Head to Head
Like many of the traditional Christian
doctrines which are generally seldom questioned by the average person is
that which says that God, if God wants to, can do anything. One result
is that Jesus, who is thought of by Christians as God incarnate, could
obviously do miracles during the span of his short life.
and Rick discuss here some of the
problems which arise from this teaching, suggesting some possible ways
of tackling those problems.
As I look through theology, I find a strange reluctance to
discuss the Christian doctrine of God�s omnipotence. It seems to me that
the teaching is widely perceived as raising intractable problems - and
perhaps for this reason theologians tend to skip over it as a meaningful
But the ordinary person in the pew (if there is
such a creature) no doubt retains a notion that God is all-powerful (omni-potent).
In all the puzzling contradictions of life, and despite all the
tragedies with which we are afflicted, God remains a person who could as
it were wave a magic wand and fix the suffering which plagues our lives.
For others, however, God�s omnipotence provides an easy exit from the
trials of faith: for if God can fix things and in fact doesn�t,
then we are entirely justified either in dismissing the divine as
irrelevant or denying the existence of a supreme being.
Early Christian attempts to resolve the problem
(technically called theodicy) was to propose that two principles
rule the universe. Good things come from God, while bad things come from
an anti-God, a wicked power of darkness. We unfortunate humans must
choose between the two - but even if we choose the God principle, the
power of evil still impacts our lives and we suffer accordingly.
Needless to say, this apparently simple solution has long since been
dismissed as heretical.
More recently in the long history of Christian
thought a similarly ancient idea has revived. It proposes that although
God is theoretically all-powerful, in practice God�s power is
limited. In other words, God has voluntarily given up unlimited power by
creating a universe the operating of which not even God can change
without un-making what has been created.
I wonder how this idea strikes you, Rick.
As an �ordinary person in the pew� I sense the concept of
omnipotence is, as you
suggest, problematic to a degree it may have no relevance to
contemporary Christian thought. I say this because invoking omnipotence
often leads to absurd logic. For instance, can God create an iron weight
too heavy for Him to lift?
Other similarly banal propositions are frequently put forth.
Considerations of omnipotence apply chiefly to
deities. The only mortal to which it could be applied is Jesus Christ.
Because He is the Son of God He putatively has the
power of His heavenly father.
What can we learn from Jesus about the exercise of
His power? In His temptation in the wilderness by the devil (Mathew
4:1-11) when the devil told him to cast himself down from the pinnacle
of a temple, Jesus said, �You shall not tempt the Lord your God.�
Thus, by imputing omnipotence to God we may be
tempting Him or setting Him up as it were. We are tempting Him to
ameliorate all human problems even to the point of violating the
principles of the cosmos He ordained. It seems to me not a stretch to
claim that God has integrity and consistency. Who are we mere mortals to
judge God�s use of power? If He does not do our bidding, do we have
grounds thereby to dismiss the reality of His power or His very
existence? That would be hubris in the extreme.
You have hit upon an aspect of the omnipotence doctrine which
I think is difficult for most of us. That God is omnipotent is a
doctrine vigorously touted by a vast majority of Christians, so we must
take it seriously. We must also therefore take seriously any claim that
God could, if God so wishes, grant any prayer, however apparently
preposterous in terms of the way the creation normally operates. When a
person prays earnestly, with great faith, for a miracle which
contradicts the normal operation of nature must we not allow the
that such a prayer could be answered? I wonder if we can rightly dismiss
this possibility as of no relevance.
For if God can resurrect a man after he has died,
is it not also possible that God has the power to heal any sickness, or
right any wrong, or suspend any so-called �law� of physics? And if
miracles are possible, can God still be called good if God refuses to do
good, especially when a miracle might prevent or cure (for example)
appalling suffering of innocents? What are we to make of intercession if
God is powerless in some circumstances? Does not a God who created
nature red in tooth and claw, and then stands back from the pools of
blood, become a sort of demon?
Hubris or not, I find it difficult to the point of
impossibility to think of God as intimately involved in the operation of
the world and yet standing back from what we experience as its negative
aspects. The contradiction is too great for me.
I agree with much you say about God�s apparent unreliability in
answering prayer or cleaning up the world�s problems. On that basis you
might well consider Him a demon. Yet for thousands of years many people
have clung to their religious beliefs and
in God�s ultimate beneficence despite untold unanswered prayers and
continuing evil in the world. That empirical fact must tell us something
about the resiliency of faith in God. They trust God�s wisdom in all
things. It is a paradox without an easy explanation.
believers understand that God�s inscrutable
may frequently trump their expectations. Thus, considerations of
do not appear decisive in their belief systems. In that sense I consider
omnipotence to be irrelevant. It may be important but not
You seem to
suggest that God does not answer our petitions. In my former life as a
physician I witnessed many events that could be called miracles.
Certainly the patients and family thought they were. You might counter
that these so-called miracles were simply coincidences, mere chance. You
may say so but you could be wrong.
cases I see no need to invoke suspension of natural laws in their
achievement. They occurred because of the confluence of natural forces
appropriately directed by physicians and technicians. In this way I see
the hand of God influencing the outcome without the violation of natural
A key word
to this discussion is trust.
It is trust that effaces all contradictions and paradoxes of God�s
activity in the world. We cannot and ought not tempt or test God. To
have a durable relationship with Him we must simply
Yours is certainly one way - and perhaps a good and reasonable way - of
preserving the long-standing Christian orthodoxy that God is omnipotent.
I suggest, however, that your proposed trust in God is a way of having
your cake and eating it (omnipotence is �important but not
determinate�). You hang onto the teaching that benevolence is of God�s
essence; and at the same time you neutralise the theodicy problem even
when benevolence appears to have left the party.
is with incongruence and trust. Let�s get clear about God. As I
understand it, fundamental to Christian teaching is the notion that God
can�t be described. To use technical language, God has no attributes. We
use the word �God� for that which is absolutely other, infinitely beyond
our comprehension. In short, we can�t know God as we know a good friend
or spouse, or as we know things about the natural world.
So when we
apply attributes to God we do so to meet our own needs. This is so when
attributing fatherhood, or love, or cruelty or anything else to God. It
is we who fill the word �God� with metaphors. Or, to put it another way,
we know God only through the natural order from which we derive
attributes. We know the Creator (an attribute) through the creation. In
particular, Christians claim to know God through the person of Jesus of
Nazareth. (I suppose one could say that Jesus is a primary Christian
metaphor for God, just as Mohammed is for Muslims.)
Be that as
it may, I must press you further. It is clear that the attribute of
omnipotence leads to difficult if not fatal clash with other important
attributes we apply to God (caring, loving, benevolent and so on). You
seem to acknowledge this. Yet you are apparently advising me to maintain
incongruent metaphors. Now, I don�t much trust incongruent people - that
is, those who appear to be one thing and are actually another; who say
one thing and do another. Do you? And if you don�t, is it reasonable to
trust a God (�God is trustworthy�) to whom incongruent attributes (�God
is benevolent� and �God allows suffering�) can equally well be applied?
Why seek a durable relationship (to use your terms) with such a deity?
Christianity presents many paradoxes that are difficult to reconcile.
The problem of suffering is a significant one. How can we accept God as
loving and benevolent when there is so much cruelty and hatred in the
world? Can�t God intervene and make all things right?
book, Mick-Rick Essays on the Sacred and Profane (Xlibris 2007, pp
11-14) we discussed the subject, �Why does God allow suffering?� I
argued, because we have consciousness given by God, there is a personal
reference to the myriad injuries imposed on us by our existence in a
turbulent world. In order for humankind to be exempt from suffering, we
would have to be deprived by the Creator of our consciousness. We would
thereby, be reduced to insentient animals like all the others.
God created the cosmos and its governing principles. His integrity will
not allow the abrogation of these principles and hence God will not
interfere with our consciousness. Thus, I see suffering to be an
inescapable aspect of conscious humanity.
add, faith in Jesus Christ and his message can provide consolation for
our suffering. Additionally, suffering can have a positive, regenerative
influence by redirecting life pathways away from sources of suffering
of the Apostle Paul are pertinent to the issue: �We rejoice in our
sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance
produces character, and character produces hope.�
As for a
proscription on ascribing attributes to God, I thought that was mainly a
Hebrew Old Testament concept. �I am who I am,� says YHWH. Since Jesus
Christ permits glimpses of the nature of God, the New Testament is a
veritable compendium of the attributes of God. I see this as a good
thing. How else can we establish a relationship with God if we know
nothing about Him? It is one thing to have a proper reverence for the
ineffable mystery of God but it is reasonable at the same time to
maintain a desire to know Him. You have suggested God is
incongruent. This might be an appropriate descriptor of a
relationship to a Mafia Don but not to God. God is not a cosmic thug.
ways the Christian God presents paradoxes, as we have already
delineated. From omnipotence God seems to transform into weakness making
it a virtue exemplified by Jesus� statement from the Sermon on the
Mount, �Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth�.
In our discussions my thoughts recur to the importance of
in God. There is a necessity to submit to God�s wisdom and ultimate
goodness. That is the best path to resolving the paradoxes inherent in
considering God�s omnipotence. Of course, if one does not believe in God
or think He is not approachable, all our discussions are so much
As you know, I am always reluctant to rest with paradoxes. As far as I�m
concerned a paradox indicates a shortcoming - perhaps asking the wrong
question, perhaps not facing up to an inconvenient answer, and so on.
Like you, I
can�t stress enough the importance of trust in relation to God. In my
book trust is that attitude to life which acknowledges that I have no
final or complete answers, but which leads me to carry on regardless. I
don�t say �God is this or that� but rather �I think of God as
this or that� and trust that the attributes I choose will serve well.
I try not
to use terms for God which are incongruent, since incongruence in people
(which is where I get the attribute from) reduces or destroys trust. A
�two-faced� God isn�t one that I can simultaneously call �trustworthy�.
It seems to me that �omnipotent� and �caring� are likewise incongruent
divine attributes - hence the insuperable problems we experience when
trying to combine them. If my trust in God is to be maintained, perhaps
I must drop one or the other.
I choose to
drop the attribute �omnipotent� in relation to God. I do so to preserve
what Jesus of Nazareth reaffirmed - that we are all loved regardless of
our differences, shortcomings or moral failures. In other words, �God
cares for us all� is a more important attribute than �God is
all-powerful�. Some may choose to hold the two attributes in some sort
of creative tension. But that�s beyond me.