Thursday, August 29, 2013


An Excerpt from Ch. 5 of God Of Our Silent Tears -- a chapter on several things God is not. God of Our Silent Tears is now available from the Cathedral Bookstore (Los Angeles).       

              Atheist philosopher David Hume and his successors have defined God in terms of only two characteristics – goodness and power, with “power” being understood as total dominance or control. That power is what makes him God. Well, that is a seriously flawed understanding of God and it makes “the problem of evil” intractable. Feminist theologians call that image of God “patriarchal.” They are not necessarily rejecting the image of God as “father.” “Patriarchal” here means God as dominator, God as autocrat. The patriarchal God is God because he is omnipotent. God’s literal omnipotence is the lynchpin of “the problem of evil” and the erroneous assumption in all the flawed attempts to answer the problem of evil.

            It is an oddly philosophical and peculiarly Greek notion about God, this “omnipotence” – but it is one of the most widely accepted beliefs about God, even to the extent of understanding that God is God because God is omnipotent, that  “God” means one who is omnipotent.  If you and yours are free of this patriarchal God image, “the problem of evil” is probably not troublesome for you. But because most people assume that divinity equals omnipotence, that patriarchal picture of God persists as the lynchpin of “the problem of evil.”

                        Bart Ehrman, in describing why he cannot believe in God, assumes that if God did exist, he would prove it by intervening in the world to impose his will. Even sophisticated theologians are not exempt. Their “doctrine of God” chapters generally show a much richer sense of who God is. But that is not the God who shows up in their “doctrine of evil” chapters. When it comes to this issue, even theologians who should know better lapse into patriarchal assumptions. If you do not share those assumptions at all, then feel free to skip on to the next chapter. But if your image of God is to any degree snared in the prevailing cultural definition of God as dominating power, then we need to clear up a few things.

                        First, the very concept of omnipotence is not to be found in Scripture. We have expanded the Biblical description of God as “almighty” into this notion of omnipotence. However, “almighty” in the Bible means “most powerful” – not literally omnipotent. The President of the United States is the “most powerful” political leader in the world, but that does not make him omnipotent in global politics. Omnipotence is not a Hebrew concept. It comes from the Greek philosophical preference for absolute terms. The doctrine of absolute literal omnipotence is not supported by Scripture. In the Bible, things usually do not go God’s way. If things always accorded with God’s will in the Bible, the Divine would be in a better mood and would not have come off as so irritable in the prophets.

            In addition to being without Scriptural basis, absolute omnipotence does not make sense. I was once teaching a Great Books course to college freshmen who were greatly fond of their subjectivity. They were forever insisting that each of us has our own truth, our own right, our own wrong, and that no one should impose any kind of belief on another. At last the curriculum allowed me to ambush their subjectivity with Euclid. A student went to the board and proved by indubitable logic Euclid’s theorem that parallel lines do not intersect. I questioned the class as to whether this might be true. “Yes” they said, “it is true.” On cross-examination they held that it would be true even if a majority of us should vote that parallels lines henceforth would intersect. They held that no government could change this truth by decree, and that it had always and everywhere been true and would always be so, even in Singapore and Sweden. But when I asked them, “And what if God should decide that parallel lines intersect?” fully half the class insisted that then parallel lines would intersect despite the logical impossibility. Omnipotence leads people to say and think the strangest things!

            Analytical philosophers point out that the notion of literal omnipotence is simply nonsense – “internally incoherent” is their term for it.[i] They demonstrate the senselessness of the word by asking questions such as, “Can God build a rock so big God cannot pick it up?”

            Orthodox doctrines of the Church have never made such silly claims about God. The leading authorities in theology, the people who have defined the boundaries of the Church’s faith, have always acknowledged that God’s “omnipotence” does not mean God can do anything which is either logically inconsistent or foreign to God’s nature. Medieval theologians such as Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus, along with modern writers such as C. S. Lewis and D. Z. Phillips, all agree that “omnipotence” is subject to those two fundamental limitations.[ii]

            So Scripture, Tradition, and Reason all oppose the view of God as literally omnipotent. Some theologians emphasize that God’s power is limited by God’s own nature.[iii] For example, God cannot will evil.[iv] Others say the nature of reality constrains God’s power.[v] God cannot make the world flat and round at the same time. Others argue that God has deliberately limited God’s own jurisdiction, withdrawn divine power, in order to let the cosmos be free and personal with a meaningful history instead of just playing out a script or dancing like a puppet.[vi] These are variations on a single theme. God is not literally omnipotent.

            Aside from being unbiblical and logically incoherent, equating God with absolute power is corrupting. It deifies power, not love or relationship. It is obeisance to the celestial dominator, the big guy in the sky, the patriarchal, monarchical God. This is not the God of love represented by the Trinity. It is not the Christian God revealed by Christ on the Cross. That God can also be manifest in weakness, defeat, and suffering.[vii]

            Rather than a cosmic patriarch, the God on the cross renounces dominating or controlling power. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams places this decision to renounce power at the center of Christian theology. He writes, “The absence of God’s manifest power is bound up with . . . a decision for powerlessness, against the domination of the world by manipulation . . . a decision to live with and within the potentially hurtful and destructive bounds of the world, a decision not to escape.” He calls it a “decision for reality,” coming to terms with things as they are – not passively or disengaged – but without trying to overcome the world with power.[viii]

                        The most influential Protestant theologian of the 20th Century, Karl Barth rejected “a priori notions of omnipotence” – that is the idea that God’s omnipotence means whatever happens is the will of God. He maintained that the world is always threatened and often undone by the mysterious power of Nothingness (das Nachtige) which God did not create.

            We do not worship domination or worship because we are dominated. Once we have clarified that point, “the problem of evil” does not appear so daunting. The first premise simply does not hold water.[ix] More importantly, once we get past the fixed assumption that divinity consists of dominating power, we can think anew about who God is. We can think far more creatively about how God responds to suffering and evil in the world. The point of denying God’s literal and absolute omnipotence is not to get God completely off the hook for the bad things that happen. It is to open a door to a better understanding of how God is involved with our life of mixed joy and sorrow.

[i] D. Z. Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, pp. 3-21.
[ii] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001) pp. 281-282. Phillips demonstrates that “There are countless activities it does not make sense to attribute to God” because what God can do depends on who or  what you believe God is. D. Z. Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, pp. 3-22..
[iii] Alister McGrath, Christain Theology, p. 295. D. Z. Philips develops this point at some length in The Problem Of God And The Problem Of Evil.
[iv] David Bentley Hart, The Doors Of The Sea, p. 70.
[v] Philosophers call the restraints imposed by logic “eternal compossibilities.” The world can be round or flat, but not both.

[vi]Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, pp. 281-284. We will look more closely at self-limitation in the next chapter in the context of creation. This is the most helpful understanding of the limits of divine power for purposes of explaining suffering. See also D. Z. Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, p. 181.

[vii] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Theology, at 112.
[viii] Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology. (Oxford: Blackwell Press, 2000) p. 122. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is about this kind of religion. In Lord of the Rings, there are good guys and bad guys. The bad guys are threatening the good guys – but the good guys have a magical ring which gives them vast power. The problem is that using the power will turn them into bad guys. The power of the ring corrupts. So their goal is to destroy the ring, and their constant moral challenge is to refrain from using it.  Lord of the Rings was written during World War II, and it has the marks of World War II all over it. So, as we might expect, it reflects the theology of one of the greatest theologians from that time, Reinhold Niebuhr. Notwithstanding Tolkien’s Catholicism and Niebuhr’s Protestantism, they shared some theological perspectives evoked by that time of crisis. Niebuhr said our greatest danger lay not in the evil in the world but in the power used to restrain that evil. Our own power was more dangerous than Hitler.

[ix] Alvin Plantinga observes that the argument against faith actually depends on additional premises about what an omnipotent God can do and on what a good God will do. Plantinga’s argument is too intricate to recount here. But suffice it to say that :
1.     Omnipotence does not entail being able to do logically inconsistent things (draw a square circle, etc.). There at least may be good things that, as a matter of logic, cannot be preserved without also preserving a corresponding evil (parable of the wheat and the tares situation). The freedom to choose between good and evil is such a good thing. That freedom depends on evil being an available option.
2.     Goodness does not require God to eradicate every evil, especially if such an evil cannot be eradicated without also destroying something good.
Alvin C. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1974) pp. 10, 12-34; Peterson, pp. 17-18.

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