OHPT: Thoughts on Omnipotence (Chapter 8)

Hoo boy. This chapter was a BEAST. To be honest, I don’t have the brain power to do it justice with a meaty review. My brain has been taken over by all things Hegel (HEGEL YOU BASTARD) and by just trying to stay sane and mentally healthy in the midst of quarantine. It’s getting harder and harder, which means the grey matter I have available for intellectual things is limited, and I have to direct them all to Hegel for the next few weeks. So here is a brief overview, and a hope that maybe later this year I can honor Dr. Leftow’s work here more appropriately.

Dr. Brian Leftow is the Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion (a mouthful of a professorship!) at Oxford. Worth noting: he took over the position in 2002 when Richard Swinburne retired, so he has large shoes to fill. He is also a faculty member at Rutgers University. Dr. Leftow’s research focuses on metaphysics, philosophical theology, and medieval philosophy. All of these come to bear in his chapter on God’s omnipotence and it was actually quite overwhelming to read SO MUCH BREADTH AND DEPTH packed into a mere 22 pages. Seriously, my brain was kind of stunned into stupor. Or is that the fault of quarantine? Regardless, it is excellent and worth reading again (when my brain isn’t in “just keep swimming” mode).

Leftow provides a fantastic survey of the medieval philosophy of divine omnipotence that grounds much of how Christian theologians talk about the subject today. It’s interesting to see that the two modes of omnipotence discussed throughout history are strength and range. I had always focused on the range mode — the set of things an omnipotent being is able to do — when I thought and talked about omnipotence. I find the “strength” mode to be… humorous? Not humorous, but slightly odd. How does it make sense to talk about the “strength” of a disembodied or non-bodied being?

IT SURE MAKES SENSE TO TALK ABOUT THESE BOULDER SHOULDERS what am i doing

There are reasons for talking about God’s power in terms of strength, of course (otherwise theologians wouldn’t have done it), and Leftow absolutely provides them, but again: my brain is ti-ti.

Leftow sprinkles his own special spice into the mix by tackling the idea that God’s omnipotence is limited by the possible. Aka, the claim that it is not a limit on God’s omnipotence to say that she cannot do the impossible. Leftow says there is something attractive and intuitive to the idea that the impossible poses a threat or counter to God’s omnipotence, and counteracts this by suggesting that it is God that limits what is possible, rather than what is possible being a limit to God’s omnipotence. As he says, “The extent of the possible just expresses God’s own nature, power, or activity” (189). Leftow says that this means “God can do just what he makes it possible that he do,” aka, God is the being who delimits (determines the boundaries of) the possible.

I take what Leftow is essentially doing is redefining what “possible” means. Instead of being a function of logic, it is a function of God herself. What is “possible” is “what God is able to do.” I am not sure I like this. I struggle with what to “do” with impossible states of affairs, such as “there exists a round square.” Does it make more sense, or is it even more helpful, to say that the existence of a round square is impossible because God cannot bring it about? Or is it just as helpful/sensical to say it is impossible because it is logically incoherent, the definitions of the words “round” and “square” are incompatible?

I guess if we wanted to go full Hegelian (BUT WHYYYY) we could say that “round” contains “square” by containing its negative (part of what it means to be round is to be not-square), but I’m not sure that adds anything to the idea of power and possibility. Hegel is just omnipresent in my brain these days.

I’m not sure it is sacrificing anything to the idea of God’s omnipotence to say she cannot bring about the logically impossible. Also, to define “logically impossible” as “what God is not able to do” just makes the statement “God cannot do what is logically impossible” a tautology. Now all it says is “God is not able to do that which God is not able to do.” That just doesn’t seem to say much. I feel as though I want “logically impossible” to mean something more… substantive? I’m not sure. But something about Leftow’s final argument isn’t sitting right with me, and I’m not 100% sure why.

There is so much more to say and so much more praise to heap on all Leftow managed to pack in to this chapter. I wish I had read it with my “January 2020 brain” instead of my “April 2020” brain. Those are two very different brains, with two very different powers of comprehension and analysis. Maybe my “July 2020” brain will be better up to the task. But what 2020 has shown us is that you can’t ever predict what you’ll be able to do from moment to moment (unless you’re an omnipotent being?!), so here’s to setting hopes instead of goals and to not drinking all the wine in one sitting.

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