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Omnipotence

Omnipotence


Divine omnipotence means that God possesses all power and potency without any external limitation. The notion of omnipotence indicates a basic principle for the description of divine agency within monotheistic thought. However, in a monistic and emanative conception of God (e.g., as the perfect One in the philosophy of Plato and Plotinus, or Baruch Spinoza's idea of the intrinsic unity of perfection, necessity, and reality), there is no need of divine action. Within theism, divine omnipotence means the power to do all possible things that are not contrary to God's will and knowledge. The concept of God is often characterized by omnipotence in the description that God is the all-determining reality (Wolfhart Pannenberg), although others regard omnipotence as a projection of human desires onto an illusory, usually male, godhead (Sigmund Freud).

The idea of omnipotence comprises not only the actual reign over all human history as Pantokrator (the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew YHWH Sebaoth [Psalms 24:10], meaning "the almighty" and "the ruler of all things"), but also God's unlimited potential for agency (Augustine of Hippo), and for that reason it is religiously an argument for trusting God's guidance of salvation history. Therefore, it relates the concepts of creation and providence; the omnipotent God sustains the created reality. Since medieval theology, a distinction is made between the potentia absoluta (by which God can effectuate all non-self-contradictory possibilities) and the potentia ordinata (power limited by God's decision to create and maintain the orders of nature and of grace). God's creative power is neither exhausted by creating the natural order nor determined by it but makes room for the miraculous. The notion of ordained power signifies the complete absence of arbitrariness in God's agency. Sometimes theologians and philosophers neglected the religious meaning of omnipotence by speculating on the boundaries of God's absolute power, whether, for example, laws of logic or mathematical principles were created and maintained by divine power like the laws of nature (René Descartes). Although the notorious paradox of the stone (can an omnipotent being make a stone that it cannot lift?) seems to contradict the possibility of divine omnipotence, it is more a curious puzzle that has, however, a theologically more important equivalent. That is: Can the omnipotent God create people who are agents with a free will without simultaneously losing the control of the course of human history?

This question relates to the problem of evil: Can one believe in God almighty who is simultaneously omniscient and perfectly good, and who creates human agents with moral freedom and responsibility, and who permits suffering in the world? Is such a concept of divine omnipotence consistent? Process theologians, like Charles Hartshorne, try to avoid this dilemma by claiming that God's power is finite and limited by the freedom and power of human creatures. This kind of balance, however, presupposes a quantitative distribution of power at the same level, whereas providence entails divine omnipotence sustaining the created power at a different level. The so-called "free will defense" argues that the possibility of evil is given with the human reality of moral responsibility (Alvin Plantinga). This concept is compatible with God providing room for human freedom by limiting divine omnipotence (i.e., by not permanently actualizing it in all its respects). But it does not touch the problem of natural evil (diseases, floods, etc.). In light of this, the question can be raised whether we may refer to God as perfectly good when this same God created a universe in which moral and natural evil are possibilities. Moreover, when we consider the possibility that this may be a universe over which God, after the act of creation, has no further control, and thus cannot influence the outcome of events, we might consider such a God morally blameworthy for taking the initiative of creation.


See also Augustine; Creation; Descartes, RenÉ; Divine Action; Evil and Suffering; Freedom; Free Will Defense; Freud, Sigmund; God; Miracle; Omniscience; Plato; Process Thought; Providence; Theodicy

Bibliography

case-winters, anna. god's power: traditional understandings and contemporary challenges. louisville, ky.: westminster press, 1990.

freddoso, alfred j., ed. the existence and nature of god. notre dame, ind.: university of notre dame press, 1983.

hartshorne, charles. omnipotence and other theological mistakes. albany: state university of new york press, 1984.

van den brink, gijsbert. almighty god: a study of the doctrine of divine omnipotence. kampen, netherlands: kok pharos, 1993.

luco j. van den brom

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Omnipotence

Omnipotence. A characteristic of God in all theistic religions. It is especially prominent in Islam, where the power of God cannot be frustrated and where everything that is or that happens can only be or do so because he wills it. Theologians have introduced some qualifications in their attempts to define the extent of God's power: nearly all would rule out God's being able to do something self-contradictory, whilst many would say that God not only does not but also cannot do evil. God's omnipotence does not preclude his limiting or abdicating from his power on occasion. The so-called ‘paradoxes of omnipotence’ concern whether God can make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it, can make a creature which he cannot subsequently control, and so on.

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omnipotence

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