Omnipotence (Latin omnipotentia, from omnia and potens, able to do all things) is the power of God to effect whatever is not intrinsically impossible. These last words of the definition do not imply any imperfection, since a power that extends to every possibility must be perfect. The universality of the object of the Divine power is not merely relative but absolute, so that the true nature of omnipotence is not clearly expressed by saying that God can do all things that are possible to Him; it requires the further statement that all things are possible to God. The intrinsically impossible is the self-contradictory, and its mutually exclusive elements could result only in nothingness. “Hence”, says St. Thomas (Summa I, Q. xxv, a. 3), “it is more exact to say that the intrinsically impossible is incapable of production, than to say that God cannot produce it.” To include the contradictory within the range of omnipotence, as does the Calvinist Vorstius, is to acknowledge the absurd as an object of the Divine intellect, and nothingness as an object of the Divine will and power. “God can do all things the accomplishment of which is a manifestation of power”, says Hugh of St. Victor, “and He is almighty because He cannot be powerless” (De sacram., I, ii, 22).
As intrinsically impossible must be classed: (I) Any action on the part of God which would be out of harmony with His nature and attributes. (a) It is impossible for God to sin.—Man‘s power of preferring evil to good is a sign not of strength, but of infirmity, since it involves the liability to be overcome by unworthy motives; not the exercise but the restraint of that power adds to the freedom and vigor of the will. “To sin”, says St. Thomas, “is to be capable of failure in one’s actions, which is incompatible with omnipotence” (Summa, I, Q. xxv, a. 3). (b) The decrees of God cannot be reversed.—From eternity the production of creatures, their successive changes, and the manner in which these would occur were determined by God‘s free will. If these decrees were not irrevocable, it would follow either that God‘s wisdom was variable or that His decisions sprang from caprice. Hence theologians distinguish between the absolute and the ordinary, or regulated, power of God (potentia absoluta; potentia ordinaria). The absolute power of God extends to all that is not intrinsically impossible, while the ordinary power is regulated by the Divine decrees. Thus by His absolute power God could preserve man from death; but in the present order this is impossible, since He has decreed otherwise. (c) The creation of an absolutely best creature or of an absolutely greatest number of creatures is impossible, because the Divine power is inexhaustible.—It is sometimes objected that this aspect of omnipotence involves the contradiction that God cannot do all that He can do; but the argument is sophistical; it is no contradiction to assert that God can realize whatever is possible, but that no number of actualized possibilities exhausts His power. (2) Another class of intrinsic impossibilities includes all that would simultaneously connote mutually repellent elements, e.g. a square circle, an infinite creature, etc. God cannot effect the non-existence of actual events of the past, for it is contradictory that the same thing that has happened should also not have happened.
Omnipotence is perfect power, free from all mere potentiality. Hence, although God does not bring into external being all that He is able to accomplish, His power must not be understood as passing through successive stages before its effect is accomplished. The activity of God is simple and eternal, without evolution or change. The transition from possibility to actuality or from act to potentiality occurs only in creatures. When it is said that God can or could do a thing, the terms are not to be understood in the sense in which they are applied to created causes, but as conveying the idea of a Being possessed of infinite unchangeable power, the range of Whose activity is limited only by His sovereign Will. “Power”, says St. Thomas, “is not attributed to God as a thing really different from His Knowledge and Will, but as something expressed by a different concept, since power means that which executes the command of the will and the advice of the intellect. These three (viz., intellect, will, power), coincide with one another in God” (Summa, I, Q. xxv, a. 1, ad 4). Omnipotence is all-sufficient power. The adaptation of means to ends in the universe does not argue, as J. S. Mill would have it, that the power of the designer is limited, but only that God has willed to manifest His glory by a world so constituted rather than by another. Indeed the production of secondary causes, capable of accomplishing certain effects, requires greater power than the direct accomplishment of these same effects. On the other hand even though no creature existed, God‘s power would not be barren, for creatures are not an end to God.
The omnipotence of God is a dogma of Catholic faith, contained in all the creeds and defined by various councils (cf. Denziger-Bannwart, “Enchiridion”, 428, 1790). In the Old Testament there are more than seventy passages in which God is called Shaddai, i. e., omnipotent. The Scriptures represent this attribute as infinite power (Job, xlii, 2; Mark, x, 27; Luke, i, 37; Matt., xix, 26, etc.) which God alone possesses (Tob., xiii, 4; Ecclus., i, 8; etc.). The Greek and Latin Fathers unanimously teach the doctrine of Divine omnipotence. Origen testifies to this belief when he infers the amplitude of Divine providence from God‘s omnipotence: “Just as we hold that God is incorporeal and omnipotent and invisible, so likewise do we confess as a certain and immovable dogma that His providence extends to all things” (Genesis, Horn. 3). St. Augustine defends omnipotence against the Manichaeans, who taught that God is unable to overcome evil (Haeres, xlvi and Enchir., c. 100); and he speaks of this dogma as a truth recognized even by pagans, and which no reasonable person can question (Serm. 240, de temp., c. ii). Reason itself proves the omnipotence of God. “Since every agent produces an effect similar to itself”, says St. Thomas (Summa, I, Q. xxv, a. 3), “to every active power there must correspond as proper object, a category of possibilities proportioned to the cause possessing that power, e.g. the power of heating has for its proper object that which can be heated. Now Divine Being, which is the basis of Divine power, is infinite, not being limited to any category of being but containing within itself the perfection of all being. Consequently all that can be considered as being is contained among the absolute possibilities with respect to which God is omnipotent.” (See Creation; God; Infinite; Gift of Miracles.)
J. A. MCHUGH