Chapter 13: Inklings of an Impotent God

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

Chapter 13: Inklings of an Impotent God

We have entertained responses to traditional Christian theism that proclaim the liberating death of such a deity, or at least the death of the supreme masculinity of that God. These are one way to challenge the hammerlock hold that divine omnipotence has held over its adherents. Another path was also available, taken by some, that endeavored to strike down the very notion of God’s unlimited power itself, opting instead for a perception of the divine that its critics would disparage as an apparently impotent God. That option is now to be examined here.

This chapter proceeds by reversing the usual order of progression. I begin not with the earlier manifestations of proposals that solve the love/power riddle by negating divine omnipotence, thence to move forward in time. Rather I start with the 1981 publication of a book by an American Jewish rabbi that rocked the sensibilities of Christian pastors across the U.S. and initiated an exciting new dialogue on the problem— in traditional Jewish and Christian thought—of theodicy, and then look back at other earlier contributions along a similar track, concerning a possibly limited God.



Adam Kushner was born with a rare genetic disorder called “progeria,” which causes rapid aging. Adam died at the age of fourteen, looking like a wizened old man. His father, Rabbi Harold Kushner (b. 1935), agonized over his son’s innocent suffering and fate, and wound up dealing with it by writing a bestseller that, at first, no publishing house wanted. He called it When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981).

Kushner drew on the sufferings of Job and the Holocaust, as well as his own family’s suffering, in trying to make sense out of the senseless. He recognized that the Genesis story of creation emphasizes the emergence of order out of chaos and saw that as a process that is still underway.1 So where is God in the unresolved chaos still rearing its ugly head in creation?

He came to recognize that “Christianity introduced the world to the idea of a God who suffers,” and went on to confess that “I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily that I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reasion.”2

So Kushner refused to accept the idea that God causes human misfortune: “tragedy is not God’s will.”3 But “If God does not cause the bad things that happen to good people, and if He cannot prevent them, what good is He at all? . . . How does God make a difference in our lives if He neither kills nor cures?”4 Kushner’s answer: “God inspires people to help other people who have been hurt in life . . . God, who neither causes nor prevents tragedies, helps by inspiring people to help.”5 “God may not prevent the calamity, but He gives us the strength and the perseverance to overcome it.”6

In short, Kushner found himself on the horns of a dilemma. Either God has power over our misfortunes and chooses not to prevent them, or God cares about us in our misfortunes but is powerless to prevent them. His stance affirms the view of Archibald MacLeish in J.B., that there is no justice, only love.7 In the end, out of love, we are called to forgive God for not being perfect!8

This hearkens back to the late medieval discussion about the duality of God’s absolute power and God’s ordained power. The latter assures [165] that the world flows forward according to God’s immutable laws concerning the proper order of things. The former provides the option that God’s “power in reserve” is perfectly capable of overturning one or another of those laws whenever and however God so chooses. This is the distinction that allows for so-called “miracles.” It also stands behind the understanding of an “interventionist” God who may upset the normal order by contravening what would otherwise naturally happen. Prayer to God often takes the form of pleading with God to intervene in the natural course of events and alter the outcome. Rabbi Kushner’s pleas went unanswered. Adam died. The Holocaust and many other horrendous calamities in history are the cosmic extension of that, writ large.

So we have a God who has neither died nor been killed, but a God whose power is perceived to be unavailable except as an “inspiration”—the hint of an impotent God, who would not really be God at all. This way of resolving the seeming absence of God’s power in the world was hardly original with Kushner. Let us trace it back to its earlier manifestations.


Deism arose on the continent and in England toward the beginning of the Enlightenment. It does not designate a school of thought, and perspectives of the deists varied widely. The most prominent representatives of English deism were John Toland, author of Christianity not Mysterious (1696), and Matthew Tindal, whose Christianity as Old as Creation (1730) is often called the Bible of deism. It was published three years before his death; the only copy of a subsequent manuscript was burned by a bishop of the Church of England as being too hot for the faithful to handle.

Deism, generally, promoted an all-wise, all-good God who once in the deeply distant past set matters in motion and provided the laws by which the universe operates, but does nothing at all by way of interference in the natural course of the created order. Thus every notion of a providential role on God’s part is emphatically negated. Deists therefore considered God to be power-less to alter the course of natural and human events.9


In 1759, four years after the devastation of the Lisbon earthquake, the French philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) wrote his Candide, a hilarious puncturing of Leibniz’s claim that things are for the best in this best of all possible worlds. The adventures and misadventures and calamitous misfortunes of Candide and his friends convey bitingly the utter nonsense of that point of view. Even the philosopher Pangloss comes to the realization that he still maintains that view, “without believing it.”10 Voltaire did not present his views on God in a straightforward manner but seems to have come to the conclusion, particularly regarding the effects of the Lisbon earthquake, that he would rather worship a limited God than an evil one. James Collins concluded that:

Voltaire even speculates about whether the necessity of the divine action may not betoken some limitation upon God’s power. The divine power may be relatively supreme, in that it is not subject to any foreign agency, and yet it may also be limited in an internal way to what can be done in accordance with Newtonian mechanical laws. Thus the benevolent God can be regarded as infinite in durational existence, yet finite in power, knowledge, and presence.11

Similarly, a century later, John Stuart Mill (1806–73), in the third essay of his Three Essays on Religion (1874, posthumously), insisted that “natural theology can point only to a Creator with limited, not unlimited power.”12 He wrote of “the impossible problem of reconciling infinite benevolence and justice with infinite power in the Creator of such a world as this,”13 and concluded: “the notion of a providential government by an omnipotent Being for the good of his creatures must be entirely dismissed.”14 Only if the power of God is limited is there “nothing to disprove the supposition that his goodness is complete.”15

We have previously met Dostoyevsky’s Karamazov brothers.16 Following Ivan’s rejection of a God who is seen to be responsible for the suffering of the innocent, he goes on to narrate his tale of Jesus Christ coming again during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and promptly being thrown in prison by the aged Grand Inquisitor. The Inquisitor eventually comes to visit him in his cell, mocks him, berates him, denounces him for his failure and the failure of the ideas of love [167] and servanthood and the exaltation of human freedom that he brought. The Inquisitor understands that the church has adopted the ways of Rome and the sword of Caesar. The Prisoner remains silent throughout, answering him, at the end, only with a kiss.17 It is no less than the supplanting of power with love, poetically rendered.

And finally, the American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote in his A Pluralistic Universe (1909) that “there is a God, but . . . he is finite, either in power or in knowledge, or in both at once.”18 His explorations in this direction influenced the man we are about to meet.


Edgar Brightman (1884–1953) was an American Methodist scholar who followed in the train of Borden Parker Bowne in the philosophical school known as “Boston personalism.” His most important work relevant to this exploration was his 1930 publication entitled The Problem of God.

For Brightman, “the expansion of God into an omnipotent being” restricted God’s benevolence, even though classical theism asserted both “with equal assurance.”19 He found the traditional combination of the two to be “superficial.”20 Omnipotence is “derived predominantly from abstract thought.”21 It is not based on experience alone, whereas benevolence is more plainly rooted there. Moreover, “it is religiously much more essential that God should be good than that he should be absolutely all-powerful.”22

A God whose purpose it is to develop a society of free persons must forego some knowledge [foreknowledge] and some power if he is to attain his purpose. Expansion in either direction necessitates contraction in the other.23

Brightman’s solution was to propose a God who is limited both by Godself (that which is within God’s nature, the “The Eternally Given”), and that in relation to which God is at work and toward which God is in some respects “passive” (in contrast to God’s “active will”), i.e., the free choices of other persons.24

All of this finally leads Brightman to say that worshiping a limited God elicits “belief in a finite God.”25 Even so, he still wanted to maintain [168] that the active element in God is still in control, though it maintains that with “struggle and pain.”26 Raising motifs we are encountering throughout this exploration into the challenges to the Augustinian synthesis, Brightman recognized the vital importance of the love of God and the presence of suffering in God. “God is not simply a happy, loving Father; he is the struggle and the mysterious pain at the heart of life. He is indeed love; but a suffering love that redeems through a Cross.”27

It is far more reasonable to deny the absolute omnipotence of the power manifesting itself in the world than to deny its goodness. On our view, God is perfect in will, but not in achievement; perfect to derive good from all situations, but not in power to determine in detail what those situations will be.28

The problem with Brightman’s heroic effort to limit God’s power for the sake of being able to worship a God of supreme goodness shows its face on the final page of the book. Even after all he willingly surrendered, he still maintained at the very end that God is “the controlling power of the universe, guiding it through all struggles and delays toward an ever-enlarging value.”29 What restrains God’s omnipotence, it seems, is something given within God, something in God’s nature which necessitates God’s working out of God’s plans in relationship to creation and within time, but it still remains God who is working it out.

Because there is no fresh rendering of the meaning of power, all the expressions of limits on that divine power come to be cancelled out in the end. Justifying God as a God of well-intentioned benevolence by placing boundaries around the triumphant omnipotence of God finally collapses under the weight of its own insufficiently conceived alternative. How is a God who manifests barely an inkling of impotence even a God at all?


  1. Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 51f.
  2. Ibid., 134.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 138f.
  5. Ibid., 139f.
  6. Ibid., 141.
  7. Ibid., 145, referencing MacLeish, J. B., 151.
  8. 8. Ibid., 148.
  9. The deists were influential well beyond the theological arena by virtue of the fact that a large number of this country’s Founding Fathers were Deists, whether closeted or openly. Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths were deistic ones: The pursuit of happiness is understood to be what God intended for humans from the creation, in contrast to traditional Christianity’s understanding of the pre-eminent importance of glorifying God.
  10. Voltaire, Candide, tr. Lowell Bair (New York: Bantam Books, 1959), 117.
  11. James Collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1959), 148.
  12. John Stuart Mill, Three Essays on Religion (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1874)
  13. Ibid., 186f.
  14. Ibid., 243.
  15. Ibid., 252.
  16. See above, ch. 11.
  17. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 292–314.
  18. William James, A Pluralistic Universe (New York : Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909), 311.
  19. Edgar Sheffield Brightman, The Problem of God (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1930), 96.
  20. Ibid., 97.
  21. Ibid., 98.
  22. Ibid., emphasis mine.
  23. Ibid., 102. This is the choice that must be made, I insist, when one does not reconceive the nature of power whenever that power is wielded [170] and defined by love.
  24. Ibid., 113, 124, 127.
  25. Ibid., 127, emphasis mine.
  26. Ibid., 135.
  27. Ibid., 137, emphasis mine.
  28. Ibid., emphasis mine.
  29. Ibid., 193, emphasis mine. In regard to God’s eventual conquering of evil, Brightman wrote, God “may delay, but he cannot fail” (122).