Tuesday, 7 May 2013

A2 Religious Studies: God's Omnipotence

(bullet points = weaknesses/criticisms)

Talking about omnipotence can be annoying because one of the biggest areas of the topic is actually defining what omnipotence is.

There are three main definitions regarding God's omnipotence:

  1. God is capable of everything - even the logically impossible - Anselm, Descartes
  2. God is capable of anything that is possibly for a perfect God to do (some say this definition is restrictive) - Aquinas
  3. Omnipotence is merely a word regarding the power of God - Kenny, Geach
First Definition - God can do the logically impossible

Anselm proposed the ontological argument (AS stuff), whereby he described God as:

"that than which nothing greater can be conceived"

So obviously Anselm appears to fall into the first definition. 

smug 'God can do anything' face
Descartes, however, is probably the big name for the first definition. He believed that God could literally do anything.
  • If this is the case, it implies that God could change the laws of physics at will - he is unpredictable... so should we trust him?
In response to this attack, some philosophers argued that people are being too pedantic with the phrase 'logically impossible'. Mackie, for example, says that the phrase is:

"Only a form of words which fails to describe any state of affairs"

Descartes carries on to say that nothing is logically impossible to God because the phrase doesn't apply to him - so there's no point in even using the phrase. 

By our human standards, things only appear logically impossible, but it doesn't mean they are to God. For example, Descartes said that God could be sinful and perfect - it's logically impossible to us, but not necessarily to him.

If Descartes is right, God must be perfect and flawed - how is it possible for these two to be reconciliable? Descartes says there's no point arguing over it - God is omnipotent so it all clears itself up.
  • But isn't this too vague? Is it a cop-out?
Weaknesses surrounding Descartes's argument:
  • If God can do anything, why doesn't he eliminate suffering?
    • Descartes argues that this IS possible - so either God isn't omnibenevolent or he isn't truly omnipotent
  • God could change the world for the better but doesn't - there's no justification for evil
  • Aquinas's contradiction argument (outlined below)
Furthermore, some use Biblical quotes to enforce the first definition:

"Nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37)

"With God, all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26)

Peter Vardy also subscribes to this view, albeit tenuously. He argues that God created a world in which his own abilities are limited. He can only do the logically possible because his omnipotence allows him to put such restrictions upon himself. BUT God can do the logically impossible - he just chooses not to by restricting himself. This way, Vardy states that human free will is not compromised. He says:

"God is limited by the universe he has chosen to create."

Second Definition - God cannot do the logically impossible

This was the view held by Aquinas (of course it was). Aquinas said that:

"He can do anything that is absolutely possible"

By 'absolutely possible', Aquinas is referring to what is logically possible. 
Aquinas's famous sulk face

Aquinas also said that God cannot sin, because then he wouldn't be perfect. God can only do what a perfect God can possibly do - and sinning doesn't come under that bracket. 

"Everything that does not imply a contradiction is among those possibilities"

So Aquinas doesn't allow for contradictions, whereas Descartes does. Aquinas argues that 'omnipotent' shouldn't be defined to mean a contradiction in itself, because if God is contradictory then he cannot be omnipotent - this is Aquinas's main attack on Descartes's argument.

Following on from this, Aquinas says that God cannot change the past, since this is logically impossible.
  • Peter Geach criticises Aquinas, stating that his argument is based on the assumption that God's nature is perfect

Third Definition - Omnipotence is only a phrase to refer to God's power

Both Anthony Kenny and Peter Geach say that 'omnipotent' is merely a statement about God's power. Kenny says that:

"A being is omnipotent if it has every power which it is logically possible to possess."

Basically, God has the power to do what it is possible for him to do - omnipotence is just a statement. It's all about God having power, not about whether he chooses to create the universe/make contradictions etc.

That's pretty much it for God's omnipotence (I've condensed it slightly to make it less waffly) and it's honestly a much shorter topic than I thought... hope it helps!


  1. I was having a pre- exam panic and have just stumbled across your blog and I have to say, thank you so much. You explain it so clearly (unlike my RS teacher) and it's easier to take in and memorise. Seriously, if I get the grade I want it'll be mainly down to all the notes on here- you'd make such a good RS teacher :D

    1. that's really nice of you to say, thank you :) i'm glad the notes have helped, best of luck for the exam - don't panic, be clear and stay on track and you'll be absolutely fine :)

  2. How would you answer a question saying something like "Assess the philosophical problems raised by a belief in an omnipotent God"? Its quite hard structuring it?

  3. Thank you very much, your notes are helping me with revision for my exams in 8 months time.😊