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Playing Erasmus: An Alternative Account of Biblical Omnipotence

Rather than gum up the comments section of Jay’s recent post, I decided I would post a short essay offering a different account of omnipotence, one I believe both to be fully Biblical and philosophically robust. I do not presume to call my own theology or another’s a sin outright, but I will say that nothing I write here will be outside the doctrinal vocabulary of the Scriptures, and I will not offer much if anything novel, instead reiterating what many of the Church Fathers and more recent theologians have put forth in attempts to interpret the Scriptures, the world the Scriptures define for us, and our life inside that world.

I realize that I’m playing Erasmus to Jay’s Luther here, and I know how that turned out for Erasmus five hundred years ago, and I also recognize that if history bears out now the way it did then, his brief piece on the will and my brief rejoinder will be followed by a two-hundred-page response from Jay that history will remember as my butt’s getting kicked.

Nonetheless I make my assay.

Before I start, I recognize that this essay must seem out of place on a Reformed Mafia website. To that I will simply answer that Jeff invited me to join the crew here knowing that I’m neither Reformed in the theological sense (or in other senses, depending on whom you ask) or particularly Conservative. As far as I can tell, he invited me here to contribute interesting blog posts, and that’s what I’m attempting here.

Words Mean Things

First one should point out the obvious, namely that the word “omnipotence” and its cognates do not actually appear in the text of the Bible, that they are good tools for understanding revelation but not the content of revelation itself. As Jay rightly noted in his Wages of Spin review series, that does not automatically disqualify vocabularies for theological use, but it does advise a degree of caution when proceeding.

Second one should note that the English word “omnipotent” comes from the Latin potens, the root word which lexically denotes power and serves as the root word for the English word potential. To assert divine omnipotence is to make the sensible philosophical claim that if one conceives of God in Anselmian terms, as that than which none other could be greater, then that entity has the power (potens) to do anything.

Up to this point, I do not think that Jay and I disagree. Where we diverge is where to go from there. Jay’s construction of divine omnipotence holds that a Creator with unlimited potens will by necessity create in such a way that a single will will exert that potens in every corner of the created reality. Such a formulation has a distinguished history, tracing its way from the Stoics through Boethius and eventually to John Calvin and his followers. There is nothing logically inconsistent or nefarious in such a construction. Nonetheless, I will propose another reading of omnipotence that, I think, will make some more sense of the content of revelation as found in the books of Scripture.

Grammar, Narrative, and Reality

Given the axiom that God as a philosophical category is omnipotent, certain corollaries follow, five of which are these:

  1. God could have created a world in which no entity had vegetable, animal, or rational faculties. A world of inert atoms is within the realm of possibility for an omnipotent creator.
  2. The same goes for worlds void of animal and rational or just rational faculties. By omnipotence we should mean that God had the potens to do any or none of these things.
  3. God could have created a world with rational entities but not revealed God’s self to them in any way beyond the rational ordering of that universe. This seems to have been the philosophy of, among others, the Epicureans and to some extent Aristotle.
  4. God could have created a world with rational entities and then revealed God’s self in a form that does not actually reflect the real relationship between God and creation.
  5. God could have created a world with rational entities and then revealed God’s self in a form that does actually reflect the real relationship between God and creation.

The last three of these possibilities are the most important for this essay: after all, the world that we live in does, as far as people can tell, host a number of rational entities, so the main philosophical problem seems not to be the presence or absence of rationality but the presence or absence of divine self-revelation and, in the case of presence, the character of that revelation. If this post has a thesis, this is it: If we confess that God revealed God’s self, the character of that revelation should be prior to philosophical categories when we reason about God (or do theology, if one prefers Greek).

I take as a given that the Bible, not only in its content but also in its form, is a revelation of divinity. Therefore, the grammar that the Bible does and does not use is important; one cannot simply rephrase what comes to us in different philosophical terms and end up with the same book. For that reason, I take both narratives and imperative verbs to be not mere decoration but partially constitutive of what we Christians should think of the God whom we worship.

For that reason, if God reveals God’s self through narratives in which God is a character (God does), the events of that narrative should stand on their own terms,
not as anthropomorphisms for the sake of entertaining those who have not read their Aristotle. So if the text of the Bible relates God’s commanding Moses to go and speak to Pharaoh, and Moses’ tacit resistance, and God’s resultant anger as a result of that resistance, and if the text presents them as happening in sequence, and if the text presents Moses as acting contrary to divine request (all of this is in Exodus 4, by the way), then the sequence and the shared agency of chapter 4 should be as important as the four letters of the divine name in chapter three. If a prophetic oracle presents the relationship between God and Israel in narrative terms, noting that after God established and protected Israel, Israel forsook God and God responded to that abandonment with violence (all of this is in Isaiah 5, by the way), then the sequence of events and the sharing of agency is just as much divine revelation as the datum that God revealed God’s self to Isaiah in chapter 6.

Now one could attempt (and folks have attempted) to force the content of these chapters into a framework of atemporality and omnicausality, insisting that a Boethian philosophy must be in place before one begins to read the text of the Bible. As I wrote before, those folks likely have the best of intentions and worship alongside English teachers like me without any reservations. My assertion is not that those folks are sinning by making Boethian philosophical frameworks prior to the actual text of Exodus or Isaiah. I am saying that the alternative is just as biblical and in fact seems to give priority to the actual form of the text more than an omnicausal reading does.

In other words, I think that omnipotence at the very least means the potens to defy Aristotle, to order creation differently than Aristotle would order it, and to self-reveal in forms that instruct the faithful in those differences. And I think God has done just that.

With regards to divine imperatives, again the character of the grammar of the revelation matters, and it ties into narrative. Often God presents to Israel (and to Noah and Adam before that) direct imperatives, and in many of those cases God’s subsequent literary relationship with the hearers of those imperatives hinges on the other agent’s compliance or non-compliance with those imperatives. To argue thus is to say nothing about the power to comply yet; it is simply a literary datum.

When we make sense of those imperatives, I tend to let the text of the Bible have priority. Thus when I see that God favors Noah and his family for being righteous while destroying the rest of humanity, the logic of the narrative indicates that Noah might have been otherwise, that God is angry with the rest of the world because they are otherwise. To make God the cause of both is to operate not in the terms that the Bible sets forth but in the terms that Aristotle’s Metaphysics starts with and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy develops into its classic form. Neither is a sin, but both privilege classical Greek metaphysics, preferring as they do stasis over movement, over the text of the Bible.

Now one could read these imperatives as mere formalities, occasions when God issued verbal commands so that God could not be accused of arbitrariness. But such a reading begs at least a couple questions. First one wonders why a God who created a creation driven by the divine will alone would stop to justify God’s self to anyone or why such a justification would matter in such a universe. Second, one wonders why the narratives of the Bible attribute God’s negative reactions to Israel and Egypt, among other nations, in terms of their agency in not complying with those narratives. In other words, a God who is omnipotent could have made the narrative of history a puppet show in which God issues commands, then makes some of the created entities to defy them, and then punishes them for doing so, but one wonders why such a puppet show would be necessary.

To be fair, there are times in the Bible when laws are established for the sake of catching people out, in the full knowledge that they don’t stand a chance and that they have no agency in deciding whether they live or die. However, the satraps of Darius in Daniel 6 and Haman in Esther 3, while they are in the text, don’t seem to be there as parables for the nature of God.

(That was a joke. Enjoy it–I only put about one in per essay.)

Conclusion

I recognize that many of the great writers of the Christian tradition have preferred a Boethian stasis to narrative movement in their systematic theologies, and I do not pretend that my little essay here will un-convince the convinced. However, rather than simply asserting that an alternative metaphysics can still be Biblical, I figured I’d make a brief attempt to show how that might work. While I enjoy reading theology, I am not myself a theologian; consider this the humble attempt of an aspiring English professor, a congregational teacher but not an ordained scholar, to make some sense out of those texts that God gives us as good gifts.

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About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.

Discussion

15 thoughts on “Playing Erasmus: An Alternative Account of Biblical Omnipotence

  1. >Mark and Nathan, Thank you for your kind remarks. I have enjoyed our discussion very much and learned a lot.Mark, on the biblical call to grow in wisdom and knowledge, I agree. But I don’t think the call includes an ideal of objectivity, which I am understanding as evaluating what is good and evil without the presuppositions God has given us (i.e. the moral law written on our hearts, the covenant stipulations). By leaving the guidance of God with regard to what was good and evil and striking out on our own way through the serpent’s temptation we became like God by becoming gods to ourselves, so to speak.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | March 30, 2008, 4:12 pm
  2. >” I would just like them to be more in the mode of discussions and not arguments.”I thought I should clarify this as being directed more toward me than anyone else. What I mean is, I don’t want my pressing questions to seem like I am trying to start an argument. I am trying to start a dialogue, perhaps one that hasn’t been brought into the equation, perhaps not. I just didn’t want this phrase to be taken the wrong way.

    Posted by Mark Mathews | March 30, 2008, 1:40 pm
  3. >You’re a gifted thinker and a charitable brother. Your contributions often transcend traditional labels and you keep us from merely high-fiving our mutually held opinions. Swing away and let the iron sharpen iron!Thank you, Jeff, and thank you, Jay, for the title of your follow-up post. (My son is stirring from sleep as I type, so I’ll have to put off reading its comments until after worship today.) I do think that Jay is going about this exchange in precisely the right ways, and I do commend him for it. As I proceed I can only hope to emulate his full dedication to the revealed truth of Jesus the Messiah and at the same time his spirit of caritas as he goes about it.Also, if my initial response to Strong Tower seemed testy, please read my comment directly before this one; I attempt there to give an account of my challenge to name names.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 30, 2008, 11:45 am
  4. >Honestly I meant no offense to the writer what ever his name might be…I had no problem with the ad hominem as such. We’re Christians, and we believe in original sin and total depravity. So if we believe that someone’s position reflects an unregenerate intellect, we should be bold to say, “You hold X and I hold Y because my mens has been redeemed, and your still steeps in sin.” And when a Spirit-led discerning community investigates, the same should be ready either to welcome a repentant brother back into the fold or to apologize for such a claim, depending on the results of the investigation.What I object to is the bad habit (more prevalent on the ‘net but not limited to is) of making ad hominems without pointing to a daggum hominem. It’s what I call the “pack of dogs” fallacy. It happens when an interlocutor makes an ad hominem, waits for the accused to object to the ad hominem, and then backs off of as soon as the accused calls the bet, casting aspersions on the “touchy” accused in the retreat. It goes something like this:Interlocutor one: Position X.Interlocutor two: It seems that sinful desires and a history of kicking kittens might lead one to hold Position X.Ione: Are you saying I kick kittens?Itwo: I never said you did; you must have a guilty conscience.Ione: You said it in pretty clear terms, you little turd. Now own up to it.Itwo: Why are you making this personal? I was just making a point.And so on.Now to the content of your second comment:I also confess that I was confused when you proposed in your God axiom possible created orders (corollaries). Well, I am confused, because how can possible created orders (“God could have created”) be without multiple potential wills in God?I was talking about an Aristotelian-style philosophical category there. If you go on to read my post, I note that in fact the Christian confession is both that God created rational entities and that God revealed God’s self in very particular forms and that those forms themselves carry meaning. My point is that the Christian confession ought only to entertain seriously the last of those possibilities, though all of them are possible within an Aristotelian framework.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 30, 2008, 11:40 am
  5. >”As Christians, I think we owe it to ourselves and our God to admit that we cannot step outside our finitude and make objective evaluations about good and evil.”What then do we do with Hebrews 5:14? The old axiom that the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis was a bad thing doesn’t hold water, especially when the sapitential literature is so keen on “knowledge” and “wisdom.” The NT also seems to provide an admonition to increase in knowledge and to know good from evil. Why are we encouraged to do so if we cannot? Why was it such a bad thing in Genesis and then becomes something to be desired in the NT? Perhaps there is more at work in the narrative of Genesis than meets the eye (but there is certainly no time to go into that) My point being, if the devil’s promise was such a “damned lie” how is it that the writer of Hebrews tells us to exercise this ability, if we are devoid of it? Moreover, it it was such a lie, what do we do with Genesis 3:22 where God specifically says, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.””I suppose this was directed at me.”Not in the slightest, although the thought did come to mind in our conversation. I wasn’t directing it “toward” you or anyone else. I simply note that the argument tends to fall down when we see how people endowed with the same Spirit, engaging the same text, come away with different conclusions. Thus the argument should be kept more at a textual level if it is to remain objective.I don’t want our discussion to take a negative tone. I respect you immensely and enjoy our discussions. I would just like them to be more in the mode of discussions and not arguments. I know up front that I am not going to convince you or anyone else to abandon your ideas. I simply enjoy the engagement of asking questions of these ideas to make sure we have all thought through them completely, and to be willing to re-evaluate things we hold to that may or may not be biblically sound. In the end we all walk away the same way we came to the conversation. It is valuable, however, to engage one another’s ideas and see BOTH sides of these discussions. Then we learn from one another while not trying to teach one another. So please, do not take any of my comments personal. This is a theological discussion only! (of which I must soon abandon as my research is stacking up on me)

    Posted by Mark Mathews | March 30, 2008, 10:28 am
  6. >”Before I start, I recognize that this essay must seem out of place on a Reformed Mafia website. To that I will simply answer that Jeff invited me to join the crew here knowing that I’m neither Reformed in the theological sense (or in other senses, depending on whom you ask) or particularly Conservative. As far as I can tell, he invited me here to contribute interesting blog posts, and that’s what I’m attempting here.”You’re a gifted thinker and a charitable brother. Your contributions often transcend traditional labels and you keep us from merely high-fiving our mutually held opinions. Swing away and let the iron sharpen iron!

    Posted by Jeff Wright | March 30, 2008, 3:54 am
  7. >So it looks like I might have to write a political post soon to lighten the mood around here! :PBtw, I’m enjoying the posts and comments. I’m just not weighing in since I’m a theological featherweight. 🙂

    Posted by J.Wizzle | March 30, 2008, 2:13 am
  8. >It always amazes me when people default to subjective forms of revelation in defense of their views when others, indwelt by the same Spirit, claim the same revelation.I suppose this was directed at me. In my defense, I think subjectivity vs. objectivity is beside the point. Those are modern categories that I’m not so sure are really that helpful. Indwelling is also beside the point. I have not intended to defend my position by appealing to a “subjective form of revelation.” In fact, I don’t believe in subjective revelation. I have simply restated the truth that the Spirit works with the Word, illumining its authority and meaning. And the Spirit discriminates, even among those he indwells. When we get our theology wrong, it is because of sin and is sin. Thus we should all engage in theology with much prayer, humility, fear, and trembling. When we get it right, it is because of the grace of God in illumining his people to his revelation. The revelation doesn’t change; in that sense it is objective. But our understanding and acceptance of it does; in that sense it is subjective. But even that is not total subjectivity because it is based on the objective revelation.As Christians, I think we owe it to ourselves and our God to admit that we cannot step outside our finitude and make objective evaluations about good and evil. We need to admit that the serpent’s promise, “You will be like God knowing good and evil,” was a damned lie. Please don’t take my acknowledging my intellectual infirmities as a source of pride for me. Any truth I know is a gift of God. I believe he has bent my stubborn, sinful heart to acknowledge him as God omnipotent. Indeed, if divine omnipotence is true, how could it be otherwise?

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | March 30, 2008, 1:30 am
  9. >”If you’d like to make a claim about the writer of this little essay, go ahead and make it about the writer, naming names, and let’s be done with the pussyfooting.”Touchy, Erasmus. The claim is made about the flesh, the rebel in all of us.Perhaps I did misunderstand the intent of the post. I thought that you were taking on a persona- I did not know that it was personal-I also confess that I was confused when you proposed in your God axiom possible created orders (corollaries). Well, I am confused, because how can possible created orders (“God could have created”) be without multiple potential wills in God?So seeing that, I cannot see, that my brains do not drag the floor and my knuckles do, questions. Is God’s revelation in Israel the revelation of who God is in Israel? Or, it may be asked this way, is Israel a person, is Israel God himself revealed through those chosen to carry his name? And, if that is the case, can the revelation fail, can those assigned to be the revelation not reveal, without God being untrue to himself?Signed,P.F. Meow…Honestly I meant no offense to the writer what ever his name might be…

    Posted by thomastwitchell | March 30, 2008, 1:16 am
  10. >Nathan,Thanks for the post. As usual you have done a masterful job of clearly expressing your position. While it appears from my comments on Jay’s post that I might not be one who truly holds to omnicausality, I must confess that I do, wholeheartedly. However, I find nothing unorthodox, particularly Gnostic, or anything I could label as denying God in your argument. I only wish I had more time to engage your post but the Damascus Document awaits! I appreciate your willingness to express your views on a VERY Reformed blog and can say that I have not a few friends who hold to the same views as you and who put up very sound biblical arguments. It always amazes me when people default to subjective forms of revelation in defense of their views when others, indwelt by the same Spirit, claim the same revelation. Thus, two equally endowed individuals approaching the same text, by the same author, illuminated by the same Spirit of that author, come to different conclusions. What a paradox! All too often the only solution to such an apparent conundrum seems to be to label one as inherently sinful. I find this problematic (you certainly have not done this in your post). What is even more amazing is how some of these views seem to be more Aristotelian than anything else. I agree strongly with the idea of letting the text say what the text says without bringing too many of my presuppositions with me (although this is not entirely possible). In any study of theology one runs the risk of reading too many works about the Bible to the neglect of the text itself. Thus, there is always the inherent danger of having these ideas drive one’s interpretation. This is a difficult task, one that I struggle with continually.Well, I really must get back to work. Thanks again for your diligence in providing quality fodder for us all to consider.

    Posted by Mark Mathews | March 30, 2008, 12:38 am
  11. >This is the part I really don’t get. Is it your understanding (is it anyone’s understanding) that Luther or Jay or Reformed folks actually believe that the only functional will in the universe is God’s? You can read the comments to Jay’s post if you like. His response to my initial comment was this:”I think the denial of omnicausality requires the denial of God.”Now if omnicausality means causing everything (as I thought it did), then I think that my reading follows. If omnicausality means something else (or if God means something else), then perhaps I read wrong.I don’t think Luther ever writes that in De Servo Arbitro, but the logical implications of his position seem to point in that direction.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 29, 2008, 9:14 pm
  12. >”One wonders why a God who created a creation driven by the divine will alone would stop to justify God’s self to anyone or why such a justification would matter in such a universe.”This is the part I really don’t get. Is it your understanding (is it anyone’s understanding) that Luther or Jay or Reformed folks actually believe that the only functional will in the universe is God’s? I’ve always understood it to be a basic premise that human beings have a will, that this will is able to be exercised as they see fit, and that it is the exercise of this will that makes us responsible for our own sin. I have also understood that God’s Sovereign Will overlays human will, but not by eliminating it. Is that the only possibility?

    Posted by Stan | March 29, 2008, 8:46 pm
  13. >So, cognates do not appear. Do synonyms such as pantokrator?Incidentally, if you read my text (we are talking about reading texts, after all), I did not say that omnipotence is irrelevant but that Christians ought to reconsider. If you got as far as my post’s title, you might have seen that.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 29, 2008, 8:40 pm
  14. >And we are brought back to this: There is no other power except that which is in God. But, the rebel spirit hates that, and this too is done by God and for his Glory.If you’d like to make a claim about the writer of this little essay, go ahead and make it about the writer, naming names, and let’s be done with the pussyfooting.There is no need to appeal outside to any philosophical system especially a “potentiality theory” that posits multiple possible “wills” of God.Where does the post posit multiple wills? I think you might have read some other text and responded to mine.In fact we can stay within the bounds of the first line of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”I don’t think I disputed this. But you seem to be presupposing some pretty heavy stuff before ever coming to my text. If you’ll go on reading through chapter three of that same book, you’ll see my argument bear out.In fact, I’d like to see your reading of Genesis 3 or Exodus 4. I’m not sure what in my text you’re critiquing, as I haven’t been able to discern where your comment connects to my text, but I would like you to begin with one of those texts.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | March 29, 2008, 8:28 pm
  15. >”First one should point out the obvious, namely that the word “omnipotence” and its cognates do not actually appear in the text of the Bible, that they are good tools for understanding revelation but not the content of revelation itself.”So, cognates do not appear. Do synonyms such as pantokrator? If they do, and are equivalents, then to say that the cognates do not appear is a little misleading, though necessary for a purely philosphical explanation for the existence of imperatives.There is no need to appeal outside to any philosophical system especially a “potentiality theory” that posits multiple possible “wills” of God. We can simply stay within the bounds of Scripture. In fact we can stay within the bounds of the first line of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”Or we can go to where the confirmation of God as the omnicausal agent is established in the NT: “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.”Not to be too simplistic but, whether kings, their power, their originating causes, their choices, all were made by God for him. He is the first cause and all secondary causes are held together by him and for him.This is simply the revelation that is necessary for understanding the revelation. And rebellion, that is, the flesh which is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot, rejects God’s law as it is God’s revelation.And in Paul’s discussion this is exaclty what is at stake: Just who is the potter, and who is the clay? The clay says that it should be exempt because the commandments are not met with ability. Paul quotes the timeless truth found in Isaiah remembering Gensis 1: You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power…And we are brought back to this: There is no other power except that which is in God. But, the rebel spirit hates that, and this too is done by God and for his Glory.

    Posted by Strong Tower | March 29, 2008, 7:44 pm

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