The Basingers on Divine Omnipotence: A Further Point

by James A. Keller

James A. Keller is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Philosophy Department, Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 23-25, Vol. 12, Number 1, Spring, 1982. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Classical theologians typically limit self-determining (free) creatures on this earth to humans (or perhaps also to certain higher animals), while process theologians typically would affirm that creative self-determination is characteristic of all beings.

Recently in these pages David and Randall Basinger discussed the classical and the process theologians’ indictments of each other with respect to the relation between evil and divine omnipotence. According to them, the classical theologian indicts the process theologian with "forfeiting a meaningful notion of divine omnipotence," while the latter indicts the former with "proposing a view of divine omnipotence that makes the problem of evil insoluble" (PS 11:11). The Basingers argue that neither indictment holds.

To do this, they begin by noting David Griffin’s discussion in GPE between "I" omnipotence and "C" omnipotence.

The proponent of "I" omnipotence . . . maintains that "an omnipotent being can unilaterally affect any state of affairs, if that state of affairs is intrinsically possible. . ." (GPE 270). On the other hand, the proponent of "C" omnipotence maintains that it is not logically possible for God to unilaterally control the activities of self-determining beings, even if such activities are intrinsically possible. (PS 11:13)

They then argue that only "C" omnipotence is defensible even by a classical theist. The crucial moves in this argument are two: (1) Though it is logically possible that a free being always choose what is right, God cannot make a free being choose what is right. Therefore, if there are free (self-determining) beings, God cannot control what they do. (2) If there are free beings, they must have a regular natural order in which to exercise their freedom, and such an order will inevitably result in certain events that are of the sort traditionally termed natural evils. Having shown that the classical theist must adopt "C" omnipotence, they conclude that the classical theist "must affirm a notion of omnipotence practically identical to that of the process theist" (PS 11:23).

For the purpose of this discussion, I wish to accept their argument as outlined and to ask whether there remain any differences in the area of beliefs about divine omnipotence and creaturely self-determination that might provide a basis for choosing between classical and process theologies. Regarding the latter, classical theologians typically limit self-determining (free) creatures on this earth to humans (Or perhaps also to certain higher animals),1 while process theologians typically would affirm that creative self-determination is characteristic of all beings. There are at least two important implications of this difference. First, for the process theist the natural order has value in itself and not just as a sphere in which free creatures can grow to moral maturity (as the Basingers imply for the classical theist). Second, the regularity of the natural order is therefore seen by the process theist as important for the sake of all beings and not just for free beings.

The classical theist has to limit divine omnipotence only because of points (1) and (2) above. That is, God is limited in what states of affairs he creates only in order to preserve creaturely freedom and to provide a natural order in which this freedom may be exercised. But the process theist would insist that God must always work with an already existing creaturely order and that changes in this order can therefore come about only gradually through the agency of divine persuasion.

When these two differences are combined with what we know about the history of the universe and of our earth, it would seem that the process view is much more plausible. If the universe began several billion years ago and went through billions of years of development before any life was possible, one must ask the classical theist the point of this extended period of development. Why did not God simply create the universe in such a condition that it was ready for life (or intelligent life, or whatever is required for creatures who act freely)? The same question applies in particular to our own Earth. There were billions of years of development before life (or intelligent life, or creatures who act freely) appeared. Why? According to the classical view of God, God could have skipped all this; according to the process view he could not. Moreover, the classical view implies that these years were pointless; the process view does not.

At this point, I can see two possible replies by classical theists. One would be to insist -- as Plantinga does in his reply to the Basingers’ article (PS 11:25-29) -- that they are concerned only with showing that admitting the existence of evil is not inconsistent with adherence to a "C"-omnipotent classical idea of God. Therefore, they are not required to explain why the universe in general and our planet in particular went through this long process of development; presumably God has his reasons, which God need not disclose to human beings.

This reply might be impeccable on logical grounds, but it will satisfy only those who are already absolutely sure that their belief in God is correct. But any classical theists who admit that their belief is only the most plausible conclusion based on the evidence available must regard this difficulty as another bit of evidence against their idea.

That is, the classical theists must so regard it unless they also adopt some sort of panpsychism. (This is the second reply available to the classical theist.) Adopting this alternative would, of course, mean not merely that there are some possible created worlds over which God does not have complete control. It would mean accepting the principle that to be is to be (partially) self-creative. I know nothing in classical theism that would preclude accepting this principle despite its rarity in classical theism. But if it were accepted, would there be anything left of the classical idea of God as omnipotent besides the term? The Basingers’ conclusion "that even when starting with classical premises one still ends up with process-like conclusions concerning divine power" (PS 11:23) would seem to apply even more thoroughly than they realized, for it would seem that the classical theist would have to accept the view that God cannot create without limiting his power.2



GPE -- David Griffin. God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976.



1C. S. Lewis speculates that animals may attain a sort of selfhood in relation to human beings. See The Problem of Pain (London: Fontana Books, 1961), chapter 8.

2One final distinction suggests itself: the classical theist insists that God is free to create or not to create, while the process theist holds that God must create. But does even this distinction still apply? It does for process theism of Hartshorne’s type, but perhaps not for Whitehead’s. As early as 1970, Ford argued cogently that Whitehead’s metaphysics imply that God made a primordial decision so to constitute the metaphysical principles as to make a universe of some sort either necessary or impossible, though not contingent. So perhaps process theism can agree on the nonnecessity of God’s creating a universe. See Lewis S. Ford, ‘The Viability of Whitehead’s God for Christian Theology." Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 44 (1970), 141-51.