Towards a better conception of omnipotence

In an article titled “Why was the cross necessary?“, Fr. Robert Barron says

“Through Jesus, the divine light journeys into our worst darkness. His aim is to divinize us, to allow us to “share his divine nature” in St. Peter’s words, even in those dark places and conditions. Sin is a turning away from the divine life, and death is a fearful place that seems alien to God. But Jesus invades all those places, and thereby illumines them. He offers us new life even when we’ve wandered as far as we possibly can from God.

In that sense, the Cross was necessary for our salvation since it allowed the Hound of Heaven to hunt us down, even in the darkest places.”

If the Cross was necessary for our salvation, then it means God is limited in some sense in terms of his actions. That is, he can’t wave a ‘magic wand’ and allow the “Hound of Heaven to hunt us down.” Rather, He does something like sending his Son to do specific things, that lead to that state. These sorts of considerations suggest that God is not omnipotent in the classical philosophical Christian sense. That is, he can “offer new life even when someone has wandered as far as possible,” but the way in which that can be achieved isn’t by waving a magic wand.

Similarly, consider the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30). When the servants (angels) ask the farmer (God) if they should remove the weeds from the wheat, the farmer says to not do so, as some of the weeds’ roots will be tangled up with some of the wheat’s roots. Therefore, they should wait until the harvest and then separate the two. Again, the insinuation is that, yes, God can separate the wheat and the weeds at any time (is omnipotent in this sense), but there is a way in which he can do so, involving (in this case) damaging the wheat by removing the weeds.

So, God can do ‘anything He chooses’ in a sense – similar to how we say a person can do anything they want ‘if they set their mind to it’. This implies a potency working through things, not a magic wand. This pattern is repeated again and again in the Biblical stories.

The standard response is to assert that God is omnipotent in the classical philosophical sense, but to emphasize that this includes being limited by basic logic. Once he decides to create creatures with free will, he must then respect their choices (or they won’t any longer have free will in a real sense, so the argument goes). Hence, he appears to act like a God who is omnipotent in a non-classical sense, but he’s actually a classically omnipotent God who has chosen to constrain His actions in certain ways because He is also omnibenevolent (and free will is part and parcel of one of the highest goods, so the argument goes).

This brings the classical theory into accordance with the observed pattern more closely, and perhaps in details can be hashed out (although I think it raises more problems). Yet, this leads to the question – why believe in the classical conception of omnipotence vis a vis God in the first place? It seems like a theological add-on to Christianity, coming from absolutist, Platonic philosophy, is not strongly attested to in Christian canonical scriptures, and seems tangential to the experiences Christians actually have (in these last two, God seems to have amazing power beyond any other entity, but these instances don’t necessarily go to a classical philosophical sense of omnipotence).

This is a relevant question because the ‘problem of evil’ is one of the key intellectual arguments against a Christian God. The problem of evil gets its bite by conceiving of God as omnipotent in the classical philosophical sense (God can snap his fingers, so to speak, at any time and bring any result about He wants to).

One thought on “Towards a better conception of omnipotence

  1. Pingback: Was Jesus omniscient? | Making Sense of Christianity

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *