Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Is God limited by our actions?

The following was sent to me recently, and what follows is my answer:


Is God ever limited by our action or inaction? I would love to have your thoughts and insight if you have time.



Hey Luke,

It all depends on what sense we take “limited” to be in! On the one hand, God is not limited, for he is omnipotent. This means he has maximal power—not just the maximal power of any being that does exist, but rather the maximal power that is possible.

Secondly, God is not limited in that whatever he has ordained to come to pass will in fact come to pass (we see this multiple places, including Isaiah 46:10). So while God may not prefer and even detest certain actions (like all sins), if for whatever reason he ordains a world with sin (which he has), we can be sure that world will come to pass as God ordains it, no matter what our actions are.[1] It’s also worth noting I think God can ordain a world with sin and evil without willing or desiring sin or evil—a situation that puts me at odds with both Calvinists and Arminians, as far as I can tell. I can explain more of that later.

Anyway, in another sense, God is quite limited by our action or lack of action. Suppose it is true that if God creates Jones with a free will and places him in a specific set of circumstances at a specific time, Jones would freely choose to mow the lawn. If that is the case, then on pain of logical contradiction, the truth of Jones’ choosing to mow the lawn in those circumstances is not up to God. It’s up to Jones. Now God can decide that he will or will not actualize a world with precisely those circumstances, so that if God wants a world where Jones does mow the lawn, God gets it, and if he doesn’t, then he gets it. This holds true for every single free decision that every single free creature would ever do in any possible set of circumstances. This is how God could potentially be limited by our actions.

Now consider our inaction. Suppose it is not true that Jones would freely choose to mow the lawn in those same circumstances. Well then, while it was possible that Jones could have chosen it, it’s not true that he would. So, strictly speaking, God could not instantiate or actualize such a world with those identical circumstances where Jones freely chooses to mow the lawn. God could force Jones, but then Jones does not do it freely. So if God wants Jones to mow the lawn at a specific time, the circumstances antecedent to the proposed action would have to be different in some way. But not just any way will necessarily do; the antecedent circumstances must be changed in some way that allows it to be true that Jones would freely mow the lawn. Of course, for whatever reason, there may be no such circumstances that also work together completely; or perhaps there are, but God does not wish to have different circumstances over Jones not mowing the lawn. Also consider that any set of circumstances will include actions that God himself either has done or directly influenced.

One last thing: though this can be very complicated to work out, it is really only the common sense view expressed by Christians throughout the ages: God freely chose, of his own will, to give us free will. We can use that free will to do evil or good or any number of things. God knows what we could do, what we would do in any set of circumstances, and what we will do. He’s not taken by surprise, but he has chosen to limit himself by giving us free will.

                [1] This is not an endorsement of fatalism. Rather, it is saying because God has ordained the world, no matter what we might choose to do, God has ordained that.

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