The Key to Understanding God’s Relationship with the World Now

The Key to Understanding God’s Relationship with the World Now January 5, 2016

The Key to Understanding God’s Relationship with the World Now

Today (January 5, 2016) I will be engaging in a live and recorded podcast conversation with theologians Tripp Fuller and Philip Clayton on “Homebrewed Christianity”—a web site and organization that appeals to many relatively young, disaffected postevangelicals. Some of my best students have urged both Homebrewed Christianity and me to discover each other. I am not at all averse to that and look forward to the encounter.

My assignment is to talk for approximately thirty minutes (of the ninety minute podcast) about “the most pressing question about God that has shaped your own thinking.” That’s easy to identify and less easy to explain in detail in thirty minutes or less.

The “pressing question” really has three parts: Can and does God voluntarily limit his power in relationship with the world and, if so, how far does that self-limitation extend and, is divine self-limitation possibly the key to understanding God’s goodness in the face of evil and innocent suffering?

My interest in God’s self-limitation(s) began, I think, during my seminary studies in the 1970s. Coming out of my very fundamentalist/Pentecostal upbringing and early theological education I was, to say the least, confused and curious. Like many other evangelical Christians I had been taught by my spiritual mentors that 1) “God is in control of everything,” and 2) Evil and innocent suffering result from the abuse of creaturely free will, not from God’s will or agency. When I attempted to probe the apparent contradiction between these two beliefs, my spiritual mentors turned my curious questions aside by saying “Don’t question God.” But I knew then that I wasn’t “questioning God;” I was questioning them. I received no intellectually or spiritually satisfying answers.

During my seminary studies I encounter several new ideas about God and God’s relationship with the world that opened up new avenues of thought for me as I continued to wrestle with the issue of God, evil, and innocent suffering. I knew that I was and always would be committed to God’s goodness and greatness. For me then and ever since, a God less than perfectly good or less than absolutely powerful was and is of no interest. So my quest intensified. I found some help and guidance from my seminary professors but quickly discovered they were unsure of how to solve the dilemma.

However, the best answer to the three-part question in italics above began to come into focus for me during those three seminary years as I read and studied various options in the doctrine of God. The idea of divine self-limitation, God’s voluntary restriction of his power, appeared to me first in the form of “kenotic Christology.” As part of my independent but guided research toward a master’s thesis I read widely and deeply in especially British kenoticism: P. T. Forsyth, H. R. Mackintosh, Charles Gore, Lionel Thornton et al. I knew right away that kenosis, “self-emptying,” was the key to understanding Jesus’ humanity and divinity. I also discovered that the idea is controversial among evangelical theologians.

My interest in kenotic Christology opened another door for me into thinking “kenotically” about God’s relationship with the world in general. It was more difficult to find theologians to guide my thinking in that direction that far. One I did discover and read was Geddes McGregor (He Who Lets Us Be: A New Theology of Love [1975]). Another was Emil Brunner who, in his Dogmatics, frequently appealed to God’s self-limitations as necessary to understanding God’s providence. Both of these appealed to me even as I realized there were aspects of their theologies with which, as an evangelical Christian, I could not agree.

Of course, process theology was growing in popularity in the 1970s and I stepped outside the evangelical Baptist seminary where I was studying to take an entire semester course in it at a local Lutheran college. The course was actually a seminary course by extension brought to that city by Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Students had to have baccalaureate degrees to take it for credit. My seminary graciously allowed me to take the course for credit as an elective toward my seminary degree. The teacher was Fred Fritschel, a devotee of process theology. We read and discussed, seminary style, Process Philosophy and Christian Thought edited by Delwin Brown, et al., which contained chapters by all the leading process thinkers of the time (and before), and John Cobb’s Christ in a Pluralistic Age. While I engaged process theology with as open a mind as possible, at the end of the course, I was convinced it was not an option for me. It sacrificed too much of God’s greatness. Classical Christian theism, however, was also not an option for me as it sacrifices too much of God’s goodness.

By the time I graduated from seminary and began my Ph.D. studies I was convinced that the key to reconciling God’s greatness and goodness, in the face of evil and innocent suffering, and also in relation to prayer as affecting God, must lie in the idea (or field of ideas) of God’s non-essential, voluntary self-limitation in creation itself.

During my doctoral studies I encountered the early theology of Jürgen Moltmann and especially The Crucified God. I detected that he was assuming God’s voluntary self-limitation in relation to creation. I also became interested in Wolfhart Pannenberg’s “eschatological theology” and his idea of God “historicity.” The idea that God also has a history began to appeal to me, but I was unsure how to distinguish that from process theology except by appeal to God’s self-determining kenosis in relation to creation itself (not only in the incarnation). So I kept exploring the idea (or field of ideas). I wanted to study with Moltmann in Tübingen but, by a series of events I won’t explain here, ended up studying with Pannenberg in Munich instead. But I kept reading every book Moltmann pumped out and found myself spiritually and intuitively more attracted to his general outlook than to Pannenberg’s. (At the time I was studying with him Pannenberg was, in my opinion, anyway, gradually turning in a more conservative direction under the influence of his good friend Josef Cardinal Ratzinger—then archbishop of Munich. In his lectures, which were eventually published as Volume 1 of his Systematic Theology, I failed to hear the “notes” of God’s historicity that appealed to me when I read his earlier writings. I discovered while in Munich, even in personal conversations with Pannenberg, that he wanted to distance himself from process theology.)

After completing my Ph.D. with a dissertation on “Trinity and Eschatology: The Historical Being of God in the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg” I continued my explorations in the idea (or field of ideas) of God’s voluntary self-limitation, non-essential divine kenosis in creation, historical being, etc. I increasingly found that motif being worked out by theologians. I read everything I could about it and began to attempt to discover where the idea began, with whom.

One day, I’m not sure exactly when, while browsing the theology section in a used bookstore, I found and purchased an obscure 1899 volume of essays by Baptist theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong (Christ in Creation and Ethical Monism). Strong was one of the most influential evangelical theologians of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Even when I was in seminary in the 1970s his enormous one volume Systematic Theology was being used as a textbook in some theology courses—not only in the seminary where I attended but in many. Much to my amazement and interest, even excitement, I saw in the volume an essay by Strong on “The Self-Limitations of God.” Apparently it was not a new, edgy idea; stodgy old Strong, long-time theologian at America’s oldest Baptist seminary, generally considered a conservative Calvinist (!), had explored and even embraced the idea—at least for a time. In that essay Strong advocated the notion (as a theologoumenon) that God voluntarily limits himself in relation to the world, not using his power and influence to the extent he could.

Over the years I continued my quest. Here are some of the theological guides I discovered: Strong, as already mentioned, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Geddes McGregor, Robert Jenson (his early theology), T. F. Torrance (in some of his writings), Brunner, Hendrikus Berkhof (not to be confused with Louis Berkhof), Adrio König, John Polkinghorne and some others. In all this reading and studying I was looking for a “path” between classical theism and process theology. Moltmann remained a major guide, even though I found him difficult to follow with each major book sounding new notes (I’m being nice here) that were difficult to reconcile in harmony with others previously published. (I was extremely dismayed by his Christology in The Way of Jesus Christ.)

Then came a book that “landed like a bombshell” on the playground of my theological mind: A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God by Baptist theologian E. Frank Tupper. I knew of Tupper as the person who wrote the first English language book on the theology of Pannenberg. After reading A Scandalous Providence I immediately reached out to him and we began a conversation about God’s self-limitations—a major motif in his book. Here are two quotes (paraphrased) that have stuck in my mind: “In every tragic situation God does all God can do” and “The world is arbitrary but God is not.” I also liked that Tupper used narrative theology to expound the idea of God’s self-limiting sovereignty.

Just after I read the first edition of A Scandalous Providence, which I still consider, even in its recently issued second, revised edition, the best book on God’s providence ever published, Tupper came to speak at a church near where I live. Of course I went to hear and meet him in person. Notably present, “up front and center,” was a process theologian—a retired professor of the Religion Department of the university where I teach. When I saw them together, facing each other, I thought “This should be very interesting” because I knew Tupper eschewed process theology. During the question and answer time after his lecture, which was predictably inspiring and enlightening, Tupper vocally rejected both process theology and open theism.

Tupper’s rejection of open theism surprised me as I thought it was implied in his published exposition of providence. I went away from that evening wondering if Tupper really understood open theism. At the very least it seemed that was where he was “heading.” But he didn’t think so.

When I first read Tupper’s book I loaned it to my then colleague Greg Boyd who I knew was working on a book about God’s providence that would make use of the motif of divine self-limitation. (That book was eventually published as Is God to Blame? I would put it alongside Tupper’s book as one of the two best books on God’s providence every published. But it is more popularly written than Tupper’s.) Well, needless to say, Greg was not enthusiastic—about Tupper’s book. Tupper’s rejection of divine interventionism and open theism bothered him. But I think (?) Greg’s disappointment with Tupper’s book, in spite of many similarities with his own thinking, arose also from a deeper issue—Tupper’s reliance on narrative theology. But I didn’t explore that in any detail with Greg, so I’m only guessing based on Greg’s epistemological commitments.

I urged Tupper to revise and re-publish A Scandalous Providence and he said he would. I suggested he work out some of the “kinks” in the first edition, be clearer about, for example, God’s ability to intervene in tragic situations of innocent suffering brought about by calamity and/or evil. I waited and waited. Finally, in appeared in 2013. I was disappointed that Tupper firmly rejected belief in God’s supernatural interventions. However, I remain convinced that Tupper’s general approach to providence based on God’s self-limitations is on the right track.

So what do I believe about this theological motif of God’s self-limitations in relation to the world of creation and history. Here is a bit of how I would express it. First, a basic metaphysical thesis: God can limit his power but not his love. Love is God’s essence, not just an attribute. I learned that from Moltmann and Pannenberg especially, but also from Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. This I am firmly committed to: Love is the very nature of God and God cannot limit his love. However, God can limit his power, the use of it, and God’s love controls his use of his power in relation to the “project” that constitutes creation and its history. Out of love God freely, voluntarily enters into time with us and “goes along” with us into the future, restricting his power, making “room” for us in his existence with all our freedom. God cannot intervene to stop every abuse of that freedom without destroying the project he has planned, created and entered into with us. However, there is a time limit to God’s project; he has planned and promised to bring it to a conclusion. Along the way, however, God does not always get his way (“antecedent will”) and reluctantly permits much that grieves him and is not any part of his plan (“consequent will”). “God is in charge, but not in control” because of his voluntary self-limitation.

However, in distinction from Tupper and some others who play on the same motif, I believe God does retain the power to intervene supernaturally and sometimes does so. The question is why he doesn’t when tragedy strikes the innocent and evil rears its ugly head. One clue the Bible gives is God’s “patience.” I would say, in complete agreement with my friend Greg Boyd, that God “operates,” as it were according to rules we know little to nothing about. However, as Tupper says, the world is arbitrary but God is not. When God does not intervene it is not because he literally cannot due to some essential limitation of power (panentheism) but because of rules we can only guess at and probably know almost nothing about. The other clue we are given in the Bible is prayer. Sometimes prayer can enable God to act when he could not otherwise—because of his commitment to including us in his sovereign, providential work in the world.

Every theological proposal has problems. I tell my students: When confronted with theological options and you must decide between them and all are live options in terms of revelation, reason, tradition and experience choose the one that has the problems you can live with. They all have problems. I can live with the problems of God’s self-limitations; I cannot live with the problems of classical theism, because it at the very least implies divine determinism and divine impassibility, or process theology because it omits any guarantee that God’s promises for the “end” will be fulfilled, it loses hope for the final, ultimate victory of God.

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