The Nature or Attributes of God


This page: full notes      A* summary notes      C/B summary notes


This topic is not about whether God does exist, but about whether God can exist. It is not about assessing the arguments for or against God’s existence but takes a step back from that and is about whether the concept of God actually makes sense in the first place. The concept of God is traditionally a being which is omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient. The question of whether this concept makes sense depends on whether there is a conflict, contradiction or inconsistency in those attributes themselves, between those attributes or between those attributes and key Christian doctrines. If the supposed conflicts cannot be resolved then the concept of God is argued to be incoherent.


Descartes’ voluntarism

A tiny minority of theologians and philosophers, most notably Descartes, argue for ‘voluntarism’; the view that God’s omnipotence involves the power to do anything, even the logically impossible. Descartes gives the example that God could have made it false that twice four makes eight. He thinks that God has the power to change mathematical, geometric, logical and moral truths. We may be unable to imagine 4 plus 4 not equalling 8, but that doesn’t mean God lacks the power to have made it so:

“It would be rash to think that our imagination reaches as far as his power”

Descartes’ argument is that because of God’s ‘immensity’ “nothing at all can exist which does not depend on Him.” This includes maths and logic.

“I admit that this is unintelligible to us. Yet on the other hand I do understand, quite correctly, that there cannot be any class of entity that does not depend on God; I also understand that it would have been easy for God to ordain certain things such that we men cannot understand the possibility of their being otherwise than they are”

Descartes concludes that logic is a human limitation, but not a limitation for God on which all things, including maths and logic, depend. Thus, the rules of logic are decided by God and they then emanate from his mind.

Voluntarism is incoherent: If it is possible for God to make 1+1=3, then it looks like it is possible for 1+1 to equal 3. In that case, it cannot be logically necessary that 1+1=2. By attributing to God the power to do the logically impossible, voluntaristic omnipotence seems to destroy logical necessity. If God can do the logically impossible, then it is possible, and therefore it is not logically impossible. Nothing would be logically impossible if it were possible for God to do it. Voluntarism thus undermines the concept of logical impossibility that it is based on. Voluntarism is the view that God can do the logically impossible, but then it’s not logically impossible and nothing is logical impossible, thus voluntarism undermines the concept it is trying to make a claim about and is thus self defeating.

Defence of the coherence of Voluntarism: arguably it is not the case that God being able to do something logically impossible makes it possible. It might seem impossible for God to be able to do something without that making it possible, but surely if God can do the logically impossible then he could make it that his being able to do something does not make it possible?

Descartes’ theory of omnipotence undermines theodicies

Responses to the problem of evil seem to be undermined by a voluntarist view of God’s omnipotence. The reasons usually given for why God allows evil is that it’s not logically possible for God to eliminate evil without contradicting his divine justice (Augustine), taking away our free will (Augustine & Plantinga) or opportunities for growth from evil (Irenaeus & Hick). However, if God can do the logically impossible, then it seems he could eliminate evil without removing our free will or opportunities for growth. So why hasn’t he? Descartes’ Voluntarism therefore seems to undermine defence of God against the logical problem of evil.

Aquinas on omnipotence

Aquinas argued that the correct definition of omnipotence was the ability to do any logically possible thing. He argued that God’s power is founded on God’s infinite divine nature which “possesses within itself the perfection of all being”. Therefore, God’s omnipotence can only bring about things consistent with the perfection of being.

That does not include things which are logically impossible: “that which implies being and non-being at the same time” cannot be brought about by God “not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing.” So, God cannot create something which both exists and does not exist because it is not consistent with being, the perfection of which his power is founded on. Aquinas concludes:

“it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them.”

Even though God cannot create impossible things, that is not a limitation of his omnipotence, once properly understood as power founded on the perfection of being.

The paradox of the stone provides a criticism of Aquinas. It is the question of whether God could create a stone so heavy he can’t lift it. This is problematic for omnipotence because if God can create the stone, there is something he cannot do – lift the stone. If he can’t make the stone, there is something he cannot do – make the stone. It looks like Aquinas’ definition of omnipotence struggles to address this. It’s easy for Aquinas to dismiss whether God can create four sided triangles as that would be logically impossible. Creating a really heavy stone doesn’t seem like a logically impossible task though, so surely God should be capable of doing it. In that case, he cannot lift the stone though, which equally doesn’t seem like a logically impossible task. So, there is some logically possible action which God cannot do, thus invalidating Aquinas’ definition of omnipotence as being capable of doing all logically possible actions. Descartes doesn’t have this problem because he would claim that God can create a stone too heavy for him to lift and then he can also lift it. That is a logically impossible solution, but that’s no issue for Descartes’ view of omnipotence.

Mavrodes defends Aquinas here by arguing that in fact the stone is logically self-contradictory if we notice the full context. It’s not just a really heavy stone – it is a stone ‘too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift’. Since by definition an omnipotent being could lift any stone, there is no such thing as a stone too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift, and thus it is in fact a logically impossible thing, just like a four-sided triangle. Therefore, the answer to the paradox is that God cannot create the stone and the reason is that it is logically impossible, but that doesn’t detract from God’s omnipotence according to Aquinas’s definition which is therefore still valid. So, Aquinas would say God can’t make the stone but that’s because it can’t be done, just like making a square circle.

Self-imposed limitation

Self-imposed limitation is a third way of resolving issues regarding omnipotence. It suggests that the only limits on God’s power are limits God chose. God still has the power to do anything he chooses as God is only limited by God’s own choice. So, God is still technically omnipotent, despite being limited, as it is a self-imposed limitation.

One reason God might self-limit is that that when creating the universe, God made it logically consistent and orderly. This means that if he did something logically impossible within the universe, that would disrupt the logical order of universe and make it chaotic, probably uninhabitable. Since God does not want to do that to his creation or to humans, he must have limited his ability to do logically impossible things within the universe.

Another reason God would self-limit is because of God’s intention for humans to have free will. It is typically considered important in Christianity for our salvation that we have free will so we can choose good over evil. However, our having genuine free will, or what Plantinga would call ‘significant’ free will, requires that God does not intervene to stop us every time we do something wrong. If God did that, we would have free will in a technical sense, but it would not be significant because it would be prevented from having an impact on the world.

Does it really make logical sense for an omnipotent being to be capable of limiting itself? Arguably genuine limitation requires actual inability which seems to require an inability to throw off or discard that limitation. Yet in that case, it seems God would be reducing the number of things he could do, so he wouldn’t be able to do everything he previously could, making him not omnipotent.

However if it’s merely that God chooses to limit his power to logical actions when acting within the universe, technically he isn’t actually limiting himself, just choosing not to do certain things, which seems perfectly consistent with omnipotence.

Voluntarist critique of self-imposed limitation

Self-imposed limitation is useless from the voluntarist perspective. The self-imposed limitation idea is that, logically speaking, God has to limit himself in order to achieve his goal of bringing us into loving relationship with us. Free will and a logical orderly universe are necessary for achieving that goal. Therefore, God must choose to not interfere with our free will or the logic of the universe. His power is constrained, though only due to his choice because of his goals. The issue is, a voluntarist could argue that can argue that omnipotence involves the power to do the logically impossible. That being the case, God can interfere in our free will or the logic of the universe without destroying free will or the logical order of the universe. That is impossible and doesn’t make sense – but God can do the logically impossible and therefore doesn’t have to make sense! So there is no need for God to self-limit even to bring about what he wants (a loving relationship with us). This makes proposing the self-imposed limitation view pointless. It’s trying to solve something that isn’t a problem.

Descartes’ theory has its own problems. You might decides Descartes isn’t right however.

Omniscience, Free Will, Omnibenevolence & Time


Boethius grappled with the puzzle of divine foreknowledge – the idea that God knows what we are going to do before we do it. If he does, how can we have free will? Boethius thought this needed solving because if we don’t have free will, then how can God judge us fairly, sending us to heaven or hell. That would seem to question his omnibenevolence. Yet if God didn’t know what we were going to do next, that would seem to question his omniscience.

Omniscience seems to conflict with free will which then conflicts with omnibenevolence.

Boethius’ solution was to suggest that God is eternal – outside of time. This would mean God sees all time (past, present and future) simultaneously in the ‘eternal present’. God’s eternal omniscience does not interfere with our free will – he simply sees the results of our free choices in our future in his eternal present. So Boethius saves God’s omnibenevolence from the criticism that divine foreknowledge would determine our actions making him unjustified in rewarding or punishing us for them. God’s knowledge is not ‘foreknowledge’ – it does not exist ‘prior’ to our action as it exists outside of time.

If our future actions are known, they are fixed and thus not chosen. However, while God’s knowledge may not determine our choices, nonetheless it still seems like the results of our choices are fixed and inevitable. Surely we cannot do anything other than what God knows we will in fact do. Therefore we don’t have the ability to do otherwise, and so how can we have free will?

Boethius responded to this challenge by distinguishing between simple and conditional necessity. He agreed that God knowing our future actions made our actions necessary – but only conditionally necessary. He illustrated conditional necessity with observing someone walking. If you see someone walking, it is necessary that they are walking. However, that necessity is conditional on their having chosen to walk. The walker might not have chosen to walk, and then it would not have become necessary that they are walking. This is very different from the normal sort of necessity – simple necessity – which means something cannot fail to exist or occur, regardless of whatever choices people make.

Everything we have done in our past, are doing in our present, and will do in our future, are all observed in God’s ‘eternal present’. Everything we do is ‘present’ to God. Therefore, our future actions have the same kind of necessity that the person walking has; conditional necessity. God sees our future actions and in his present they thereby become necessary, but only on the condition that we chose them. So Boethius has defended his original claim, that there is no incompatibility between omniscience and free will because God sees the results of our free choices.

Anselm’s four-dimensionalist approach

Anselm attempts to improve on Boethius’ theory, arguing that God’s eternity followed from the definition of God as ‘that than which none greater may be conceived’.

Humans are within time, so we perceive time unfolding moment by moment. Being within a particular time/place is a limitation which ‘confines’ a being to having certain parts of itself existing at one time/place and other parts of itself at others. So, as an unlimited being, God cannot be within time like we are.

Anselm does not think that God is radically disconnected from time, as Boethius seems to suggest. Anselm wants to reconcile the eternal view with God’s action within time, for example with God being the sustaining cause of every place and time. His solution can be seen in the title to chapter 19 of the Proslogion:

“That he is not in place or time, but all times and places in in him” – Anselm.

Anselm argues that although God is not in time, God still has some relationship to time. All of time is in God. For us, time unfolds moment by moment. For God, all the moments of time, whether in our past, present or future, are equally and eternally present. All of time always exists in divine eternity. God is eternally present with all moments of time and everything that happens within time, not by merely ‘perceiving’ all of time from outside of time as Boethius says, but by all of time actually being in God and thus eternally present to and with God.

Dimensions.The first dimension is a straight line, the second includes is a flat plane and the third includes up and down, e.g. a cube. The fourth dimension is time, which involves duration and change of spatial things.

In space, objects can be extended through the three spatial dimensions, meaning they take up particular physical coordinates in space. Four dimensionalism is the view that we can understand time as an object’s extension through the fourth dimension.

Anselm scholar Katherin Rogers identifies Anselm as the “first coherent four dimensionalist”. Anselm claims that just as all of space is contained in one moment in time, so too is all of time contained in eternity. Eternity is thus the totality of the fourth dimension. Rogers’ interpretation goes further and claims that Anselm understands Eternity as a “sort of fifth dimension”, higher than the fourth dimension, containing the lower four dimensions, (all times and all spaces) within it.

“Just as the present time contains all place and whatever is in any place, in the same way the eternal present encloses all time and whatever exists in any time.” – Anselm.

The crucial thing to understand is that a dimension contains dimensions lower than it within it. E.g. a 3 dimensional cube contains 1 dimensional straight lines. So too is it with space, time and eternity. All of 3 dimensional space is contained within four-dimensional moments (time), and all the moments of time are contained within eternity. All times and everything in time exists within God’s eternal present and thus exists with God in eternity. This is how God’s whole being is with all places and all times.

Anselm thus addresses the omniscience-free will-omnibenevolence issue by claiming that while events within time such as future actions are not fixed, nonetheless in eternity they are occurring simultaneously with all other events.

“that which in eternity cannot be changed, is changeable by free will at some time before it exists.”

Our future actions do not yet exist within time, but in eternity they always exist. So, God knows our future actions because he exists simultaneously with them in eternity, though within time they are not yet fixed. Anselm came to the somewhat radical conclusion that God therefore actually learns when he knows our future actions, which is controversial. It’s the only way to make sense of free will though. Free choices can only be known by observing them, they cannot be predicted.

“Just as something in eternity neither was nor will be but just is, and nevertheless it was or will be in time without any contradiction, in the same way that which cannot change in eternity, in time at some temporal point before it happened, is shown to be changeable through free will without any inconsistency. However, although nothing is there [in eternity] but what is present, it is not a temporal present like ours, but an eternal [present] in which all times are contained. Just as the present time contains all place and whatever is in any place, in the same way the eternal present encloses all time and whatever exists in any time.” – Anselm

A consequence of Anselm’s theory is that God learns our future actions by being with them in eternity. God doesn’t know our future actions through predicting them since genuinely free choices are unpredictable. He knows our future actions through apprehending them by being simultaneous with them in eternity. Some argue that this seems to conflict with omniscience. If he learned our future actions, then before he learned them he didn’t know them. That implies he is not omniscient. It is incoherent to suggest that an omniscient being could learn.

We can defend Anselm by arguing that technically, since God is outside time, he has always known our future actions. In eternity, our future actions always exist. So, there was never a time when God did not know our future actions, despite knowing them by learning them. This is because God’s learning of our future actions is not an event within time. In eternity, God always learns of our future actions which always exist.

This is similar to how Christ was ‘eternally begotten’ by the father in the Nicene creed. It is important to the idea of the trinity that the Son is somehow derived from the Father; that the Father begat the son. Yet it is also important that the son has always existed (since he is God). So, if Christ is eternally begotten by the Father, then there was no time when Christ did not exist, despite his existence being derived from the father. There was no point in time when Christ was derived; the derivation is eternal. Similarly, God’s learning of our future actions is eternal.

Anthony Kenny’s critique of the eternal view

Kenny claims that if God is eternal/timeless, then all events in history are happening at the same time for God, e.g. the battle of Hastings and the fire of Rome are happening at the same time as Kenny is writing his book. Kenny rejects that as ‘radically incoherent’. There a causal relation and sequence between events within time. The fire of Rome necessarily happened before Kenny wrote his paper. Yet if all things were perceived simultaneously, it seems an atemporal being could not know one happened before the other, but this seems to bring omniscience into question. Another example is that God would see Boethius writing his book at the same time as Boethius’ body lies in his tomb. That seems incoherent. Boethius’ view seems to wipe out the temporal distinction between events in time.

Anselm’s four-dimensionalism can be used to respond to Kenny as it arguably improves Boethius’ position. The issue with Boethius, that Kenny points out, is that if God sees all time simultaneously, then that suggests that all temporal events really are occurring simultaneously, which seems false since many events in history are not simultaneous.

However, Anselm claims that there are two types of simultaneity; simultaneity within time and simultaneity within eternity (outside of time).

“eternity has its own unique simultaneity in which exist all the things that exist at the same place or time, and whatever exists in the different places and times.” – Anselm.

We could call these two types temporal simultaneity (within time) and eternal simultaneity (within eternity).

All events are simultaneous in eternity because they are equally present to God. Within time, many events will be non-simultaneous with each other. Anselm’s point is that two events could be temporally non-simultaneous and yet eternally simultaneous.

Temporal events like the fire of Rome and Kenny writing his paper are indeed temporally non-simultaneous and yet they are also eternally simultaneous with God in eternity. So, it’s not that God is outside time viewing it as it ‘truly is’, as seems the consequence of Boethius’ formulation, which absurdly denies temporal distinctions between events within time. Rather, Anselm holds that different temporal events are distinct within time, yet all times are contained within eternity, in which all temporal events are simultaneous with God and with one-another. So there is no issue of denying the temporal distinctness of some events in time, since on Anselm’s view they are, nor is there the issue of God seeing things as simultaneous when they aren’t, since they actually are (at least, they are eternally simultaneous).

To put it in terms using dimensions, Anselm regards temporally distinct events in the dimension of time to be contained, with all other events, in the higher dimension of eternity where they are simultaneous with each other and with God. So, Anselm maintains the distinctness of temporal events despite the eternal simultaneity of all events by relating temporality to eternity in that eternity contains the lower dimension of temporality.

The Everlasting view

Swinburne claims God exists within time. Before the creation of the universe, God existed in a durationless non-metric time. Once the universe had been created then time began to unfold moment by moment – both for creation and for God. God thus knows what we have done in the past and what we are doing in the present. However, regarding the future, God only knows the logically possible choices we could make, not which choice we will actually make. This resolves the apparent conflict between omniscience with free will and subsequently with omnibenevolance because if God does not know what we are going to do next, there is no conflict with free will and thus omnibenevolence is not called into question in his punishing us for our actions. God is omniscient in that he knows everything which can be known.

Swinburne argues that an eternal God could not respond to people’s prayers, since that would require acting within time.

Eternal vs everlasting on the issue of God’s relationship with us including prayer

Aquinas argues that Prayers aren’t responded to by God in real-time, however. “We do not pray to change divine decree, but only to obtain what God has decided will be obtained through prayer”. The function of a prayer is to make people feel psychologically closer to God or in order to gain the benefits that God has already designed the world, through his providence, to be the effect of prayer.

However Swinburne doesn’t think we can’t feel close in the sense of being in a loving relationship with an eternal being. He says an eternal God would be unchanging and thus be a “pretty lifeless thing”. Swinburne argued that a relationship with God based on love is a two-way process which requires an ability for God to respond to us, and vice versa. This could only work if God was within time.

Aquinas argues that since God is perfect he cannot change, as any change for a perfect being would necessarily be a change away from perfection. Therefore God cannot change, and so he cannot be in time.

Eternal vs everlasting: biblical evidence

Biblical evidence for the everlasting view. Swinburne also argued that it only makes sense to understand God’s actions in the bible if we see them as responses to human’s free choices. E.g the 10 plagues of Egypt. God sent the first plague, waited to see if the Pharaoh would let the Jews go. He didn’t, so God sent the second plague, and so on until plague number 10. Wolterstorff argued that God being omniscient doesn’t include knowledge of the future. The future doesn’t yet exist, therefore knowledge of it would be illogical

Counter-examples. Jesus also knows that Judas will betray him and that peter would betray him three times before the cockerel crowed. So it seems that Jesus/God does know future human actions. There are also the examples of old testament prophecies which suggest God knows the future.

Arguably God knows what we’re going to do next like a parent knows what their child will do next, because they know them really well but don’t actually know for sure.

This doesn’t seem to accurately capture the nature of biblical prophecies, however, which are portrayed as absolutely certain.

The Logical problem of evil

The problem of evil, specifically the logical problem of evil is relevant to this topic because it attempts to show that the attribute of omnipotence and omnibenevolence cannot both co-exist with the existence of evil.

The logical problem of evil is the a priori argument that evil and the God of classical theism (as defined as omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient) cannot exist together. In other words, there is no possible world in which both evil and the God of classical theism exist. Their co-existence is impossible. Mackie argued for this.

Mackie’s version of this argument is the ‘inconsistent triad’ which argued that the God of classical theism (omnipotent and omnibenevolence) cannot exist if evil exists. Either Omnipotence, omnibenevolence or evil must not exist, since all three are inconsistent. Omnipotence entails the power to eliminate evil. Omnibenevolence entails the motivation to prevent evil. Something cannot possibly exist if there is a being with the power and motivation to eliminate it. Therefore, if evil exists, an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God cannot exist. God could at most be omnibenevolent or omnipotent but not both. This is known as the Logical problem of evil which claims that it is logically impossible for both God (as defined with omnipotence & omnibenevolence) and evil to both exist. This is an a priori argument because the conclusion follows from a logical analysis of the definitions of the concepts ‘omnibenevolence’, ‘omnipotence’ and ‘evil’, without reference to experience.

Augustine vs the logical problem of evil

The logical problem claims that it is impossible for God and evil to co-exist. Augustine’s theodicy claims that God allows evil because we deserve it. If the logical possibility of that claim can be defended, then Augustine will have defeated the logical problem of evil.

Original sin violates moral responsibility: It’s not ethical for all humanity to be blamed for the actions of Adam and Eve. This suggests an indefensible view of moral responsibility – that people can be responsible for actions committed by others which is of special absurdity in this case since the action occurred before they were even born.

Augustine is not actually arguing that God himself blamed all humanity for Adam’s sin, he’s merely pointing out that it was a factual consequence of Adam’s sin that all future humanity, in Adam’s loins, became infected with original sin. This made us into sinful beings from birth. So it’s not that we are being punished for the actions of our ancestors. We are being punished because we are sinful beings; because we have original sin.

It’s not our fault that we have original sin, so it still seems unfair and thus incompatible with omnibenevolence to suggest that we deserve punishment for it. Especially when considering cases like a child with cancer, it’s difficult to maintain that a child deserves cancer because it has original sin. Augustine would have to say that it is God’s justice for a child to get cancer and that God is still omnibenevolent despite allowing it. That is logically inconsistent with God being omnibenevolent.

Augustine insists that God’s reasons and justice are beyond our understanding. We should not try to use our limited human minds to judge God. It might seem unfair, but Augustine puts it down to the “secret yet just judgement of God”, indicating that it is inscrutable – impossible for us to understand – but we should have faith it is just. Augustine points to Psalm 25:10: ‘All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth,’ and concludes: “neither can his grace be unjust, nor his justice cruel”.

It is debatable whether the view that logic is invalid in understanding God can really solve the logical problem of evil. Arguably that simply fails to provide a logical response.

Possible exam questions for the Nature or Attributes of God

Is the concept of God coherent?
What is the relationship between divinity and time?
‘If God is omniscient, humans can’t have free will’ – Discuss.
Analyse the implications of God’s eternity.

Is Swinburne correct that God is everlasting/temporal?
Can God be omnipotent?
Can God be omnibenevolent?
‘The divine attributes of God conflict with each other’ – Discuss.
Assess Boethius and Anselm’s view on God’s relationship with time.
Does God know future human actions?
‘God is limited by divine self-limitation’ – how far do you agree?
Does God have divine foreknowledge?
Can God justly judge human actions?
Critically compare Boethius with Swinburne on God’s relationship with time.
Assess Boethius’ claim that God is eternal/atemporal.

Assess Anselm’s four-dimensionalist approach.
Does Anselm’s four-dimensionalist approach adequately explain divine action in time?
Evaluate Boethius’ view of divine action and time.
Critically compare Anselm with Swinburne on God’s relationship with time.
“It is not necessary to resolve the apparent conflicts between divine attributes” – Discuss.

Quick links

Year 12 philosophy topics:
Plato & Aristotle. Soul, Mind & Body.
Design/Teleological argument. Cosmological argument. Ontological argument.
Religious experience. Problem of evil.

Year 13 philosophy topics:
 Nature & Attributes of God. Religious language. 20th Century philosophy of language.

OCR Ethics
OCR Christianity
OCR essay structure
OCR list of possible exam questions