Power

Merv Bitkofer, responding to physicist Tim Reddish, kindly introduced my name into another BioLogos discussion in which the autonomy of creation came up. I responded along my usual lines about the illicit (and incoherent) fusing of ideas of genuine secondary causes with the language of freedom and coercion. I don’t want, or need, to repeat all that here as the piece Merv linked to there says enough.

But I feel the need to say something more of the kind of theology underlying “freedom of creation” ideas, partly because it was strongly hinted at in Dr Reddish’s posts, and partly because, by the power of God fortuitously I received an academic article on it in my inbox the next morning, snappily entitled The Power of Unlimited Dispossession: Rethinking Creatio ex nihilo.

I’ll introduce things with a remark our own GD made, together with Tim Reddish’s reply:

“I believe that God determines all things from the beginning to the very end…”

“determines all things” is a power-filled position, consistent with “all controlling” or “micromanaging” even if those words seem to you—and others—as too anthropomorphic or anthropocentric.

That’s as far as he goes theologically, but do you get the sense of distaste for the very concept of “power” as something God might exert in some determining way? On the face of it, that’s an odd attitude in the context of a biblically-founded faith like Christianity, since references to the word “power”, used of God, fill well over a page of the sizeable leaves of Young’s concordance. The various Hebrew words carry the senses of “might” (= el – the very word used for for “God”), “arm”, “force” or “valour”, “strength”, “hand”, “power” and “hardness”. In the New Testament the word dunamis is the commonest word for power, but exousia, meaning “privilege and “authority” covers similar ground. Ischus means “strength” or “force”, and kratos has the sense of “dominion”.

One should also remember a host of related words concerning rule, determination, will and so on: Jesus himself is the anointed King of Israel, and his message the kingdom of God. He is called “lord”, which in Greek is despotes, etymologically the root of our “despot”, only without the same connotations of injustice – though it is the word used of their “masters” when Paul addresses slaves in 2 Tim 6.

One must labour the point, though, because context is everything – how is divine power exercised? Perhaps only GD’s theology is “power-filled”, rather than the biblical idea? You really need to do the word studies to feel the full force of Scripture’s language of power, but it doesn’t take too much work to recall the use of God’s power in the Old Testament to rescue Israel forcefully from Egypt, to send storms and plagues, to fill David with the power to kill Goliath, and so on.

But, as seems to be said with tedious regularity on such occasions, “That’s the Old Testament.” So I’ll give a just couple of representative instances in the New. First up is the well-worn verse on creation in Romans 1, in which Paul says that God’s “eternal power and deity” are clear from what has been made in nature. It is impossible to interpret that in any other way than the power of a maker over his mighty handiwork, not its autonomy, especially since the artisan word “make” (poeio) is the word used of God’s action.

My second example is from the disciples’ prayer in Acts 4, in which the apostles say that Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles and the people of Israel, conspiring against Jesus, “did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” I wonder if any of the other apostles objected that “decided beforehand” is a “power-filled position”? If so he’d also have had problems later with Paul, who writes in Ephesians 1 that “[God] works out everything in conformity with the purposes of his will.”

In the light of all that, how did the idea arise amongst theologians that God and the language of power don’t mix? The immediate theological part of the answer, I think, is that recent speculative theology, as opposed to biblical theology, puts so much stress on the Cross as the sole source of truth about God, in its aspects of weakness and self giving, that all other ideas are excluded. God is thereby revealed for the first time as One to whom all determination is oppression, and whose own strength is shown in his own weakness and lack of specific intention for what he makes.

I think embracing that must entail interpreting the whole biblical witness to God’s power qua power as the failure of the writers, as well as the other early disciples of Jesus, to “get” the idea of the cross fully. Only now do we begin to glimpse its real meaning. Some of us might suspect that maybe the early Christians just hadn’t been exposed to postmodern theories about the oppressiveness, in principle, of all exercise of power. For behind this theology of weakness is undoubtedly the deconstructionist philosophy of Derrida, applied to God. It should be assessed in that light, or it will be misunderstood as a variation on orthodox doctrine.

Now, it is tempting to indulge in what one might call reactive theology in response to this, and thereby to throw the baby out with the bathwater (just as Creationists, in opposing atheism, have often tended to lose sight of the biblical doctrine of creation itself). There is no doubt that the Cross of Christ was, and is, deeply subversive of worldly power structures, and by defeating evil through suffering also teaches us more about the character of God. Equally it is the central event of history … although no – the central event of history is the Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection by power and the Vindication in power of Jesus. Concentrating too much on one aspect of the complex risks heterodoxy.

To generalise the message of weakness and sacrifice (primarily shown by Jesus as the wisdom God always intended for man in his role as his vice-regent) to God the Father’s entire character in creation and everything else is unwarranted, especially when it undermines much of the teaching of the Scripture which is the very source of our knowledge of the Cross.

Jesus taught us to pray to God as Father, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” thereby implying that the kingdom is all about God’s will becoming all-in-all (as it already is in heaven), even if early liturgical versions hadn’t added “Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, for ever and ever.” And Paul was not being obtuse, but inspired and true to Jesus, when he wrote about the fruits of that Cross:

Then the end will come, when [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”

As I pointed out in my recent post, the self-giving of Jesus on the Cross for our sins was vindicated in history by the Father’s severe judgement upon that generation of Israel by the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem itself. Or that was how Jesus foresaw it as he went to the Cross. If we sideline Jesus’s own view of his Cross, we’re on very dangerous ground indeed.

I contend that there is something badly wrong in a theology that makes the mysterious glory of the Cross a denial of God’s power, will and determination of events. Jesus does not follow that path, and the Bible does not follow that path – but the Bible is of secondary importance to much modern theology. We can’t countenance the dreaded inerrancy, after all – better just to read the theologians’ philosophy-driven reflections as more in touch with the spirit of the age.

Nowhere is the incompleteness of kenotic theology more relevant that in creation, where in my view the whole thing begins to fall apart logically. For the application made is that the whole purpose of God in creation is to give away sovereignty and authority to an autonomous creation. Anything less is coercive, tyrannical, and all the rest, and totally inconsistent with the “kenotic God” shown through the Cross. “Autonomy”, because it cannot mean free-will in the inanimate creation, means open-endedness shown as contingency. And so “self giving” is absolutised as the entire content of God’s love, which in turn is absolutised as the entire “content” of God. And that self-giving is best expressed in randomness.

But here we hit a problem. For under any scientific model the universe is very far from being random. John Polkinghone, a notable supporter of kenotic theology, is a believer in cosmic fine-tuning. But cosmic fine tuning is all about the determining and therefore the restriction of random values to an extreme degree. So does that mean a more self-giving God would have introduced less fine-tuning?

Polkinghorne also believes that God may direct some natural events through apparently random processes: at one stage he considered chaotic events in this light, and subsequently, like Robert J Russell, quantum events. But regardless of whether such things are possible, under the theology we’re talking about each “intervention” would be another step away from nature’s freedom and towards tyranny.

So how much guidance from God is permissible in creation before it becomes “power-filled”? On what principle would the biblical teaching that he determined his creation to the extent that a potter determines his pot, or a cook his recipe, be judged as “too much” control, yet cosmic fine tuning “just right?” Does it actually depend on a quantitative measure of ones postmodernism?

You may think I’m pushing the idea to unrealistic lengths, but as the article I mentioned near the start says, this theology even calls into question the very propriety of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo as implying divine control freakery. Speaking of such creation it reads:

Its absolute fiat domesticates creation and expunges from it the chaos of the deep. But more, with its emphasis on divine omnipotence, creation from nothing removes God from the play and passion of creation. God becomes locked up, as it were, in a metaphysical sphere of aseity where history and suffering have no reach. The later Chalcedonian formulations that make Christ’s human nature the site of his suffering and death, and not his divine nature, only confirm the point for such critics: divinity is safely removed from the contingency and vulnerability of creation. Metaphysics, it seems, cannot withstand the implications of a kenotic, crucified God.

It’s worth remembering that metaphysics can easily withstand what the Bible actually teaches, and the real question is whether the kenotic theologians can. Do we really think that to be brought into existence is to be exploited?

Furthermore, this kind of theology is intensely vulnerable to passing fashions in scientific knowledge, quite apart from being a product of fashionable deconstriuctionism in varying degree. The context in which I’ve been attacking it for four or five years now is, of course, Neodarwinian evolutionary theory, held as sacrosanct by many of the “divine action” theologians of a decade or two ago and very conducive to kenotic theology because it is open-ended and strongly dependent on randomness. Many at BioLogos find the synthesis between an autonomous evolution and a kenotic God very convenient for the ruling biological paradigm.

But the Laplacian science of just century or two ago was fully deterministic, rejoicing in the Deistic God of reason who kept his hands off creation by making it a precision machine, and in that context “kenotic creation” makes no sense at all. It’s easy to say they were wrong, without realising that things will inevitably change again.

And they’re already changing: amongst the discoveries of convergence, complexity, natural genetic engineering, systems biology and developmental biology, not to mention structuralism and informatics, the randomness of Neodarwinism is beginning to look very dated and increasingly implausible. Whether or not the constaints upon evolution lead to the recognition of teleology, they point away from autonomy in the sense of open-ended “freedom”. There’s a risk that the kenoticists will resist the new science, generating a new brand of fundamentalism, because (in their view) it points away from the theology of the Cross.

But it doesn’t. It just points away from an unwarranted and unbiblical theological superstructure that takes the Cross from its proper place in the doctrine of God – a doctrine that includes his sovereignty and power within his created world.

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Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Power

  1. Cath Olic says:

    “Now, it is tempting to indulge in what one might call reactive theology in response to this, and thereby to throw the baby out with the bathwater (just as Creationists, in opposing atheism, have often tended to lose sight of the biblical doctrine of creation itself)”

    I don’t understand this. Could you explain how Creationists lose sight of the biblical doctrine of creation?

    “… And they’re already changing: amongst the discoveries of convergence, complexity, natural genetic engineering, systems biology and developmental biology, not to mention structuralism and informatics, the randomness of Neodarwinism is beginning to look very dated and increasingly implausible.”

    I think I agree with all but the first in your list, namely “convergence”.
    “Convergence” (I assume meaning “convergent evolution”) has NOT been discovered but only theorized. All the other stuff HAS been discovered and observed.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      OK Cath

      I probably shouldn’t have baited that hook, since the point of the thread – denial of God’s power – is important enough to prevent diversion to other themes.

      Modern Creationism began as a reaction within American Fundamentalism to anti-religious evolutionism. Especially with the advent of flood geology in the 1960s (courtesy of an actual Adventist!) the effort became to prove mainstream science wrong, and create an alternative science that confirmed an American literalist interpretation of Genesis 1.

      In many cases that flew in the face of the text itself (ideas of vapour canopies, dinosaurs becoming extinct through being too big for the ark), but mainly, through playing the whole materialist game of a “science” approach, it often became blind to the richness of the doctrine of creation not only in Genesis, but elsewhere. One instance of that is pushing the (sadly already existing) doctrine of a fallen and corrupted creation to extremes, missing the major biblical truth that God’s creation is key evidence of his continued goodness, through its own created goodness.

      I’m pleased to note that some of the deepest thinkers on doctrine of creation nowadays are Catholics – Pope Benedict being notably good (or at least, good and easily available to a non-Catholic). But then, he isn’t a Creationist, which may demonstrate my point.

      I hasten to add that dilution of creation doctrine is not inevitable with Young Earth Creationism, in its non-Fundamentalist form. I’ve great respect for Arthur Jones, who has contributed here, and with any number of good theologians who happen to be persuaded that the earth is young.

      “Convergence” is indeed a loaded deduction describing “similarity”. But in the context of structuralism, for example – that forms are law-like results of nature, not random results of selection – the point is that it points to teleology.

  2. GD GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    I sense a different response on the Hump, to my spares comments, than on BioLogos; be that as it may, I would encourage a view that emphasises “creation” by God as one (of the many) ways of appreciating the absolute power of God. It is correct to point to the birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ as the penultimate testimony to such power, but perhaps we should stick to simpler matters first, in the hope that the “postmodern theologians” may catch up with, and get, Christianity.

    Once we understand what divine creation (from before a beginning, during, and after all ends) means, we may take another step and understand what it means to be human, capable to receiving grace and salvation from God. But perhaps I am too optimistic – what thinks thou?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi GD

      It’s frustrating, in our milieu of conversation, to appear to be banging ones head agains a theological brick wall. The whole kenotic theology, with or without its coscious postmodern hatred of power, appears just too tailored to Neodarwinian ideas of open-endedness.

      However, I’m pretty confident that Deconstructionism is a flash in the pan (where are all the Existentialists who were everywhere in our academic youth?), and that biology is inevitably moving towards teleology, ie reducing the open-endedness of evolution.

      So the two will fade together, eventually, like all fads – but like longer-lasting and more penetrating fads (nineteenth century liberalism for example) sadly souls will be deceived along the way. One can only try and turn some from it.

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