How Much Power?

Recently a friend and former student sent an email with the following opinion attached, asking that I consider commenting on it in the blog. So Lisa, this one (and perhaps a follow-up or two) is for you and anyone else asking similar questions. The issue is the matter of God’s omnipotence, raised by Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders in a post cited below:

Omnipotence: A Compliment Jesus Wants You to Take Back
By Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders

I (Tripp) have one important rule to guide my theological thinking: God has to at least be as loving as Jesus.
It seems rather obvious for a Christian, given our confession that Jesus was indeed the ‘image of the invisible God,’ but throughout church history, God, Jesus’ Abba, has been given a very theologically destructive compliment– namely that God is Omnipotent , All Powerful.

While this philosophical compliment is absent in Scripture, yet present throughout much theology, it was John Calvin that made God’s power the ultimate theological principle. I used to be a Calvinist. I read Calvin’s Institutes in high school, used Charles Spurgeon sermons for devotions, and quoted Jonathan Edwards to my crazy Arminian friends in college. Then I realized the God I had come to know in Christ was way too awesome for my Calvinist theology. The theology was not simply off, but set against God’s nature, name, and essence being love.

This isn’t to say Calvinists aren’t Christians (or that I wasn’t when I was there theologically). I am simply saying that omnipotence is a theological compliment Jesus wants you to take back for four reason:

Now before revealing these great reason(s) for which Fuller wants you to repent of your thinking that God is all powerful, let’s take a closer look at the premises from which he is making this plea.

First of all, for all his youthful acquaintance with Calvin’s Institutes, he seems to have missed something very significant about trinitarian thinking. The “Jesus” and “God” are not two different persons. If he is really thinking “Jesus” vis-a-vis “the Father,” then he should say so. If one is going to present Christian thinking, say it with enough precision to avoid adding unnecessary confusion. Early church teachers thought long and hard about what the Bible requires us to think about the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, concluding that they share completely in the one divine essence.

Secondly, and more importantly to my mind, claiming that omnipotence is a “destructive compliment” to God that is “absent in(sic) Scripture,” is both grammatically and biblically ludicrous. (Something can be absent “from” something else, but it cannot be absent “in”). One cannot posit God as creator without positing omnipotence; one cannot believe in the fulfillment of God’s purposes if there is something more powerful out there to potentially thwart his intentions. For more direct refuting, the Psalms ought to be consulted, along with the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. While one may debate whether or not the actual term is present, one cannot rightly argue that the concept is absent.

What is really subject to contention is the nature—not the fact—of divine omnipotence. Here Tripp and Sanders have a valid point, in that Greek philosophy has its own understanding of what an omnipotent deity must be and do; and to hold that definition of omnipotence as something the Christian God must fulfill is indeed to stray from biblical understanding. What I mean is that when we draw the biblical conclusion that God is all powerful, we do so as a summary way of describing the Scripture’s portarayls of his actions and possible actions; we do not use a word, and then draw the definition solely or even primarily from what the philosophy of a given age says that the word must logically carry with it.

In fact, we can look at the same error taking shape in the preference (make that non-negotiable demand) from the authors that we see God’s essence as love. I’m not about to argue that God is not love; but I will insist that we draw our understanding of divine love from God’s actions and possible actions in the Scripture, and not from what we think an all loving deity would or would not, must or must not do.

This will become more evident in posts that deal with the “four reasons” we are promised. But that begins tomorrow.

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9 thoughts on “How Much Power?

  1. Okay, I’ll bite, what is the nature of His omnipotence?

    As Bauckham points out almost all introductions of the Epistles are binitarian, the exceptions are 1 Peter and Revelations (depending what you think Revelations is in literary structure(s) ):

    “Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits[a] before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

    To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

    Beyond the character, in power, classically we think in terms of the direction or delegation of that power. Revelation appears to attempt in one compact literary structure(s) to communicate how this was/is/willbe delegated. Theologically (or rather teologically) we might gather insight in this delegation by seeing the seperation of sacrifice from Shekiah presence in tabernacle & temple.

  2. I do believe this thought hits the proverbial nail on the head:

    “….but I will insist that we draw our understanding of divine *any character trait* from God’s actions and possible actions in the Scripture, and not from what we think an all any *any character trait* deity would or would not, must or must not do.”

    I might add to that….the actions of God that are experienced today must help to define….

    But, to define based on what we think an all powerful, or all loving, or all knowing, or all-in-all God would act like is, simply, idolatry….essentially, creating a God in our image.

    I need to be content in the knowledge that I will never fully understand the wholeness of God’s character. But I also have come to realize if what I think I know about God, can’t be found in the person of Jesus, I have reason to question it.

  3. While I eagerly await the Master of Theology and see how he will play his hand. Will it be Plato, Freud, Lewis or Polkinhorne, or Moltman with a splash of Volf (shaken not stirred), open theism, process theology, or dipolar theism, Jerusalem or Alexadria?…. I’d like to work with this a bit.

    man to God imaging, vs God to man imaging can be a problem I agree, but I don’t think the solution is to either do nothing, or embrace apophatic theology. If God’s ‘omni potens’ is constrained by His character of “consistency” (Polkinhorne) “intrinsically possible” {not nonsense} (Lewis), and “persuasive” vs “overriding”, consistent with his worldplan and covenants/agreements, and respecter of humanity’s choice/will due to our Being(in His Essence) then we might be able to frame this.

    What interests me about “know about God…. found in the person of Jesus” is how that might be acquired. [In Revelations, God means the Father I believe, here I am unsure]

  4. I, too, noticed Fuller’s rush to define omnipotence by Calvin’s definition. You rightly point out that we should look to Scripture to truly understand what the term means.

    Two terms that one must grapple with are the Hebrew word “el-shadai” and the Greek word “pantokrator.” Both are translated “Almighty.” What do these words mean and how does history demonstrate God to be?

    I found Lee Strobel’s interview with Peter Kreeft in the first chapter of “The case for Faith” to be very helpful in discussing this whole question. Strobel challenges Kreeft with the objection “Since evil and suffering exist, a loving God cannot.” Kreeft answers the challenge well without sacrificing omnipotence or omniscience: Something Fuller and Sanders are unwilling to do.

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