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Systematic Theology - Volume I
« Prev 10. The Power of God. Next »

§ 10. The Power of God.

A. The Nature of Power, or, The Origin of the Idea.

We get the idea of power from our own consciousness. That is, we are conscious of the ability of producing effects. Power in man is confined within very narrow limits. We can change the current of our thoughts, or fix our attention on a particular object and we can move the voluntary muscles of our body. Beyond this our direct power does not extend. It is from this small measure of efficiency that all the stores of human knowledge and all the wonders of human art are derived. It is only our thoughts, volitions, and purposes, together with certain acts of the body, that are immediately subject to the will. For all other effects we must avail ourselves of the use of means. We cannot will a book, a picture, or a house into existence. The production of such effects requires protracted labor and the use of diverse appliances.

B. Omnipotence.

It is by removing all the limitations of power, as it exists in us, that we rise to the idea of the omnipotence of God. We do not thus, however, lose the idea itself. Almighty power does not cease to be power. We can do very little. God can do whatever He wills. We, beyond very narrow limits, must use means to accomplish our ends. With God means are unnecessary. He wills, and it is done. He said, Let there be light; and there was light. He, by a volition created the heavens and the earth. At the volition of Christ, the winds ceased, and there was a great calm. By an act of the will He healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, and raised the dead. This simple idea of the omnipotence of God, that He can do without effort, and by a volition, whatever He wills, is the highest conceivable idea of power, and is that which is clearly presented in the Scriptures. In Gen. xvii. 1, it is said, “I am the Almighty God.” The prophet Jeremiah exclaims, “Ah Lord God! behold thou hast made the heavens and the earth by thy great power, and stretched out arm; and there is nothing too hard for thee.” (Jer. xxxii. 17.) God is said to have created all things by the breath of his mouth, and to uphold the universe by a word. Our Lord says, “With God all things are possible.” (Matt. xix. 26.) The Psalmist long before had said, “Our God is in the heavens; He hath done whatsoever He pleased.” (Ps. cxv. 3.) And again, “Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did He in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places.” (Ps. cxxxv. 6.) The Lord God omnipotent reigneth, and doeth his pleasure among the armies of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth, is the tribute of adoration which the Scriptures everywhere render unto God, and the truth which they everywhere present as the ground of confidence to his people. This is all we know, and all we need to know on this subject: and here we might rest satisfied, were it not for the vain attempts of theologians to reconcile these simple and sublime truths of the Bible with their philosophical speculations.

C. The Negation of Power.

The sensuous school of philosophers deny that there is any real efficiency or power in existence. Their principle is, that all knowledge is derived from the senses; and consequently, that, as we cannot know anything of which the senses do not take cognizance, it is unphilosophical or unreasonable to admit the existence of anything else. Our senses, however, do not take cognizance of efficiency. It cannot be felt, or seen, or heard, or tasted. Therefore it does not exist. A cause is not that to which an effect is due, but simply that which uniformly precedes it. All we can know, and all we can rationally believe, is the facts which affect our senses, and the order of their sequence; which order, being uniform and necessary, has the character of law. This is the doctrine of causation proposed by Hume, Kant, Brown, Mill, and virtually by Sir William Hamilton; and it is this principle which lies at the foundation of the Positive Philosophy of Comte. Of course, if there be no such thing as power, there is no such attribute in God as omnipotence.

It is sufficient to say, in this connection, in reference to this theory, (1.) That it is contrary to every man’s consciousness. We are conscious of power, i.e., of the ability to produce effects. And consciousness has the same authority, to say the least, when it concerns what is within, as when it concerns what affects the senses. We are not more certain that our hand moves, than we are that we have the power to move, or not to move it, at pleasure. (2.) This theory contradicts the intuitive and indestructible convictions of the human mind. No man believes, or can believe really and permanently, that any change or effect can occur without an efficient cause. The fact that one event follows another, is not the ultimate fact. It is intuitively certain that there must be an adequate reason for that sequence. Such is the universal judgment of mankind. (3.) The argument, if valid against the reality of power, is valid against the existence of substance, of mind, and of God. This is admitted by the consistent advocates of the principle in question. Substance, mind, and God, are as little under the cognizance of the senses as power; and, therefore, if nothing is to be admitted but on the testimony of the senses, the existence of substance, mind, and God, must be denied. This principle, therefore, cannot be admitted without doing violence to our whole rational, moral, and religious nature. In other words, it cannot be admitted at all; for men cannot, permanently, either believe or act contrary to the laws of their nature.

D. Absolute Power.

By absolute power, as understood by the schoolmen and some of the later philosophers, is meant power free from all the restraints of reason and morality. According to this doctrine, contradictions, absurdities, and immoralities, are all within the compass of the divine power. Nay, it is said that God can annihilate Himself. On this subject Des Cartes says, Deus “non voluit tres angulos trianguli æquales esse duobus rectis, quia cognovit aliter fieri non posse. Sed contra . . . . quia voluit tres angulos trianguli necessario æquales esse duobus rectis, idcirco jam hoc verum est, et fieri aliter non potest, atque ita de reliquis.”429429Meditationes. Responsiones Sextæ, vi. edit. Amsterdam, 1685, p. 160. This “summa indifferentia,” he says, “in Deo, summum est ejus omnipotentiæ argumentam.”430430Ibid. p. 181.

It is, however, involved in the very idea of power, that it has reference to the production of possible effects. It is no more a limitation of power that it cannot effect the impossible, than it is of reason that it cannot comprehend the absurd, or of infinite goodness that it cannot do wrong. It is contrary to its nature. Instead of exalting, it degrades God, to suppose that He can be other than He is, or that He can act contrary to infinite wisdom and love. When, therefore, it is said that God is omnipotent because He can do whatever He wills, it is to be remembered that his will is determined by his nature. It is certainly no limitation to perfection to say that it cannot be imperfect.

In this view of the omnipotence of God, the great body of the theologians, especially among the Reformed, agree. Thus Zwingle431431De Providentia Dei, Epilogus. Opera, edit. Turici, 1841, vol. iv. p. 138. says: “Summa potentia non est nisi omnia possit, quantum ad legitimum posse attinet: nam malum facere aut se ipsum deponere aut in se converti hostiliter aut sibi ipsi contrarium esse posse impotentia est, non potentia.” Musculus,432432See Loci Communes Theologici, edit. Basle, 1573, pp. 402-408.Deus omnipotens, quia potest quæ vult, quæque ejus veritati, justitiæ conveniunt.” Keckermann,433433Systema Theologiæ, lib. I. cap. v. 4; edit. Hanoviæ, 1603, p. 107.Absolute possibilia sunt, quæ nec Dei naturæ, nec aliarum rerum extra Deum essentiæ contradicunt.” This scholastic doctrine of absolute power Calvin434434Institutio, III. xxiii. 2, edit. Berlin, 1834, part ii. p. 148. stigmatizes as profane, “quod . . . . merito detestabile nobis esse debet.

Potentia Absoluta and Potentia Ordinata.

There is a sense of the terms in which absolute power is generally recognized among theologians. A distinction is commonly made between the potentia absoluta and the potentia ordinata of God. By the latter is meant the efficiency of God, as exercised uniformly in the ordered operation of second causes; by the former, his efficiency, as exercised without the intervention of second causes. Creation, miracles, immediate revelation, inspiration, and regeneration, are to be referred to the potentia absoluta of God; all his works of providence to his potentia ordinata. This distinction is important, as it draws the line between the natural and supernatural, between what is due to the operation of natural causes, sustained and guided by the providential efficiency of God, and what is due to the immediate exercise of his power. This distinction, indeed, is rejected by the modern philosophy. God in creating and sustaining the world, does it as a whole. Nothing is isolated. There is no individual act, but only a general efficiency on the part of God; and, consequently, no particular event can be referred to his absolute power or immediate agency. Everything is natural. There can be no miracle, and no special providence.435435Strauss, i. p. 592; Schleiermacher, I. § 54. Werke, edit. Berlin, 1842, vol. III. p. 285.

E. Confounding Will and Power.

Another perversion of the Scriptural doctrine on this subject is, that which denies any distinction between will and power, or faculty and act, in God. It is said that it is unphilosophical to say that God can do anything. We use the word “can” only in reference to difficulty to be overcome. When nothing stands in the way, when all opposition is precluded, then we no longer say, we can. It is, therefore, inconsistent with the nature of an absolute Being to say that He is able to do this or that.436436Bruch, p. 155. It is further denied that willing can be ascribed to God, if any difference be assumed between willing and doing. The ordinary definition of omnipotence, Potest quod vult, is to be rejected. It is admitted, that the distinction between will and power is unavoidable, if we determine the nature of God from the analogy of our constitution. As will and power are distinct in us, we are disposed to think they are distinct in Him. But this method of determining the attributes of God heads to the destruction of the true idea of an absolute being. In such a being, no such distinction can be admitted; and therefore, in relation to God there can be no distinction between the actual and the possible. Nothing is possible but the actual; and all that is possible becomes actual. Strauss437437Dogmatik, vol. i. p. 587. says, after Schleiermacher,438438Glaubenslehre, I. § 54. that by the omnipotence of God is to be understood “not only that all that is has its causality in God, but that everything is and occurs for which any causality in God exists.” Bruch439439Die Lehre von den göttlichen Eigenschaften, p. 154. says, that by the omnipotence of God is meant nothing more than that He is the original ground and cause of all things. He quotes Nitsch440440Christlichen Lehre, p. 160. as saying, that “The idea of omnipotence is the repetition and application of the idea of God as creator of heaven and earth.” Nitsch, however, does not understand the passage in the sense put upon it; for he adds, in his note commenting on the dictum of Abelard, “Deus non potest facere aliquid præter ea quæ facit,” that, if this means that the actual exhausts the resources of God, it is to be rejected. The words of Abelard, nevertheless, correctly express the doctrine of the modern German school of theologians on this subject. Schleiermacher’s language on this point is explicit and comprehensive. “Alles ist ganz durch die göttliche Allmacht und ganz durch den Naturzusammenhang, nicht aber darf die erstere als Ergänzung der letztern angesehen werden. Die Gesammtheit des endlichen Seins ist als vollkommene Darstellung der Allmacht zu denken, so dass alles wirklich ist und geschieht, wozu eine Productivität in Gott ist. Damit fällt weg die Differenz des Wirklichen und Möglichen, des absoluten und hypothetischen Wollens oder Könnens Gottes; denn dies führt auf einen wirksamen und unwirksamen Willen und letzterer kann bei Gott unmöglich statt finden; so wenig als Können und Wollen getrennt sein können.” That is, “Everything is entirely through the divine omnipotence, and everything is through the course of nature. The former, however, must not be regarded as supplementary to the latter. The aggregate of finite things is the complete revelation of God’s omnipotence, so that everything is and occurs for which there is a productivity in God. Thus the difference between the actual and the possible, between the absolute and hypothetical willing and power of God, disappears, because this implies an operative and inoperative will, but the latter is impossible in God; just as little as willing and power can be separated.”441441Gess, Uebersicht über das System Schleiermacher’s, p. 88. This passage is quoted by Schweizer,442442Glaubenslehre, I. p. 263. who adopts the views which it presents.

This Doctrine Destroys our Knowledge of God.

In reference to this doctrine, it may be remarked, —

1. That it utterly confounds all our ideas of God. It renders all knowledge of Him impossible. If will and power are identical, then those words lose for us their meaning. We cannot know what God is, if this doctrine be true; and if we know not what He is, we cannot rationally worship, love, or trust Him.

2. The doctrine effectually destroys the personality of God. A person is a self-conscious, self-determining being. But in denying will to God, self-determination, and consequently personality, is denied to Him. This consequence is admitted by the advocates of this doctrine. “If in God,” says Strauss, “willing and power are identical, then there can be no freedom of the will in God, in the sense of the Church theologians, who hold that it was possible for God not to create the world, or to have created it other than it is. If there be no ability in God to do what He does not do, there can be no freedom of will or power of choice.” “Mit diesem Können fällt auch die Freiheit im Sinne eines Wahlvermögens hinweg.443443Dogmatik, vol. i. p. 587. This, however, it is said, is not the doctrine of fate; for fate supposes an ab extra necessity to which God is subject. If it does not teach fate, it at least teaches inexorable necessity. Spinoza says, “Ea res libera dicetur, quæ ex sola suæ naturæ necessitate existit et a se sola ad agendum determinatur. Necessaria autem, vel potius coacta quæ ab alio determinatur ad existendum et operandum certa ac determinata ratione.444444Ethices, i. def. vii. edit. Jena, 1803, vol. ii. p. 36. And again,445445 Epistola xxiii. Ibid. vol. i. 513.Deum nullo modo fato subjicio, sed omnia inevitabili necessitate ex Dei natura sequi concipio.” In this sense the sun is free in shining. It shines from the necessity of its nature. We think from a like necessity; but we can think of one thing or another, changing the current of our thoughts at pleasure. And thus we are free in exercising the power of thought. This freedom is denied to God. He can think only in one way. And all his thoughts are creative. He does, therefore, what He does, from a necessity of his nature, and does all He is able to do. God, according to this doctrine, is not a personal Being.

3. The Scriptures constantly represent God as able to do whatever He wills. They recognize the distinction between the actual and the possible; between ability and act; between what God does, and what He is able to do. With Him all things are possible. He is able of stones to raise up children unto Abraham. He can send me, says our Lord, twelve legions of angels.

4. As this is the doctrine of the Bible, it is the instinctive judgment of the human mind. It is a perfection in us, that we can do far more than we actually accomplish. With us the actual is not the measure of the possible.

5. It is, therefore, a limitation of God, a denial of his omnipotence, to say that He can do only what He actually brings to pass. There is infinitely more in God than simple causality of the actual.

It is consequently an erroneous definition of omnipotence to call it All-power, meaning thereby that all the efficiency in the universe is the efficiency of God; which is not only a pantheistic doctrine, but it makes the finite the measure of the infinite.


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