Category Archives: Epistemology

CAN GOD DO ANYTHING?

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Is God all powerful? Does he have limitless capability to accomplish whatever he chooses? Is God omnipotent?

The short answer is yes.

Matthew 19:26 informs us that “with God all things are possible.” In Genesis 18:14, God rhetorically asks, “Is anything too difficult for Yahweh?” Likewise in Jeremiah 32:27 – “Behold, I am Yahweh, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for me?” Job was finally able to confess in Job 42:2, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

But theologians are quick to point out some things that perhaps God cannot do:

  1. God cannot do what is intrinsically impossible / nonsensical / logically contradictory.

For example, God cannot make 2+2=5. Also, God cannot create a square circle or a four-pointed triangle. Such concepts simply have no reference in reality – they are nonsense. Saying that God cannot do those things in no way diminishes his greatness. Indeed, God graciously allowed us to have our (finite) capacity for perceiving and understanding things such as logic and mathematics in the first place.

What about the age-old ‘gotcha’ question, “Could God create a rock too heavy for him to lift?” Well, some theologians talk about God having certain limitations due to his very nature. For example, if God truly is an infinite being, the idea of anything exceeding him would be a logical impossibility. “Infinity plus one” is not greater than infinity. Thus, this question would fall into the same nonsense category as creating a four-pointed triangle.

  1. God cannot lie.

This is scriptural. Titus 1:2 references “… God, who cannot lie…” This is a fascinating truth and one that I will have to devote an entire post to in the future. Is it truly impossible for God to tell a lie, even if he wanted to? If that is the case, I am capable of doing something that God himself cannot! Is he incapable of lying or is it that, as the source of all truth, whatever he says or wills manifests itself as reality / truth? Or is it more a matter of incompatibility, that God has permanently willed not to lie and shall never reverse that ethical course?

In other words, it will take some further thought and digging for me to determine if this is a matter of innate ability, permissibility, or possible circumstance. At this point I do not know.

IN CONCLUSION

Similar to our post on omniscience, we can arrive at a statement that all Christians should be able to agree with in good conscience: “God is able to do anything that can possibly be done.” For all intents and purposes, God is truly infinite and unlimited in power. Anything that might fall outside of his ability, apart from lying, must be so detached from our experience of reality that it can never apply to us or effect us.

AWESOME GOD

According to the source of some knowledge, Wikipedia (and a NASA scientist), the total estimated mass-energy of the observable universe is 4×1069 Joules. Compare this to 9×103 Joules for the energy in a single AA alkaline battery or 2.1×1017 Joules for a 50-ton hydrogen bomb, the largest nuclear weapon ever tested.

Now I am clearly a soft-science guy. But if you understand math then you understand the magnitude of the energy in the universe. And God created that universe. Easily. Not only that, but he can suspend and resume all the known laws of the physical universe at will (Joshua 10:12-13).

We can only deduce that God himself contains exponentially, unimaginably more energy or potential energy than 4×1069 Joules, if he can make, unmake and otherwise bend all of creation to his will without breaking a metaphorical sweat. But most likely, the measure of God’s energy is qualitatively different and truly outside our mortal, human understanding of physics.

Either way, I am humbled. I am like a cheap, science fair potato-battery in comparison to his power!

DOES GOD KNOW EVERYTHING?

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In a previous post I concluded that God is necessarily an infinite being. The concept of a beginning point no more applies to God than it does to the mathematical concept of infinity. God’s eternal existence is the basic underlying truth of reality. In this post I will seek to answer the question of omniscience – does God have infinite knowledge?

Omniscience is not a biblical term, but it is certainly used regularly in the discipline of theology. The current Merriam-Webster definition of omniscient is:

  1. having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight
  2. possessed of universal or complete knowledge

Does scripture make any statements about the limits (or lack thereof) of God’s awareness, understanding, insight, or knowledge? In fact, it does.

“Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; his understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5).

Well, that seems to wrap it up pretty easily! We do not even have to mention the myriad verses that testify to God’s knowledge about the exact number of hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30), our inner thoughts and motives (Jeremiah 20:12), the exact length of our individual life spans (Psalm 139:16), or how the basic physical properties and forces of the universe operate (Job 38:4). We certainly confess that his thoughts are “higher” than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9) and we realize that his understanding is inscrutable (Isaiah 40:28b).

Any Christian within the bounds of orthodoxy should be able to agree with this basic statement – “God knows everything that can be known.”

But here is where we move into controversial territory. Can the future actually be known? At least in regards to soteriology, it seems that a lot of arguments and mysteries boil down to this subject of foreknowledge. What exactly does God know about the future and how does he know it?

There are five main perspectives within Christianity that I will very briefly list:

  1. Process Theology – God’s knowledge is evolving along with the rest of reality.
  1. Openness – It is impossible to know the future decisions of free creatures, and therefore even God cannot know.
  1. Actual Foreknowledge – God can actually observe the future somehow.
  1. Molinism – God innately knew all possible versions of reality involving the decisions of free creatures and chose to create one of those versions (a hybrid of actual foreknowledge and determinism).
  1. Determinism – God controls every detail of what happens in the future.

Which of those five perspectives do I find most convincing at this point in my theological quest? God knows the answer to that question, but you will have to wait until my post on foreknowledge!

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).

GENERAL REVELATION / NATURAL THEOLOGY

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In a previous post I argued that revelation is more accurately described as apocalypse – an unveiling or uncovering of divine reality. However, that would best describe what theologians call Special Revelation. General Revelation and Natural Theology are not quite examples of tearing away a supernatural veil but rather the lingering fingerprints of divine handiwork in creation – both within the material universe and our individual selves.

Natural Theology refers to the beliefs that we can arrive at by observing aspects of General Revelation and using human reason (logic) to attach meaning to those observations. These evidences are theoretically available to all people everywhere.

General Revelation can be divided into two categories: internal and external:

Internal evidences of the existence of God and his attributes include logical deductions (e.g., there must be an uncaused cause) and innate beliefs. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has “set eternity” into human hearts. Various theologians speak of an ‘innate sense of the divine’ within us. C.S. Lewis famously argued in favor of an inherent moral conscience in his book ‘Mere Christianity.’ If somebody accidentally trips you, you will feel far less animosity than if that person tripped you on purpose, even though the end result is identical. There seems to be an untaught, intuitive sense of justice / injustice within us. Even depraved individuals with seared consciences (1 Timothy 4:2) understand when something is unfair to them – far beyond a sense of inconvenience or survival instinct.

External evidences include the witness of creation, which leads to the belief in the necessity of a Creator, as purported by Intelligent Design theory. Psalm 19:1 tells us that “the heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of his hands.” Romans 1:19-20 says, “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

However, the effects of sin have so greatly tarnished humanity, including human reason and moral conscience, that we find General Revelation not being sufficient in leading somebody into a salvific relationship. As Romans 1:21 continues, “they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” General Revelation alone will never lead somebody to accurate conclusions about the incarnation of Jesus Christ nor the atonement. We desperately need God to pull back the veil and reveal himself to us in a special fashion, whether we realize it or not.

Acts 17:26-17, 30: “and he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us … Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent…”

PRECONSCIOUS DOCTRINAL BELIEFS

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One of the main reasons I started Theology Geek was to help determine exactly what I believe, instead of simply taking for granted doctrine taught by and absorbed from other sources. What about you? Do you know what you really believe and how you came to believe it?

“Sigmund Freud recognized that the human personality has at least three levels of awareness: the conscious (or, as Freud termed it, the perceptual conscious), the preconscious, and the unconscious. The conscious is what we are actually aware of at any given moment. In the unconscious lie those experiences and ideas we cannot volitionally recall into consciousness… The preconscious contains those experiences and ideas which, although one is not currently aware of them, can readily be recalled to consciousness by an act of will. Often our doctrinal beliefs hover at this intermediate level.” – Millard Erickson (Christian Theology, 1998)

THE SOURCE OF ALL TRUTH

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“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” – Jesus Christ

In a discussion over coffee about the compatibility or non-compatibility of Freudian theories of psychoanalysis with Christian belief, a pastor once told me that “All truth is God’s truth.” I have since heard that sentiment expressed by many others. While that statement can indeed only be true, something about it kept nagging me. How exactly are you defining or determining truth? It seemed to me that such a statement could be used to conveniently sidestep the need to do the work, to investigate and actively establish truth on a clear basis.

How do we define truth? What priority do we give to various sources that claim to describe reality accurately? Here are my current thoughts on the subject:

TRUTH

God himself is the source of all truth. The eternal, self-existent God is the ultimate reality. There is no higher being or principle in existence. Everything that is has originated from him (John 1:3). As the First Principle, the Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, the Prime Reality, the great I AM… Yahweh is the very embodiment of truth.

PRIMARY SOURCES OF TRUTH

The Bible, at the very least in its “original autographs” (e.g., the actual scrolls that Moses wrote on, etc.), is a primary source of truth because it accurately testifies about God and records his words. It is direct and purposeful revelation from the all-knowing and truth-telling God. Because God has infinite understanding (Psalm 147:5) and is unable to lie (Titus 1:2), we can fully trust everything that he says. We can trust that what he says is accurately recorded in scripture because all scripture is “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16) and prophecy was made by men “moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Further, we are told that “scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Jesus himself quoted and affirmed scripture on many occasions.

The Bible itself is not the ultimate reality, nor does it describe everything that exists in reality. Truth existed for a presumably infinite period of time before the Bible was written. However, as Christians we can and must trust in the whole counsel of scripture (Acts 20:27).

The Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of Truth which can lead us into all truth (John 16:13). A word from the Holy Spirit to an individual can thus also be a primary source of truth, albeit subjective. The Bible tells us that there are other spirits that speak (1 John 4:1; 1 Timothy 4:1). We must always compare what we believe the Spirit to be revealing to us with the witness of scripture, which is a much more standardized and objective primary source of truth.

SECONDARY AND TERTIARY SOURCES OF TRUTH

Apart from the Bible, which is ‘special revelation,’ general revelation can be found in three main sources: “nature, history, and the constitution of the human being” (Erickson 1998, 179). However, this form of truth requires the application of human reason and investigation. As humans are finite and flawed, such deductions and conclusions cannot be held with the same regard as primary truth. Generalizations from revealed biblical truth, if theologically rigorous, may be a form of secondary truth. Deductions and conclusions from the three sources of general revelation that do not coincide with a Christian worldview may be no better than tertiary sources of truth, or may be completely false and unreliable.

WHAT IS REVELATION?

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The word ‘revelation’ found in New Testament passages such as Luke 2:32, Romans 2:5, Galatians 1:12, Ephesians 3:3, and Revelation 1:1 (to cite a few examples) is the Greek word apokálypsis. You do not have to be a Greek scholar to recognize the English word ‘apocalypse.’ However, in English we have come to associate apocalypse with the cataclysmic end of the world. In reality, apocalypse means uncovering or unveiling.

Read Paul’s words in Galatians 1:11-12 with a simple translation change, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”

When theologians talk about revelation they are primarily concerned with the following question: how can we know anything about God at all? If God is transcendent, or infinite, or outside of the created cosmos, how can finite, mortal creatures approach him or discover something of his nature?

John the Apostle was fond of pointing out that “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18a; also 1 John 4:12a) and “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). So how can we discern a God that is “invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) to us? The answer is that God has to pull back the veil, let us peek behind the curtain, and reveal a part of himself.

Humanity cannot reach a knowledge of God completely on their own. But what about general revelation and the associated natural theology, in which individuals discern attributes of God from what has been created? We must admit that God has given human beings the ability to sense and perceive as well as minds capable of understanding and reaching conclusions. Therefore, even our most “independent” observations and conclusions are only possible because God first allowed their possibility by the decisions he made when designing and creating us.