The Divine Attributes




Divine Transcendence

Absolute Transcendence:

orthodox Christianity takes �transcendence� to mean �beyond time and space.� 
Problem of Plato’s chorismos.  (See Plato’s Parmenides, 133.) 
Theological methods of via negativa or via analogia.  Problems
explaining divine immanence.

Relative Transcendence:

process theology takes the word to mean a significant qualitative difference
between God and the world.  God transcends the world is a way analogous to the
self transcending the body.  Theological method of via eminentia.

Divine Creation

Creation Out of Nothing:

orthodox position with analogies such as creative thoughts coming out of
nothing.  Both the universe and time had a beginning.  Big Bang cosmology
confirms this view?  God is the sole creator, following the first two types of
divine power discussed in Chapter Eight.

Creation Out of Chaos:

process position, following one interpretation of Gen. 1:1.  God and chaos
(Whitehead’s �creativity�) are equiprimordial and coeternal.  God and
creatures are cocreators, following the third type of divine power in Chapter

Divine Necessity (Aseity)

Orthodox Christianity:

God is self‑existent and does not depend on anything else for his existence. 
The biblical �I am that I am.�  Related to divine immutability: God does not
undergo any change.  God is �externally� related to the world: no event in the
world has any effect on God.  God conforms to the �substance� metaphysics of
Greek philosophy.  A substance is independent, self‑contained, and

Process Theology’s Divine
A rejection of substance metaphysics.  God is in process.  God is �internally�
related to events and things in the world.  God changes as the world changes. 
For Whitehead God �primordial� nature has necessary features, but God’s
�conseqent� nature is contingent and constantly undergoes change.

Divine Spatiality


The orthodox position is that God transcends space, but is nevertheless
omnipresent and omnispatial.  Rowe: Doesn’t this violate the Law of Space?

The process position rejects transpatiality in favor of the spatial
�inclusion� of all events, including divine ones, in one another.  Doesn’t
this also violate the Law of Space?

Divine Temporality

Orthodox Theology:

Divine time is an Eternal Now with no temporal succession.  Rowe: Doesn’t this
violate the Law of Time?  Divine temporality is actually atemporality, i.e.,
no time as we experience it.  Via negativa:  God is an exception to
temporal succession.

Process Theology:

Divine eternality means �everlastingness,� a temporal succession having no
beginning or end.  Via eminentia: God is the most eminent expression of

Divine Omniscience

God knows everything past, present, and future.  Problems of free‑will and the
�closure� of the future.  Via negativa: God’s experience of time is
totally different than ours.  Problems with Augustine’s analogies.


God knows everthing there is to know.  Via eminentia: God is the most
eminent knower of actual events.  The future is open: God can predict the
future, but cannot know it until it is actualized.

Conflicts Internal to God

1. Immutability and
. See discussion below.

2. Divine Goodness,
Omnipotence, and the Problem of Evil
. See this link.

3. Immutablity and Divine
.  See discussion below.

4. Aseity and God’s Freedom
(especially if God is actus purus�meaning that God is pure actuality
with no potentiality to act any other way.

5. Immutability and
.  See this link.

Conflicts External to God

1. Omniprescience and
Literary Creativity
.  See discussion below.

2. Omniprescience and Human
.  See this link.

3. Omnipotence and Human
.  See this link.

4. Immutability and
Petitionary Prayer
.  See the discussion below.  There is also a problem in
God answering prayers.

5. Omniscience and Knowledge
of Particulars
.  A special problem for Thomas Aquinas, who believes,
following Aristotle, that divine knowledge is of form only, not matter.


Three Ways of Divine Predication

Most theologians have always
recognized the basic problem of any theological language.  How is it possible
to talk about a being which transcends time and space, a being which has no
body or worldly attributes?  Throughout the history of theology there have
generally been three ways of divine predication, i.e., ways of predicating
attributes to God.

First, there are those who say
that God is so different from us and things in the world that we can know him
only by negative inference.  This �negative way� (via negativa)
recognizes that when we predicate something of God, we use the term
�equivocally,� i.e., not with the same meaning.  Therefore the negative way
essentially precludes any intelligible talk about God, and for �negative�
theologians this is actually a good thing. John Damascene (674‑749), Moses
Maimonides (1135‑1204), and S�ren Kierkegaard (1813‑1855) are good examples of
this negative theology. John Damascene: �Everything said of God must not
signify His substance, but rather show forth what He is not; or express some
relation, something following from His nature or operation.�1 Moses
Maimonides: �Know that the description of God, may He be cherished and
exalted, by means of negations is the correct description � a description that
is not affected by an indulgence in facile language and does not imply any
deficiency with respect to God in general or in any particular mode.  On the
other hand, if one describes Him by means of affirmation, one, implies, as we
have made clear, that He is associated with that which is not He and implies a
deficiency in Him.�2

Here is S�ren Kierkegaard
(paraphrased by Louis Mackey):  �God may be called Absolute Reality, Absolute
Power,…if God is the Absolute, then He is transcendent of everything that
can be known by men, all of which is but relative.  God is altogether other
than man and man’s world.  His existence, therefore, cannot be proven nor His
nature conceived.  To demonstrate or delineate God would be to bring Him
within the gambit of finite reason and so to demean His absoluteness. 
Anything said about God discredits Him, except this confession itself.

�Nevertheless, God can be
experienced.  Because He is wholly other than man, He can be encountered as
the negation of everything human.  This is what happens in the experience of
guilt; when a man admits the impossibility of legislating, enacting, and
warranting his own conduct, he is exposed to God.  God is the infinite
nothingness that appears in the failure of the finite.  Whenever some finite
hope or finite assurance breaks down, there is an access to God.  Whenever all
human possibilities � aesthetic, intellectual, moral � are exhausted, there
God is present.�3

The via negativa
is based on the claim that God is so transcendent and so mysterious that the
only thing we can say about God is what he is not.  For example, humans are
finite and relative, therefore God must be infinite and absolute.  Humans
suffer, God does not; humans are ignorant, God is all‑knowing. In the via
negativa we are forced to use our terms equivocally; that is, divine
love is so much different that it does not mean the same as human love.  God’s
�creation� out of nothing is not like human creation out of something.  The
use of these terms is as equivocal as humans saying �dog fish� and �dog
star.�  As William T. Jones states:  �God’s creativity and man’s have nothing
in common but the name.�4 The via negativa
essentially excludes us from saying anything positive about God; no cognitive
claims can be said to be true.  But God’s mystery and transcendence are
maintained, and this is imperative for many orthodox theologians.  On the
other hand, we cannot use the terms univocally, because that means there would
be essentially no ontological difference between divine and human existence. 
This would definitely imply pantheism, which has always been heretical for the
Christian Church.

Thomas Aquinas made a gallant
attempt to reconcile this dilemma with the via analogia.  This
is a complicated doctrine, but the crux of it is that we can directly infer
from our own relationship to our attributes God’s relationship to his
attributes.  It is not a direct knowledge claim about God, because we do not
know God’s love, but something to which that divine love is analogous, viz.,
our love.  There is no threat of pantheism here.  God’s nature still
transcends wordly natures. The following passage from Aquinas’ Summa
is instructive:  �But no name belongs to God in the same sense
that it belongs to creatures; for instance, wisdom in creatures is a quality,
but not in God…When we apply wise to God, we do not mean to signify anything
distinct from his essence or power or being.  And thus when this term wise is
applied to man, in some degree it circumscribes and comprehends the thing
signified…Hence, no name is predicated univocally of God and creatures.
Neither, on the other hand, are names applied to God and creatures in a purely
equivocal sense… Because if that were so, it follows that from creatures
nothing at all could be known or demonstrated about God; for the reasoning
would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation. Therefore it must be
said that these names are said of God and creatures in an analogous sense,
that is, according to proportion.  For in analogies the idea is not, as it is
in univocals, one and the same; yet it is not totally diverse as in equivocals;
but the name which is thus used in a multiple sense signifies various
proportions to some one thing; e.g., healthy, applied to urine, signifies the
sign of animal health; but applied to medicine, it signifies the cause of the
same health.�5

The third way of divine
predication is the �way of eminence� (via eminentia).  This is the
position of the process theologians, who believe that the via analogia
cannot save us from equivocation, these theologians insist on using all terms,
even those for God, �univocally,� i.e., with the same meaning.  As Charles
Hartshorne proclaims:  �[theology] is literal, or it is a scandal.�6
Duns Scotus introduced this method when he maintained that all reality
(being), finite or infinite, is the same by virtue of its opposition to
non‑being.  The process theologians simply follow out the full implications of
Scotus’ via eminentia.  Because of our finite limitations, we are able
to love only with qualifications, but God loves in an eminent way.  Likewise,
wisdom in God and humans is the same, except divine wisdom is infinite and
perfect. Hartshorne explains the via eminentia this way:  �We do not
‘love’ literally, but with qualifications….Love, defined as social
awareness, taken literally, is God.  It is much more true that we are socially
unaware than that we are socially aware… God is socially aware, period. 
Thus he is the literal instance (because the original one) of the
categories….Why then the negative theology?�7

The process theologian Alfred
North Whitehead believes that God is made up of the same creative energy as
all things in the universe; he is simply the most eminent being in the
universe � the most powerful, the most knowledgeable, the most compassionate. 
Therefore Whitehead claims that �God is not to be treated as an exception to
all metaphysical principles [as in the via negativa], invoked to
save their collapse.  He is their chief exemplification.�8
Therefore the process theologians claim to speak of the incarnation of God in
a much more intelligible way than orthodox theology.  God is �in� the universe
in the same way that we are �in� our bodies.  Furthermore, God knows in the
same way that we know, namely, in a relational sense that makes knowledge of
the future impossible.


Scotus’ Law of Disjunction and Divine Attributes

�In the disjunctive attributes,
while the entire disjunction cannot be demonstrated from ‘being,’ nevertheless
as a universal rule by positing the less perfect extreme of some being, we can
conclude that the more perfect extreme is realized in some other being.  Thus
it follows that if some being is finite, then some being is infinite, and if
some being is contingent, then some being is necessary.  For in such cases it
is not possible for the more imperfect extreme of the disjunction to be
existentially predicated of ‘being’ particularly taken, unless the more
perfect extreme be existentially verified of some other being upon which it
depends� (Ordinatio I, 39).

General consensus on the truth
of Scotus’ Law of Disjunction would be difficult to obtain, but it serves as a
good starting point for a discussion of the traditional divine attributes. 
Scotus believed that there were two types of general attributes for all
reality:  passiones convertibles and passiones disiunctae.  The
first is the medieval trinity of unity, truth, and goodness, a view whose
philosophical heritage goes all the way back to Plato. While every being has a
unity, truth, and value, the Law of Disjunction dictates that beings will
either be infinite or finite, necessary or contingent, uncaused or caused. 
Infinity, necessity, and aseity (being self‑caused) will then be principal
divine attributes.  Furthermore, the existence of beings of finite power
implies a being who is omnipotent; and existence of beings with finite
knowledge presupposes a being who is omniscient (including omniprescience). 
Likewise, the Law of Disjunction will give us an immutable being in addition
to beings which change, and an eternal one alongside temporal ones.

One might object that some of
these attributes, especially the last two, do not actually follow from Scotus’
Law of Disjunction.  One could propose that the �most perfect extreme� of
mutability is Hartshorne’s �supremely relative� process God.  There is also an
ambiguity in the word �eternal.� Is the most perfect extreme of temporality
something completely outside of time (an atemporal being), or an everlasting
being, one which does not have a beginning or end?  Traditional theology has
chosen the former, but process theology has embraced the latter:  Whitehead’s
God is an everlasting entity which nonetheless is intimately involved in the
temporal process.


Divine Foreknowledge and Free‑Will

Augustine offers a brilliant
analysis of the nature of the will:  he contends that the will is not a will
unless it is free.  To say, for example, that my willing to sin is not in my
power is to say that I will to sin even though I do not will to sin.  This of
course is impossible, since willing is defined as that which is in my power.
Another way to make Augustine’s point is to say that the proposition �the will
is free� is a necessary truth, i.e., it is analytic and not synthetic.  If we
analyze what the concept �will� really means, we will discover that it means a
capacity for voluntary, uncoerced action.  To say that the will is not free is
to say that circles are not round.  We are not adding any new knowledge to the
concept of the will when we say that it is free (in other words, the concept
is not synthetic); and we contradict ourselves if we contend that it is not
free. Augustine is perhaps correct in his analysis of the will, but can his
own theology allow for the existence of the originative power required?  The
answer must be �No.� Augustine maintains the orthodox position on the
omnipotence of God, and we have already shown here how this undermines the
concept of an autonomous will.

Many commentators have also
been impressed with Augustine’s proposed solution to the relationship of God’s
knowledge to time.  There is, however, a bothersome equivocation in
Augustine’s use of both of these terms.  If God’s time is an �eternal now� in
which everything past, present, and future is seen at once, then this
knowledge is in no way comparable to human knowledge.  This means that the
future, that for us which is not yet, is already actual in God’s eternal
vision.  This effectively destroys the ordinary concept of future time. As Rem
B. Edwards states:  �Even from a divine point of view, the notion of the
simultaneity of past, present, and future is nonsense….What is the
difference between saying that God perceives the future as present and saying
that God perceives the square as round.�In other words, when we
use �knowledge� in Augustine’s way for both the divine and the human, we are
using it equivocally and not a way in which a cognitive claim about this
particular attribute of God (omniscience) could be true.  If God’s knowing is
radically different from our knowing, then we cannot speak meaningfully of it.

When we closely analyze any act
of knowing, we find that is relational:  To think is to relate.  Furthermore,
the thinker is always internally related to the object of thought.  The knower
is qualified by this relation to any object; her knowledge of it adds to her
being.  Knowledge then is always constitutive of the knower, because the
knower depends on an object for her experience of it. If knowledge is always
relational to objects of knowledge, then there can be no such thing as
knowledge of the future (fore‑knowledge), either divine or human.  The future
is not yet objectified, therefore a knower cannot be in relation with
not‑yet‑existent objects.  If we are to use the term �knowledge� univocally,
divine knowledge must be an extension and fulfillment of human knowledge. 
This knowledge is essentially either of actual events and things (past and
present) and the formal knowledge of mathematics and logic.  Contrary to
popular conception, predictive certainty in the sciences is not a knowledge of
the future.

The difference between human
and divine knowledge is the difference between the relative independence of
human knowing and the total dependence of God’s knowing.  If knowledge is
relational, then the knower is dependent on the objects for that knowledge. 
The process theologian Charles Hartshorne claims that God knows all things
past and present and therefore is totally dependent on those things for his
knowledge.  The reason for human ignorance and error is that human knowers are
not always in relation to the objects to be known, and therefore are
independent of their influence.  All knowledge qualifies the knower; it adds
to the being of the knower.

The theologians of the Middle
Ages already knew that knowledge was essentially relational; in fact, we owe
this discovery to them.  But predictably enough, instead of applying this
insight eminently to God, they reversed themselves totally and maintained that
divine knowing was completely the opposite of human knowledge � i.e., it was
non‑relational.  This meant that God is always an absolute term of knowledge
and never a subject of knowledge � a position which goes against common piety
and common sense.  The only philosopher that held this strictly was Aristotle,
who believed that we were related to God as a perfect term, but that God was
in no way related to us.

If God is a subject of
knowledge, then God must be qualified by that knowledge and hence is not the
absolute being that traditional theists believe.  Process theists therefore
conclude that if God is a supreme knower, then God must also be supremely
relative.  Process theists can affirm without contradiction that �God knows
us, and we know him.� Although they may believe otherwise, orthodox theists
can affirm only that �we know God, but God does not know us.�


Divine Omniprescience: Are
Literary Works Eternal Entities?

By Richard R. LaCroix10

There are two quite common
views which appear to be embraced by both a large number of aestheticians as
well as a large number of non‑aestheticians.  It is quite commonly believed by
many of both groups that God is omniscient with respect to the future, that
is, that God knows everything that will ever occur.  I refer to this belief as
the doctrine of divine omniprescience.

It is also quite common to many
of both groups to believe that literary authorship is creative in the sense
that by means of his composing activity an author is an agent who brings about
the existence of some thing (e.g., a play, a poem, a novel, etc.) which did
not exist prior to the composing activity of that agent and which would not
exist without the composing activity of that agent or some similar agent.  I
shall call this belief the doctrine of literary creativity.

What does not appear to be
recognized is that these two doctrines cannot both be consistently endorsed. 
I argue that the two doctrines jointly entail a contradiction and I will point
out some of the logical consequences of trying to avoid that contradiction.

It seems quite unexceptionable
to say that there exists a whole host of compositions.  By a composition I
mean such a thing as a play, a poem, a novel, an essay, a story, a review, and
the like.  Despite the difference in kind, it is no more accurate to say that
the moon exists than it is to say that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet

Assume first that William
Shakespeare brought about the existence of that play by means of a certain
sequence of his composing activities, that the play did not exist prior to his
composing activity, and that the play would not exist without his composing
activity or the composing activity of Marlowe or Bacon or some other person.

Assume second that God is
omniprescient.  By the second assumption God knew before the creation of the
universe that such things as that he would create the universe, that in 1564
C.E. William Shakespeare would be born at Stratford upon Avon, that
Shakespeare would marry Anne Hathaway, and so on.  Including among the
countless numbers of things that God knew before the creation of the universe,
by the first assumption, was that in 1600 C.E.  Shakespeare would bring about
the existence of a play which had no prior existence and that it would be
called Hamlet.

In addition, God knew what the
first word of the play would be and that it would be first, what the second
word of the play would be and that it would be second, and what each
succeeding word or symbol of the play would be and its proper sequential
order; and God knew all this before the creation of the universe.

So, before the creation of the
universe it was possible for God to recite all the lines of Hamlet, an
aesthetic critique of Hamlet, to provide a grammatical critique of
, and so on.  It was even possible before the creation of the
universe for God to stage the play with his angels (he could have prompted
them in their lines) or, in the absence of angels, he could have created some
beings for the express purpose of producing Hamlet.

In short, since the possibility
of someone to do the sort of things enumerated above for some given
composition entails that the composition exists, then the given assumptions
jointly entail that Hamlet existed before the creation of the universe,
and hence they also entail that before creation God knew both that Hamlet
existed and that it existed before the creation of the universe.

But part of the first
assumption is that Hamlet did not exist prior to 1600 C.E. and so it
did not exist prior to the creation of the universe, and it has already been
observed that the given assumptions jointly entail that before creation God
knew that Hamlet did not exist prior to 1600 C.E.  and so before
creation he knew that it did not exist prior to the creation of the universe.
It follows, then, that Hamlet both existed and did not exist
before creation and that before creation God knew both that Hamlet
existed before creation and that Hamlet did not exist before creation. 
So, since the two given assumptions jointly entail a contradiction, they
cannot both be true; and, since the above reductio ad absurdum argument
applies to all compositions, it follows that the doctrine of divine
omniprescience and the doctrine of literary creativity are logically


Can God Be Both Immutable and Omniscient?

The traditional attribute of
divine immutability actually has scant support in the Bible.  The author of
James claims that with God there is �no such thing as alteration, no shadow of
a change� (1:17, NIV).  A commentator in the New Bible Dictionary
agrees that there is no change in his nature or in his purposes or promises: 
�All suggestions of change are figures of speech.�11
If the Incarnation is to be taken literally, then there
definitely must have been some change in the nature of God if he indeed became
flesh.  One evangelical theologian openly admits this when he states that �the
Second Person took upon Himself a catastrophic change of existence through His
incarnation….then subsequently resurrection, life, and ascension introduced
a change into the very realm of the Godhead…. How can anyone in simple
mindedness conceive of such immense interpersonal changes in the essential
nature and experiences of the Godhead without allowing a true chronology of
succession in the divine existence?�12

The Hebrew Scriptures mention
at least 33 times that Yahweh regretted or repented.  For example, Yahweh
regrets that he ever created human beings (Gen. 6:6), and in conversations
with Amos the Lord repents twice (7:1‑6).  In Jeremiah Yahweh agrees to change
his judgment of a nation if it turns from its evil ways (18:7).  He also
repented that he had made Saul king of Israel (1 Sam. 15:35); and he repents
of the evil that he had planned to inflict on Jerusalem (2 Sam. 24:16).
Repentance and regret obviously imply changes within the Godhead;
furthermore, as a medieval Zoroastrian once phrased it:"… A wise Creator
does not regret or repent of what he has done…. It is only possible to
attribute regret and Repentance for what one has done to one whose knowledge
is defective, whose reason is imperfect, and who is ignorant of the final

Orthodox Christian theology has definitely
remained with the concept of divine perfection and immutability even in the
face of these biblical passages and their logical implications.  The main
influence appears to have come from Greek philosophy and the concept of the
Parmenidean One which was transmitted through Plato and Aristotle in modified
form.  But divine immutability, quite apart from the fact that it is probably
not a biblical notion, seems to have severe philosophical liabilities as well.
The following discussion is a summary of Norman Kretzmann’s
�Omniscience and Immutability.�14  Kretzmann’s argument is as

1. A perfect being is not
subject to change.

2. A perfect being knows

3. A being that knows
everything always knows what time it is.

4. A being that always knows
what time it is subject to change.

5. Hence a perfect being is
subject to change.

6. Hence a perfect being is not
a perfect being. (Reductio ad absurdum)

The most disputable premise in
this argument is #4.  The following objections have been raised against the
truth of this premise.

Objection A

Knowing what is changing is not
the same as the knower itself being changed by that knowledge.  But if I know
that the height of the �I� tower is 100 feet at one time and then a 50‑foot
antenna is added to the �I� tower, then there has certainly been a change in
me as a knower.  Previously I knew the true proposition that the tower was
100′; but now that proposition is false.  I now know the true proposition that
the tower is 150′.

Objection B

There is a difference between
changing one’s mind and taking account of a change.  The time zone knowledge
is of the latter type and does not involve a change in the knower.  It is just
an acknowledgement of the passage of time that does not influence the knower. 
But how can an immutable being in any way account for change, as change is not
a part of its being or knowledge?

Objection C

A perfect being knows the time
of the universe all at once rather than successively.  It is as if all
temporal events were laid out like a film strip with the perfect being taking
in all of time �at a glance.�  But does this then mean that this being knows
at the same time that the �I� tower is 100′ and 150′?  If so, that involves it
in a contradiction in its knowledge. Furthermore, if the perfect being’s
knowledge of all time is simultaneous, then it is lacking one important
dimension of knowledge:  the passage of time.  The latter phenomenon would be
unknowable for a being which lives in an eternal now without succession. As
Kretzmann phrases it:  �But I am writing these words just now, and on this
[traditional] view of omniscience, an omniscient being is incapable of knowing
that that is what I am now doing, and for all this omniscient being knows I
might just as well be dead or as yet unborn.�15  If a perfect being
cannot know the passage of time, then it cannot be omniscient. If it did know
the passage of time, such a being would change.


Allegorical Interlude: the Old Man and the Ladder

One day a very distinguished
old man was standing near a high wall next to a park.  The old man, whose
white beard flowed down to his chest, stood and held a ladder that extended to
the top of the wall. After a while a young man, who had the eyes and
expression of a maniac, walked up.  He was loaded down with a large automatic
rifle and several cartridge belts on his shoulders and waist.  The young man
saw the ladder and asked if he could use it.  The old man kindly assented. 
The armed man began to climb the ladder.  The ladder was so long that it
required the old man’s constant support to keep it from falling down.

When he reached the top, the
young man started firing on the people in the park.  After ten minutes of
shooting, there were at least fifty dead bodies and many wounded lying on the
park ground.  The sound of the rifle’s fire brought a quick response from
nearby police and firemen. They arrived on the scene to find the young man
firing his last shots and the old man patiently holding the ladder.  It didn’t
take long for the firemen to use their own ladders to find out what had
happened on the other side of the wall.  Both the old man and the assassin
were arrested and taken off to jail.

A Courtroom

(several days later)

The Judge

(to the young assassin):  Why did you kill all those people in the park? 

Young Man

God told me to kill them.  They were evil, just as you are, and therefore they
had to die. 

The Judge
Do you know the other defendant?  The one that held the ladder for you and
pulled you up?

Young Man

No, I don’t know him.  I just happened upon him near the wall of the park.  I
don’t even know his name.  He strikes me as a strange old duffer.

The Judge

That’s all for now.  Call in the other defendant.

The Old Man takes the witness

The Judge

Please state your name and occupation.

The Old Man
I am God. I am the supreme governor of the universe.

The Judge

(a bit shocked):  Wait a minute.  Let me get this straight.  You are God, the
one who is all‑powerful, all‑knowing, and all‑good?  Is that who you are? 

The Old Man

Yes, your honor, that’s who I am.

The Judge

Tell me, God, what were you doing in the park with that ladder which this
madman used for his slaughter?

The Old Man
Well, your honor, I haven’t become flesh for a long time and I wanted to see
what it felt like again.  I am really at the same time everywhere, supporting
and moving everything with my ladders. I just thought I would make one of my
supporting ladders visible.

The Judge

You mean I’m on one of your ladders � and everyone else too?

The Old Man

Yes, your honor, that’s right.

The Judge

Tell me, God, if you’re all‑knowing, that means you knew that this young man
would do what he did at the top of your ladder, right?

The Old Man
That is correct, your honor.

The Judge

But since you’re all powerful, you could have easily prevented him from
killing all those people, right?

The Old Man

You are right again, your honor.  I could have prevented him, if I had wanted

The Judge

Well then, for heaven’s sake, why didn’t you?

The Old Man

Well, you see, your honor, I believe very strongly in human freedom and want
people to take responsibility for their actions.

The Judge

Then this man must be lying when he told me that you told him to kill these

The Old Man

Yes, some people do use that as an excuse for the evil deeds they do. 

The Judge

Excuse me for being somewhat philosophical, but how can human beings be free
if you constantly have to hold their ladders.  Somehow that doesn’t strike me
as compatible with the definition of human freedom.

The Old Man

(hesitantly):  That’s a very complicated question I would prefer not to get
into now.  Suffice it to say that the human will is free.  People of course
rely upon me for everything else.

The Judge

(forcefully):  I must confess that I still don’t understand how I can be free,
if you have all the power and I have none.  I also cannot understand why I
must charge this young man with murder, since he is not free either.  If you
knew beforehand that he would shoot all those people, it seems that he was
compelled to do just what you foreknew.  He had no other choice. 

The Old Man

I cannot dispute your logic, sir, but please trust me.

The Judge

(yielding):  Since you are God, I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.

The Old Man

Thank you, your honor, for giving me the benefit of the doubt. 

The Judge

(with renewed vigor):  But I’m afraid I’ll have to charge you with being an
accomplice to the crime.  You knew that the man would kill those people.  You
offered him your ladder when you knew he would commit a crime, and you also
supported the ladder during the crime itself.

The Old Man

(nervously):  I certainly cannot argue with you on those points.  Please your
honor, have mercy on me.

The Judge

Well, that’s up to our jury here.  Bailiff, will you please take both
defendants back to their cells so that I can instruct the jury?

(Some hours later, the jury
returns from their deliberations)

The Judge

Have you reached a verdict?

Head of the Jury

Yes, we have, sir.  We have found both defendants guilty as charged.


Evil and Divine Omnipotence

Traditional Christianity has
held that God is perfectly good:  there is no evil in him and he can not be
responsible for evil.  Again the Hebrew Scriptures explicitly tells us
something quite different:  �I form light, and I create darkness:  I produce
wellbeing, and I create evil, I Yahweh do all these things� (Is. 45:7,
AB);"…I am shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you" (Jer.
18:11); or �does evil befall a city, unless the Lord has done it?� (Amos 3:6);
or �Lord, why hast thou done evil to this people� (Ex. 5:22).
The prophet Micah speaks of the evil which �has come down from the
Lord� (1:12); and tells of Yahweh  �devising evil� against a particular family
(2:3).  In a dramatic scene in Heaven Yahweh asks:  �Who will entice Ahab?� 
(1 Kgs. 22:20).  A spirit among the heavenly host volunteers to be �a lying
spirit in the mouths of all [Ahab’s] prophets� (v. 22).  Completely in line
with the logic of divine omnipotence, Yahweh is the one who puts the lying
spirit in the mouths of the prophet and it is Yahweh who speaks (v. 23). 

The evangelical writer John
Wenham confirms that this is indeed the correct biblical view:  �We know that
even the direst crimes of history are done with divine knowledge and
permission.  As Jesus himself said:  ‘You would have no power over me unless
it had been given you from above’ (Jn. 19:11).  But the Bible goes further
than this.  It not only makes God one who permits evil, it also represents him
as one who controls it.  Almighty God is the Pantokrator, the All‑Ruler.�16

Zoroaster was the only ancient
prophet who unequivocally denied any evil to God.  For him, all evil was the
result of the Evil One Ahriman, most likely the prototype of the
Judeo‑Christian Satan.  But this means that there is an originative power
outside of God and therefore Zoroaster’s �Wise Lord� cannot be omnipotent.  If
God is omnipotent, then all things and events flow from him as the original
cause of everything.  If evil originates in another power, then God is not

In his article �Evil and
Omnipotence,� J. L. Mackie phrases the dilemma thus: �God is omnipotent; God
is wholly good: and yet evil exists… Good is opposed to evil in such a way
that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are
no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a
good, omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions
that a good omnipotent thing exists and that evil exists, are incompatible.�17
 Here is another excellent formulation of the problem: �If God is
omnipotent and the only creator of all things, he also created evil, both
physical and moral, including the spirits and human beings created by him. In
that case he would not be infinitely good, but as ruthless as Nature.
Moreover, if the greatest wisdom is identical with the highest good, he cannot
be infinitely wise. Alternatively, if God is infinitely wise, infinitely good,
and consequently infinitely merciful, he cannot be omnipotent. For these very
qualities set limits to his omnipotence and both physical and moral evil are
to be attributed to a diametrically opposed power, hostile to him from the
start [like in Zoroastrianism].�18

Proposed Solutions

1.  Mackie believes that the
best solution would be for the theist to give up one of the two attributes of
God, either his goodness or his omnipotence.  The only major theological
movement which has taken this option has been process theology, which gives up
God’s omnipotence and therefore escapes the dilemma.

2.  It is sometimes proposed
that evil is a necessary counterpart to good; there could be no good without
evil.  This solution also involves limiting God’s omnipotence with the proviso
that he cannot create good without at the same time creating evil. If this
relation is logically necessary, then God is exonerated in his creation of

If one analyzes this alleged
necessary connection between good and evil, one finds no logical necessity in
the relation.  While the words �health� and �sanity� have meaning only in
contrast to the words �disease� and �insanity,� this semantic connection does
not imply a logical necessity.  It is certainly conceivable to think of a
universe in which all beings would be healthy and sane.  Indeed, traditional
religions conceive of the afterlife in precisely these terms.
Mackie offers this conclusion:  �The principle that a term must have an
opposite would belong only to our language or to our thought, and would not be
an ontological principle, and correspondingly, the rule that good cannot exist
without evil would not state a logical necessity…God might have made
everything good, though we should not have noticed if he had.�19
The example that led Mackie to this conclusion was the claim that
for redness to occur, non‑redness must occur also.  But this is only true if
we are to discriminate in thought or language.  It is not logically impossible
that everything could have been red.  We would then not have a word or concept
for red.

3.  A proposed solution similar
to the preceding has been that evil is a necessary means to good.  This
solution would result in a severe restriction to the power of God, since �it
would be a causal law that you cannot have a certain end without a certain
means, so that if God has to introduce evil as means to good he must be
subject to at least some causal laws.�20 No theology, except
process theology again, has made God subject to causality of any kind.  A
further objection to this solution lies in the fact that if there is no
necessary connection between evil and good, then a perfectly good being cannot
introduce evil into the world.

4.  This solution, that the
universe is better with some evil in it, is a variation on #3.  The solution
can be developed in either of two ways.  First we may use an aesthetic analogy
to claim that the value of the good is enhanced by contrast to evil in the
same way that a good painting is enhanced by contrasts. The second approach is
to contend that the development of value in the world is progressive and �that
the gradual overcoming of evil by good is really a finer thing than would be
the eternal unchallenged supremacy of good.�21

The kind of evil usually
emphasized in this defense is physical pain:  benevolence and sympathy of God
are not intelligible without the existence of pain.  Mackie summarizes this
argument in more technical terms:  �First order good (e.g., happiness)
contrasts with first order evil (e.g., misery); these two are opposed in a
fairly mechanical way; some second order goods (e.g., benevolence) try to
maximize first order good and minimize first order evil; but God’s goodness is
not this, it is rather the will to maximize second order good.  We might,
therefore, call God’s goodness an example of a third order goodness….�22

Mackie’s response to this
solution is formulated in three objections: (a) Are human and divine
benevolence as second and third order goods really higher goods, or are they
merely means by which first order good is maximized? If they are not intrinsic
goods, then it would be absurd for God to permit misery and pain to exist in
order to promote actions and attitudes which in themselves are not goods but
means to good. (b) There seems to be an unhealthy equivocation in the term
�benevolence.� By all indications human benevolence is always concerned with
minimizing evil as well as promoting good. There is no sign that God’s
benevolence results in the direct elimination of evil. Human policemen
intervene as best as possible to prevent evil from happening; the divine
policemen, however, does not appear to do this.  This appears to be a severe
blow to orthodox claim of God’s perfect goodness. Nietzsche makes the point
incisively: �As a father, God does not care enough about his children:  human
fathers do this better.�23 Itt then
follows that since second order evil (malevolence, etc.) surely exists, there
seems to be a basic inconsistency in God’s providence:  �Just as second order
good is held to be the important kind of good, the kind that God is concerned
to promote, so second order evil will, by analogy, be the important kind of
evil, the kind which God, if he were wholly good and omnipotent, would

5.  The most popular solution
to this problem has been that evil is due to human free‑will.  We shall argue
in Chapter Five that divine omnipotence, as traditionally defined, and human
free‑will cannot logically coexist.  Furthermore, we shall see that some
conservative Christians undermine personal autonomy, the very basis of a will
that can be free. Although Mackie believes that the free‑will argument is
stopped before it begins, he decides to attack the problem within the context
of the different orders of good and evil outlined in #4.  With Mackie’s
technical terminology the solution seems to be this:  �Freedom…is now
treated as a third order good, and as being more valuable than second order
goods (such as sympathy and heroism) would be if they were deterministically
produced, and it is being assumed that second order evils, such as cruelty,
are logically necessary accompaniments of freedom, just as pain is a logically
necessary pre‑condition of sympathy.�25

Mackie’s second objection is
that it does not seem that there is a logically necessary connection between
human freedom and second order evils.  God could have made men in such a way
so that they would always freely choose the good.  This would bypass the
traditional dilemma that God had only two choices:  innocent automata
predetermined by God to choose the good and free men choosing freely from good
and evil.  God’s �failure to avail himself of this possibility [humans always
freely choosing the good] is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and
wholly good.�26

A possible response to this is
that the making of wrong choices is logically necessary for freedom.  My
response is that for the Christian this would necessarily imply that Christ,
who never did anything wrong, was not a free being.  This would also apply of
course to God himself, since he cannot make a wrong choice but is still
considered a free being. Mackie has a different objection to this response,
but it is not very well articulated.  If God created humans to freely will
both good and evil, the choosing of evil cannot be due to anything in God’s
creation, otherwise he could be responsible for evil.  The result is that evil
choices must be made accidentally or randomly.If God �made men as they are,
but did not determine their wrong choices, this can only be because the wrong
choices are not determined by men as they are.  But then if freedom is
randomness, how can it be a characteristic of will?…What value or merit
would there be in free choices if these were random actions which were not
determined by the nature of the agent?�27 (See the end this reading
for more on this point.)


Hick’s Response to Mackie

In his brilliant book Evil
and the God of Love
, John Hick grants the possibility that God could have
made people so that they would always avoid evil.  This would mean, however,
that human beings would do good and love God out of natural necessity and not
by free volition. Hick allows that such a God is
possible, but he insists that such a deity would be incompatible with a God of
love.  While we would not realize that we were loving God out of natural
necessity, God would know this, and this knowledge would undermine the idea of
a love freely given. Hick offers the analogy of a
hypnotist, who has given post‑hypnotic suggestions to a subject.  The subject
would carry out these actions without realizing that they are directed by the
hypnotist.  If the hypnotist had made it so that the subject rendered him
unconditional devotion, he, in good faith, could not accept this love as
genuine.  Of course, the hypnotist could accept this unconditional love in bad
faith, but this would be impossible for God.

Here are Hick’s conclusions: 
"…It is of the essential nature of �fiduciary�
personal attitudes such as trust, respect, and affection to arise in a free
being as an uncompelled response to the personal qualities of others.  If
trust, love, admiration, respect, affection, are produced by some kind of
psychological manipulation which by‑passes the conscious responsible centre of
the personality, then they are not real trust and love, etc….�28

Although Hick has definitely
won his point, he cannot prevail without giving up divine omnipotence.  Hick
begins with some very orthodox sounding definitions of God as
"the Source and Lord of [our] life and the
Determiner of [our] destiny,�29 but his stiff requirements for a
truly free being are incompatible with divine determinism.  He agrees with
Mackie that human beings must have the �uncontrollable gift of freedom� and �a
degree of genuine freedom and independence over against their Maker.�30 
In the next chapter we will argue that the traditional sense of divine
omnipotence cannot survive if humans have the power to resist God’s will.


God and Forgiveness

One of the central aspects of
some of the world religions is the claim that God forgives sins. 
Philosophical problems immediately arise with this doctrine if God is held to
be immutable.  A simple syllogism reveals the crux of the matter:

1.  Forgiveness implies some
change in the one who forgives.

2.  There is no change in God.

3.  Therefore God cannot

In a full‑length article, Anne
C. Minas gives a detailed defense of this disturbing (at least for the
orthodox) conclusion.31  Minas takes the major definitions of
�forgive� in the Oxford English Dictionary as her guide, and I will
summarize her discussion in what follows.

Forgiveness as Reversal of a
Moral Judgment

The motto for this kind of
forgiveness might be �Now it’s right; before it only appeared to be wrong.� 
Minas gives the example of lovers who elope, are censured by their parents, and
are then later forgiven by them.  This is really not an example of a reversal of
a moral judgment because, as Minas says, �elopement is not wrong (or not very
wrong) and the parents had no good reason to think it was.�32  Minas
goes on to conclude that in the case of genuine moral reversal (forgiving a son
for murdering his sister) we would not accept, in this instance, forgiveness as
a rational act.

In instances in which new facts become available
about the circumstances of the condemned act, then our moral sense would allow
an act of forgiveness.  If the police catch a bank manager in the process of
emptying his own vault during the middle of the night, their first instinct, and
ours of course, would be to arrest the man for robbery.  If we find out later
that criminals had coerced him into getting the money for them and one of the
crooks is holding the man’s family hostage, then apologies and forgiveness are
certainly in order.  What appeared

wrong at first now appears right.

These arguments for legitimate
forgiveness by human beings simply do not work if the one who forgives is a
perfect being.  First, as we saw in the conflict between immutability and
omniscience, there is no �time� in which God could change from one moral
judgment to another.  Second, there simply cannot be any change in the perfect
being of orthodox theology.  Third, there are no �new facts� for a being which
knows everything.  In the case of our bank manager, God would have known all
along that he was innocent.  Therefore there are no grounds whatever for God to
reverse a moral judgment and offer forgiveness because of such a reversal.

Forgiveness as Remission of

Orthodox believers may object
that the kind of forgiveness central to the Christian message does not involve
reversal of moral judgment but the remission of punishment.  In her article
Minas observes that there is generally a division of judicial labor in the human
realm which is absent in the divine realm.  On earth the assignment and
remission of punishment is usually done by two different agencies.  But Minas
asks:  �Who or what assigns punishments which God then remits?  God himself?  He
then appears to be something of a practical joker, assigning punishments which
he, with perfect foreknowledge, knows he is going to remit….�33 
In the human sphere remission of punishment is usually done on the basis
of finding the original judgment to be incorrect or too harsh.  There should be
no such problem for a perfectly just being whose original (eternal) judgments
are always correct.  Furthermore, a perfectly just being would never judge too
harshly or too leniently.

A possible response to this line
of argument involves the phenomenon of repentance.  Human beings are likely to
forgive a person who is truly sorry for past misdeeds.  But such an act would
again not be possible for an immutable, omniscient being outside of time.  As
Minas states:  �In his omniscience, God would be able to foreknow the repentance
of the agent; therefore he need not make, and could not have made, a judgment
about the agent’s character which did not take this act of repentance into
account.�34  A truly just God would have made an eternal decision
about the entire course of our lives which would fit exactly all the criteria of
divine justice.

Forgiveness as the Giving Up of

There is yet another aspect of
traditional theological ethics which has been omitted in this discussion of
divine forgiveness.  In some theologies a sin is taken to be an offense against
God.  A truly just God could not just stand by idly and take such moral injury
without some appropriate response.  In biblical language this response is called
the �wrath of God.� In her article Minas calls it �resentment,� and another
meaning of forgiveness could be the giving up of resentment.  Such an act does
not involve either reversing a moral judgment or the remission of punishment.

Minas finds this type of
forgiveness in the sermons of Joseph Butler and in the parable of the Prodigal
Son.  In this story the father does not reverse his judgment about the son’s
sin, and there is no question that the son has paid for his sins through his
humiliation and degradation.  Joseph Butler suggests that resentment which was
once appropriate is now just �bare obstinacy�; and true forgiveness is the
recognition of this fact. Minas’ response is the following:  �An omniscient
being cannot (logically) forget anything, so cannot in particular forget his
feelings.  And all his feelings are equally alive to him at all times, this
being, I think, part of what is meant in calling him omnipercipient.  In
perceiving situations, he knows them in a way in which they are fully real to
him, meaning that he reacts not just by forming judgments, but also with all
appropriate feelings.  Then, to be omnipercipient is to have all reactions to
all situations equally vivid, regardless of when they happened.  So the
reactions of omnipercipient beings cannot change over time.�35

The final point which Minas
raises is the fact that in all cases of forgiveness the one who forgives is
wronged or injured in some way.  But God as a perfect being should be �immune
from the kind of injury which makes forgiveness appropriate.�36
Therefore, �forgiveness,� �remission of punishment,� and �giving up resentment�
are not meaningful phrases to describe divine justice. Again earthbound
theologies have been caught in the inevitable fallacy of applying uniquely human
concepts to the divine realm.  It may well be, as shocking as this sounds, that
God is not involved in morality and that he is not a moral judge at all.  This
is the view of the process theologians Hartshorne and Whitehead.




1. Quoted in Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part 1a, q.
13, art. 2.


2. Moses Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed,
Chapter 58.


3. Louis Mackey, �The Poetry of Inwardness,� Kierkegaard: A
Collection of Critical Essays
, ed. Josiah Thompson (New York: Doubleday,
1972), pp. 50‑51.


4. William T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy: The
Medieval Mind
(New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 2nd ed., 1969), p. 87.


5. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1a, q. 13, art. 5.


6. Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1948), p. 37.


7. Ibid.


8. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York:
Macmillan, 1929), p. 521.


9. Edwards, Reason and Religion, p. 203.


10. Richard R. LaCroix, �Divine Omniprescience: Are Literary
Works Eternal Entities,� presented at the American Philosophical Association,
Pacific Division, March, 1977.


11. The New Bible Dictionary, p. 476.


12. Gordon Olson, �God’s Nature and Character� in Sharing Your
(Chicago: Bible Research Inc., 1976), p. 5 of Chapter W‑ME‑I.


13. Excerpted in R. C. Zaehner, The Teaching of the Magi
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 63.


14. Norman Kretzmann, �Omniscience and Immutability,� Journal
of Philosophy
63 (1966), reprinted in Brody, op. cit., pp. 366‑76.


15. Ibid., p. 370.


16. John W. Wenham, The Goodness of God (Downer’s Grove,
Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1974), p. 42. John L. McKenzie agrees: �In Israelite
thought, nothing, not even evil, could be removed from the dominion of Yahweh� (The
Anchor Bible: Second Isaiah
[New York: Doubleday, 1968], p. 77). J. Klausner
also concurs: �…[the Hebrews] were forced to conclude that both good and evil
proceed from the one and only God…� (The Messianic Idea of Israel
[London: Macmillan, 1956], pp. 65‑6).


17. J. L. Mackie, �Evil and Omnipotence,� Mind 64 (1955),
reprinted in Brody, p. 157‑8.


18. James Snyder, Bosch in Perspective [Englewood Cliffs:
Prentice Hall, 1973]), p. ??.


19. Mackie, p. 161.


20. Ibid.


21. Ibid., p. 162.


22. Ibid., p. 163.


23. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra in The
Portable Nietzsche
, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Viking Press, 1954),
pp. 293‑94.


24. Mackie, op. cit., p. 163.


25. Ibid., p. 164.


26. Ibid., p. 165.


27. Ibid.


28. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (London:
Macmillan, 1966), p. 309.


29. Ibid., p. 300.


30. Ibid., pp. 302, 311.


31. Anne C. Minas, �God and Forgiveness,� Philosophical
25 (1975), pp. 138‑150.


32. Ibid., p. 139.


33. Ibid., p. 141‑2.


34. Ibid., p. 142.


35. Ibid., p. 145.


36. Ibid., p. 149.


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