Q&R with Brad Jersak: What are the Roots of Belief that God is omnipresent, omnipotent & omniscient?
I hope you are doing well in the midst of all this craziness. I have had some questions bouncing around in my head the last week or so I was hoping you could help by pointing me to some resources I could check out. I have been wondering the root of the beliefs that God is omnipresent (everywhere present), omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). Are these beliefs the early church gathered and have passed on similar to the understanding of the Trinity? Or maybe it is obvious from scripture and I am just completely unaware. My roots for these beliefs are that I was told in Sunday school and in sermons. I am not attacking the beliefs or saying they are not true just very curious. The verse in Matthew that when two or more gather he is there adds to my curiosity. So I thought I would reach out and see if you could give me thoughts or a direction to go digging.
Yes, these attributes of God are deeply rooted in the historic church’s tradition and its interpretation of Scripture. Some of it is by inference from creation itself and passages like John 1, Colossians 1 or Hebrews 1 where he creates, sustains and fills all things. Above him and for him and through him are all things. Or as Paul says in Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being.” So he is the ground of all being and being itself in which we participate and thereby have our being. So these theological terms are an attempt to label those realities. That’s all in the realm of “ontology” (our theology of being).
But there are also existential and phenomenological descriptions of presence that are more limited or functional. By existential, I mean limited by how we experience stuff, and by phenomenological, we mean how it appears to us from our point of view. For example, some days, the sun feels hotter to us than others… it may feel 30 F or it may feel 100 F. This is “true” existentially, even though the sun is 1000 F on the surface. And the sun “sets” every night. This is “true” phenomenologically (from our point of view), even though the earth actually orbits the sun.
So it is with God’s presence. While his being is unchanging, we may experience that presence in various ways and even “invite” the one who is already with us to “come.” This isn’t wrong. And it does make a difference in that our invitation shifts our own attitude, orientation and attentiveness such that it may also affect our experience and perception.
The context of “where two or three gather in his name” is related to the witnesses who are processing a reconciliation between estranged brothers or sisters in Christ. When we embark on that process, Christ wants us to know that we’ll experience his “there-ness” (which is often about awareness of his help and blessing).
So too, God never literally departs, but when we turn from love, it’s a little like turning your back on the sun and creating shadows, then bumping into stuff in those shadows. So our turning creates a sense of alienation or ‘felt absence,’ even though God has not departed.
I should add that ‘omnipotence’ does not mean that God can do anything (e.g. good or evil) but rather, it expresses his all-powerful nature, which is love. So it’s best to think of all these attributes as adjectives–as facets describing the one nature of God which is love. So, ever-present love, all-powerful love, all-knowing love.
That’s a start, anyway. To dive deeply into how early Christians thought about the all-loving nature of God, you might check into Olivier Clement’s, Roots of Christian Mysticism, which gathers citations that explore their sense of God’s all-loving character.