Perhaps the most well-known attributes of God, but at times the most misunderstood, the so-called “omni-” attributes are vital to understand in order to properly account for God’s sovereignty. Today we will discuss these three attributes
At times, people mistakenly define omnipotence as “the ability to do anything.” This isn’t necessarily true. Generally, when theologians speak of omnipotence, they mean something like the following:
The ability to actualize any state of affairs that does not entail a logical contradiction, and the inability to be overwhelmed or overpowered by any external force.
When properly understood, gotcha arguments like the Omnipotence Paradox (IE Can God create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it?) melt away. These paradoxes all involve the idea that since God cannot actualize a logical contradiction, he is not omnipotent. But as we see, that is a straw man argument.
Instead what we mean is that God is not restricted in what he can do. Anything that is possible logically is possible for God. However, things that are not possible logically are still not possible for God (IE, create a three-sided circle, create an uncreated creature).
It is easiest to understand this in contrast to our own potency, which is limited. We have an analogical ability to actualize some states of affairs. I am currently actualizing a state of affairs where these words appear in a blog editor. When I push publish (unless something overpowers my actualizing abilities and prevents the publish button), I will actualize a state of affairs in which this blog is published. However, even among the things that are logically possible, there are things that are outside of my ability to actualize. As much as I may desire to, I cannot actualize a state of affairs in which I can fly without the aid of some sort of external assistance. There is no logical contradiction with the idea that humans can fly, but I am still unable to actualize it. Furthermore, even things that are within my ability to actualize, can be prevented by other free agents.
None of these restrictions apply to God. So while we say that humans have a limited potency, we say that God is omnipotence (IE, an unlimited potency). Furthermore, God’s potency exists on an entirely different qualitative level when compared to our potency. While we could discuss many ways that this is true, the most pertinent is that our potency always requires the use of means, while God’s potency (which may use means) is not limited in such a fashion. This is most clearly seen in the creation account in which God causes things to exist Ex Nihilo (Out of Nothing). God, simply by his own will, can cause things to exist.
While this characteristic is easy to understand on the surface, there are layers of truth that are often missed. A simple definition of Omnipresence is as follows:
The state of being present with the entirety of substance, and full potency, in all places, both physical and spiritual.
Now, some may take exception to the idea that there is a such thing as a “spiritual place,” believing that only the physical realm has spatial qualities. This is something that will be discussed in a later post, but for now it is not particularly relevant. The point is that whatever it means to be “present” (either physically or spiritually), God is present in the fullness of his being and power, everywhere.
Again, it is useful to contrast this with our own presence. I am 5’6″. I am terrible at math, but if I were not I could calculate exactly how many cubic inches of space I occupy. For now, we’ll say X. My physical and spiritual components exist within those X cubic inches. However, not all of my physical and spiritual components exist within each of those X cubic inches. There are cubic inches in which my pinky toe exists, and there are cubic inches in which my eyes or brain exist. So, not only am I locally present within a restricted location, but I am not fully present in any given restricted location.
Furthermore, within the restricted locations that I exist, I am not equally potent. The cubic inches in which my qu exist are more potent than the cubic inches that my ring fingers exist. Even if we are not talking about physical potency, my intellectual potency is more focused and powerful in the cubic inches in which my brain exists (and presumably the spiritual cubic inches, whatever that means, that my mind exists) than I am in the cubic inches where the rest of my body exists.
So, while I am only partially present in any given place, and only partially potent in any given place… God is entirely present and entirely potent in every given place. Furthermore, there are places which I simply cannot go. It is not possible for me to exist within the foundation of this building. Even if you were to bury me in cement, I would not technically exist within the cement, my body would create a space where the cement does not exist. Presumably (and this is speculative, but I think on solid ground) two human spirits cannot occupy the same spiritual location in heaven. I don’t think that human spirits (or angelic spirits for that matter) will be phasing through each other in heaven. Either way, God is not limited by these restrictions. God’s presence exists in equal fullness, and with equal potency, within the solid granite under much of New Hampshire, as it does in the thin oxygen on top of Mt Everest. Furthermore, even within spaces that I could occupy, other free agents could prevent me from doing so.
I will pass on a lengthy discussion of eternity here, but I find that Horton’s discussion in The Christian Faith is helpful. Horton notes that there is a connection between time and space, and that as such it is helpful for us to conceptualize God’s eternity in relation to omnipresence.(1) While there is disagreement among theologians whether God exists outside of time, or within time, what is agreed upon is that God is not bound by time. I would argue that in a similar fashion to how God exists in full substance and potency in all spacial locations as well as in all spiritual locations, that God also exists within all temporal locations (points in time) as well as in all non-temporal locations (points outside of time). Exactly what that means will always be fundamentally mysterious to us as creatures bound within time, but I affirm it to be true none the less.
Omniscience, simply defined, is that God knows everything. This common definition, as we have seen, is insufficient. A better definition is:
God’s innate and infallible knowledge of all logically possible truths, both actual and potential (counter-factual).
Just as God cannot actualize a contradiction, God can also not know a contradictory truth. God cannot know what a triangle with four angles looks like. Furthermore, God’s knowledge is innate, meaning that it flows from his nature and he has always possessed it in its entirety. Finally, God knows both the truths that are (actual), as well as the truths that are not (potential or counter-factual). To put it another way, he knows both what is, as well as what could be. God knows what my life looks like given the fact that I married my wife, and he knows what it would look like if I had not married my wife. He knows what is real given the fact that Donald Trump is a candidate for president, and what would be real if Donald Trump was not a candidate for president. Finally, his knowledge is infallible. This goes beyond just having knowledge that does not fail, but it is knowledge that can not fail. It is impossible for God to believe something that is not true.
Again, the contrast with our knowledge is helpful. I know many things, but I know them fallibly. That is, I may “know” things that are not true. Furthermore, I cannot know with 100% certainty that anything that I do know, is actually true. In addition, I am limited in the truths that I am able to know. My brain has a capacity. Beyond that, although there is dispute on this, my knowledge comes to me primarily as apprehended knowledge, meaning that I gain it by means of outside influences. Finally, I have no real ability to know potential or counter-factual truths. I may be able to make good predictions or educated guesses, but ultimately I cannot even know with 100% certainty actual truths… much less potential ones.
However, God’s knowledge is closely connected (if not integrated with) his very substance. God knows all things because of who and what he is. God never has, never will, and never can learn something. He cannot possess knowledge in the future that he does not currently have, nor can he lose knowledge in the future that he currently has. God’s knowledge is eternally stable and complete.
(1) See Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 253 – 258. or Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 81 – 82.