Can God do nonsense?December 17, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
There’s an interesting post up at our old friend Christian Apologetics Ministries. It presents itself as a discussion of immanence vs. transcendence, but the bulk of the discussion focuses on the topic of understanding what God can and cannot do.
I can begin with by trotting out the old ‘Can God create a rock that he cannot lift or move?’ line. The contention is that if God is all powerful he should be able to do this but in doing so he would simultaneously undermine his own omnipotence. Most of the time this is answered by pointing out that some statements are just nonsense and God’s omni-characteristics do not require him to be able to achieve the nonsensical… Something doesn’t become reasonable just because you insert ‘Can God’ in front of it.
Most people accept this explanation and I’ve found that even nonbelievers come around to accepting it. (Not all of them do, which is why 17 year olds with Google can still find the question to ask it)
Horvath isn’t quite satisfied with this explanation, and he goes on to try a different approach that’s a bit more interesting. But let’s focus on this one for now. At first glance, it seems like a plausible and reasonable answer. Some things are just “nonsense,” meaning that they incorporate two terms that are mutually contradictory. The concept of an irresistable force precludes, by definition, the possibility of any immovable objects, and vice versa. While you can construct a sentence that is grammatically correct and that includes both the terms “immovable object” and “irresistable force,” there’s no way that the sense of that sentence can represent any actual reality. Truth does not contradict itself, and therefore mutually contradictory concepts cannot simultaneously be a part of the real world. It is “non-sense”—a combination of words that does not represent any real condition.
So it makes sense that God would not be able to do things that are nonsense. The only trouble is, Christianity teaches a number of doctrines which are “non-sense” in precisely the same way as God making a stone so heavy that He Himself cannot lift it. The Trinity is the first example that comes to mind. It’s non-sense, which is why the Church councils branded it a “mystery,” a paradox that the human mind cannot fathom, and that must be taken solely on
Not that people don’t try to make the Trinity make sense, of course. You can make sense of the Trinity, provided that you are willing to either turn it into polytheism or else turn the three Persons into only partial fragments of God. Both approaches, however, were declared heretical by the same councils that defined the Trinity, since each seriously compromises the Gospel. The genuine, historic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity will settle for nothing less than the contradictory premises that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct Persons, each of whom is God, and the sum of these three is one God, no more, no less.
That’s non-sense in the same way that irresistable force plus immovable object is non-sense. Being three precludes being one in the same way that one thing being irresistable precludes another thing being immovable. You could reconcile this dilemma by saying God is three of a different type of thing than what He is one of. For example, you could say that “God” is a type of being, just like “man” is a type of being. Just as you can have three men who share one common species (humanity), you could have three divine Persons who share one common species (deity).
That, however, is polytheism: multiple individuals who belong to the same “race” of gods. That’s not what the Trinity teaches. It teaches that the Father is God, and the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, and that these three are separate and distinct, and that there is a total of one, and only one, God. God cannot do non-sense, and this is non-sense. But Christians claim He does it.
Similar problems arise when we look at some of the other theological controversies that the Councils grappled with. Does Jesus have a human nature or a divine nature? Does he have a will of his own? The Councils came up with answers that, again, are “mysteries” (aka non-sense). Jesus has both a divine nature and a human nature; he’s 100% man and 100% god. But this is non-sense. “Nature,” in this context, is simply a conceptual enumeration of the attributes that determine one’s observable characteristics and behavior. It’s not like a shirt, that you can just put on or change, and have a whole closet full of. Two contradictory lists of what Jesus’ attributes are, replete with attributes that are true for gods and false for men, and vice versa, that are allegedly simultaneously true, contradictions and all. Non-sense, in the same way that an irresistable force plus an immovable object is.
Or we could look at the more subtle and generic contradictions, like a God that loves us enough to die for us while simultaneously being so aloof and patronizing that He refuses to deign to even let Himself be seen by us, let alone actually spend time in face-to-face, in-Person fellowship and interaction. Or a God who is sovereign and in control of everything that happens in the world, without—somehow—bearing any responsibility for any of the things that go wrong in the world. Or a God who cannot show up in real life because that would violate our free will, who nevertheless allegedly does show up, in ancient times, without apparently violating the free will or otherwise jeopardizing the salvation and well-being of the prophets, apostles, and other eyewitnesses.
Non-sense has a purpose: it exposes the internal and external inconsistencies that allow us to detect when the things men say are non-truth. Such inconsistencies and contradictions are our only means of detecting falsehoods, whether they are deliberate lies, honest misperceptions, erroneous reasoning, or just plain fiction. It’s important, therefore, that we pay attention whenever we see non-sensical arguments being raised in defense of the things men say about God. Since God does not show up in real life, the words of men are our only source of information about Him. It is vital that we be able to identify the untrue, non-sensical claims when they arise.