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.

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