Is God’s Power Intrinsically Oppressive?

Is God’s Power Intrinsically Oppressive? January 20, 2020


The Southern Baptists in convention recently approved a resolution that advocated “critical race theory and intersectionality . . . as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture.”  This has sparked a controversy within that church body that raises some significant theological questions.  For example, if power and privilege are always oppressive, what does that do to how people see God, who exercises almighty power and is at the top of every hierarchy of privilege?

In terms of the Baptist resolution, “critical theory,” whether applied to race or gender or LGBTQ issues, analyzes just about every issue in terms of power and privilege and how groups that have them oppress those who do not.  “Intersectionality” has to do with classifying the different identities a person has–some of which might be privileged and some might be oppressed–and encouraging  members of different oppressed groups to ally with each other.

That resolution recommending this way of thinking has stirred up a hornets’ nest in Baptist circles.  Now a documentary video entitled By What Standard has been released that addresses this controversy by making the case that “critical theory” is incompatible with Christianity.

My former student and fellow Lutheran Patheos blogger John Ehrett has written an informative and insightful post entitled The Southern Baptist Breakdown, in which he discusses the issues and reviews the film.  Basically, he says that he agrees with the basic conclusions of the film, but finds that it fails to truly do justice to the issues.

In the course of his discussion, John raises an issue of great importance:

In developed form, the genealogical approach argues that traditional Christian moral claims are illegitimate—whether or not God exists—because of the fundamental inequality in power between God and human beings and the apparent arbitrariness of God’s commands (shades of Milton’s Paradise Lost here).

If power is intrinsically oppressive, then God’s power over us–which is supreme and unlimited–must be intrinsically oppressive!  I have come across this mindset but had not connected it to critical theory.  Apologists and evangelists need to be aware that this is how many postmodernists think of God.  The issue is not just whether or not God exists.  Even if God exists, according to this sensibility, He should not be worshipped.  Rather, since His authority–indeed, all authority–is nothing more than a mask for power and since the exercise of power is always oppressive, God must always be rebelled against.

John says that the video By What Standard fails to deal with this issue, which it really needs to do if it is to answer the problems of critical theory (which he calls “the genealogical approach”).  Instead, it falls back on the Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty.  In the words of the film’s subtitle, “God’s world. . .God’s rules.”  There is truth to that, but much more must be said in order to defend Biblical orthodoxy and to answer the critical theorists’ objections.  John writes:

Classically speaking, though, “sovereignty” is only half the story: the Church has traditionally taught that God’s infinite power is not unintelligible or irrational power. The creative power exercised by God—by which every finite thing exists and flourishes according to its kind—is of a fundamentally different metaphysical order than the derivative power exercised by one human over another. Only the latter, more nuanced view of God’s sovereignty offers a genuinely satisfying rejoinder to the premise underlying the genealogical approach—that unequal exercises of power are intrinsically oppressive by nature. The classical view asserts, over against the genealogical approach, that (1) all kinds of power are not alike, and (2) because God’s power to create things is also the power by which created things flourish, all exercises of derivative power are not irrational; temporal power ordering things toward their proper flourishing is inherently liberating.

I would add that Christianity–which has a different conception of God than Islam, Judaism, or Deism–further teaches that in order to save and liberate us, God, the Second Person of the Trinity, divested Himself of His privilege and His power:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 1:5-8)

See Luther’s distinction between the Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory,  as explained by Carl Trueman:

When theologians of glory read about divine power in the Bible, or use the term in their own theology, they assume that it is analogous to human power. They suppose that they can arrive at an understanding of divine power by magnifying to an infinite degree the most powerful thing of which they can think. In light of the cross, however, this understanding of divine power is the very opposite of what divine power is all about. Divine power is revealed in the weakness of the cross, for it is in his apparent defeat at the hands of evil powers and corrupt earthly authorities that Jesus shows his divine power in the conquest of death and of all the powers of evil. So when a Christian talks about divine power, or even about church or Christian power, it is to be conceived of in terms of the cross—power hidden in the form of weakness.


Illustration:  Crucifixion of Christ, detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece (1516) by Matthias Grunewald [Public Domain]

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