Is God's Omnipotence Dependent Upon the Existence of His Creation?

This is the eighth in a sporadic series on the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem.  The previous post was Every King is Proclaimed by Soldiers.

In the middle of an exposition of the nature of Jesus Christ, Cyril makes this statement:

For so remaining, and holding the dignity of His Sonship in reality unchangeable, He adapts Himself to our infirmities, just as some excellent physician or compassionate teacher; though He is Very Lord, and received not the Lordship by advancement , but has the dignity of His Lordship from nature, and is not called Lord improperly, as we are, but is so in verity, since by the Father’s bidding He is Lord of His own works. For our lordship is over men of equal rights and like passions, nay often over our elders, and often a young master rules over aged servants. But in the case of our Lord Jesus Christ the Lordship is not so: but He is first Maker, then Lord : first He made all things by the Father’s will, then, He is Lord of the things which were made by Him. (X,5)

Most orthodox Christians would have no trouble with this statement, but, as with many things theological, there is a long story that needs to be told.

The gospel came into a world which was a) had far looser sexual morality and b) was more sceptical than our “Sunday school” images of it lead us to believe. It’s in that context that the New Testament’s stance on fornication, adultery, divorce and homosexuality needs to be understood. The Christian life challenged the common standards on all of these issues, as it still does.

With the scepticism, it is the same. Virtually every stand we see today on the origin and course of the universe has some kind of counterpart in the classical world. The fact that same classical world didn’t have the scientific framework to discuss it doesn’t change that fact. One of these issues—and one that is still debated today—is whether the universe is eternal or not, or whether it had a finite starting point, and how it came into existence either way.

Into this fray stepped the great Egyptian theological Origen, probably the most comprehensive and original thinker that the Roman Empire church produced. He single handedly initiated systematic Bible study and exegesis (Tertullian had done some of this in his Adversus Marcionem, but his aims were narrowly directed against his opponent, not to a general understanding of the Scriptures.) And he tackled the relationship between the Scriptures and the philosophy—in his case Neoplatonic—of his day. Origen’s willingness to venture into uncharted waters got him into serious trouble as Rome passed into Byzantium and the Orthodox world wearied of controversy, but his thinking—which in many cases he himself never considered set in stone, and in his extant later works sometimes retracted—can prove valuable in dealing with the challenges that Christianity faces today.

In the case of the creation, however, Origen’s thinking—or what we have of it—gets crossed up. Cyril in his passage implies what seems to be obvious, i.e., that without a creation to be Lord over, Jesus Christ was not Lord before he made that creation. Origen took this thought a step further:

Now as one cannot be a father apart from having a son, nor a lord apart from holding a possession or a slave, so we cannot even call God almighty is there are none over whom he can exercise his power. Accordingly, to prove that God is almighty we must assume the existence of the universe. For if anyone would have it that certain ages, or periods of time, or whatever he cares to call them, elapsed during which the present creation did not exist, he would undoubtedly prove that in those ages or periods God was not almighty, but that he afterwards became almighty from the time when he began to have creatures over whom he could exercise power. Thus God will apparently have experienced a kind of progress, for there can be no doubt that it is better for him to be almighty than not to be so.

Now how is it anything but absurd that God should at first not possess something that is appropriate to him and then should come to possess it? But if there was no time when he was not almighty, there must always have existed the things in virtue of which he is almighty; and there must always have existed things under his sway, which own him as ruler. (Peri Archon, I, iii, 10)

Not to be outdone, Tertullian has the same idea:

We affirm, then, that the name of God always existed with Himself and in Himself—but not eternally so the Lord. Because the condition of the one is not the same as that of the other. God is the designation of the substance itself, that is, of the Divinity; but Lord is (the name) not of substance, but of power. I maintain that the substance existed always with its own name, which is God; the title Lord was afterwards added, as the indication indeed of something accruing. For from the moment when those things began to exist, over which the power of a Lord was to act, God, by the accession of that power, both became Lord and received the name thereof. (Against Hermogenes, 3)

Origen’s thinking on this subject is subject to several criticisms:

  • He assumes that the creation of the universe requires that God is almighty (omnipotent), which it does not. The act of creation only requires sufficient power to make the universe come into existence, assuming a finite universe.

  • He does not consider the fact that any attribute of God is essential to him because of the nature of his existence. I discuss this issue at length in My Lord and My God, but this is a piece of Aristotelian philosophy what would have held Origen in good stead if he had adopted it. Tertullian for his part confuses the issue by affirming the essential nature of his divinity but denying that his power is likewise essential.
  • Origen does not make recourse to his own idea that the Son and the Spirit are both subordinate to and eternally generated by the Father.

As an aside, it’s interesting to to note that Origen makes a distinction between possessions and slaves, which is a counter to the usual accusation these days that Christianity blindly went along with slavery in the ancient world.

Origen is thus forced to accept the eternity of the universe, and thus the co-eternity of the universe with God (which includes all of the souls; he held to the pre-existence of the soul as well.) This he knows will not do:

I cannot understand how so many distinguished men have supposed it (the universe) be to uncreated, that is, not made by God himself the Creator of all things, but in its nature and power the result of chance. I wonder, too, how such men can find fault with those who deny that God is the Maker of this universe or that he providentially care for it, and can charge them with impiety for believing that so great a work as the world exists without a Maker or Sustainer, when they themselves are guilty of a like impiety in saying that matter is uncreated and co-eternal with the uncreated God. (Peri Archon, II, I,4)

And Origen is not alone in opposing the eternity of the universe:

Those who follow the Law of Moses, our Teacher, hold that the whole Universe, i.e., everything except God, has been brought by Him into existence out of non-existence. In the beginning God alone existed, and nothing else; neither angels, nor spheres, nor the things that are contained within the spheres existed. He then produced from nothing all existing things such as they are, by His will and desire…This is our first theory, and it is undoubtedly a fundamental principle of the Law of our teacher Moses; it is next to importance to the principle of God’s unity. Do not follow any other theory. (Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, II, xiii)

Ultimately the eternity of the universe is not related to God’s own eternity, which is a result of his nature. That nature in turn is based on two simple ideas: a) being is fundamental with God, and b) as a result, all of his attributes are essential to his nature. That includes his omnipotence, which does not depend upon the existence of the universe to be a reality.

The former idea was explained to Moses in the burning bush:

And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations. (Exodus 3:13-15)

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