Omnipotence


Omnipotence (literally, "all power") is power without limits. Monotheistic religions generally attribute omnipotence only to God. In the philosophies of Western monotheistic religions, omnipotence is listed as one of God's characteristics among many, including omniscience, omnipresence, and benevolence.

There are a variety of views of omnipotence, and the five most representative ones are:

  1. Absolutist view—God is absolutely able to do anything; that is, the answer to "Can God do x?" is always "yes," regardless of what x may be.
  2. Scholastic view—God is able to do whatever is not "intrinsically impossible." "Intrinsically impossible" things are of two kinds: 1) things which would not be in accord with God's nature (e.g., sinning or lying); and 2) things which would be logically impossible, connoting mutually repellent elements simultaneously (e.g., a square circle).[1]
  3. Religion-and-science unity model—God chose to act through the laws of nature in the world, and that choice involved a kenosis on his part in creating the world. His omnipotence consists in his absolute ability to make that choice and also in his irrepressible ability to work through the laws of nature.
  4. Process theology—God is not omnipotent but merely persuasive.
  5. Atheism—An omnipotent God does not exist.

Contents

The first three views accept God's omnipotence in their respective ways, while the last two reject it. So, the first three also have their own ways to address the problem of evil in relationship to divine omnipotence. The religion-and-science model is gaining popularity, having notions such as divine kenosis (God empties himself out of love), divine dipolarity (God has two poles of eternity and temporality, or of mind and matter, united), divine suffering, and creaturely freedom.

Absolutist View of Omnipotence

For some theists such as René Descartes, omnipotence means that God is absolutely able to do anything. God is not only able to perform such biblical miracles as parting the Read Sea and stilling the Sun in the sky, but is also able to perform feats that seem to be intrinsically impossible such as making a square circle, making 2+2=5, and even doing things against his nature. This, of course, leads to obvious contradictions and is not a widely held view by philosophically aware theologians, but those who adhere to it usually argue that to try and rationalize God's omnipotent power is a vain undertaking since one cannot ever really understand God's power, and it is perhaps better to take it on faith. In the context of his ontological argument for God's existence in his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes indicated his idea that trying to develop a theory to explain, assign, or reject omnipotence on grounds of logic has little merit, since being omnipotent would mean that the omnipotent being does not depend ontologically on anything but exists by its own power:

when we attend to immense power of this being, we shall be unable to think of its existence as possible without also recognizing that it can exist by its own power; and we shall infer from this that this being does really exist and has existed from eternity, since it is quite evident by the natural light that what can exist by its own power always exists. So we shall come to understand that necessary existence is contained in the idea of a supremely perfect being.[2]

John Calvin, who strongly believed in the absolute sovereignty of God, indicated a similar sentiment in his discussion of how God could ordain intrinsically impossible things such as the fall of Adam:

But how it was that God, by His foreknowledge and decree, ordained what should take place in Adam, and yet so ordained it without His being Himself in the least a participator of the fault, or being at all the author or the approver of the transgression; how this was, I repeat, is a secret manifestly far too deep to be penetrated by any stretch of human intellect.[3]

Also, according to Hindu philosophy, the essence of God or Brahman can never be understood or known, since Brahman is beyond both existence and non-existence, transcending and including time, causation, and space, and thus can never be known in the same material sense as one traditionally "understands" a given concept or object.[4]

Scholastic View of Omnipotence

This second view, and the one that is accepted by most Christians, has been developed since the time of Medieval scholasticism. In this view, omnipotence is understood to be compatible with certain limitations upon God's power, as opposed to implying infinite abilities. There are certain things that even an omnipotent God cannot do. They are "intrinsically impossible" things. According to Thomas Aquinas, "whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility."[5]

There are two kinds of intrinsically impossible things God cannot do. First of all, God cannot do anything which would contradict his nature. For example, God cannot sin, since to sin is repugnant to God's nature. To sin is repugnant to omnipotence anyway: "To sin is to fall short of a perfect action; hence to be able to sin is to be able to fall short in action, which is repugnant to omnipotence."[6] Second, God cannot do anything which would be logically impossible. For example, God cannot create a man who is at the same time a donkey, for in the statement that a man is a donkey "the predicate is altogether incompatible with the subject."[7] To draw another example, God cannot create an infinite rock, since any rock is a finite creature; and this answers in the negative the famous question: Can God create a rock so heavy that even he cannot lift it?

In recent times, C.S. Lewis has adopted a Scholastic position in the course of his work, The Problem of Pain. Lewis follows Aquinas' view on intrinsic impossibility:

His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say "God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it," you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: Meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words "God can."… It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.[8]

The omnipotence of God within the limits of these intrinsically impossible things, however, is not meant to be "passive" or "imperfect" power but "active" or "perfect" power in the highest degree, according to Aquinas, because God is "pure act." So, what God does shows the perfection of his true power and not the imperfection of creaturely passive power. This standard scholastic position allows that creaturely acts, such as walking, can be performed by humans but not by God. Rather than an advantage in power, human acts such as walking, sitting or giving birth are possible only because of an imperfection in human power. The thing is that although God cannot do these imperfect, creaturely acts, which are not in accord with his nature, he is still omnipotent: "God is said to be omnipotent in respect to His active power, not to passive power…. Whence the fact that He is immovable or impassible is not repugnant to His omnipotence."[9]

Religion-and-Science Unity Model: A Kenosis of Omnipotence

The two preceding views generally hold that the laws of nature are not part of God's nature but the principles upon which he created the world. They both believe, therefore, that God is able to intervene in the world, when needed. The only difference between the two is that while the first believes that God's intervention suspends the laws of nature, the second holds that divine intervention is simply added side by side with the laws of nature without necessarily suspending them.

However, many modern scholars such as John Polkinghorne do not agree; they rather hold, based upon their interest in the unity of religion and science, that the laws of nature are not separate from God's nature, and that God acts in the world through the laws of nature. This new understanding still affirms the omnipotence of God, by saying that his choice to work only through the laws of nature was made on his own out of love for his creation. In the words of Polkinghorne, who is a Cambridge scholar and Anglican priest trained in both mathematical physics and theology:

It is important to recognize what is meant by speaking of God as "almighty." God can do what he likes, but God wills only what is in accordance with his nature. The very last thing that the utterly consistent and rational God can be is a kind of capricious celestial conjurer. Love works by process, respectful of the other's independence and integrity, and not by overruling magic. That is God's relationship with his creation, to which he has given the gracious gift of being itself. Those very laws of nature, whose regularities are discerned by science, are understood by the theologian to be willed by God and to reflect God's continuing faithfulness. God cannot work against the laws of nature, for that would be for God to work against himself. If God acts in the world, his action will be within the grain of the universe and not against it.[10]

Divine omnipotence, then, is understood in the context of divine love out of which God absolutely decided that the world be created with the laws of nature that stipulate its integrity of indeterminism. Omnipotence as understood this way is referred to as "a kenosis (emptying) of divine omnipotence, which allows for something other than God to exist, endowed with genuine freedom."[11] Here, there is no contradiction between omnipotence and a kenosis of it since God does not cease to be omnipotent through his kenosis, which is a volitional self-limitation of his power and not any external metaphysical constraint on divine power that would make him finite as in process theology.

This divine kenosis is said to occur in connection with God's dual characteristics called "a temporal/eternal dipolarity" that involves a dipolarity of mind and matter.[12] The overall position dealt with here is quite similar to a new school of theology called open theism.

Process Theology: Persuasion

Some monotheists, usually process theologians, reject the view that God is or could be omnipotent. God is said to act in the world through persuasion, and not by coercion.

Process theology rejects omnipotence on a philosophical basis, arguing that omnipotence as classically understood would be less than perfect, and is therefore incompatible with the idea of a perfect God. The idea is grounded in Plato's oft-overlooked definition of being as "power": "My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power."[13] From this premise, Charles Hartshorne argues further that:

Power is influence, and perfect power is perfect influence … power must be exercised upon something, at least if by power we mean influence, control; but the something controlled cannot be absolutely inert, since the merely passive, that which has no active tendency of its own, is nothing; yet if the something acted upon is itself partly active, then there must be some resistance, however slight, to the "absolute" power, and how can power which is resisted be absolute?[14]

The argument can be stated as follows:

  1. If a being exists, then it must have some active tendency.
  2. If beings have some active tendency, then they have some power to resist God.
  3. If beings have the power to resist God, then God does not have absolute power.

Thus, if God does not have absolute power, God must therefore embody some of the characteristics of power, and some of the characteristics of persuasion. Process theology holds that God's persuasive power results from the integration between his two natures within himself: "primordial nature" (in which he envisions all possibilities) and "consequent nature" (in which he brings in data from the world). This view is known as "dipolar theism." This was articulated by Alfred North Whitehead in his Process and Reality (1929)[15] and expanded upon by the aforementioned philosopher Charles Hartshorne. Hartshorne proceeded within the context of the theological system known as process theology. The most popular works espousing this line of thinking outside the Christian tradition are from Harold Kushner in Judaism.

In the King James version of the Bible, as well as several other versions, in Revelation 19:6 it is stated "the Lord God omnipotent reigneth." There are also verses which assert God's omnipotence without actually using the word itself (e.g., Psalms 33:8-9; Genesis 17:1; and Jeremiah 32:27). Nevertheless, much of the narrative of the Old Testament describes God as interacting with creation primarily through persuasion, and only occasionally through force. A primary New Testament text used to assert the limit of God's power is Paul's assertion that God cannot tell a lie (Titus 1:2). Thus, it is argued, there is no strong scriptural reason to adhere to omnipotence, and the adoption of the doctrine is merely a result of the synthesis of Hellenic philosophy and early Christian thought.

Atheism: Rejection of an Omnipotent God

Atheists do not exclude "intrinsically impossible" things, mentioned above, from the notion of omnipotence. They say that omnipotence always contains them, thus being paradoxical. They utilize this paradox of omnipotence to argue against the existence of an omnipotent God. They say, for example, that an omnipotent God, by definition, should be able to make a squire circle, but that it is, in reality, impossible for a squire circle to be made. They argue, therefore, that such a God does not exist.

They have developed another, more intricate argument, by posing a question: Can God create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it? The answer should be either in the affirmative or in the negative. If in the affirmative, God is not omnipotent since he cannot lift the rock. If in the negative, God is not omnipotent again since he cannot create such a rock. Either alternative forces the conclusion that God is not omnipotent. But, if God exists, he is omnipotent. Consequently, God does not exist.[16]

Issues in Thinking about Omnipotence

Problem with the religion-and-science unity model

Among the views of omnipotence, the religion-and-science unity model represented by John Polkinghorne is gaining popularity these days because of its attempt to unify science and religion. To this position, all the other theories are inadequate. The absolutist theory of Descartes makes too sharp a distinction between God and the world. Even the scholastic position basically does the same thing because it believes that God is incapable of doing creaturely acts such as walking and sitting. Process theology is unacceptable because it denies omnipotence. Needless to say, atheism, too, is unacceptable.

But, even Polkinghorne's position seems to many critics to have a problem. According to him, omnipotence consists in God's absolute ability to choose what he finally chose, which is to work through the laws of nature. And that choice involved his kenosis. A question arises, however: Yes, it may be true that God omnipotently chose that option; but, after that option was chosen, i.e., after the laws of nature are set up for him to work through, is he now working through them still as a God of omnipotence? Or is he now rather a finite God, not being able to disregard the laws of nature, in spite of having been an omnipotent God at the beginning? Many critics feel that the God of Polkinghorne, working through the laws of nature, is no longer omnipotent, and criticize him for being a process theologian, although he clearly states that he is not a process theologian.

One possible way out of this alleged problem would be to show a clearer description of omnipotence by which to be able to assert that God, even when working through the laws of nature, is still an omnipotent God. In such a description, omnipotence does not consist in any ability of God to disregard the laws of nature. Nor does it consist in God's ability per se to work through the laws of nature but in the irrepressible or unstoppable character of that ability of God who really wants to accomplish his will through them. Perhaps this subtle distinction is what Polkinghorne means when he says that God's power should be stronger than the merely "persuasive" power of the God of process theology that is too limited to provide sufficient grounds for eschatological hope.[17] This can be understood also from his assertion that the omnipotence of God in terms of its volitional kenosis based on his dipolarity is unceasing and continuous beyond his act of creation.

Theodicy problem

The problem of evil is often discussed in connection with omnipotence. For if God is omnipotent, why does evil exist in the world? The first three of the above five views believe that God is omnipotent, but they address the problem of evil in quite different ways. The absolutist view holds that even if evil is intrinsically impossible given the good nature of God, God who is absolutely omnipotent can ordain and even create it, using it as an instrument to accomplish his plan beyond our understanding. The scholastic position, by contrast, says that God cannot cause evil, which is intrinsically impossible, and that evil is therefore attributed to the laws of nature including the free will of humans (the free-will defense). Scholasticism additionally argues that evil is not substantial anyway as it is merely the privation of good (privatio boni).

The third position, the religion-and-science model, too, attributes evil to the laws of nature that contain the "free process" of nature and the "free will" of humans (the free-process defense and the free-will defense): "The divine sharing of the causality of the world with creatures will permit the act of a murderer or the incidence of a cancer, though both events run counter to God's good desires."[18] But, there are at least two things that make this model different from the scholastic view. First, this model believes evil to be real and substantial and not privatio boni. Second, it has a unique emphasis on God's kenotic love as the divine motivation for having given the laws of nature to the world. So, in face of evil that occurs in the world, God suffers with creatures out of love,[19] although evil will eventually be overcome because God is still omnipotent in his irrepressible ability to work through the laws of nature.

Notes

  1. Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Omnipotence." Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  2. René Descartes. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. vol. 2, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. (Cambridge University Press, 1985), 85, italics added.
  3. John Calvin, The Eternal Predestination of God Retrieved June 27, 2008.
  4. Bhagavad Gita 14.27.
  5. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Summa Theologica, I, 25, 3. Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  6. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Summa Theologica, I, 25, 3. Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  7. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Summa Theologica, I, 25, 3. Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  8. C.S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 18.
  9. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Summa Theologica, I, 25, 3. Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  10. J.C. Polkinghorne. Serious Talk: Science and Religion in Dialogue. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1995), 77.
  11. John Polkinghorne, "The Laws of Nature and the Laws of Physics," in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, and C. J. Isham (Vatican Observatory Publications, 1993), 447.
  12. J.C. Polkinghorne, Serious Talk: Science and Religion in Dialogue (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1995), 54.
  13. Plato, "Sophist." Retrieved November 27, 2007.
  14. Charles Hartshorne. Man's Vision of God. (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1964), 89.
  15. Alfred North Whitehead. Process and Reality, corrected ed., ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1979).
  16. "Problems With Divine Omnipotence." Retrieved June 26, 2008.
  17. John Polkinghorne. The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker. (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1996).
  18. John Polkinghorne. Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter With Reality. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 84.
  19. Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity, 109.

References

  • Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved October 27, 2007.
  • Calvin, John. The Eternal Predestination of God. Retrieved June 27, 2008
  • Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. 2. Translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge University Press, 1985. ISBN 0521288088
  • Flew, Antony, and Alasdair C. MacIntyre. New Essays in Philosophical Theology. London: SCM Press, 1955.
  • Hartshorne, Charles. Man's Vision of God. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1964.
  • Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. ISBN 0060652969
  • Oppy, Graham. "Omnipotence." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (2005): 58-84.
  • Pike, Nelson. God and Evil: Readings on the Theological Problem of Evil. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.
  • Plato. "Sophist." Retrieved October 27, 2007.
  • Polkinghorne, J.C. Serious Talk: Science and Religion in Dialogue. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1995. ISBN 1563381095
  • Polkinghorne, John. The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1996. ISBN 0800629701
  • Polkinghorne, John. "The Laws of Nature and the Laws of Physics." In Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, edited by Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, and C. J. Isham. Vatican Observatory Publications, 1993.
  • Polkinghorne, John. Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter With Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. ISBN 030011530X
  • Urban, Linwood, and Douglas N. Walton. The Power of God Readings on Omnipotence and Evil. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. ISBN 0195022017
  • Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. Corrected ed. Edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press, 1979. ISBN 0029345707

External links

All links retrieved February 16, 2015.

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