The explosive power of God?

Humans covet power. It’s why we regularly misinterpret what the scriptures have to say about it.

Dynamis power /', usually 'du'nə.mɪs 'paʊ(.ə)r/ n. The extra-mighty sort of power God possesses.
[Dynamite power /'daɪ.nə.maɪt 'paʊ(.ə)r/]

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” So wrote poet Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism, and a lot of people stop there. They figure what Pope meant was be careful with knowledge. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is dangerous.

Read the whole poem and you learn different.

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

The Pierian Spring was a fountain in Macedonia dedicated to the Greek goddesses of wisdom and talent, the Muses. Drink from it, and you’re supposed to gain knowledge. Sip from it and you get half-truths. That’s what’s dangerous: A little learning, partial knowledge. Don’t be satisfied with tricks or trivia. Dig further.

One obvious example is popular Christianity’s teaching on “dynamis power.” I first heard it before I went to seminary, and learned Greek. I’ve heard it countless times since.

Pastors are impressed by how similar the word dynamis (or dunamis, depending on who’s converting ΔΥΝΑΜΙΣ from Greek to Latin letters) is to our English words dynamic or dynamite. They’ll spend a lot of time on the dynamis power of God. Or as one of them regularly put it, “the dynamite power of God!” ’Cause once the Holy Spirit gets in there and does something, BOOM!”

It’s an exciting image. It’s that excitement which indicates someone’s been sipping from the spring of knowledge again. Not drinking deep.

But when I first heard this idea, what did I know? I hadn’t learned any Greek yet. And even for quite a few years after my Greek classes, I perpetuated the error: God’s power is ’splodey like dynamite.

Anyway. One Sunday 10 years ago, after yet another sermon in which God’s explosive power came up, I decided to finally double-check the idea against a Greek dictionary.

Which kind of power?

I remind you again about the dangers of preaching the dictionary: We don’t bust ’em out so we can pick the definition we like best. Nor the definition which sounds the most interesting. Nor try to mix all the definitions together like a smoothie, and hope whipping kale and bananas together won’t trigger anyone’s gag reflex.

Nope, my goal was to find out what the ancients thought of power. Plus I’d recently bought the one-volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament —couldn’t afford the full set—so it was time to start getting something out of my investment. The TDNT doesn’t just define New Testament words, but provides historical context about ’em.

The term dýnamis shows that all life in the cosmos is viewed dynamically. Dýnamis is a cosmic principle. In Pythagorean teaching number is filled with effective force. Plato calls dýnamis the absolute mark of being. The Stoics refer to a self-originating and self-moving force. Noús still underlies dýnamis in Aristotle and the Stoics, but dýnamis is the basic principle in Poseidonius. In Greek philosophy the cosmic principle is the same thing as God. There is thus little reference to the power of God, for God himself is power. The individual gods are dynámeis of the universal force; they personify the capabilities of a neutral deity. TDNT 187

The difference between Greek and Hebrew thought is that this power isn’t a neutral cosmic force, which can be used for good or evil depending on who’s wielding it: It’s the LORD’s power, which he uses to create and sustain the world. Jr 27.5, 32.17

As such it’s hardly an explosive power—here today, gone an instant later. True, acts of creation can have an explosive element to them, like the Big Bang or when God ordered stuff into existence. Ge 1.3, 6, 9, etc. The problem with dynamite is it leaves nothing but chaos behind. God leaves order.

But the power the ancients meant was more of a self-originating, self-moving, constant, unending, steady, unstoppable flow. Not like dynamite. More like a dynamo.

Both dynamite and dynamo are words Europeans—who knew a little Greek—coined to market their new inventions. Alfred Nobel wanted a catchier name for his nitroglycerin powder, and called it dynamite. But again: God’s dynamis isn’t an explosive power. It’s far more healing and transformative. Doesn’t run out. It’s indestructible.

Which I think is a way better illustration than dynamite.