As we come to the end of the Nativity season (on the Julian calendar), I would like to wish everyone a last Merry Christmas! Christ is born!
Well, yesterday, I received a letter from a young Latin friend that included the following passage:
I’ve also been thinking a great deal this week about omnipotence and what—if any—constraints there are upon the omnipotence of God. I understand and accept the argument that God cannot lay down his own divinity, but I’m stuck on the square-circle problem. I’m told that Augustine thought it was a ridiculous question unworthy of an answer, but it makes sense to me that God should not be bound by logical laws. After all, he is certainly not bound by physical or moral ones, of which he is the source. How are logical laws different?
The square circle problem is that God cannot make a square circle. Below is my response, which might interest you, though Andrew may find it distasteful that I am posting a letter online. But hey—it’s fascinating stuff and it’s Sunday . . . give me a break!
Well, I would like to add some two pence pieces to your theological question. I believe that you are quite right to consider the square circle problem with physical and moral laws in mind. Your difficulty, however, comes from your seeing God’s essence as a binding or a limitation on God rather than seeing God’s essence as God—as understood by God.
Reality is an expression of what God is . . . necessarily limited and imperfect—for it is not God but his image—but nonetheless it has its being from him. What reality is and that reality is depend radically and wholly on that which is beyond being—God.
Eastern Christians, following Platonic language, deny that God exists . . . rather, God is the source of all existence. God is not a being among beings, but the source of beings . . . i.e. God is “beyond being.”
Western Christians, since the late Middle Ages, have expressed this idea in more Aristotelian terms . . . God is being itself (esse), not a being (ens).
Beings (entes [plural of ens]) do not have being (esse) in their own right. Existence (existentia), or that something is, does not belong to their essence (essentia), or what they are.
The argument for this is pretty simple, though nominalism rejects it (wrongly, in my opinion). Take any particular thing—such as an apple. If the existence of an apple (that an apple is) is the same as the essence of an apple (what an apple is—its nature), then anything said to exist would have to be that apple. All that could exist would be that apple. For you equate the existence and the essence of the apple. This is obviously false, as existence is said of many things that are not apples—that is, things that have essences other than that of the apple. Thus, essence and existence are distinct in particular things.
For Western scholastics, this separation of essence and existence does not apply to God. What God is (God’s essence) is existence itself (God’s existence). All other things have existence because God imparts it to them.
I would not use that language, but it points to the same reality. Orthodox Christians would not call God’s essence existence . . . for God’s essence is unknowable, though God is the source of all essence and existence in creation. He supplies the beingness of all beings (and holds them in being . . . “watchmaker” deism is metaphysically quite foolish and infantile), and he supplies the essence—the whatness—of all that exists. Everything reflects the divine essence in its limited way. Rational beings—men—reflect God’s image in a special and privileged way, but all reality reflects God. There is nothing else to reflect . . . for God creates ex nihilo—and the reason, the “logos” of reality, comes from God himself. Being is God’s expression of himself.
The Greek word logos means both word and reason . . . and logical principle. The Fathers understood the second person of the Trinity as the divine logos, just as the scriptures state. Ponder the richness behind the doctrine of creation through the logos.
Anyway, you can see how Mohammedanism and Calvinism are similar departures from the Christian tradition and from reason. For they hold that God creates arbitrary things arbitrarily. They separate the divine will from the divine reason and the divine essence, and by doing so, they rob God and the world that he makes of reason—their deity and their cosmos are mindless, just like that mechanistic pagan philosophers of old that Socrates attacks (and the mechanistic scientists today who reduce the world to atoms swirling in the void). It requires such a theological position to hold that God could will good to be bad and bad to be good . . . for it makes God’s will arbitrary and incomprehensible—even to God himself. It makes God a being . . . a limited, imperfect being in time, subject to change—divided and irrational. In short, it makes God worse than a good man. Therein, you can see how unenlightened piety can result in terrible blasphemy. For the Mohammedans, like the nominalists and the Calvinists who came later, posited what they did from a sense of piety . . . how can God be constrained? Yet, they understood not what they did, and the consequences have been disastrous.
With this understood, your theological knot unravels. For the metaphysical, logical, moral, and physical laws are not arbitrary matters but rather expressions of what God is, albeit mere glimmers and shadows of the really real. They are not constraints upon God but reflections of God. God “cannot” break them because “breaking” them has no meaning. There is nothing besides God and his creation. God acts . . . God does not do nothing, to use an odd expression. God can do anything that can be done, but ideas and actions that violate reason are not real ideas or actions. That is why God cannot do evil . . . because evil is nothing, and, so, evil cannot be done. We speak casually about evil and irrationality as if they were real beings, but strictly speaking, they are unintelligible nothings . . . placeholders in our language that we use to describe the state of things when it is not as it should be.
For instance, demons qua demons do not exist. Yet, we speak of demons as being real. What we really mean is that there are angels who are real who forsake and fall short of what they are. We say that certain acts are vicious. As acts, they have reality, but as vice, they are bastardizations of moral action . . . lacking some sense of being and intelligibility.
Thus, God cannot make a square circle because a square circle is meaningless. It is nothing. That is not an indictment of God’s power but a description of being. It is not in the order of reality—that which reflects God’s own divine order—to allow a square circle. That we can say a square circle is equivalent to babble . . . for it has no meaning. If it had meaning, then God could make it and certainly has made it—for it would exist in our mind, and nothing could exist in our mind which was not eternally in the mind of God. All possibilities are present to him. A square circle is not a possibility.
Note, however, that the limitations of our reason do not limit God. For our reason is but an image of the divine reason. Yet, what we intend when we think of a square and what we intend when we think of a circle are pretty exhaustively known to human reason. Even as men, we can see that they are incompatible. Yet, there are many things that might be rational to God that seem perplexing to us, due to our limitations, but obvious contradiction cannot be one of them. Otherwise, our reason is meaningless and useless. Pietists are happy to say that, but they don’t really reflect upon the logical consequences of their stated opinions. Again, piety can lead to blasphemy.
Many blessings to all, and, for the last time, Merry Christmas!