Divine omnipotence isn’t my favorite doctrine.
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.