Friday, August 12, 2005

"There's Nothing My God Cannot Do"

In a recent blog, Jay wrote, "this is gonna happen because God says so, and He is true to His word." I'm not entirely sure how Jay intends this assertion to be understood, but behind statements of this kind lie a long and heated theological/philosophical debate. The question is:

1) do things happen SIMPLY because God says so, so that tomorrow if God says "The ten commandments are out. From now on, adultery and coveting are what's good," then from that point on, "that's what's gonna happen?"

This is what Calvinists/Reformed folk say, because they have a voluntaristic understanding of who God is. That is, they emphasize God's will --in Latin, voluntas-- in order to assert His total sovereignty over all creation. Two centuries ago Jonathan Edwards rhapsodized about God's arbitrary will, and people like Van Til and Dooyeweerd do it today.

These are the people who like to sing "My God is so great, so strong and so mighty there's NOTHING my God cannot do." Presumably, then, God could lie, and cease being holy, if he wanted/willed to. It's just that he hasn't chosen to. But there's nothing to prevent him from doing so; otherwise He wouldn't be sovereign.

These folk would agree that God is "true to his word" insofar as his word is completely an expression of his will (voluntas.) If and when His will changes, then that word will be what is true, good, real. Who are we, mere creatures, to limit God, muchless to question His will?

2) or does God say things should happen out of more than just His will; that is, because they will be expressions of Who He is in his entirety? This would open up a place for "Logos," which (or better, Who!) is not merely God's will, but reflects a deeper Order, a reflection of His Mind. (cf. John 1)

Thus, things happen because of who God is, and what He says/wills is in perfect congruence with His entire being. God could never say "From this point on, I am suspending the Ten Commandments" because to do so would violate Who He is. Our Reformed brothers and sisters see this as a limitation of God's freedom and sovereignty; but folks like C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga and Ronald Nash do not.

Like them, I cringe everytime I hear the children's chorus, because in scripture God Himself tells us that there are some things He CANNOT do: he can't lie ( Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29 and Titus 1:2); he can't not exist (Exodus 3:13-14) he can't not be holy (Lev. 11:4-45; Ps.99:3,5; Is. 45:11, etc; 1 Peter 1:15-16etc. ). If this diminishes his sovereignty, then so be it. Why would we want a God who could contradict himself? (cf. James 1:17; Malachi 3:6)

Yet for many people, in a postmodern world, where Will trumps Mind and where there are many Eastern influences, contradiction is taken to be a sign of great spiritual depth. These are the heirs of Tertullian and Kierkegaard, who cry "I believe because it is absurd." They aren't talking about paradoxes--where things seem contradictory, but way down actually aren't. They are talking about real contradictions: where A is not A; where, for the same thing, in the same place at the same time, it both has and doesn't have some property.

Here's a paradox: "Jesus is fully God and fully Human."
Here's a contradiction: "Jesus is the Son of God and He is not the Son of God."

The bottom line here is that just as the Enlightenment erred in overemphasizing God's Mind, the Reformed/Calvinists err in overemphasizing God's Will. In the Lord, both His Mind and Will are perfectly integrated--so perfectly aligned that when He speaks, things come into being. He is true to his Word because He Himself is Truth. He doesn't choose what will be true, or good, or real: He is the Truth. (John 14:6). He is Good. (Luke 18:19). He is the ultimate source, ground and goal of reality: (Acts 17:28; Rev. 1:8, 21:6, and 22:13). That, to me, is what real sovereignty looks like.


Just . Jay said...

i couldn't agree with you more. however, this topic may be a bit beyond a new believer or someone who is not interested in philosophy or heavy theology.

and you can feel free to cringe at the children's song, but you try writing a song that encompasses your thoughts here:

"my God is so great, so strong and so mighty,

there's nothing my God can not do, except NOT be holy, NOT exist, etc. etc. {clap, clap}"

it just doesn't have the same ring to it. :)

a bit sarcastic, sure... but the important thing is that "children" (whether by age or by level of understanding) get the message that God is all-powerful and what He says is the truth. the deeper conversation can come later when they are ready for it. try to push a thought like the one you wrote on someone who isn't "there yet" and you risk losing them. moving past the milk to the meat implies the milk is GOOD to begin with - just not forever.

NOW... with that all said...

I agree. God is "limited" by what He cannot be or do. He says so Himself as you referenced. I wouldn't have it any other way.

"can god make a boulder so big even HE can't lift it?"

i always hated that attempt at trapping someone into saying God isn't all-powerful. first, it's just dumb. it is 3rd grade trickery. it is the same ridiculous kind of intellect that the pharisees used to try and trp Jesus. it never worked, even though the pharisees were smart men.

God IS. God will be. He will not do something contrary to His nature... the long and heated debate is one that i have always just tossed to the side a bit because when it all comes down to it - God is God and I am not. His word is true and lasting. God IS truth as you mentioned... Jesis IS the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE. He doesn't SHOW us the way, truth, and life... He shows us himself, the embodiment of all of those things.

CAN God say the 10 commandments are "out?" yes and no. in theory God can do whatever He wants, so I suppose you can answer "yes" and be safely within the reasonable borders of Christianity.

but no... because of who He is. the 10 commandments are truth, God is truth, they are an extension of Himself (in a strange way), so "no" is also safe.

my answer is "no - God cannot be who He is not. for example:

Psalm 5:4 God cannot dwel with wicked people... which is where the incarnation comes in to play. GOD WILL DWELL WITH HIS PEOPLE, but we are all wicked... a contradiction? no, a perceived paradox that was solved once and for all on Calvary, destroying the argument for legalism and works alone, and bringing us into fellowship again - if we want it.

John 10:34-36 says that the scriptutes cannot be broken... that should be a clue in to whether God can decide to oust His own laws.

here's the flaw in the reformed argument from your post. by saying that God cannot do something:

I am not limiting God... He is. Anyone want to argue with that? :)

Beth B said...

Yep, these are deep waters...but that's what this blog is about : )

You're absolutely right, Jay, in pointing out the difficulty in writing a catchy little song to express these ideas! But I don't think it's impossible. Instead of editing it in terms of the exceptions ("except NOT be holy, NOT exist, etc.") that line about "anything" could be changed to be more biblical--celebrating some of the awesome, powerful things God HAS done and continues to do. For example:

"My God is so great, so strong and so mighty...

1) He's able to save even ME!"
2) He died but He rose from the grave!"
3) He beats death, the devil and sin!"
4) In Him we live, move and exist!"

That way there wouldn't be the "bait and switch" factor to trip people up when they come to the point of asking the question about why an all-powerful God created a world with evil in it. (Granted, not everyone will come to that point...but for those who do, it can be a real crisis of faith.) If "there's nothing my God cannot do," then it seems they are entitled to ask, "why couldn't He have created free beings which never sinned?"

The answer has to be either:

A) Some appeal to blind faith, often unfortunately sounding like "puny human, who are you to ask such questions? Don't expect to ever reason about God, just believe."

B) Some acknowledgement that
"There are some things God CAN'T create a free human being who is never free to sin."

It just seems to me that we could avoid the "bait and switch" if we never went down that deadend about "anything" in the first place.

But as always, your milage may vary. ; ) Thanks for your perspective.

Just . Jay said...

i kind of like your idea for the song! say what He can do... very cool.

"My God is so great, so strong and so mighty...

1) He's able to save even ME!"
2) He died but He rose from the grave!"
3) He beats death, the devil and sin!"
4) In Him we live, move and exist!"

those are very encouraging.


the bait and switch conundrum is a tough one. so much we hear in church when we are little (or big, depending on the church) can become confusing, even downright crisis inducing later on. i agree. i guess part of the problem is that a lot of people don't see that song as a bait and switch... they agree that "there's nothing..." you know?

a big diverse family we are a part of. for sure. sometimes it is hard to keep the "family" in mind when we are so different. but, as Nichole Nordeman wrote in one of her songs, sometimes "the invitation to dine with Him is the only common bond."

mauricewarner8542 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Just . Jay said...

i had to smile when that was this morning's song.

Beth B said...

Yeah, there's no escaping it, is there. Sigh. I'm sure we'll keep singing it on and on...but someday if I ever get these kids in Sunday school or Confirmation or Intro to Philosophy class, I'm going to straighten them out! ; )

Just . Jay said...

i'm sure you will :)

but, on another note... i'm glad they are singing what they are singing. they aren't being hurt by bad people, they aren't singing songs that lead to bad life decisions, they are in church singing a song about God, however theologically controversial :) that makes me very happy. very happy indeed.

collinator said...

Ok, I guess this makes sense, but one thing I am wondering:

~I'm using "Good" here to refer to Who he is, as Beth talked about earlier. (He can't do "Evil" because he's "Good")~

1. Has God always just been "Good" and there's nothing he can do about it?

2.Did God (or does God) choose to be "Good" and cannot break that simply because, by being good, he would never want to do Evil? In this way, he technically has the power to do Evil, but it is still literally impossible because it would mean not being Good, and he has chosen to be Good.

If #1 is true, does that take away from his power? Could he -technically- wish he wasn't stuck being good? Of course, that would be a contradiction (or at least a paradox...hmmm) because he's good and wouldn't want to do evil, but it would be like someone wishing they were born the oppopsite gender, or at least wishing they could experience it. It's different dealing with good vs. evil because they are incompatible - opposites - but it's kind of the same idea, I think...God not ever having control over who he is.

I guess it probably doesn't really matter...and maybe I'm missing something really obvious. But those are just random, disjointed thoughts.

ByEveryWord said...

Hi Author,

I just happen to run across this while looking for something else. It's such a breath of fresh air to see others seeking out and finding truth as you have in this post. This is great for everyone to hear because we have a lot of people believing things that are not anywhere in the bible and what people really need is truth. One thing to add when you said "if this diminishes his sovereignty so be it". Actually to be sovereign means to be "free from influence". God is sovereign, He is free from influence... until He speaks. Once He says something He is bound by His word; that's why we can trust Him. He said "I put my word above name." In the Hebrew the name of a thing is the same as the thing itself. So when He said I put my word above name, He was saying I put my word above myself- He was saying once He speaks He is bound by His own word. This is an awesome truth! God is sovereign until He speaks. How many times did He say He would do something but because of His covenant... or because of His promise to David... That's why God doesn't talk to much.. because if He ever says something- He has to do it. So we read His word to find His promises and then line up with them and we can see the kingdom of God manifest in our lives! -Nathan (