Chapter 2: Witness to a Living God: The New Testament

God of Empowering Love: A History and Reconception of the Theodicy Conundrum
by David P. Polk

Chapter 2: Witness to a Living God: The New Testament

The writers of the New Testament followed the precedent of the Greek translators of the Old Testament some 250 years earlier. “In classical Greek the meaning for agape was broad,” Bernard Brady reminds us. It “was used to suggest a variety of loves, such as affection, fondness, and contentedness. The translators [of the Septuagint] probably chose this term because its use was less common and its meaning more unspecified than either philia or eros. The irony here is that a classic Greek word with a relatively unspecified meaning becomes the most well-known Greek word in the Christian vocabulary.”1

It is not possible simply to collate hesed and agape into a single understanding, even though they are closely interrelated—and even though the New Testament language of agape clearly owes more to the meanings of love in the Old Testament than to the ordinary meanings of the word in the Hellenistic environment. Much of what is said about God’s agape is consistent with the Old Testament notion of God’s hesed, even as we notice that the scope of the covenant has been radically altered and expanded, with a new basis in the work and words of Jesus. And what we have uncovered in the depictions of God’s hesed is given significantly new dimensions in reflecting on the role of the crucifixion in comprehending [27] God’s power and love—no longer just a basis for power “to the weak,” as we will see, but now a focus on power in weakness itself.

New Testament language for “power” is less anthropomorphic than what we have previously encountered. The “mighty hand” of God recedes into the background. The Greek word most commonly used to denote power is dunamis, from which the English word “dynamic” is derived. The dunamis of the “Most High” coming upon Mary generates her conception of Jesus (Lk 1:35). Jesus challenges the Sadducees that they know neither the scriptures nor the dunamis of God (Mt 22:29). The disciples are bidden by their risen Lord to remain in Jerusalem until they are clothed with dunamis “from on high” (Lk 24:49). Paul states that believers live in the dunamis of God (2 Cor 6:7; 13:3). And in Mt 26:64, dunamis is even identified as synonymous with God: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power.”2

The second term, exousia, is slightly ambiguous, bearing the meaning both of power and of authority. Whoever receives Jesus receives from him the exousia to become his child (Jn 1:12), i.e., both the authority to be such but also the power so to live. Jesus granted his twelve disciples the power/authority, exousia, to “cast out demons” (Mk 13:15).

The conjunction of divine power and divine love that we saw emerging in the Old Testament witness comes to fruition in the New. Constants in the manner in which God is perceived in the Old are, according to Fretheim, “unsurpassably exemplified” in the New, and specifically “in the life and death of Jesus Christ.”3 Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), reflecting the glory of God and bearing the very stamp of God’s nature (Heb. 1:3), having become Emmanuel, God With Us (Mt. 1:23). In his uncompromised transparency to God’s will, Jesus becomes the embodiment of that which was lost to humankind in the fall from innocence. Jesus is the imago Dei uncorrupted, so that John’s Gospel can insist that, for Jesus, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9).4 In light of this realization, three provocatively new foci will occupy our immediate attention: the proclamation of the impending arrival of the basileia tou theou; the significance of the crucifixion (and resurrection) of Jesus for understanding the nature of divine power; and the Johannine conviction that love characterizes the very essence of God.

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THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF GOD’S INBREAKING REIGN

A significant element in the background to the Gospel accounts of Jesus is the tradition of apocalyptic literature in which God has come to be viewed as temporarily absent from the current flow of history. The prevailing Synoptic Gospel focus in Jesus’ teaching5 on the inbreaking of God’s powerful and empowering reign on earth cannot be fully understood without this conceptual backdrop. Jesus shatters this theme of divine withdrawal with both a message and a lifestyle that proclaims God’s intimate nearness6 and participates in a “prolepsis”7 of what is yet to come in fullness: The outcast is brought back into the fold, the physically impaired are made whole, the eschatological banquet of inclusivity is experienced here and now.8 And yet, these are only foretastes.

Luke echoes Hannah’s prayer in his recounting of Mary’s song of praise, the “Magnificat,” but with significant new nuances. Hannah had observed that “the LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts” (1 Sam. 2:7). Mary makes the reversal of exalted and lowly, powerful and powerless, far more explicit:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Lk 1:52–53)

It is as much promise as past fact, and its scope is far wider than what Mary is experiencing about her own radically reversed situation.

This reversal is at the heart of her son Jesus’ ministry. His parables frequently end with a “punch line” that presents a challenge to conventional expectation: the scorned Samaritan is the “good” one who proves neighbor to the victim on the Jericho Road; those who come to work late at the harvest are provided the same reward as those who toiled all day; the wayward prodigal son is the one who is feasted; the prayer of a repentant sinner is more acceptable to God than that of a righteous Pharisee.9 Shorter sayings make the same point: A camel could pass through a needle’s eye more easily than a person of great wealth can enter into God’s inbreaking realm (Mt 19:24).

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The Synoptic Jesus’ focus on the urgency of human readiness to receive God’s promised basileia on earth is a subject of much scholarly debate regarding the tension between the signs of its arrival—the blind see, the crippled walk, as proleptic manifestations of Jesus’ mediation of God’s rule here and now—and the promise of a fullness of that reign yet to be consummated. In my perspective, it is not all that complicated. It is a matter of both/and, not either/or. In Jesus’ message and activity, God’s powerful and empowering reign of love is already making itself felt, but only in the midst of ongoing conflict between God’s power of love and the forces of chaos widely at work to thwart it. On the one hand, Luke can present Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth as proclaiming Isaiah’s prophecy of release to captives, liberation of the oppressed, recovery of sight, as already fulfilled in him (Lk 4: 16–21). But, on the other hand, Mark’s Jesus maintains that some within his hearing will still be alive in the near future when the basileia arrives en dunamei, “with power” (Mk 9:1), a promise unsurprisingly not repeated in the somewhat later texts of Matthew and Luke.

I have resisted using the English word “kingdom” here. I do not regard that as an adequate term for doing justice to the full meaning of basileia. I prefer to use “reign” or even “realm” because I believe they more fully embody the basic thrust of Jesus’ teaching. If the power as well as the presence of God has been seen to be missing from the ongoing historical drama in the apocalyptic writings, there is now a concentration on this reclaimed power and presence in a strikingly novel way. It is elusive. It cannot be pinned down. It can be “lived out” symbolically in Jesus’ activity in feasting with sinners, and in repudiating conventional emphases on earthly power (e.g., Jn 14:30). But it does not hold full sway. That remains but a promise. And, as we will see, Jesus’ fate threatens to cancel out the validity of the promise.

Specifically, I consider it fully appropriate to characterize this inbreaking manifestation of God’s power as an offer, embodied in Jesus, of the possibility that the love of God can be received in an empowering way by those open to it. It is the conjoining of power and hesed once again, but now in the form of an invitation to participate in God’s reign of love by saying “yes” to it and being empowered to live “as if ” that [30] reign were all-in-all even though it is not.10 Love is what is expected of the recipients of God’s offer: loving one another as a new covenantal commandment (Jn 13:34), love that is so embracing that it even includes one’s enemies (Mt 5:43–44).11

POWER IN WEAKNESS

And the promise of the arrival of God’s reign of empowering love all comes crashing down, so it would appear, in Jesus’ ignominious and seemingly impotent fate. He dies the death of an enemy of the state, horribly crucified at the hands of the occupying Romans.

The vital importance of the New Testament witness about Jesus’ resurrection is an insistence that the work of destruction does not have the final word. God overtrumps the opposition. I cannot presume, as so many theologians do, to be able to read God’s mind and insist that the cross was God’s plan all along. In fact, I refuse to endorse a doctrine of divine child abuse. An early instance of the church’s attempt to make sense of all this was to set forth a striking contrast of powers at work: Peter twice offers testimony in Acts that “they put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day” (10:39–40, emphasis mine; see also 5:30). Powers of control act; God counteracts.

Attention must be paid to the telling reversal of ordinary concepts of power that Paul presents in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Daniel Migliore has expressed this very cogently:

Among the New Testament writers, it is Paul who ponders most deeply the way in which Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection redefine the power of God. Paul knows well and takes with utmost seriousness the violent powers of this world. . . . In the light of the cross of Christ, however, Paul declares an even greater power. God has shown his power in a completely unexpected form. This man Jesus, crucified in weakness, is the Lord. What to human eyes is shameful, weak, and ineffective is God’s own glory and strength. In a startling phrase, Paul proclaims ‘God’s weakness’ (1 Cor. 1:25). This is an unprecedented way of speaking of the power of God, and it yields a highly paradoxical account of true power.”12

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The key texts are these: For those who are being saved, the cross is “the power of God” (1:18). Jesus Christ himself is both “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24). And most critically of all, “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1:25). This is echoed later in the second letter to Corinth in Paul’s remark that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

I am disappointed in most critical exegetical work on these passages that tends to gloss over the revolutionary character of Paul’s insight. One exception is Victor Furnish’s claim that “for Paul the saving power of God revealed in the cross is the power of God’s self-giving love (cf. 2 Cor. 5.14; Rom. 5:8),” and that “in proclaiming that the cross is the place of God’s definitive self-disclosure he [Paul] has identified the power that is proper to God’s own being as the saving power of love.”13 That is, at least, a good start.

Finally, in this section, one further Gospel text merits comment. On Golgotha the leaders mocked the dying Jesus, taunting him: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one” (Lk 23:35). But that is precisely the nature of the point being made here. The power of God flowing through Jesus is not something to be turned inward upon his own assurance of well-being. As Migliore has noted, “the conception of power held by those who mock Jesus is exactly the bondage from which he wants to set them free.”14 God has surrendered the illusion of over-powering control. We are still learning so to do.

“GOD IS LOVE”

John’s Gospel is the one that highlights most extensively the character of God as love. It is the entire world that God loves that is understood to motivate God’s having given to the world “his only Son” (3:16). “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (15:9), Jesus tells his disciples. The prayer of Jesus in the Upper Room culminates in a drumbeat of repetitions concerning “the love with which you [God] have loved me” (17:26; cf. 23–25). The Father not only loves others by loving the Father’s Son, but also directly “loves you” (16:27), i.e., the disciples, the ones who abide in Jesus’ love.

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The high point of this uniting of God and God’s love comes in the first epistle attributed to John, specifically in the pronouncement in the fourth chapter that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16, emphasis mine). Indeed, the identity between God and love is so strong that John can maintain that we only have a capacity to love because of a sense of having first been loved by God (4:19). Love, in John’s understanding, is original with God, derivative with us.

I have encountered no stronger advocate of the importance of these statements than C. H. Dodd, who insisted in light of 1 John that the Gospel is the proclamation “of God himself as love.”15 He concluded that:

to say “God is love” implies that all His activity is loving activity. If he creates, He creates in love; if He rules, He rules in love; if He judges, He judges in love. All that He does is the expression of His nature, which is—to love. The theological consequences of this principle are far-reaching.”16

I find Dodd persuasive on this point. To pass over this witness as irrelevant for theology is highly suspect, although much of the history of Christian theology betrays just this oversight.

I wish to wrap up this section by returning once again to Paul, and specifically to the tantalizing depiction in 1 Corinthians 13 of what love is and how love operates. Among other things, love is patient. Love “rejoices in the truth.” Love “endures all things.” And perhaps most importantly of all, love “does not insist on its own way” (13:4, 6, 7, 5).17 This last proposition cannot be overlooked. If, indeed, God is love and God’s power is characterized above all by being a power of love, then we can begin to discern that God does not insist on God’s own way! That is not how God’s power operates. It can only be seen as invitational, not impositional; offering, not controlling; undergirding, not dominating; and finally, empowering, not overpowering.

How well did the church, over the centuries, maintain this key element of the biblical witness to a living, loving, empowering God? As we shall see, not well at all.

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ENDNOTES

  1. Bernard Brady, Christian Love (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003), 54. Brady points out that agape along with its other forms occurs 341 times in the New Testament, in every single book, philia seldom, eros not at all. But he is mistaken on one key point: The translators of the Septuagint more often chose the Greek word eleos, “mercy,” not agape, for the rendering of hesed. Having said that, it is also true that most New Testament uses of agape reflect hesed more than they reflect the other Old Testament words for love, such as the verb ‘ahav and the noun ‘ahavah. (From an email to the author from Jon Berquist, 2 Feb. 2012.)
  2. Mk 14:62: “the Power.” Lk 22:69 spells it out in full: “the power of God.”
  3. Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 5.
  4. Pannenberg insists as a theologian that “as Christians we know God only as he has been revealed in and through Jesus. All other talk about God can have, at most, provisional significance,” and “if God is revealed through Jesus Christ, then who or what God is becomes defined only through the Christ event.” Jesus—God and Man, tr. Lewis L. Wilkens and Duane Priebe (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968), 19, 140. I contend that this is a perspective worthy of continuous attention as these investigations proceed. It is often lost sight of, even by those who promote it.
  5. No attempt is intended here to establish a “historical Jesus” behind the church’s telling of the Jesus story in the New Testament texts. My concern at this juncture is with the biblical witness itself, as crucial springboard for—and basis for judgment of—subsequent developments in the church’s theologizing.
  6. Consider the centrality of Jesus’ address of God as “Father,” as in the Lord’s Prayer, Mt 6:9. In Mk 16:34, when Jesus is praying in Gethsemane, the original Aramaic term, abba, is kept in the Greek text. And abba is a child’s way of addressing a father, as intimate as the English word “daddy.”
  7. A prolepsis is a sort of “happening in advance.” For both Pannenberg and Moltmann, as we will encounter later, it is a “breaking in” of God’s future into our present.
  8. For a more extended analysis of the apocalyptic context of Jesus’ [34] relationship to the basileia, see my On the Way to God: An Exploration into the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1989), 187–96, 215–20.
  9. See Lk 10:29–37; Mt 20:1–15; Lk 15:11–32; Mt 18:9–14.
  10. Walter Wink writes of the future of God’s reign as an invitation to live in God’s “domination-free order” in contrast to the “domination system” to which we fallen mortals are typically in thrall, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 46f.
  11. George Johnston noted in his IDB article on “Love in the NT” that in the Synoptics, Jesus never explicitly states that God loves. But the implication of that is widely discernible. Jesus’ observation that God cares for the lowly sparrow and that the very hairs on our head are numbered (Lk 12:6-7) “is not quaint, poetic hyperbole so much as a tender declaration of the universal and intimate character of the divine love as Jesus knew it.” Vol. K–Q:169.
  12. Migliore, The Power of God and the gods of Power, 53, ital. orig.
  13. Victor Furnish, The Theology of the First Letter to the Corinthians (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 74, 118. See also Hans-Ruedi Weber, in Power: “The scandal, weakness and folly of the cross turn upside down all the traditional concepts of wisdom and power,” constituting a “radical reinterpretation of what true wisdom and power are” (85, 86).
  14. Migliore, The Power of God and the gods of Power, 52.
  15. C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles (The Moffatt New Testament Commentary, vol. 14) (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1946), 112.
  16. Dodd, 110, ital. orig. See also 109, 116.
  17. Furnish writes of this chapter: “the agape Paul commends in chapter 13 is nothing else than the enduring reality of God’s own love, which the apostle understands to be revealed in the cross as God’s saving power. For the apostle, this love is the reality that is proper to God’s own being, and therefore an eschatological power that belongs to an order of reality which is utterly different from the passing realities of this present age” (103).