The Coherence of God: a response to Theodore M. Drange (2003)
Theodore M. Drange, in his article Incompatible-Properties Arguments: A Survey (1998), presents a collection of arguments designed to demonstrate that a being with the attributes commonly associated with God cannot exist because the attributes are mutually incompatible. If Drange is correct, then it makes no sense to talk of a perfect being who is omnipresent, omniscient, immutable, just, all-merciful, and all-loving. Since Christians have spoken about God in this fashion for two thousand years, it would follow that they have been in error throughout that time and that their beliefs are incoherent and unfounded. Being a Christian myself, I do not believe this to be the case, so it follows that I believe that Drange's arguments do not carry weight against the Christian doctrines of God (though they may carry weight against non-Christian views of God). To demonstrate this, I will, in this paper, present the arguments as given by Drange, followed with an analysis of each argument from a Christian perspective to show where it breaks down. In the process, I will also attempt to build a coherent picture of the nature of God such that it may be seen how the various attributes of the Christian God hold together in a fashion that is not only consistent, but in fact is the best possible way to understand the nature of God, since these attributes describe God as he truly is.
Definitions and comments:
As Drange has noted and as is so often the case, many of the arguments surrounding these issues depend heavily upon the definitions of the terms used. To clarify the positions I will take on these issues, I will start by giving definitions for the terms that he lists at the beginning of his paper. My intent is to base these definitions not only on the dictionary definitions of the words, but on the nature of God as revealed in the Bible and as it is generally understood by Christians. Many philosophers have made personal efforts to describe the nature of God and given different meanings to these words. I make no effort here to defend their efforts, but only to show that when these terms are used to describe the Biblical understanding of God, the meanings they convey do not run into the logical contradictions that Drange documents in his article.
(a) perfect conforming precisely to its definition and purpose. A circle is perfect if every point on the circle lies on the same plane and is equidistant from the center of the circle. God is perfect because every aspect of his nature corresponds precisely to the essential definition of that aspect. For example, God's love corresponds precisely to the essential definition of what it means to be loving.
(b) immutable of an unchanging nature. Contrary to the usage of some philosophers, this does not imply "immobile" when applied to God, any more than it does when applied to human beings. We may say of a woman of integrity that she has an immutable character if we know she will behave honestly and justly in every situation (even if we don't know in advance the exact action she will perform in each situation). So also, when we speak of God's immutability, we affirm that his essential nature, attributes and motives are the same in all circumstances, even though they may manifest themselves differently depending on those circumstances. God remains fully God in all situations and his love, justice, mercy, power, goodness and other attributes are not diminished or corrupted under any circumstances.
(c) transcendent going beyond normal boundaries; when applied to God, not contained within the physical universe or the range of human understanding. God may be present in some fashion within the physical universe or to human understanding, but such a presence is always incomplete; his full nature and character transcend any confines we can imagine. It is clear that this is a necessary attribute of God, for he could not have created the universe if he were contained entirely within it (see creator of the universe below).
(d) nonphysical not consisting of physical components. This includes the concept of spiritual but goes beyond it. Most commonly in our experience, we encounter nonphysical objects as mental constructs, emotions and related entities. For example, words are neither the ink, nor the combined shape of the letters, nor even the neural response they generate, but rather the meaning that rides on all of these. Those who believe that "nonphysical" is a synonym for "powerless" or "unreal" should consider the power of both loving and hateful words in their lives.
(e) omniscient knowing all that is as it truly is. God's knowledge of things is fundamentally deeper than our knowledge. Being the creator of the space-time continuum and all it contains (see creator of the universe below), he knows all that goes on in it as it truly is, without subjective bias or physical limitations. Not bounded by the constraints of time and space (see transcendent above), God sees all events in the space-time continuum equally. Our knowledge is always mediated through physical interactions with the world and limited by our essential subjectivity. God's knowledge is direct and unmediated. He knows even our personal experiences in a way we never can, seeing not only the event itself, but also the emotional responses we have to the event and mental constructs we use to interpret it.
(f) omnipresent present to all that is. Closely related to omniscience, this is, if anything, an amplification of the term, for this attribute indicates that God is not merely abstractly aware of everything, but knows all that is by virtue of his direct presence in all that happens. His presence, however, is experienced differently according to the relationship of the individual to God. God frequently hides himself to preserve our freedom.
(g) personal possessing a personality. To possess a personality, one must at least possess (in however rudimentary a form) a center of consciousness, volition and intelligence. God exists as three persons, each possessing its own personality, and each united in seamless cooperation with the other two. The relationship between the three persons of God makes it possible for God to love when there is no created entity to be an object of that love (see all-loving below).
(h) free not bound by inappropriate or involuntary restraint. This is not the same as the absence of all restraint. Clearly it is no slavery to be bound by restraints that you yourself have chosen and embraced, that are consistent with who you are and what you desire. The opposite of freedom is compulsion; being bound to act inconsistently with your conscience and values. God is absolutely free, for no one and nothing can bind him to an action he finds repugnant.
(i) all-loving committed to what is best for all. The Bible understands love to be a commitment to the well-being of the person loved. It is therefore not a synonym for "like," for we may be called to pursue the well-being of many people whose behavior or personality style we do not like. God even loves those who hate him, desiring that they turn away from their self-destructive alienation toward a healthy relationship with him.
(j) all-just committed to preserving what is right. The concept of justice is obviously closely related to love (see all-loving above). The primary thrust of Biblical justice is the restoration of order and health when it has been damaged by a violation of the moral or civil order. This may involve a repair of the damage done by the offender, or, when this is not possible, a punishment inflicted upon the offender. Thus, when someone robs a bank, justice requires that he repay what was taken as well as make amends for the disruption caused to the lives of the people affected by the robbery. However, if he commits a murder, the offender may be punished in other ways so that (a) he may feel the pain of his violation in his own person and (b) that society may reaffirm its abhorrence of the crime committed.
(k) all-merciful willing to rescue others from suffering. The concept of mercy in its broadest sense is any rescue from suffering or harm, with particular emphasis on the suffering we cause ourselves when we do wrong or are punished for our wrongdoing. There is an obvious tension here with justice, which may require punishment that causes suffering. God's mercy satisfies the requirements of justice in two ways. The most foundational is forbearance, which defers punishment for an offense to allow the offender an opportunity to repair the social disruption he has caused. We are all beneficiaries of God's forbearance (showing him to be all-merciful) because if he were to immediately punish us for all the evil that we have done, none of us would have survived this far. Beyond forbearance is forgiveness, in which the injured party accepts the responsibility for the repair of the damage done and releases the offender from any claim.
(l) the creator of the universe the source of being for the universe and all it contains. God, not the universe, is the ultimate reality. The universe and all it contains derive its existence and significance from God. Thus God stands apart from the universe in this regard (see transcendent above), not being contained within its space-time boundaries. The relationship between God and the universe bears some resemblance to that between an author and his book. In J.R.R. Tolkein's book, The Lord of the Rings, the hero Frodo and the land Middle Earth (in which he lived) owe their entire existence to Tolkein's imaginative work. Their frame of time and space are utterly independent of the author's, who at any point could move his attention between events separated by thousands of years or miles. Tolkein could intervene in the events of Middle Earth at will, yet unless he wrote himself into the book (as Alfred Hitchcock did into his movies), its characters would have no way of recognizing his existence. In a far deeper way, God sustains and interacts with all that exists (see omniscience and omni-presence above) and even reveals himself within the universe to give us opportunities to come to know him.
In addition, it will be useful to define the term trinity, since that term is crucial to articulating the Christian understanding of God.
(m) trinity a single being consisting of three persons (see personal above). God is a trinity, consisting of three persons known as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of God to accurately convey, and there are numerous inadequate analogies used to explain this concept. Thus it is necessary to say that the members of the trinity are not separate beings (Christians do not worship three gods), nor are they separate modes of being of a single person (in the way that ice, water and steam are separate modes of being of water). Perhaps as useful a discussion of this concept as any is Dorothy Sayer's book The Mind of the Maker, to which the reader is referred for a better understanding of the term.
Having defined these terms, let us now address the arguments.
1. The Perfection-vs.-Creation Argument.
The argument (version #1):
The issue here is whether a perfect being can have needs or wants and whether the creation of the universe was motivated by needs or wants. In his discussion of this argument, Drange rightly observes that a being characterized by perfect love would want to share that love with others. However he is suspicious that this desire implies an incompleteness on the part of the being and is inconsistent with perfection. We need to remember, however, that perfect love must by its nature be outwardly oriented towards that which is loved. In our experience of love, it is frequently, if not always, tied up in the fulfillment of our own needs. A man falls in love with a woman in large part because he wants something from her (and she reciprocates for much the same reason). But love also carries with it a desire to give what is good to the beloved, and it is this desire to bless that defines God's love. A moment's reflection will show that an entirely self-contained person who has no desire to bless someone else may be perfect in some respects but certainly does not display perfect love. But God's nature is not simply to possess his attributes to himself, but to pour out his attributes in love for the blessing of others. The nature of God as a union of three persons allows this perfect love to exist between Father, Son and Spirit as each blesses the other, so God does not need the creation in order to have something to love. However it gives God great joy to extend his love beyond the Trinity to others, for which purpose he created the universe. Thus God was not motivated by need in creating the universe, but by an abundant love. Clearly there is nothing incongruous about a perfect being, whose nature is exactly what it should be, acting in complete accord with that nature by doing that which brings him joy.
The argument (version #2):
As Drange points out, this argument is equivalent to the problem of evil, which has received vast coverage in these kinds of discussions. In addressing this problem, it is important to recognize that God's perfection does not obligate Him to exercise all of His attributes to the full extent possible in every situation. Just as a baseball pitcher is not obligated to throw 90 mph fast balls when playing with his 2 year old son, so God may refrain from fully displaying His power or justice in a given situation if He chooses. The Bible shows God refraining from displaying His glory in Moses' presence (since Moses would have been instantly killed by such a display), and refraining from punishing rebellion in all of us (since we likewise would all be dead if our rebellion were immediately met with its just reward).
In creating the universe, God exercised at least two kinds the voluntary restraint by (1) delegating responsibility for some aspects of the universe to human beings and (2) not fully controlling the moral decision-making process of human beings. However we misused our control over our moral decisions by choosing evil. This corrupted our ability to discern what is right and spoiled our efforts to exercise our delegated responsibility over the universe. It is this, and not a failure in God's nature or actions, that accounts for the preponderance (if not all) of the evil we experience in the world. Fortunately for us, however, rather than abandoning us to our plight (which would be in accord with his perfect justice), God has exercised forbearance. Moreover, God has worked within history to mitigate the results of our evil (or things would be far worse than they are).
2. The Immutability-vs.-Creation Argument
Granting the definition of "immutable" supplied above, we can then see that the immutability of God applies not (as Drange seems to assume) to his particular actions in any given situation, which change according to the needs of the situation, but to his motives for those actions and to his possession of the attributes which make those actions possible. God immutably acts out of his immutable love, even if in one circumstance he chooses an action that results in the joy of the person loved, while in another situation his action causes pain. Even if he chooses to restrain an attribute in a given situation, that attribute is not lost or weakened. God created the universe out of love (among other motives) and will ultimately destroy it for the same motives, when its purpose is accomplished and God replaces it with something far grander and more glorious.
Drange takes this argument a step further by asking how it is possible for a creator who is outside of time to create at all, since creation implies a before and after for the action itself and God is outside of the time that he is creating. The illustration used above of an author and his book may suggest a plausible answer to this question. When writing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkein acted within his own frame of reference, not the frame of reference of Middle Earth. He was not bound by the chronology of the story, and could move freely (if he chose) between different times and places in Middle Earth. So also, God acts within his own frame of reference, not ours. Within God's frame of reference (otherwise known as eternity), there may be a "before" when no universe existed and an "after" when one did, but such a frame cannot be derived from our own sense of time and will not be found by extrapolating back from our current time to some previous time in our universe, any more than one of the characters in Middle Earth could discover by studying the chronology of Middle Earth when Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings.
3. The Immutability-vs.-Omniscience Argument
As Drange already agrees, we are free to believe that God is able to know whatever happens in the universe, and so knows what has happened prior to a particular event within the universe or what will happen subsequent to it. The question seems to be whether God is able to know it as past or future. Again, the illustration of the author and the novel may be helpful here. Events that are past or future with respect to the characters of a novel are not past or future with respect to the author, so God does not experience our past or future as we do. Nevertheless, he knows how we experience these; the relative sharpness of our recollection of the near past, fading off into forgetfulness, and the relative confidence we have of our expectation of the near future, fading off into total uncertainty. In that sense, he knows our experience of the past and future in some ways better than we do, for he made our minds and knows their function, and can recognize when and why we've forgotten something in the past, and how we fill the future with unreasonable hopes and groundless fears.
But Christians can say more, for we are convinced that the author of the universe actually wrote himself into the story as a human being and so knows from the inside our experience of the past and the future. Our conviction is that Jesus Christ is in fact the second person of the Trinity, who, having restrained the exercise of many of his divine attributes, entered human history as a baby born in Bethlehem and lived as a human being for about thirty years, experiencing time and finitude as we experience them.
4. The Immutable-vs.-All-Loving Argument
If the definition for immutability given above is accepted, point 3 in this argument (and with it the argument as a whole) loses its force.
5. The Transcendence-vs.-Omnipresence Argument
As Drange observes, the analogy of Flatland provides some analogy of God's ability to be present to all places in space without being confined in space. Drange objects, however, that the Flatland argument is incomprehensible and ultimately incoherent. Perhaps the concept of how an author can be equally present at every point in his novel might make the concept a little easier to grasp, but to tell the truth it is difficult to see how Drange can expect the interaction between the Creator of the universe and the universe itself to be anything other than somewhat mysterious. Does he have a grasp of what happened during the Big Bang, or what caused the Big Bang to happen in the first place? In the effort to resolve quantum indeterminacy problems or understand the fine-tuning of the cosmos without reference to God, physicists have proposed multi-universe models, oscillating universes, branching universes and other concepts that are at least as incomprehensible as that of a transcendent omnipresent Creator. Like all of us, Drange will have to settle for a universe that has an aspect of incomprehensibility about it; the fact that we can understand it as well as we can is an argument for the existence of the Intelligence responsible for creating it.
6. The Transcendence-vs.-Personhood Argument
Hopefully we have already dealt with Drange's charge that the concept of divine transcendence is incoherent. Considering again the relationship of an author with his novel, it is clear that the transcendence of the author with respect to the novel does not interfere with the author's ability to act within the time frame of the novel. If such an interaction is conceivable, then we can also conceive of God standing outside of the universe yet acting within the time frame of the universe, so point 3 of the argument loses its force.
Since eternity (as discussed in argument 2 above) is a larger concept than space-time and encompasses it, it is also reasonable to assert that any activity possible within space-time is equally possible in eternity. Thus it is fair to say that if space-time is a sufficiently large context to allow personality to exist and function, then eternity is also sufficiently large for personality to exist and function. Thus point 4 of the argument also loses its force.
Drange's concern that the application of the attribute of personhood to a transcendent being causes it to fail in its intended purpose of making "God into a more familiar figure" reveals a misunderstanding of the use of the attribute. God is personal because he possesses the attributes included in the definition of "personal" given above. If this doesn't make God more comprehensible, it is because in encountering God we run into difficulties akin to those a Flatlander may have defining a sphere. When God reveals himself in our space-time, it is as a person because that is how he chooses to intersect with our universe. In his own context, he is far greater than merely personal; nevertheless he does not lose the attributes that make him personal in our context.
7. The Nonphysical-vs.-Personal Argument
The question here is whether a person (or personal being) can exist without being physical. Nothing in the definition of personal that I gave above is couched in specifically physical terms. In our information age we are increasingly aware of the reality of data and ideas apart from any particular physical medium. Money is exchanged as coins, paper, or bits of data transmitted between banks. Music is transmitted via sound waves, notes and staves on paper, microscopic dots on a CD, radio waves in space, grooves on vinyl, and magnetic fields on a cassette tape. Similarly personality, though most accessible to us when carried in a physical body, does not require such a body. Angels have a different sort of body than our physical body, and God needs no body at all.
Customarily, we tend to think that the absence of a body diminishes the reality and power of the person to act, but this is false to the Biblical understanding of persons. Spirit is the more foundational reality than flesh, and spiritual beings are typically far more powerful than purely natural creatures. The weakness of ghosts is due to the utter corruption of their spirits, while angels are far more powerful than we, and God is far more powerful than the angels. The fact that the second person of the triune God is named the Word of God can help us to understand this power and reality, for where we can see the power of the spirit of a person most clearly in normal life is in our interaction with the person's words. The physical energy consumed to speak a word is minimal, the mass of the air needed to convey the vibrations to the inner ear is insignificant, yet the power of the well-spoken words can (in the right circumstances) be immense; revealing the inner person, motivating action, changing lives, mobilizing armies or transforming societies. How much more, then, is the unimpeded Spirit of God capable of speaking to anything that exists and mobilizing it to the desired activity, needing no body to convey his intent or accomplish his purposes? Thus Jesus can, without noticeable exertion, tell a great storm to stop or a dead person to rise, and it is so, for it is his Spirit that acts, even at distances where his body is not present.
8. The Omnipresence-vs.-Personhood Argument
In addition, since God's frame of reference transcends ours (see the definition of "creator of the universe" above), he is free to be present to any location in space-time, so this argument loses its force.
9. The Omniscient-vs.-Free Argument
It is worth examining the definition of freedom I offer above, as distinct from the one given here. I defined freedom as the condition of not being bound by an involuntary or inappropriate restraint. This is how we normally use the word. In real life, we do not expect to be free from all restraint. We are constrained by the law of gravity, we are required to eat and sleep on occasion, and we are not licensed to kill off other people for our own pleasure. The point at which freedom becomes an issue for us is when we are bound or threatened by restraints that are either involuntary or inappropriate. Inappropriate restraints coerce us into behavior that we should not be compelled to do, such as working for sweatshop wages for 14 hours a day. From such restraints we rightly demand the freedom to do something different and appropriate to our dignity as human beings. However, there are also appropriate restraints placed on us that we may object to and from which we may (inappropriately) demand our freedom. Having been sworn to tell the truth in a courtroom, I am no longer free to tell a lie even if it would be convenient for me to do so. The exercise of inappropriate freedom is an abuse of freedom (often termed license).
But God, being wholly good and fully capable, does not face either of these difficulties. What is appropriate for God is in fact exactly what he desires to do, and what he desires to do he is completely competent to do, and thus does. The only way God could act contrary to what he actually does would be for him to choose an action which he in fact has no desire to do and would not be appropriate for him to do. But such a choice is no choice at all. A man assigned by his employer to take a job he has longed for at a salary considerably in excess of his fondest hopes could (theoretically) decline the job and choose to be fired instead, but we should not be surprised if he does not consider this a real choice. In this sense, God neither has choices nor needs them, thus point 6 in the argument above carries no force for him. He is free to do (and does) exactly what he wants and ought to do, and it would be irrational to expect him to do anything differently.
10. The Justice-vs.-Mercy Argument
The definition of all-merciful given above with the accompanying comments deals with the tension Drange observes between justice and mercy. This tension has been observed from the beginning of the Judeo-Christian era, and has been resolved in this fashion. The primary goal of justice is the preservation and restoration of what is right, so if mercy assists in restoring what is right, there is no long-term conflict between the two. The point of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that in these actions, he was accomplishing what was needed to restore the relationship between God and man that was disrupted by our rebellion. True believers are those who have (among other things) accepted God's offer of mercy and thus depend on the work of Jesus Christ rather than on their own efforts. Those who reject this offer are still given the mercy of deferred justice, but will ultimately have to account for all they have done wrong and will be expected to make it right on their own.
It is important here to note that mercy as understood here is not a synonym for leniency. A merciful person accepts the responsibility for the wrong done by someone else, while a lenient person accepts no such responsibility. If a teenager has stolen a car and then crashed it, the lenient parent might let the teenager off with a scolding and expect the owner's insurance to pay for the damage, the just parent will require that the teenager acknowledge his responsibility for the damage and pay for its repair, and the merciful parent may provide the teenager with the money to pay for the repair. Thus mercy is compatible with justice in that it ensures that the damage is repaired, while lenience is fundamentally unjust, leaving the burden of the damage to be born by the injured party. God is never lenient; the only question is to what extent he will be merciful in a given situation.
As we can see, much of the argument between Drange and Christians over the nature of God is semantic. It is important, however, to realize that semantics are secondary to the reality of God himself. God has various attributes which are given names that capture the nature of those attributes as accurately as we know how to. Nevertheless, if the term used conveys a sense different from the reality of the God we seek to describe, then we need to refine the term, rather than claim that the concept of God is incoherent. The testimony of the universe and the Bible taken together shows that God exists as three eternally perfect Persons, apart from the universe which he freely created and completely knows. Though we are rebels from God, his unchanging love for us endures. God is always just toward us and yet tempers his justice with an astonishing and undeserved mercy, enduring our rebellion and even sending his Son to die on a cross to repair the damage we have done. This is the reality. While our understanding of it will inevitably be incomplete and distorted because we are both finite and rebellious, there is nothing intrinsically contradictory or impossible about this, indeed the universe as we know it would be impossible without such a God as this.
While I have not supplied footnotes, anyone who is familiar with the writings of C.S. Lewis or Dorothy Sayers will recognize their thoughts surfacing throughout this paper. I only hope that I have done justice to their conceptions, and I recommend their works to anyone interested in knowing God more deeply. My debt to J.R.R. Tolkien is also evident. His works on Middle Earth provide perhaps the best generally accessible example of a created world, and some of his lesser known works provide helpful insight into the relationship of creator to creation. My thanks also to Pastors Jerry Wilke and Scot Snyder of First Baptist Church, West Los Angeles for helpful suggestions on improving the paper.
Above all, though, my gratitude is to God for revealing himself to us in a way that allows us to know him in some sense as he is and to become a part of his family in Jesus Christ. Had God not so revealed and reconciled himself to us, this entire discussion would be pointless, presumptuous and irrelevant.
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