The Gospel: The Limitation of God


The question came from a friend of a friend; a fellow pilgrim, sojourner, doubter, skeptic, thinker, brother:

If God is omnipotent [all-powerful] can he use this attribute to limit his omniscience [all-knowing] or omnipresence [all- er…present]?

It’s an interesting question, similar to the whole can God create a rock that’s too heavy for him to lift? or (my favorite) can he make a burrito too spicy for him to eat? I think part of the issue here is how we view the idea of attributes.  In our Western, scientific, and post-Enlightenment mindset, we often think of people as fully assembled “systems” of interconnected attributes.  And so, like the chemical compounds that create our physical bodies, we assume that these attributes are separate things that have come together to make us who we are.

But a fuller, more accurate (I feel) idea of attributes is that they flow from our nature and being, not a system; they are not things that we have, but rather they are things that we are.  This is important because it changes the above question significantly.  The correct question, when it comes to the biblical God, is not can his omnipotence limit his other attributes, but rather is it in the nature of the God with these attributes to do so in the first place?

When phrased this way, the question becomes a lot less intellectually rattling and disturbing, and easier to deal with.  It also makes it easier to accept the mystery of the answer because when we deal with being and not a mere system of humanly-phrased and humanly-defined “attributes”, it’s easier to remember we are not talking about a systematic idea, but rather a person–the greatest Complexity and Beauty in existence.

So what’s the answer to the question?  Well, my wonderfully articulated position above led me to the answer of no, God does not limit his other attributes with his omnipotence. But then my friend read to me the rest of this fellow struggler’s question:

I ask because if God can limit his other attributes with his omnipotence, could he then justifiably limit his omni-benevolence [all-goodness] and then could that explain the existence of evil?  Could he have let himself be partially and temporarily “not-so-good” and might this explain how suffering may have entered the world without resorting to some overly-simplisic and ultimately unsatisfying “free-will explanation”?

It was then I felt the weight of this.  This was not the mere philosophic musings of someone trying to outsmart God; this truly was a man feeling the gravity of the world and trying to make sense of it.  And then my mind went to what I (and the original question itself) had been forgetting all along: the glorious doctrine of the Trinity.

If these attributes flow from being and nature, then the answer suddenly becomes so much more complex when dealing with a Deity with Three Persons.  And then my mind and my heart and my affections came to where all musings such as these should: Christ–His Life, His Cross, His Resurrection.  And the lyrics to a very ancient hymn rose in my heart:

Jesus Christ, who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death–
even death on a cross!

And my heart began to worship, seeing that God the Son had in fact used his Power to empty himself and make himself nothing that we might be given the greatest Everything in the universe–God Himself.  This God took on human flesh, limiting himself, leaving heaven that he might us bring back to Himself, accomplishing on my behalf all that was required.  The Gospel itself is that God, in a show of strength on our behalf became weak as we are to taste the sting of our every enemy, and then conquer them.

And this also addresses the second part of this brother’s question.  God’s giving up of his divine right, not seeing it as something to be grasped and used only to his advantage, may not have been the source of evil, but it was the more-than-adequate response to it.  He swiftly and deftly dealt the decisive blow to our enemies, Sin and Death.  He did not remain far.  He came near and experienced the very same pain, evil, and suffering that we ponder and push up against so often.

And though he fully purchased this victory for us, we strive and struggle, wrestle and wander, under the gravity this world still has to offer; trying to participate as fully as we can in God’s mission to bring New Creation to every part of the world.  Oh, that we might know and taste of the ascendance which Jesus Christ has been granted as his his vindication and for which we have been joined to him.  And in this might we rejoice?

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

May the limitation of God in the Gospel stir us to rest in him; and may the name of Christ be praised.

[image credit]

2 thoughts on “The Gospel: The Limitation of God

  1. It is also true that God does limit his benevolence, and does so for quite a long time.

    “God is patient, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” He has the right to judge immediately upon the very first sin, yet He does not – He is patient because He wants all to be saved.

    Nevertheless, His patience and His benevolence are not infinite.
    Jude 1:14b-15
    14b “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones 15 to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (NIV)

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  2. In my younger and wilier days, I used to discuss this sort of thing with college dorm floormates. Inevitably, someone would ask this.

    My response, though not really furthering the discipline of theology, was usually akin to: “What do you get when you divide by zero?”

    To me, the question is revealing in that it demonstrates the limitation of human thought. Just as dividing by zero (in normal arithmetic anyway) produces a result without definition, so does attempting to find some sort of “answer” to this problem.

    Then again, I think your thoughts on the matter bear much more fruit. I was just trying to respond to snark with snark. I like the idea of the Trinity being applied to the question – it helps us remember God’s “multi-dimensional” nature.

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