Our friend Rachel Held Evans (podcast with her is here) posted a blog by our own Tripp Fuller that got an amazing response (287 comments at this posting). Tripp responded all day Friday, I did quick responses Saturday and Sunday night. I thought it would it would be fun to post them all here as a conglomeration of ideas that are open for discussion.
Omnipotence: A Compliment Jesus Wants You to Take Back
I (Tripp) have one important rule to guide my theological thinking: God has to at least be as loving as Jesus.
It seems rather obvious for a Christian, given our confession that Jesus was indeed the ‘image of the invisible God,’ but throughout church history, God, Jesus’ Abba, has been given a very theologically destructive compliment– namely that God is Omnipotent , All Powerful.
While this philosophical compliment is absent in Scripture, yet present throughout much theology, it was John Calvin that made God’s power the ultimate theological principle. I used to be a Calvinist. I read Calvin’s Institutes in high school, used Charles Spurgeon sermons for devotions, and quoted Jonathan Edwards to my crazy Arminian friends in college. Then I realized the God I had come to know in Christ was way too awesome for my Calvinist theology. The theology was not simply off, but set against God’s nature, name, and essence being love.
This isn’t to say Calvinists aren’t Christians (or that I wasn’t when I was there theologically). I am simply saying that omnipotence is a theological compliment Jesus wants you to take back for four reason:
1. An omnipotent deity is responsible for the evil in the world. When God can do whatever God wants to do, whenever God wants to do it, everything that happens is either the direct will of God or permitted by God. Of course Calvin, in his obsession with making God uber-powerful, rejects the idea of God’s permissive will and keeps God as the prime actor in all actions. That means God has willed genocide, murder, rape, cancer, abuse, and the torture of children. When God is omnipotent, one can read history as the will of God, and history is way too full of evil, suffering, and violence to imagine it as revelatory of God’s will. If God ever willed the violent death of an innocent child, then that God is not Jesus’ Abba or worthy of a Christian’s worship.
2. An omnipotent deity is not capable of genuine relationships or love. Loving relationships require openness, vulnerability, risk, and genuine duration. We intuit this. For example, when two lovers consummate their marriage in a passionate act of sweet love-making, it is their freedom vulnerability, and willingness to risk that make their intercourse an act of love and not rape. If one side of the relationship is determined, it just isn’t a relationship. I remember in my Calvinist past thinking that God elected me to love God, but being coerced sounds much more like a relationship to a gangster than God. There’s a big difference between a puppet and a person, an object and a subject. The God of Jesus created, sustains, and redeems people, children of God.
3. An omnipotent deity runs eternity like a tyrannical dictator. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Paul said that, and I think it makes perfect sense. Of course, if Calvin is correct and God is actually the one in charge, then it becomes a bit odd…or flat our disgusting…to simultaneously think God elects people to suffer for all eternity for their sins. That’s worse than me spanking my son for eating a cookie I made and gave to him. This image of God is morally bankrupt and need not be defended. Instead we could imagine God to be a Woman who seeks out each lost coin until it is found, or a faithful and patient Father waiting to throw a party for the return of his son. These images sound like a God as loving as Jesus.
4. An omnipotent deity builds crosses. The cross and resurrection are the center piece of the faith. The cross of Jesus was not simply a convenient way for Jesus to die so that God could raise him from the dead, but a symbol of Rome’s power. Rome and only Rome built crosses and put people on them. Jesus died with the power of empire inscribed on his cross-dead body. It is that body that God raised from the dead, and it is the future of the Cross-dead Christ that we as Christians share. Yet for some reason, we so easily speak about God’s power as if God was being revealed in the building of crosses and not in their bearing. God’s self-revelation in Jesus was a rejection of the coercive, determining, and controlling power that the empires of this world love so much for the power of love. Infinite divine love, the freedom it gives, the risks it takes and the possibilities it continuously creates offer an alternative ultimate theological principle for Christian theology and one I think coheres with the story of Jesus.
Process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once stated that, “When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers…. The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly…. But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”
This observation rings true to me, but Caesar’s lawyers do not have to have the last word and Christian theology does not need to protect an idolatrous image of God anymore.
Process is a theology that has grown over the last 100 years from the philosophy of Mr. Whitehead. It is a global community (big in China and Europe) that engages both theory and practice with contemporary scholarship. For those who take it theologically, it is a way to address the Bible that is fully faithful to Jesus‘ vision, while integrating modern Biblical scholarship at every level.
The easiest access point for most is to say that because God IS love, then God’s very nature is loving, and so God’s use of power is not coercive – it is persuasive (almost seductive).
So God is not omnipotent.
Secondly, God is omniscient in that God knows all there is to know – but the future is undetermined.
Thirdly, God is omnipresent in an even more radical way than traditionally thought.
Lastly, God is neither immutable nor impassable – those are concerns of early Greek thought and not from the Christian scripture.
So quit saying God is omnipotent. Jesus was just too loving for that to stick.
Thank you all for the amazing conversation today – and even the push-back! This is the major development of our era over the previous centuries … the people of god in theological dialogue 🙂 I want to make three general responses to some clear trends that have been displayed here:
1) Open Theology: folks are right (like Kurt Willems) to say that there is a significant distinction between Open and Process thought. Open is only/primarily concerned with the nature of the future. They hold that God reserves the right to do whatever God wants … its just that in love God has chosen to limit God’s self. It’s like God is just being nice but “He” doesn’t have to if “He” doesn’t want to.
Process make a clear philosophical assertion that God is not just self-limiting. God’s essence IS love and that is the determining criteria of interpretation.
Thomas Jay Oord does a great job at addressing Philippians 2: this beautiful poem that illustrates a wonderful truth and draws a dramatic picture of how we should BE in the world – like Christ.
2) Classic theology, Calvinism and Theodicy: I really like that folks have objections. They should. My only concerns are with the “we are making God in our image” and “ this is too philosophical” objections.
I want to clarify – Process doesn’t start with the problem of evil, it was just an access point for this format of conversation. If people look at their theology’s approach to scripture, its philosophical underpinnings, and its accounting for evil… If one holds to an approach of the past, sees it flaws, and says “I can live with that problem” – that is one thing. BUT if someone doesn’t see the in-congruence (and thus ‘there is no problem’) then THAT in itself is creating a 2nd problem.
I think that you would really enjoy looking into “Process Theology – an introduction” by Cobb and Griffin… especially pages 108-110 which deal with the Trinity.
Two things that I want to address are A) the baby and the bathwater B) making God in our own image.
I get what folks are saying. Here are a couple of things to consider:
A) No one wants to throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater … per se
- That analogy actually illustrates an interesting patriarchy/hierarchy. IT comes from and era when Dad bathed first, Mom and then the kids … to the point that by the time one got to the baby … the bathwater was SO filthy that It was actually possible to lose the baby in the dirty water and throw it out.
- We have indoor plumbing now. We take care of our babies. That proverb, that mentality, and that concern may need to be revised for the contemporary situation.
Theology is no different.
A) Making God is our own image: no one wants a God that is just a big version of themselves projected onto the screen of the heavens. This kind of anthropomorphic imagining has happened so often in history that there is a huge rubbish heap of Gods (Thor, Zeus, Rah, etc.) that folks have no time for anymore.
While we are not interested in making a god in our own image, we are in danger of making our concept of god just that irrelevant if we continue to use only frameworks from the 2nd – 16th century.
Process makes an important distinction between Primordial and Consequential nature of God (called the Di-Polar nature of God). This is an essential element to engaging the huge concept and historic understanding that we are dealing with.
I would be interested in your response to this! – Bo