The Death of Omnipotence

November 16th, 2022 / 11 Comments

I’m writing a new book. My tentative title is “The Death of Omnipotence… and Birth of Amipotence.”

As the title suggests, I’ll argue that God is not omnipotent. But instead of simply saying, “God can’t do…,” I’m also proposing a view of divine power I think is more biblically supported, philosophically coherent, and experientially justified. I call it “amipotence.” (Here’s a 3-minute ORTShort describing the word.)

Here’s how I plan to start the book…

THERE’S NOTHING THAT HE CANNOT DO?

My God is so big, so strong, and so mighty there’s nothing that He cannot do.”[1] These lines from a children’s song give voice to what many people believe: God can do anything.

Other song lyrics proclaim the glory of an all-powerful God. In his Messiah concerto, George Frideric Handel’s oft-repeated lines ring out:

For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah![2]

Contemporary worship choruses promote omnipotence, declaring a sovereign God cannot be thwarted nor the divine will be frustrated. It’s common for believers, enraptured in praise, to lift their voices to the One they call “almighty” and proclaim, “our God reigns!”

OMNIPOTENCE

“Omnipotence” expresses in formal language the “God can do anything” view. A God with all (omni) power (potent) apparently can do anything we imagine and more. Augustine made this connection, saying the omnipotent God is “He who can do all things.”[3]

In some theologies, God actually exerts all power and is the cause of everything; call this “theological determinism” or “monergism.” In others, God could do everything but chooses not to. God so conceived controls from time to time but generally opts to allow creatures to exert power; call this view “voluntary divine self-limitation.”[4]

Among the attributes theists ascribe to God, omnipotence is likely best known. For many, it’s a placeholder for God – “the Omnipotent.” Although distinctions can be made, the term is often thought synonymous with other words and phrases describing divine power: “sovereign,” “all-powerful,” and “almighty.”[5] These describe what many think necessary of a being worthy of worship: unlimited power.

Christian creeds refer to God’s almightiness. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…” begins the Apostle’s Creed. The Nicene Creed starts similarly: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…” The Westminster Confession speaks of a God who, in “sovereign” or “almighty” activity, saw fit to “ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”

THREE MEANINGS

Theists espouse various meanings of omnipotent, almighty, or all-powerful. In this book, I address three common among scholars and laity. To say God is omnipotent typically means at least one of the following:

1. God exerts all power.

2. God can do absolutely anything.

3. God can control others or circumstances.[6]

https://www.amazon.com/Pluriform-Love-Relational-Theology-Well-Being/dp/1948609576

Some theists affirm one or two meanings but not all. Some reject the idea God exerts all power, for instance, but believe God can control others. Others say God can do anything but also say God doesn’t always control creatures. Many claim God can singlehandedly determine outcomes but cannot do what is illogical or self-contradictory. And it’s common for believers to say God is omnipotent but appeal to mystery when vexing questions arise.

CONCLUSION

I’d love to hear your questions, suggestions, and thoughts. Now that you know the general aim of the book, what issues should I be sure to address?

(I explain amipotence a bit in my book, Pluriform Love. Also, see this essay from Jay McDaniel.)


[1] Ruth Harms Calkin, “My God is so Big” (Permission to quote granted from Nuggets of Truth Publishing).

[2] Handel seems to be drawing from Revelation 19:6, which in Latin and in the King James Version of scripture is translated “omnipotent” but in most contemporary biblical translations is rendered “almighty.”

[3] Augustine, De Trinitate, IV 20, 27 (CChr.SL), 50, 197: “Quis est autem omnipotens, nisi qui omnia potest.” Despite this claim, Augustine also notes a number of things God cannot do.

[4] Theologians have explored the distinction between God’s potential power and the actual expression of divine power. See, for instance, Ian Robert Richardson, “Meister Eckhart’s Parisian Question of ‘Whether the omnipotence of God should be considered as potentia ordinata or potentia absoluta?” Doctoral Dissertation (King’s College London, 2002), 17.

[5] In previous writings, I’ve said we could rightly call God almighty in the senses. God is 1) the mightiest, 2) exerts might upon all, and 3) the source of might for all. Gijsbert Van Den Brink argues for “almightiness” over omnipotence in Almighty God: A Study of the Doctrine of Divine Omnipotence (Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1993).

[6] By “control,” I mean acting as the sufficient cause of some creature, circumstance, or event. To describe such control, I use phrases like “singlehandedly decide outcomes,” “unilaterally determine,” or others that depict God as the sole cause. I will argue that God never has controlled and, in fact, cannot control others.

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Comments

John Dally

In my preparation for teaching the apostles creed, I found that the term almighty is not found in the New Testament, except in revelation and a quote from the old testament. In the Old Testament, it comes from El Shaddai, which means God of the mountains.


thomasjayoord

Thanks, John. I agree. And I address these issues in the chapter on scripture.


Craig

John Piper is going to love this…


Terry Clees

It seems to me that any time omnipotence is questioned based on experience people fall back on God’s ways are not our ways (Isa 55:8-9). Perhaps you could unpack the meaning of that verse (and similar ones) in light of amipotence


Jess in Co

I am a Lutheran and hear often that it’s not my actions but Gods actions through me that allow me to do anything “good” … where does my autonomy meet Gods power? I think this thinking comes from Luther’s teachings on grace and all salvation is accomplished by God not our “works” but then what role do I have? (Lutherans also say “Gods work our hands” so which is it?) If God is powerful enough to do everything why am I here and why is there injustice and suffering? I know you’ve addressed some of this already but it continues to be a challenging concept, thank you for your work.


thomasjayoord

Good idea, Terry!


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Jess. Luther has the idea that God works through us, but when good occurs, it was all God. When we do evil, it’s all us. In this scheme, we have nothing positive to contribute but only what is negative. As I see it, we contribute to what is good. And our sin comes when we don’t cooperate with God’s work for love. I address these issues in Pluriform Love in my chapter on Anders Nygren’s view of agape.


r eric rosemund jr

i bet you have already done this. but interaction with greg boyd would be helpful


Michael Rans

I look forward to this book Tom. I think omnipotence is often linked with other concepts like sovereignty, justice and the Fall to to state why a God that doesn’t need us in any case created us, to explain how an omnipotent God is unable to instantaneously stop all evil and to excuse God’s apparent evil commands or acts as described in the Old Testament. I would be interested to see you address these defences of the traditional understanding of omnipotence as you delineate your alternative.


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Eric. I plan to cite him in my section dealing with the mistranslation of sabaoth: Lord of hosts.


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Michael. I hope to cover those issues in a way that makes sense.


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