I am a member of the Gordon Clark Discussion Group on Facebook. Every so often, I participate in discussions in that group. There is one Christian gentleman named Jesse who seems to have disliked me from the very first conversation I had with him. We have been in contentious discussions in the past, and they often result in me asking him to define his terms and him either refusing to do so or calling me ‘annoying.’ In this discussion, we argue about whether or not the philosophical system I espouse can allow me to know that God is omnipotent. My position is that what is said in scripture or what can be deduced from scripture by necessary consequence is knowledge. If a proposition is inferred by a deduction that is not inferred from necessary consequence or if a proposition is inferred from scripture by induction, the conclusion is an opinion because it could be wrong. Therefore, my position is not that you can’t make inductive inferences from the Bible, rather, it is that inferences that are not made by necessary consequence are beliefs that could be wrong. Because those beliefs can be wrong, we should not be willing to die on a hill for those beliefs. What follows is a discussion where Jesse attacks my view of omnipotence.
Jesse: Which methods of inference are appropriate when doing theology?
Me: We are permitted to make inferences from scripture. If those conclusions are necessarily inferred, it is knowledge. If it is not necessarily inferred, it is an opinion.
Jesse: I see that you’re willing to bite the bullet, Jason. How much theology do you know under such a restriction, and how much do you need to throw out?
I’ve given the example of the age of the earth. I presume that you would be willing to admit that we simply don’t know the age of the earth.
However, let’s take a more important doctrine: God’s omnipotence. Classically, this doctrine is formulated as the claim that God is capable of performing any *logically* possible action (Descartes even thought that God could do the logically impossible!) To support this, one could cite Matthew 19:26, where Jesus says: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
So far so good, but what sense of ‘possible’ did Jesus have in view here? There are several options in addition to logical possibility. There is physical possibility, for example. This refers to all that is possible given the physical laws of the universe. After creating these laws, God became subject to them (one might think). For example, while God can do all that is possible, He cannot determine the precise location and speed of quantum particles; nor can He accelerate an object with mass beyond the speed of light.
Far fetched? Of course. I would simply invite you to rule this definition of ‘possible’ out with a deductive argument from Scripture.
Let me give you a further way one could interpret passages about omnipotence. This perspective is more realistic in the sense that some (mainly Jewish) theologians believe it. One this rendering of ‘possible’, the intended meaning has certain assumed but unstated qualifications. Proponents of this view point out that when one is offering praise, or exhorting others to worship, it is inappropriate in that context to mention those qualification. To illustrate, suppose you are an employer giving a speech to motivate your employees, and you declare “as a team, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish!” Obviously, this statement contains many unstated qualifications which would be counterproductive to enumerate given what you are trying to accomplish. Something analogous could be going on in the Bible when it exhorts us to worship God, or when God is described in an awe-inspiring way. God is offered praise for his immense power; indeed, for having the power to dominate human affairs. Nevertheless, God’s power falls short of the ability to do all that is logically possible. The Biblical authors don’t mention this not only because it would be irrelevant, but because it would undercut the intended psychological effect of the statement. On this stronger sense of omnipotence then, the God of the Bible lacks it.
Let me preempt your response by acknowledging that there are many objections to this view. It’s not the view itself that I’m interested in. What matters is whether the correct doctrine of omnipotence can be *deduced* from scripture. The mere possibility of alternative definitions for terms such as ‘possible’ make such a straightforward deduction extremely unlikely. What will be decisive in this case are independent philosophical considerations, as well as any textual clues one can find.
Needless to say, this kind of reasoning will never amount to a deductive proof. The upshot of this is that knowledge of God’s omnipotence (insofar as it has a precise definition) is grounded in something besides a necessary inference from Scripture.
If you wish to continue to deny the status of inductive knowledge, you could bite the bullet again and concede that we may not know what kind of omnipotence God has. I don’t expect you to take this option, Jason, but if you do, there is a slippery slope of theological skepticism that I will take you down as punishment.”
Me: Instead of spending time attacking concepts of omnipotence that I do not agree with, you could have asked me how I define ‘omnipotence,’ first. None of your objections are applicable to my position.
Jesse: Did you read the part of my comment where I said “it’s not the view [of omnipotence] itself that I’m interested in”?
Me: Yes, if you think that views of omnipotence are not related to your questions, I suggest that you rethink that position. The questions you asked are not relevant to my definition of omnipotence.
Jesse: The only question I am interested in is whether a given definition of omnipotence can literally be deduced from scripture. Is that the case for your preferred definition?
Me: Oh, I see. Your question actually gave me an idea for an article that I wrote this morning. [Note: The rest of the conversation is about the definition of omnipotence I gave in this article, “Omnipotence is defined as the ability to carry out one’s will perfectly.”]
Jesse: It seems like you’re going to be attracted to the bullet-biting strategy I warned against. Bad idea. Shame on you. Your definition of omnipotence is completely impoverished, and even so, still cannot be deduced from the Bible; at least not without making interpretive decisions supported by induction and/or abduction.
Me: How so? What is deficient about the definition given in my article?
Since language is just symbols that communicate propositional meaning, it is rather easy to derive a definition for ‘omnipotence’ from scripture since scripture says so much about God’s power. I’ve already shown why I went with this definition on the basis of the Bible in the article I linked.
You are making a lot of blanket statements, but I am not seeing any substance from you. Every time I dialogue with you, you come off as rude. If you don’t like me, I don’t see why you even bother to engage me. If you really want to engage with me, I suggest you engage directly with what I have written instead of hiding behind ambiguous blanket statements.
Jesse: The definition is impoverished because of the reasons I gave in my last paragraph. All of those are examples of things which are able to perfectly carry out their will, yet they are not omnipotent.
Me: Your “reasons” are insufficient. Basically, your reason for telling me my definition is impoverished is not relevant to the defining of terms.
Since ‘omnipotent’ is not a term that is found in the Bible, I am left to define it myself, but if I am going to use it in reference to the God of the Bible, I have to make sure the definition is in line with what the Bible teaches concerning God’s power. I already explained this in the article, but perhaps you missed the point.
The examples you gave are not consistent with the God that the Bible represents, and are, therefore, irrelevant.
Jesse: Your definition uses induction because of the way that it interprets the biblical evidence. Take Psalm 115:3 as an example, which you cite. “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.”
It cannot be deduced from this that “God is able to perfectly carry out his will.”
Me: Wrong. If omnipotence is the ability to perfectly carry out one’s will, Psalm 115:3 is a demonstration of the validity of that concept. If God does whatever he pleases, he can do anything he pleases.
Jesse: You are *interpreting* the passage to mean that, but you are not deducing it.
Me: The separation of the interpretation of the text and the meaning of the text is nonsensical. I challenge you to highlight the necessity of such a distinction. If the interpretation follows by necessity, the distinction is moot in the instance in question.
Jesse: Your interpretation involves at least the following assumptions, each of which are logically possible to be erroneous: (a) that there are no unstated qualifications to the Psalmist’s claim, (b) that when God does something, he does it perfectly, (c) that the Psalmist is teaching something about the extent of God’s power to begin with. (The context of the passage is a comparison between God and pagan idols, the difference being that God is alive and capable of some action.)
Me: I appreciate your attempts to read my mind, but I had none of the things you mentioned in my mind, and really, like much of everything else you have said so far, the assumptions you give are not relevant. Let’s go through them one at a time:
“a) that there are no unstated qualifications to the Psalmist’s claim,”
The Bible is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), and if the plain meaning of the text (known as the P’shat) is false, Psalm 115:3 is not true. Since God cannot lie (Numbers 23:19, Titus 1:2), this is not possible. The Bible was written with the four levels of interpretation in mind (and those four levels are validated by the use of this method of interpretation by Yeshua, the Apostles, and the Prophets, you may see how I arrived at this conclusion in this article. If there are any unstated qualifications that would change the plain meaning of the text, God would be a liar. Since, by adopting the axiom the Bible is the Word of God, Titus 1:2 is presupposed, there is no place for a lying God in my logical system. If God cannot lie, he cannot be lying about Psalm 115:3.
“b.) that when God does something, he does it perfectly”
In this conversation, I define “perfectly” as successfully executing one’s will without fail.
“c.) that the Psalmist is teaching something about the extent of God’s power to begin with. (The context of the passage is a comparison between God and pagan idols, the difference being that God is alive and capable of some action.)”
I define power as the ability to carry out one’s will. If God can do whatever he pleases, the statement in Psalm 115:3 speaks to the extent of his power. If God can do whatever he pleases, then he is omnipotent.
Jesse: For your understanding of omnipotence to be deduced from this passage, you need to at least show that each of these assumptions is true. Can you do that without inductive reasoning? Maybe you should start by trying to demonstrate (a) deductively and see what happens.
Me: ‘Twas easily done via a series of modus ponens inferences and Biblical hermeneutics.
Jesse: I’m going to regret responding to this, but I’m a glutton for punishment.
Jesse: No more than the frog in my example from earlier is omnipotent.
Me: The definition of ‘will’ that I use for omnipotence is not applicable to the frog so I am afraid that the frog is not omnipotent (even though he might be pretty cool). Your objection is just another example of equivocation and misrepresentation of my position.
Jesse: Did you deduce your hermenutical principles from the Bible?
Me: Yes, insofar as how it is arranged in my philosophical system.
For your own good, I’m going to give you some advice. Frankly, I do not think you know what you are doing when it comes to this philosophy thing. I have seen you say some good things in this group so I am not saying that you cannot be good at philosophy, but right now, you have a lot of things that are holding you back from clarity of thought. Engaging other people is good practice and it is a good way to test your ideas, but don’t be dogmatic about ideas on subjects that you clearly know nothing about. On several occasions in this discussion, you have tried to argue with me about things (the most obvious example being the P’shat of scripture) that you clearly know nothing about. Before you start arguing about something, for your own good and to avoid embarrassment, study the subject matter first.
I have had some critics in this group and others who did not like me and they found me to be annoying (much like you have said), but a couple of them have come around and started to see that I was pushing them to reflect on their ideas and they even started to agree with me on positions that they previously disagreed with. If you really reflect on some of the things I told you, I think it could help you come a long way on your philosophical journey. You don’t have to agree with me on everything, but every time I dialogue with you, I get a great sense of disrespect from you. You either need to get over whatever problem you have with me or stop dialoguing with me. If you are going to “regret” posting something, perhaps you shouldn’t post it. We only get so much time on this planet so it seems rather silly to willfully engage in activities that you do not like.
It is amazing that people think they can say things like, “That is just your interpretation.” There is no meaningful distinction between a correct interpretation of the Bible and the meaning of the Bible. When we interpret the Bible, there are rules that we have to follow, and we can see those rules used in the scriptures. One might say, “You have to use those principles in order to see them in the Bible in the first place.” That may be true; however, in mathematics, one must come to the possession of the truth that 2+2=4 before they can demonstrate that 2+2=4. This is because the axiom of addition must be granted prior to doing addition.
Just the same, we find out about the rules of interpretation and then we see those rules implemented in the Bible. The way we come to posses the truth of how to interpret the Bible is of no consequence. What is of consequence, however, is how we integrate those rules into our system of beliefs. We choose where to place our beliefs in our overarching philosophy. What is tested in philosophical discourse is not how we initially discovered a proposition, but how it fits in with the rest of what we believe.