If God cannot sin is He really all-powerful?


“And the more He can do these things, the more power adversity and perversity have over him and the less He has against them.” (Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, ch. 7)

Perhaps you’ve wondered this before: How can God be omnipotent (all-powerful) if He is unable to do certain things that you and I can do like, for instance, sin? This is the topic of Anselm’s 7th chapter of the Proslogion. He asks, “Again, how are You omnipotent if You cannot do all things? But, how can You do all things if You cannot be corrupted, or tell lies?

This is a natural question to ask if one understands God’s omnipotence in relation to His holiness. If God is holy, then He cannot be corrupted or sin. But if He is omnipotent, then He can do anything at all, can’t He? Well, not so fast. Taken at face value, a word like omnipotence (literally, all power) would seem to suggest that as one who possesses it could do anything at all. But I should point out here that this is not what theologians for the past 2,000 years have meant when they used the term omnipotence to describe God’s power. They have meant to say that God can do all things that a God of His nature would be inclined to do or that is in keeping with His nature.

In the 7th chapter of the Proslogion, Anselm helps us to see why we might think of God’s omnipotence in this way. As he reminds us, if God were to have the ability to sin or be corrupted, it would not count towards His power, but it would actually signify a weakness, limitation, or an inferiority in God.

This might sound odd, but consider yourself for just a moment. Why do you sin? Do you sin because you are strong, or because you are weak? When you sin, are you exercising dominion over the world and the lusts of your flesh, or are you reduced to temptation in that moment, finding yourself weak and powerless? Your sin, and mine, are the result of weakness, not power. We sin, not because we are strong, but because we are weak.

What then for God? If He could sin, would this show Him to be strong and powerful, or weak and feeble? Now consider Anselm:

In the same way, then, when someone is said to have the ‘power’ of doing or suffering something which is not to his advantage or which he ought not to do, then by ‘power’ here we mean ‘impotence’, for the more he has this ‘power’, the more adversity and perversity have power over him and the more is he powerless against them. Therefore, Lord God, You are the more truly omnipotent since You can do nothing through impotence and nothing can have power against You.

God’s holiness and power then are not at odds with each other. Properly understood, they not only balance each other out, but actually serve one another!

For those interested in reading the Proslogion, I suggest this version. Or for a nice online version you might try this one.

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