God and the Rock Paradox

One common objection (or jeer) held against theism is the objection that can be called “God and the rock.” The objection is generally posed as a question, running somewhere along the line of, “Can God create a rock so big that he himself can’t lift it?” The paradox is aimed at showing that an omnipotent being is logically impossible given that neither the affirmative nor the negative response safely preserves the omnipotence of God. A syllogistic form of the paradox can be written as follow:

A. Either the omnipotent God can or cannot create a rock that he can also himself lift.
B. If God can create a rock that God cannot lift, then there is a task which God could not perform, namely lifting the rock.
C. If God cannot create a rock that God cannot lift, then there is a task which the omnipotent God cannot perform, namely creating the rock of such poundage.
D. Thus, there is at least one task that the omnipotent God cannot do.
E. Conclusively, God is not omnipotent

The common apologetical response to this paradox is that the objection holds a logical contradiction insofar as the two tasks concerned, and being unable to perform a logically contradictory task is no limitation on God’s power because it is within God’s nature to follow an internal system of metaphysical consistency is part of His nature. While this view is held widely by brilliant philosophers, Kreeft, Swineburn, St. Thomas Aquinas to name a few, there are still some disputes as to its cogency, and Cartesian philosophy does not fancy this line of reasoning. While I do not think that the Cartesian line of thought in this matter to be intelligible, I will not venture a systemic criticism (although God can both exist and not exist can be the first line of such criticism).  That being said, there is no logical inconsistencies within the paradox itself and thus such an attempt at responding to the paradox by seeing it as a logical contradiction seems fruitless to me.

The problem seems to stem from premises B and C where the commitment to the premises as they stand seems to imply two different tasks which the omnipotent being cannot complete.  Yet, if we were to replace the premises with one that reads: “If God can create a stone, then God can lift it.”  The seeming problem with the premises vanishes with this replacement and we are left with a conclusion that does not negate the omnipotence of God.  Hence, the most plausible response to the “God and rock question”, it seems to me, is one that I encountered years ago by Wade Savage. Savage proposes that one can answer “no” to the question of God and the rock and is still not forced to forgo God’s omnipotence. Savage proposes that we take this argument in abilities to perform tasks and split them into two different persons in order to see that there is actually no problem in answering “no”.

Consider this example:

Let Jack be the one who can create rocks and Jill be the one to lift them. There are only two instances where it would be true to say that either Jack or Jill is limited in power.  Instance (i): Jack cannot create any rock heavier than 90 poundage, but Jill can lift rocks of any poundage.  In this instance, Jack can be said of as being limited in power because he cannot create a rock heavier than 90 poundage.  Instance (ii): Jack can create a rock of any poundage, but Jill is unable to lift any rock heavier than 90 poundage.  In this stance, Jill can be said as being limited in power because she cannot lift any rock heavier than 90 poundage.

Yet the same limitation cannot be said of Jack or Jill if Jack can create a rock of any poundage and Jill can lift any poundage.  In this instance (iii), any rock that Jack creates Jill can lift. If this is so, then one cannot conclude that there is any limitation within Jack’s power to create rocks since any rock of any poundage that he creates Jill can lift. Thus, to say that Jack cannot create a stone so heavy enough that Jill cannot lift is not a limitation on Jack’s power.  This is so because in this instance (iii) is completely different from the other instances (i) and (ii).  The limitation of Jack’s power is only an illusion produced by the word ‘cannot’, but, again, as I have pointed out above, this illusion vanishes when we rephrase it to “Jack can create any size rock and Jill can lift any rock that Jack creates”.

Thus, if we extend the above example to God and combine the two powers within God’s omnipotence as both the creator and lifter of the same rock, we find that the answer “no” to the central objection of the “God and the rock” paradox does not leave God limited in power.

Jesus: The Son Of God, Part 2 of 2

In part 1 of this posting, I pointed out what God meant to first-century Palestine Jews and what they saw in the title “Son of God”.  I will use James DG Dunn and NT Wright, two conservative and traditional New Testament biblical scholars, as primary sources to tackle the task at hand.

Whether or not Jesus thought of himself as the Son of God is a question that raises a lot of difficulties for Christology scholars.[1]  However, given that we have no recorded autobiographical text of Jesus, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive way to make an argument in favor of either position.  Yet, Dunn argues that we can hope to penetrate into the mind of the first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus, however implicitly through his words and actions, to learn of his own sense of divine sonship.  Dunn and Wright conclude that any movement that suggests that Jesus thought of himself as a divine person sharing in the divinity of God is ludicrous and does not take into account the historical context and development of the New Testament texts.  On the other hand, it is not altogether moot for us to approach the question “did Jesus ever claim his divine sonship?” since we have enough evidence from to the scriptural text, as well as other historical works, to insist that Jesus saw himself having an eschatological uniqueness in his relationship with God.

One argument for the self-knowledge of Jesus as having an eschatological uniqueness is his addressing of God as abba in the Gospel writings.  Dunn insists that this piece of evidence is a good starting point insofar as this way of addressing God was not very common in the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ time.  When Jesus addressed God as abba, it seems that there is an intimacy striking of someone familiar to the subject who is the object of his affection in a very familial way.  Distinctively, and worthy of noting, is when Jesus taught an adaptation of the Kaddish, where he addresses God as abba instead of the traditional ‘Lord of the world’ as how these prayers normally begin.  Further, Dunn points to Paul’s usage of abba as something distinctive for the Christians as another piece to the argument since, as Dunn argues, “had it been in common usage within any other large group or class within Palestine or Judaism Paul could hardly have thought of it in this way, as a distinguishing mark of those who shared the Spirit of Jesus’ sonship, of an inheritance shared with Christ.”

Yet, the question remains why it seems that Jesus saw himself as the great I AM in the gospel accounts, most prominently in the Johannine text.  Here, we find that the historical argument from the Johannine scripture is moderate, if not weak, for the self-knowledge of Christ as the Word of God, born before all ages.  In fact, Dunn, citing C.H. Dodd, argues that much of what is said about the person of Jesus as the pre-existent being proceeding forth from the Father in the Johannine tradition is a literary product of the author’s meditation or sermons.  This is the result of comparing the synoptic and the Fourth Gospel, which provides us with various sayings and affirmations that Christ made about himself which are present in the Johannine tradition, but are not present in the Markan, Matthean, and Lukan traditions.  This means that Jesus did not see himself as the very God of Israel who created all things from the beginning and to restore it to its former glory.

Conclusions

First century Judaism was situated amidst a variety of religious beliefs that saw god in various ways.  For the Jews of this time, God was seen in a twofold manner: the One existing before all things Who created all things and Who has called Israel to be his people and offer Himself to them as their God.  All of these religious traditions, along with Judaism, saw the title son of God in a variety of different ways.  Some pagan religious traditions and myths saw the title as a conferring of divinity by god himself to the one he has chosen, or that a god as copulated with a human being to give birth to a demi-god and so forth.  For Judaism, son of God is used in reference to one who lives in a holy manner and who has kept the Law of the Lord.  Accordingly, this title is used of various persons, as well as to refer to Israel and the Israelites themselves.

With this in mind, we do not think that Jesus thought of himself as the Son of God in the manner that modern Christians think of this Christological title.  There is little evidence to suggest that Jesus thought of himself as the same substance (homoousios) as that One God who created Heaven and Earth, and Who called Israel to be His people.  What little evidence we do have of this exists only in the Johannine tradition and, when placed side by side with the Synoptic traditions, does not provide a good enough argument for us to insist that Jesus understands himself as the Son of God with the same understanding that the Nicene Creed claims of him.  Yet, this in no way negates the expression of faith that the Nicene Creed claims of Jesus.  Instead, we must remember that the Nicene Creed is an extended proclamation of faith expressing in a more coherent manner what the early Christians understood by claiming Jesus as the Son of God.


[1] Cf. James DG Dunn “Christology In the Making”  and NT Wright “The Resurrection Of the Son of God”

 

The Greatest Commandment

There is much written and spoken about these days about love of neighbor.  This is a great approach to living the good life, and properly so because God has commanded it of us.  There can never be enough talk about love of neighbor, given that it is not just all talk but that it is lived out as proper to Christ’s commandment.  However, we must not forget that the greatest commandment is not to love our neighbor, but that it is to love God with all our hearts and all of our minds (Mt 22:37-38).  This greatest commandment cannot be replaced by simply living out that second great commandment of loving our neighbor.  In other words, a great philanthropic life does not fulfill this greatest commandment.

The commandment to love God with all of our hearts, all of our souls, and all of our minds is quite strange for two reasons.  First, the commandment demands that we love God with a freedom that recognizes Him as lovable in Himself and not because we are commanded to.  This is strange because it is the commandment that directs us to love, and yet our love ought to overlook its commanding nature.  Secondly, the commandment does not demand a performance that is measurable, and thus can be said as having been fulfilled once we have done what is asked.  The commandment asks for us to love, and love stems from our hearts, our innermost being, ourselves.  We can measure whether or not we have not killed or stolen, but we cannot measure whether or not we have loved with all our hearts and all our beings.  For this reason, we would rather give anything and everything we own because anything and everything can be measured; that is, anything and everything except the heart.  And this is the thing we are asked to give to God without hesitation and forever.

But can we love God as this commandment demands of us?  Our hearts are weary and worn from everyday life that they seem unable to carry out what is demanded of us.  Added to this, God seems so far away and distant from our everyday lives that we only call upon Him when we really truly need him, like when a family member suffers or dies.  And so we gather from this that we cannot love God like this commandment asks us to.  But it is precisely here that we ought to realize that we ourselves cannot give God the love that this greatest commandment asks of us; rather, it must God who has to provide us with this love to love Him.  The first and greatest commandment asks that we love God with all our hearts, then the very first prayer that we utter needs to be asking God for this love in order to love Him properly.  He must give strength and life to this love to us in order that He can love Himself in us and through us by the power of His Holy Spirit.  This is the only way our love can be worthy of Him.

For our own part, we should believe God that when He demands it of us that He would give us the proper tools to fulfill the demand.  Here, we should trust God more than our own heart and pray for love.  If the heart prays for love, it will love.  This is true even if the heart feels saddened at fulfilling so little of that very first and greatest commandment.

Happy Thursday, friends!

Jesus: The Son Of God, Part I of 2

God According To First-Century Judaism

In chapter nine of his work titled The New Testament and the People of God, the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues that first-century Judaism’s belief can be summed up as creational and covenantal monotheism.  Surrounded by various beliefs in divine beings like Epicurean gods who are as far away as possible from their own world and a Stoic god who ends up being synonymous with nature itself, the Jewish tradition saw their God as a kind of combination of both and yet utterly different in His nature and relationship to Israel than the two.  For the Jews, YHWH was not only the One who interacts within the created world, but is the One Who has created all things.  We can find evidence of this throughout the part of the biblical text we now call the Old Testament.  Take for example chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah where YHWH is praised for His mighty powers and wonders that He has done, and the many Psalms that sing of YHWH’s glory and mercy.  Indeed, for the Jews of Jesus’ time, the belief in YHWH can be summed up in that daily Jewish prayer: “YHWH is our God, and YHWH is One”.

Classic Jewish monotheism’s belief in God was twofold.  First, this Jewish tradition believed that God was first in the order of existence, was One, and created all things; and second, that God called Israel to be His chosen people.  Because of this, God was seen as completely other than the world, but also is continually active within the world.  This is a God who is to overthrow the pagan gods and powers of those nations belonging to these pagan gods.  And in His vindication, He will free His people from oppression of these pagan worshipers, as well as show the nations His glorious name.

Son Of God In First-Century Palestine

James DG Dunn reminds us that whatever we may say about Jesus’ title ‘Son of God’, we cannot claim that first-century Christians had the same understanding as our own Nicene profession of this title in mind when they posited it of Jesus.  Divine sonship was not something novel to the Early Christians.  In fact, the title ‘son of God’ was a title ubiquitously used in reference to many people in the time of Jesus.  Take for instance the various attributions of divine sonship to the legendary heroes of Greek mythology, like Dionysus and Heracles.  Or take for another instance where the title ‘son of God’ is found throughout the scriptural texts as being attributed to Israel, Israelites, and the king.[1]

Divine sonship, or attribution of divinity, in the first two centuries of Palestine is liberally used when talking about men for numerous reasons.  First, we need to understand that early Christianity was not inhibited by a fear of attribution of divinity to men because they did not approach the predication as modern day Christians approach it.  Dunn tells us that when this predication is used in these first centuries “in reference to individual human beings it could denote anything from a righteous or pious man, one who lived in close accord with the divine, to a heavenly or semi-heavenly being, including or the way particularly kings and rulers and especially wise or gifted or inspired men.”[2]  As a result, those who are seen as “son of God” are not necessarily seen as, to borrow Nicene terms, begotten by God from before all ages and consubstantial with God.  Rather, these men are seen as people who reflect the goodness of God through living their lives in accordance with the divine law.

Drawing from various evidence of the ancient world, Dunn argues that because of the variety of beliefs about the divine and humanity that when the ancient people spoke of someone as being “son of God,” it is not positing anything about a divine relation insofar as their natures are concerned; instead, it is a reflection of the person’s relationship to the divine in terms of their living out the divine mandates.  This leads Dunn to conclude that “there is little or no good evidence from the period prior to Christianity’s beginnings that the Ancient Near East seriously entertained the idea of a god or son of god descending from heaven to become a human being in order to bring men salvation, except perhaps at the level of popular pagan superstition.”[3] Thus, we can reasonably conclude that first-century Christians did not understand Jesus’ divine sonship as contemporary Christianity does.


[1] Ibid. 15 – Here Dunn provides the reader with a list of Old Testament text ranging from Ex. 4:22  where Israel is called God’s firstborn son to II Sam 7:14 where God tells David that his descendent will be a king who will be a son of God.
[2] Ibid. 18
[3] Ibid. 22