Bible, Tradition, Authority Part 2: The Power of God

Part 1: The Nature of God

Thomas and Omnipotence

A person reading the first fifteen or so questions from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica might miss it, but it’s in there: God is not omnipotent.

In fact, God is, in Thomas’s account, as far from omnipotent as one could imagine; God is a being without potens. That might not mean much to people whose theological vocabularies are shaped mainly by post-Enlightenment philosophy, but the distinction is an important one for Thomas: whereas contingent beings (like human beings) have both actum and potens (act and power-to-act), God’s nature as Eternal (Thomas borrows heavily from Boethius’s definition of Eternity, of course) means that it’s nonsense to talk about God’s potential (potens, power) to act–everything that God did/is doing/will do is Eternal.  So God’s actions, unlike ours, which one can divide into those we’ve acted and those we have the potential to act or not to act, are Eternally act/acted rather than currently potential but fixing to become act.  So God, in Thomas’s system, because he has a very precise and very specific way of using power/potens and because of a very specific take on God’s eternal nature, is neither omnipotent nor impotent but a-potent.

I note this not simply to bring up a bit of etymology and show off my meager Latin skills but to note that even though he clearly denies omnipotence, Aquinas is usually not one that folks point to as diminishing the stature of God.  (I realize Cornelius van Til does, but he sometimes seems to think that Calvin wasn’t Calvinist enough.)  If anywhere, Thomas tends to fall into that category of theologians who gets accused of overstating the extent of divine and underplaying human involvement.

Although my own ways of talking about God are not identical to Thomas’s, I do respect what he does with the language of power: he really thinks about what it means, and he’s careful to take that meaning into account when he writes about what philosophy can rightly say about God.  If one wants to see what happens when that caution departs, one needs only read when Martin Luther famously decries “that whore Reason” in his debate with Erasmus over the freedom or the bondage of the will.  In the wake of that bit of name-calling, the Nominalism that infects so much of theology since William of Ockham comes to dominate his own treatise.  (I write about the Nominalism-turned-nihilism in my essay “The Book that Almost Turned me Atheist.”)  I take as my own lesson that, when one uses language in one’s God-talk–and that means when one talks of God–one does well to think hard about what words mean, especially the word “power.”

What Power Means in a Story

Of course, as I noted in the first post in this series, while I’m happy to let folks who do theology for a living do Natural Theology and speculate on the true nature of the Ontological Trinity, as someone who does more preaching than treatise-writing (that’s why I do a weekly lectionary post rather than a weekly speculation post), I’m more inclined to think about the God who reveals God’s self through the Scriptures and in the person of Jesus.  And this is where I tend to depart from folks who make the Sovereignty of God the axis upon which all of theology turns.  Where some folks start with the idea that any contingency rules out abs0lute power, I  prefer to start with precisely that meaning of potens, holding it to mean basically that God could act any act about which one could utter a meaningful sentence, and then let that broad question set the stage for a reading of the texts of the Bible.  Starting from there rather than with imported ontologies of time-as-place and other such strange constructs, I can leave power open, noting that God could do anything but has done this and not that, and then see how God actually relates to Creation in the context of Scriptural Revelation.

When I do get to the Bible, I do find that the voice who calls itself alternately elohim, el-elyon, el-shaddai, YHWH, and theos is without doubt the most prominent and the most influential voice in those texts.  Moreover, I get the sense that, in a straight-up fight, nobody is going to be able to take YHWH, though in four of the books I read direct narrations of a moment when an earthly empire puts the Son of God on a cross, and in several more books I see that event mentioned.  So far, so good–I can agree with the philosophical theologians that, in cases where it comes down to the ability to win a fight, God seems only to have lost one of those encounters (today’s the day we celebrate that one), but most folks think God threw that fight, and on the third day afterwards, even that one didn’t turn out to be a loss.

Moreover, one of the repeated confessions of the Bible, from the faithfulness of the old man Abraham to the final tones of the Apocalypse, is that God has intentions for the world and for the people in the world, and since nobody can directly oppose those designs (unless God has made a special exception), a responsible reading can take the prophetic and apocalyptic pronouncements as divine actions that God will indeed accomplish.  (I distinguish here between God as omni-potent agent and Providence as script from which even God cannot deviate.  I tend to think that God is unbound, even by the script that we mortals imagine governing the heavenly drama, an unstoppable “I will be what I will be” rather than a mover who can’t move very much.)

On the other hand, as I mentioned in this series’s first post, God does at times seem to get angry.  Moreover, God seems to burn hot with anger at particular human acts, and nowhere does the text of the Bible say that God is a mad deity who gets mad at the things that God has just now caused.  (I can’t help but think of the “funniest videos” clip of the dog attacking its own paw furiously.) What’s going on ontologically for the Trinity, what things might look like if we were looking down on God instead of God looking down on us I don’t know, and although I won’t fault other folks for declaring what must be happening, given a Platonic-flavored Unchanging Perfection, I don’t grant that as a given, so I’m inclined to say that God does in fact start out not-angry-with-Moses, to go back to Exodus 4, then becomes angry-at-Moses, indicating that Moses in fact stands as some sort of cause significant enough to rouse divine anger.

Now Thomas Aquinas, whom I respect deeply and always benefit from, says that God does not in fact get angry; since to become angry would be to change, and since change is always a change for the better or a change for the worse, and since it’s nonsense to say that perfect Being becomes better or worse, and because an entity who is not mad and becomes angry must not have caused the incident about which the entity is angry, that what really must be happening when the Bible says that God becomes angry is that human beings have shifted somehow in relation to the unchanging One, and because of the shift in the human being, God appears to be angry, even though God hasn’t changed.  Therefore the Bible must be using language to accommodate limited human understanding of the immutable (a limited understanding that Thomas seems to imagine himself as having overcome–the “anthropomorphism” hermeneutic move is an old one, it seems).  That argument, of course, has resurfaced recently in many historical-critical studies of the Bible that wish to take uncomfortable bits out of the picture, but they don’t do it nearly as well as Thomas does.

I like Thomas’s way of taking words and the Word seriously, I really do, but I prefer to start with God’s getting angry and work towards a philosophical account, not the other way.  And I like Calvin’s logical mind, noting at every turn that anything conceivable that God doesn’t cause necessarily diminishes absolute sovereignty, but again, that forces certain readings onto the text rather than letting the text operate as other narrative texts operate.  I won’t discount the possibility that the Bible is in fact sui generis and doesn’t follow the rules that other narratives follow, but without an internal textual warrant from that, having to choose between what looks like a Thomistic imposition on the text’s given form and a Calvinist overlay that looks like an imposition on the text’s given form and a reading that appears to take the text’s own grammar as generative of rather than subject to prior overlays, my own sola-scriptura tendencies (which I also discussed last time) tend to take me towards that third possibility.

Preaching, Praying, and Power

In other words, starting from the paradigm of prayer and preaching that I laid out in the opening post in this series, I tend to see divine power as more complex than what I see either fatalism or process thought, one in which one prays to God expecting that God has the ability and the good will to work good in the world (though that good might take forms unexpected by the prayer) and also one in which that same God calls on preachers to remind the faithful of  imperatives, real imperatives, and gets angry when God’s subjects defy them (and not because of some madness that gets angry at what one has just caused, perhaps forgetting that one has just caused it).  I also see compatibility between the warnings that Jesus offers about consequences of actions and divine promises to set things right in the end, noting that a dramatic reading of things rather than an onto-theological allows both for history to take bad turns without blaming God for sadism and a confidence that in the end the supreme Agent will in fact set things right.

So unlike Thomas, I do think that God is omnipotent, and when I write that, I mean it in the sense that Thomas might have had in mind.  That turn in the train of thought leads one to the nature of time, and I believe that will be my next stop in this little exploration.

As always, I’m happy to receive feedback, criticism, heresy charges, or whatever else folks want to write here.  I am an English teacher trying to do theology, so I do have the good sense to know I’m not infallible.

13 thoughts on “Bible, Tradition, Authority Part 2: The Power of God

  1. Interesting. So, on your view, God truly is omnipotent, but this doesn’t necessarily mean what we Christians have traditionally thought it has meant, in the sense of being unshaken in his will or unchangeable in his attitudes (and the latter two being based on wrestling with the text of Scripture itself). Do I have that about right?

    How do we respond when critics of Christianity argue about the seeming incoherence of a simultaneously omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent (and any other omni I’m forgetting) Supreme Being? Now, I do think that a nuanced understanding of these attributes need not be logically contradictory, but this is difficult to explain (in my experience) to someone who comes at it with naive or poorly-thought-out views of the same, whether they be Christian or non-Christian. I also wonder if it is even necessary while still being faithful to the text. That is, while I don’t claim it as my own, I’m attracted to certain views of open theism (though definitely not to the process theology extreme) that speak of God limiting himself due to his desire to have a loving and meaningful interaction with his finite Creation, though not in himself being limited in essence. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that God is following some external Providential script, to paraphrase you, but rather that such “limiting” is internal and entirely voluntary. I know I’m oversimplifying, but I wonder what you think about this line of reasoning. It seems that it is not necessarily incompatible with your account in this post.


  2. Actually, I think I may have been muddled in my description of open theism: I’m not sure if the concept of God being self-limiting comes from that view or not (I know I’ve heard it before), but I of course do know that open theism does deal with trying to understand the knowledge of God, which I also find interesting. Sorry for the confusion.

  3. Dan,

    Thanks again for reading.

    My point about omnipotence is that, if one really takes the term seriously, if omnipotence means the potential to be any way at all, it means that schemes which impose this or that sort of necessity upon God stand as equally open, and it opens up the option of reading the Bible as a genuinely literary text and starting one’s theology from that position rather than from a Thomist or a Calvinist syllogism.

    In other words, I’m perfectly happy to begin in philosophical terms from omnipotence: taken in its fullest sense, it means that the task of doing theology becomes a hermeneutic rather than a syllogistic/propositional task, and that in my mind is a better way of proceeding.

  4. This may be tangential to your project but I don’t really understand the Calvinist neurosis about sovereignty. Using the word neurosis technically to refer to a substitute to legitimate suffering.
    Why does sovereignty = micromanagement? If sovereignty is about ultimate rule then it need not require that God be the proximate cause of a particular act, yet that seems to be what is demanded?
    I am not entirely convinced by the self limiting narrative, it seems premised on the same claims to extensive human understanding as the sovereignty neurosis.
    But how would someone convinced by one be able to choose it over the other? If God is “all powerful” then He must be able to choose choose to limit Himself, or He is not “all powerful”.

    Of course one might reply that such paradoxes are the wrong way to talk about God, but that seems to move one towards Thomas, or at leas Thomas as recounted by Nate.

    Nate you say that “I also see compatibility between the warnings that Jesus offers about consequences of actions and divine promises to set things right in the end, noting that a dramatic reading of things rather than an onto-theological allows both for history to take bad turns without blaming God for sadism and a confidence that in the end the supreme Agent will in fact set things right.”

    I guess that I see the possibility for such an approach, but it seems to lack, at least as I understand it, much scope for an emotional relationship with God that contains, well, much emotion, or a range of emotion. Do I understand you, or am I missing something?

  5. I can see where your final criticism, that my categories seem somewhat bloodless, comes from. On their own, those categories would remain rather abstract. My response, I suppose, is that I’m trying to lay out some categories within which emotional/existential encounters with God are something other than absurdities or puppet shows, and as I’ve done so, I’ve tried to do so in philosophical vocabularies. I’d maintain that the world that you quoted me as describing is a world in which Psalms make sense, and which require Psalms to imagine. Perhaps I’ve proven inadequate to Psalms (who doesn’t?), but that’s what I was after.

    With regards to omnipotence, my point is that omnipotence and Calvinistic sovereignty do appear to be different things, and philosophically, I prefer to start with omnipotence precisely because it opens up more options for hermeneutics, and as I’ve noted before, I think that a hermeneutics that begins in preaching and prayer is ultimately more adequate to the shape of (big-R and small-r) revelation than one that starts with syllogisms and propositions.

  6. Nathan,

    Thanks for the clarification. I agree that we should always try to go back to scripture to inform and form the bedrock of our theology, and this is what I have always seen as a weakness of systematic theology in general, in that the temptation is to make propositions and read them back into the text. This is not to say that I reject systematic theology; on the contrary, I think it can be a very useful endeavor. But, I think a balance must be struck with going back to the text of the Bible, again, as literature, not in a naive modernist literalistic fashion, but appreciating it as a broad range of stories written down by many different humans, that nevertheless conveys to us the story of God’s loving interaction with his people. But, this is coming from someone who is at best an rank amateur in matters of philosophy, literature, and the humanities :).

  7. Nate, if I find your response rather unsatisfactory its because I think its appropriate to adopt a hermeneutics that begins with prayer and preaching, and appropriate to treat the language that scripture uses as the right language to talk about God.
    However “a dramatic reading of things rather than an onto-theological allows both for history to take bad turns without blaming God for sadism and a confidence that in the end the supreme Agent will in fact set things right” doesn’t seem to leave much room for developing a personal relationship with God (as the evangelicals would put it). If God does whatever God does and all a believer can do is put up with and hope for some kind of long run best then that seems to eliminate the kind of consistency required for any kind an intimate relationship that a human being can engage in. It also raises the problem of how to talk about God’s qualities, if for example in describing God as good there is no necessary relationship between what humans think of as good and goodness as it pertains to God then the notion of good is vacated and consequently we cannot use “goodness” in order to determine whether a particular revelation (or voice in Scripture) is God or not.

  8. Interesting. I must be communicating in entirely wrongheaded terms (entirely possible, I grant), because a significant part of my own philosophical/theological project is to imagine providence in a way that starts with the Psalms and that allows the Psalms to be the Psalms. Part of that project is to say that the words that the Psalms use do retain some consistency of meaning (I am a philosophical Realist rather than a Nominalist), so I’m wondering where my project, as you’re reading it, wanders into that bad Nominalist habit of stripping agape or hesed of any real meaning.

  9. I wanted to respond to this post earlier, but the papers and readings of seminary seemed to pile up recently. The thing that struck me from your post was your comparison of Aquinas and modern historical-critical interpretations moving beyond anthropomorphisms. In both kinds of interpretation the text, especially the Hebrew text, is something that is primitive, something that we have moved beyond. My question is why do you think that Aquinas makes such a stronger case?

    However, my main concern, like I think yours is, is to take the Biblical text seriously. I think that starting with certain philosophical system (ultimately a set of metaphysics) and making the Biblical text conform to one’s philosophical assumptions is playing too fast and loose with the text. I have to admit that forming my own system of metaphysics for Biblical interpretation used to seem unnecessary to me. Maybe at one time I was becoming a nominalist? However, more and more I am beginning to believe it is important to have a system of metaphysics in place in order to have a responsible systematic theology. For me this process consists of moving from the Biblical text to a set of metaphysics.

    Like you my main focus is preaching the word and not speculating about the nature of the Godhead. However, one needs to have in place one’s own overall theological views before doing stuff like preaching a funeral. People expect you to be consistent about your God talk as a Pastor. Of course this means that you will certainly have to admit that our understanding of God and God’s ways are limited at times.

    What I like about Calvinism, is what I like Process Thought. Both seem to provide conceptual frameworks to answer troublesome theological problems. However, I end up not like the answers given and plus to me it seems that the answers given are not satisfactory. I am always left with more questions. At this point I find the process system more useful than Greek ideas like immutability. However, it seems that at time process thought goes too far from traditional and Biblical theology.

    So, I’m left wrestling with the Biblical text that seems to give contrary descriptions of God. I am willing to use the tools of philosophy and historical-criticism, but still I think that the Biblical writers offer us accurate views of God and that’s where the conversation needs to start. Over the next year or two I hope to be able to form my own systematic theology that will allow me to preach the Word of God in a responsible way.

    Thanks again Nathan for writing this blog post. I often feel that seminary today has become a place where we read the critics of people like Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin without ever reading the traditional theology of the Church. Granted I feel that I have a solid enough historical and philosophical background that this is not a problem. I’m glad I’m being exposed to things such as process theology, postmodern thought, Tillich, feminist and liberation theology. There is only so much time to cover all the different theologians. Many of the Church fathers, medieval theologians, and Reformers get covered, but in the context of Church history classes. We do have to take three Church history class here at CTS. Nonetheless, listening to your guys’ podcast and blog keeps me grounded, both with intellectual stuff and with the life of the Church. Keep up the good work.

  10. Phil,

    I like Thomas’s case better than the historical critics’ because his gains its rhetorical strength from logic and careful examination of philosophical categories, not from a simple assumption that what “those primitives” believed must be bunk if it offends “us moderns.” I still don’t agree with the methodology of making articulated philosophical system prior to Scriptural hermeneutic, but it’s a more elegant use of the methodology. (Please note that I’m not saying that hermeneutics proceeds without any philosophical commitments. What I am saying is that some hermeneutics explicitly rule out certain possibilities in interpreting texts because they aren’t compatible with the philosophically-prior system.)

    I’ve not preached any funerals myself, but frankly, I prefer preachers who don’t try to tame the sheer existential offensiveness of death. I know that the funeral is about remembering the one who’s died, and I appreciate funerals that do that well, but I get really irritated when preachers pretend that they’ve got “the death thing” under wraps. My own experience is a crying out against death and crying out to God to remember God’s people in the face of that great enemy, and when preachers try to domesticate that raw moment, I think they’re idiots. (I get worked up thinking about such things.)

    I think that mainline seminaries and Research-I departments of English sometimes fall into the trap you describe, Phil, but some good news in the midst of that storm is that scholars are still putting out good editions of the classics, and with e-readers becoming more powerful and more affordable, public-domain editions of the same are easier than ever to carry around in a small device. (I keep Augustine and Aquinas and Tertullian, as well as Spenser and Shakespeare and Milton and Dickens, in a Sony Reader that adds no appreciable weight to my backpack.) In other words, with a will to be a traditionalist, one can be.

    Thanks again for reading and contributing, Phil.

  11. Nathan, My experience at CTS has been that for the sake of diversity sacrifices are made. You can’t cover everything and the traditional viewpoint is the one that gets less time at the table. Granted we read part of Augustine’s Enchiridion the same week we read Hartshorne. So, at first it seems that the different views get equal time in a intro theology class. However, almost half the class has been focused on feminist, liberation, black liberation, and womanist theology. Plus we spent a good amount of time on Tillich and a little bit on Barth. So most of our readings come from the twentieth century. Many of my fellow students come from backgrounds where they have never been exposed to these ideas before.

    Yeah a friend and I have formed a group, so far there is only two of us, and have been reading and discussing more traditional theologians. I think we do have the will to explore other viewpoints that get overlooked at a liberal seminary. CTS is a great school and I’m blessed to be here.

  12. Phil,

    I didn’t mean to diminish the power of official curriculum; as we touched on in our episode on Great Books and Critical Theory, conflicts are nigh inevitable when finite but expansive potential curriculum meets finite and restrictive limits on class periods, semesters, and courses of study. My point about the portable devices is simply that lightweight, powerful, and less and less expensive devices are out there (I’m particularly smitten with the Barnes and Noble Nook, which connects to Google Books with 3G speed for no fee) that make the groups you’re starting all the more feasible.

    I also remember two sorts of complaining going on at Emmanuel School of Religion a decade ago that remind me of this sort of dilemma. On one hand, you had folks like Ben Lee naming sixteenth century devotional books I’d never heard of (and whose names I can’t remember) and lamenting that a library for training preachers would be so narrowly focused on Biblical studies (in the post-Enlightenment sense of the term) that it couldn’t find the funds for devotional books that formed the likes of Luther and Melancthon. On the other hand, you had Biblical studies guys who complained that the library had plenty of funds to buy the complete works of Luther and Calvin but couldn’t keep up with the most rudimentary developments in Biblical studies.

    I’m a hundred percent with Walter Brueggemann when he writes that Genesis 1 is a liturgy of plenty, but I’m also Augustinian enough to know that post-lapsarian desire, for what it’s worth, has a bottomless appetite. 🙂

  13. Hi Nate

    If you are willing to engage further on issue that I have raised, and its no shame if you are not,then I suggest that a place to start would be how we can speak about the goodness of God.
    One category of Christians tell me that I cannot ask why at times it may appear that the actions of God are now what we or at least I would call good. Playing the sovereignty card a little too easily they characterise this as judging God (I am not sure that it is) but also claim that since we humans cannot comprehend God that we must accept all of God’s actions as good.
    This presents a number of problems. The most immediate one is that when we are trying to ascertain when God is indeed the author of an act then we are robbed of examining whether the act is what humans would call good. The danger of that is, as C S Lewis pointed out, that we will then be willing to ascribe evil to God.
    Another problem is that it seems to vacate the meaning of good altogether. By good we then just mean “whatever God does” and it seems that we have simply acquired a synonym for all powerful or sovereign.

    How can we speak of the goodness of God? If it extends beyond our limited human understanding of good, which it must, how does it relate to that limited understanding?
    How may we respond when God is apparently not good? Is it legitimate to question whether something is authored by God at all because it is not good (at least for those of us for whom sovereignty does not require that God be the immediate cause of every event)?
    There are a number of biblical accounts of people who complain to God that His apparent conduct does not fit His character as advertised. How can we read these stories, in particular God’s apparent satisfaction with those complaints?

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