Is God All Powerful?

Divine omnipotence isn’t my favorite doctrine.

Here’s why:

Omnipotence literally means “all powerful.” Of course, if God has all the power then that means that there is no power left for us to have. Thus, everything that happens is the result of God’s action. When we read the newspaper each day we are reading about what God has decided to do with the world as of late. All of history is the result of God’s will–even the bad stuff.

Sin, too, must find its origin in God. This may sound absurd to some but, believe it or not, many believe this. What is more, those who hold this view still want to suggest that God blames sin on humanity (and will punish most of us in hell because of it) despite the fact that he predetermined it to happen in the first place. This is, of course, paradoxical (and disturbing).

It’s important that we ask ourselves at this point: Is omnipotence actually a biblical doctrine?

Well, it is impossible to deny that there are some passages in the Bible that would seem to indicate that God is indeed in absolute control of everything. A biblical case can be made for divine omnipotence. However, it is important for us to note that the Bible does not speak with one voice on this issue.

I would suggest that there are many more passages that suggest that God calls someone to do something and then allows them to respond however they wish. The story of Jonah could be employed as an example. God desires Jonah to preach to Nineveh and Jonah initially refuses to do so. Moreover, it seems that as the scriptural narrative progresses we see more and more that God acts persuasively rather than coercively. Paul’s understanding of the Spirit of Christ is that he lives in us. That is, God acts from within his creatures by means of persuasion rather than from without by means of coercion.

A great deal of our understanding of God as omnipotent comes from one of the names of God that we find in the Old Testament, namely, “God Almighty” or “the Almighty.” This title shows up quite frequently in Job. However, it is important that we realize that this title is a translation of the Hebrew title “El Shaddai” which is actually a proper name. El Shaddai is understood by scholars to mean “the breasted one” and has no connotations of omnipotence or almighty-ness. This proper name began to take on connotations of omnipotence when translators of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) translated it as “Cosmocrator” which means “ruler of the universe.” Our understanding of God as “the Almighty” is the result of this (mis)translation.

Update: Given a few of the comments that resulted from this post I thought it would be worth noting that what we find in the LXX is the beginning of the shift that led to us understanding “El Shaddai” as implying omnipotence. As Silas and Nicholas pointed out, the Latin Vulgate comes close to universalizing the improper translation of El Shaddai. Due to the fact that our translations rely quite heavily on the tradition of Jerome’s translation, we find this same mistake in many of our Bibles today.

Unfortunately, “the Almighty” has become our most common title for God in our liturgies despite the fact that it is a title and, I would suggest, an idea that is foreign from the biblical witness.

Okay but can’t the problem of omnipotence be solved by saying that God has chosen to limit himself?

Many would suggest that this is indeed the appropriate response. By affirming God’s self-limitation one can hold on to divine omnipotence without chucking human free will out the window. God technically has all the power, proponents of this view would say, but for the sake of loving relationship with his creation he has chosen to limit himself.

There are two problems with this.

First, this response doesn’t adequately deal with the problem of evil. If we say that God technically has the power to stop evil but refuses to do so then we must ask why he would do such a thing. We would certainly expect another human being to put a stop to violence and evil if it is within their power to do so. Should we not expect the same of God?

Secondly, this question assumes that God acts coercively. As we noted above, it seems like the overall thrust of the biblical evidence would suggest that God works on us internally in such a way that does not override our capacity to make decisions.

It seems better to me to suggest that no event is the result of a single cause. Instead, there are many causes to each event and God is one of those causes. What God works to do is to empower us, to liberate us, to teach us, to guide us, to persuade us to choose the good in each moment. How we choose to respond to these divine nudges is, ultimately, up to us.

So is God all powerful? Yes and no.

No: if our understanding of God’s power is that it is coercive then I do not believe God is all powerful.

Yes: God is infinitely persuasive and persuasion, I would suggest, is more powerful than coercion.

*The above is a summary of a portion of John Cobb’s lecture entitled Process Theology: An Introductory Introduction which can be found towards the bottom of this list of lectures.


13 responses to “Is God All Powerful?

  1. Just a question on the whole shaddai thing. Cobb says that the name began to take on connotations of omnipotence when they translated it in the LXX. I’ve having a hard time seeing this. I looked at a couple verses where shaddai is used in the Hebrew, and this is what I found.
    – Gen. 17.1: el-shaddai translated as ο θεος σου (your god)
    – Ex. 6.3 – el-shaddai translated as θεος αυτων (their god)
    – Num. 24.16 – shaddai translated as θεου (god)
    – Job 5.17: shaddai translated as παντοκρατορας (Almighty, but not cosmocrator as Cobb suggested)
    – Job 23.16 – same as above
    – Ezek. 10.5 – el-shaddai translated as θεου σαδδαι (God shaddai – they just transliterated shaddai)

    From this, it would seem that they did, indeed, see shaddai as a proper name. However, It would not seem that the LXX is to blame for the shift, for they translate it into God the majority of the time (only in Job as far as I can see, do they change it to pantocrator), or they transliterate it. I would be interested to know where the shift comes in, or why the LXX translators kept it proper in the whole Bible except Job.

    • It is my understanding that the shift came with the Vulgate. Jerome’s translation. Not with the lxx. But I don’t have proof at the moment.

      • I think that’s more correct. All of the passages I listed above translate it as omnipotens in the Vulgate except the Job 5.17 passage where it is translated as dominus.

  2. There is a significant flaw in how you deal with a self-limiting God. You say that for an omnipotent God to limit himself of his power is irresponsible and suspect because of the sin he allows to run rampant. You cannot say that from a processed perspective, because then you are admitting that the coercive power that I believe God mostly limits can defeat sin (which I don’t think is the case).

  3. @ Silas and Nicholas, thanks for pointing this out. I’ve updated the blog post accordingly.

    @Josh B., I suppose I understand human free will in this way: despite the fact that every decision I make is heavily contingent on previous decisions and events (i.e., cause and effect) I still think that there is the possibility of creativity and newness in the present. I understand God as the one who presents us with new possibilities in each moment, that is, he is the one who keeps the present from simply being a repeat of what’s already happened. Thus, in each moment I have the opportunity to choose a multitude of options that would simply affirm the status quo or I could choose one of the options that would lead to creative transformation (what God is calling us towards). Does that make sense?

    @Josh N., I think I would agree that coercive “power” does not have the power to do away with evil. If we do agree on this then what purpose does coercive power serve in your theological framework (especially if God has “mostly limited himself”)? It seems better to me to just say that God cannot act in such a way since (1) it wouldn’t accomplish what people think it would accomplish anyway and (2) it seems to be contrary to love since love always makes room for the other instead of coercing.

    • Garret, I see where you are going with that, and in fact my own thinking falls along similar lines. However, I want to tease this out a bit.
      At the beginning of your response you say that your current decisions are heavily contingent on decisions you have made in the past. You then go on to say that through Gods provision of novel options to choose from you can create or fashion something new.
      But how does this addresses the issue? If our decision making process functions via cause and effect, God can present us with an infinite number of novel choices and we will still choose what we do based on past causes. In such a scenario, free will would only exist in Gods ability to present us with novel choices, not in any capacity of our own. Does that make sense?

      • Josh, I guess I should clarify that I understand God to be doing more than merely providing us with the opportunity for creative transformation. He also serves as one of the many causes of each momentary decision, that is, he persuades us to choose the good in each moment. Thus, how I make my decisions depends on my responsiveness to the persuasion of God in each moment. I’m not sure whether or not this constitutes as freedom in a technical sense. Perhaps you could articulate your own view on the matter to help me formulate my own?

      • Garret

        I started preparing a response, but before I knew it I had written 600 words and wasn’t close to being done! I’ll finish that response soon and post it here. In the meantime, this video on the other end of the link below sets the stage for good discussion about determinism and free will, but by no means constitutes my response.

  4. I believe that God is all powerful. Your final comments are very important here in explaining what i mean by this in that we generally define power as being coercive, assuming that the greatest power is the power of death or the threat of death, but God’s “all-powerfulness” is the power of the resurrection, the power of love, the power that overcomes the power of death and the power of coercion.

  5. My opinion: God is God. He does as he wants. He created everything. Our human minds cannot understand why he does what he does. We cannot see him and his plan in it’s fullness. And we never will here on earth. I will freely admit that I know nothing. And we as humans know nothing compared to the scale of who God is.

    As for this discussion: What about when it says that God hardened Ramses heart when Moses came to him asking to free his people? That passage does imply that God caused somebody to choose something else other than his will.

    Also Paul says in Ephesians 1 that He chose his children before He even created anything. Why did God choose some people to be his children and not others? Seems unfair. But who are we to put God in a box and say “He wouldn’t do that because I don’t think it’s right”. God can do anything he wants and has a plan bigger than we can even begin to imagine.

  6. Alyssa, thanks for your thoughts. I have a few responses.

    First, I’m not as satisfied with giving God the divine prerogative to do whatever he wants even if it means damning some people to hell or allowing evil to take place. When you say that “God can do anything he wants and has a plan bigger than we can even begin to imagine,” it sounds to me like an attempt to defend a God who’s behaving pretty poorly. I’m simply not willing to defend a God who does such things. This is why I don’t believe in divine omnipotence as it is traditionally conceived.

    Secondly, the story in Exodus that you bring up must be read in its entirety. What you will notice is that the text also mentions Pharaoh hardening his own heart just as many times as it mentions God hardening his heart. What the reader is left with is a tension between Pharaoh’s own will in the matter and God’s involvement in his heart. To emphasize only the passages that say God hardened Pharaoh’s heart is not a fair reading of the text.

    Thirdly, I understand all of Paul’s language of predestination and election in light of the OT theme of election. In the OT Israel’s election is not an end in itself but rather a means of blessing all the nations of the earth. Saying that God predestined us so that we get eternal bliss and others don’t fails to take this important idea into account.

    I hope this clears things up.

  7. Pingback: How Does God Act in the World? – POB pt. 4 | garret menges blog

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