Question--aren't you sorta misusing the term Omnipotence?

[Draft: Oct 3/2004]
I received this sincere and well-toned pushback:

Hello again. I just wanted to check back with you regarding an email that I had sent a couple of months ago. I realize that you're busy- I just wanted to make sure that you got a copy of my question. I hope to hear back from you soon. Take care, and here's the question again:

First of all, I would like to say that I really enjoy your website. It is one of the most well-organized and intelligently written Christian apologetic websites I've seen. As an agnostic, I question the existence of any god that does not make sense to me (as I'm sure you do also).

One of the biggest problems I've come across with Christianity, is that it appears that your version of god has certain attributes which are contradictory, and would thereby make his existence impossible (for example the old Omnipotence vs. Omnibenevolence problem, among others). And I may have found the underlying problem with your argument that I wanted to run by you and see what you think.

In one of your arguments under your Hallway of Arguments section The old 'God and the Big Rock' Problem (yawn) [hgodrock.html], you offer a unique definition of the word Omnipotence which I have never heard before. I've looked it up in several dictionaries and thesauruses, but I could not find it anywhere worded even remotely similarly to the one you use. The definition you use for Omnipotence is as follows:

"Omnipotence has historically been understood as the ability to perform any task consistent with His character and essence. (At least that's the classical definition/understanding of it). This would exclude 'things' like...

Re his character:

It is impossible for God to lie (He actually is the one who told us this in the scriptures).
It is impossible for God to break a promise.
It is impossible for God to deny his existence and character (tantamount to lying, of course)."

Now I believe that this is the source of the confusion between our positions. You see, if the 'character' and 'essence' of any particular being limits its power in any way, then that being cannot fit the description of omnipotence. Omnipotent is defined as follows (as per the American Heritage Dictionary): having unlimited or universal power, authority, or force; all-powerful. Or, it can also mean: one having unlimited power or authority. In other words, an omnipotent being must be able to do anything it chooses, anytime, anywhere. Its power must be unlimited. It cannot be both 'unlimited in power' and 'limited in power' at the same time. According to the Bible, the Christian version of god is clearly not able to lie (among other things). Therefore this is a major contradiction. Your position is stating that your version of god is both omnipotent and not-omnipotent at the same time. That cannot be. In fact, this contradiction makes it impossible for your version of god to exist at all.

Think about it this way: How can your version of god be omnipotent when you or I can easily perform acts that a supposedly omnipotent being is incapable of? Does that make sense? It doesn't to me. The bottom line is that you can lie and the god you worship cant.

So I believe that it is your definition of the word Omnipotent that has steered you wrong. You (or perhaps Christian apologetics in general) have adopted a modified definition of a word which otherwise would obviously not apply to your version of god. Changing the definition of a word to suit your own personal beliefs could make any argument seem valid, especially if no one ever questioned the definition that you used. Anyway, that's my 2 cents, let me know what you think. I look forward to your response.


After looking at this, this still seems like a semantic issue to me. Christian theologians (and I suppose apologists too) don't really assert that God is both "omnipotent" (that specific dictionary definition) and "non-omnipotent" (theological defn) at the same time. Theists and Philosophers in general do NOT assert that God is 'omnipotent' in this abstract fashion to begin with: "Omnipotence is maximal power. Some philosophers, notably Descartes, have thought that omnipotence requires the ability to do absolutely anything, including the logically impossible. Most classical theists, however, understood omnipotence as involving vast powers, while nevertheless being subject to a range of limitations of ability, including the inability to do what is logically impossible, the inability to change the past or to do things incompatible with what has happened, and the inability to do things that cannot be done by a being who has other divine attributes, e.g., to sin or to lie." [Audi, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. "Divine Attributes"] Part of the issue here is that the popular notion of omnipotence (hereafter O-P) is intuitive and NOT what is asserted in the technical positions. Hence, under the entry "Paradoxes of Divine O-P" (Cambridge Ency...), Mann can qualify this notion: "paradoxes of omnipotence, a series of paradoxes in philosophical theology that maintain that God could not be omnipotent because the concept is inconsistent, alleged to result from the intuitive idea that if God is omnipotent, then God must be able to do anything." [emphasis mine] Again, this intuitive notion is NOT what philosophers and theologians are intending when they use O-P to describe God. They qualify this as we have seen above. Consider another technical statement: "Apparently the natural way to understand God's omnipotence is simply to say that God can do anything whatever. But this quickly runs into difficulties. Can God create a square circle, or cause it to be true that 1 + 2 = 17? At least since the time of Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224 -1274), it has been recognized that the exercise of God's power must be limited to what is logically possible. The expression square circle is one that could not possible apply (correctly) to anything, and so the fact that God cannot make one implies no defect in God's power. Other limitations on what God can do stem from God's own nature; God cannot do things that require embodiment (such as climbing Mount Everest) or that imply limitations (such as, for instance, forgetting something). Perhaps more significant, it is generally held that God cannot do things that imply a moral fault, such as breaking one of his promises. In view of such considerations as these, we may say that God's omnipotence means that God can perform any action the performance of which is logically consistent, and consistent with God's own nature." [Reason and Religious Belief, Revised Ed., p.71f] One more text from a Philosophy of Religion intro: "It would appear to be a minimal requirement for a being worthy of worship that he be greater than any other being. No other being exceeds God in power, knowledge or goodness. But this requirement is indeed minimal, since theists usually hold that God is not only greater than any other being as a matter of fact, but that it is impossible that there should ever be a being greater than God. God's power, knowledge and goodness are therefore seen not merely as very great but as maximal. God is omnipotent; he possesses all the power a being can have. God is omniscient; he knows everything which it is possible for a being to know. God is morally perfect; his goodness is unsurpassable.

Another way of expressing God's greatness is to say that he is infinite, or unlimited. These terms must, however, be understood in a qualified sense. To say that God is infinite in power does not mean that he can literally do anything. It has usually been held, for example, that God cannot create a square circle or a person with a morally free will who is determined always to choose what is morally right. The reason for this is not that God lacks some power or ability he might have had, but that these conceptions are logically contradictory and therefore impossible or even meaningless. God's power is the power to do anything which is logically possible. In addition, most theists hold that there are certain things God cannot do because of his nature. Being morally perfect, he cannot commit an act of senseless cruelty, for example. God's omnipotence must then be understood as the power to do whatever is logically possible and consistent with God's own essential characteristics. Similar restrictions may have to be placed on the concept of omniscience.

Even with these qualifications God's power is still infinite in the sense of being unlimited by anything outside himself." [Philosophy of Religion, C. Stephen Evans, IVP:1982, p.33f]
This should be adequate to demonstrate that the term 'omniscience' is NOT used in philosophical theology, in the intuitive/popular sense, so the theologian can gladly say "I didn't MEAN that dictionary definition of O-P, anyway--nobody does.", and so the objection sorta fizzles (at least at the contradiction level).

That being said, we might add a couple of additional points: ..........................................................................
okay, where does that leave us?

  1. The initial dictionary definition mentioned is not an accurate description of what philosophers and theologians have historically meant when predicating 'omnipotence' of a God.

  2. As such, the objection that Christians are simultaneously asserting two poles of a contradiction is inaccurate: the theist is only asserting ONE pole (the philosophically qualified one).

  3. [My definition given in the prior article, about 'consistent with essence and character', does represent the mainstream philosophical definition, and is not therefore really unique. Actually, its spectacularly]

  4. Some of the character-conditioning aspects are actually implied in the objection ("chooses").

  5. Some popular dictionaries actually seem to reflect a knowledge of these technical issues.

  6. Not all 'inabilities to do something' are actually 'inabilities'--they would be the absence of an inability.

  7. These issues are not uniquely Christian, but are actually inherent in monotheism, in which the God is a personal, moral, agent.

Now, strictly speaking, you would be correct about the contradiction--IF the theist were affirming both propositions at the same time. But hopefully this more detailed excursion into the technical literature will (a) show you that this is NOT actually the case; and (b) provide you with some additional material for your further thinking about and evaluating these things.

I do commend you on your tone, and on your commitment to "intelligibility'--keep seeking, keep open, keep pondering these things--

...and thanks for your kind words about the Tank (and for 'e-hassling me' these 3-4 times about answering your question, friend--SMILE).

Warmly, Glenn Miller [Oct/2004]
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