God Almighty?

christ_pantokrator_cathedral_of_cefalc3b9_sicily

“Christ the Pantocrater” icon. Pantocrater is a Greek compound word for “all mighty”, thus depicting Christ as the all-mighty God

The first line of the Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in God the Father almighty“. What does it mean to call God almighty? At first glance, of course, it means to affirm that God can do anything he wants. He is all-mighty; or, put another way, His might is not limited by the common limitations of human infirmity. He is mightier than anything in this world.

Of course, the snide theologically-minded junior higher might retort about God’s might: “well can God create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it?”. Beside the fact that the question is a bit wonky (I’m fairly certain it is meant to be unanswerable), it points out a more important question: can God’s might transcend normal boundaries of logic, creation, love?

Alister McGrath explores this question by asking: can God create a four-sided triangle? He answers by saying,

Four-sided triangles do not and cannot exist. The fact that God cannot make such a triangle is not a serious issue. It just forces us to [think about God’s might] in a more complicated way. “To say that God is almighty means that God can do anything that does not involve logical contradiction.” (Theology: The Basics, Kindle Locations 1260-1263)

This is an important assessment. McGrath highlights the fact the God does and will not transgress the boundaries of logic; of course, this is preeminently because he is the one who created those boundaries in the first place! God made triangles three-sided; why would he want to create a four-sided one?

McGrath finishes his exploration of God’s might by answering that his might has boundaries. These boundaries are in place not because he is weak; God can in fact do anything. However, God won’t do anything which transgresses who he is or that which goes outside of the bounds he himself set up. God’s might is thus limited, but by choice. God mightily limits himself so as to remain inside the boundaries he decided upon.

Another (better) way to approach this is to say that affirmation of the line “God is almighty” is not the same as saying that “God is sheer might”. God is mighty, but he is also faithful to his promises. God is sovereign, but he is also love. This means that God’s might will never betray his love etc. And actually, 1 John 4 tells us that of all the things that God could be, he is in and of himself love. His might is thus subordinate to his love. He limits his might, and doesn’t transgress the boundaries he set up.

Hans Urs von Balthasar has a helpful discussion on this line of the Creed:

It is essential, in the first instance, to see the unimaginable power of the Father in the force of his self-surrender, that is, of his love, and not, for example, in his being able to do this or that as he chooses. And it is just as essential not to understand the Father’s love-almightiness as something darkly elemental, eruptive, prelogical, since his self-giving appears simultaneously as a self-thinking, self-stating, and self-expressing. (Credo, 31)

“Prelogical” is an important term here: God’s might does not come before the logic of his love. It is expressed in terms of his love. Here we have limitations again: God’s might is limited, or put better, filtered through his love. God cannot properly do anything he chooses if it out of line with his other attributes or out of line with the definitions he’s already created. For him to do this would create a God of sheer will, unloving, oppressive, “eruptive”.

von Balthasar concludes here that to say “God is almighty” is to affirm the unending nature of God’s love:

When the New Testament refers to him in many passages as “almighty”, it becomes evident from these that this almightiness can be none other than that of a surrender which is limited by nothing (Credo, 31)

Almightiness in terms of love means that God’s love is so mighty and his surrender so great that it cannot be stopped! This is what the cross is! God’s self-sacrificing, mighty love which destroys the power of sin and death and results in life eternal. Ah, that we can affirm!

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