God’s Nature Qualifies Omnipotence

February 10th, 2023 / 3 Comments

As part of a book I’m writing called The Death of Omnipotence …and Birth of Amipotence, I’m devoting a whole chapter to the qualifications scholars make to omnipotence. The chapter is called “Death by a Thousand Qualifications.”

As the title of the chapter suggests, I note thousands of qualifications necessary to make any sense of omnipotence. In this essay, I address one category: qualifications to omniop[tence that come from God’s nature.

God Can’t Do All Things Possible

Thomas Aquinas admits to being confused, for instance, about “the precise meaning of the word ‘all’ when we say that God can do all things.” Consequently, he says, it’s “difficult to explain in what omnipotence precisely consists.”[1]

In response to various concerns, nearly every serious theologian says God cannot do some things. God can’t. Some of those qualifications pertain to who God is, or what most call “the divine nature.”[1]

Thomas Aquinas is not exactly right when also says “God can do all things that are possible; and for this reason, He is said to be omnipotent.”[2] After all, many actions are possible for creatures but impossible for God. So God can’t do all things possible.[3] For example, biblical writers say it’s impossible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18; Tit. 1:2). In this case, you and I can do something God cannot.

We need to explore qualifications to omnipotence that arise from God’s nature. For various reasons, these qualifications are important. Most, if not all, fall under the general biblical claim that “God cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). These are impossibilities for God given who God is.

Augustine Identifies Things God Can’t Do

To begin exploring these activities, I turn to Augustine. He offers the following qualifications to divine power: “I can tell you the sort of things [God] could not do,” he writes. “[God] cannot die, He cannot sin, He cannot lie, He cannot be deceived. Such things He cannot.”[4] Let me list these four like this…

God cannot die.
God cannot sin.
God cannot lie.

God cannot be deceived.

Other theologians add qualifications.[5] Many arise from the superlative attributes God possesses. For instance, a God who exists necessarily cannot decide to stop existing. The God present to all cannot be absent someplace. An omniscient God cannot be ignorant of some fact. A God who by nature loves everyone and everything cannot be unloving toward someone or something.[6] We might list these qualifications this way…

God cannot decide to stop existing.

God cannot be omnipresent and absent somewhere.

God cannot be omniscient and ignorant of some fact.

God cannot be all-loving but fail to love someone.

God Can’t Choose Evil

The question of the priority of choice or love leads some theologians to say God can’t choose not to love. God must love.

Jacob Arminius makes the point when he argues “God is not freely good; that is, he is not good by the mode of liberty, but by that of natural necessity.” For “if God be freely good,” Arminius continues, “he can be or can be made not good.” In fact, Arminius considered blasphemous the idea God chooses to love.[7]

Divine omnipotence must be qualified to say God cannot choose evil.

Qualifications Forces Scripture Choices

Believers may think these qualifications inconsequential. “Isn’t it true by definition that God always exists, is omnipresent, and loves everyone?” they might ask. “Why should anyone think of these as limits to divine power?”

If we compare these qualifications with scripture, however, we’ll see why they matter. In fact, affirming each forces us to make choices when interpreting conflicting biblical passages. Do we accept as true passages that say God never harms, for instance, or those that say God sometimes harms? Do we accept passages that say God loves everyone or those that say God only loves some? Do we accept passages that say God sometimes abandons us or those that say God never leaves us? And so on.

Suppose we say God can choose to stop loving everyone. Or God can choose to be absent from some situations. These choices commit us to other qualifications. The God who can choose to stop loving or not be present is unable necessarily to love all and necessarily be present to all. When it comes to God’s nature, in other words, we can’t avoid qualifying omnipotence.

God Can’t Make An Equal

Another set of qualifications to divine abilities is necessary to account for God’s uniqueness. Most theologians are monotheists and believe God has no divine colleagues. This means, say many, God is unable to create an equal or superior deity. Peter of Lombard identifies this issue when he says, “God could not generate someone better than himself, for there is nothing better than God.”[8] We can identify a myriad of ways God cannot create someone better.

God cannot create someone smarter than God.

God cannot create someone stronger than God.

God cannot create someone more loving than God.

God cannot create an infinite divine being.

Classical Theism Says God Can’t…

Theologians differ among themselves on some qualifications of omnipotence, of course. What is often called “classical theism” adds modifications that I would not.[9] For instance, classical theism makes these qualifications to omnipotence…

God cannot decide to change, because God is immutable.

God cannot be affected by creatures, because God is impassible.

God cannot experience the flow of time, because God is timeless.

God cannot feel emotion in response to creatures, because God has no such emotions.

God Can’t Create Logical Principles

The limits to omnipotence I’ve noted above appeal to principles to which even God seems subject. “Where are these principles?” we might ask. “Who created them?”

A common answer and one I accept says no one – not even God – created them.[10] These principles – often called “Platonic forms” – are everlastingly part of God’s uncreated nature. For God to deny them, therefore, God would have to deny Godself… which God cannot do.[11]

Many qualifications I’ve noted fall under the broad claim that God did not create Godself. And this means, in part, God did not and cannot create God’s own nature. This inability is widely assumed and affirmed among theistic scholars.[12] Or as Charles Taliaferro puts it, “the state of affairs of God’s being God is not something God could have brought about or altered.”[13] Let me list it simply…

God cannot create God’s nature.


As I said at the outset, this is a small portion of my philosophical chapter in The Death of Omnipotence. I list many other kinds and types of qualifications to omnipotence. Given the sheer number, we should consider omnipotence to die the death of a thousand qualifications.

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I (Westminster, Md: Christian Classics, 1981), 1a, Q. 25, A. 3.

[1] Among important books exploring the meaning of God’s nature, see Alvin Plantinga, Does God Have a Nature? (Milwaukee, 1980).

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1a, Q. 25, A. 3. Given what Aquinas says in other discussions, I suspect he’d agree with my criticism. He should have said, “‘God can do all things,’ is rightly understood to mean that God can do all things that are possible for God.” But even adding the qualification “for God” is unhelpful, because it begs the question about the nature of God and how that nature limits divine abilities.

[3] This undermines Aquinas’ recommendation that it “is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them.” (Ibid.) Many things can be done, just not by God.

[4] Augustine, Sermo de symbolo ad catechumenos 2 (CChr.SL 46, 185-6, PL), 40. Augustine strangely adds that if God could do such activities, “He would not be omnipotent.” This makes little sense, however. Imagine me saying Tom can’t speak all languages because if he could, he would not be omnipotent.

[5] Stephen Charnock offers a good discussion of things God cannot do. See his The Existence and Attributes of God, Vol. 2(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book, reprint 1996 [1853]), 1-40.

[6] Wes Morriston ably defends the claim that a morally perfect God cannot be omnipotent. See Morriston, “Omnipotence and necessary moral perfection: are they compatible?” Religious Studies 37 (2001), 143–160.

[7] Jacob Arminius, “It is the Summit of Blasphemy to Say God is Freely Good,” in The Works of Jacob Arminius, James Nichols, trans. (1828; repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1991), 2:33-34.

[8] Peter Lombard, I Sentences, d. 44, c. 1, 1 (188).

[9] R.T. Mullins offers a concise and well-defended explanation of classical theism in “Classical Theism,” T & T Clark Handbook of Analytic Theology, James M. Arcadi and James T. Turner, Jr., eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2021). See my exploration of classical theism in relation to love in Pluriform Love, “Classical Theism and Because of Love,” ch. 6.

[10] The vast majority of theologians and theistic philosophers think God did not create possibilities, eternal truths, numbers, and abstracta. But we might think they are part of God’s nature or reside in the mind of God. Rene Descartes is among those in the minority view (See Descartes, “Letters to Mersenne, Meslend, and More,” in Philosophical Letters, Anthony Kenny, trans. and ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970). I recommend Gijsbert van den Brink’s explanation of this issue and the contemporary advocates of Descartes’ position, few though they are. See Van den Brink, Almighty God, ch. 2.

[11] See my discussion of this issue in The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity, 2015), ch. 2.

[12] Arminius offers a list of things God cannot do in “Twenty-Five Public Disputations,” The Works of James Arminius, 135.

[13] Charles Taliaferro, A Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 71.

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Hi there.. I guess you would say God could not stop the earthquake. (Please don’t say it was humans fault for not building stronger buildings. Regardless of building codes there was still an earthquake and many would have died). Did God build potential for such disasters in the creation of the earth?
Also I worry about your use of scripture when you clearly realise scripture says contradictory things. How do you know the bits you use are authoritative?
I enjoy your perspectives but struggle to get my head around it all sometimes.


2 Thessalonians 2 :11 comes pretty close to saying God can lie. But I guess there are ways around it.


Great comments, Jenny. I like the way you think!

My use of the Bible isn’t an appeal to a perfect or inerrant text. I agree with you that it has problems. I also don’t appeal to the Bible as my only authority. But I’ve found that the passages about love match my experience and intuition.


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