, and answers prayers, and at times he’s able to interviene.  Other times?  Not so much.  Just remember, that there truely is a spiritual war going on.  Not the devil behind every bush and he made me do it, but a real life war.  And God gets thwarted.

But before you call me blaspheming, and stone me.  None of this is to say that God isn’t infinitel intelligent, and doesn’t have a plan in mind to win the war.  It’s just going to be a bit bloody on all side.

 

T. Friberg

09.25.2013
10:57pm

It is unnatural to think of God as unable to do certain things. And I really believe that this claims some significant ground, especially in the theodicy discussion.

I also struggle with the combination of viewing the power of God through the lens of the God’s love. How these two find full fruition in God is part of the mystery we have to embrace about our Creator.

I do appreciate the caution to humbly step forward in trying to describe and hypothesize about God’s attributes and as we describe God’s activity. Your humble tone and your admission that we have not yet ‘arrived’ is a model for everyone who would think about God!

Blessings.

 

Doubting Thomas

09.26.2013
7:56am

Did it ever occur to you that maybe God simply doesn’t exist? That answers A LOT of theological questions I busted my brains thinking about in the past.

I was a believer for 20 years before having to face some evidence that pointed me to this possibility. It was shocking at first, but I managed to cope and push on, following the newly opened logical thread.

I was forced to admit the Bible is wrong on a number of issues, so it couldn’t possibly be authored by God, so that leaves us with the conclusion it was written by people.

And as other than the Bible, reality does not offer much support for God, the possibility that He simply doesn’t exist finally sinks in.

And it answers a lot of theological impasses along with Christian life and church disfunctionality.

God doesn’t do this or that, despite this or that, because… God simply doesn’t exist.

 

dan chapman

09.26.2013
1:56pm

To state that “God Can’t” puts many on the defensive.  This was true for me but the more I look at the implications of “God Can’t” vs. “God Won’t” the more I appreciate the journey towards believing that God Can’t.  The problem for me is the miraculous healing’s that occur for some and the miraculous healing’s that do not happen.  Is the prayer of one more powerful than the other? Did God move more in the life of the one healed than the one who wasn’t healed? Though the God Can’t isn’t fully fleshed out, I lean towards it because of the answer it gives to evil in this world

 

Jeff Martin

09.26.2013
2:09pm

Dr. Oord you said, “If God won’t prevent evil even though God could, we’re left with the same essential questions about evil.”  This is true but true freedom will inevitably produce evil, so in some way God is responsible as Dr. Cobb said. 

I don’t know how many people would disagree with you that God cannot do certain things.  I have gone to a variety of seminaries and I have not heard anyone who would be so restrictive.  Although I do think the majority is certainly against you that God cannot prevent evil from happening.  Hezekiah prayed to God to save him from Sennacherib and in 2 Chron 32:21 – it says that God sent an angel to cut off the mighty men, commanders and officers.  When Elijah was in trouble God does Elijah’s bidding and scorched 100 Soldiers.  So we have clear example of evil about to happen to someone and God sparing them in a miraculous way.

 

b dockum

09.26.2013
4:55pm

Thank you for broaching the stimulating question, “Should we say God can’t do some things?” Not only is it not bad, rather it is very helpful to reevaluate our ideas concerning the person of God. I think our God-concept influences us more than any other mental model of reality.
I notice that at or near the roots of this discussion is a concern for reconciling the evil observed and experienced in the world with a Biblical concept of God. I would add to the discussion by asserting that it is possible to have a freewill-based theodicy that argues “God won’t” standing on the belief that God will redeem all evil.

 

Janet G

09.26.2013
5:07pm

My comment in order to stick to the word limit will be limited to the comments on the earhtquakes and tornados of the spring and things of that nature. As a little Girl I remember hearing the verses if humanity does not worship God then the very rocks will cry out. I have to say that the earth is groaning and crying. I am under the impression that the world’s faithful are not being loud enough. We are not shouting at the tops of our lungs that God is awesome and faithful and powerful and loving and compassionate and definitely more tolerant than any part of his creation. It is time to scream from the roof tops that we serve a risen savior that he is active and current and relevent. I personally think that the natural disasters we have recently witnessed are the earth screaming for God to touch its face and dry its eyes because it is no longer soothed by humanties voices joining in chorus to praise the Lord.

 

margaret tyler

09.26.2013
6:50pm

Guarding my language as I speak of God is an ever increasing theme in my world. The more I seek to discover, the less I seem to understand.

“...looking at God’s power through the lens of God’s love and not total control is new to some people.” This is evident in many conversations in which I find myself invited to engage. This core belief informs prayers and language.

I suppose it would be fair to say, God gets the blame for things in which we can only speculate God’s involvement. And God does not always receive credit where God-cooperation is vital.

 

Vincent Chiu

09.26.2013
7:16pm

Tom,
I basically agree with your thesis that God is limited in some areas, either voluntarily or necessarily. I also think that it is highly possible that God cannot force his way onto the world and others, as an inherent essence called for by the nature of love. There are bible passages that seem to suggest that God exerts total control when giving description of how God is like. Yet so far I haven’t seen a case God’s entirely irresistible control of people will leave no room for free decision. Whether He won’t or can’t is still a matter of debate, that requires further exploration. What I particularly appreciate your humility displayed in admitting that you do not have it all figured out. I think it is fundamentally important for us to understand that God is too vast and magnificent to capture and know inside out.

 

Anthony Phillips

09.26.2013
8:01pm

If God is love, then why suffering and evil? Excepting the fact that God is love requires for me an understanding of what God’s love looks like. I believe that Dr. Oord’s portrait of God’s love as being persuasive and influential, as opposed to being compelling and forceful is biblically evident. This understanding is rarely emphasized and developed in most churches. Dr. Oord honors God’s creation by demonstrating a sophisticated concept of God’s love in relationship and how this love is inexorably linked to a freedom that is intrinsic to the world.
Freedom and agency in creation reflects the image of its Creator. The nature of God and the nature of the universe is love. Freedom is woven into all of creation, therefore, creation can refuse to live according to its nature. The result of this refusal is suffering, evil, and death.
The universe that God creates is filled with divine love, and this love gives freedom and power to its creatures. In doing so, God as creator bears some responsibility for suffering and evil, but is NEVER guilty of it.

 

Nancy Tullis

09.26.2013
8:22pm

That God does not do some things seems perfectly logical to me; that is, if we are talking about God not being totally in control of everything all the time. I do not see this as placing a limit on God, because God limits his control so that we are not limited in our freedom.

I think it is somewhat like a parent who knows a child is about to make mistakes, but knows the child will best learn from making those mistakes. We have free will to make our own decisions, and that includes making wrong ones. God can advise, suggest, direct. God can show us the right way. But God cannot make our decisions for us. God wants us to do that on our own. That is freedom - even if in that freedom we choose to reject God.

Divine love is the most important attribute of God’s nature, and so in love he has given us freedom. If there is true freedom, there cannot be total control. So I agree with your statement that this blog entry is “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.”

 

Amy Rice

09.26.2013
9:13pm

This blog post really helped me to understand both the positive and negative ways God is limited. It makes sense that a true love will not seek to control absolutely. Cobb noted giving humans freedom is a very risky move. But as with the example of virtue, freedom is necessary (because virtue requires intent to be virtuous).

How do you answer those who fault God for making humans capable of evil? Would it truly be freedom if humans were designed to make only good choices?

 

Kevin Guderjahn

09.27.2013
3:46am

Coming from a counseling background especially when focusing on personality and the dynamics of relationship I am never comfortable with debates regarding who God is or what He can or can’t do.  I think the same principles that apply to “knowing” and “knowing about” a person applies as much to our knowledge of/about God.

There is only so much you can know about or learn about a person by simply observing them.  You can presume a little more about them through the testimony of others and by looking at their past actions.  Both of these would be considered secondary sources by research psychologists and while they might be employed to predict how someone might act under hypothetical circumstances it is not enough to base character judgements on and certainly not enough to declare that you “know” the individual.  To truly “know” an individual the “researcher” has to interact directly with the individual and allow them to “reveal” who they are directly.  And even then, that “knowing” is not something that can be generalized but is rather specific to the specific interaction between the “researcher” and the “subject”

Applied to God we can gather secondary knowledge from observations drawn from creation as Romans 1:20 suggests and we can learn a lot about God through the testimony of others and the record of God’s past actions/behavior recorded throughout scripture.  But again this is still only secondary data.  In order to truly “know” God and therefore be able to even answer a question about what God can or can’t do we need the type of primary data that only comes from engaging in relationship.  We can say with confidence what God can or cannot do, or more precisely what God will or won’t do based on who God has revealed Himself to be to us directly.  The Bible and the testimony of others throughout history - both from theologians and ordinary Christians - becomes confirmation of what we “know” personally.

Theology can certainly be an interesting and enjoyable exercise - especially when wrestling with interesting questions.  But, for me at least, if the questions don’t have direct relevance to relationship the first question that comes to mind for me is “What’s the point?”

 

Phillip Anderson

09.28.2013
1:10am

Dr. Oord.
“God cannot be tempted by evil” (Js. 1:12).
I would like to direct my thoughts, for the sake of argument, regarding this blog based on this verse alone if I may.  To me, this verse would implicitly show Jesus as a man. Jesus was tempted. He had the capacity to sin but like man he had a choice not to sin. Does this then mean that Jesus was not fully God and fully man? If Jesus then was not fully God he was capable of causing evil by sinning. Which then would usher in the question of the difference between, God can’t do some things or won’t. In the case of sinning, God as Jesus won’t. He was tempted but didn’t succumb. Therefore, in the case of evil: preventing, causing or allowing, won’t seems to make a stronger point. God won’t prevent evil because God needs people to love God and obey God’s commands of their own volition; God is not coercive. God, can do all things if God chooses. God shows God can do many things if not all things, by providing evidence of power through miracles, some of them defying the natural order (the sun stood still Joshua 10:13).  I think the statement from Paul could be looked at through the lens of Jesus. Jesus did deny himself and went to the cross. Jesus did pour himself out unto death as a manner of preventing evil. Those who believe and follow Christ typically do not “do” evil. 
I believe then, that this is an example of God working with creatures through love to prevent evil. If, then the “plan is to work together then it is not that God can’t, but won’t. Perhaps part of the purpose of creation is to work with God in bringing about earth devoid of evil. After all, doesn’t the nature of humanity accept the idea of preventing evil often fall on their own cognitive and rational activity to stop it?

 

Elena Simeonova

09.28.2013
2:34am

I support the view that it is basically not only good but also necessary for human beings to contemplate the nature of God. We do need to be humble in that of course, but if there is no reflection on that matter, is it possible for one to really seek God? And if a person does not seek God, how can they obtain salvation? So we have to encourage both Christians and non-Christians to ask and search for answers as to the question who God is.

Then comes the question whether there are things which God cannot do. Christians will agree that God can’t lie, etc. I am not sure, however, that God’s loving nature necessarily requires that He should give freedom or agency to His creation. In the line of the impossibility of God contradicting himself, we could rather say that God cannot create beings with free will and then deprive them of the possibility to use it.

 

Buck

09.28.2013
8:29am

Dr Oord,
One question that I have for you regarding God’s ability or lack of ability to perform certain behaviors is “does God have free choice?”  If God had freedom, much like we have freedom, then God could very well lie, cheat, and perform evil.  Is it safe to say that by being only God, God cannot be something else, so therefore God does not retain the freedom that humanity does, to both live evil and good.  For instance, you state “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.”  If God is love and God cannot be hate (or anything other than love) yet his creatures have the freedom to love or hate, would these mean that either God cannot choose to hate because he cannot or because he cannot do what he is not because he has no freedom to do it.  I do believe that God has certain freedoms alone to God, such as creating and justice, but does God have a share in our freedom to choose to do evil without regards to his nature?  I feel that God alone decides what his nature is, thus God could chose an evil nature, but chose love.  How would you respond to this?

 

Patti J Niebojewski

09.28.2013
5:11pm

Let’s face it. Evil is malevolent. It is wicked, sinful, criminal and immoral. People shake their fist at God for not preventing the evil that occurs.  We hate it. However, God Can’t and the Bible Says So gives a credible compelling argument for why God would restrain from stopping or preventing evil.  God loves us so much that He gifted humanity with freedom. He will not interfere with His purpose.  He wants our adoration, and wants us to give it to Him freely.  It makes sense to me.  He does not stop me or prevent me from doing good or evil.  As His creation, I am free to do as I wish.  I believe the Bible supports this theory.  Jesus said that in the “fullness of time” he will come.  God will not allow it because many prophecies have not yet been filled. God “can’t.”  I agree, He cannot contradict himself.

 

Dean Jenkins

09.28.2013
7:14pm

I think Prof. Oord has pretty well convinced me that “God can’t and the Bible says so”.  The argument for God’s inability to limit free will is slightly less uncomfortable than believing that God could prevent genuine evil - but doesn’t.
I’m still trying to fit natural evil into the picture.  Is the temporal creation out of God’s control as well?  Or is there a greater good to the planet renewing itself through natural processes like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions etc.?

A completely satisfying answer, for me, needs to address natural evil as well and I’m still working through that myself.

 

carolyn

09.28.2013
7:37pm

You note, “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.” Shouldn’t it be the other way around? For example, “… in light of the pain and suffering in our world caused by genuine evil.”
 
Regarding, “The recent Haiti earthquake and the million or more people negatively affected brought the problem of evil to the fore of my mind again.” What are you referring to as evil? The earthquake itself? People living in poverty prior to and after the event? Corruption? Please explain.

It seems that people should be encouraged by a God with limitations, especially the greatest limitation of not being able to deny self. A God who can lie, cheat, and steal is not worthy of our honor.

Finally, I hope to be growing in love so that any power I possess flows through love from start to finish.

Take care -

 

Gabriel Benjiman

09.28.2013
11:20pm

I think that it is vital to highlight that the essential nature we may ascribe to God is Love.  Love is the character of God.  Love compels the granting of freedom. Love also constrains the ‘commandeering’ of that freedom. So God is bound by His faithfulness to His own character.  If humanity bears the image of God then, should we not be imitating this kind of character? Do we have the capacity to love in ways which compels us to let others be and constrains us from trying to shape or “commandeer” their freedom?  Christ is portrayed in this way in the gospels (compelled to give freedom and constrained from controlling other’s freedom).  Only a self-emptying, self limiting, humbling approach to relationships creates the space for reciprocation.  In my way of thinking then, if God is love, He cannot withhold freedom.

 

Nicholas Wilson Carpenter

10.21.2013
12:14pm

There is one statement that stuck out to me throughout the article: “In humility, we ought always be ready to modify our views.” As someone who comes from a traditional and conservative background, this statement scares me because I have so identified and related to the ideas and beliefs that to change those would be to change so much about myself and my life. Yet as a college student who constantly recognizes new information is out there and new knowledge is constantly being put into my life, I recognize flexibility is key to being able to relate to my community and keeping a pious nature of humility in my knowledge.

 

Steven Coles

10.24.2013
1:56pm

Theodicy is something that I really struggle with. In fact, I do not even have an answer for why God and evil seem to co-exist in the world. I do, however, think it is important that we hold that God is love, down to very core of God. Unfortunately, I do not think that will fully give us any answers. It sounds like you have an answer Tom, but I worry about saying that, because we have genuine freedom, that God cannot do certain things. Even if we view God as a parent, as Wesley did, a parent can still be controlling and demanding of their child or children. Of course, this leads into a discussion about parenting and not about God, but I think that we forget that God is still God at the end of the day and, unfortunately, I am not sure how much further we can go to understand this vast and yet mysterious problem of evil in our world. All I know is that I need to present and love people, but I am called to do so.

 

Rachael Snyder

10.24.2013
3:06pm

If giving free will, which often results in evil and suffering, is necessary to God’s loving nature, this would be to say God’s nature requires him to allow and create opportunity for evil. Granted, there is also opportunity to love within that, but I am not convinced in light of the senseless suffering in the world that it is worth the small goods that shine through. In my eyes, giving free will - period - does not seem like a loving action. Tom, I have asked you this in class as well and have yet to receive a satisfactory answer: why do you think love requires giving freedom? I’m unconvinced. I think if God has to give free will when creating, then it would be most loving for God not to create. In your view, if I understand you correctly, this is not possible for God. God must create; it is a condition of God’s existence and part of God’s essential nature. Seeing how God (we presume) cannot choose to not exist and has not yet done so, God then must necessarily exist and create free creatures who then often choose evil making God necessarily responsible for evil in the world. If God didn’t exist, there would be no evil. There would be nothing. And if the choice is between suffering of innocent children and nothing, I would say the greater good is nothing. No amount of goodness in life can justify the suffering of the innocent. Your theodicy may satisfy you, and I am glad for it, but it leaves me angry at a concept of God I cannot worship.

 

Robbie Schwenck

10.24.2013
4:56pm

In the past I would have had a problem with people if they said that there are things that God cannot do. However, when it comes to some things, such as evil, I find it much more difficult to say that God chooses not to act rather than to say God cannot act. Still, I do not want to believe something about God just because it is easier or more comfortable for me to believe. As it says in the article, there is always a role for mystery. We need to always remain humble in how we talk about God and be careful not to throw out some ideas just because they do not fit with what we would like to believe.

 

Greyson Kilgore

10.24.2013
8:44pm

I am having a hard time seeing the difference between the idea that God “can’t” do some things because his nature won’t allow it, and the idea that God won’t do some things, because God won’t allow God’s self. In the first case, God is limited by his nature, in the second, God is intentionally limiting Gods self. Yet, in both cases, wouldn’t God be limiting himself because of who God is?

 

Dakota Vails

10.25.2013
7:17am

First of all I would like to start by saying that this is a great article. Now that I have said that… I have a few issues with this article. First one is I think there is danger and equating all men to having the same power as the Biblical authors in understanding God. God gave them the ability to understand what he wanted them to write in the Bible. The next issue I have is although God cannot lie, do evil, ect. these are all outside of God’s nature of Holiness.  Therefore I do not think that these can apply to God’s power. Yes it says that God is limited in the fact that he can’t commit evil(lying being a form of evil) but these verses are not talking about divine power in light of divine love. Overall great article and definitely some information to ponder but I feel like it gives to easy of an answer to quickly.

 

Megan Krebs

10.25.2013
10:48am

It is interesting that this topic would be so controversial. Especially considering the fact that at its core, it emphasizes the unchanging nature of who God is. Essentially, God cannot become or do that which would change or contradict the essence of God’s character. Any Christian would want to affirm something like that. Fear, unfortunately, drives and maintains far too much theology. As Christians, we oftentimes forget that “...perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). I would hope that God CANNOT change God’s love for us (I would also hope that God does not want to).
I think any cohesive theodicy that is centered in God’s omnibenevolence would necessitate that God cannot arbitrarily remove the freewill of creation. If God could, why not do so in instances where that freewill was used for evil?

 

James

10.25.2013
11:52am

The problem with resting on, “the Bible says so,” is that the Bible says a lot of things from differing perspectives. The biblical witness is about as diverse as our contemporary theories. It is therefore often unhelpful to land squarely on one side of a biblical argument when the Bible supports the other side as well. Of course, this understanding of biblical theology causes all kinds of problems for the systematic theological. Your work to provide a coherent understanding of God’s nature, while remaining true to the biblical witness is commendable.

 

Chelsea

10.25.2013
1:54pm

I really appreciate your honesty in your journey of understanding Scripture. I never realized that we are okay with God not being able to lie. If we are fine with this, then should we be more consistent with our thinking on God? In other words, if we are comfortable with God not being able to lie, then should be able to think about not being able to do other things? Like you, I cannot say that I know everything. Thanks for the post.

 

Kaelynn Huwe

10.25.2013
2:52pm

I agree that when doing theology we should be weary about overstepping our knowledge on God. As you pointed out, there have been many times when we make claims about God that are then proven to be faulty. We ‘put God in a box,’ and God seems to laugh at our attempts. One example is saying that God is a boy, that because Jesus was male God is in essence male as well. The book The Shack by William P. Young took this notion of God and blew it out of the water, instead depicted God as a black women. This brought many people to question their belief and think, possibly for the first time, that God may have no gender at all. It is examples like these that help remind us that while we should strive to understand and find our theology, we should not become so dependent on our beliefs that when we are proven wrong we are swept off our feet.

 

Aaron Moschitto

10.25.2013
2:59pm

I think “God can’t” is very respectable place to go in trying to be theologically coherent without appealing to mystery. And I think Dr. Oord will receive much push back for this stance, but in a sense we all do this “God can’t” in one form or another. For instance, in the popular Penal Substitution atonement theory God couldn’t forgive humanity without a substitute sacrifice to satisfy God’s wrath. Here again we have a God can’t… It is strange to me that many people will accept that God can’t when it comes to God’s wrath, but are generally more hesitant when it comes to God’s love as presented here. I find the redefinition of power helpful in this discussion. That when we say God can’t we have an idea of sovereign control, but I think the God can’t presented in this blog is one of empowerment. God can’t do certain things in regards to love because it would pervert the nature of power (empowerment) into control.

 

Joseph Norris

10.25.2013
4:06pm

“Should we say God CAN’T do some things?” - Saying that “God can’t prevent genuine evil” is definitely a statement which, I think, most laymen Christians would deny. Because God loves me and my neighbor, in particular instances, God can prevent us from harm, unnecessary or “genuine” evil in light of God’s essential quality as loving. I can understand where such a belief/value comes from. Apart from that, my own concerned is regarding God as unable to prevent evil, by necessity, and his ability to preserve as much good as possible in genuine evil situations (as you have claimed in the classroom and perhaps in your blog). Are there no other speculations about God’s nature and divine activity that can provide a satisfactory argument for God’s divine involvement in cases of genuine evil? This seems to be the next step forward in the theological discussion, particularly as the literature on this subject increases.

 

Nichelle Sisk

10.25.2013
4:10pm

I really like and agree with John Wesley when he compares God to a parent.  I think that this comparison can word too when speaking about what God can and cannot do.  Parents want to do everything for their children, they want them to have everything they want and they want them to never be hurt.  But if parents keep their children in a bubble, they only end up hurting their children and put them at a disadvantage.  There are just some things that children have to do on their own and learn on their own.  I think it is the same way with God. 
Now a rebuttal to this would be that this is God choosing to not do something instead of God can’t do something.  I think you could argue that a part of God’s nature is being a parent and that he cannot go against that nature.  Therefore God cannot always protect us from ourselves, from others, and from the world.  Just as parents have to let their children leave the nest, so too does God have to let his children choose between good and evil, right and wrong, living in relationship with Him or not.  But here is the difference between human parents and God the perfect parent; human parents can choose to not let their children go, human parents can hold on to their children and in their love for their children end up hurting them in their want to protect them.  However God cannot choose to not let go, He has to let us go, and yes we get hurt, but in His letting us go He has also given us a safe place of love and peace to return to.

 

Topher Taylor

10.25.2013
7:49pm

Is the main question here one of omnipotence or one of suffering? I’d lean towards the side of God not being able to do something rather than God choosing not to do it. I wonder though, if we are created in the image of God, to be like God, if there are things that even God isn’t completely free, does that mean that humans may not have as much free will as we think we have? We recognize that humans are finite and limited but what does that mean for our freedom the choices we make, or think that we make? I don’t necessarily have a problem with saying that God can’t do something, because it does really look better than saying God chooses not to stop some evil from happening.

 

Michelle Borbe

10.25.2013
10:55pm

I like the idea of looking at the central attribute of God as love, because it covers so much. From love we can have a better understanding of who God is. I feel like we can get lost in trying to define who God is. However, love is an attribute that is so much more than just one simple concept but covers a multitude of attributes in a way. Love shows us who God is and how God acts in so many different ways.

 

Leave a comment:

Please keep comments on topic. Your private information here will never be shared with anyone.

 

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