Chapter 14: Breakthroughs to a Loving God

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

Chapter 14: Breakthroughs to a Loving God

Themes that have been surfacing in the myriad of challenges to the Augustinian synthesis known as Christian theism overlap and interlock. The mystics’ deity was more fully identified by love than by power. A God not hemmed in by a doctrine of immutability becomes open to the adventure of divine love. A God who is not apathetic is a God who suffers in love. The God beyond patriarchy is a God for whom love is at the center of the divine identity.

Thus we come to a focus that has already occupied a major amount of attention throughout these previous chapters but now becomes the direct object of our present concern. We come to a century and a half and more of rekindled and illuminating contributions to a God whose love can no longer be sacrificed on the altar of God’s overwhelming power.

Reaching back into the eighteenth century, we encounter John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who wrote in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, regarding 1 John 4:8: “God is often styled holy, righteous, wise, but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract as he is said to be love: intimating that this is . . . his reigning attribute.”1 So could his brother Charles sing of “love divine, all loves excelling,” and of Jesus, “thou art all compassion; pure, unbounded love [172] thou art.”2 And early in the nineteenth century, the Scottish American churchman Alexander Campbell wrote in his The Christian System (1839), “God and Love [are] two names for one idea.”3

The grand principle, or means which God has adopted for the accomplishment of this moral regeneration, is the full demonstration and proof of a single proposition addressed to the reason of man. This sublime proposition is THAT GOD IS LOVE.4

For Campbell, “it is in the person and mission of the INCARNATE WORD that we learn that God is love.”5

In addition, Frederick W. Faber, an Anglican turned Roman Catholic, a theologian and hymn writer who composed “Faith of Our Fathers” and “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” observed in 1857 in his The Creator and the Creature: “Love is tantamount to the whole of God, and is co-extensive with him . . . Love is the perfection of the Uncreated in Himself.”6

These were the forerunners, along with other voices we have already been listening to. Let us now give more extended attention to their conceptual companions, the number of whose voices worthy of being heard is sizeable indeed. I have tried to bring order into this array of insightful scholarship by grouping them according to certain predominant themes, even though they merit attention each in their own right—and some prominently so.


D. Z. Phillips asked perceptively, “What if religion means what it says, that God is love, no more and no less? It would follow that God does not have two separate attributes, power and love, but that the only power God has or is, is the power of love.”7 Richard Garnett “the Younger,” “Keeper of Printed Books” in the library of the British Museum where he toiled for forty-five years, engagingly announced at the beginning of his De Flagello Myrteo (1905) that “Love is God’s essence; Power but his attribute; therefore is his love greater than his power.”8 And Elizabeth Johnson recently has observed that if it were possible to sum up the [173] rediscoveries of recent theologizing, “it would be the classic Christian belief that ‘God is Love’ (1 John 4:16).”9

The absence of this recognition in the classical expressions of Christian theism has been strikingly reversed in theological reflections reaching back a century and a half. The selections that follow here each makes its own helpful contribution to the recovery of this vital conviction.


Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) wrote in Danish under a variety of pseudonymns and published his explicitly anti-Hegelian tracts at his own personal expense—dying, at it turned out, just as the money, and presumably everything important that he had to say, ran out. In the twentieth century he came to be hailed as the father of Christian Existentialism.

“This is all I have known for certain,” he wrote in his journal in 1850, “that God is love. Even if I have been mistaken on this or that point, God is nevertheless love.”10 And in a much earlier entry from 1839, he observed—correctly, I think—that “it is really remarkable that whereas all the other qualifications pronounced about God are adjectives, ‘love’ is the only substantive, and one would scarcely think of saying ‘God is lovely.’ Thus language itself has expressed the substantive character of love implied by this qualification.”11

The notion that God is love, is the One Who Loves, is “unchanged love,” “infinite love,” pervades Kierkegaard’s writings. God is no less than “the love which sustains all existence.”12 There is no systematic rendering of this notion because he rebelled against the very idea of systems of thought that betray the incarnational scandal of particularity. Chapter Two of his aptly named Philosophical Fragments (1844) is entitled “The God as Teacher and Saviour: An Essay of the Imagination.” It is the now-familiar narrative of God, moved by love for humanity, wishing to reveal Godself but not in an overwhelming, overpowering way. So Kierkegaard imagined a king loving a humble maiden who, out of love for her, takes the form of a servant to disclose his great love. “Love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love.”13 And thus it was that God disclosed Godself to humankind in Jesus of Nazareth.


God can therefore be understood to be “like a poet,” not “consenting” to all that happens among the characters in a poem but allowing it:

poetically he permits everything possible to come forth . . . God’s wanting to work as a poet in this fashion [discloses] God’s passion to love and to be loved, yes, almost as if he were himself found in this passion, O, infinite love, so that in the power of this passion he cannot stop loving, almost as if it were a weakness, although it is rather his strength, his omnipotent love. This is the measure of his unswerving love.14

Kierkegaard wrestled throughout his pseudonymous writings with how to reconcile this centrality of God as Love with the doctrine of divine omnipotence, and specifically with holding onto both omni potence and human freedom. He expanded upon the motif of God’s reaching out unintimidatingly by claiming:

For this is the unfathomable nature of love, that it desires equality with the beloved, not in jest merely, but in earnest and truth. And it is the omnipotence of the love which is so resolved that it is able to accomplish its purpose . . . This is the God as he stands upon the earth, like unto the humblest by the power of his omnipotent love.15

So we encounter already here the theme of the next section, divine power as the “power of omnipotent love.” In a journal entry in 1846, he wrote:

Only omnipotence can withdraw itself at the same time it gives itself away, and this relationship is the very independence of the receiver. God’s omnipotence is therefore his goodness. For goodness is to give oneself away completely, but in such a way that by omnipotently taking oneself back one makes the recipient independent . . . Only a wretched and mundane conception of the dialectic of power holds that it is greater in proportion to its ability to compel and to make dependent.16

But Kierkegaard could not finally answer the question of whether the omnipotence of love assures a blessed outcome at the end, overcoming all residual opposition.17 There is an “immutability” to God’s [175] love that is a matter of assured constancy,18 but no certain conclusion of what power God’s love has in reserve to confront intransigence non-compellingly.


Albrecht Ritschl (1822–89) is noted for his concentration on the divine intent to usher in, with human contributions, God’s eventual Reign— understood as an ellipse with two foci, as both gift and task. At the center of this expectation is the assurance that love constitutes the very nature of God and of God’s coming Reign. The goodness of God:

is embraced in the specific attribute of the Divine Fatherhood; or, in other words, the truth that He has revealed Himself to the Christian community as love. There is no other conception of equal worth beside this which need be taken into account . . . the conception of love is the only adequate conception of God.19

He went on to insist that this “conception of love . . . is the key to the revelation of God in Christianity,”20 and the “character” of the divine will is only to be understood under the rubric of love.21

When God is conceived as love . . . He is not conceived as being anything apart from and prior to His self-determination as love. He is either conceived as love, or simply not at all.22

Such love, as any valid loving, “aims at the promotion of the other’s personal end, whether known or conjectured.”23

Ritschl combined “freedom of action” and “dependence upon God” by maintaining that freedom is present only when our actions are directed toward the Reign of God as final end of our aspirations. Freedom is defined as “permanent self-determination by the good end,” or, in Christian terms, “by the Kingdom of God as final end.”24 But this whole notion works only if dependence on God is interpreted in a way other than on the absolute power of God. The power-freedom dichotomy is not yet resolved. The not-yet of God’s impending Reign is no way guaranteed, so long as human resistance is not futile.



The Scotsman Andrew Martin Fairbairn (1838–1912) was Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. Lectures that he delivered at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States at Yale and at Union Seminary became The Place of Christ in Modern Theology (1903) in print.

Over against deism and pantheism, Fairbairn promoted what he called an “ethicized Deity.”25 His work was marred by a distinction between God and “Godhead”: “God is deity conceived in relation, over against the universe, its cause or ground, it law and end; but the Godhead is deity conceived according to His own nature, as He is from within and for Himself.” This “Godhead” has “completely ethicized the conception of God.”26 It is not that the former is elusive while only the latter is accessible to us. Rather, the Christian revelation is of the Godhead itself, as distinctly trinitarian.27

Thus the very God who is in relation to God’s creation is love,28 “not the eternal possibility but the eternal actuality of love.”29 Creation itself has arisen by virtue of the eternal love:

since God is according to His essence love, He could not but be determined to the creative act . . . creation is due to the moral perfection of the Creator, who is so essentially love that He could not but create a world that He might create beatitude.30

Fairbairn went on to observe that “God does not love because He created, but He created because He loved.”31

Fairbairn’s work is instructive to us only as an additional indicator of how widespread the centrality of love was becoming over a century ago for understanding the divine nature, even though he did not address in any helpful way how this challenges traditional understandings of divine power.


Nels Ferré was born in Sweden in 1908 and emigrated to the United States by himself at the age of thirteen. His life of prolific scholarship was spent in this country. He was strongly influenced by Edgar Brightman, and at Harvard he served as a graduate assistant to the [177] process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose work we will encounter two chapters from now. Ferré died in 1971.

Ferré’s The Christian Understanding of God (1951) is the primary source for our focus here. He came to the notion of Love as ultimate being/becoming not from a biblical perspective but from the starting point of philosophical theology.32 Love, for him, is “the ultimate category.”33 Love is “the form of being which acts out of complete concern not only for all, in all dimensions of life, and the conditions which sustain, promote and enhance life, but also for ever new life and new conditions of life.”34 God as love is “self-existing and self-directing. God as love, moreover, is both actual and potential. God is subject; and a subject is capable of both loving and being loved.”35 And the very nature of the ultimate as love is, precisely, “to have relations.”36 Gary Dorrien concludes that, for Ferré, “theology is about the transformation of the world through the love-transforming power of God’s Spirit.”37

God can in no way be perceived as static, as perpetual being without change. Rather, “only by becoming can being become what it is. God as reality both is and becomes by nature, for He is love.”38

If love is the principle and power of becoming, the very nature of love is to share His being. To love is to give. To love is to create. To love is to keep fulfilling. To love is to be by becoming.39

Ferré recognized that the divine love/power conundrum cannot be resolved from the power side,40 but all he was able to put forward is that “He who is love by nature expresses Himself by sharing His power with us . . . Power is the capacity of love to effect its end.”41 But there is no real resolution, and Ferré even continued to use such terms as “sovereignty” and divine “control” positively.42 Not only is the ultimate future of God’s creation assured, because of the sovereign nature of God’s love, but the ultimate victory of that love is “total.”43 If God “is sovereign love, the question as to the outcome [of history] is completely closed. Love will win unconditional surrender from all that is not love.”44

Essentially, Ferré represents no real advance over the internal conflicts in Ritschl’s thought, in that love is understood to be a power other than controlling and yet love’s ultimate victory is somehow assured at [178] the end. It is similar to the unresolved tension we have seen also in Moltmann.

What we have encountered among the pioneers in this section is a clarion call to reclaim the New Testament’s bold assertion, in 1 John, that love itself is no mere divine attribute but characterizes the very being of God. That is indeed a giant leap forward from theism’s attempts to “shoehorn” love into the essential being of a God who is omnipotent Lord of all. Where efforts were seen here to reconstitute the Love/Power relationship, very little significant progress is visible. But that work was going on as well. To a selection of those breakthrough efforts I now turn.



Born in 1880, the British theologian C. E. Rolt studied at Oxford and went on to a life of promising scholarship cut short by death from a lingering illness, only months before his translation into English of the major works of pseudo-Dionysius appeared in print, in 1917. He was 37 years old. His own masterpiece, The World’s Redemption,45 came out in 1913, shortly before war broke out all over Europe. It fell pretty much into obscurity until the German theologian of hope, Jürgen Moltmann, gave it serious attention in his The Trinity and the Kingdom46 in 1980. Much of Rolt’s most important insight into the power and love of God might well have been developed more probingly, had he lived long enough to accomplish it.

Rolt began his study with a rejection of the traditional understanding of power as compulsion or “brute force,” which leads to the realization that “the mind is brought at last to One Who is yet stronger than the universe itself, and Who . . . by the act of an almighty will, which nothing can resist, bends all things to His purposes and compels the whole material system to obey His irresistible commands.”47 In such a perspective, God’s power “consists of infinite force.”48 Rolt went on to spell this out in richly metaphoric detail.

This conception of the nature of omnipotence is accepted by most Christians as a part of the Divine revelation. It is firmly [179] embedded in all popular theology, and unhappily finds a place in most theology that claims to be philosophic. True, the philosophic theologian does his best as a rule to explain it away so far as he can with much talk about God’s “self-limitation” or the necessity of His obeying the laws He has Himself made for His universe. Nevertheless the fact remains that this conception of despotic force is for him, as for the generality of mankind, the only conception of Divine Power. He may, in practice, treat it as a piece of lumber, but he regards it in theory as a piece of necessary lumber, however useless and inconvenient. And therefore he allows it to remain blocking out the light and air in his theological edifice, instead of boldly throwing it out of the window. And hence when he becomes vaguely conscious that it does not harmonise with the main lines of the building it occupies or with the rest of the furniture around it, instead of turning the useless thing out and casting it on to the rubbish-heap, he contents himself with raising a dust of words which serve, for the moment, to disguise its hideous outlines and hide them from his sight.49

By way of contrast, Rolt insisted that this way of conceiving of divine power is “immoral, irrational and anti-Christian,” from which have sprung some of the most egregious travesties in the Christian faith.50

Rolt’s initial answer is very pessimistic: since God’s power cannot be expected to “crush opposing forces,” it can only be “bent and broken and yet remain unconquered . . . it can only hope and wait.”51 But the breakthrough is coming: it is “love, at its truest”52 that suffers patiently:

Hence it would seem that the omnipotence of God . . . is therefore nothing else than love itself. It consists in love, and has no other quality whatsoever. Love is, in fact, the only real power, and force is not power at all . . . To say that God has infinite love, and that to this love is added infinite power, is totally and utterly false. He has nothing besides that perfect Love which is Himself. God is Love, and this Love is itself His power, nor can we truly conceive of Him as possessing any other power besides.53


So, Jesus’ depiction in the Gospel story is that of “a God Whose omnipotence consisted not in coercive force but in enduring love.”54 The secret of the “essential power of Christ” was simply “love made perfect through suffering.”55 Ergo, “God is love, and love alone; and this is the sum total of His power.”56

Rolt correctly recognized that creation, both initially and ongoingly, is a process of order being wrestled out of chaos. Evil, the resistance to love’s power, is not so much an aspect of divine action but a manifestion of the chaos still being overcome.57

The tragedy is that Rolt did not live long enough to investigate more deeply the dynamics of love as powerful. What he did produce is a tantalizing fillip crying out to be expanded upon. Precisely how love wields the only power at God’s disposal is the issue demanding elaboration. That task is still underway.


Gordon Kaufman (1925–2011) grew up in a Mennonite household and served as a conscientious objector in World War II. His pacifist morality was of one piece with what emerged in his initial reflections about the nature of God’s power. The “early” Kaufman is the part of his work that interests us here, even though he was already moving away from his conclusions in Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective (1968) before it was published. Although much of what he wrote about God’s power and love is continuous with what we have just seen in C. E. Rolt, Kaufman did not indicate any awareness of Rolt’s work.

In his early—and subsequently rejected—phase, Kaufman focused on what can be known about divine matters by reflection on matters historical. And God’s acting in history “has a very specific character: it is an act of love . . . This God, then, is one whose purposes are characterized by lovingkindness.”58 God, in accordance with God’s love, is willing to sacrifice God’s “absolute power.”59 When we speak of the power of God, “our ordinary conceptions may be very misleading.”60 But even so, he believed that God “modulates” his power when dealing with free beings as opposed to his coercing others to conform to the divine will. Consequently, we are to understand that God’s power is:


the power to give, the power to love, the paradoxical power of “weakness” . . . God’s power is thus much greater than the compelling force of a tyrant who makes others submit against their will . . . his power is sufficient to transform a willful person from self-centeredness to love, without destroying or even violating the tender plant of freedom.61

When we talk about omnipotence, etc., “we must always make certain that it is to this reality, and not some other, that we are referring . . . Too often in Christian history this simple but all-important rule has been forgotten.” So any notion of God’s omnipotence “must be seen as the omnipotence of God’s love.”62 Kaufman’s ringing conclusion is that the “first cause” of the universe itself “is no abstract, empty concept of God but God’s all-powerful love.”63

Not literally, of course, but analogically, and symbolically, the power of God is treated as the “second” of the perfections of God’s freedom.64 It is rather apparent that Kaufman attempted, unsuccessfully, to have it both ways. On the one hand, he contended, correctly, that it is as love that God is powerful.65 But on the other hand, God’s power remains undeconstructed. It is “power over,” “all-powerful in the world.”66 He rightly observed that God “is omnicompetent, that he can appropriately deal with any circumstance that arises; nothing can ultimately defeat or destroy him,”67 but he believed this is only a working out of the inherent meaning of omnipotence while, elsewhere, he gave that word its far more classical tonalities.

There are many reasons why Kaufman went on to “de-reify” God and surrender his conviction that God is any reality other than a dimension of “our interpersonal relationships with our fellow humans.”68 But clearly his inability or refusal to decouple divine power from all vestiges of its inherited meaning as power-over crippled the long-term benefit

of his early insights.


The work of Geddes MacGregor (1909–98) is strikingly prescient, though insufficient attention was paid to his 1975 work, He Who Lets Us Be.69 Originally from Scotland, he spent most of his long academic career in the United States.


MacGregor pursued a theology of kenosis, God’s sacrificial self-emptying. He boldly endorsed Patripassianism and regarded the doctrine of God’s impassibility as one of the crucial errors of orthodoxy: “the One whom we call God must be par excellence dynamic, not impassible.”70 He observed that Christian theologians from the beginning “seem to have been reluctant to take ‘God is love’ seriously as a theological proposition.”71 He wrote that “a profound misunderstanding of the nature of both the power and the love of God has radically distorted the traditional view of the situation.” The power of God is not “the ability to do everything (omnipotere) or to control everything (pantokratein)” but rather “the infinite power that springs from creative love,” and “sacrificial love . . . The divine almightiness consists…of unlimited capacity for creative love.”72 Further along, he explicitly affirmed that “the omnipotence of God is the power of love . . . To say that God is omnipotent can only mean that nothing diminishes his love.”73

In moving beyond kenotic christology to kenotic theology, MacGregor called God “kenotic Being” and considered kenosis to be “the root principle of Being.”74 In this regard, his position was limited to identifying how God exercises power differently, rather than seeing how the very nature of God’s power is to be reinterpreted (reconstructed) through the lens of God as love. Kenosis becomes a matter of God’s self-abnegation of a mode of power that God wills not to utilize. In that respect, MacGregor could still hold on to an assurance of God’s “providential intervention.”75


Eberhard Jüngel was born in Germany, in 1934, on what eventually became the “wrong” side of the Iron Curtain, but managed to study under Karl Barth and the New Testament scholar Ernst Fuchs before the Wall went up. His facility in matters both theological and biblical contributes significantly to his subsequent work. In the Foreword to the First and Second Editions of his God as the Mystery of the World (originally, 1976), he wrote: “Basically the intent of all the studies in this book is nothing else than to exposit consequently this one statement from First John: God is love (1 John 4:8).”76 Indeed, “To think God as love” is no less than “the task of theology.”77


Drawing out insights from the last writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jüngel rejected the notion of a “worldly necessity of God” on the grounds that:

The God who is necessary in the world is always conceived of as God the Lord. And it appeared that there was general agreement as to what a lord is. God’s lordship was discussed in the sense of his exercise of omnipotence. The God who is necessary in the world was understood as the almighty Lord whose love and mercy appear to be fundamentally secondary and subsidiary to his claim to lordship. This is the earthly way of thinking of a lord: first he has all power and then perhaps he can be merciful—but then again, perhaps not. God’s lordliness and lordship are thought of in the same general way. He is mighty, able, and free to love or not to love . . . one must not conclude that freedom or power is superior to love, while the love of God becomes a secondary attribute. The thesis of the worldly nonnecessity of God is directed precisely against this view of God according to which God, as the almighty Lord who can be differentiated from his love, is necessary to the world.78

So Jüngel was driven to reverse this way of thinking that “lordship” can be said to define adequately the essence of God. Starting with the understanding that God is love, he concluded: “Thus, godly power and godly love are related to one another neither through subordination nor dialectically. Rather, God’s mightiness is understood as the power of his love. Only love is almighty.”79

The self-determination of God to be love is particularly discerned by us in the cross, but it does not first become the truth about God in that event. That conclusion would represent a “self-distortion” of God. “What happened on the cross of Jesus is an event which in its uniqueness discloses the depths of deity. The special eschatological event of the identification of God with the man Jesus is at the same time the innermost mystery of divine being.”80

Jüngel found in Paul’s words on power in weakness, reflected in the cross (1 Cor. 1:18ff.), a “stringent rejection of all deification of self-willing power”81 and an affirmation of its obverse:


love does not even fear its own weakness. The one who does not want to share in the weakness of love is basically incapable of love. For the strength of love consists of the certainty that love can be helped to victory only by love. To be sure, when opposed by everything which is not love, it is totally unprotected and vulnerable . . . But it is the very power of love which implies its weakness against everything which is not love. For love does not assert itself in any other way than through love. And that is both its strength and its weakness. Since love asserts itself only lovingly, it is highly vulnerable from outside, but inwardly it is profoundly indestructible. It remains within its element, and it radiates in order to draw into itself. It cannot destroy what opposes it, but can only transform it.82

There may well be earlier theological reflections on Paul’s assertion that God’s weakness is more powerful than what we typically understand as power, but I have not surfaced them. I think Jüngel’s dual role as theologian and biblical scholar stood him very well in calling attention to the importance of this insight in the biblical narrative.


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) was a Jesuit paleontologist who developed an evolutionary vision of God and God’s universe that was so far removed from conventional Roman Catholic thinking that he was prohibited from publishing this aspect of his work during his lifetime. That meant, of course, that he could not benefit from peer review. He wrote without the rigor of academic theology and never attempted to organize his work into systematic shape. Nevertheless, the originality and depth of his imaginative proposals warrant careful attention.

For Teilhard, the whole of reality is continuously evolving toward its final destiny, a cosmic “Omega point” that includes the dynamic participation of a God who is anything but static or fully complete already in Godself.83 God is Omega, the eschatological end of history and of all of creation.84[185]

The theme of love is completely at the heart of Teilhard’s cosmic reconceptualizing. Love “is undoubtedly the single higher form towards which, as they are transformed, all the other sorts of spiritual energy converge.”85 Therefore Teilhard uses his term “amorization” to identify the evolutionary direction in which all reality is moving.86

As early as 1920, in an essay entitled “The Modes of Divine Action in the Universe,” Teilhard guardedly called into question traditional notions of divine omnipotence. The decision to create a soul surely places constraints on divine power no more and no less restrictive than the physical impossibility of creating a square circle,87 wherefore “the supreme miracle of the divine power . . . consists in being able, through a deep-reaching and all-embracing influence, incessantly to integrate, on a higher plane, all good and all evil in the reality which that power builds up by means of secondary causes.”88

He went on to conclude in 1931 that “Love is the most universal, the most tremendous and the most mysterious of the cosmic forces.”89 Love, like thought, “is still in full growth in the noosphere . . . (It demands to be released, so that it may flow irresistibly toweards the true and the beautiful. Its awakening is certain.”90 And another six years later he pondered upon “not force but love above us; and therefore, at the beginning, the recognized existence of an Omega that makes possible a universal love.”91

As his ideas continued to develop, he wrote in an essay on “The Rise of the Other” in 1942:

In its most general form and from the point of view of physics, love is the internal, affectively apprehended, aspect of the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world, centre to centre . . . Love is power of producing inter-centric relationship. It is present, therefore (at least in a rudimentary state), in all the natural centres, living and pre-living, which make up the world; and it represents, too, the most profound, most direct, and most creative form of inter-action that it is possible to conceive between those centres. Love, in fact, is the expression and the agent of universal synthesis. Love, again, is centric power.92


And in 1951, four years before his death, he identified God specifically as “love-energy.”93

The year before, Teilhard wrote an autobiographical essay in which he depicted the process of how he arrived at his overall vision. It became the title essay in the collection entitled The Heart of the Matter:

it is only in the Christo-centric area of a noogenetic Universe that it [love] is released in the pure state and so displays its astonishing power to transform everything and replace everything . . . A current of love is all at once released, to spread over the whole breadth and depth of the World; and this it does not as though it were some super-added warmth or fragrance, but as a fundamental essence that will metamorphose all things, assimilate and take the place of all.94

And here is precisely the crux of the problem that characterizes Teilhard’s unfulfilled promise. In the end, Love has to prevail, otherwise the culmination of all in Omega does not transpire. And if Love must prove successful in the end in overcoming all lingering resistance, then does it not cease to maintain its own essential qualities? There remains, in other words, a vestige of compulsion in Love’s deployment of power that renders the whole picture suspect. As radical as Teilhard’s thought was, it was not truly radical enough to break through all the way to an all-encompassing vision of Love being the only mode of divine power.95



A chapter in William Vanstone’s The Risk of Love,96 originally published in Great Britain in 1977 under the title Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to the Love of God, led to the Templeton Foundation’s sponsoring of a conference of theologians and scientists at Queens’ College, Cambridge, in October 1998, with a follow-up in New York City the following year, the results of which are in The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis.97 Born in 1923, Vanstone died between these two meetings, in March of 1999.


Turning down numerous offers of teaching posts, Vanstone was a canon in the Church of England and not a formal academician. Even so, his reflections on the nature of love and what that implies for the nature of God are truly trailblazing. What he embarked upon was a thoughtful inquiry into what a “phenomenology of love” would reveal. What he found were what he determined to be three marks of authentic love: without limit, without control of the one loved, without detachment.98 Therefore authentic love is to be understood “as limitless, as precarious, and as vulnerable.”99

With regard to the second “mark,” love is “distorted by the assurance of possession or control.” There is “no assurance or certainty of completion . . . each step that is taken, whether it ‘succeeds’ or ‘fails’, becomes the basis for the next, and equally precarious, step which must follow,.”100

Love aspires to reach that which, being truly an ‘”other,” cannot be controlled. The aspiration of love is that the other, which cannot be controlled, may receive; and the greatness of love lies in its endless and unfailing improvisation in hope that the other may receive. As aspiration, love never fails; for there is no internal limit to its will to endeavour, to venture and to expend. But as specific achievement, love must often fail; and each step it takes is poignant of the possibility of failure.101

Regarding the third mark, love gives to its object power over itself. “To that which is loved power is given which it would not otherwise possess and which otherwise would be unaccountable.”102 This creates a new vulnerability in the one who loves—not in the sense that it can be diminished or destroyed.

But love is vulnerable in and through the beloved in the sense that in him its issue is at stake—its completion or frustration, its triumph or tragedy. He who loves surrenders into other hands the issue and outcome of his own aspiration . . . Where there is no such surrender or gift of power the falsity of love is exposed.103

Vanstone then extended these reflections, into what seemed to him the unequivocal nature of love phenomenologically, into the very being [188] of God. If God is indeed, as we consider God to be, essentially love, then what has just been identified also characterizes love in God. The “activity of God in creation must be limitless creativity.” There is no superabundance of divine power held in reserve. “From His self-giving nothing is held back; nothing remains in God unexpended.”104 The activity of God in creation must also be precarious:

Its progress, like every progress of love, must be an angular progress—in which each step is a precarious step into the unknown; in which each triumph contains a new potential of tragedy, and each tragedy may be redeemed into a wider triumph; in which, for the making of that which is truly an “other,” control is jeopardised, lost, and, through activity yet more intense and vision yet more sublime, regained; in which the divine creativity ever extends and enlarges itself, and in which its endeavour is ever poised upon the brink of failure. If creation is the work of love, then its shape cannot be predetermined by the Creator, nor its triumph foreknown.105

The presence of evil in creation must be understood as a consequence of the precariousness of God’s creative activity.106

If the creation is the work of love, its “security’” lies not in its conformity to some predetermined plan but in the unsparing love which will not abandon a single fragment of it, and man’s assurance must be the assurance not that all that happens is determined by God’s plan but that all that happens is encompassed by His love.107

And finally, and perhaps most critically, the activity of God in creation must be vulnerable.

We know only that God is love. We know only the activity of God. We know that God is vulnerable only in the sense in which the activity of love may be said to be vulnerable . . . The power which love gives to the other is power to determine the issue of love—its completion or frustration, its triumph or tragedy. This is the vulnerability of authentic love—that it surrenders to the other power over its own issue, power to determine the triumph or the tragedy of love. The vulnerability of God [189] means that the issue of His love as triumph or tragedy depends upon His creation. There is given to the creation the power to determine the love of God as either triumphant or tragic love. This power may be called “power of response”: upon the response of the creation the love of God depends for its triumph or its tragedy.108

I have quoted extensively from Vanstone’s work because I think it is not widely known and is worthy of considerable attention. The two key marks of love as precarious and vulnerable set the discussion of God’s powerful love moving in an entirely new direction. There is no holding back, no antiquarian retaining of a residue of non-precarious, non-vulnerable power on God’s part. I remain deeply indebted to his insights. He closed his book with a reprinting of his “A Hymn to the Creator.”

Here are the final three stanzas:

Drained is love in making full;
Bound in setting others free;
Poor in making many rich;
Weak in giving power to be.

Therefore He Who Thee reveals
Hangs, O Father, on that Tree
Helpless; and the nails and thorns
Tell of what Thy love must be.

Thou art God; no monarch Thou
Thron’d in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.109


The work of Wendy Farley (b. 1958) is so inclusive that it could well be presented in at least three different places in this treatise, embracing a post-patriarchal God, a God who suffers, as well as the God of essential love. I have chosen to give attention to her writings here, because they particularly reinforce the directions we have just been exploring.


Similarly to Vanstone, in her Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion (1990), Farley explores a “phenomenology of compassion.”110 She sees the key issue in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to be a matter of how the power of domination corrupts even the most benevolent attempt to use it.111 Compassion is “a power [that] cannot coerce.”112 Compassion represents “a fundamentally different kind of power than the power of coercion.”113 Compassion, as redemptive power, “gives power to someone else: it is empowering rather than controlling,.”114

Her recognition of the positive virtue of the role of empowering is an extremely vital step, in my estimation. When I first surfaced this notion in an essay in 1973,115 it was typically dismissed by confusing it with enabling, a negative action relating to the inappropriate support of persons suffering from various addictions. That the idea has since received significant traction is a very positive development.

In her chapter on “A Phenomenology of Divine Love,” Farley insists, rightly, that love and power cannot be juxtaposed as “two alien entities.” Recognizing the reluctance of theologians to ascribe love to God,116 she goes on to observe: “As a noncoercive form of power, love creates the possibility of evil by leaving freedom and the future undetermined.”117

Farley distinguishes “the power of love expressed in creation (eros)” and the power present “in providence (tragic love),” which are complimented by “the power of redemption. Compassion is divine power in a new guise the guise of redemption.”118 She goes on to explain:

Eros is the power of God to bring being from nothingness; tragic love is providential care for a cosmos immersed in inevitable suffering and conflict. Compassion immerses itself in evil in order to struggle against it . . . Tragic love cares for the world, but it is compassion that mediates redemptive power. Redemptive love presupposes sympathetic knowledge of suffering. But in compassion this sympathetic participation in suffering is accompanied by power that struggles to transform evil into a locus of healing . . . According to Christian theology, God’s knowledge of suffering is radicalized in the incarnation. The immediacy of knowledge of suffering and evil is here again, accompanied by transforming power . . . Compassion is the intensity of divine being as it enters into suffering, guilt, and [191] evil to mediate the power to overcome them. As human beings and communities apprehend the presence of divine compassion for them and with them, they experience power to resist the degrading effects of suffering, to defy structures and policies that institutionalize injustice, and to confront their own guilt . . . the compassion of God empowers. Divine compassion is not a form of paternalistic charity but a more radical love that offers liberating power.119

Divine compassion, then, is understood as God’s “empowering presence.”120 “It is the risk and folly of the power of love to create that over which it has only relative control,” thus disclosing “the nonabsolute power of God.”121

No guarantee can be provided for a final victory by God over the forces that oppose God. “The problem of theodicy is history’s power to reject God.”122 Any meaningful theodicy “can only hope to illuminate the radical love of God that is not overcome by evil, that is poured out inexhaustibly over all creation.”123

I merely ask, how does God as love, as compassion, empower? How does love as empowerment actually make a difference in how the ongoing creation continues to unfold, filled as it is with unspeakable acts of depravity? How is God actually acting in an empowering way? “Through interhuman compassion and justice, the reality and power of God are present to resist evil in history.”124 I still wish to probe deeper for an explanation of how this happens in a way that is more than human resilience.


Having studied process theology under David Griffin at Claremont, and working extensively with the Templeton Foundation on the “science” of love, Thomas Oord (b. 1965) brings an investigative mind to his stance with the “open theology” group of Evangelical theologians.125 Almost all of his scholarly output focuses in one way or another on the topic of love divine and human.

An encompassing definition of love underlies all of Oord’s treatments of the subject: “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.”126 The key [192] components of this definition are the centrality of action as opposed to mere passion or emotion, the responsive interrelationship between the lover and the beloved, and the goal of promoting well-being—the biblical notion of “shalom.”

Oord is in company with those, over against Anders Nygren,127 who recognize the key role of eros for God, not just agape, championing the importance, contrary to Augustine, of desire as a valid component of divine love.

To the tradition speaking of God as perfect and thus without need, adherents of divine eros argue that maximal perfection involves perfect desiring and receiving. Our conception of a maximal human lover is not of someone detached and without desire; a great lover is someone who desires appropriately and who is appropriately influenced by others. The maximally perfect lover must be a maximally perfect giver and maximally perfect receiver, say advocates of divine eros theology.128

Oord also carries through consistently on the critical necessity of absolving God of any and all residual power that is not the power present in divine love. He challenges the kenotic approach we have already surfaced, denying that to be love God emptied himself of all non-loving power. Rather, love characterizes the nature of all the power God ever has, without some presumed act of divine self-limitation: “noncoercion is an essential feature of how God lovingly relates to creation . . . Self-giving love is part of God’s very nature, not an arbitrary divine choice.”129 This, of course, legitimates the genuine reality of human freedom to accept or refuse God’s offer of a love that empowers: “God’s essential love relations with the cosmos entails that God cannot fail to offer, withdraw, or override the power for freedom that creatures require in their momentby-moment life decisions.”130

It is The Nature of Love (2010) where Oord shines most brightly in aiming a laser beam at the power of divine love. “The gift of Godself to creation is essential to what it means to be God. God necessarily relates with and gives to creatures, because God necessarily loves us.”131 God “empowers” rather than “overpowers.”132


God always exerts almighty power in love. A steadfastly loving God exerts maximal power and yet never entirely controls others. We best understand God’s power through the lens of God’s love, not vice versa.133

The consequence of these reflections is the full recognition that to have been created in God’s image means, for human beings, that we are created in the image of God as Love.134 That has all-encompassing implications for the way in which we are invited to exercise power in our relationships with one another and with all of creation on our home planet. The highest form of power is found in so relating as not to diminish in any way the power of the recipient of our actions.

I am greatly indebted to Tom Oord for the penetrating work he has accomplished. Proposals for explicating the empowering love of God that appear in the final chapter of this book are continuous with the orientation he has brought forward.135


  1. As quoted in Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1972), 93f.
  2. First published in a collection of Charles Wesley’s hymns in 1747.
  3. Alexander Campbell, The Christian System, 2nd ed. (Pittsburg: Forrester & Campbell, 1839), 92. Online: acampbell/cs/
  4. Ibid., 220, emphasis original.
  5. Ibid., 222, emphasis original.
  6. Frederick W. Faber, The Creator and the Creature (1857), 176, as cited in Nels F. S. Ferré, The Christian Understanding of God (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), 253, note 7.
  7. D. Z. Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 199, emphases original.
  8. Richard Garnett, De Flagello Myrteo: 360 Thoughts and Fancies on Love, 3rd ed. (London: Elkin Mathews, 1906), 10.
  9. Elizabeth A. Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007), 17, emphasis original.
  10. Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard, 18341854, ed. and tr. Alexander Dru (London: Fontana Books, 1958), 194.
  11. Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, 7 vol., ed. and tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967–1978), vol. II, 90f.
  12. Kierkegaard, Works of Love, tr. Howard and Edna Hong (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 280.
  13. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 2nd ed., tr. David Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), 33.
  14. Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, vol. II, 147 (from 1854).
  15. Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 39f., emphases mine.
  16. Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, vol. II, 62f.
  17. See, e.g., Arnold B. Come, “Kierkegaard’s Ontology of Love,” in Robert L. Perkins, ed., Works of Love: International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 16 (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1999), 118.
  18. See Kierkegaard’s sermon on “The Unchangeableness of God,” tr. David F. Swenson, in Robert Bretall, ed., A Kierkegaard Anthology (New York: The Modern Library, 1946), particularly 470–78.
  19. Albrecht Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation: The Positive Development of the Doctrine, tr. H.R. Mackintosh and A.B. Macauly (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1900; republished in 1966 by Reference Book Publishers, Inc., Clifton, NJ), 273f.
  20. Ibid., 276.
  21. Ibid., 279.
  22. Ibid., 282.
  23. Ibid., 277.
  24. Ibid., 293.
  25. Andrew Martin Fairbairn, The Place of Christ in Modern Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 403–06, 415, 417 et al.
  26. Ibid., 439.
  27. Ibid., 385.
  28. Ibid., 394.
  29. Ibid., 410.
  30. Ibid., 413.
  31. Ibid., 417.
  32. Nels F. S. Ferré, The Christian Understanding of God (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), 6–10, 15–29.
  33. Ibid., 45.
  34. Ibid., 15f. This focus on novelty is no doubt an influence from Whitehead.
  35. Ibid., 17f.
  36. Ibid., 19.
  37. Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony and Postmodernity, 1950-2005 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 42. See Dorrien’s excellent summary of Ferré’s life and thought, op. cit., 39–57.
  38. Ferré, op cit., 23.
  39. Ibid., 26.
  40. Ibid., 98–101.
  41. Ibid., 101.
  42. Ibid., chapter 5.
  43. Ibid., 219.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Clarence Edwin Rolt, The World’s Redemption (New York: Longman’s, Green, 1913).
  46. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 31–34.
  47. Rolt, op. cit., 12.
  48. Ibid., 13.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Ibid., 14.
  52. Ibid., 15.
  53. Ibid., 16, all emphases my own.
  54. Ibid., 27.
  55. Ibid., 35.
  56. Ibid., 37.
  57. See ibid., 124–26, and Moltmann’s comment on Rolt in The Trinity and the Kingdom, 34.
  58. Gordon D. Kaufman, Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968), 88, emphasis mine.
  59. Ibid., 89.
  60. Ibid., 91.
  61. Ibid., 92.
  62. Ibid., 92f., both quotes; emphasis mine.
  63. Ibid., 113, emphasis mine.
  64. Ibid., 151–54.
  65. Ibid., 152.
  66. Ibid., 152, 154.
  67. Ibid., 153, emphasis mine.
  68. Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 333, emphasis original.
  69. Geddes MacGregor, He Who Lets Us Be: A Theology of Love (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975). The unreconstructed identifying of a God of masculinity surely did not help MacGregor’s cause.
  70. Ibid., 5.
  71. Ibid., 11.
  72. Ibid., 15, all quotes after preceding footnote.
  73. Ibid., 128.
  74. Ibid., 107.
  75. Ibid., 161; see also 127, and all of chapter 9 on “Providence and Prayer.” MacGregor’s focus on kenosis can also be seen in the work of many of the current theologians who are interacting productively with [197] scientists in pursing a shared vision. See, in particular, the essays in the volume edited by John Polkinghorne, The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001). The problem is the same in both places: Kenosis appears to speak of a willful act on God’s part to “give up” power-over for the sake of power-with, but that still entails that God’s (unexercised) power includes that possibility. My investigation pursues an alternative understanding, that this in no way characterizes the power of God in the first place.
  76. Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World, tr. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), x.
  77. Ibid., 315.
  78. Ibid., 21.
  79. Ibid., 22, emphasis mine.
  80. Ibid., 220.
  81. Ibid., 206.
  82. Ibid., 325, emphases original.
  83. This summary sentence is based on numerous passages in Teilhard’s writings. See, in particular, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, tr. J. M. Cohen (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 145; and The Heart of Matter, tr. René Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 53: God “in some way ‘transforms himself’ as he incorporates us . . . All around us, and within our own selves, God is in process of ‘changing’, as a result of the coincidence of his magnetic power and our own Thought.”
  84. Emile Rideau, The Thought of Teilhard de Chardin, tr. René Hague (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 147–50.
  85. Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution, tr. René Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 186.
  86. Teilhard de Chardin, Science and Christ, tr. René Hague (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 171.
  87. Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution, 32f.
  88. Ibid., 34.
  89. Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, 32.
  90. Ibid., 129.
  91. Ibid., 152.
  92. Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy, tr. René Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), 70f.
  93. Ibid., 280.
  94. Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of the Matter, 51.
  95. Teilhard’s vision is being powerfully presented in the early 21st century by the Franciscan scholar Ilia Delio, whose most recent work champions and elaborates on his relevance for today. See her The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013), especially chapter three.
  96. William H. Vanstone, The Risk of Love (New York: Oxford Univ., Press, 1978).
  97. John Polkinghorne, ed. The Work of Love, x. The book was dedicated to Canon Vanstone’s memory and each chapter begins with a quote from The Risk of Love.
  98. Vanstone, The Risk of Love , 42–54.
  99. Ibid., 53.
  100. Ibid., 46.
  101. Ibid., 49.
  102. Ibid., 51.
  103. Ibid., 52.
  104. Ibid., 59f.
  105. Ibid., 62f.
  106. Ibid., 63.
  107. Ibid., 66.
  108. Ibid., 67.
  109. Ibid., 119f.
  110. Wendy Farley, Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990). See chapter three, especially pp. 75–81.
  111. Ibid., 89–92.
  112. Ibid., 93.
  113. Ibid., 97.
  114. Ibid., 94, emphasis mine.
  115. David P. Polk, “Empowering Love,” Lexington Theological Quarterly, April, 1973 (vol. VIII, No. 2), 60–67. The biblical witness to Jesus proclaims “not simply that God is love, but that God’s love is powerful— and that God’s power is characterized by love! . . . The majesty of Jesus’ vision of God’s truth is that God’s love is not something extraneous to [God’s] power but the very nature of it” (63).
  116. Farley, op. cit., 96.
  117. Ibid., 98.
  118. Ibid., 111.
  119. Ibid., 111f.
  120. Ibid., 114.
  121. Ibid., 124.
  122. Ibid., 125.
  123. Ibid., 133.
  124. Ibid., 114.
  125. See Thomas Jay Oord, ed., Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2008), for a helpful overview of this orientation.
  126. Oord, The Nature of Love: a Theology (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2010), 17. A slightly different, earlier variant appeared in his Science of Love (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2004), 9: “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being.”
  127. The massive undertaking of Anders Nygren in his Agape and Eros has not received individual attention in this overview for two primary reasons: He did not actually address in any cogent way the relationship between love and power in God—“power” is not even an entry in the extensive subject index—and his assessment of the unreality of eros in God has been subsequently determined to be unacceptably one-sided. See the whole of chapter two in Oord’s The Nature of Love for a helpful summary of Nygren’s position and the problems it contains.
  128. Oord, “Divine Love,” in Thomas Jay Oord, ed., Philosophy of [200] Religion: Introductory Essays (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2003), 103.
  129. Oord, Science of Love, 17f.
  130. Ibid., 18. Oord also maintains that this aspect of God did not begin with the Big Bang but was eternally true of God all along (18f.). “The creation of this universe did not entail divine coercion. The Big Bang suggests that God’s creative energy would have been extremely influential at the origin of our universe. But divine influence, even in the Big Bang, would not have been strictly coercive” (20).
  131. Oord, The Nature of Love, 125. Although this appeared in print only in 2010, it is a revision of Oord’s doctoral dissertation at Claremont.
  132. Ibid., 126.
  133. Ibid., 128, emphasis mine.
  134. Oord, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), 179.
  135. Many other contributions on the subject of this chapter that were made toward the end of the twentieth century have not been included here not because they are not relevant but because of space limitations and a sense that they present ideas already dealt with here. They nevertheless merit mention: Daniel Migliori, The Power of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), and its later revision, The Power of God and the gods of Power (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008). Paul S. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988). Vincent Brümmer, The Model of Love: A Study in Philosophical Theology (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993). George M. Newlands, God in Christian Perspective (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), and his earlier but less helpful Theology of the Love of God (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980). Edward Collins Vacek, S.J., Love, Human and Divine: The Heart of Christian Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994). Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001).