Monday, December 05, 2011

What is Omnipotence?

Encarta Dictionary --

All-powerful: possessing complete, unlimited, or universal power and authority.

Wikipedia --

Between people of different faiths, or indeed between people of the same faith, the term omnipotent has been used to connote a number of different positions. These positions include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. A deity is able to do absolutely anything, even the logically impossible, i.e., pure agency.
  2. A deity is able to do anything that it chooses to do.
  3. A deity is able to do anything that is in accord with its own nature (thus, for instance, if it is a logical consequence of a deity's nature that what it speaks is truth, then it is not able to lie).
  4. Hold that it is part of a deity's nature to be consistent and that it would be inconsistent for said deity to go against its own laws unless there was a reason to do so.
  5. A deity is able to do anything that corresponds with its omniscience and therefore with its worldplan.

[Thomas] Aquinas wrote that while "all confess that God is seems difficult to explain in what God's omnipotence precisely consists." In the scholastic understanding, omnipotence is generally understood to be compatible with certain limitations upon a deity's power, as opposed to implying infinite abilities… Rather than an advantage in power, human acts such as walking, sitting or giving birth were possible only because of a defect in human power. The ability to 'sin', for example, is not a power but a defect or an infirmity.

Last night while in bed, I was awake for quite some time pondering the meaning of God’s omnipotence. I’ve heard from time to time challenges such as:

“Can God create something too big for him to life?”

“Can God sin?”

As shown by the Wikipedia excerpts given above, challenges such as these two examples are considered nonsensical and meaningless since it derives from a faulty and rigid interpretation of omnipotence.

A more realistic challenge to the meaning of God’s omnipotence is how God can be omnipotent and at the same time allow for human beings to have freedom of choice. On the surface it would appear that if humans had absolute freedom of choice, God’s power is severely limited, not just in the choices human beings make, but in the effects of those choices upon the world and the universe. (Once omniscience is thrown in, the size of the dilemma only seems to increase.)

This dilemma is resolved in a number of ways within the Christian tradition. Here I present three. First, and perhaps the most widely held explanation, is that human beings don’t have absolute free will; that is, human freedom is limited by what God allows. A second explanation is that God is in control of the flow of history, but not in control of individual human decisions. In this scenario God can intervene to maintain the proper course of history. A third explanation is that there exists a principle (or law) that supersedes God’s omnipotence (and consequently limits it), and it is this principle that allows for absolute free will in humans.

The objection I have to the first explanation is that in my mind, God is only playing with humanity. In this scenario free will is an illusion, no matter how it is cast. A limited free will is no free will at all.

The objection I have to the second explanation is again, God reserves for himself the right to reverse human choices that might throw off God’s vision of the flow of history. Logically, this line of thought leads to the conclusion that there is no free will; if God cannot allow anything that might ruin his plan for history, is there truly free will?

I also see in the first two explanations a paradox: By God limiting free will, he is in fact admitting that he is not all-powerful. By God admitting that he might at some points in time, have to resort to the use of force and coercion, he is also admitting that free will is more powerful than himself.

This is why I believe, for myself, that the third explanation fits most closely with what is meant by God’s omnipotence. I reject the definition of omnipotence found in Encarta (and other dictionaries). I also reject the traditional explanations of limited free will. I believe there is a principle under which both omnipotence and free will are subject. This principle I believe to be the dominion of God’s love. Love is the first principle under which all other attributes and actions of God must be subject, including omnipotence. I believe that God’s love demands that human beings have absolute free will to the extent that it can and will limit God’s power and actions in the world.

The principle can be illustrated (imperfectly, I hasten to add) by human kingdoms. How much power does a king have? He has absolute power over his domain. What is his domain? From a human monarchial standpoint, a king’s domain includes those that willingly submit to him, those whom through fear voluntarily submit to him, and those whom are involuntarily coerced into submitting to him. The king has no power over those outside of his domain. He can attempt to exert power over those outside his domain through persuasion or through force. In either case, the king’s power is exerted by bringing those outside of his domain inside.

What I am getting at is that God’s omnipotence extends as far as his domain and no farther. He has power over those who willingly submit to him. Unlike human kings, I do not believe God ever uses fear or force to manipulate humans into submitting to him. Therefore, God has no power over those who have not submitted, or are unwilling to submit, to him. Again, because God’s power is limited by love, he cannot employ force to attempt to bring those outside his domain inside. The only avenue left to him is persuasion.

The Bible never explicitly dismisses the concept of multiple gods. The entire Old Testament is framed within the context that multiple gods exist and that they each have their own domains. It is within this context that Yahweh declares himself to be the God of Israel and that they are his people. It is within this context that God demonstrates that the various aspects of nature attributed to various gods, are actually within God’s domain.

God’s domain includes what is created, but there is one thing it does not include automatically: beings given free will. In the story of the Fall, in Genesis 3, when the serpent claims to Adam and Eve that “they will be like God,” he is not lying. Surprisingly the serpent may even be showing some restraint, because by claiming independence from God, Adam and Eve actually become their own little gods, claiming for themselves a domain that is no longer under God’s power. In Ezekiel 28 the prince of Tyre is accused of claiming, “I am a god.” Although the response is, “You are but a man, and no god,” within the context of free will the prince of Tyre is speaking the truth.

God’s plan and purpose is to bring all under his dominion. The only means he can use is persuasion through love. That is why the Father sent his Son, to be incarnated as a human being in Jesus Christ. I believe this is what Paul had in mind when he penned (quoting an even earlier Christ-hymn):

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

Philippians 2:10-11 reads (quoting and interpreting Isaiah 45:23; also quoted in Romans 14:11),

So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (ESV)

To me this is a critical passage because this is what gives God the right, authority, and power to judge and execute judgment over all creation. (The context in all three locations where this idea is found is the context of a final judgment.) What the Bible says is that at the very end all will willingly (all will be convinced of God’s rightness and justice, though many will continue to hate him) submit to the domain of God. Until this happens, God cannot execute final judgment because there are beings outside of his domain and consequently outside of his power and authority.

From a perspective of theodicy this is also critical because how can God rightly execute judgment upon a being who does not acknowledge God’s authority? Question will forever remain on whether or not God was good and just in executing judgment upon a being who did not acknowledge God’s authority.

This is my explanation on what I believe God’s omnipotence means, and why I believe humans have absolute free will.