Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Don't Utter Meaningless Statements

A friend emailed me today, wondering about something I said at the late night theological discussion at the Austin National Youth Workers Convention. I said, "Human beings should not make meaningless statements like, 'God cannot lie,' or ask meaningless questions like, 'Can God create a rock so big that even God cannot move it?'"

Len wrote that he must have misheard me, because Numbers 23:19 states, "God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?"

"God cannot lie" is a meaningless statement, I replied. It shouldn't be uttered. Look more closely at Numbers -- it doesn't say that God cannot lie, but that he should not lie. The point is ethical, not ontological. That is, it's a statement about God's trustworthiness, not about his being. As a human, I should never start a sentence with "God cannot....," because, "God can..." is the only accurate statement.

I believe, ontologically, that God is capable of all things. Thus, human statements that attempt to retard the agency of God are nonsensical and should not be uttered.

Wanna have some fun conversations like this? Come to the late night convo in Anaheim or Charlotte!

(See, Marko, I blogged about the Convention!)


Anonymous Chase said...

Hebres 6:18 would probably be meaningless alson as it says, "It is impossible for God to lie". The greek there meaning "unable to be done, impossible" as in "He cannot". That has propositional, antithetical meaning whether anyone believes it or not.

7:27 AM  
Blogger marko said...

dude, you rock. sunday school star (or ys tattoo) on the forhead for you!

8:30 AM  
Blogger justfranks said...

I was thinking back on that conversation and the thing that came out for me was the concept of “absolute truth.” Here is sort of my thought of it. That “absolute truth” is created in the praxis of the community. This meaning that the dominate community defines what “absolute truth,” is. Take the planet formally known as Pluto most of us grew up knowing that Pluto was defined as a planet. Now the scientific community came together and said that it is no longer planet. This becomes problematic for some, but for me the community needed better definition on what a planet was because if they used Pluto as a planet then we would have to add a few other planets. Thus, becoming more problematic; who wants more planets? I guess what I am getting at, is that there is a truth for me and that is if you are to put your hope in human-made concepts then expect imperfections because humankind is not perfect. However, God is truth and trust that where God is leading you is in the way and truth and light. Peace.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can God do evil?

A spirtual exporer

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Chase said...

Just Franks,

The idea that pluto was a planet lasted roughly 1/2 a millenium, which is a short amount of time. Again. Absolute truth exists. The reason we must define truth in these terms is due to the nebulous idea of truth some would display. The statement, "God is truth." is an absolute.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Bill Arnold said...

Tony, how woould you characterize the statement "God does not lie?"

11:05 AM  
Blogger Wes Brooks said...

i agree with chase. there are things God cannot do...
sin or do evil.
be unjust.

1:44 PM  
Blogger James said...

I am coming to the anaheim convention just for the late night theology.

And I'm not lieing!!


3:46 PM  
Anonymous LandonSandy said...

The thing I don't like about those statements is they are usually preceded or followed up by some argument for adherence to a hateful position that "God said"... meaningless is a good description.

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the problem with this discussion is the way in which it is laid out.... to say that "God can not lie" is a meaningless statement, is problematic, yes... perhaps we should say "It is antithetical to the character of God to lie (do evil, etc, etc), therefore He places upon Himself the restrictions of which we've spoken (lying, evil, etc). I think its unfair, however, to argue over symantics, which is pretty much what this discussion is.
You are correct when you say that we should think of God in ways of what he CAN do, but I think its unfair to those with whom we think and talk about God when we negate His decision to NOT do some things He chooses to restrict Himself from because He chooses to do so.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Len said...

Can I get a YS tatoo too? I do agree with the meaninglessness of "Can God create a rock so big that God cannot move it?" type of questions.

I had a student once who was very pious and arrogant (weren't most of us when we were 17?) and he wanted to discuss the "deep things" like predestination and free will, etc. I would talk with him and tried to help him understand the different sides.

He got angry with me because I told him, "I don't care that much about the "hard issues" anymore. I know where I stand and can explain why, if I have to, but most of the time it's discussed with no connection to real life. I'm trying now to focus on the "heart issues" more these days."

Why would anyone listen to anything we have to say if we don't have love or humility?

I do enjoy our conversations and I'm happy to provide blog fodder.

8:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tony- Will there be a late night theology discussion at the Cincinnati convention as well?

7:07 AM  
Blogger Adam Omelianchuk said...

Tony, with all due respect, this is a terrible analysis. Can God make a square circle? After all he is capable of all things, rihgt?

For more details see here.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Chase said...

Adam, your post in response to this is excellent and informative!

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just analytical philosophy you are saying...Ayer, Russell, Moore, Williams, Carnap, Schlick....they would also say
"God exists" is a meaningless statement.

In fact, they beleive all metaphyscial statements are pointless and meaningless. So where do you draw the line? If the statement "God cannot lie" is meaningless" then why is the statement "God exists" meaningful?

To the analytic tradition such that you employ, all such metaphysical utternaces are absurd. What does it really mean to say "God exists"? Or what does it really mean to say, "God cannot lie?"

10:27 AM  
Blogger Tony Myles said...

Wait... George Washington said he couldn't tell a lie.

So does that mean anything?

I'm confused.

9:45 PM  
Blogger justfranks said...

I don't think we can put human limits on God.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Chase said...

I understand the argument; with respect I would ask, does what we think matter as much as what Scripture says?

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

1. Theological debate is rarely about what Scripture says but what we "want" Scripture to say.
2. Saying Tony's statements are "analytical" philosophy may be misleading, as Calvin and Luther both would have affirmed that saying God can't lie is a useless statement. They were nomialist of different sorts, and cared little for a set nature of God (i.e. A set ontological and moral nature that makes truth telling a neccesity), and opted for God's fiat of power continually choosing to be honest and straightforward. That is almost neccesitated by the nomialist position that deals with God power greatness first and then works towards goodness.
Arminius, who was driven by a realist view of God and all reality asserted God has a set ontological and moral nature that did not prevent God from being false, but made the statement superfelous, as their would be no decision. God is truth.
3. I cannot speak for Tony's philosophical underpinnings, however, I chose to respond to show that their have been Christ-followers, throughout history, who have said similar things (Calvin and Luther).

Oh well. I am sure there will be negative responce to this. But I thought anyone with eyes to see, might be willing to.

Grace and peace.

6:41 PM  
Anonymous Chase said...

Chris, I think your post is insightful. I think your position on Luther, Clavin, et al are fairly accurate. Again, though, I would argue that neither Luther, Calvin, or Jones are infallible. I don't think you or they would argue this either. I believe Scripture is. I think it matters more what Scripture says, than it matters what we think.

7:13 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Thus my statement that theological debate is rarely about Scripture, which is true, but about our odd interpretation of it.

Thanks for a mesured responce.

7:38 PM  
Anonymous Chase said...

Chris I think both you and I could argue one another's points circular. I am content to agree to disagee. The dialogue provokes me to think. I'm grateful.

8:49 PM  
Blogger snodblog said...

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5:32 PM  
Blogger snodblog said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:46 PM  
Blogger snodblog said...

meaningless meaningless meaningless, everything is meaningless!

Is it possible that some of these statements might hold more meaning than just the literal statement? I understand the meaningless of some of these statements, but at the same time when God is asked for his name by Moses he gives a statement that, when looked at just literally, seems pretty inane (ex 3:14). Of course this statement held great meaning to the Jews, and should to us as well.

I believe semantics are important because words and statements can be so loaded to some people, or in certain cultures. The literal meaning of the word isnt the important part, the meaning the author is trying to convey is.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Ali Campbell said...

OK this is all nonsense. I have no idea what people are talking about when they refer to scripture as the truth, can you point me to a passage that says scripture is true? Also, if God can do anything, we are left with the questions of why he doesn't, not why he does. Suffering. He can stop it (if he can do anything), in a human court of law there might be the crime of standing by and doing nothing when it was in your power to act. Is God's inaction evil? How can it be if He is good? There is a difference between who God IS and what He DOES - it is unfathomable to me. Will arguing about this make us more like Jesus?

6:18 AM  
Blogger submergent said...

The statement "God cannot lie" isn't meaningless...it means "God cannot lie". It has meaning because it means something.

7:34 PM  
Anonymous Denis said...


While your argument that Calvin 'cared little for a set nature of God' and 'would have affirmed that saying God can't lie is a useless statement' seems persuasive, Calvin's own words defeat you. In his commentary on Hebrews, Calvin states the opposite, affirming in fact that God cannot lie:

"We have, then, this strong consolation, that God, who cannot deceive when he speaks, being not content with making a promise, has confirmed it by an oath." Commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The answer to "Can God make a squared circle?" is really simple. God can make all things, but a squared circle is not a thing...so, there is nothing to make. So, the real question is not about "squared circles", but about nothing. The question should be something like "Can God make nothing?" This is an absolutely absurd notion...because nothing is not something that is constructed. So, the question and its implications are ridiculous and actually...the product of an insane mind.

7:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If God CAN lie does that not mean the sriptures have a possiblity of being a lie? How can we (with certainty) trust the scriptures.

Also CAN God (does He have the ability to) terminate His existence?

4:46 PM  

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