Nature of God


God ForeknowA couple of years ago a friendly soul purchased Steven C. Roy’s book, How Much Does God Foreknow from my Ministry Resource List.  Other research, however, prevented me from getting to this book until now.

As the title implies, the purpose of the book is to explore the question of God’s foreknowledge. It is meant to be a critical evaluation of open theism, which is the view that God cannot know the future, free choices made by moral agents because the future does not exist. One of the strengths of Roy’s work is that he interacts directly with Open Theists, quoting them at length.  This avoids the potential for constructing a straw man argument, and allows the reader to consider Open Theists arguments for themselves.

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Omnipresence toiletOmnipresence is one of God’s attributes.  As I argued in an article at The Institute for Biblical Studies, however, this property is not essential to God’s nature and should not be understood in spatial terms.  God is not a spatial being, and thus He does not exist anywhere, similar to the way in which we should not understand God’s eternal existence to mean He existed before creation.  “Before” is a temporal concept, and since time began with creation it is meaningless to speak of anything before creation.  Instead, we should speak of God’s existence without creation.

Similarly, as a non-spatial being God cannot exist in any spatial location.  To think of God’s omnipresence in terms of occupying points in space is a category error, similar to saying the number seven tastes delicious.  To say God is omnipresent refers to God’s cognizance of and causal activity at all points in the spatial dimension.

One of the distinguishing marks of the new atheists is that they not only think religion is false, but that it is dangerous and immoral too.  Even God himself is not above their judgment.  They regularly chide the God of the Bible as being a moral monster!  They accuse Him of being pro-genocide, anti-women, pro-rape, pro-slavery, etc.  Rather than the paradigm of moral goodness, God is an evil despot that is to be shunned.  You know it’s a bad day when even God is evil!

Is what they say true?  Is God – particularly as He is portrayed in the OT – morally evil?  Many Christians are sympathetic to this charge because they themselves struggle to understand God’s actions and commands, particularly as revealed in the OT.  Thankfully there have been some well-written responses to the problem of “theistic evil” written in recent years to dispel this negative portrait of God.  

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David Baggett and jerry Walls have written an excellent book exploring God’s relationship to morality.  The book aims to provide a moral argument for the existence of God, and to answer criticisms to theistic ethics.  After showing how various non-theistic foundations for ethics fail, the authors take a close look at the most common objection to theistic ethics: the Euthyphro argument.  They critique both horns of the dilemma: pure voluntarism (X is good because God commands it) and non-voluntarism (X is good wholly independent of God and His will).  If goodness is determined by God’s commands, then morality seems arbitrary.  Indeed, if God willed that rape is good rape would be good (abhorrent commands objection).  There is also the epistemic problem.  How would we know what God has commanded, or if God has changed His mind?  The problem with non-voluntarism is that it makes God irrelevant to morality.  Goodness stands outside of God.  Indeed, God is subject to the good in the same way we are.  At best His role is to communicate to us what is good.  He is like the divine meteorologist who reports the weather rather can creating it.  If goodness is independent of God, then God’s aseity (self-existence) is called into question.  He cannot be the metaphysical ultimate.

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Sam Storms has written an insightful analysis of the idea that we can or should “forgive God.”  While a few snippets cannot do it justice, the heart of his argument is as follows: 

First of all, let me say that I understand where this sort of question comes from. I understand how people quite often are confused by what God does or doesn’t do. … But my struggle is with the language of “forgiving God.” For one thing, I don’t find it ever used in Scripture. That alone ought to give us pause before we incorporate such language into our Christian vocabulary or allow it to shape our theology or our understanding of spiritual formation.

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Many atheists assert that an eternal universe is explanatorily equivalent to an eternal God.  For example, Sagan once asked, “If we say that God has always been, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always been?”[1]  And just recently, two prominent atheists made the same claim.  In his new book, A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence Krauss writes, “[T]he declaration of a First Cause still leaves open the question, ‘Who created the Creator?’ After all, what is the difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one?”[2]  Victor Stenger agrees with Krauss:

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In the latest edition of Philosophia Christi[1], Jerry Walls argues that no Christian should be a theological determinist.  What is a theological determinist?  It’s someone who believes that God’s sovereignty extends meticulously to every aspect of the world, including human “choice.”  The problem with determinism is that it eliminates human freedom since there are factors external to humans sufficient to determine our choices, such that we could not do otherwise (or even want to do otherwise since even our desires are the product of God’s sovereign acts).

Most theological determinists are compatibilists.  Compatibilists think determinism can be reconciled with free will: If one acts according to their desires, then their choices are free.  But this is a veneer.  At best this shows that we may feel like we our will is free, even though it is not.  The fact remains that both our desires and our choices are determined by God wholly independent of our own volition.  It should be no surprise when our desires match our actions when God has determined both.  Given theological determinism, there can be no freedom of human will, despite attempts by some to evade the obvious.

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How do we know God is good rather than evil?  After all, there is a mix of both good and evil in the world.  Which one is God responsible for?  As Christians, we look to the Bible to tell us about God’s moral nature, but what if we didn’t have Scripture?  Could we discern that God is good from natural theology alone?  Yes, and here’s how.

Most people would agree that the concept of God is best described as “the greatest conceivable being.”  If we posited a being, Q, as God, and yet we could conceive of another being, X, who is greater than being Q, then being X—not being Q—must be the true God since nothing can be greater than God.  If God qua God is the greatest conceivable being, then He must be omnibenevolent (OB) because it is greater to be good than it is to be evil, and it is greater to be all-good than it is to be partially good.  So if there is a God, He must be OB.[1]

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I was listening to a debate between George Williamson and William Lane Craig on the existence of God.  Williamson argued that the concept of God is incoherent.  He claimed omniscience would require that God possess all empirical knowledge (experiential, know-how), and yet God clearly does not know what it is like to play basketball, ride a bike, or sin.  Craig responded that the classical definition of omniscience holds that God knows all true propositions, not that He knows all experiences.  Williamson counters that theists have so defined omniscience only to escape the logical absurdities involved in a being who is truly omniscient.  So is the classical definition ad hoc as Williamson claims?  No.  There is good reason to limit omniscience to propositional knowledge.

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I have made two attempts at offering a rational argument for monotheism.  The first one failed, and Scalia challenged my second one.  I did not respond to his challenge immediately because I knew it would require some additional thought.  After putting it off for a while I have given it some additional thought, and concluded that my second attempt failed as well.   

I’ve been working on some additional arguments, but haven’t thought them through entirely.  If you were following the previous post, you might be interested in checking out the comments section again for my response to Scalia’s objection, and my new proposals.  Hopefully you can weigh in on their strengths and weaknesses.  If they seem to be sound, perhaps I’ll make them the subject of another post, “Omnipotence and Monotheism III”!

I was listening to a podcast by Jim Wallace from PleaseConvinceMe.com the other day on my way to work.  He was talking about atheists’ stock objection to the cosmological arguments[1]: “Well, then, who caused God?”

Wallace pointed out that the question itself is meaningless.  He illustrates his point by asking, What sound does silence make?  Silence is soundless, of course, so it makes no sense to ask what kind of sound it makes.  Likewise, the question, Who created God? is a meaningless question because by definition God is an eternal, uncreated being.  To ask, Who caused God?, then, is to ask, Who caused the Uncreated Being to exist? which is meaningless.

For additional information on responding to the “Who made God?” objection, read my post “Inexcusable Ignorance Part II.”


[1]Which argue that the universe needs a cause, and that cause is God.

Back in March I authored a post titled “Omnipotence and Monotheism,” in which I argued that the divine property of omnipotence does not prove monotheism as I had once thought because power is not a substance, and thus need not be exhausted by a single being.  Power is simply the ability to do some X.  Omnipotence, then, is just the property of possessing the ability to do any and all things that are logically possible to do.  It seemed logically possible to me that there could be more than one being who possessed the ability to do anything that is logically possible.  The only logical grounds I could see for postulating monotheism was the principle of parsimony: no more than one God is needed to explain phenomena such as the origin of the universe, and thus there is no reason to postulate more than one divine being.  Parsimony, however, does not make monotheism logically necessary.

With further dialogue on this topic in another forum, I believe I now have the logical grounds on which to conclude that monotheism is logically necessary, and ironically, it involves the divine property of omnipotence!  Any being – if he possesses the property of omnipotence – must possess the ability to destroy other beings, and yet two omnipotent beings could not destroy each other.  If omnipotent being A (OBA) cannot destroy omnipotent being B (OBB), then OBA lacks the power to do some X, and thus is not omnipotent after all.  The same would be true of OBB, leaving us without a being that is truly omnipotent.  And yet, if God is a metaphysically necessary being and omnipotence is a divine property, then omnipotence is a metaphysically necessary property.  Since the property of omnipotence can only obtain in a world in which a single being possesses such a property, there can only be one divine being.  While omnipotence does not prove monotheism in the manner I originally envisioned, omnipotence does make monotheism logically necessary.

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I have encountered a number of Oneness Pentecostals who not only object to the Trinitarian concept of God as “three persons,” but object to calling God a “person” at all.  In what follows, I provide typical objections offered against calling God a person, followed by a response.

Objection: The Bible never uses the term “person” of God
Response: The question is not whether the Bible uses the term per se, but whether the nature of God as described in Scripture can rightly be described as personable, given the definition of person: a conscious, rational, thinking, subject of various experiences (a mind).

Furthermore, the Bible does not speak of humans as “persons” either, and yet no one disputes the legitimacy of applying such a term to human beings.  The mere fact that such terminology is not used of God no more means that God is not accurately described as being a person than the absence of such terminology for humans means we are not accurately described as persons.  If we do not hesitate to call ourselves persons, neither should we hesitate to call God a person.

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In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read the word of YHWH: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

In my experience, this Scripture is usually quoted in two contexts: (1) when we are ignorant of some knowledge; (2) when our position is being decimated by our opponent’s evidence, and we lack a sufficient response.  Neither use is legitimate because both are taking the passage out of its context.  

Verse 7 reads, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”  The Lord’s way/thoughts are contrasted to the ways/thoughts of the wicked, not the righteous.  The Lord’s point is that His ways/thoughts are superior to the ways/thought of the wicked, not that His ways/thoughts are incomprehensible to mankind in general.  That’s not to say we can fully understand God and His ways, but it is to say that this passage is not teaching divine incomprehensibility, but rather divine superiority.

I think a good argument can be made for the existence of God based on the existence of the universe.  We know the universe began to exist.  Given that whatever begins to exist requires a cause external to itself to bring it into existence, there must be a cause external to the universe to explain why it came into being.  Whatever brought time, space, and matter into existence cannot itself be temporal, spatial, and material, and thus the cause of the universe must be eternal, non-spatial, and immaterial.  Furthermore, the cause must be personal in nature since there are only two known sources of causation—events and personal agents—and it is impossible to explain the first event in terms of a prior event.  Therefore, an agent must be the cause of the universe.  A personal, eternal, non-spatial, and immaterial being is what most theists mean by “God.”

While I think this argument demonstrates the existence of the divine, it cannot tell us anything about the number of divine beings responsible for creating the universe.  There could be one, or there could be billions.  An additional argument is needed if one is going to prove the existence of one and only one God.  In the past I argued for monotheism on the basis of divine omnipotence.  I reasoned that the property of omnipotence cannot belong to more than one being, for if two or more beings have to share power, then neither being can be said to have “all” power.  So God, then, must be one if He is omnipotent.

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Some theists and religious pluralists claim that God is wholly other; so transcendent as to be incomprehensible to finite minds.  They assert that nothing can be known about God – He is ineffable.  No propositions we humans can formulate about Him can be true.  

This perspective is fundamentally flawed.  Not only is it self-refuting and contradictory, to say no human concept of God can be true of God (since the concept of ineffability is a human concept), it also results in absurdities.  For example, if there can be no true propositions about God, then the proposition “God exists” cannot be a true proposition.  But surely this is absurd.  The ineffability of a being, X, depends on the existence of X.  If God is a real entity, then at the very least the proposition “God exists” must be a true proposition about God.  

If God’s transcendence means there is no congruence between the thoughts of God and the thoughts of man, so that whatever we know God does not know and vice versa, that would mean if we know the proposition “God exists,” God Himself cannot know it.  But surely any conscious being must be aware of its own existence, and thus it is false that our thoughts can never match God’s thoughts.  Indeed, as Christopher Neiswonger once noted, if we can’t know God’s thoughts, then we can’t know anything at all because God knows everything!

While humans cannot know every truth about God, this does not mean we cannot know any truths about God.  Indeed, on the Christian worldview, God is not wholly other, purely transcendent, and absolutely silent.  We are made in His image, He is immanent, and He has revealed Himself to mankind, communicating to us many truths about Him.  While we cannot comprehend the depths of these truths, they can be known and apprehended.

Marcus Borg, like so many other theological liberals (although I must admit that Borg is so liberal that even a lot of theological liberals would disown him as such), claims God is ineffable.  During a recent debate between Borg and William Lane Craig, Craig pointed out that to say God is ineffable is to say that no human concept is applicable to God.  But since ineffability is a human concept, it doesn’t apply to God either.  This is self-refuting, and thus cannot be true.  Great point!

While arguing from silence is a logical fallacy, I think there are times that an argument from silence must be reckoned with.  For example, in discussing whether Matthew 28:19 originally read “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” or “in my name,” some Trinitarian scholars argue that the latter is original.  “In my name” does not appear in any extant manuscript, so what is there basis?  One reason is Justin Martyr’s silence on the passage.  In one of Justin’s work he was arguing for “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as the appropriate baptismal formula, and yet he never once appealed to Matthew 28:19 for support as we would expect for him to have done if Matthew 28:19 originally read “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  Since he did not, it stands to reason that Matthew 28:19 did not read “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” in Justin’s day (or at least in the manuscripts he had access to), but rather “in my name.”  While this is an argument from silence, it is a strong argument nonetheless.

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Many have wondered how, if God knows everything we will do in the future, can we be said to have free will?  After all, if we freely chose to do something other than what God foreknew, God would be wrong in what He foreknew; but since God cannot be mistaken we must do all that He foreknew we would do.  Doesn’t this reduce us to mere actors, playing out the parts written for us by God?  Are we puppets who have no control over our own actions?  Darwinist, Robert Eberle, encapsulates this supposedly intractable problem of free agency in light of an omniscient God nicely:

Aside from his simple declarations without any foundation that he believes certain biblical stories and miracles are true, he runs into major problems. One is the claim that God knows what was, is and will be. Collins asserts that there is still free will, but fails to explain his logic for arriving at this extraordinary conclusion. Either what will be is known and fixed or it is not. An infallible god that knows what is going to happen is in conflict with the idea that there is free choice and thus a responsibility for one’s actions.[1]

While it is true that the future is fixed because God perfectly knows all that will happen and cannot be mistaken, this does not mean He fixes the future.  It does not follow that God’s foreknowledge of our future acts causes us to choose those acts anymore than my knowledge of your past actions would make me the cause of your acts.  As William Lane (more…)

man in praiseSome have argued that a God whose essence is good is not worthy of our praise for doing good, since He cannot do otherwise.  Being praiseworthy entails merit, but there is no merit in doing what one must do of necessity; therefore, God, is not deserving of praise for doing good.

William Lane Craig offers three points in response (Question #114) to this argument:

(1)   While a good act must be free for it to be praiseworthy, this argument falsely assumes that since God cannot do evil, He is not free.  Freedom, however, does not require the ability to do otherwise (in this case, to commit evil).  It only requires that one’s choices are not causally determined by external factors.  In that sense, God’s freedom to do good is a free choice.  While God cannot do evil, He freely chooses to do good.

(2)   Strictly speaking, “moral praise” is inapplicable to God.  According to Craig, “Moral praise and blame have to do with duty fulfillment. Someone who fulfills his moral obligations is morally praiseworthy. But…I don’t think that God has any moral duties. For moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, and presumably God doesn’t issue commands to Himself. Therefore, He has no obligations to live up to. Borrowing a distinction from Kant, we can say that God acts in accordance with a duty but not from a duty. Because God is essentially loving, kind, impartial, fair, etc., He acts in ways that would for us be the fulfillment of our duties.”

(3)   God is to be praised, not for choosing to do good, but for being good.  As Craig writes, “I think that our praise of God for His goodness is…to be properly understood in terms of adoration. God is the paradigm and source of infinite goodness, and therefore we adore Him for who He is. We don’t offer Him moral praise in the sense of commending Him for living up to His moral obligations; rather we love Him because He is goodness itself.”

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