Oftentimes theology starts with an abstract philosophical theism before it gets around to talking about Jesus. In this mode, Christian apologists typically present proofs of the existence of God and then move on to the “omni” attributes of God that they can bolster with natural theology or prooftexts from the Bible. With this kind of starting point, it is very easy to conceive of God as “in control” of everything. And there is something about this understanding of God that offers people a certain level of comfort. We sing about this God in our songs and preach about Him from our pulpits. On some level it can be helpful. But it is also incomplete.
Setting aside the fact that there is much in nature and Scripture that conflicts with this picture of God, the real problem with it is that these ideas left to themselves will quickly stray from the true foundation of Christianity: the revelation of God in Christ. As Christians we do not build our understanding of God from abstract attributes but from the love of God demonstrated to us in Christ. That is, we know what God is like by looking at Jesus; without Jesus we do not know who God is. Karl Barth was very strong on this point in the way that he highlighted the primacy of Christ as the “Word made flesh” (Jn 1:14), about whom the written Word of Scripture pointed to. The Bible is not our answer book to every bit of trivia we can gain from it; it is our signpost to the life of God that can be found in Christ.
So when we hear God described as being “in control” (as popularly put) or as “ordaining everything” (as a Christian determinist might), we must ask ourselves “Is this consistent with the revelation of God in Christ?” And, more pointedly, “is this what God looks like at Golgotha?”
Usually when we think about the divinity and humanity of Jesus we assume we are talking about paradox, if not contradiction. The deity of Jesus is at odds with what we normally assume his humanity to mean. So when we read about the kenosis (self-emptying) of Christ in Philippians 2, an implicit narrative develops where Christ sets aside some part of His “god-ness” in order to be fully present in and as Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was high and exalted, but then became something else and suffered death on the cross. Then he was exalted again, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ” (Php 2:10-11 ESV)
But what if this kenosis, this self-emptying, is a revelation of what God has been like all along? What if this all-powerful God has always been in the business of emptying Himself for the sake of his creation? What if the self-humiliation of Christ on the cross, rather than standing in contradiction against the power of God, is the full disclosure of what God’s power looks like in action? What if God is truly glorified not as an all controlling puppet master, but as a self-giving servant who gives life to creation out of the fullness of his being? For Karl Barth, this sort of talk about God is not a denial of the true omnipotence of God. Rather, it puts it into proper focus (sidebar: yes, I know that the following Barth quote is a bit on the dense side; I promise, it is worth it!):
His omnipotence is that of a divine plenitude of power in the fact that (as opposed to any abstract omnipotence) it can assume the form of weakness and impotence and do so as omnipotence, triumphing in this form… God does not have to dishonour Himself when He goes into the far country, and conceals His glory. For He is truly honoured in this concealment. This concealment, and therefore His condescension as such, is the image and reflection in which we see Him as He is. His glory is the freedom of the love which He exercises and reveals in all this. In this respect it differs from the unfree and loveless glory of all the gods imagined by man. Everything depends on our seeing it, and in it the true and majestic nature of God: not trying to construct it arbitrarily; but deducing it from its revelation in the divine nature of Jesus Christ. From this we learn that the forma Dei [form of God] consists in the grace in which God Himself assumes and makes His own the forma servi [form of a servant].(Church Dogmatics IV.1, p. 187-188)
So for Barth the omnipotent power of God is even (perhaps especially) present in the form of powerlessness. This is not a contradiction, it is rather a radical redefinition of what the power of God looks like. God’s ways are not our ways (Isa 55:8-9). His power is not like our power. We think of the powerful to be rulers (kings and presidents) who exercise control; it follows then that God’s power might just be an amplified version of the power we are familiar with. However, Jesus redefined power this way: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NIV)
When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity. The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about ‘God’ is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event.(Moltmann, CG p. 205)
I’ll just leave you with that Moltmann quote for now. My next planned post (basically a follow up to this one) is on the question: “How does this suffering God give us hope?”