Tag Archives: omnipotence

kenotic God

A true swordsman is recognised not simply by ability to swing the largest of swords with great speed and strength, but by the skill and agility to wield any sword in the best way.  Likewise, the vision of God in Christian Scripture (not only in the NT – explicitly in passages like Philippians 2:5-11 – but in the OT) is of a God who does not mindlessly brandish the sword of omnipotence around like a brute or side-show stuntman, but rather wisely wields it in ways that are not about mere strength but intent, skill and purpose.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that basically no Christian doctrine about God makes any sense at all if God’s omnipotence is not seen in this particular way.  Just as a skilled swordsman most probably indeed could swing a sword quite fast and powerfully, but would only do so at rare occasions or perhaps only once, so also there are many things that an omnipotent God is able to do, but not willing.

The kenotic, or ‘self-emptying’, God is not shackled to ‘logical’ expectations for what omnipotence would do.  God both a) refrains from doing things he has capacity to do, as well as b) does things he does not need to do.  God could have not created.  It’s not as though there could be any force or person or will ‘above’ God that caused God to create.  But create he did – and does.  To venture into the conversation of sovereignty and process theology and ‘free will’, etc., God could have chosen to have a very deterministic and micro-managerial rule over the world.  It’s not as though that would be un-fitting or impossible for omnipotence.  But his sovereign rule is far more respecting of freedom, and what we have is a mixture of inability to do many things (i.e. breathe in space, fly, etc.), and ability to direct our own courses of action.  We are dependent enough upon the world and each other such that the degree of indifference we can fall to has limits, yet we are also independent enough from it and others such that an annoyingly persistent responsibility for our actions is perpetually ensured.

friday morning

Saw these lyrics for the first time yesterday. (Thanks Andrew Picard!)
Loving the irony in this song.  Carter was obviously gifted.

It was on a Friday morning
that they took me from the cell
and I saw they had a carpenter
to crucify as well
You can blame it on to Pilate
You can blame it on the Jews
You can blame it on the Devil
It’s God I accuse
It’s God they ought to crucify
instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter,
a-hanging on the tree 

You can blame it on to Adam
You can blame it on to Eve
You can blame it on the apple,
but that I can’t believe
It was God that made the Devil
And the woman and the man
And there wouldn’t be an apple
If it wasn’t in the plan
It’s God they ought to crucify
instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter,
a-hanging on the tree

Now Barabbas was a killer
And they let Barabbas go
But you are being crucified
For nothing that I know
And your God is up in Heaven
and He doesn’t do a thing
With a million angels watching
and they never move a wing
It’s God they ought to crucify
instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter,
a-hanging on the tree

To hell with Jehova
To the carpenter I said
I wish that a carpenter
had made the world instead
Goodbye and good luck to you
our ways will soon divide
Remember me tomorrow
The man you hung beside
It’s God they ought to crucify
instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter,
a-hanging on the tree

omnipotence and kenosis – again

To put a kenotic theological spin on Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin’s song, ”I Can’t Make You Love Me [if you don't]“, popularised by Bonnie Raitt’s rendition of it, the Christian vision of the crucified God hears this wounded lament to humanity: “I could make you love me, but I won’t.”

omnipotence and kenosis

From (before) Epicurus through to modern voices, there have been those who question that God can be both all-powerful and all-loving or all-good.  (“Because evil continues to exist, God is either not powerful enough to end it, or not good enough to want to end it.”)

Leaving to one side the interesting discussion about how we can know what ‘good’ means or how God’s goodness might be reconciled with evil in the world, let us assume a) that our notion of ‘good’ is trustworthy enough for our complaints about evil to be accurate, and b) that God indeed has ‘good’ intentions for the world, including the cesation of evil.  This allows us to focus on the question of how to reconcile God’s alleged omnipotence (all-power) and the (assumed) reality of evil.

It is quite a simple matter, I am convinced.  God’s omnipotence is retained, but must be appropriately conceived.  For me there are two extremes on a spectrum of understanding the amount and nature of God’s power.

At one end, you have a manipulative, rapist, one-for-one, tit-for-tat, view of power, which has been called ‘omni-causality’.  Imagine a controller at a control board with an unimaginably high numbers of switches, sliders and knobs, with labels reading everything from ‘miscarriage’ to ‘miracle’, from ‘germination’ to ‘genocide’.  Everything that happens is not only willed by God, but empowered by God.  Yikes.  Interestingly, this is the kind of control I think some people want God to have over creation, only minus the ‘bad’ phenomena.  So (as C.S. Lewis famously wrote) “a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults“, etc.  This would be a very suspect and strange world.

At the other end, you have a distant, detached and disinterested deity, whose only use of power was perhaps to create the world according to some natural laws.  Imagine a watchmaker who winds up the clock springs and then goes on holiday.  Perhaps able to do something about evil, but not willing or interested enough do what he is able to.

There is a lot of space between these two ends of the spectrum.  Inbetween an overly active rapist and an overly passive spy-in-the-sky.

Enter kenosis.

Kenosis means roughly ‘self-emptying’.  It is famously used of Christ in Phillippians 2, who ‘emptied’ himself and took the form of a servant.  In the high Christology of this passage, Jesus remains ‘equal with God’ and thus fully divine, even as he takes on an additional, fully human, nature.

All this talk of ‘kenosis’ might sound all heady, but it’s actually far more ordinary than we may realise.  Beings with limited power do ‘kenosis’ all the time.  When driving a car, do you push the gas pedal down as far as you can?  No – and for very good reasons.  Driving, after all, is not about the amount of pressure on the pedal, but about transportation from one place to another.  God, I’m convinced,has the power to make, say, mountains do really weird things, such as levitate and/or turn to vanilla custard.  But that would be a really bizzare use of his power, wouldn’t it?  So having power doesn’t always mean using it in this or that particular way.  An omnipotent being who is also patient and wise would restrict itself from acting in ways that are impatient and unwise.

Then there is delegation.

Delegation is, in a sense, a form of kenosis.  God limits himself not only by refraining from some actions, but by delegating them to his creation.  God made creation in such a way that it has its own power and creativity.  ((this is why arguments over evolution and abiogenesis are such a waste of time.  So what if God made nature so awesomely that it can make life from non-life!? What an amazing creation!!))  Under and within the sovereignty of the Creator, creation is imbued with the freedom and power to actually ‘do stuff’.  Uniquely, humans have an immense degree of this freedom and power to ‘do stuff’.  Of course we can ‘do stuff’ that causes great good, and that causes great evil.

Again, lest this all sound a bit theoretical, think of any supervisor or parent or guardian you’ve ever had.  Ever had someone not only tell you what to do, but end up doing it for you?  How annoying!  Well, the God we glimpse in Jesus is not a micromanagerial, ‘autocratic’ God.  But neither is God a ‘laissez faire’ non-leader, who couldn’t care less what we do.  God is more a communicative/particpative God.   A God who created a free world with free humans.  A world which is very good, but also contains very real evil.  A world in which those free humans become unfortuantely not-free – enslaved by evil and sin.  But it is also a world in which God is patiently, participatively and persistently at work to free humans, and in turn make them agents of his freedom.

lamb power

I’ve long held the view that God doesn’t always get what God wants/wills/desires.  It seems fundamentally basic to me.

Because, there is more than one way to be omnipotent.

By way of analogy, take my non-omnipotence… my mere potency.  I possess the ‘ability’, or ‘power’ or ‘potency’ to do this or that thing.  I am, within the laws of physics, I suppose, free to do what I like.  In parenting Thomas, I have the power to be harsh or lax, smothering or distant, coercive or cold, forceful or far-off (or hopefully somewhere in-between).

If we take God’s existence (or ‘super-Existence’ or some word we don’t have, etc.) as a given, the possible extremes for God’s mode of interaction with the world are a kind of indifferent and distant deism (like a cold, careless father), or a manipulative, coercive dictator (like a harsh, smothering mother).

The biblical story develops.  Sometimes God seems to be distant, and sometimes God seems in intervene in ways that are quite sudden and forceful.  But as time and the story unfolds, the picture of God develops.  And this development is (as we’d expect – and like unto the development of, for example, science) characterised by both continuity and discontinuity.  But at any rate, God is never perfectly known – not yet anyway (1 Cor. 13:9).

But what does happen is that the New Testament authors are convinced that in Jesus of Nazareth, they have seen God in a way that is truly an ‘unveiling’.  The author of Hebrews contrasts the former God-speech from prophets and such like (Hebrews 1:1-2), with the recent unveiling of the ‘express image’ of God’s person (v3).  The book of Revelation could be called literally ‘the unveiling/uncovering of Jesus Christ’.

One of the most striking, unintuitive and ‘you’d-have-never-guessed-God-would-be-like-this’ aspects of the revelation of God in Jesus is that God’s omnipotence is the kind of omnipotence that is best pictured by a bloodied animal.  A lamb. On a throne.

This God is neither distant, nor a dictator.  This God suffers with us, and conquers the sin and evil that has literally ruined the world.  This God’s omnipotence is best described as lamb power.