Omnipotence (literally, "all power") is power with no limits or inexhaustible, in other words, unlimited power. This trait is usually attributed only to God. Theists hold that examples of God's omnipotence include Creation and miracles.
In most monotheistic religions, God is described as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent, but the Bible only describes God as omnipotent [all-powerful]. These religious (but not Biblical) definitions of omnipotence, however, brings up the problem of evil, in that if God is omnipotent and all-loving, then why does he allow evil and tragedy to exist? Resolving this issue is a major part of the theology of the monotheistic religions; attempts to reconcile God's goodness with the fact that evil exists is termed theodicy.
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Meanings of omnipotence
Between people of different faiths, or indeed even between people of the same faith, the term omnipotent has been used to connote a number of different positions. These positions include:
- God can not only supersede the laws of physics and probability, but God can also rewrite logic itself (for example, God could create a square circle, or could make one equal two).
- God can intervene in the world by superseding the laws of physics and probability (i. e., God can create miracles), but it is impossible (and in fact meaningless) to suggest that God can rewrite the laws of logic.
- God originally could intervene in the world by superseding the laws of physics (miracles), and did do so when creating the universe, but then he self-obligated himself not to do so anymore in order to give humankind free will. Miracles are rare, at best, and always hidden, to prevent humans from being overwhelmed by absolute knowledge of God's existence, which could remove free will.
- Omnipotence is sharply limited by neo-Aristotelian philosophers, who independently arose in Judaism, Christianity and Islam during the medieval era, and whose views still are considered normative among the intellectual elite of these faith communities even today. In this view, God never interrupts the set laws of nature; once set, they are never repealed, for God never changes his mind. These philosophers envisioned a connection between the realm of the physical and the intellectual. All physical events are held to be the results of "intellects", some of which are human, some of which are "angels". These intellects can interact in such a way as to seemingly violate the laws of nature. Since God himself created the universe and the laws therein, this is how God works in the world. However, God does not actively intervene in a temporal sense. It has been noted that this view veers away from traditional theism, and moves towards deism.
- God's omnipotence does not transcend the laws of physics or logic; rather his omnipotence is measured by his mastery of these laws to which he himself is also subject. God is omnipotent in that he has reached the full potential of his species (mankind) and is as powerful as his species can be. What may appear as a miracle to a mere mortal is simply an example of God's perfect knowledge of the laws of nature and his consequent ability to make use of that omniscience. This position is implied by Mormonism and avoids paradoxes created by a strong literal meaning imputed to the trait of omnipotence by most monotheistic religions.
- God is able to do everything that is in accord with his own nature. He has no external power exerted on him, and is the source and origin of all power. The nature of God includes logic, and thus God cannot do anything which is logically absurd. God is able to alter the laws of physics since they are not part of his nature (strictly speaking, though they may be reflective of it), they are only a means to an end. Tertullian summarized this view as follows: "In one sense there will be something difficult even for God — namely, that which He has not done — not because He could not [in terms of raw power], but because He would not [in terms of self-consistency], do it. For with God, to be willing is to be able, and to be unwilling is to be unable; all that He has willed, however, He has both been able to accomplish, and has displayed His ability."
Rejection of omnipotence
Some monotheists reject altogether the view that God is omnipotent. In Unitarian Universalism, much of Conservative and Reform Judaism, and some wings of Protestant Christianity including process theology and open theism, God is said to act in the world through persuasion, and not by coercion. God makes himself manifest in the world through inspiration and the creation of possibility, but not by miracles or violations of the laws of nature.
The rejection of omnipotence generally stems from philosophical or scriptural grounds, or some combination of both.
Philosophical grounds: process theology
Process theology rejects omnipotence on a philosophical basis, arguing that omnipotence as classically understood would be less than perfect, and is therefore incompatible with the idea of a perfect God.
The idea is grounded in Plato's often overlooked statement that "Being is power."
- "I suggest that anything has real being that is so constituted as to possess any sort of power either to affect anything else or to be affected, in however small a degree, by the most insignificant agent, tho it be only once. I am proposing as a mark to distinguish real things: that they are nothing but power." (Plato, Sophist 247E).
From this premise, Charles Hartshorne argued further that:
- "Power is influence, and perfect power is perfect influence ... power must be exercised upon something, at least if by power we mean influence, control; but the something controlled cannot be absolutely inert, since the merely passive, that which has no active tendency of its own, is nothing; yet if the something acted upon is itself partly active, then there must be some resistance, however slight, to the "absolute" power, and how can power which is resisted by absolute?" (Hartshorne 89)
The argument can be stated as follows:
- 1) God exists
- 2) God is perfect
- 3) Existence is power,
- 4) Since existence is power, all beings in the universe must have power.
- 5) If all beings have some power, then they have some power to resist God.
- 6) If beings have the power to resist God, then God does not have absolute power.
In essence, if God has absolute power, then he has no power at all. God must therefore embody some of the characteristics of power, and some of the characteristics of persuasion. This view is known as dipolar theism.
The most popular works espousing this point are from Harold Kushner (in Judaism). The need for a modified view of omnipotence was also developed by Alfred North Whitehead in the early 20th century and expanded upon by Charles Hartshorne, within the context of the theological system known as process theology.
Some branches of Conservative and Reform Judaism, as well as Open Theism, reject omnipotence on doctrinal grounds. They note that the word "omnipotence" is absent entirely from the Hebrew Bible, and appears only once in the Christian New Testatement, in Revelation. They note that much of the narrative of the Old Testament describes God as having limited power and interacting with creation primarily through persuasion, and only occasionally through brute force. Thus, it is argued, there is no scriptural reason to adhere to omnipotence, and the adoption of the doctrine is simply a result of the synthesis of Hellenic and early Christian thought.
Paradoxes of omnipotence
Belief that God can do absolutely anything can lead to certain logical paradoxes (which some argue are not problematic, if God transcends the laws of logic). A simple example, described in more detail under omnipotence paradox is: Can God create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? Some would argue this is not omnipotence in the strict sense, as power is not the same as ability or knowledge.
Combining omnipotence with omniscience into one paradox, which is not scriptural, but merely philosophical, one might ask whether God can pose a question to which he wouldn't know the answer.
Charles Hartshorne, Man's Vision of God, p. 89.