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Divine powers

What do we think of when we think of ‘God’? Any answer to this question will include the idea that the divine is powerful. God creates, God is in charge of the world. If we think that the concept of God doesn’t make sense, that may be partly because the concept of God’s power doesn’t make sense: how can a good God be powerful whilst the world contains this much suffering?

The nature and extent of divine power is theologically fundamental. But underlying any theological claim about divine power are a set of philosophical ideas about power. Power is capacity – to act, to interact, to effect change. Thus power is central to the make-up of the world, to how its different bits relate causally. In late antiquity, towards the end of the Roman Empire, Neoplatonism, and Christianity between them reconfigured thinking on divine power, and with it the world, in ways that often seem alien to us, yet would prove enduringly significant in Western thought.

To understand Neoplatonic ideas about power, you need to forget everything you think you know about the world. For Plotinus (c. 204-270), the founder of Neoplatonism, and his successors, the physical world was just the tip of the iceberg, as it were. What was most real was intelligible – that is, accessible by thought rather than the senses. The intelligible realm is where the power is; the intelligible causes the physical. Our world teems with divine power, and all power begins in the power of the One – roughly, Neoplatonism’s highest god – and works its way vertically, downwards. Nonetheless, human actions seem to work horizontally: we are in the world and we act on things in the world. Plotinus thus seeks to incorporate a ‘horizontal’ element into his otherwise ‘vertical’ understanding of power relations.

Neoplatonic thinking on divine power occurred against the wider backdrop of Greco-Roman religion, in which the Olympian pantheon of gods persisted. Porphyry sees the traditional deities as expressions of divine power, the power of the One. Proclus considers that divine power manifests to different degrees in statues of gods. Their philosophy of power thus engaged with contemporary ritual and day-to-day religious practices.

Christian ideas about divine power built on Jewish ones, and both drew heavily on their scriptures. Jews and Christians in the Greco-Roman world often drew extensively on ‘pagan’ philosophy – but they also brought distinctive theological commitments to the table. The famous Jewish Platonist, Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE-50 CE), blended Plato with the Torah in writing about divine power to paint a more personal picture of God than many Neoplatonists.

Philo argued that we humans needed to understand God’s power in order to be healed and achieve the state that the creator God intended for us. Similarly, for the Christian Platonists Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-253) and Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395), God’s power is manifested primarily in creation and salvation. Gregory specifically picks up on the Neoplatonic issue of ‘vertical’ power. Vertical power, starting with God, operates between two spheres of reality – intelligible and corporeal. But how can God cause something physical so unlike God?

For Christians, God’s power is also complicated by the incarnation and crucifixion – God does not seem all-powerful when nailed to a cross. So, many early Christians suggest, paradoxically, that God’s power involves weakness. Has the notion of divine power, and with it the world, been reinvented?

Featured image credit: Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo. CC0 Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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