I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end,' says the Lord God, who is who was and who is to come, the Pantocrator (Revelation 1: 8).' With these words John terminates the introduction to his book of Revelation. That God is our source, our beginning and the end of our desire and of our striving is fundamental to the faith he bears witness to. This conviction provides the perspective in which all of history is viewed in this final work of the Bible. John affirms it here as providing the key to understanding the message he conveys in this difficult work, so full of mysteries. John makes a further affirmation in this introduction, namely that God is able to achieve the purpose he has in creating us and in creating the whole of the cosmos for He holds all things in His grasp. This is, in fact, the literal meaning of the final word in this sentence, Pantocrator.
Those who are familiar with the iconography of Byzantium recognize in this word one of the most popular titles of portrayals of the Lord Jesus. The icon displayed here in our chapter house is modeled on the earliest known exemplar of that class of paintings, which dates from the sixth century. John, however, uses the term with reference to God the Father, from whom all power in heaven and on earth takes its origin. In fact, the word is taken from the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to interpret the word Sabaoth. This term Pantocrator is found 180 times in the whole of the Bible. It occurs some 130 times in the expression "Lord God Sabaoth", which means literally "Lord God of the heavenly hosts", that is to say, of the stars and planets, conceived as heavenly armies subject to their creator. As happened fairly often, so too here, the Septuagint's translation represents an advance in theological conception, and prepared the way for the ultimate revelation found in the New Testament. Pantocrator extends the meaning of Sabaoth to include not only heavenly beings and the visible bodies of the sky, but as well all things on earth in their temporal unfolding. Nothing escapes the grasp of God, and so, by implication, all history is subject to his sway and purposes.
In the New Testament this word Pantocrator occurs ten times. Nine of these instances are found in the Book of Revelation. Obviously it is an important title that John feels is particularly significant for understanding God's action in this world. The term has not been well understood on the whole for a number of reasons. For one thing it is not translated quite accurately most of the time. Pantocrator was translated by omnipotensiin the Latin Vulgate and in English as all-powerful, or ominipotent. These are accurate translations of the Latin, but, as I indicated above, the Greek literally means holding all things, as the Syriac translator well interpreted it. Thus it is a relational word: God holds all things and times in his power; he remains the one in control ultimately.
Even though freedom and liberty are real in human affairs, yet they are not transcendent freedoms. By the God whose grasp nothing evades they are made to serve God's glory and to fit into his plan of salvation and sanctification. Omnipotent, on the other hand, translates the Greek Pantokrator, having all power. This is also an attribute of God, but one which refers to his nature, not to his relation with creation. Omnipotence can all too readily be associated with arbitrary power in our minds as J.-P. Batut observes (cf. "God the Father Almighty", Communio XXVI (1999), 287 where I find a number of the points in this well thought out talk). In so far as Jesus is both God and man, he too possesses this quality by virtue of his divine nature; he too is all-powerful as the word of God. For in and through and by him all things are made. This is the quality we tend to focus on and it has the effect of dimming the fundamental meaning attached to Pantocrator, which can be predicated of Christ as well as of the Father, for the Father has put all things in the power of his only beloved Son. This title bears a close affinity with the more common Lord. Christ exercises lordship over all creation by virtue of the Father's gift at the resurrection. "All power is given me in heaven and on earth", Jesus told his disciples after he rose from the dead. To be Lord is to rule over others and to dispose of the things entrusted to one's authority. Pantocrator affirms that this authority has no limits; it extends to all that is.
The early Church appreciated the radical importance of this title and enshrined it in the fourth century Nicean- Constantinopolitanian Creed. The Greek text associates the word Pantocrator with the Father in the opening phrase of this document, and immediately follows it with an affirmation of his relation to creation. " I believe in one God, the Father Pantocrator, maker of heaven and earth." We say this same Creed in our Sunday liturgy, translating the key word by omnipotens in Latin, or almighty in English. Saint Augustine, that master of words and subtle exegete, had already noted that there is a more exact Latin word that could have been used.
And so as the eternal Father is omnipotent, so also is the eternal son omnipotent, and if omnipotent, then all-holding, for that is what we interpret word for word if we wish to state what is said by the Greeks when they use pantocrator. Our writers would not have translated it as omnipotens when it is omnitenens, had they not considered it to have the same sense. (In Jo. Evan.Tr. CVI.5 PL 35:1910, cited by Batut, op. cit.,289)
Augustine himself realized there is a certain ambiguity in the term actually found in the Latin, and here charitably comments on the fact, thus warning his readers to be aware that the Biblical usage suggests that God, far from being arbitrary in his exercise of absolute authority, relates to his creation. The role of Jesus as God-man is involved here. He is a mediator, relating the creature to the Father; "all things were made through him," St. John tells us; "without him, nothing that is was made." He alone is able to deal on equal terms with the Father as being divine and to represent our human race as being truly man. Thus he holds all things in his power.
We do well to think of God as loving and merciful, and to stress these qualities that mark his nature and his dealings with us. But we need also to bring to mind at times that he is truly all- powerful and holds all things in the grasp of his hand. Modern Americans shy away from attributing omnipotence, even to God. In the mass we are reminded of this at the prayer just before the Secret : Pray, brothers, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father almighty (apud Patrem omnipotentem in the original Latin). Perhaps if we remember St. Augustine's comment that omnipotens is in this context a synonym for the Father's watchful care, his holding all things in his power so as to effect his loving purpose, we would feel less inclined to alter this text to merciful, as is often done now.
This attribute of God is well brought out in one of the classical Orationes (Prayers) of the Roman missal which sees God's mercy and pardon as the clearest manifestation of his omnipotence."Deus, qui omnipotentiam tuam parcendo maxime et miserendo manifestas multiplica super nos misericordiam tuam..." ("O God, who show your omnipotence chiefly by sparing and taking pity, multiply your mercy upon us..." (cf. XI Sunday after Pentecost) ). In fact, in the Roman tradition the most frequently employed qualifier of the Father, together with "sempiternus" (eternal), is "omnipotens". The very next Sunday, for example, has the Oratio that begins with the traditional formula: Omnipotens sempiterne Deus (Almight eternal God), and associates once again with this quality the same conception that his power is in the service of mercy:
Almighty eternal God who by the abundance of your piety exceed the merits and desires of those who pray to you, pour out upon us your mercy that you might forgive what our conscience fears and add what our prayer does not presume.
The conviction that God has all things in his power and being merciful, is ever ready to help us is one of the more prominent features of St. Benedict's spirituality. He had learned from John Cassian that the monks of the Egyptian desert had come to the conviction that their way of life should be characterized by constant prayer. As a means to attaining this goal, the use of brief and fervent formulas often repeated had proved to be the most efficacious. The favorite formula was taken from the Psalms, and was prescribed by Benedict as the opening prayer of all the day hours. It is still employed at the beginning of the hours of the office by monks all over the world: "O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me."[cf John Cassian Collation X.10-11] In making this prayer continually, the monk grows in the conviction that God is an ever-ready helper in time of need. Thus The Rule also uses it as a blessing for the Weekly Servers as they undertake this extra work for the community. Benedict manifests this same conviction that God is near to help when he discusses the way to deal with an obedience that seems to the monk to be beyond his strength. He is to "obey with confidence in the help of God (68.5)."
As Aquinata Boeckman has noted in her helpful article ("Gotteserfahrung nach der Regula Benedicti", Erbe und Auftrag 75 (1999) 289) Benedict's views on prayer and its efficacy are brought to light particularly in situations where his best efforts to help a monk who is morally or spiritually sick have failed. It is then that he refers to God's omnipotence. He states the matter in these terms.
If he sees that none of his efforts succeed let him make use also of what is greater, namely his prayer and that of the brothers on his behalf so that the Lord who can do all things [or, as two manuscripts have it: "who is omnipotent"]may bring about the healing of the sick brother (Ch. 28).
This passage is more important than might seem the case at first reading. It represents the way in which a difficult practical problem in life can be the occasion for an experience of God's grace and mercy if we meet it with faith and prayer. In fact, one of the functions of the ascetic practices undertaken by the Christian is to bring us to the point where we discover how limited we are, and how utterly dependent upon God's infinite mercy and power. Only those who generously and loyally strive to serve God in all things can make the great discovery that they are inadequate for achieving the salvation for which they long; only the grace and mercy of God can supply for our moral and spiritual incapacity. To experience this mysterious reality we must persevere in seeking God precisely when it seems to us to be beyond our strength to attain our goal. This is the door to contemplative prayer. It is a sharing, in some measure, in the cross of Jesus when accepted from the heart and with the firm faith that God will prove a ready helper, merciful and able to effect all things, even those which to me seem impossible.
God is omnipotent and eternal by nature. This truth concerning God's nature is a never ending source of wonder and admiration for those who discover by experience some measure of this reality. The more clearly we see this truth the more we realize how essential the Lord Jesus is for us. We need him as mediator; we cannot approach the all-holy, omnipotent God by virtue of any merit of our own. We simply lack the light and purity to arrive at such a consummation. Jesus who has been given all power from the Father has also become the Wisdom of God. Although some of the scholastics had treated of God's absolute power, yet Scripture never presents God as acting in a way that goes counter to his Wisdom as manifested in his creation. For all things were created in the Wisdom who is the Word of God and who became flesh in order to redeem us. For God to act apart from Wisdom, Beauty and Truth, in order to display his absolute power, would be to act contrary to his nature, for he is Wisdom, Beauty and Truth in his very being, as Batut acutely notes taking his cue from Origen (art. cit., 289). Thus when we speak of God as omnipotent, we should avoid any suggestion that he is arbitrary or whimsical and still less uncaring for his creature, man and woman. The existence of evil in the world will always remain a mystery for us, but it is no indication of the limits to God's power or to his love, though some persons have maintained the contrary. God's power is in the service of his plan to bring forth creatures who are truly his children and so who reflect something of his own nature. That means we must be free- free to love, but also free to refuse love. The abuse of this freedom is the source of evil in this world. Such freedom, contrary to what some have wrongly affirmed, does not limit's God's omnipotence, but is a transcendent exercise of that power. Kirkegaard had already addressed this issue in 1846.
The highest thing that can be done for a being, which is far beyond anything that a human being could do, is to make it free. In order to do that it is necessary to have nothing less than omnipotence. This might appear strange because omnipotence is supposed to make things dependent. But when one tries to form an exact understanding of omnipotence, one sees that it includes just this property of recovering itself in the manifestation of the omnipotence, so that the creature can, for this very reason, be independent by means of omnipotence. This is why one human being can never make another completely free. The one who has the power is bound precisely by it, and will always have a false relation towards the other whom he wants to make free. Only omnipotence can recover itself in giving itself, and this relation constitutes precisely the independence of the receiver (Diaries, 6A, 181, cited in Batut, art. cit.,292).
The human spirit will always be restless within the confines of time and a world of limits. In perusing the very well written new publication entitled "The American Century " this past few days I am impressed by the wide variety of ways that the people who have made their mark on our national character and institutions have sought to serve and give meaning to their life. Some have worked so heroically for the good of others, with courageous honesty; many others were forced to labor strenuously simply to stay alive and support their families; still others were driven to amass great fortunes at the expense of their workmen whom they treated as slaves. Reviewing the history of the recent lives of the famous side by side with the narrative of the largely unremarked majority in a brief span casts into high relief the evanescent nature of all human striving in this world. Even the men who were the most popular in their fields and held the most power and exercised the greatest influence are hardly remembered by name a scant generation or two after their demise. And yet we strive mightily to make a name or to gain some influence or experience some other passing satisfaction.
Only the infinite and the omniptent God is the realm where our spirit is at home and can find the fulfillment that engages our faculties and desires in their totality. Our spirit is made to contemplate the infinite God, the Pantocrator, the Alpha and Omega, the One who is, who was and who is to come. When we say the Creed today, when we praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit at the end of each psalm let us stir up our faith and with all our desire strive to enter the hidden places of our heart where the God who holds all things in his power abides in us and prepares us for life in his kingdom, world without end.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger<
Return to Index.
Go to Archive.