Thursday, March 17, 2011

God is not Omnipotent

    Growing up, I learned early on that God was a collection of "Omni"'s: Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscience, and so for. Sadly, this is not true. At least, it is not true in the way that we think about them. God, as we have been discussing is Holy and God is Love. For God to be Omnipotent, He could not be other.

  As we have seen, it is easy to slip into error when speaking of the Divine. For God is mystery, and we want to solve mysteries. One way to solve the mystery of God is offered to use by Dionysius the Areopagite. He defines the "via eminentiae", a way "that consists in moving from the creaturely analogy, by a process of gradual ascent, to the Infinite, to positive statements about the Attributes of God." (pg. 245) We can then move up, gradually, from the lowly to the highest forms. A relevant example of this is the proof: "Man is mighty, the angels are mightier, God is Almighty." (pg. 245) If we understand that there is something mightier than us, then we can move up in degrees until we can say that God is that way. This way is highly problematic, and is one of the ways that lead us to formulate that God is omnipotent.

   However, "the Biblical conception (of God's power) means God's power is over the whole universe; but omnipotentia means the abstract idea that 'God can do everything'." (pg. 248) It is from this conception, that God can do all things that all the silly questions arise. We jokingly ask if God can make a rock so big that He cannot lift it or if God can make the past never happen. This is not only a misunderstanding of Go'd's power, but it is a misunderstanding of who God is.

  If God is Omnipotent, then God would have to be understood as potstas absoluta, or as the absolute power. "This idea swallows up all craturely independence. God, the Almighty, becomes the One who alone is the Sole Reality, and this means Pantheism or Theopanism."(pg. 249) If God was the absolute power, we as creatures would have no power, and thus we would have no freedom. In fact, it goes further than that. If God was All-Powerful, He would be All, for He would be the Sole Reality.

  The argument here contains two lines of thought. The first is "that the entire system of Nature, comprehending all times and spaces, is founded upon divine causality, which, as eternal and omnipresent, is in contrast to all finite causality." (pg. 249-250) This first line of thought says, If God is the cause of all, then we could not cause anything. The second line of thought is as follows: "as affirmed in our feeling of absolute dependence, is completely presented in the totality of finite being, and consequently everything for which there is a causality in God happens and becomes real." (pg. 250) By presenting these thoughts, the German theologian Schleierrmacher says that we feel dependent on God because He is the cause of everything, and that we as finite creatures cannot cause anything. We then have to wonder, what are we here for? If we have no power and are caught up in the cause and effect cycle set in motion by God, why does anything but God exist?

If God, however is not Omnipotent, what is He? We are not trying to argue here that God is not Mighty, that He is not Powerful. What is being said is that God wills to be limited in His power. "God limits Himself by creating something which is not Himself, something over against Himself, which he endows with a relative independence." (pg. 251) By creating something that is not Himself, He needed to limit Himself, "in order that a creature may have room alongside of Himself, in whom and to whom he can reveal and impart Himself." (pg. 251)

  The only power that can love is the sublime power of the self-limiting God. "He wins our hearts through His condescension in his Son, in the Cross of the Son."( pg. 254) The real showing of God's limited power is in the giving of Himself on the cross. If God was Omnipotent, He could have saved the world through any way, but because He limited Himself, He showed his power "in highest sovereignty where the impotence of the Crucified, the defeat of the Son of God, must accomplish the work of revelation and reconciliation." (pg. 253) God's refusal to be Omnipotent is shown to us at the beginning, when He gave of Himself and created, and is continually shown in the revelation of the Crucified.


  1. Dan,

    I love this post because of my background, my tradition. The apologetic "omni's" of my youth (as I called them) always did exactly what they purported to accomplish, they defended God against the onslaught of skeptics and doubters, but left me feeling cheated, because the omni's seemed like the Ace card, the solves anything answer. Brunner, like so many in the neo-orthodox tradition loved to flip conversations on their head to see an attribute anew and fresh.

    I sometimes even like the idea of God limiting himself since I can't stand the idea of revelation being formulated (aka - dumbed down) for our childish ears and minds by God. But sometimes I feel like this is also a sloppy answer to the numerous questions asked. Your/Brunner's comment that God limited himself for our freedom still does not bode well with me. Limitation here would be placed in the category of will/action, something done by God. If God limits himself willingly, does this mean that his limitation is not part of his existence, his realness, his ontology (bar Marion)(however you want to describe how/what about God is really real). Therefore would God then not still be defined by the "omni's", bar God's little trick of "revelational-presto-chango-limitation"? Ok, enough heresy for now... I could posit what I think is a more plausible solution, but now is not the time or the place.

  2. Eric-
    I am interested in how you think this dilemma should be "solved". I think that the Divine Kenosi is a self-limiting, but not in a way that changes who He is. God does not have an ontic being (ala the deontologists) but is in His Nature a limiting God. I think that the self-limiting is not just an action or a will, but Who He Is. We cannot describe God in any other language than the language that He reveals Himself in. It's a tough call, as we do not want to "dumb down" who God is, but we need to to have faith-thinking about Him. It's a tough call here.

  3. If God chooses to limit himself, then what is he (or she???) before setting those limitations which allow him to be personified/human? In other words, is there is certain "moreness" to God that doesn't necessarily have to be personified? I guess I"m alluding to Marcus Borg's Borg's description of God as a "Sacredness." I know, I know...we can't figure out God completely. But, of course, we can talk about God and thus I ask this.

  4. Justin,
    According to Brunner, God is completely hidden before He reveals, thus we can only speak of His limiting, not His non-limiting. We don't know His true nature, we can only guess at it. Read the posts on The Naked and Veiled God. I think I get into what you are asking there.