views updated May 09 2018


Omnipotence is derived From the Latin omnis (all) and potens (capable of making or producing). Divine omnipotence is a divine operative attribute, an active potency, or power, for acting ad extra. As an active potency it is distinguished from a passive potency, or capacity for receiving act, which would be opposed to God's perfection. By this power God has dominion over all things outside Himself, which He has brought into existence and which He holds in existence.

Omnipotence extends, however, only to beings that have the inherent possibility of existencethat is, that do not include a contradiction. Thus, God cannot make a square circle or an infinite created being since the essential notes here cancel each other out. (For this reason it is impossible for God to commit a sinthat is, act in a way contrary to His own intrinsic goodness.) These hypothetical beings lie beyond God's power, not because God's power is limited, but because of the inherent limitation in the idea of the thing itself.

Similarly, God's power cannot reverse His own eternal decrees, for this implies change of intention or new knowledge, both of which are impossible in a perfect God.

Some actions are called impossible for God even though they themselves can exist, yet cannot coexist with God's other decrees. Thus, it is true to say that man's immortal soul could be destroyed by God's power, if one considers His power in itself. Yet granting God's design in making man's soul immortal by nature, it is not possible that He act against His own plan. Thus one may say that destroying man's soul is beyond God's ordered power (potentia ordinata considering His power in conjunction with His divine decrees), but not beyond His absolute power (potentia absoluta considering in itself His power over man's soul). The usefulness, however, and even the validity, of this distinction is generally called into question.

Omnipotence has been considered the attribute most proper to a deity by men of all times and places. The Bible in particular voices continually the theme of God's power in comparison with the limited power of alien gods or of temporal rulers of Egypt or Babylonia. God is always able to save His people from these enemies. If at times He chooses not to, it is only because His people have not observed His laws.

Most of the Biblical names of God imply power to act or make, though the exact meaning of these terms is often under dispute. Abraham worships 'ēl šaddai (God the Almighty) in Gn 17.1 and 'ēl 'elyôn (Most High God or God Eternal) in Gn 14.18; ēl [see el (god) Gn 46.3], and as found in 'ělōhîm (see elohim) throughout the Old Testament, means the Strong God. God is also called "the Mighty One of Jacob" (Gn 4, 9.24), "the creator of the heavens the designer and maker of the earth" (Is 45.18), and "the Lord of the whole earth" (Jos 3.11,13). This notion of omnipotent Lordship is intimately linked with Jesus' divinity throughout the Gospel of St. Mark.

Somewhat mysterious in meaning is the most proper name of God, Yahweh (see yahweh), probably originally meaning "He who causes all things to be," rather than the later, more common, rendering, "I am who am" (Ex3.14).

In addition, many metaphors refer to Yahweh's hand or arm as symbolic of God's power to rule or guide or punish (cf. Jos 4.24; Ezr 7.28; Ex 15.16).

Omnipotence is not of merely speculative interest to Israel, for this attribute fosters faith's vision of the mirabilia Dei: the salvation acts of God for His people [cf. Dt3.24; Ps 105 (106).2]. It invites the believer to prayer of gratitude or petition; it is one of the motives held out to Israel to sanctify itself.

The doctrine that all things depend upon God appears in the opening chapters of Genesis, where God unfolds His plan of creation. (For treatment of the question whether or not creation out of nothing is to be found here, see creation.) By God's simple utterance things came to be, and as He wants them to be. Moon and sun, often worshiped by pagans, are here merely creatures. In Exodus, God's power is made manifest publicly before Egypt and its Pharaoh (cf. also Is 19.1). In such a way God has power over all nations (Nm 21.3; 1 Sm 14.12). The more marvelous is the work of God's omnipotence in that He selects an unworthy nation for His favors. Even evil is fitted into God's plan; Israel is often purified by it.

The culmination of God's power is found in the incarnation (cf. Rom 1.4). Jesus redeems man and even the physical world by becoming man, performing miracles, dying, and rising again. In the last times He will return, the Son of Man (Dn ch. 7), coming to judge all things as Lord and master.

These Biblical teachings have been interpreted by the magisterium of the Church (see H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, Index syst. Blbc).

Scholastic theology considers a number of questions in this area. Omnipotence follows upon God's essence as pure act, having within Himself His own fullness of actuality. Since one thing is able to cause another insofar as it is itself in act, God alone is capable of giving existence to created things. Of course, God's omnipotence is in reality completely identified with His essence, distinguished only by a virtual minor distinction. Other problems dealt with in systematic theology are God's freedom in creating (ibid. 3002) and man's freedom under God's causality (see omniscience; predestination).

See Also: god, articles on.

Bibliography: Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951), Tables générales 1:975993. c. spicq, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (Freiburg 195765); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und Kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 1:353355. t. aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1a, 25; C. gent. 2.7. f. suÁrez, De Deo 3.9. j. d. collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago 1959). r. garrigou-lagrange, The One God, tr. b. rose (St. Louis 1943). p. heinisch, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. w. g. heidt (Collegeville, Minn.1950).

[g. roxburgh]


views updated May 23 2018


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


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


views updated May 18 2018

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.