Some Thoughts on Divine Power

I’m reading St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. The following (from ch 8, “Concerning the Holy Trinity”) caught my eye: God is “a power know by no measure, measurable only by his own will alone.”

In the west discussions of the Godhead often begin with the omni’s: Omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc. And in Reformed speculative scholastic theology (taking its cue from Roman Catholic scholastic theology), the philosophical problem of the omnipotent God took center stage. At its worst (and here I have in mind the Dutch especially, and later the Westminster divines) divine omnipotence tended to become divine necessity. Authentic human freedom was compromised because the necessity of divine omnipotence.

But John of Damascus offers a very different tack on this subject. God’s power is “measurable only by his own will alone.” This is rather different than philosophical omnipotence. If God’s will is to be weak (as humans measure weakness) in the face of obstinate human will, then divine omnipotence is measured by that divine weakness. As a result, John of Damascus, and Orthodoxy in general, have no problem with the interrelationship of the divine and human will and are baffled by the Reformed solution as found in the Reformed version of the doctrine of predestination.

Just because God can express his power absolutely does not mean that God desires to express his power absolutely. If we are to understand divine power, we must begin, not with the idea of power, but rather with the idea of intent. Does God primarily intend the give-and-take of relationship or the logical process of a well-ordered creation? Relationships are rarely if ever well-ordered or logical. They involve give and take, losing as well as winning. Those are ideas that don’t fit comfortably with that grand philosophical term “omnipotent.” So let’s revise our thinking to something more in line with the scriptural exposition of John of Damascus. On a practical level, God is not all-powerful, but rather powerful to the extent that he desires to be powerful.

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