"Can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot move it?"
By John Baskette, ©Copyright 1994 by John Baskette.
That old objection to the doctrine of the omnipotence of God was raised
recently on USENET in the newsgroup soc.religion.christian. USENET is an
enormous collection of electronic discussion groups distributed as "network
news" through a world wide computer network known as the internet. Many of
you may not be familiar with computer networks and bulletin boards, and I
won't be explaining about them here, but I will say, the on-line debates in
these newsgroups between atheists and believers of all types are quite
lively and often informative.
The Christians in that newsgroup answered the objection very well. To speak
of an almighty God creating an object that He cannot lift is to posit a
logically contradictory state of affairs. It is a variation on the old
question, "What happens when an immovable object (the stone) meets an
irresistible force (God)?" The answer is that both an irresistible force
and an immovable object cannot exist together in the same universe without
creating a logical contradiction. If reason is valid then to speak of the
two in the same sentence is to speak nonsense. Similarly, it is nonsense to
speak of God creating a stone that he cannot lift.
Another equally valid answer offered in the newsgroup is that God cannot do
anything whatsoever. God can only do what is logically possible.
These answers did not satisfy the objectors. Their retort was to accuse the
Christians of equivocating. "You admit that there are things that God cannot
do, therefore you are admitting that God is not really omnipotent! You have
only proved the case against the self-contradictory and self-stultifying
Christian conception of God."
At this point I entered the fray to point out that the definition of
omnipotence has never meant what the objectors say it meant. The historical
understanding of omnipotence never meant that God can do anything whatsoever.
The objection is at best a misunderstanding, and at worst, merely an
intellectually dishonest straw man argument.
My response did not go unchallenged. Here is what one poster (David) asked:
However, I gather from the discussions that, in spite of the logical
contradictions involved, many people are arguing that god is omnipotent in
the all-inclusive sense you wish to avoid.
Here was my response:
Also, just how would you properly define this 'historical sense' of
omnipotent? The paragraph above just says that it is not really omnipotence
as defined in all the dictionaries. How, precisely, should it be defined?
My earlier post pointed out that the historical sense of terms such as
omnipotence were never construed to be an all-inclusive anything at all
which, if true, renders mute the various objections to Christian teaching
based on various logical paradoxes.
To demonstrate my point further and to answer David's question, I will give
various definitions of omnipotence as found in various theologians. First,
however, I would like to point out that the Oxford English Dictionary (if
not some of the less authoritative available dictionaries) does recognize a
specifically Christian and theological use of the term.
Here are three definitions given in _The Compact Edition Of The Oxford
English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically, Volume I
A-O_, Oxford University Press:
The first definition is the one used in Christian theology. It is not the
same as "Capable of anything".
- Strictly said of God (or of a deity) or His attributes: Almighty or
infinite in power.
- gen. All-powerful; having full or absolute power or authority; having
unlimited or very great power, force, or influence; exceedingly strong
or mighty. b. humourously. Capable of anything; unparalleled; utter,
arrant; huge, 'mighty'.
- absol. or as sb. An omnipotent being; spec. (with the) the Almighty
Infinite should be thought of in terms of the primary dictionary definition
of "subject to no limitation or external determination". I'll give an
explanation of the Infinity of God from Berkhoff shortly, but in order to
illuminate the concept of "Power", I would like to first quote from _A
Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, Volume One_ by James Oliver
Buswell, Jr., Ph. D.; a professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant
Theological Seminary in St. Louis.
On pages 63-63 he explains omnipotence this way:
"There are indeed certain problems with reference to the meaning of
Omnipotence which need to be considered. In the first place, omnipotence
does not mean that God can do anything, but it means that He can do with
power anything that power can do. He has all the power that is or could be."
Most of the "paradoxes" commit this same basic error. Even those that seem
to deal with "power" such as "Can God create an immovable stone" are
actually asking if God can bring about a logically contradictory state of
affairs. The answer is no, but it does not show that God does not have
infinite power or that God cannot do with power anything that power can do.
Power cannot bring into being a contradictory state of affairs.
"Can God make two plus two equal six? This is a question which is
frequently asked by skeptics and by children. We reply by asking how much
power it would take to bring about this result. The absurdity of the
question is not too difficult to see. Would the power of a ton of dynamite
make two plus two equal six? Or the power of an atom bomb? Or of a hydrogen
bomb? When these questions are asked it is readily seen that the truth of
the multiplication tables is not in the realm of power. Power has nothing to
do with it. When we assert that God is omnipotent, we are talking about
power. In the discussion of the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable truth
of God we shall show that truth is of the very essence of His character but
not in the realm of power; and we shall consider those Scriptures which
plainly declare that 'it is impossible for God to lie' (Heb. 6:18)"
Some understanding of the Infinity of God would be helpful at this point.
From _Systematic Theology_ by L. Berkhoff, (revised version 1941, reprinted
1979 by Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids), pp. 59-60"
"C. The Infinity of God. The infinity of God is that perfection of God by
which He is free from all limitations. In ascribing it to God we deny that
there are or can be any limitations to the divine Being or attributes. It
implies that He is in no way limited by the universe, by this space-time
world, or confined to the universe. It does not involve His identity with
the sum-total of existing things, nor does it exclude the co-existence of
derived and finite things, to which He bears relation. The infinity of God
must be conceived as intensive rather than extensive, and should not be
confused with boundless extension, as if God were spread out through the
entire universe, one part here, and another there, for God has not body and
therefore no extension. Neither should it be regarded as a merely negative
concept, though it is perfectly true that we cannot form a positive idea of
it. It is a reality in God fully comprehended only by Him. We distinguish
various aspects of God's Infinity. 1. His Absolute Perfection. This is the
infinity of the Divine Being considered in itself. It should not be
understood in a quantitative, but in a qualitative sense: it qualifies all
the communicable attributes of God. Infinite power is not an absolute
quantum, but an exhaustless potency of power;..."
With a definition like that, you may think that Berkhoff by saying that God
is "free from all limitations" means that God can do anything at all. Yet
even Berkhoff says on p. 80:
"In that sense we can speak of the potentia absoluta, or absolute power, of
God. This position must be maintained over against those who, like
Schleiermacher and Strauss, hold that God's power is limited to that which
He actually accomplishes. But in our assertion of the absolute power of God
it is necessary to guard against misconceptions. The Bible teaches us on
the one hand that the power of God extends beyond that which is actually
realized, Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:27; Zech. 8:6; Matt. 3:9; 26:53. We cannot
say, therefore, that what God does not bring to realization, is not possible
for Him. But on the other hand it also indicates that there are many things
which God cannot do. He can neither lie, sin, change, nor deny Himself,
Num. 23:19; I Sam. 15:29; II Tim. 2:13; Heb. 6:18; Jas. 1:13,17. There is
no absolute power in Him that is divorced from His perfections, and in
virtue of which He can do all kinds of things which are inherently
When we speak of "no limitations" we are talking about rational categories
or limitations within a rational category. Within the realm of power, we
mean that God can do anything that it is logically possible for power to do.
I.e., There is no limit on which powers in the category of "powers" that God
can exercise. The category of powers, however, is itself restricted to the
realm of things that are logically possible. This is why we are justified
in using the "omni" prefix while maintaining that God cannot do anything
That is why even Berkhoff, while maintaining a "no limits" definition of
infinite says, "There is no absolute power in Him that is divorced from His
perfections". I.e., he supports the idea that there are rational
restrictions on the category of "powers" when he says that there is no power
of a certain kind.
Here is a definition for omnipotence as given in _The Westminster Dictionary
of Christian Theology_ edited by Alan Richardson and John Bowden, 1983,
Westminster Press, Philadelphia, in an article by Brian Hebblethwaite who is
in turn quoting from "A.Kenny, _The God of the Philosophers_,1979:
"A more satisfactory definition has been provided by A. Kenny: omnipotence
is 'the possession of all logically possible powers which it is logically
possible for a being with the attributes of God to possess."
Here is a definition given in _Christian Theology, Systematic and Biblical_,
arranged and compiled by Emery H. Bancroft, D.D., Late professor of Bible
Doctrine and Systematic Theology at the Baptist Bible Seminary, Johnson
City, New York, revised edition, 1925, on p. 68:
"C. Omnipotence. By this we mean the power of God to do all things which
are objects of power, whether with or without the use of means, Gen.
So far I have quoted only Protestants. Here is a Roman Catholic author.
From _The Voice from the Whirlwind, The problem of Evil and the Modern
World_ by Stephen j. Vicchio, professor of philosophy at the College of
Notre Dame in Baltimore, Maryland, Christian Classics, Inc., Westminster,
NOTE He performs natural wonders, Gen 1:1-3; Isa 44:24; Heb. 1:3; Spiritual
wonders, II Cor. 4:6; Eph. 1:19; Eph. 3:20. He has power to create new
things, Matt. 3:9; Rom. 4:17; after his own pleasure; Psa. 115:3; Eph.
1:11. There is nothing impossible to Him: Gen. 18:14; Matt. 19:26.
- Omnipotence does not imply power to do that which is not an object
of power; as, for example, that which is self-contradictory or
contradictory to the nature of God.
NOTE Self-contradictory things are not included in the exercise of God's
omnipotence.- such as the making of a past event to have not occurred
(hence the uselessness of praying: "May it be that much good was
done"); drawing a shorter than straight line between two given points;
putting two separate mountains together without a valley between them.
Things contradictory to the nature of God; for God to lie, to sin. to
die. To do such things would not imply power, but impotence. God has
all the power that is consistent with infinite perfection - all power
to do what is worthy of Himself."
(BTW - this is a terrific book on the "problem of evil", it is essentially
his Phd dissertation put out in book form.)
On p. 47, after quoting from Frederick Ferre's _Basic Modern Philosophy of
Religion_, Vicchio writes:
"Ferre rightly suggests that when we say that God is omnipotent,
philosophers, as well as the common man, may mean by the term one of two
things. Either (a) an omnipotent being is one who can do absolutely
anything, or (b) an omnipotent being is one who can do anything that is
logically possible. For reasons that will become apparent later, we must
also offer a third formulation of God's omnipotence: (c) an omnipotent being
is one who can do anything that is logically possible and is consistent with
his other attributes."
Vicchio goes on to examine each of these definitions in turn. Definition
(a) which is what has been used in postings to raise objections to the
existence of the Christian God, Vicchio finds used in the writings of
Descartes, but not in the writings of Christian theologians such as St.
This leads to one of the main points of my earlier brief posting. The
historical definition or understanding of omnipotence has always
recognized the problems inherent in definition (a) which is why it is not
the definition used by the church historically. It maybe that some
Christians have held and tried to defend such a definition (such as
Descartes), but for the most part, this definition is imposed on
Christianity by those who wish to refute Christian conceptions by raising
various objections. The objections (whether by intention or ignorance) are
straw man arguments.
The definition of omnipotence like that of (b) or (c) which limits
omnipotence to the category of things logically possible is the definition
used by the church historically. My earlier quote from Augustine indicated
as much. Here it is again, from my abridged version of _The City of God_,
an abridged Version from the Translation by Gerald G. Walsh, S.J.; Demetrius
B. Zema, S.J.; Grace Monahan, O.S.U.; and Daniel J. Honan on p. 109 which
quotes from Augustine's book 5, chapter 10:
"We do not put the life of God and the foreknowledge of God under any
necessity when we say that God must live an eternal life and must know all
things. Neither do we lessen his power when we say He cannot die or be
deceived. This is the kind of inability which, if removed, would make God
less powerful than He is. God is rightly called omnipotent, even though He
is unable to die and be deceived. We call Him omnipotent [here is the
definition you did not acknowledge from the earlier post David!] because He
does whatever He wills to do and suffers nothing that He does not will to
suffer. He would not, of course be omnipotent, if He had to suffer anything
against His will. It is precisely because He is omnipotent that for Him
some things are impossible."
Aquinas has a similar conception of omnipotence. On p. 163-164 of _Summa
Theologica, Volume I, ques. 15 ans. 3, (Mcgraw Hill, New York, 1963, Aquinas
"Whatever implies being and nonbeing simultaneously is incompatible with the
absolute possibility which falls under divine omnipotence. Such a
contradiction is not subject to it, not from any impotence in God, but
because it simply does not have the nature of being feasible or possible.
Whatever, then, does not involve a contradiction is in the realm of the
possible with respect to which God is omnipotent. Whatever involves a
contradiction is not within the scope of omnipotence because it cannot
qualify for possibility. Better, however, to say that it cannot be done,
rather than God cannot do it."
An excellent old Puritan work is _The Existence and Attributes of God_ by
Stephen Charnock (1628-1680). I read a small portion of a 1979 reprint of
this work published by Klock & Klock Christian Publishers of Minneapolis. He
defines omnipotence in terms of God having infinite power, yet he too gives
a lengthy consideration to things that are impossible for God to do.
My point is that when Christians respond to various objections to the
various "omni-xxx"s of God in a way that appears to lessen the particular
"omni" in question, they are not equivocating, conceding or redefining terms
at all. They are only explaining what is the historic Christian teaching as
found in all branches of the faith.