Here Emma Pavey reviews Thomas Jay Oord’s new book The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence (2023 SacraSage Press).
Thomas Jay Oord is an ordained minister and theologian in the Wesleyan, Holiness, and Church of the Nazarene traditions and is from the USA. Writing about open and relational theology, his views are sometimes considered controversial, and so present an interesting challenge to consider. He is also a photographer and featured in one of our podcast episodes on that topic.
There are a few opportunities to engage with Thomas Jay Oord in the UK in late August and early September 2023. SWF’s Emma Pavey is hosting him at an informal Craft Beer/Craft Theology conversation at a real ale pub in Tamworth, Staffordshire (Mon 28th Aug, from 4pm – contact her for details). See the end of this post for his other speaking engagements.
“Amipotence…assumes uncontrolling love comes conceptually first in God’s nature, logically prior to and therefore characterizing divine power” (148)
In The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence, Thomas Jay Oord gives a firm, lively and readable introduction to his ideas concerning the power and love of God. While not the first to question omnipotence, he proposes the term ‘amipotence’ to describe God’s all-loving nature, and argues against the idea of God as omnipotent whether this means a) God exerts all power, b) God can do absolutely anything, or c) God can control others or circumstances (3).
As Oord notes, omnipotence is a defining characteristic of God for many: “Only a being with unlimited power is worthy of worship” for them (2). However, Oord rejects omnipotence from three angles in this short book. First, he argues that the idea of God’s omnipotence is not supported by scripture. He also argues that from the perspective of philosophical theology, omnipotence must be qualified, which renders it lifeless. Thirdly, he argues that worshipping an omnipotent God “confuses, disempowers, and harms” (6). It causes issues when considering suffering, injustice, evil and the purpose of prayer. He states, “we shouldn’t trust an almighty God who permits evil” (6). Each of the three sections is clearly and concisely written, signposting the reader to others of his works that expand upon each point. Each chapter ends with a helpful overview.
His alternative is ‘amipotence’: “love comes first in God, and this priority matters for understanding divine power. God always acts in loving ways, but divine love never controls” (7). God is powerful and persuasive, and that power is fed by God’s love.
In the first section, then, Oord discusses scripture, stating that the Bible “does not endorse omnipotence” (11) and explores the mis-translation of Hebrew terms shaddai, sabaoth and Greek pantokrator as ‘almighty’. He points out that El Shaddai, for example, is sometimes depicted as nurturing, sometimes as destroying, and views differ on how to interpret this tension, but that even when portrayed as destructive, shaddai doesn’t mean all-powerful, almighty in an omnipotent sense (17).
Oord argues that aside from specific terms, the very idea that God can do absolutely anything is not supported by scripture, stating that “according to the Bible, God cannot do some activities” (32) and it “does not say God controls” in the sense of causing an outcome singlehandedly (32-3). From a philosophical-theological perspective, he further points out that it is not logical to assert that God has total control but creatures also have free will (29).
Continuing the philosophical argument in the next section, Oord suggests that notions of divine omnipotence are dismantled by the qualifications that are needed to account for things that are, for example, ontologically, mathematically, or logically impossible, even for God. For example, God cannot change the past, God cannot do things that require a physical body, and God cannot deny God’s nature, which is particularly important for a theology that centres God’s Love. God’s loving nature, suggests Oord, implies that God can’t control everything and be in a loving relationship with creation, and that God can’t cause suffering. This latter view works more satisfyingly, Oord argues, to explain suffering and evil than playing “the mystery card” of appealing to God’s unknown reasons (60) or a theology where God could but sometimes chooses not to intervene.
This last argument is continued into Oord’s third and final set of arguments, that “evil ends omnipotence” (79) where he turns from logical, philosophical arguments, and evidence from scripture, to look at how theologies impact people’s lives, and how omnipotence proves a reasonable stumbling block to many atheists in their conception of God. In contrast, in this and the subsequent chapter, Oord proceeds step by step through six aspects of his view that provide a solution to this issue by rejecting omnipotence and adopting ‘amipotence’ – an all-loving God empathizes, accompanies and engages in the risks of relationship to invite creation to participate towards wholeness and possibilities for good.
In his final chapter Oord addresses perhaps the obvious question – what is left of God? What can God do and how do we recognise this God? No (more) spoilers here because it’s worth reading Oord’s own proposals but he essentially argues that “it’s hard to exaggerate the benefits of saying God is not omnipotent” (119).
With such challenging implications for omnipotence, it would be tempting to start by saying God can’t possibly be omnipotent and craft a theology from there. Indeed it is, it seems, the harm that a theology of an omnipotent God causes that motivates Oord from a pastoral perspective. However, it’s more persuasive and also assuring that Oord weaves a theology that ‘works’ for making sense of life together with philosophical and biblical argumentation. Together these aim to persuade that this theology, this God, was there and is here from the beginning. As we are thinking about Crafting Hope, this is a theology worth exploring.
During his UK visit, Thomas Jay Oord can also be found speaking at Greenbelt festival (Aug 24-27), speaking in Luton, hosted by the Progressive Christian Network (Aug 27), discussing God and evil with Alan Race at Reading Minster (Aug 29), and speaking at the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion (Aug 31 – Sep 1).