by Herman Bavinck
God’s sovereignty, finally, reveals itself in his omnipotence, a topic that in view of the above hardly calls for extensive treatment. Scripture nowhere sets bounds to God’s power. Already in the names El, Elohim, El Shaddai, and Adonai the idea of power comes to the fore. He is further called “great and terrible” (אֵל גָדוֹל וְנוֹרָא; Deut. 7:21ff.), whose face no human can see and live [Exod. 33:20], “the Mighty One of Israel” (אֲבִיר יִשׂרָאֵל, Isa. 1:24), “the great and mighty God (הָאֵל הַגָּדוֹל הַגִּבּוֹר) whose name is yhwh of hosts” (Jer. 32:18); he is “mighty in strength” (אַמִּיץ כֹּחַ, Job 9:4; כַבִּיר, Job 36:5), “strong and mighty” (עִזּוּז וְגִּבּוֹר, Ps. 24:8), “the Lord” (אָדוֹן, κυριος, Matt. 11:25; Rev. 1:8; 22:5), that is, the owner and ruler who possesses authority and “overlordship,” the king who eternally rules over all things (Exod. 15:18; Ps. 29:10; 93–99; 2 Kings 19:15; Jer. 10:7, 10; etc.) but especially exercises kingship over Israel, protecting and saving it (Num. 23:21; Deut. 33:5; Judg. 8:23; 1 Sam. 8:7; Ps. 10:16; 24:7; 48:2; 74:12; Isa. 33:22; 41:21; 43:15; etc.). Similarly, in the New Testament he is called “the great king” (μεγας βασιλευς, Matt. 5:35; 1 Tim. 1:17), “the King of kings and Lord of lords” (βασιλευς των βασιλευοντων και κυριος των κυριευοντων, 1 Tim. 6:15; cf. Rev. 19:16); “the Lord Almighty” (παντοκρατωρ, 2 Cor. 6:18; Rev. 1:8; 4:8; 11:17); “the only Sovereign” (μονος δυναστης, 1 Tim. 6:15), who possesses both the power (ἐξουσια, ἀρχη) and the authority (δυναμις, κρατος) to act (Matt. 28:18; Rom. 9:21) and the ability, fitness, and power to act (Matt. 6:13; Rom. 1:20).
God’s omnipotence is further evident from all his works. Creation, providence, Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, nature with its laws, the history of Israel with its marvels—all loudly and clearly proclaim the omnipotence of God. Psalmists and prophets alike constantly revisit these mighty acts to humble the proud and to comfort believers. He is “mighty in power” (Isa. 40:26), creates heaven and earth (Gen. 1; Isa. 42:5; 44:24; 45:12, 18; 48:13; 51:13; Zech. 12:1), maintains their ordinances (Jer. 5:22; 10:10; 14:22; 27:5; 31:35), forms rain and wind, light and darkness, good and evil (Amos 3:6; 4:13; 5:8; Isa. 45:5–7; 54:16). He renders people speechless and enables them to speak, he kills and makes alive, saves and destroys (Exod. 4:11; 15; Deut. 26:8; 29:2; 32:12; 39; 1 Sam. 2:6; 14:6; 2 Kings 5:7; Hos. 13:14; Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:20). He has absolute power over all things so that nothing can resist him (Ps. 8, 18–19, 24, 29, 33, 104, etc.; Job 5:9–27; 9:4ff.; 12:14–21; 34:12–15; 36–37). Nothing is too hard for God; for him all things are possible (Gen. 18:14; Zech. 8:6; Jer. 32:27; Matt. 19:26; Luke 1:37; 18:27). Out of stones he can raise up children to Abraham (Matt. 3:9). He does whatever he pleases (Ps. 115:3; Isa. 14:24, 27; 46:10; 55:10–11) and no one can call him to account (Jer. 49:19; 50:44). His power is, above all, evident in the works of redemption: in the resurrection of Christ (Rom. 1:4; Eph. 1:20), in bringing about and strengthening faith (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 1:18–19), in the dispensing of grace above all we ask or think (Eph. 3:20; 2 Cor. 9:8; 2 Pet. 1:3), in the resurrection of the last day (John 5:25ff.), and so on. This power of God, finally, is also the source of all power and authority, ability and strength, in creatures. From him derives the dominion of humankind (Gen. 1:26; Ps. 8), the authority of governments (Prov. 8:15; Rom. 13:1–6), the strength of his people (Deut. 8:17–18; Ps. 68:35; Isa. 40:26ff.), the might of a horse (Job 39:19ff.), the mighty voice of thunder (Ps. 29:3; 68:33; etc.). In a word, power belongs to God (Ps. 62:11), and his is the glory and the strength (Ps. 96:7; Rev. 4:11; 5:12; 7:12; 19:1).
Entirely in keeping with their doctrine of the will and freedom of God, the nominalists defined the omnipotence of God not only as his power to do whatever he wills, but also as his power to will anything. Differentiating between God’s “absolute” and his “ordained” power, they judged that in accordance with the former God could also sin, err, suffer, die, become a stone or an animal, change bread into the body of Christ, do contradictory things, undo the past, make false what was true and true what was false, and so forth. According to his absolute power, therefore, God is pure arbitrariness, absolute potency without any content, which is nothing but can become anything.242 In principle this is the position of all who subscribe to the primacy of the will. Hence, this view later surfaced again and again and occurs not only in Christianity but also in other religions, especially in Islam. On the other side are those who say that God can do only what he wills and nothing that he does not will. The “possible” coincides with the “real.” That which does not become real is not possible either. God has fully exhausted his power in the existing world. Plato and Plotinus already held this view,243 as did a number of church fathers,244 but it was especially advocated in the Middle Ages by Abelard: “God cannot do anything beyond that which he does.”245 This was also the opinion of the Cartesian theologians Burmann, Braun, Wittichius,246 as well as of Spinoza, Schleiermacher, Strauss, Schweizer, Nitzsch, and others.247
Scripture, we believe, condemns the one position as well as the other. On the one hand, it expressly states that there are many things that God cannot do. He cannot lie, he cannot repent, he cannot change, he cannot be tempted (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Heb. 6:18; James 1:13, 17), and he cannot deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13). For his will is identical with his being, and the theory of absolute power, which separates God’s power from his other perfections, is nothing but an empty and impermissible abstraction.
On the other hand, Scripture states in language that is equally firm that what is possible extends much farther than what is real (Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:27; Zech. 8:6; Matt. 3:9; 19:26; Luke 1:37; 18:27). And to this [scriptural] position Christian theology has held firm. Augustine states, on the one hand, that God’s will and power are not distinct from his being: “With a human it is one thing to be, another to be able.… With God, however, it is not the case that his substance is one thing so that he is, and his power another so that he is able, but whatever is his and whatever he is, is consubstantial with him because he is God. It is not the case that in one way he is and in another way he is able: he has being (esse) and ability (posse) because he holds the willing and the doing together.”248 God’s omnipotence consists in that he can do whatever he wants to do, “for certainly he is called omnipotent for no other reason than that he is able to do whatever he wills.”249 But God cannot will anything and everything. He cannot deny himself. “Since he does not will it, he cannot do it, because he is unable even to will it. For justice cannot will what is unjust nor wisdom what is foolish, or truth what is false. Whence we are reminded that the omnipotent God not only cannot deny himself, as the apostle says, but that there are many things that he cannot do: … the omnipotent God cannot die, he cannot be changed, he cannot be deceived, he cannot be created, he cannot be overcome.”250 Augustine further asserts that this is not a lack of power but, on the contrary, true, absolute power. If God could err or sin (etc.), that would indeed be a sign of powerlessness.251 Augustine especially makes this clear in connection with the thesis, often advanced against the omnipotence of God, that God cannot undo what has been done. This statement, he says, can be interpreted two ways. On the one hand it may be interpreted to mean that God undoes the event that has occurred, but this makes no sense because an event that has occurred does not exist anymore; hence, it cannot and need not be undone. On the other hand, it can be construed to mean that God undoes the event in the human consciousness so that it now believes it did not happen. But this does not make sense either, for in that case God, who is truth, would have to make untrue that which is true. Other theologians, only repeating Augustine, have spoken about God’s omnipotence in the same vein.252
It was especially Reformed theologians who qualified their acceptance of the distinction between God’s “absolute” power and his “ordained” power. Nominalists had misused this distinction when they argued that according to the former God is able to do anything, even that which is incompatible with his nature, thereby supporting especially the doctrine of transubstantiation. Calvin, fighting back, rejected as profane this “fiction of absolute power.”253 Roman Catholic scholars, accordingly, accused Calvin of limiting and thus denying God’s omnipotence.254 But Calvin did not deny that God can do more than he actually did, but only opposed a concept of “absolute power” that was not bound to his nature and therefore could do all sorts of contradictory things. Conceived along the lines of Augustine and Thomas, this distinction was generally accepted by Reformed theologians,255 and so understood, it is worthy of endorsement. Pantheism, indeed, says that God and the world are correlates, and that God has no being, life, consciousness, and will of his own in distinction from the world. But this theory hopelessly jumbles things together and produces endless intellectual confusion. God and the world, eternity and time, infinity and finiteness, being and becoming, the possible and the real, the necessary and the contingent (etc.)—these are not terms with the same content and meaning. The world is such that our thinking cannot deprive it of its contingent character. The notion of its nonexistence does not entail even the least self-contradiction. There can be reasons why God called the world into being. It is possible that the cosmos, in its entirety and each of its parts, is the embodiment of divine ideas. But it is impossible to give a logical explanation of the existence of the world apart from the will of an omnipotent God. The actual, therefore, does not completely cover the possible. God’s existence is not exhausted by the existence of the world; eternity does not fully empty itself in time; infinity is not identical with the sum total of finite beings; omniscience does not coincide with the intellectual content embodied in creatures. So also, God’s omnipotence infinitely transcends even the boundless power manifested in the world.256
From Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck