Divine Omnipotence and the Power to Change

At its most basic level, power is understood as an ability to bring about an effect. The English word comes from the Latin word potere, which means “to be able.” So, power can be understood as the ability to do some thing or bring about some effect.

I now claim that among the deep longings of the human heart, you’ll find a longing for omnipotence—not that you want to be omnipotent, but for a being that has this kind of power. Let me explain. Mark Galli, in his book A Great and Terrible Love says something I find very interesting about omnipotence. He says that if God were not omnipotent, we’d invent omnipotence and pin the attribute on him. And the reason, he says, is that we long for omnipotence.[1] Galli lists a number of reasons why we long for omnipotence. For example, we long for it because we realize (at one level) that we are not in control—as much as we try to be—of our lives or the world around us. Second, in our efforts to be good and to do the right, we often fail, and fail miserably. And finally, in the face of injustice—racial, sexual, climate related, economically related, we long to see things made right; we long for the world to be turned right side up. And we can’t achieve this kind of justice, no matter how hard we try, on our own. As Galli writes, we long for a power that will heal us and make us whole—and it is very natural to locate that power in deity: a God who is able to change us and heal the world.[2]

What does the Bible say about omnipotence?

 A cursory scan of Scripture helps us see that God is best understood as a being that possesses maximal power, or omnipotence. Moreover, God’s sovereignty over all reveals his power:

In his book, The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence, the theologian Thomas Jay Oord argues that the Scriptures do not teach Divine omnipotence.[3]

Oord argues as follows. He thinks that omnipotence means God can do absolutely anything and that God controls everything, understood as God being the sole and sufficient cause of all events. Given that understanding, which he thinks just falls out from the etymology of the word “all-powerful” and a common conception of God as the greatest possible being, he goes on to show that the Bible never says that God is omnipotent.

First, Oord notes that the Hebrew word often translated as “almighty” is a mistranslation. The Hebrew word shaddai is better translated as “breasts.” Thus, “God almighty” or el shaddai is better translated as “I am God of breasts” or “I am the breasted God.”[4]  So, how did we get from almighty in the Hebrew to the now standard view that God is omnipotent? Oord answer is as follows. The Septuagint is an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The first five books of the OT were likely translated in the 3rd century BCE and the rest in the second century.[5] The authors of the Septuagint translated shaddai and sabaoth into the Greek word pantokrator. This Greek word is a combination of panto which means “all” and the root krater or krateo which means “hold” or “seize.” Thus, God is literally the “all-holding” or “all-sustaining.”[6]

 Our story takes an interesting turn in 4th century AD when Jerome translates pantokrator as the Latin word omnipotens in the Latin Vulgate. Oord claims that this move by Jerome had devastating consequences, misleading the Christian tradition into ascribing God as all-powerful instead of immensely powerful.[7] Oord concludes that there is no word in the OT or NT that should be translated as omnipotent.

How might you reply to Oord’s arguments that the Bible doesn’t teach divine omnipotence?

The reply to Oord is simplicity itself and comes in two parts.

First, perhaps he is working with the wrong definition of omnipotence.

Second, even if the Hebrew words are mistranslated as pantokrator in the Septuagint, we still find the word in the NT (and it isn’t a mistranslation there).

How should we understand omnipotence?

Many think that omnipotence means that God can do anything.

But a moment’s reflection reveals that this commonly held understanding of divine omnipotence cannot be correct.

  • First, consider the paradox of the stone.
  • Second, consider the problem of freewill.

But then, on our initial gloss of omnipotence, God fails to be omnipotent. As Oord writes, “Qualifying a word that by definition means ‘without qualification’ confuses and misleads. Qualified omnipotence is an oxymoron.”[9]

In reply, whereas Oord argues that omnipotence obviously means that God can do anything and controls everything and thus God is not omnipotent, I argue instead that God is omnipotent and so omnipotence obviously cannot mean that God can do anything and controls everything.

I think that Oord is complicating things. I think it is possible to provide a straight forward definition of divine omnipotence that reduces the kinds of things God can’t do to two (or maybe even one). And here it is: God can bring about any logically possible state of affairs that doesn’t conflict with his nature. That is a fairly common gloss of omnipotence held by many throughout the Christian tradition. And it is not a definition that is lifeless or unmotivated or so restricted or qualified as to be unhelpful. In fact, I would submit, it is a great triangulation of the biblical text, the Christian tradition, and sound philosophy. And it presents a view of God as supremely powerful—just the kind of God we want.

Practically speaking, how does the fact that God is all-powerful matter to me?

How can one move from self-worship (or idol worship of any form) to Christlikeness? We find a hint of an answer as we consider God’s reaffirmation to Abraham of his covenant in Genesis 17:1: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” It seems there is some connection between God’s power and our ability to walk blameless before God. In the New Testament, Paul makes this connection more explicit.

So, in the end we have gotten the God we want – one who is truly all-powerful, one who is able. But God’s omnipotence isn’t exactly as we expected – God cannot do anything. But, God’s power is incomparably great: he is the most powerful person possible. And it is mind-boggling how powerful God is.

[1] Mark Galli, A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey Into The Attributes Of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 31.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Jay Oord, The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence (Orlando, FL: SacraSage Press, 2023), 11–40.

[4] Oord, The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence, 12.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 22.

[9] Oord, The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence, 70.

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