Can God Give What God Does Not Have?

Years ago, a group of us at the church that I attended was getting into some theological discussions.  Our Sabbath school lesson was about the rebellion of Satan and his angels against God: you probably know the story about how Satan was originally an angel, but he rebelled against God, and that’s how he became Satan.  We were puzzling over how angels could have revolted against God.  Where did they get the thought that inspired them to do that? The reason that we were puzzled was that one person in the group had said that being in the presence of God transforms a person for the better.  We were an independent Seventh-Day Adventist church, and one of Ellen White’s (a prophetess and founder of Seventh-Day Adventism) often-repeated sayings, which was probably based on II Corinthians 3:18, was that, by beholding God, we become changed.  How could angels be in the presence of God, beholding God, and yet decide to rebel against God?

We eventually got into questions about free will, since that was part of the pastor’s solution to our question about Satan, and someone asked if God had free will.  We were a little hesitant to go that far, for would that suggest that God was able to sin?  (Many of them believed, however, that God, in Jesus, had taken on sinful flesh at the incarnation and thus was tempted to sin, but that is another story.)  There was also the consideration that we, as human beings, had free will.  Someone asked, “Can God give what he does not have?”

In response to that, I made a point that was a good point, but one that I could have made more elegantly.  I said that God gave trees bark, but that does not mean that God has bark.  That probably sounds silly, but I think that the point that I was trying to make was valid.  God does not necessarily share the attributes that God gives to creatures.  God can make creatures and things that are different from Godself. God can give characteristics that God does not possess as part of God’s nature.

I read Archie Spencer’s The Analogy of Faith a while back, and I learned from that book that there does seem to have been a belief in the history of philosophical and Christian thought that there is an analogy between God’s creation and the way that God is, and that one reason for this is that God caused the creation to exist.  In short, this belief states that one can look at creation and draw conclusions about God (natural theology).  Indeed, there are passages from Scripture that appear to suggest this: Genesis 1:27’s statement that God created human beings in God’s image, and Paul’s statement in Romans 1:20 that aspects of God are understood by the things that are made.

How does this relate to the questions of whether God has free will, or whether God can give what God does not have?  I would say that Genesis 1:27 is relevant to the question of whether God has free will: we, human beings, have free will, and we are made in God’s image, so perhaps we can conclude from this that God has free will.  At the same time, bringing Romans 1:20 into the discussion, I would not say that God has to share every characteristic with God’s creation, that God can only give what God possesses Godself as part of God’s nature.  Obviously, there are features of creation that are different from the way that God Godself is.  I would suggest that Romans 1:27 is saying that God’s creation demonstrates the power of God, and maybe even attributes of God: God is not like the sponge, to use a random example, but one can draw conclusions about God’s wisdom by looking at the sponge.  What I am saying may actually coincide with the views of some of the natural theologians whom Spencer surveys.

The question of whether God can give what God does not have occurred to me as I was reading “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan,” a Christian document from the fifth century C.E. to the ninth century C.E.  In Book 1, Chapter 51, verse 6, the Word of God (who would become Jesus Christ) is telling Adam and Eve about how mistaken they were to follow Satan’s advice in the Garden of Eden.  They see Satan’s horrible and pitiful appearance, and the Word of God tells them:

“This is he who promised you majesty and divinity.  Where, then, is the beauty that is on him?  Where is his divinity?  Where is his light?  Where is the glory that rested on him?”  (The translation is the one in the Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.)

Satan in the Garden of Eden promised Eve that she and her husband would be as gods after they ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:5).  But, after eating the forbidden fruit, they did not become like gods.  (Genesis 3:22, however, says that they actually became like god after eating the forbidden fruit, and, while I do not know how, or if, “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” handles this, you can read this post to see how other ancient interpreters handled it.)  Earlier in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan,” in Chapter 45:5, there appears to be a suggestion on the Word of God’s part that Adam and Eve, on some level, possessed divinity in the Garden of Eden, but Satan deprived them of that when they ate the forbidden fruit.  “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” is probably trying to harmonize themes from the different creation accounts, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 (though he most likely was unaware that they even were different creation accounts): one says that Adam was made by God in the image of God, and the other presents Adam and Eve as wanting to become like god by eating the forbidden fruit.

But back to “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” Book 1, Chapter 51, verse 6!  The Word of God seems to be suggesting there that Satan could not give what Satan himself did not possess.  Satan promised Adam and Eve divinity and exaltation, but look at him!  He obviously lacks divinity and exaltation!  He is pathetic!  How can he give what he does not have?  If you want exaltation, then you should stick with God, who alone can provide it.

There is a rhyme and reason to what the Word of God is saying in that verse: it is not iron-clad reasonable, but it makes a degree of sense.  It is not iron-clad because one can picture scenarios in which a being can exalt others, without himself being exalted.  I think of genies: they grant wishes that can exalt the person who found them, but the genies themselves remain subservient.  And yet, the Word of God’s reasoning makes a degree of sense, for, if Satan were able to help others by giving them divinity and exaltation, would not Satan at least exalt himself?  The fact that he has not given himself divinity, or otherwise possess it, arguably indicates that he cannot make anyone else divine.

In terms of spiritual application, I am encouraged, when I find that I lack love, to go to God, the embodiment and source of love.  In my mind, God can give what God has, and what God is.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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