February 20, 2012
Is Omnipotence a Compliment God Want’s You to Take Back?
Being the biblically oriented kind of guy I am, I have always been a bit stand-offish about the doctrines of omnipotence (God can do all things), omniscience (God knows all things) and omnipresence (God is everywhere). It’s not that I necessarily disagree with them, it’s just that they seem to be stronger statements of the case than we see in scripture.
But in a recent conversation with a local philosophy prof, Dan Howard-Snyder, we got to talking about this issue and I like the way he re-framed the language. Let’s just drop the terminology of “omnipotence,” he said, and use the biblical term “almighty.” Can we say that God is almighty, meaning he can do anything? I thought, “Yea. That works.” And I’m fairly certain that being more than halfway through a beer had nothing to do with it. I think maybe I was getting a little hung up on the terminology. Here are some relevant biblical examples of “almightyness”:
- “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You.” (Jeremiah 32:17)
- “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” (Psalm 135:6)
- “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” (Psalm 115:3)
- The term “almighty” itself is significant as is ascribed to God some 50 times in the Bible (depending on English version), and can hardly mean “only partially mighty.”
- Finally, I don’t think there are any biblical passages that suggest or even hint at a limitation to God’s power. In any case, it’s hardly a stretch to ascribe all power to the One who spoke all things into existence.
This leads me to a recent article down Held-Evans way with the views of Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders, to wit, “Omnipotence: A Compliment Jesus Wants You to Take Back” (These are the guys at Homebrewed Christianity) The main reason they give for rejecting omnipotence is that it implies tyranny and coercion and manipulation on God’s part. If God is omnipotent, they seem to think, that would be bad because he would control everything in an inappropriate kind of way. I’ll look at each of their reasons for rejecting omnipotence in a second, but my main criticism of their arguments is that Tripp and Bo have committed a “guilt by association” error. If God is omnipotent/almighty that is one issue. How God chooses to use that power is another question entirely. The Bible affirms, of course, that God uses his power wisely, righteously and humbly. Therefore, there is no reason to reject omnipotence out of a concern about tyranny or manipulation.
So, let’s roll up our sleeves and look a their reasons more specifically:
1. Tripp and Bo think that an omnipotent deity would be responsible for all the evil in the world, and that would be unacceptable: “When God can do whatever God wants to do, whenever God wants to do it, everything that happens is either the direct will of God or permitted by God.” But what if the Bible affirms both that God is almighty (see above) and that he is not responsible for sin (Gen. 1:31 creation is “very good”)? Wouldn’t it make more sense to use that as our starting point? I’m not sure why Tripp and Bo jump straight to Calvinism as the only viable interpretation of omnipotence, but they do. In the Calvinist version God is indeed directly responsible for “all that shall come to pass.” But two observations: (1) Give the Calvinist view its due. The Calvinist point is that evil is justified by God’s ultimate plans. For example, God allows violence in order for forgiveness to be possible. (2) The Calvinist solution is not the only one! Other Christian traditions have emphasized the importance of free will, granted by God to individuals. That’s where I’m coming from, btw.
2. Tripp and Bo think that an omnipotent deity is not capable of genuine relationship or love, for “loving relationships require openness, vulnerability, risk, and genuine duration.” I think that at this point they are misunderstanding the meaning of “almightyness” – the idea is simply that God can do anything. This is not the same thing as saying that he does do any and everything. That belongs in the discussion of the nature of God’s sovereignty, not the extent of his power. Logically speaking God might be all powerful but chose to do nothing at all. I see not need to connect these two and then pit them against each other. Yes, God is almighty; yes, God is in loving relationship with us. Surely God may chose, because he can do all things, to endow his creatures with free will and to enter into a reciprocal relationship with them.
3. Tripp and Bo also think that an omnipotent deity runs eternity like a tyrannical dictator. This is the same issue as #2, so I’ll just repeat that the possession of power does not determine how it is used. Tyranny does not follow from almightyness. Even in the human sphere there is such a thing as a benign dictator or monarch.
4. This fourth point is another version of the last two, namely that omnipotence, since it is tyrannical, is incompatible with the revelation of Jesus on the cross, which is the opposite of tyranny. In fact, say Tripp and Bo, “God’s self-revelation in Jesus was a rejection of the coercive, determining, and controlling power that the empires of the world love so much for the power of love.” This sounds great and I suppose I agree with it. But it has little to do with omnipotence. Nothing about this conflicts with God being almighty. In fact, omnipotence would only make Tripp and Bo’s point even more starkly: God, who has all power, chose to demonstrate instead his love. God, although he is almighty, does not use his might like the rulers of the gentiles; rather God’s power is demonstrated in service and self-sacrifice (see Matthew 18:20-28).
To reiterate, the root mistake at work here is the assumption that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Surely we will not be faulted for affirming that this is not the case when it comes to God’s power, for he does not excercize power in the same way that sinful humans do. Rather, he uses his power righteously. Omnipotence is not the problem, guys. As usual, it is sin, rebellion and selfishness. We don’t have to change God to address this. We just have to imitate him as he is portrayed in Scripture.
A question of method
Tripp and Bo’s concerns about omnipotence are mostly theological or philosophical, not strictly speaking biblical. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, it’s just that they do not mention any biblical content in this critique of omnipotence except for a couple general references to Jesus and the cross. This may actually be the largest problem I see with their view. What is the premise behind such an approach? It would seem to imply that theology is a philosophical and rational task, not an exegetical one. There is a very important hermeneutical principle at stake here, which Ben Witherington recently stated nicely. Although reason is a helpful tool and should never be undercut in biblical interpretation, we have to be careful about allowing reason (or tradition or experience for that matter) to trump the direct teaching of the Bible. (Is there a Doctor in the House? 103-104)
An example from Tripp and Bo is the following affirmation,
“Infinite divine love, the freedom it gives, the risks it takes and the possibilities it continuously creates offer an alternative ultimate theological principle for Christian theology and one I think coheres with the story of Jesus.”
I guess I feel like questions about God’s nature ought to be answered from the direct teaching of scripture, not from an extrapolation that coheres with the biblical account. These are actually really important distinctions. In my mind becoming a Christian means accepting the direct teaching of the Bible as true and adjusting our lives to that truth. But often we find ourselves reasoning quite sloppily from general ideas that are only obliquely connected to the text of the Bible. It’s no surprise that these discussions should give rise to all sorts of “human controversies” (Barth’s phrase).
The other problem is that we all have guiding principles. If they are not the direct teaching of Scripture they are something else. In this case it turns out to be influences from the quarter of process theology. This can be seen in a final quotation from Alfred North Whitehead to the effect that “The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.” (In other words, omnipotence was a development of the latter, compromised, church.) My response is: Why is Whitehead any kind of authority on this question? He was a philosopher and by no stretch a Christian, though he did believe in God. And: Are you sure you want to go down this track? Process theology might seem like it helps interpret Christian themes, but in the end it is really something completely different: a god who is dependent on the world, who is incomplete, who is not a creator, who cannot conquer evil, who messed up the world, who is not, perhaps, even worthy of our respect. Let’s at least avoid giving the rosy impression that a limited god is the great solution to all our problems. As soon as “omnipotent God problems” are laid to rest “impotent god problems” rear their ugly head. And it’s a pretty ugly head.
Before drinking from the wells of process theology, I suggest we drink more deeply the water from our own well. I think we will find it satisfying.
PS. I have some more analysis of process theology. Check it out if you want to see my criticism worked out in detail.