Friday, March 12, 2010

The Problem in an Omnipotent God


The concept of God’s omnipotence together with those of omniscience, omnipresence and other divine attributes as taken up and expounded by medieval Europe’s theologians and philosophers who were experts in Greek philosophy, has been considered deficient and ineffective in dealing with, and also thought of to have somehow contributed to, the pastoral problems of modern times. That God possesses the highest conceivable form of power to strictly determine and decide every detail of what happens in the world is found to be in great contradiction to the existence of evil and occurrences of both natural and man-made disasters.

The omnipotence or almightiness attribute is the only divine perfection mentioned both in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. The meaning of omnipotence as found in the Sacred Scriptures and discussed in Hellenistic philosophy has been the subject of contention and debate from early Christianity through the Middle Ages and up to our times. It has somehow lost its original meaning from the Hebrew Scriptures when taken over by Greek philosophy.

The word omnipotence comes from the Latin omnipotentia or omnia potest meaning ‘can (do) everything’. Omnipotentia is the translation in the Greek Septuagint of the word pantokrator which is in itself the translation of the divine names Sebaoth and Sjaddai in the Hebrew Scriptures. Pantokrator is derived from the old divine epithet for Zeus, pankrates, ‘all-mighty’ or ‘all-sovereign’, and is associated with the Greek verb kratein followed by the genitive case. Its predominant usage in liturgy with covenantal overtones points to the “power which God is confessed to have over all things”[1] and refers to His “ability to do all things He wants to do in history.”[2] God’s power is universal dominion and authority over all and everything. He is the “all-ruling, all-sovereign master of the universe, the most high, who has the whole world in His governing hands and in control of all that happens in nature and history.”[3]

As the Septuagint pantokrator enters the religio-philosophical hellenistic thinking, its original meaning of ‘all-mighty’ or ‘all-sovereign’ gradually gravitates towards that of ‘all-sustainer’. The verb kratein is used with the accusative case after it. The Latin equivalent is not omnipotens but omnitenens ‘all holding or supporting’. God’s power is manifested in the creation of the world and its preservation. This power is very closely tied up with every part of creation which goes on. God keeps on sustaining and supporting His creation. God’s power is the Divine Providence, not that of a sovereign Dominator.

The shift in interpretation is manifested in a first century BC Jewish letter of Pseudo-Aristeas where God is invoked as the “pantokrator of all the goods He has created”[4] and clearly refers to God’s preserving activity. The shift in meaning is mirrored in, and probably influences, the usage in early Christianity. The earliest Christian writers use pantokrator in its original sense when referring to the Old Testament examples of “His sovereign power and authority, such as the Exodus, the remission of sins, and above all the creation of the world.”[5] The change in meaning to refer to the preserving and sustaining power of God is evident in the works of Theophilus of Antioch in the late second century AD and of Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century AD. In the earliest versions of the Apostles’ Creed, the term as used is in the second sense of God the preserver. Its later interpretation, more in the first sense, is due to developments in doctrines in connection with Christological controversies but without completely discarding its second meaning.

Early Christian writers find no contradiction between the two meanings in using the term in both senses as Cyril of Jerusalem who writes in the fourth century AD that “pantokrator is He who supports all things, who has authority over all things.”[6] Augustine of Hippo himself shows no problem with the term’s two meanings and simultaneously uses them in his Confessions “... deum omnipotentem et omnicreantem et omnitenentem coeli et terrae artificem” (XI 13,15).

During the Middle Ages omnipotentia assumes a different meaning due to the influence of the followers of the Anselmian tradition and of Scholasticism. Drifting away from its original biblical meaning, omnipotentia comes to be interpreted as ‘the capacity to do everything’ which in Greek is pantodunamos not pantokrator. This third concept of God’s power as the capacity to actualize all possible states of affairs is virtual and theoretical, that is, God does not really exercise, and has not exercised, this kind of power. That God can make 2 and 2 to be 5, bring back the past, do evil, etc., is unbiblical and has nothing to do with His sovereign and providential work. It is, unfortunately, in this sense that the English word omnipotence is now understood where the biblical and authentic Christian meaning has been distorted and has become the source of pastoral and spiritual troubles and mis-understanding of our age.

The assignment of omnipotence, and for that matter, of any divine attribute, to God is always expressed in human terms. The greatest description can always be surpassed, for whatever God is, He is always beyond human description. Moreover, human-assigned Divine attributes are not sufficient to explain the mystery of evil and always fall back on problems in Theodicy. Fortunately, there are now attempts to rectify the medieval, philosophical concept of God and recover the original, biblical concept with emphasis on His love and empathy rather than on His power and majesty.

In Liberal and Process Theologies, God’s power is the “appeal of unsurpassable love” and the “worship He inspires.”[7] God is described as “the fellow sufferer who understands”[8] rather than the Lord and King of universe. Although supreme, He is not the absolute Sovereign since human co-operation is required to realize His purpose. There is mutual enrichment between God and man. He needs us just as we need Him.

Feminist theology redefines God’s power in terms of “tender care and assistance rather than as domination and control.”[9]

God is not the majestic Lord of the universe but “the Roar of the Universe” or “the Lure of the Universe.” God does not create by an act of his will but nurtures us and leads us much as a mother caring for her children. This God is not almighty Creator but the Womb of Being, the Primordial Matrix or the Immanent Mother.[10]

Karl Barth’s long discourse on God’s omnipotence and biblical accounts of God’s power is as that of “power over everything, the power that creates, upholds and moves the world”[11] is concluded with the view that God exercises His power in the service of His love. For Barth “Jesus Christ is the power of God and it is the knowledge of Him and this alone which is real and inconvertible knowledge of the omnipotent God.”[12]

For Jürgen Moltmann the nature of God’s power is “suffering love rather than irreversible causality.”[13] Although an omnipotent God deserves respect, He cannot be loved but feared. “Omnipotence can be longed for and worshipped by helpless men, but omnipotence is never loved; it is only feared.”[14]

That the omnipotence of God is not emphasized in the Bible as much as the ‘lack’ of it in the sense “of how man has taken the initiative away from Him”[15] is surprising to a biblical reader. This ‘lack’ is described as God’s attribute of defenselessness, not impotence which is the antithesis of omnipotence. In the shift away from emphasis on God’s omnipotence to that of His defenselessness or powerlessness, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison emphasizes the need to think of God more in His powerlessness than almightiness. Bonhoeffer writes that “the bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help” and that it is the “God of the Bible who wins power and space in the world by His weakness.”[16] He displays His power in the powerlessness of His love when He allowed Himself ”to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which He can be with us and help us.”[17] In His defenselessness, God, however, still exercises power but does not do so in such manner so as to completely eliminate the power of man, His creation. Man is free to love and to exercise his power. Man’s freedom demands that God withdraws or recedes to give him room to act. The drastic surrender of Divine power is most evident when man decides to utilize his freedom to withdraw, that is, when he sins, from what God intends in him which is his full fellowship with Him. His defenselessness is manifested in His own covenantal people’s constant turning away from Him and His consistent readiness to forgive and welcome the Israelite people back to His protection. When the Holy Spirit gives inspiration, She does not force it on man but patiently waits for his final decision whether to accept or reject it. God’s defenselessness become most visible in Jesus Christ

Who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross (Phil 2:6-8).

The nadir of defenseless is reached on the cross when Jesus, having become the object of indifference and even hatred by His own people, hangs on the cross “where he is unable to save Himself, where God is silent, and where free and rebellious man triumphs over God.”[18] But in this utter defenselessness, God manifests His power in “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24). That ‘God can do anything’ only on the light of God’s power in Jesus Christ can make Theology a Christian one.


Barth, K. Church Dogmatics, trans. T. H. L. Parker et al., ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957.

Berkhof, H. Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of Faith tr. Sierd Woudstra, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.

Bloesch, D. G. God the Almighty, Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, 1995.

Bonhoeffer, D. Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Reginals H. Fuller, ed. Eberhard Bethge, New York: Macmillan, 1953.

Case-Winters, A. God’s Power: Traditional Understandings and Contemporary Challenges, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Hartshorne, C. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

Moltmann, J. The Crucified God, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden, New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

van den Brink, G. Almighty God: A Study of the Doctrine of Divine Omnipotence, Kampen – the Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1993.

[1] G. van den Brink, Almighty God: A Study of the Doctrine of Divine Omnipotence, (Kampen – the Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1993), p. 47.

[2] D. L. Holland, “Pantokrator in New Testament and Creed,” in: E.A. Livingstone (ed.), Studia Evangelica Vol. VI, Berlin 1973, p. 255.

[3] G. van den Brink , Almighty God: A Study of the Doctrine of Divine Omnipotence, p. 49.

[4] Ibid, p. 52.

[5] G. van den Brink, Almighty God: A Study of the Doctrine of Divine Omnipotence, p. 52.

[6] Ibid., p. 54.

[7] C. Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany: State university of New York Press, 1984), p. 14.

[8] Ibid., p. 14.

[9] A. Case-Winters, God’s Power: Traditional Understandings and Contemporary Challenges (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), pp. 201-232.

[10] D. G. Bloesch, God the Almighty, (Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, 1995), p. 55.

[11] K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. T. H. L. Parker et al., ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 2(1), p. 602.

[12] Ibid., pp. 606-607

[13] D. G. Bloesch, God the Almighty, p. 55.

[14] J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 223.

[15] H. Berkhof, Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of Faith tr. Sierd Woudstra, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 134.

[16] D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Reginals H. Fuller, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1953), p. 361.

[17] Ibid., pp. 219-220.

[18] H. Berkhof, Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of Faith, p. 135.

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