omnipotence #1: a new testament understanding of "all things possible"
10/24/2007 03:10:00 PM
This is the first in a series of post I am writing on omnipotence.

In the New Testament, there are several passages that talk about what God can and cannot do. At a glance, it would seem that the New Testament is contradicting itself. Jesus when he is speaking to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, says that with God, "all things are possible" yet Paul asserts that God cannot lie. If God supposedly can do all things, yet cannot lie, then it seems that either he can lie, or he cannot to all things possible, in that lying is a possible thing to do.

Before we can talk about what is implied by “all things possible”, it is best to investigate how First Century reader would have understood such statement. The original language of the New Testament is Koine Greek, which is not formal Greek but the Lingua Franca of the day. It is probably safe to assume that it was not the first language of many first century readers, but it was the most widely spoken language in the Eastern Mediterranean, therefore it made since to write the New Testament in this language, with all its caveats and idiosyncrasies. The statement first appears in Matthew 19, when Jesus is comparing man’s capabilities to God’s capabilities. Jesus says the often quoted verse: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." This verse paints a dichotomy between what man is able to do and what God is able to do. The word translated "possible" here is the adjective δυνατός in Greek. The word occurs 35 times in the New Testament, and is most often translated, "possible", but can also mean "able", "mighty" or "strong". What is certainly implied from the world is the ability to do something, with no regard to the will to do that thing. The passage in reference here is talking about salvation. The disciples are asking Jesus, "Who can be saved then?" Jesus replies, implying that salvation is not the work of man, but the work of God, in that God is able to save when man is not.

The word translated "impossible" is the same word δυνατός with an alpha privative in front of the word. This negates the word in the way that an "a" in front of "theism" is "atheism" meaning "without theism". It is no different in Greek, in that αδυνατός is the inability to do something. The references here is into salvation, which is something that man cannot do, in that only God can save people. Another word that is critical to understanding all things possible is the word translated "all". The root of the word is πάς which is most often translated "all". The word is used over 1,200 in the New Testament, making it one of the most common words in New Testament. Although the word is used often, it does not really have any other meaning, other than to imply something is whole and complete, in that it is not lacking in any part. Often words that occur often carry a variety of meanings, but this one does not.

Another passage where these words appear in tandem is Mark 14:36. In context, Jesus is praying before he is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. He says, "Abba Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." Jesus here is stating that all things are possible for God, asking God to take the cup of the crucifixion from him if it be God's will. It seems that Jesus is suggesting that there might be another way, without actually revealing what that way is. The same words, πάς and δυνατός are translated "all things possible". In the parallel passage in Matthew 26:39, Jesus asks God in a different manner, asking "If it is possible". This passage does not make the statement that “all things are possible”, but like the parallel passage in Mark, seems to leave open the door for another possible way. The parallel passage in Luke 22 asks the question in a different way, saying "If you are willing". Jesus is recorded as not having used any form of δυνατός or πάς. He uses a form of βούλομαι which seems to be speaking having a desire to do something, not to ones ability to do something. In any case though, what seems to be going on in this episode with Jesus, he is asking God to remove the cup more so if he is willing to remove it rather than if he is able to remove it. Jesus is not calling into question God's ability to remove the cup, but rather asking if God is willing to remove the cup, then he could. In all cases here, God’s ability to remove the cup seems to be apparent, but Jesus is asking if God is willing to remove the cup. From Mark, we can see it is explicit, but in the other gospel it seems more implicit. We don’t know for certain if there was another way but it does seem to suggest that perhaps there may have been another way, still begging the question, could God have removed the cup from Jesus and saved humanity another way? I do not know if this question can be answered this side of eternity, but it was certainly God's will for Jesus to die in the manner in which he did to save men regardless of what God’s god could have done. This opens at least opens the doors for things that God can do but does not.

Peter Geach's sees God's omnipotence as "Almightiness". Almightiness in the New Testament stems from another word, but this one refers not to the ability to do something but the power over something as a king has power over his people. The word κράτως refers to dominion, and when coupled with a form of the word πάς, renders παντοκράτωρ which is translated "Almighty". This word, παντοκράτωρ is almost exclusively found in the book of Revelations and once other time in 2 Corinthians 6:18. In all cases, it is referring to Jesus as Lord or King over everything, seemingly in the form of a title, much like we refer to one as "Mister Smith" or "Doctor Evans". It is recognizing the proper position of God. While this view of God's power is certainly accurate concerning the realm of God’s power, it says nothing about particulars of what God can and cannot do. It says that God has power over all things, but it does not say that God can or cannot do particulars. This concern will be addressed more later on, but realizing this now will help address understand the intent of this work.

Elsewhere in Scripture, the word "pas" appears with the word ἰσχύω, which is translated "can do". This word similar in meaning to δύναμαι which means "I am able". δύναμαι is the verb form of the word, δυνατός that we have been discussing thus far. Paul in Philippians 4:13 makes the statement, "I can do all things through Christ". Taken as is, it would seem that Paul is saying he is omnipotent through Christ. In context though, I do not think this is what Paul is talking about. Prior to this verse, he talks about being in need and having plenty, being comfortable and being in the most dire circumstances, and other such disparities. Such are literary devices to show contrast, similar to John's use of Alpha and Omega. When Paul is talking about "all things", he is talking about all circumstances that he encounters, with form of πάς referring to these circumstances. This is somewhat unique from the aforementioned passages, with particular regard to the Mark 14 passage. In the same verse, Jesus talks about a singular scenario: men saving themselves, but then says all things are possible with God, referring to a larger group of scenarios. Similarly, with the episode in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is referring to a set of scenarios broader than the one at hand when referring to what God can do.

From these passages, we can establish that as Geach has suggested, God is the Almighty, in that he has dominion over all things and that with God all things are possible. The question remains however, what is included in all things possible? Is "All things are possible", "All things possible" and "All possible things" the same thing? In Greek, being verbs are generally optional, so from this point of view, these three phrases would essentially communicate the same thing. One could come up with several other permutations of these and other related words to communicate the same idea. What we really need to do then is focus on what is meant by "all things possible".

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