Power

I think I mentioned in a post before about wanting to work through a theological understanding of power. My current thoughts have revolved around the idea that if God’s power is most fully displayed on the cross, which is a sign of complete weakness and submission, how does that affect our notions of what Divine Power really is? How does the cross, the ultimate theophany (lit. revelation of God), affect our reading of other parts of the Bible?

I’ve wrestled through what most people mean when they say “X has a lot of power” or “X is a very powerful person.” I came to the conclusion that the core of what people mean by power is the ability to control or alter events. From this definition, it’s legitimate to say both that God has power and that people or things can have power. Along the same logic, power can be used for good and for evil. It fits in a certain understanding of God that says that God gives power to people and people (having free will and also sin) can corrupt that gift.

Here’s my problem with that definition: it leaves out the means of achieving change as a separate issue. In that logic, God is powerful because God can change/influence anything. But I think the cross shows us that God is powerful because of the means by which God changes the cosmos. God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. The cross, by all worldly terms a failure and a sign of a weak God (a God who can be killed), is revealed as the means by which God does everything.

I think that with this understanding of God’s power, it significantly alters the way you read the entire Bible. It of course causes you to read the Bible backwards (the cross is the starting point through which we understand everything else). I’ve yet to work through all of the examples, but how does this understanding of God’s power change how you would read some of the violent wars of Israel’s past? I think there’s a way to read even the most difficult passages of the Bible through this lens; I daresay it might even help them make sense. Certainly all of Jesus’ talk about the Kingdom of God makes a lot more sense if we realize he’s not being metaphorical when he says the poor are blessed or that the widow’s offering of just a penny is more than all the rich people who gave out of their abundance.

The further implication (in my opinion) is a very modern, practical issue. It changes the way you talk and think about the “powers.” If I believe that true power is expressed through weakness, that automatically dismisses the government and the military (and many other things we call “powerful”) as holding any true power. It returns the notion of God as all powerful to God! God has all the power;  God’s power is expressed through God’s willing servants taking up the cross, assuming a cruciform existence. The rest is illusion. Ascribing power to human-made things and institutions which don’t have any power is, biblically-speaking, idolatry.

Have we made government, military, certain people, even social justice-oriented things, into idols? I would answer that with an unequivocal “yes” even without this understanding of power, but the way I’m beginning to view God’s way of working in the world further proves to me of how idolatrous we are. And if you read the OT, that’s really the thing that over and over again God warns against. Be careful, God says, that you don’t take on the gods and false practices of other cultures; don’t give homage and ascribe power to things other than me.

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4 comments

  1. James · November 7, 2009

    I wonder how we can tell where God’s power is most clearly displayed. Is it at the resurrection or Pentecost, where the Spirit of Christ is evident in Jesus’ disciples? Is it before then at the cross, the sign of suffering and as John Murray put it the place of ultimate discharge of obedience? Or is it the whole of the Incarnation? I would say we are too limited in our capacity to know where God’s power lies most tellingly for us. But we can say the Incarnation demonstrates God in God’s entirety to creation. And you’re right, it’s a sign of God’s “complete weakness and submission” which must determine our understanding of the Trinity, the Church, and the world.

    The kind of power talked about, this kind of zero-sum struggle, is what folks thought of God for a while. Barth realized God has an empowering power, that God shares authority with us. What makes God special is when, as you say, “God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

    Seeking any single lens through which to read the Bible aside, as if doing so would be able to make sense of the works by a chorus of voices moved by God and recognized by our faith forebears, I totally agree with you that powers of coercion and oppression have no place in Kingdom of God. They are perversions of God’s will, and as such have no substantial reality but merely half-exist until one day they will be no more. “The rest is illusion. Ascribing power to human-made things and institutions which don’t have any power is, biblically-speaking, idolatry.” And you’re right. To worship the cult of the state is to commit idolatry.

    And you’re not alone in your thoughts. Candler preaches this stuff every day.

  2. Mike Cantley · November 28, 2009

    Wow, I wish I had said this, Brian!

    I am late finding your post, but it is a powerful one to start my own blog, and timely too… Your reflection is a beautiful way to celebrate this last day of our liturgical year–the end of the week’s Feast of Christ the King! I’m gonna keep this in mind as we begin anew tomorrow, heading this way again.

    Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur; “Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow him.”

    Mike C.

  3. Pingback: Power Trip « Restoring Shalom
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