“It is one of the tragedies—one could say crimes—of Christian theological history that the Old Testament was effectively displace by Greek philosophy as the theological basis of the doctrine of God.” These are the opening words of Colin Gunton’s book, Act and Being, on the attributes of God, which was his last book before he died in 2003. I don’t have the time to review it now, but let me mention just one thought on omnipotence to demonstrate his approach to the attributes, which is orthodox, yet fresh and full of wisdom and practical application.
According to Gunton, “We are in the grip of an entrenched tradition that owes more to Greece than to scripture” (p.52), and in such a tradition omnipotence becomes defined simply as the capacity to do everything, rather than the manner in which things are done. Gunton does not disagree with the classic definition of omnipotence as found in Aquinas, but points out that Barth made the point that in the light of the incarnation we must be cautious of any deification of power in and of itself. According to the New Testament divine omnipotence is now controlled, or perhaps we should say mediated, by the doctrine of the incarnation. (p.100)
And this is not a 20th century novelty, Gregory of Nyssa boldly said that the incarnation of the divine Word was a manifestation of the nature of God’s omnipotence. In other words, God’s way of being omnipotent is demonstrated in Christ. And to this we must add that “the omnipotence of which the [ancient] creed speaks is the omnipotence of God the Father. A God who reveals his omnipotence through the mediation of the Son. A Father who reveals his omnipotence in accordance with the remaining content of the creed.”—which radically reconfigures our traditional understanding of the nature of power.(p.101)
Gunton is not of course implying that God lacks any horsepower, that he is the impotent God of process theology. He in no way abandoning the orthodoxy of Aquinas, but simply pointing out that we have failed to take seriously Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 1:24 that Christ is the power of God. Omnipotence, once divested from a tradition that owes more to Greece than to scripture becomes more than simply God’s capacity to do anything, but rather the manner in which he chooses to do things.
And since the incarnation the Fathers actions are mediated by the Son and his power is now cruciform in shape.
Because Jesus is the eternal Son of God his acts, including the laying down of his life, are the humanly mediated acts of God the Father. This then become the template by which we can understand how God chooses to exercise his omnipotence in the world, which is why “Paul claims in 1 Corinthians 1:24 that the crucified Christ is the power…of God the Father…in action.” (p.153)
But if God’s way of being omnipotent is demonstrated in Christ, then it is a very different omnipotence than most of us are familiar with (hence Gunton’s assertion that we have been subverted by Greek philosophical constructs). And this might begin to explain a lot about our bewilderment concerning what God does, or, more to the point, what God does not do, in exercising his power in the world. The issue of suffering is to many people one that revolves around God’s ability or willingness to exercise his power in the world.
When we hear talk concerning “why doesn’t God do something?”, “why doesn’t he act?” why is my prayer not answered?” these are all questions revolve around the exercise of his power into the world, and perhaps, more specifically, into people’s own personal situations.
But if Gunton is right about the nature of God’s omnipotence, the answer could be that God is indeed acting, he is exercising his power, but we are not recognizing it because the shape of his activity is cruciform. If the life of the crucified Christ is now the template by which God chooses to exercise his power in the world then his omnipotence might be in action empowering me to sacrifice, to suffer, to lay down my life only I’m not recognizing it because its shape is cruciform.
One final thought. If we pray in the name of Jesus we are not only invoking the authority of Jesus in prayer, we are also asking that our prayers be shaped in conformity to who Jesus is. To pray in Jesus’ name is to ask the Father to take our prayer, with all its limitations and mixed motivations, and hammer it into conformity to whom Jesus is.
Paul says in Colossians “whatever you do, do in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Col 3:17) He wants the name of Jesus to shape all our actions. And in a similar way we want the name of Jesus to shape all our prayers. That is why we pray in the name of Jesus—we want a Jesus shaped prayer presented to the Father.
But if Gunton is right, God could be answering many more prayers than we realize, but they are arriving in a shape that we don’t recognize because we have forgotten that God’s way of being omnipotent is now demonstrated in the crucified Christ. Our prayer reached the throne as promised, but because it was prayed in Jesus’ name it was shaped into conformity to who Jesus is. And when the answer came, the self-seeking was answered by the opportunity to sacrifice, the chance to advance my career by the opportunity to lay down my life. And the prayer was answered in such a cruciform shape that I failed to even recognize it as an answer to prayer.
So when Christian theology was subverted by Greek philosophy even basic attributes like omnipotence did not escape, and the practical implications are still with us today.
Well, all I have done is try and unpack three pages of Gunton’s Act and Being. It’s only 158 pages, but worthy indeed of being his last book.