Omnipotence

OMNIPOTENCE (ŏm-nĭp'ō-tĕns). The attribute of God that describes his ability to do whatever he wills. God’s will is limited by his nature, and he therefore cannot do anything contrary to his nature as God, such as to ignore sin, to sin, or to do something absurd or self-contradictory. God is not controlled by his power, but has complete control over it: otherwise he would not be a free being. To a certain extent, he has voluntarily limited himself by the free will of his rational creatures. Although the word “omnipotence” is not found in the Bible, the Scriptures clearly teach the omnipotence of God (Job.42.2; Jer.32.17; Matt.19.26; Luke.1.37; Rev.19.6).


Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane.


One may observe, therefore, the definition of omnipotence by its manifestations. It is known in concrete acts, acts indeed of overreaching and overpowering inclusiveness: in creation, nature, history, providence, and redemption. In God resides the power to produce and control everything that comes to pass. Nothing evades God’s omnipotence (Dan 4:35; Amos 9:2, 3) and even the most minute things such as the falling sparrow or the hairs of our head are under His personal control (Matt 10:30; Luke 12:7). There is nothing accidental or incidental, and the thought of “omnipotence” merges easily into “omnipresence” and “omniscience.”

It is well to observe that omnipotence in God does not imply the power to do those things which in no way can be thought of as objects of power. There is no nonsense in the omnipotence as there is no nonsense in God: He cannot do that which is self-contradictory or contradictory to His own nature, because His omnipotence is of His own essence, and He is all-Being out of which all existence must arise. Intellectual tricks, raising questions as to whether God can draw a shorter than a straight line between two points or make a weight so heavy that He Himself cannot lift it, do not belong in any serious discussion of omnipotence. More to the point, and more personally, He can in no way contradict His own nature by sinning or dying. He cannot make wrong right. He cannot pretend that what has happened has not happened. The question as to how sin entered into the world is not a question of His omnipotence as much as it is a means of illustrating how an allpowerful God can create a system in which sin is possible and at the same time, because of His omnipotence, make the wrath of man to serve Him.

The power of God implies the power of self-limitation. God suffers no internal or external compulsion. One cannot hold that He exercises all of His power all the time and in every place (see Omnipresence). God has power over His power which is always under His wise and holy will. It may never be said that He is a slave of His own omnipotence: men live in a personal not a deterministic system, and therefore they have freedom to act as individuals because He has restraint. God’s omnipotence is in no sense a pantheistic attribute; omnipotence is not automatic but willful. Although it is true, as Christ said, that He is able to “raise up children unto Abraham” out of the stones of the street, He has not done so. On the basis that God’s omnipotence is controlled by love, His almighty power becomes a ground for confident trust. The Calvinistic term “irresistible grace” may emphasize “irresistible” only when one understands “grace” which is the constant expression of the love of God toward His creatures. The omnipotence of God is a fearful thing and an awful thing in the strict sense of such words; at the same time it is the ground of blessing and salvation.

Some have found help to the understanding of omnipotence in the names of God, esp. those used in the OT (see Names of God). ’Ēl, or esp. ’Ēlōhĩm, emphasizes the fullness of power in God; ’Ēl Shadday outlines the might of God; ’Abhir is the Strong One. The repeated title, “Lord of Hosts,” meant supremacy of power to the Heb. When God is referred to as Spirit, it is modern usage to think of His invisibility, but to those who thought of Spirit as wind, there was a sense of a penetrating, overpowering force, more like the use of the term “energy” in our day. One may also consider the other attributes of God, holiness, for example, which by their very nature are of the essence of God and therefore necessarily exhibit a positive thrust and negative inviolability, which can be neither resisted nor overcome.

In conclusion, one may note in modern theism a shift from the anthropomorphic manifestations which characterize the Biblical record of omnipotence to an understanding of the living God as an ever-present Energy. Some grasp of modern physics by the modern mind makes it easier for 20th cent. man to understand God’s immanence (cf. the ’elan vital of Bergson, the “ground of being” in Tillich, and the heretical overemphasis of the “God is Dead” theologians, e.g., Altizer and Hamilton). Thus God is the ground of existence, the ground and cause of all creation, and His actions always and everywhere sustain and inbreathe the whole world of things. In spite of the neglect of Almighty God “up there,” there is a true emphasis in modern theology on the God within.

Bibliography

I. H. Dorner, Systems of Christian Doctrine (1880-1882); J. Orr, Christian View of God and the World (1893); S. Harris, God the Creator and Lord of All (1897); J. Ward, The Realm of Ends (1911); W. T. Dawson, HERE (1922), vol. 6, 268; A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (1947), 286-288; A. B. Davidson, Old Testament Theology, 163ff.; Hodgson, Time and Space, 579, 580; E. G. Robinson, Christian Theology, 73; Rogers, Superhuman Origins of the Bible, 10; A. H. Strong, Christ in Creation, 307-310; G. Vos, ISBE, vol. IV, 2188-2190.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

om-nip’-o-tens:

1. Terms and Usage:

The noun "omnipotence" is not found in the English Bible, nor any noun exactly corresponding to it in the original Hebrew or Greek


2. Inherent in nodetitle nodetitle:

The formal conception of omnipotence as worked out in theology does not occur in the Old Testament. The substance of the idea is conveyed in various indirect ways. The notion of "strength" is inherent in the Old Testament conception of God from the beginning, being already represented in one of the two divine names inherited by Israel from ancient Semitic religion, the name ’El. According to one etymology it is also inherent in the other, the name ’Elohim, and in this case the plural form, by bringing out the fullness of power in God, would mark an approach to the idea of omnipotence.

See nodetitle.

In the patriarchal religion the conception of "might" occupies a prominent place, as is indicated by the name characteristic of this period, ’El Shadday; compare Ge 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:24,25; Ex 6:3. This name, however, designates the divine power as standing in the service of His covenant-relation to the patriarchs, as transcending Nature and overpowering it in the interests of redemption.

Another divine name which signalizes this attribute is Yahweh tsebha’oth, Yahweh of Hosts. This name, characteristic of the prophetic period, describes God as the King surrounded and followed by the angelic hosts, and since the might of an oriental king is measured by the splendor of his retinue, as of great, incomparable power, the King Omnipotent (Ps 24:10; Isa 2:12; 6:3,5; 8:13; Jer 46:18; Mal 1:14).


See God.

3. Other Modes of Expression:

Some of the attributes of Yahweh have an intimate connection with His omnipotence. Under this head especially God’s nature as Spirit and His holiness come under consideration. The representation of God as Spirit in the Old Testament does not primarily refer to the incorporealness of the divine nature, but to its inherent energy. The physical element underlying the conception of Spirit is that of air in motion, and in this at first not the invisibility but the force forms the point of comparison. The opposite of "Spirit" in this sense is "flesh," which expresses the weakness and impotence of the creature over against God (Isa 2:22; 31:3).


4. Unlimited Extent of the Divine Power:


5. Forms of Manifestation:

It is chiefly through its forms of manifestation that the distinctive quality of the divine power which renders it omnipotent becomes apparent. The divine power operates not merely in single concrete acts, but is comprehensively related to the world as such. Both in Nature and history, in creation and in redemption, it produces and controls and directs everything that comes to pass. Nothing in the realm of actual or conceivable things is withdrawn from it (Am 9:2,3; Da 4:35); even to the minutest and most recondite sequences of cause and effect it extends and masters all details of reality (Mt 10:30; Lu 12:7). There is no accident (1Sa 6:9; compare with 1Sa 6:12; Pr 16:33). It need not operate through second causes; it itself underlies all second causes and makes them what they are.




6. Significance for Biblical Religion:

The significance of the idea may be traced along two distinct lines. On the one hand the divine omnipotence appears as a support of faith. On the other hand it is productlye of that specifically religious state of consciousness which Scripture calls "the fear of Yahweh." Omnipotence in God is that to which human faith addresses itself. In it lies the ground for assurance that He is able to save, as in His love that He is willing to save (Ps 65:5,6; 72:18; 118:14-16; Eph 3:20).

As to the other aspect of its significance, the divine omnipotence in itself, and not merely for soteriological reasons, evokes a specific religious response. This is true, not only of the Old Testament, where the element of the fear of God stands comparatively in the foreground, but remains true also of the New Testament. Even in our Lord’s teaching the prominence given to the fatherhood and love of God does not preclude that the transcendent majesty of the divine nature, including omnipotence, is kept in full view and made a potent factor in the cultivation of the religious mind (Mt 6:9). The beauty of Jesus’ teaching on the nature of God consists in this, that He keeps the exaltation of God above every creature and His loving condescension toward the creature in perfect equilibrium and makes them mutually fructified by each other. Religion is more than the inclusion of God in the general altruistic movement of the human mind; it is a devotion at every point colored by the consciousness of that divine uniqueness in which God’s omnipotence occupies a foremost place.

LITERATURE.

Oehler, Theologie des A T (3), 131, 139 ff; Riehm, Alttestamentliche Theologie, 250 ff; Dillmann, Handbuch der alttestamentlichen Theologie, 244; Davidson, Old Testament Theology, 163 ff; Konig, Geschichte der alttestamentlichen Religion, 127, 135 ff, 391, 475.