God's Omnipotence: Part 2, The Hyperkenoticists

We continue this series looking at Katherine Sonderegger's treatment of omnipotence in Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God.

In the last post we raised the question posed by Sonderegger: "Must God renounce power in order to be good?"

Again, this is a uniquely modern question, posed because of our our concerns about evil and suffering ("How could an all-powerful God allow horrors like the Holocaust?") and how power is involved in systems of domination and oppression.

Because of these worries, as Sonderegger surveys, modern, post-WW2 theology has tended to approach divine power through the lens of kenosis. Divine power is viewed through Christology and a theology of the cross.

This kenotic move is everywhere in modern theology. From Moltmann to process theology. Even Barth. You're likely familiar with the general move: In Jesus God empties (kenosis) Himself of power. On the cross divine power is revealed to be love. God's power is the "weakness" of self-giving, self-sacrifice, and self-offering. God's power is cruciform.

Sonderegger coins a word to describe extreme versions of these "theologies of weakness": Such theologies are hyperkenoticist. Specifically, to solve our problems with divine omnipotence these theologies completely fold power into love. God's "power" simply is God's self-giving love, and love doesn't force, bully, boss, or coerce. Love isn't control or force but presence and solidarity. Bonhoeffer famously expressed a hyperkenotic view of God's power in his letters from prison:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. 
The theological "win" of a hyperkenotic theology is that it offers answers to our questions about divine power. For example, the hyperkenoticists argue that God isn't an All-Powerful Potentate, ruling the world from the top-down. To borrow from Thomas Oord, God didn't stop the Holocaust because "God can't," God's power simply doesn't "work" like that. God's power isn't force or the "omnicontrol" of the universe. God's power is relational and non-coercive--love, presence, solidarity, and self-donation. Process theologians make a similar move by contending that God is immanent rather than transcendent. That is, God's power isn't a transcendent power "above" or "over" creation, but an immanent power "within" creation, a power that has to work with us relationally. This relational view of God's power, for the process theologian, saves us from the keen pressures of theodicy. Again, God can't stop the Holocuast, because God's power doesn't work like that. As love, however, God is always "with us," wooing, mending, nurturing, supporting, caring, refreshing, and calling us.

Beyond theodicy, hyperkenotic theologies also help us push against visions of power that support or give warrant to domination and exploitation. If the Crucified God reveals to us that divine power is self-donation and solidarity with victims, then we can use the cross as a weapon of prophetic rebuke toward systems of oppression.

While there are tons of variations on this theme, and painting with a very broad brush, we can summarize by saying that hyperkenotic theologies solve the problems of divine power by folding God's power into God's goodness. The solution to the problems of divine power is simply to say that God's power is love.

And this is, as regular readers know, how I've solved the problems of divine power. I've been a proud hyperkenoticist. And yet, I picked up Sonderegger because she pushes back against the hyperkenoticists, and attempts to reclaim a robust vision of God's omnipotence while addressing the problems that worry hyperkenoticists like myself. As Sonderegger asks and answers:
But we must ask, Can the God who merely suffers empathetically with His sorry world--however nobly or creatively--indeed be the Reality we call God?...'God is present with us in our suffering,' we often hear, from pulpit and alongside the sickbed. Indeed Christians cannot but testify to the Lord's graceful and glorious Presence in all our afflictions. But God is not simply a Beacon, though He is that in a dangerous sea; not a radiant Light only, though He is to be sure all that in the darkened world; not a benevolent Presence and Solace only; but rather as Holy Scripture says, a very present Help in times of trouble, a Defender and Judge and Conqueror. The Lord God is an Agent and a Force: holy Power in its fullness. He does not merely see, but also brings about; does not merely hear, but speaks in royal Judgment; is not merely a powerful Agent but is rather Power itself...All at once and in all eternity, He is this, the Lord.
Sonderegger thinks the hyperkenoticists go wrong because they collapse all of theology into Christology. Sonderegger pushes back by declaring, "not all is Christology!" Taking aim at theologians like Jürgen Moltmann in his Crucified God, we must, says Sonderegger, "simply, quietly, but firmly, say no; no, to such radical cruciformity in the doctrine of God...[as] Christology cannot be the sole measure, ground, and matter of the doctrine of God..."

That's pretty big pushback for a hyperkenoticist like myself, a person who tends to look at God from a strongly (even exclusively) Christological perspective. So why is Sonderegger throwing down the gauntlet like this?

Three of her big concerns are Scripture, Trinity, and definitions.

First, Scripturally it's hard to do justice to the pictures of God's power we find in the pages of the Bible. The Ten Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and most especially, the resurrection of Jesus. These aren't just evidences of love, they are manifestations of power.

Second, from a Trinitarian perspective, when our view of God focuses exclusively upon Christology, as vital as that is, our theology becomes unbalanced. Plus, as Sonderegger points out, a hyperkenotic Christology ignores Jesus's own acts of power in the gospels. Jesus doesn't just empathize with people, he heals them, power flows out of him. Jesus also calms storms and multiplies loaves and fishes. Jesus loves, yes, but he also has power. And yes, the Son dies in solidarity with victims on the cross, but the Father raises the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, thereby defeating the powers of sin and death.

Lastly, Sonderegger raises a point about definitions. Specifically, hyperkenoticists solve the problem of power by redefining power as love. Change your definition of power and--Voilà!--problem solved. But power and love, Sonderegger pushes back, are two separate and distinct attributes of God. You can't solve theological problems by defining them out of existence. That's cheating. We need to say something positive about God's omnipotence separate and apart from what we claim about God's love. As Sonderegger says, as tempting as it might be, in our theological discussions of omnipotence "Goodness and Power cannot be identical."

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