Does Omnipotence Imply Divine Tyrrany?

Today I’ll look at the third supposed reason for which Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders think Jesus wants you to apologize for thinking God is omnipotent. This reason underscores the dependence of the authors on one failed view of omnipotence in order to make their case.

3. An omnipotent deity runs eternity like a tyrannical dictator. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Paul said that, and I think it makes perfect sense. Of course, if Calvin is correct and God is actually the one in charge, then it becomes a bit odd…or flat our disgusting…to simultaneously think God elects people to suffer for all eternity for their sins. That’s worse than me spanking my son for eating a cookie I made and gave to him. This image of God is morally bankrupt and need not be defended. Instead we could imagine God to be a Woman who seeks out each lost coin until it is found, or a faithful and patient Father waiting to throw a party for the return of his son. These images sound like a God as loving as Jesus.

Frankly, the logic of this proposal is so faulty it need not be commented upon. It entirely depends upon the absolute dependence of the concept of omnipotence on Calvin’s (or Augustine’s) concept of election. But let’s see what it says and implies anyway.

Why must anyone who accept the idea of God’s omnipotence be tied to the idea that such a deity “runs eternity like a tyrannical dictator”? Let’s be clear about something suggested in the first post in this series. Our interest should not be in defending a philosophical concept of omnipotence, or of any other quality or characteristic attributed to God. Our interest is in seeing whether such terms adequately describe the God of the Bible. If the terms fit the data, we may use them, but never without reference to that data in favor of a purely philosophical definition and its supposed logical entailments. Attention to those logical entailments has, indeed, led segments of theology into some of the directions we now see as counter-productive, if not simply misleading. And if Tripp and Fuller have been led to believe that an omnipotent deity is necessarily a dictatorial tyrant, that alone is evidence that it has happened.

So what might this God, who is almighty and does not determine everything under and over the sun, look like? Quite simply, He looks like the God of the biblical story, including the images suggested by Tripp and Fuller from Luke 15. That chapter is hardly the first inkling we get in Scripture that this is God’s way. It is a summary of God’s willingness, God’s pleading, prodding, and proposing to humankind that they return to Him. The entire narrative argues strongly and clearly that God has not dictated what humans will do. He does everything to encourage them to act differently, including punishment–but not for eating cookies that He gave them and told them to eat.

But here is the critical point. The God who does this is not a powerless deity who has only persuasion with which to accomplish His
goals for humanity. It is the Maker of heaven and earth, the Ruler of the stars and seas, of storms and sunrises, and of saints and sinners. The latter pair is what we are most interested in with regard to the charges against omnipotence, but we must not consider it without reference to the other created things. God surely had the power to create a mechanistic world of human events; but it does not appear to me that He has done so. Instead, He exercised His power to create beings in His image, with freedom of action and thought. Yes, there is risk involved and damage to result from such a decision. And having made this kind of creature, deeming the results to be worth the risk, He could step in and override human decisions and directions at any time. Freedom is used in creative and destructive ways; but for the maturing of humans to take place, the results of one course or the other must be seen and experienced.

As parents we can stop our children from doing bad things by restricting their freedom; we have the power, but choose not to use it in certain circumstances. It is no limitation on the power of God to think that He will not move to immediately correct every misstep people make. How He actually does use His unlimited power to deal with human error and defiance will be the subject of the final entry in this series.

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12 thoughts on “Does Omnipotence Imply Divine Tyrrany?

  1. I really appreciate your last paragraph…

    I have learned that our role as parents is not to control or direct our children’s choices and actions, (as much as we sometimes would try) but rather to teach them how to make good choices…while allowing them to make bad choices in the process and then learning to deal with the consequences of their own bad choices….much the The Holy Spirit does for believers….(I’m not talking about extreme ‘bad’ choices)

    God is in control…but He is not controlling. He is Lord of All, but He isn’t Lording over all.

    Often people ask why did God allow this person to get sick, or why did God allow this earthquake…etc etc….the simple answer, He didn’t. The “bad” that happens are a result of sin’s corruption and not of God’s heavy hand. While He is perfectly capable of doing such things…His nature and heart is to reconcile and restore all things to Himself.

  2. I agree with Chris. Being a parent helps us to understand how God “parents” us in a loving, constructive, character-building way.

  3. The last 3 postings have been really great. Since you are off bowling I thought I would respond now, and work with the responses.

    The metaphors on relationship are mixed:

    father/son
    husband/wife
    hen/chicks
    fraternal (with Christ)

    Following this we might (traditionally) ask what would the historical textual context of the parental relationship in the New Testament oeuvre. Would it be life/death actions ala Pater Familias for instance? If you are a true evangelical single meaning of the text sort with a minor in historical textual than the family relationships that you admit to probably only has a partial overlap in what was the meaning.

    Thankfully for us post-modern influenced infidels the text is more subjective, culture has more determinism, and the Holy Spirit still interprets through the polis.

    But the most fascinating prompting of above would be “How is God in control?” or asked differently “What is God in control of?”

    Because he is not in control of most important aspect of creation, man’s will. Neither was God (in the canonical usage of the term), in control of Jesus’.

    And we have arrived back at omnipotence.

    God’s potens (power) is circumscribed or limited. It is limited by His own choice.

    God’s potens will bring about his ultimate goal (somewhere in the vicinity of “every knee..ever tongue” plus) because 7 billion wills (created out of his essence) are insufficiently powerful to stop this. On the downside our wills are only sufficient to create pain, existential, ultimate, personal, other’s, God’s.

  4. “…our wills are only sufficient to create pain…”? Am I misunderstanding this statement? If our wills are only sufficient to create pain then as followers of Jesus we must lose our wills entirely to be able to do what Jesus calls us to do on mission in the world, yes?

      • Thanks Ken. But truely it was a question. I am not sure (again, truely not sure not just provocatively not sure :)) that our wills are sufficient only for the creation of pain. Are you both saying that our wills as human beings are so fallen or rotten or whatever that we are incapable of doing anything good with them (understanding of course the caveats through this series that we define good appropriately in relation to the actual word and activity of God and not some outside understanding imposed on God)? Or is it more accurate to say that what we need are transformed wills not wills that have been taken from us? What I want to argue is that will is integral to our existence as human beings bearing the image of God and to have them taken over is tantamount to having them determined which is functionally the same as having no will at all. The absence of a will as a follower of Jesus is something I think that would dimish our humanity rather than fulfill it. An untransformed will marks humans as less human than we were created to be but an absent will would be worse yet. Perhaps a bit nitpicky for some to see a difference between a will lost in the will of Jesus vs a will transformed by Jesus but I think it is significant if we are to understand our call to work with God in the re-creating of His world (cf. N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope). Wright argues that we are actual creative contributors to this work of re-creation and not simply spectators. Our wills (transformed), it seems to me, are a necessary, though not sufficient, part of the creative process we are invited to participate in and those wills are not lost when we choose to follow Jesus.

    • on the downside. I’m using financial/dealmaking terminology, in every agreement there is downside and an upside (and not that you care you have to decide whether you are going to protect on the up or the down).

      so the downside (negative) of our will is the creation of the pain.

      In Luther’s response to Erasmus long ago he talked about the “bondage of the will”. One might legitimately say that Christ represents this turn of phrase in the Garden in his statement “not my will, but thy will.” This would suggest that this exemplary Man, Jesus the Christ, in some manner didn’t want to be tortured and murdered, and as I would suggest didn’t want to rejected by individual humans, peoples, and cultures through the Parousia, and then marred for eternity.

      As a neo-ana-baptist I’m interested in the upside of will, what is it that we can do in Kingdom (or mission if you may), what is the best we can do.

      Now here is where I go farther afield, in philosophy (specificly stoic philosophy) there are “indifferent things” where the moral law does not apply, Luther’s collaborator Melanchon resurrected this theologically. Does this concept truly exist? If it does than we can exercise our will in a manner that is morally neutral.

      The general question is how much “space” do we have as adopted sons and daughters? Will we finally in the Parousia commit our wills over moral law to God exclusively, yet still having the knowledge of Good and Evil? Will we still exercise “complete” indendence” on indifferent things? On the Eastern front we have theosis as an answer drawing (at least) from 2 Peter 1:4 “partakers of the Divine nature” – for them the answer is no.

  5. When I was pastor of two churches in beautiful Schuylkill County, I was repeatedly asked to explain the apparent contradiction between God’s omnipotence and evil. We had many stirring discussions. These posts, and replies, confirm that my answers were appropriate. They were not as articulate and brilliant, but they were adequate.

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