Can God Make a Rock?

We are often presented with “unanswerable” questions by those who find the idea of God to be either ridiculous or self-contradictory. One aspect or another of the divine fullness is attacked by those who question every minute of every hour. Many of us, who believe that God is the God of traditional Christian expression, have had the question put to us “Can God Make a Rock that God can’t lift?” This post is a short exercise in answering this very question from a number of different theological perspectives. The first approaches the logic of the proposed situation, the second approaches the logic of the question itself, and the third approaches it from a specifically Christian perspective.

1. The Logic of the Proposed Situation

The question is aimed at attacking the omnipotence of God, or even the concept of omnipotence itself. The general idea is that because there are conflicting and mutually exclusive potential realities that an omnipotent God cannot exist, because both alternatives cannot logically be accomplished. Thus, the question asks whether it is possible for God to create a rock that omnipotence cannot lift. If the creation of the rock cannot be done, then God is not omnipotent. If the rock cannot be lifted, the same outcome results.

The question assumes a model of omnipotence that no theologian that I am aware of holds or has ever held in the Christian faith (though I did once meet a pastor who thought this way). The most famous statement on this is from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states “whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.” (Summa Theolog. I Q25, 3). Thus, whenever Christians say that God is all powerful, we mean specifically that all intrinsically possible things are within God’s power. Thus, God cannot make a square a circle and also leave it a square. It is possible for a square to become a circle, but it is not possible for it to also remain a square during or after the change.

Now that fact has major ramifications for many questions of Christian theology. For those who hold merely to forensic justification or imputed righteousness, one must ask how a person can be saved, i.e. have the life of God, and be in the very likeness of God, while remaining what they were beforehand. These models seem to propose that God can make a circle into a square and leave it still a circle after the fact. Such a thing is impossible, even for a God for whom all things are impossible.

Thus the question of the rock and God’s power, proposes a logically contradictory situation. God cannot create a rock that God cannot lift, not because it is a possibility that there can be rocks that omnipotence cannot lift, but because it is a sheer impossibility. A rock, being a rock, must have weight, even if it is by some miracle of physics, infinite weight. Omnipotence can easily create enough force to move the rock. The logical contradiction is if Omnipotence could not move the rock, for then it would not be omnipotence. Thus we are left with a situation in which God can create a rock of any size, but the fact that it could not be lifted by omnipotence is itself a logical contradiction, and as we have seen, nothing that implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God…or any omnipotence for that matter.

Now, if this means that omnipotence is impossible, in the sense that many of our detractors imagine it, then we must agree, and have always agreed. Omnipotence which implies the ability to do logically contradictory things has never been, to my knowledge, put forward as an attribute of God by any reputable theologian in the entire history of the Church. So, we may agree with our detractors in deriding this particular version of omnipotence. Thank goodness we’ve never actually proposed it.

2. The Logic of the Question

The question itself is structured in a way that most people do not notice. It essentially forms a double negative, and thus condemns God, not for a lack of power, but for actually being omnipotent. I found this answer while reading Gregory of Nazianzus’ Orations, but the answer is so obvious that I’m embarrassed that I did not see it myself immediately.

On the surface, the question proposes two powers that God may have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size or weight. The second is the power to not lift a rock over a certain size. Immediately the problem comes out at once. The second is not a power at all, not an ability that God can have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size at all. The second, however, is not an addition to power, but a subtraction of it.

To say that God lacks the ability to not be able to move certain sizes of rock is simply a very complicated way of saying God can move any rock. The fact that God can move rocks is a power, the ability to find a rock, or even to create a rock, that God can’t move, is not an addition to God’s power, but a subtraction from it. The trick to the question it that it shrouds the proposed lack of God’s power as if it were an addition to it. This would be like proposing the idea that I am a poor writer because I cannot write a sentence that I cannot read. (One need not resort, incidentally, to such complicated means to argue for the weaknesses in my writing). If I were a great writer, I could write any sentence. But I must not be a very good one, if there are sentences from my own hand that I cannot read. This is, of course, nonsense.

3. The Christian Response

This will not be a “Christian” Response in the manner that it will attempt to be nice. Christians should in fact be nice, as far as that goes, but they should also be as accurate as possible, and as faithful to the truth as possible. This answer is Christian, in the sense that it comes only from a Christian perspective. The first two answers could be given by anyone of any faith with a little logic behind them. This, however, turns on that most peculiar of Christian doctrines, the Incarnation.

For, it is true that God has made many stones that God cannot lift. One might guess that any stone much over a hundred and fifty pounds would be too much for the God of the Universe. For we, as Christians, believe that God emptied Godself in the act of becoming human, and dwelling among us. God, with human hands and feet, could not lift the vast majority of stones in the world. The body of a carpenter or stonecutter is strong, and Jesus of Nazareth could almost certainly bench more than I can. But the range of human strength is quite limited. Human beings are small things when it comes to the vast weight of many stones. And this Jesus, though God of the universe, was also a man.

And thus the answer particularly from Christianity is, yes. God can, and has, made many stones that God cannot lift. And this too is no detraction from His power. For the God of all creation to empty Himself, a process called Kenosis, is a vast and mighty miracle. To bridge the gap from that which is not created, God the Trinity, to that which is, the universe, and that particular bit we call Earth, is a miracle that even dwarfs the creation of the Universe itself. So mighty is God that God can walk with human feet, and hold things with human hands. But then, those hands can only hold so much.

Of course, we remember as well that Christ knew very well about humanity’s rock problems. So he offered us the power to move them, to become like Him, and to be able, through faith to move mountains. (Mt 17:20)

So ultimately, the question is not, “Can God make a rock so big that he cannot move it?” The question is “Can God make a rock so big, that those made to share God’s own nature cannot move it?” And the answer, thanks be to God, is no.

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First Theology

 
I recently promised on Facebook that I would write about what I call “First Theology.”  For some this may be a very disappointing post, as I am not going to discuss what I think to be the proper starting place of all systematic theologies.  For while some would put first the One God, and others would put the Incarnation, and still others the Creation, Revelation, or the Trinity, I am not going to say which of these venerable starting places is my own preferred way of entering into the mysteries of God.  Instead, I will focus on the First Theology that lives in the context of all of these realities, and while most identified with the Incarnation in our minds, has just as much right to be associated with each of these other areas as well.

For if Theology is the study of God, or the science of God, or the reason pertaining to God, then there is only one reality which can claim to be the First Theology:  The Divine Logos.  For it is from all eternity that the Logos is the full and perfect revelation of the Father.  In fact, from all eternity, the Father’s greatest act is the begetting of the full and perfect image of Himself.  In other words, the Son is a self study of the Father, a contemplation of the divine self in the form of a person who is just as much God as the Father is.  The First Theology is done by the Father in the person of the Son.  Perhaps “in” here is a poor word, but if I had used “as” there could be some confusion as if I were saying the Father acts “as” the Son.  Instead, what is meant is that the perfect imaging of, perfect study of, or perfect contemplation of the Father is not merely an attribute of the Son, but is, without limit or reservation, the person or being of the Son.

All that is made comes from the Son, as we are told in the prolog to St. John’s Gospel.  All that exists that is not God is put forward into being by the Son.  When God says “Let there be Light” in Genesis, it would be wrong to think that his was somehow done primarily by the Father.  Instead, the Son creates.  This is why it is improper to replace “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” with “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.”  In fact, all three of these names belong to the Son.  The role of the Spirit, which we will not go into here, is also in fact to sanctify, but that does not exclude the Son’s primary role of sanctification by the incarnation.

Lest I fall into the trap of tri-theism, it is important to point out the reality of perichoresis.  For wherever the Son is, so also are the Father and Spirit.  Whatever the Son does, so the Father and Spirit are acting.  However, it is the Son who makes all things.  This point is important, for it explains how and why we are made in the image of God.  For the Son’s act of creation is the act of the First Theology.  The Divine Logos creates to image the Father in things other than Himself.  It might be asked why the Son chose to image through creation, instead of further begetting.  Theories exist for why there are not more Sons, or more persons in the Godhead.  However, all I think we can say for sure is that it was better to create than to simply go one begetting or proceeding.

All that was made was made to reflect the glory of the Father; some things more than others.  The Son sets up creation to be a study of the Father, and makes conscious beings as its crown, made in the image and likeness of the Father.  He, like the Father He is the perfect image of, creates persons to image the Father[1].

It is this setting up of a study of the Father by means of creation, especially the creation of sentient procreative beings, that is fully consistent with the Son as the First Theology.  For this act images the Father in creation in such a way that we continue the imaging in all we do.  From joy to peace to the giving of life in our own images, we continue to be a study of the unending and inexhaustible life of the Father sent out into created being by the Son.

It is therefore this great imaging which is shattered by the introduction of sin into the world.  The imaging of the Father is broken, and the images and likenesses have been marred.  Now, what was at first set up to be a great joyful contemplation of the Father, has turned against the whole Trinity of God.  It is for this reason that the Son, the perfect Image of the Father, comes among us to repair the image and set it right again.  He enters into the brokenness and reverses it by perfect obedience, suffering, death, and ultimately resurrection.

Thus the First Theology, the first Theou Logos, is the very Logos Himself, and the whole history of Humanity and salvation is the history of the First Theology.  And all that human beings do, and all that we are, is rooted in this great theology.  It must give us pause, those of us who do theology, to consider what we dare to do.  For we suppose to do the work of the Son in the world, revealing the Father in Truth.  And thus, if we dare to do this work, we must pattern ourselves wholly on the Son whose whole life and being is a living image of the living and invisible Father portrayed for us in all that is made.

 


[1] Now some might object here that we are made specifically in the image and likeness of the Trinity, or that by “in the image” what is really meant is that we are “in Christ.”  I object to neither of these interpretations.  Instead, I argue that imaging the Trinity is in fact imaging the Father, for the trinity is the divine imaging of the Father.  As well, by being made “in Christ” who is the first and true and whole image of the Father, we are made in the living image of God, which is to be ultimately like God.  Thus the distinctions fail to be exclusionary.

 

Understanding Salvation Differently

In my last post I showed some of the problems with the popular conception of the atonement. This post I hope to offer an alternative understanding of the atonement.  Now this would be sheer madness if I was offering some theory of my own that I had come up with last week.  Instead, I would offer something far older than myself, a theory that has existed in the church since the beginning. For those familiar with different theories of the cross, the term Christus Victor might be the most fitting for this theory.  However, it is not exactly the theory identified by Gustav Aulen in his book of the same name.  It is something more.

The popular modern conception of the cross, which dates back to the Reformation, is familiar to almost everyone.  God is angry with us, wants to smash us to bits, and has every right to do so.  So Jesus comes in, takes the smashing for us, and the problem is solved.  The more ancient understanding of the cross is that it is the place where Jesus confronts human sin, suffering, and death, as well as the dark powers of the earth, and overcomes them.  Jesus takes on human suffering as the fulfillment of His incarnation, drawing us to Him in His suffering.

This meeting of God and human suffering, death, and guilt, is all based on the fact that Jesus, as God, is stronger than all of these things.  But He must become a human being to experience them in Himself.  He must be the one who suffers, experiences guilt, shame, sorrow, loss, and the perceived abandonment of God.  He must take on a body that can suffer and die so that He may directly encounter this suffering and death in Himself.  Then, once he has died, He overcomes the suffering and death in the resurrection. (1)

By doing all of this as a human being, Christ transforms our human nature and binds it closely to his divine nature.  In other words, humanity is now in the trinity by means of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.  By dying he has confronted human death in himself, and overcome it by his divinity.  That divine overcoming is shared with us, and we are grafted into it, being allowed to now become, as St. Peter says, partakers of the Divine nature.  The divine nature of Jesus is shared with all of us, so that our sin, suffering, and death, may be overcome by his victory.

Of course, this is not merely a simple pardoning then of sins.  Our sins are forgiven by Christ, and his death works in a mysterious way to blot out sin.  But this is not the only thing.  We are not simply made legally righteous before God, but invited to share in God’s own person so that we are transformed into Christ in the world.  All of this seems very clear in John’s Gospel.

This image of redemption does not put us in the hands of an angry God.  Instead, it puts us as people who endangered our own existence by doing evil.  We undermined our own beings by disconnecting ourselves from God who is the very root and ground of our being.  By being in conflict with God, for in God being and goodness are one, we have lost our ground for goodness and existence.  Thus we do evil, and we die.  In other words, “the wages of sin is death.”

Christ comes to fix all of that by binding us tightly to Him in goodness and being.  The result is that we begin a journey of life that transcends what we understand of human life.  We are called to be humans bound up in the divine life of God.  None of this requires a God who is wrathful against humanity.  None of it requires that we think of ourselves as dung or worthy of God’s terrible wrath.  Instead, we are loved people, far more valuable to God than merely people He wants to see in some kind of legal relationship with Himself.  He says to us, as the New Testament makes clear, “you are one flesh with me” by making humanity in the Church His bride.

As well, all of the problems listed in the last article, do not pertain.  Instead, there is one consistent act of creation, redemption, and glorification.  God creates so that we might partake of God. When we fall, God acts to restore the relationship in reality, not merely in a legal fiction. And we then begin to partake of God’s life here and now, with a great hope that we will partake of it without limit after the resurrection.

(1)  All of this may be found in St. Athanasius, as well as much of it seen in St. Cyril as well as Maximus the Confessor and others.