God’s Omnipotence And Sovereignty – Part Six

God’s Omnipotence And Sovereignty – Part Six


Omnipotence and Time:

The Leibniz-Ross theory entails that the exercise of omnipotent power cannot occur within time. In this view, this is because to exercise omnipotent power is to choose some particular possible actual world. To think of such a choice as occurring in time would be to imagine that some possible world could become actual at some particular time, having previously been merely possible. [xxii]. Therefore, to the Leibniz-Ross theory, an omnipotent being can act only atemporal.


The notion of an atemporal action has, however, been found challenging. As an example of such a challenge, it is widely held that acting requires one to be the cause of specific effects. However, many philosophers have held that it is part of the concept of a cause and that it must occur before its effects. Since something atemporal is neither before nor after anything else, they cannot be an atemporal cause. And therefore, they cannot be an atemporal action.


On the other hand, apart from the Leibniz-Ross theory, there are difficulties with the notion of being omnipotent at a time. It is because there are contingent states of affairs about the past. But the notion of changing the past is generally agreed to be incoherent. Thus, omnipotence at a point in time cannot be defined as, for instance, the ability to bring about any contingent state of affairs because, although many past states of affairs are contingent, nothing done in the present, even by an omnipotent being, could bring about a past state of affairs. Richard Swinburne has proposed an analysis of omnipotence at a point in time based on definition (5) above[xxiii]:


(7) S is omnipotent at time t =df S is able at t to bring about any state of affairs p such that it is consistent with the facts about what happened before t that, after t, S should bring about p


If the notion of changing the past is incoherent, then (7) does not require that an omnipotent being be able to change the past. However, (7) inherits (5) ‘s flaw when it comes to McEar: Since it is inconsistent to suppose that McEar (who, by hypothesis, is necessarily such that he only scratches his ear) does something other than scratch his ear, he need not have the power to do anything else to count as omnipotent. Additionally, there are well-known problems with specifying which facts are about the past. For instance, the U.S. Declaration of Independence was issued 232 years before President Obama took office. It is difficult to say whether this is a fact about 1776 or 2008. (Intuitively, it is about both.) For (7) to succeed in dealing with temporal omnipotence difficulties, there must be a distinction between those facts, which are, and those which are not, about the past. However, relational facts like the one under discussion show that it is difficult to draw this distinction. Some philosophers have attempted to meet this difficulty head-on by adopting particular temporal facts (Flint and Freddoso 1983), while others have tried to sidestep the concern by formulating temporal omnipotence theories, which do not require a distinction between past and non-past facts. 


For instance, Gary Rosenkrantz and Joshua Hoffman advocate the following analysis[xxiv]:

(8) S is omnipotent at t =df S is able at t to bring about any state of affairs p such that possibly some agent brings about p, and p is unrestrictedly repeatable. Rosenkrantz and Hoffman introduce several further qualifications, but their account’s central point is the notion of unrestricted repeatability. Intuitively, an unrestrictedly repeatable state of affairs can obtain, cease to obtain, and then obtain again indefinitely many times throughout all of history. Mt. Vesuvius’s erupting is unrestrictedly repeatable, but Mt. Vesuvius’s erupting before 1900 is not since the latter cannot obtain at any time after 1900. 


Rosenkrantz and Hoffman hold that an omnipotent being could, before 1900, have brought about Mt. Vesuvius’s erupting before 1900 by, at that time, bringing about Mt. Vesuvius’s erupting. After 1900, an omnipotent being could still bring about the latter state of affairs, though not the former. Since the former state of affairs is not unrestrictedly repeatable, the inability to bring it about after 1900 is no bar to a being’s counting as omnipotent.


Paradox of Omnipotence:

Another contemporary discussion of the notion of omnipotence was prompted by what is commonly called “the paradox of omnipotence.” [xxv] The Paradox of omnipotence arises in connection with the issue of free will and the problem of evil that was first raised explicitly by J.L. Mackie. The Paradox is put in deceivingly simple terms: Can God make things that he cannot control? [xxvi] Either an affirmative or negative answer to this question appears to result in severe problems maintaining the coherence of the notion of omnipotence. Mackie distinguishes between different omnipotence levels: especially between first-order omnipotence, the unlimited power to act, and second-order omnipotence, the power to determine that powers to act exists. The Paradox arises because if God has second-order omnipotence, then God.         



  • [xxii] Ross 1980: 621
  • [xxiii] Swinburne 1973
  • [xxiv] Rosenkrantz and Hoffman 1980
  • [xxv] The terminology is sometimes confusing since some scholars refer to the Paradox of the stone as the Paradox of omnipotence. The two are differentiated here to maintain the distinction between the two problems. 
  • [xxvi] Originally in J.L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind, Vol. 64, 1955. Also, in J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1982), 160ff 


Omnipotence and Necessary Moral Perfection:

According to the New Testament, “God cannot be tempted with evil” (James 1:13). And it is “impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). Traditionally, these divine inabilities are taken quite seriously and are said to follow from God’s attribute of impeccability or necessary moral perfection. According to this view, God can’t do evil. However, it seems that no being could be both omnipotent and necessarily morally perfect since an omnipotent being could do anything. Still, there are many things a necessarily morally perfect being could not do.


The argument can be formulated as follows. [i] Consider some particularly evil state of affairs, E, such as every sentient being suffering excruciating pain throughout its entire existence. Then:

(1) If any being is necessarily morally perfect, then there is no possible world in which that is bringing about E

(2) If any being is omnipotent, then that being has the power to bring about E

(3) If any being has the power to bring about E, then there is some possible world in which that Being brings about E


(4) No being is both necessarily morally perfect and omnipotent

Some theists have accepted the conclusion, replacing either necessary moral perfection or omnipotence with some weaker property. For instance, Nelson Pike famously argued that, although no being would deserve the title “God” unless that being were morally perfect, there are nevertheless possible worlds in which the being who is God is not morally perfect and therefore is not God. [ii] 


Pike’s view is, in essence, a rather complicated version of the claim that God is only contingently morally perfect, a view which some have regarded as highly objectionable from a theological standpoint. [iii] Several philosophers who have accepted the incompatibility of omnipotence with necessary moral perfection have regarded the latter as more central to religious notions of God, and have argued that divine omnipotence should therefore be rejected. [iv] 


Defenders of the compatibility of omnipotence and necessary moral perfection must deny at least one of the argument’s premises. And, indeed, each of them has been denied. Premise (1) is perhaps the most difficult to reject. To be necessarily morally perfect is to be morally perfect in every possible world. Still, there seem to be some states of affairs such that bringing them about is inconsistent with moral perfection. So it seems that if any being is necessarily morally perfect, then there are some states of affairs which that being does not bring about in any possible world. However, defenders of certain sorts of divine command theories of ethics are committed to the claim that God is morally perfect only in a trivial sense, and these views will have the result that (1) is false. If what is morally good depends on God’s choice, then if God chose something else, that something else would be morally good. If this is right, then (1) is false: God could bring about E, but if he did bring about E, E would be morally good. However, most philosophers regard this line of thought as tending to show the absurdity of these divine command theory versions rather than the falsity of (1). Premise (2) can be rejected by those philosophers who regard omnipotence as the ability to perform any action or bring about any result which is consistent with the actor’s nature, as in definitions (2), (5), and (7). 


However, these definitions fall prey to the McEar objection and, more generally, open the door to limitations on what an omnipotent being can do. Many philosophers of action take it as a hypothesis that there are no necessarily unexercised powers (or abilities, or capacities), and (3) is merely an instance of this general principle. Nevertheless, the rejection of (3) is defended by Wielenberg (2000), who argues using the following analogy. Suppose that Hercules is “Omni-strong,” that is, he has sufficient strength to lift stones of any weight. Suppose, however, that a specific stone is too slippery for him to get a grip. He, therefore, cannot lift it. Hercules’ inability to lift the slippery stone does not count against his Omni-strength since the stone is not too heavy for him but only too slippery.


In the same way, Wielenberg argues, there are many things that God can’t do. However, God is omnipotent since it is not for lack of power that God cannot do these things, but for other reasons, such as his necessary moral perfection. Wielenberg’s analogy’s aptness is still open to dispute, and the principle that there are no necessarily unexercised powers continues to be widely accepted.



  •   [i] Morriston 2001: 144
  • [ii] Pike 1969
  • [iii] Geach 1977.
  • [iv] Geach 1977; Morriston 2001; Funkhouser 2006.

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