John Wesley Says God Can’t

September 1st, 2019 / 8 Comments

My recent book, God Can’t, makes the claim God can’t do some activities. Although this strikes some as unprecedented, John Wesley said it before I did.

God Can’t in the Bible

Biblical writers said “God can’t” before John Wesley and me. In various books and blogs, I’ve listed biblical passages that explicitly say God can’t do some actions. For instance, God can’t lie, can’t be tempted, can’t grow tired, can’t sin, can’t stop existing, etc.

The passage I like best is found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy. Paul says, “When we are faithless, God remains faithful, because God cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). God cannot act in an ungodlike way.

Other Theologians say God Can’t          

In addition to biblical statements about what God can’t do, most Christian theologians say God can’t do what is illogical. God cannot make a round square, for instance.

Many also say God cannot do what is self-contradictory. God cannot both exist and not exist, for instance. God cannot both be perfectly loving and perfectly sinful. And so on.

C. S. Lewis put it this way, “Not even Omnipotence can do what is self-contradictory.”

Wesley’s Provocative Claim

In his sermon on providence, John Wesley tackles the difficult questions about God’s action in the world. At one point in the sermon, he writes this:

“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.” (On Divine Providence)

Notice that Wesley says “cannot.” He doesn’t say, “chooses not to.” These activities are simply not possible for God.

Wesley Says God Can’t Do Three Things

Wesley makes three claims in this quote: 1) God can’t take away freedom, 2) God can’t contradict Himself, 3) God can’t undo what has been done.

The first idea is increasingly accepted among Christian philosophers and theologians: God cannot undermine the freedom that creatures express. In my view, God necessarily gives freedom, agency, and self-organization, which is why God can’t withdraw, override, or fail to provide these.

The second idea says God cannot contradict God’s own nature. This fits nicely with the Apostle Paul’s claims about God not being able to deny himself. God can’t decide not to be God.

The third idea refers to God’s inability to change what God has enacted. What’s done is done. Reverse causation is a myth. God works to redeem the past, but that’s not the same as changing it.

God Can’t Prevent Evil Singlehandedly

The central claim of God Can’t is that God loves everyone and everything. And because God’s love is inherently uncontrolling, God cannot control anyone or anything.

So… God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly.

Victims and survivors of evil find the God Can’t message comforting. They no longer believe their pain was caused or allowed by God. They don’t have to believe God abandoned or punished them. Confusion disappears.

The belief that God can’t control others means God is not culpable for failing to prevent evil. God can call upon us and others, however, to cooperate in overcoming evil and promoting love. Although God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly, God can prevent evil when creatures cooperate with the ways of love.

Conclusion

I make five claims in God Can’t that together solve the problem of evil. I believe we need these ideas – as provocative or unfamiliar as they may be – to make sense of God’s love for us all.

John Wesley says “God cannot.” He doesn’t say, “God chooses not to.” Some activities are simply not possible for God. Click To Tweet

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Comments

Daniel Held

Thank you for standing with Wesley against the determinism of Calvin and others who have unwittingly destroyed the faith of those who believed God controlled their personal misfortunes.


thomasjayoord

You’re welcome, Dan! I find a great many people who believe God either caused or permitted their misfortunes!


Matthew Palm

Tom as usual your carefully crafted words help us think clearly about what God is responsible for.

It must sometimes grieve God the most to have been willing to pay for the price of love by allowing the possibility of evil.

Matthew Palm


Vaughn Baker

I agree with you that reverse causation is a myth. Time like an arrow goes in one direction, and that is forward, even for God! Bultmann was correct when he said that salvation is freedom from the past.


Dale

Yes, this: ““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.” (On Divine Providence)”

I have used this as replies, many times, to people who tell me in response to my concerns and citing warnings from science re: the ecological crisis, “Relax. God has it under control. No. God assigned responsibility for care and honoring of the earth to humans, from the very beginning. It’s in keeping with the idea that God calls a people, and later, a church, to be God’s voice, hands, and feet in the world. God does not carry out those things for us. God has given us this marvelous consciousness to carry out the purposes for life that was created and declared “VERY GOOD”. To “step in” and say , “you silly and evil humans. You’re doing it wrong”. And take over. That does not happen. And God, as is said in the above article, does not contradict. God CANNOT contradict God.


Ian Todd

Thank you, as always, Tom, for your tremendously helpful insights. As someone with a strong Methodist background, it’s great to be made aware of how John Wesley’s understanding of God’s providence meshes so completely with the understanding of God’s uncontrolling love. Speaking of which, it reminds me of those well known words penned by John Wesley’s brother, “Love Divine, all love excelling; Joy of heaven , to earth come down;…….. Jesus, Thou art all compassion; Pure unbounded love Thou art”. Thank you.


thomasjayoord

I’m happy you found it helpful, Ian!


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Dale. You would like my blog essay, “God Can’t Stop Climate change Singlehandedly!” If you’re interested, search this site using that title.


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