God and Omnipotence: Aquinas’s Take

Does Limiting God remove His Omnipotence?

Today in class I was in discussion with a classmate of mine about the nature of God’s omnipotence. She made an interesting claim that the God of Aquinas is not all-powerful. I went on to explain that Aquinas’s take on God was that God is indeed all-powerful in that He could instantiate every state of affairs that is logically possible. This implies that God cannot instantiate states of affairs that are logically impossible, i.e., self-contradictions. For example, God cannot make it so that a square-circle, or a married bachelor, or a meat-eating vegetarian exists.

She countered that theologians would say that God’s omnipotence implies that He can instantiate even contradictions and thus, since Aquinas’s God cannot do that, Aquinas’s God is limited and thus not omnipotent.

We can put this into the following form:

  1. If God is omnipotent, then God can actualize any state of affairs (taking any to mean all, including impossible affairs).
  2. God is omnipotent.
  3. Therefore, God can actualize any state of affairs.

Now, if you haven’t caught on, this statement of God’s omnipotence is extremely problematic, and I maintain that anyone who holds onto this, even Theologians, is holding a rationally untenable view. It doesn’t matter to me whether person X is a Christian theologian or not, this view is untenable and here is why.

Suppose God can actualize any state of affairs. That means God can actualize the state of affair where “God both exists and does not exist.” Clearly, no one can actualize that. Not even God. Not because it’s not within God’s power to do that, but because the state of affairs in itself is impossible. No amount of power can bring this about because such a state of affairs cannot obtain no matter what. Ever. My classmate claimed that if God cannot do that, then he is limited to the laws of logic, and if God is limited, then he cannot be omnipotent. The assumption is that if God is limited in anyway, then God cannot be omnipotent. But is that really true? Does any limitation on God mean he is not all powerful? Why even think this? But let’s suppose it’s true. It seems to me that God will always be limited in some fashion. For instance, if God is all-good and he is perfect, then surely God cannot err nor do evil. It’s not possible to do so. He is limited in his ability. This almost sounds like the sophomoric objection that “Look! I can sin and God can’t do that! Ah-ha! I can do something God can’t, therefore he is not all-powerful!” Surely, this if foolish. Moreover, do we really think He is not omnipotent simply because He cannot pick his nose or release gas? I mean, God doesn’t have a body to do those things, so God is limited. Is he thus not all powerful? Clearly this is not the case. Therefore, it seems the God being limited is not an adequate reason to conclude that God is not omnipotent. It just doesn’t follow.

Based on the above definition of omnipotence, God is not omnipotent. But this is not the view of omnipotence that Christian philosophers take God to have, let alone Aquinas. Aquinas brilliantly explains,

It remains therefore, that God is called omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible absolutely; which is the second way of saying a thing is possible. For a thing is said to be possible or impossible absolutely, according to the relation in which the very terms stand to one another, possible if the predicate is not incompatible with the subject, as that Socrates sits; and absolutely impossible when the predicate is altogether incompatible with the subject, as, for instance, that a man is a donkey.

Furthermore, he adds,

Therefore, that which implies being and non-being at the same time is repugnant to the idea of an absolutely possible thing, within the scope of the divine omnipotence. For such cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing. Therefore, everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them. Nor is this contrary to the word of the angel, saying: “No word shall be impossible with God.” For whatever implies a contradiction cannot be a word, because no intellect can possibly conceive such a thing. (ST I, Q. 25, Art. 3)

I think it’s safe to say that my classmate was gravely mistaken on Aquinas’ take on omnipotence, on the idea that God’s omnipotence entails that God can do anything, and on the idea that any limit on God makes him not omnipotent.

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