The explosive power of God?

by K.W. Leslie, 26 August 2021
DYNAMIS 'daɪ.nə.mɪs, ' or DUNAMIS 'du'nə.mɪs noun. The extra-mighty sort of power God possesses.
[Dynamite power 'daɪ.nə.maɪt 'paʊ(.ə)r noun.]

Alexander Pope wrote the saying, “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” in his Essay on Criticism in 1711. It’s frequently misquoted “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and constantly taken out of context: People assume Pope meant it’s better to have no knowledge at all. Knowledge is power, but power in the wrong hands is dangerous.

Read his whole poem, and you learn what Pope actually meant:

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.

Yeah, for those who lack a little learning about what a Pierian Spring is, that’d be a fountain in ancient Macedonia (which is not the current country of Macedonia) dedicated to the Muses, the Greek goddesses of wisdom and talent. Drink from the spring, and you’re supposed to gain their wisdom, and be able to understand profound truths. But if you don’t take a big drink from it—if you only take little sips from a 6-ounce Dixie cup—you’re not getting a full dose of wisdom. You’re only getting tiny but partial insights. Only half-truths.

That’s what Pope considered dangerous: A little learning. A partial knowledge. Don’t be satisfied with tricks or trivia. Dig deeper.

One obvious example is what popular Christianity claims about “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 δύναμις/dýnamis is to our English word dynamite. And of course it’s similar. After Alfred Nobel patented “Nobel’s Blasting Powder” in 1867, he decided to give it a more clever name: The Greek word for power, plus -ite. So it’s not a coincidence the two words are similar. Fully deliberate on Nobel’s part.

So these pastors will spend a lot of time on “the dýnamis power of God” (or dúnamis, depending on whether they know an upsilon is pronounced i instead of u, and usually they don’t). They’ll spend a lot of time on how dynamic or dynamite it is. Or as one of my pastors loved to 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.

When I first heard this idea, I thought it sounded clever. But 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. But one Sunday 14 years ago, after yet another sermon on the explosive power of God, I decided to finally double-check the idea against a Greek dictionary. And as you can guess, no that’s not what dýnamis means.

Not the explosive kind of power.

I’ve written elsewhere about the dangers of preaching the dictionary. Christians have the bad habit of looking up a word, then choosing whichever definition sounds the most interesting. Or suits us best. Or puts a clever spin on our message which people have never heard before. Not the definition which sounds the most appropriate to what the authors of the bible were trying to say.

My goal, with a Greek dictionary, is to find out the idea going through your typical ancient’s head when she or he used the word dýnamis. What kind of power are we talking about? Or does it even mean “power” like people nowadays think of power? We tend to think of electrical power, of superpowers, of political power, of mechanical power. What did the ancients tend to think of?

At the time I’d recently bought the one-volume abridged Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Couldn’t afford the 10-volume full set at the time. The TDNT doesn’t just define New Testament words, but gives their historical context. Anyway I decided it was time to get something out of my investment.

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. In Hellenism the world is a manifestation of the forces that work in and by and on it. To do anything one must know these forces and share in them. Magic is an application of this principle. It seeks contact, not with deity, but with the demonic natural and cosmic forces that stand under deity. Knowing these forces, the magician can mediate them for the good or ill of others. Yet the gods might also intervene directly to help or to heal. This may be seen in the healing miracles of Epidaurus, which are called dynámeis (“acts of power”). Acts of divine punishment bear the same name. Humans are outside the forces that rule the cosmos and have to attain to participation in them, especially with a view to salvation from mortality, or from the bondage of matter. The mystery religions are designed to provide the power of salvation in various forms, e.g., by an initiation which will make it possible to be taken up into the cosmic system of forces. The fundamental concept in the Greek sphere, then, is that of a natural force which, imparted in different ways, controls, moves, and governs the cosmos. TDNT, 187

I got other lexicons since. Joseph Thayer’s lexicon calls it “inherent power, power residing in a thing by virtue of its nature, or which a person or thing exerts and puts forth.” It’s not an explosive power, but a cosmic power; the forces which rule and govern the universe.

The difference between Greek thought, and the way the ancient Hebrews understood power in the Old Testament, is the Greeks figured this power was a neutral cosmic force which gods and humans could tap, and which good and evil people alike could weild. For the Hebrews, it’s not neutral at all: It’s the LORD’s power. He uses it to create and sustain his world. Jr 27.5, 32.17

In both cases it’s hardly an explosive power. Pastors like to compare dýnamis power to the Big Bang, or to when God commanded things to exist and they did. Ge 1.3, 6, 9, etc. But God’s power isn’t here one second, gone the next. Unlike dynamite, it leaves order behind, not chaos. It isn’t gone. It continues. It’s 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. But again: God’s dýnamis 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.