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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
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.