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The Power of God

In regard to understanding the nature of God’s power, a subject that is much misunderstood and contended over in theological discourse I have found no one as helpful as Arthur McGill. McGill’s book, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method is one of the most under-read books out there. I strongly suggest that everyone get a copy (and a copy of his other book, Death and Life: An American Theology).

In light of recent discussions I think it is worthwhile to quote extensively from McGill on the issue of God’s power. I’ve yet to find another treatment of this issue that puts everything quite as well as McGill does:

It is possible to speak of “evil” as that which contradicts the good of man. But for the Christian life it is not man but God who determines what evil is. The Bible therefore speaks of evil as that which opposes God’s will, or as that which mocks God’s power, or as that which abuses God’s goodness. If God within himself is an eternal interchange of self-giving between the Father and the Son, we must now try to see why acts that are designed to hurt and cause suffering are essentially evil. It is obvious that such acts contradict the good of man when man is a victim of suffering. but in what sense do they also stand opposed to God?

Violent suffering is the product of excessive power. It shows that one thing is able to dispose of something else, is able to break it and shatter it. It represents, therefore, the decisive way by which any agent can prove that it has power over another thing. If God had no character of his own but were simply the bearer of any and every sort of power, if he acted always to vindicate himself at the expense of other things and n that sense were the absolute intensification of all power, then he would have to be honored as the supreme agent of violence. Then all torturing and degradation, all action by which one creature uses his superior power to exploit the weakness of others and to subject them to his control and domination would be an expression of God’s kind of power.

But by his life and teachings, Jesus makes perfectly clear that the divinity active through him is not Absolute Power. That divinity is not a potentially tyrannical force that might just do anything at all, such as produce square circles or smash the world to pieces. Within himself God is the life and power and energy whereby the Father generates the Son as his perfect equal in all regards and the Son adores the Father as his perfect in all regards. Therefore, in his outward actions toward his creatures, God does not act by some other kind of life or power. The energy that informs all his dealings with men is the energy of his own being.

Thus, when God moves toward his creatures, he does not exercise his powerfulness by subjecting them to his domination, or by shattering them with his superior force so as to demonstrate their helplessness before him. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not brute power raised to the nth degree. This God exercises his powerfulness by his giving, by how much he nourishes his creatures, by how much he communicates his own reality to them. To be sure, their being lifted by him into life may involve pain to them. But this pain is only a means for their elevation not an enhancement of God at their expense. Because of his essential nature as the loving community of Father and Son, God cannot act without conferring something of himself on those toward whom he acts.

Therefore, should God will that certain creatures dry and shrivel up, losing their vigor and life, he does not attain this by acting upon them positively with violent force, for “force is no attribute of God.”[The Epistle to Diognetus] He simple withdraws his action from them. In these terms, then, a creature’s misery and death can only be the result of God’s inaction and absence, not of his active presence.

This leads us to a judgment about the behavior of creatures. When they use force to exploit the weakness of others and by this means establish their superiority and domination over others, they are not then acting by the power of God, they are not then being vitalized by the life of God, and they are not then proceeding in accord with the will of God. In short, they belong to the realm of evil. As Jesus said:

“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. . . . For the Son of man . . . came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for man.” (Mark 10:42-45)

If Jesus is the revelation of the essential power and life of God, then men cannot do violence to one another for their own self-expansion within the area of his Lordship. So far as they do this, they are exercising a powerfulness that contradicts the power of God. They have turned from light to darkness. (p. 84-86)

This is as good a statement about the true nature of God’s power as you are likely to find anywhere. Too many Christians are still tempted to think God’s power merely in terms of unconstrained, raw power. As McGill shows, this is precisely the wrong way to think of God’s power. Rather God is powerful in that God gives, loves, nourishes, sustains, and transfigures. The author of the Epistle to Dignetus was indeed right that “force is no attribute of God.” Rather the power of God must always and everywhere be understood as the power of the cross and resurrection.

21 Comments

  1. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I have read McGill’s Death and Life: An American Theology a couple of years ago, on Halden’s recommendation. I just want to second Halden’s recommendation, I haven’t read his other work yet, but if it’s anything like “Death and Life,” then it is a must read!

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  2. kim fabricius wrote:

    Hence the mug’s game of theodicies that accept the traditional terms of engagement, viz. given evil and suffering, that of squaring the circle of a god who is all-powerful on the one hand and all-loving on the other. Understanding Clinton’s famous phrase theologically: it’s the economy, stupid!

    McGill is indeed hidden treasure. I think he was teaching at Wesleyan when I was there and I didn’t even know it. Now I’d sell most of my library if I had to just to have his two little pearls.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  3. robert wrote:

    Is this post not mistagged? The quote appears to be speaking of some duality, not of the Trinity.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  4. robert wrote:

    Fr. Stephen Freeman posted an essay yesterday that might be helpful on the question as well:

    http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2009/08/23/the-agent-of-change-2/

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Yes, McGill does fail to mention the Spirit in this passage. He is, however definitely a Trinitarian. And, I don’t think he’s out of line here given that the Scriptures speak far more of the Father-Son relationship than those of Father-Spirit and Spirit-Son.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  6. Stephanie wrote:

    So..is God the ultimate good?..if so..that would make him the “ultimate evil’ as well..bitter water and sweet cannot flow from the same well..: ) He is love..something totally different and undefinable apart from Jesus..who was the face of love..so we could see it. God is not a killer…God is not a law giver…God does not “lord it over’ nor has he ever..these are mans traits born out of our love for the “knowledge” of good and evil…eating around this tree is what causes legalism..and death…heresy to some I know.. but think about it..God is love..he cannot be the ultimate good..that isn’t enough to describe him and …the ultimate evil will NEVER apply. This is good news..there is no bad news in good news.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  7. robert wrote:

    Just checking. The language sounded exclusive.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  8. roger flyer wrote:

    This is lovely stuff…

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
  9. Jason Coker wrote:

    Nice. I’m just discovering this series (via Bill Kinnon) and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. I’ll definitely be checking out McGill.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:46 pm | Permalink
  10. I find his point about God’s absence very interesting, and it’s something I continue to struggle to understand in relation to Jesus. Is not even God’s withdrawal an act in itself that still accords harm to the human (even if for the sake of its “elevation”)? If Jesus suffers God-abandonment on the cross, can we in any sense participate in it as a once-for-all act of God? And so then, more practically, is suffering simply a reality in which we can either participate with cruciformity in Christ or deny in will-full disobedience (and thus self-abandonment)?

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  11. Bruce wrote:

    I fail to see why, if “a creature’s misery and death can only be the result of God’s inaction and absence, not of his active presence,” God is not just as accountable. Why the removal of grace?

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 8:05 am | Permalink
  12. Geoff wrote:

    So God is not the Incredible Hulk? I don’t know if I can worship somebody I could beat in a fight. I’d rather worship a God that smashes me, not one who lets me kill him. This guy needs to read the bible instead of making up stories about Jesus and Gentiles lording over people.

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  13. Erin wrote:

    that’s a really moving selection, Halden, thanks. I love this description of power, and must check out the book.

    Bruce’s comment is one that plagues me as well. I imagine I am missing something very obvious or don’t understand the vector of the reasoning, but how might one go about answering it? It becomes particularly poignant when talking with suffering people because it strips the suffering of any meaning or purpose. I don’t believe suffering must be of a purpose, but in the midst of it, “why?” is a natural question. As is “where is God in all of this?” Is God reliable or present in a personal way for anything before the Big Dance? Or is the suffering one left with only future hope to comfort them? I’m not trying to raise another discussion about theodicy, but I feel that when I counsel people my ship keeps running aground on the question of why was good/protection/blessing withheld?

    Sorry for all the questions – I really do like the passage- just trying to connect my theology with practice as I walk with folk.
    Thanks

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  14. stephy wrote:

    Yeah.

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  15. Brad E. wrote:

    Sorry so late to the post, but in the ongoing discussion of Piper, providence, evil, imitation of God, and now God’s power, I find myself wondering how faithfully to interpret the New Testament’s (as well as the Old Testament’s) language about God’s wrath. Is it not a positive “force,” but a “removal” or “absence”? I can understand that theologically, but I’m not sure I get that sense at all in the text. (Although, there is something to the language of God “handing over” sinners to the inherent consequences of sin, which Hays exegetes well in Romans 1.)

    So what to do with the wrath of God? What is it, how does it square with the language of power, love, and Trinity in this post, and what sense is it included or excluded from our imitation of God?

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Actually I think the language of “handing over” is the key to understanding the wrath of God, as Kim pointed out in one of the other posts. How this plays into our imitation of God, as was also discussed earlier is in our practice of excommunication, about which Paul uses the exact same language of handing over (1 Cor 5:5).

    Note that this act of wrath is clearly restorative in nature. I think the same can be said of God’s own wrath against sin. There’s certainly a strong theme of this in the OT–God “attacks” Israel precisely for the sake of Israel’s eventual redemption.

    In other words, the wrath of God must be seen as an aspect of the love of God.

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    I think that’s a fine question to ask, but the point is that God ceasing to sustain his creation in being is different than God violently attacking and violating someone or something. After all, we have no claim on God’s presence and sustenance, it is an act of grace which is purely God’s gift.

    Now, I think one could say however, that in rejecting God by living in violence human being actively remove themselves from God’s life, at least penultimately. And in response to that God may “give them over” to that as Romans 1 says. That I think is quite different than conceiving of God’s power violently, even if it doesn’t answer all questions of theodicy. Since of course nothing can.

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  18. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    Great post and I look fwd to reading more. Does Mcgill mention the Jewish concept of “Tzimtzum,” or God’s willful contraction of presence in order for the universe or any creation to exist? (the Hebrew word for world is rooted in the word for ‘concealment) If there are any E.Orthodox on the site I am wondering how Mcgill, Tzimtzum, and Orthodox ‘apophatic theology’ might relate to one another and this concept of God withdrawing God’s presence from an individual (or people). Seems I recall the Jesuits teaching something like evil being that part of the apple the worm has eaten. Blessings, Daniel.

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink
  19. Bruce wrote:

    I think this is a distinction without a difference. I can asphixiate someone by strangling him or her or I can slowly remove the oxygen from the room. The first way is superficially “more violent” but I think the second way could be considered even more cruel.

    And is it really true that God has no responsibility for us?

    I think Herbert McCabe does a much better job at thinking through this in his chapter, “Evil,” in God Matters.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    Actually I think the whole point is quite McCabian. All of this turns on the fact that God is not an existent alongside other existents.

    Its seems to me rather dangerous and presumptuous to assume that God somehow owes it to us to do whatever we want as far as our lives and flourishing are concerned, though.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 8:29 am | Permalink
  21. Sally D wrote:

    I was struck by this which chimed with an issue I’ve been thinking about today:

    “When they use force to exploit the weakness of others and by this means establish their superiority and domination over others, they are not then acting by the power of God, they are not then being vitalized by the life of God, and they are not then proceeding in accord with the will of God. In short, they belong to the realm of evil”.

    It doesn’t necessarily involve physical violence. With the best and kindest intentions, we might exploit weakness, dominate etc simply by failing to attend to the relevant power relation, by imposing our idea of what is best on people who for whatever reason (youth, lack of confidence, lack of education, poverty etc) are not able to stand up to us. Becoming what Oswald Chambers once called an Amateur Providence…

    It’s so easy to read a passage like this, think of god-awful examples like Piper with his tornado, and get all complacent. But how many times have *I* taken my orders from the “realm of Evil” whilst still fondly imagining that I’m doing God’s work and helping people, giving what I think is good advice, rescuing them from themselves – the list could go on but it’s too depressing. Pastors, teachers, therapists, counsellors, social workers: this warning is for us.

    Friday, September 4, 2009 at 10:01 am | Permalink

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