My Response to Sanders on Omnipotence
In the following, I respond to John. His comments push me to be clearer, but I’m not convinced by his criticisms. I continue to find my arguments more convincing than alternatives.
In what follows, I address what I think are John’s key points. I’ve addressed some of his other points in this previous response.
John agrees that the Hebrew and Greek words translated “almighty” do not mean omnipotent. But his main point revolves around whether God can control creatures or creation. He says, “most biblical scholars hold that the biblical texts depict a deity who can control specific circumstances.”
I’m not sure how John knows this; I doubt he took a poll. I would not be surprised if a poll were done and his comment proved correct, however.
My point is not what a poll of Bible scholars thinks about God’s power, although I cite many Biblical scholars who agree with me. My point is addressing what the biblical text actually says. And as I argue, I find no texts that require interpreters to think God can control creation, in the sense of being the only cause.
John also says biblical writers themselves thought God can control. As he puts it, “some biblical writers believed God could control an event.” John claims this understanding of omnipotence – God controlling creatures or creation – is in the Bible.
Do Biblical Writers Say God Controls?
Neither John nor I, of course, know with certainty what writers thought about God’s power. We have the biblical text, but we’re not mind readers. If the writers of scripture thought God could control, they did a very poor job of saying so. They never explicitly proclaim this. And we can easily understand the stories they tell about God as involving creaturely contribution.
If I had a doctoral student who tried to write a 300-page dissertation defending the idea God can control but never actually made the claim, I’d fail that student. If Biblical writers thought God can control in the sense of determining outcomes singlehandedly, they failed miserably in expressing those thoughts. So I see no good reason to speculate they believed God was controlling. But I admit no one can know for sure.
Because this point is crucial, let me address it another way. John claims that “the Bible portrays God as one who can singlehandedly control an entity.” But I find no textual evidence for this claim. None. One can make assumptions or inferences, of course, and many have. But it’s not in the text. So I continue to reject the idea the Bible affirms the notion God can or does control, in the sense of being the only cause of some outcome.
The Everyday Language of Control
One of John’s stronger points is his worry that my defining of control as “singlehandedly determining outcomes” is not the common use of the word “control.” He rightly points out that at least sometimes we use “control” but don’t mean one person alone determined an outcome.
I’m not arguing, however, that I’m using the word “control” for God in the common use of the word. When an overbearing parent is said to “control” her kids, after all, we don’t mean she is omnipotent. I’m saying many people use “omnipotent” in a way that assumes God alone can or does bring about some result.
Instead of “singlehandedly,” I could have used the phrase “unilaterally determine.” And instead of “control,” I could have said, “acts as a sufficient cause.” Perhaps my attempt to use accessible language causes some of John’s worries. But my point is that there is no explicit biblical support for the idea an omnipotent God alone brings about outcomes.
Death by a Thousand Qualifications
John’s criticisms of my arguments in chapter two are stronger than his criticisms of chapter one. As I understand him, he thinks we can easily reduce my long list of qualifications to one or two major categories. This issue also arose in my recent debate with Ryan Mullins.
Perhaps this chapter could have been clearer if I offered three tiers of qualifications. One overarching qualification related to logic, a dozen sub-categories, and then billions of examples. My overall aim, however, was to alert readers to the many qualifications necessary to make sense of omnipotence. Given the responses to the book, most readers were unaware that omnipotence must be qualified in so many ways.
John’s reference to omniscience helps illustrate why I think we’re better off identifying sub-categories and examples rather than simply saying all qualifications are logical. As open theists, John and I have a distinct set of truths we think God knows than what non-open theists have. And this difference makes a difference.
So while technically open and non-open theists deny God can know what is logically unknowable, how each thinks about the content of divine knowledge differs significantly. This illustrates why identifying subcategories is only important for pointing out differences among theologies. And it’s important for alerting “average” readers that numerous qualifications are necessary to make sense of divine power.
John makes a mistake when criticizing my view, a mistake that I encounter from time to time. The mistake is based on a subtle but important distinction. Here are several examples of this mistake in John’s own language. He thinks I believe “God never acts without some other entity,” and says in response to my LeBron James example that “James did not act singlehandedly.” John says I think God “never ‘singlehandedly’ does anything in creation.”
The subtle difference between what I actually say and what John says I say is that I claim no outcomes or results are brought about by God singlehandedly. Sometimes he quotes me rightly, but then he returns to phrases that sound like God can’t act without creation being involved.
To explain the difference between “singlehandedly acting” and “singlehandedly bringing about outcomes,” I sometimes use the example of asking my wife to marry me. I acted. She didn’t force me. But the results I wanted would require her cooperation. So while I could act, I couldn’t singlehandedly bring about the outcome of our being engaged.
As I understand him, John’s primary criticism here is that I’m using “control” for God in a way different from the average use of “control.” He’s right about this. I’m defining “control” in an unconventional way. I do so to address divine omnipotence understood as God being the sole cause of an outcome. John then uses “singlehandedly” in examples of how people might act. Of course, I’m criticizing this use of “singlehandedly” in everyday speech… if the word means being the only cause. So his examples don’t fit my criticism of omnipotence.
In this discussion, John again claims biblical writers believe God controls. This is an important point for him. To repeat myself: I find no evidence for this claim, if “control” means God is the only cause.
If we redefine “control” as God being the decisive cause among other causes for some outcome, however, I will agree with John. Biblical writers think they should give God credit as the decisive cause. My claim is simply that God can only be the decisive cause when creatures cooperate, or the conditions of creation are conducive.
Moving a Pebble
After my claiming God doesn’t have a hand to lift a pebble, John says “Personally, I (and every other theologian I’ve ever read) never thought God required a body to move a pebble. And I’ve yet to read an explanation of why so many thinkers are wrong about this.”
This is odd to me. I had been explaining why theologians are wrong to say God is omnipotent, so my entire book is the explanation John wants. In this book and many previous ones, I’ve explained why we can do things with our bodies – like lift pebbles – that God can’t do. God can’t, because God is bodiless and not omnipotent. God moves pebbles only when creation cooperates with God’s desire to move pebbles.
The Problem of Evil
John agrees with some of my claims in my work to solve the problem of evil. But he doesn’t agree with everything I say. And unlike many other readers, he doesn’t think I’ve solved it.
Although I say a noncontrolling God can raise Jesus from the dead, John disagrees. I’ve published my work on this issue in other books (which I footnote). John and I have previously argued about miracles too. Although many find my affirmation of miracles satisfactory, he does not. He also mentions the work of our common friend, Ryan McLaughlin. I know about some of Ryan’s work, and I had a series of email exchanges with him a decade ago. But perhaps Ryan has something new. I’ll check it out.
John concludes this section by saying, “The real claim in this book is that any deity with more power than the God of essential kenosis must be rejected – not just those that affirm omnipotence. A mighty God who can move a pebble or raise Jesus from the dead must go.”
John is right that I believe a God who can move a pebble or raise Jesus singlehandedly must go. That God is morally responsible for failing to prevent evil. But I argue that a God who moves pebbles and raises Jesus through uncontrolling love and creaturely cooperation should be embraced. Omnipotence must go.
John likes some of what I say about amipotence. And he’s right that someone could use the word in other love-first theologies. As I try to say in my explanation, I think amipotence is God’s power expressed through uncontrolling love. But other love-first theologies may understand uncontrolling love differently than I do.
After reading the last chapter, John has questions. He wonders how creatures require God’s power to do anything. I admit I didn’t explain that question, because I assumed it would be an assumption many readers hold. When I claim God is a necessary cause for the existence and activity of any creature, I mean we all live and move and have our being in God. I’ve said this often in previous books, but maybe I forgot to say it in this one.
John asks other good questions of me in this last section, questions I answer in general, but not with the specificity he would like. This is a fair criticism. I could have said more and given many more examples. Perhaps I’ll take this section and write an entire book on it. But the general framework for answering his questions is in this chapter.
Overall, I think John’s criticism of my book comes from his desire to retain some version of omnipotence. Most if not all of his criticisms reflect this desire. Of course, I don’t think the main understandings of omnipotence are worth retaining. That’s a key reason I wrote the book!
I love John’s witty conclusion: “Paraphrasing Mark Twain, I conclude that ‘the rumors of omnipotence’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.’”
I’ll conclude with Khalil Gibran: “Exaggeration is truth that has lost its temper.” That omnipotence is dead is, I think, an important truth and not an exaggeration. But I hope to express that truth in tempered ways.
While John agrees with me that the Hebrew words translated as “almighty” do not mean omnipotence, he says, “it hardly warrants the conclusion that all understandings of omnipotence must be rejected.”
I’m not arguing against all understandings of omnipotence. I’m arguing against what I believe are the primary understandings of omnipotence, which I explain early in the book and refer to often. I could craft a definition of omnipotence I could embrace; I have done this in previous books with “almighty.” But the definition of omnipotence I think plausible wouldn’t be among the three most common ways people use the word.
John says, “Oord says that all proponents of omnipotence affirm at least one of the following definitions (3).” Actually, I don’t say this on page 3 or elsewhere. I say the three definitions of omnipotence I offer are the most common. As I say in a footnote, I agree with Alvin Plantinga that omnipotence is a widely defined word. But I quote major theologians throughout the book who adhere to one of these three definitions.
John says I offer yet a fourth definition of omnipotence when I talk about divine determinism of all events. I confess not to being as clear as I should be. I tried to say the first definition of omnipotence, “God exerts all power,” is identical to what John considers a fourth definition: divine determinism. (See my explanation on page 2)