I Don’t Believe in the Power[s] of God

What is it that has always turned me off about classical post-Reformed orthodoxy (and many other Westernly derived orthodoxies as well)? It has less, really, to do with labels (like jesusalmightyCalvinism, Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, etc.) than it does with the material theological implications present within such systems of thought (derivative as that might be in many cases) about God. If you have spent any time at all studying historical theology you will have run across the impact that Nominalism has had upon the framing of the way we think about God. I described this in a 2013 article I wrote for Christianity Today:

But if God is transcendent—if his ways are unknowably above our own—how can we know him? Within the Christian tradition, several voices have spoken to this dilemma. A medieval Roman Catholic theologian, William of Ockham (1285–1349), is known for positing a “dualism” in God. By this, he meant that there are two ways to think of God and his presence among us. Ockham argued that God behaves one way in his “transcendent” life and another way in his “immanent” life (his activity in human history, primarily through the Incarnation). If God seems remote and secretive, that’s because he can act differently “way above yonder” than how he acts in revealing himself in Christ.[1]

What I was referring to with Ockham in this article, more technically, is the medieval metaphysic and conception of God that referred to God’s act (being) in two ways: 1) de potentia Absoluta and de potentia  Ordinata; God’s absolute power (how he is in himself in eternity), and God’s Ordained power (or will) (how he is in himself revealed in the contingencies of time and salvation history). Ockham wrote of it this way:

Sometimes we mean by God’s power those things which he does according to laws he himself has ordained and instituted. These things he is said to do by ordained power [de potentia  ordinata]. But sometimes God’s power is taken to mean his ability to do anything that does  not involve a contradiction, regardless of whether or not he has ordained that he would do it. For God can do many things that he does not choose to do…. These things he is said to be able to do by his absolute power [de potentia absoluta].[2]

Here is what I wrote, in that same Christianity Today article, relative to what this kind of ‘dualist’ Ockham inspired approach to God can do to us:

The problem with Ockham’s perspective is that it severs God’s transcendent life from his immanent life. As a result, Jesus Christ might not seem like the same God who has always lived in eternity. Dualistic thinking dissolves any necessary relation between the “veiled” God and the “unveiled” God in Christ. This introduces an element of anxiety for those who seek to know God: If God’s revelation in Christ does not truly represent God’s eternal nature, then sending Christ could have been an arbitrary gesture. God might well have reached out to humanity in a very different manner—or not reached out to humanity at all. And at any point in the future, he might act in an infinite number of unpredictable ways. If God’s activity in revealed time doesn’t reflect his eternal nature, we cannot be sure of Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7).[3]

And so Barth.

This whole discussion on Nominalism should help to explain my ‘turn’ to Barth and After Barth theology (like through Thomas Torrance, John Webster, et. al.). It isn’t really all that concerned with whether this set of theologians or that set of theologians operated in one period of church history or another; I really could care less about that (I operate under the premise that God’s relationship to his church is unremitting, and that he continues to break into his church as the Great Teacher that he is, in Christ, and uses the intellectual furniture of each period and age to lead the church closer to the knowledge of the One Faith [Eph. 4] once for all delivered to the Saints [Jude 1]). I happen to believe that Barth & co. have engaged with the Tradition to the point they had received it in that has been very fruitful and helpful for the catholic church of Jesus Christ. Particularly when it comes to this issue (and many other subsequent and important ones): a Doctrine of God.

One of Karl Barth’s early commentators, a Dutch theologian from the Free University of Amsterdam, G.C. Berkouwer really gets at this point in a very cogent way in regard to Barth’s theology and reframing of the ‘potentia’ theology that so much of Western thinking about God (I would declare) suffers under.

We must note, in the first place, that Barth no longer leaves room for a God-concept whereby it is impossible to conceive of humiliation and self-abnegation on the part of God. Such ideas are not applicable to a God who is “infinite potentiality.” Every conception of humiliation and self-surrender is excluded by such a power, for it would contradict the very idea of the majesty of God.

It is precisely for this reason that every view of God which has been constructed on basis [sic] of natural theology, and therefore outside of Jesus Christ, had to lead and has, in fact, constantly led, to a misunderstanding of Scripture. It was not possible to achieve a right understanding of the being and the reality of God because the thinking of natural theology could not free itself from the schematism of what it already knew about God. The one thing needful here is a radical evolution in theological thinking! We must permit ourselves to be corrected and submit to being instructed anew.

We can come to know God only when we cease assuming that we know beforehand that, with respect to God, this or that cannot be, is not possible for Him, because it is not to be squared with His infinite potentiality.

When we see God only in Jesus Christ, we come to walk in a new path and wholly new perspectives for the doctrine of reconciliation appear. Then it becomes “possible” to see the “God Himself” in the reconciling work of God in Christ. It no longer belongs to the impossibilities of thought to see “God Himself” in Christ in the most ultimate humiliation, powerlessness and self-surrender which can – of course! – not be predicated of a God of infinite potentiality. Those who think that a self-humiliation on the part of God is unthinkable and impossible meet the protest of Barth that their exclusion of this possibility flows forth from erroneous presuppositions about God. In and through Christ we must learn who God is and what the really-divine is and can do. In Him we see that God’s revelation is precisely not concerned about an abstract omnipotence, a potentia absoluta, which infinitely transcends (as the esse absolutum) any and all humiliation and self-abnegation. It is God’s reconciling activity which teaches us who the true God, revealed in reconciliation, really is. Not the self-willed logic of natural theology but Jesus Christ alone must determine our thinking about God. In Him we are able to discern the true features of this God and discover that He does not terrify us by His distant and infinite majesty and pure absoluteness, but that He is near to us in the “powerlessness” of humiliation and cross.[4]

There is a move among younger ‘conservative’ theologians (and I am still very conservative myself!) to simply imbibe and privilege one period (pre-Modern or pre-Critical) theology over others (in particular Modern); but I think we need to get beyond that artificial divide (not uncritically so). Personally, what drives me is not being able to align with this or that theologian from Patristic, Medieval, Scholastic, pre-Modern/Critical, or Modern periods of thought; what drives me is to want to truly and genuinely know God. I think that if this is what drives us we will not get so caught up or concerned with whether or not we are Barthians, Torrancians, Thomists, Calvinists, Arminians, Orthodox etc., instead we will be evangelically driven and be willing to place the actual theological concerns and ideas beyond the ‘political’ back-biting tribal divisions that in the end have the potential to shut down our engagement with all of the teachers that the body of Christ (catholic) has to offer.

I am not interested, even as I have engaged with him, to follow the kind of ‘powerful’ God that Ockham gives us. I am not interested in the mode of simply and sentimentally ascribing to a certain theological tradition because it seems safe and secure, and purportedly represents sound orthodox traditional theology. I am more interested in truly coming to know God, and I have come to the conclusion that the best way to do that (in conversation will all periods of Christian thought,  constructively so) is to allow Jesus to regulate and condition all knowledge of God (Jn. 1.18).

[1] Bobby Grow, God Behind the Veil: His Ways are Hidden from Ordinary Eyes, but not the Eyes of Faith, Christianity Today (April 1, 2013) .

[2] William of Ockham, Quodlibeta V1, q. 1 cited by Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550. An Intellectual History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 38.

[3] Christianity Today.

[4] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 125-26.

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2 comments

  1. The Berkouwer quote is interesting.

    The humility of God is a theme I see often in scripture.
    But, I didn’t recognize it until fairly recently.

    I wonder if we tend to miss humility as a manifestation of His glory because this characteristic is so foreign to human nature? I mean, we all seem to inherently understand a display of raw power to be “glorious”, so I’m guessing this is why we typically view God through that lens as we read scripture.

    But maybe that makes sense to just me :/

    Like

  2. Heather,

    In Barth’s theology (and even Luther’s in ways) we have the dialectic of God’s humiliation and humanity’s exaltation all in Christ of course. But yeah, your observation would be the general critique of classical philosophically derived theology I have been critiquing for years and years!

    Liked by 1 person

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