Can God Make a Dog That’s Too Big for Him to Walk?

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Maverick is a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog and he’s an absolute brute. He is a really sweet boy and would never intentionally hurt anyone. However, watching him pulverize and scarf down a half chicken for lunch engenders a greater sense of reverence with each crunch. He’s not mean or aggressive in the slightest, he’s just extremely excitable and exceptionally powerful- both of which make him a formidable opponent on walks.

Swissies like Maverick were bred for all around farm purposes like herding other animals and pulling heavy milk carts- so they have agility and power! In fact, Swissies even compete in an event, creatively titled “weight pulling”, where they pull massive amounts of weight. According to gsmdca.org:

Weight pulling demonstrates the physical brawn of the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog and the strength of heart this breed exhibits to please its master… the dog must start a cart from a standing position and pull the cart a total of 15 feet. Swissies show off sheer physical strength and earn titles as proof of their willingness to work. Swissies have demonstrated extreme abilities and the current wheeled record pull at a GSMDCA event stands at 5,136 pounds.

You read that right, 5,136 pounds! So, you can see why Maverick’s owner, Ginny Cooney, has to be careful when she takes him on walks. Ginny says,

[I] always have to be on lookout for squirrels and other dogs. Yes, he has pulled me off my feet, once as a full-on Superman flying posture… I’ll sometimes turn around or change route to avoid him getting excited about meeting another dog… He LOOKS very aggressive, but as a herder, he’s just saying, “ok, I’m in charge of you now.” [He] wouldn’t harm any dog, and has backed away from small dogs if they yip yip at him. Slightly embarrassing… But I can trust him with small children and all dogs.[1]

Ginny isn’t alone. I’ve walked Maverick on several occasions and when he wanted to pull, it took everything I had not to let him go where he wanted- and I’m sure he wasn’t pulling at full strength. Given how powerful and agile these dogs are, who wouldn’t have a hard time walking them? Well, I suppose God wouldn’t. Being Creator of heaven and earth, God could enter into 2019 in a theophany[2] and walk Mav, no problem. After all, with man walking a stubborn Swissie might be impossible, but with God all things are possible, right? But is that true? I mean, is it possible for God to make a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog soo big and soo strong that even He couldn’t walk it?

The Omnipotence Paradox

What we’ve just stumbled onto has historically been called “The Omnipotence Paradox” or “The Paradox of the Stone”. Traditionally, the paradox asks if God could make a stone so big that even He couldn’t lift it- but I like our paradox more because we get to think of a Clifford-sized Swissie. So what’s the problem here? Well, if God is omnipotent, that is, if He’s all powerful, then He ought to be able to do anything, right? He ought to be able to make a dog so big that even He couldn’t walk it. Butttt, if He is all powerful then how could there be a dog that He couldn’t walk? If He was able to make this dog then he wouldn’t be omnipotent, but if He was not able make this dog then he also wouldn’t be omnipotent. Thus, the paradox.

A Univocal Answer

This paradox, while given a new scenario, certainly isn’t anything “new” in and of itself. In fact, Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas addressed this issue back in the mid 13th century. Thomas answered this problem first by distinguish between what’s physically possible and what’s logically possible. For mankind, there are logical impossibilities, like drawing a square circle, and there are also physical impossibilities like running a 1 minute mile, which isn’t logically impossible because it isn’t a contradiction, but none the less is physically impossible, at least as of 2019. But For God, argues Aquinas, all physical possibilities are possible. It’s only the logical impossibilities that are impossible for God.

Now nothing is opposed to the notion of being except non-being. Therefore that which implies being and non-being at the same time is incompatible with the notion of an absolutely possible thing, within the scope of the divine omnipotence. For such cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has no the nature of a feasible or possible thing. Therefore, everything that does not imply a contradiction is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent; but whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them.[3]

So then, for Aquinas it’s no slight to God’s omnipotence that He can’t make a square circle because logical absurdities like these are both physically impossible and logically impossible. They simply cannot be done by anyone.

An Equivocal Answer

But not everyone has been comforted by Aquinas’s answer, namely, René Descartes. As Ronald Nash recounts, “René Descartes and a few other philosophers have rejected the view that God’s power is limited by the law of noncontradiction. Descartes believed an omnipotent being could do absolutely anything including that which is self-contradictory: God’s actions are not limited by the laws of logic.”[4] Nash goes on to say,

Descartes advanced this view on the conviction apparently, that the Thomist position dishonors God by making Him subject to a law (the law of noncontradiction) that Descartes believed is as dependent on God’s will as any other law. Just as God could have created the world so that it was governed by different laws of nature, so also He could have subjected the world to different logical and mathematical laws. According to Descartes, God freely decreed the logical and mathematical truths that obtain in our world and could have created a different world in which the principle of noncontradiction or propositions like “two plus two equals four” were necessarily false.[5]

The reason that we don’t just laugh off Descartes is that he wasn’t some raving irrationalist, in fact he is known as one of the most prominent Rationalists of the entire history of philosophy. Descartes was concerned to honor God’s power as Creator. He was seeking to avoid infusing our idea of God with man’s logic. Descartes was trying to stave off what he saw as idolatry. So, for him, the law of noncontradiction must be sacrificed in order to allow God to be truly omnipotent and free. But the implications of Descartes’ move are too grave for those who want to affirm any knowledge of God. For instance, if God can act contrary to the laws of logic, then God could be irrational and He couldn’t be held to His revealed words in the Bible. God could be good and evil simultaneously; He could be omnipotent and impotent at the same time and in the same manner. If everything follows from a contradiction, then what chaos would follow from an omnipotent God that could contradict Himself?

An Analogical Answer

While we might vehemently disagree with Descartes’ move, some of us might still sympathize with- well, his sympathies. We may want to avoid smuggling our created logic back into the mind of God, while still acknowledging God’s self-consistency. Enter Cornelius Van Til. In a similar vein as Descartes, Van Til argues that the law of noncontradiction shouldn’t be thought of as some abstract principle that judges both God and man on the same level. For Van Til the laws of logic are necessary and true for created reality, but they are aren’t univocal with God’s thought, rather, they are analogical to God’s thoughts. Van Til says that since God “…existed as the self-conscious and self-consistent being. The Law of contradiction, therefore, as we know it, is but the expression on a created level of the internal coherence of God’s nature.”[6]

So an analogical view of the law of noncontradiction sees it as a created reality, like Descartes sought to honor, yet as analogous to God’s very own self-consistent thought, contra Descartes irrationalistic view. This means that mankind can know about God through God’s revelation of Himself as well as the addition of good and necessary consequence (like using logic) rather than setting up the laws of logic on their own as the ultimate criterion for God and man, rationality and possibility.

Van Til’s view allows us to affirm God’s self-consistency, His logical nature, and the necessity of the laws of logical for human thought. But an analogical view of logic also leaves room for the mysteries of God that might be warranted paradoxes for us like the Trinity, divine determinism and free will, and the Incarnation but which are fully understood by God.[7] Because our thoughts are analogically related to God’s, we can know truly but not fully. There are some things that our human logic hasn’t been able to crack yet, and others that we may never be able to crack. This makes sense, however, given the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God and the Creator/creature distinction.

Lest the reader think that Van Til’s approach ultimately ends up in the same place as Descartes, we can be assured that the two are completely different. Whereas Descartes sought to bolster God’s power by isolating His will and leaving it free from all constraints, Van Til says,

God’s power should not be identified with his will, although God’s will implies power to accomplish what he wills. God’s omnipotence does not signify that he can make a lie true, that he can sin. There is no absolute power in God that works in contradiction to his perfections. God is the source of possibility. What is possible is determined by God’s nature. The very question whether God can do the impossible is impossible. It has no meaning unless it is first assumed that there is such a thing as impossibility apart from God. Now if there is such an impossibility, God is not God, so that the question drops. On the other hand, if there is no such impossibility, that is, if God is the source of possibility, the question is answered before it is put: i.e., then God does not want to break an impossibility. He would be denying himself, which he tells us he cannot do.[8]

So ultimately we, as Christians, look to God’s revelation for an answer to this question, not merely an abstract view of logic. It is God’s very own nature that defines what is possible and what is impossible. God tells us that He will not and cannot contradict Himself, and it is on this basis that we use our logic to figure out how God’s self-disclosure applies to whether or not He can make a dog that is too big for Him to walk.

Untying the Swissie Paradox

Based on God’s revelation and the laws of logic, we can agree with Aquinas that God cannot make a square circle and other such irrationalities like a stone that’s all blue and all red all over, though, we do not agree with him on abstract principles of logic and possibility without reference to the Nature of God.

However, when we examine the paradox of the giant Swissie again, it’s not immediately clear that this is a logical contradiction in the same way that a square circle is. After all, a square circle is meaningless; I can’t think of person x making a square circle, but I can think of person x making a big robot dog that’s far too powerful for person x to walk. So how do we answer our problem of God making a dog that’s too big for Him to walk?

Concerning the puzzle of a square circle and puzzles like our Swissie paradox, George Mavrodes says, “Despite this apparent difference, the second puzzle is open to essentially the same answer as the first. The dilemma fails because it consists of asking whether God can do a self-contradictory thing. And the reply that He cannot does no damage to the doctrine of omnipotence.”[9]

So why does Mavrodes think that our Swissie paradox is open to the same refutation as the square circle? Mavrodes argues that when you start the puzzle, you must either assume that God is omnipotent or that He isn’t. If you start the puzzle by assuming that God is not omnipotent, well, then who cares? You’ll ended up right where you started. You think He isn’t, and I think He is. The force of the argument is only felt if we start with the assumption that God is omnipotent and then you show that this assumption leads to a reductio ad absurdum. But if we start with the assumption that God is omnipotent, then the phrase “a dog too big for God to walk” becomes immediately self-contradictory for God. The phrase changes into “a dog too big for Him whose power is sufficient for walking any dog.”[10] Thus the question can be answered: no, God cannot create a dog that is too big for Him to walk because that would be self-contradictory for God and it is God’s nature that He cannot contradict Himself.

So, in denying God’s ability to create a dog that’s too big for Him to walk, we are not weakening the doctrine of omnipotence, but upholding it. God is too powerful to perform self-contradictory tasks. In summarizing his critique of such tasks, Mavrodes says, “They fail because they propose, as tests of God’s power, putative tasks whose descriptions are self-contradictory. Such pseudo-tasks, not falling within the realm of possibility, are not objects of power at all. Hence the fact that they cannot be performed implies no limit on the power of God, and hence no defect in the doctrine of omnipotence.”[11]

In similar fashion, John Frame says, “For God is omnipotent, and however we choose to define omnipotence, it certainly entails that he can lift any stone [or walk any dog] of any weight. So the preventer here is his infinity, together with his logical nature or his power itself. These are all, of course, strengths, rather than weaknesses.”[12]

And lastly, Bavinck quotes Augustine to drive the point home:

…God cannot will anything and everything. He cannot deny himself. “Since he does not will it, he cannot do it, because he is unable even to will it. For justice cannot will what is unjust nor wisdom what is foolish, or truth what is false. Whence we are reminded that the omnipotent God not only cannot deny himself, as the apostle says, but that there are many things that he cannot do:… the omnipotent God cannot die, he cannot be changed, he cannot be deceived, he cannot be created, he cannot be overcome.” Augustine further asserts that this is not a lack of power but, on the contrary, true, absolute power. If God could err or sin (etc.), that would indeed be a sign of powerlessness.[13]

“So, Can God make a dog that’s too big for Him to walk?”

No.

“Doesn’t that mean He’s not omnipotent?”

On the contrary, it’s because He is omnipotent that He can’t perform self-contradictory nonsensical pseudo-tasks like that.

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[1] Personal correspondence with Ginny Cooney

[2] “The word theophany derives from two Greek words, the word for God (theos) and the word for appearing (phainõ, which in the passive means appear). That is, a theophany is an appearance of God.” Vern Poythress, Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018) 23.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Q. 25, Art. 3.

[4] Ronald Nash, The Concept of God. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983) 38-39.

[5] Ibid., 39.

[6] What has come to be known as the law of Noncontradiction used to be called the law of contradiction. Same thing, new name. This explains Van Til’s use here. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, Vol. 2. (Phillipsburg, P&R Publishing, 2007) 32.

[7] See James Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology. (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007)

[8] Van Til then lists: Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; 2 Tim. 2:12; Heb. 6:18; James 1:13, 17. As his proof texts. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, Vol. 2. (Phillipsburg, P&R Publishing, 2007) 396.

[9] George Mavrodes, “Some Puzzles concerning Omnipotence” in The Philosophical Review, vol. 72, No. 2 April 1963, 221.

[10] I modified this sentence from Mavrodes’ to fit my puzzle. Origionally Mavrodes’ read: “For it becomes ‘a stone which cannot be lifted by Him whose power is sufficient for lifting anything.’” Ibid., 222.

[11] Ibid., 223.

[12] John Frame, Systematic Theology. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013) 341.

[13] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004) 248.

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One thought on “Can God Make a Dog That’s Too Big for Him to Walk?

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  1. I had a philosophy prof at Elmhurst argue with me in and out of class that this answer was ridiculous, because he maintained that he COULD imagine God creating a stone so big even he couldn’t lift it.

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