Chapter 17: Glimpses of a Revealed God
To begin the task of reconceiving not a God whose power is loving but a God whose love is powerful requires a return to where we began, with another look back at the biblical witness that surely must underlie all theological formulation to some degree or other. If the concern in Part One was to listen to Scripture’s multifaceted testimony on this topic, the focus shifts here to a theological appropriation of what has been heard. That the primary attention here is to the New Testament witness does not for one second deny that what has surfaced in the Old Testament narratives remains of paramount importance for comprehending what emerged in the New.
Christian theologians are often fond of saying that to know who God is, look at Jesus. Do not look only at Jesus. That would be too limiting and parochial. But look particularly at the God Jesus disclosed in order to discern the full reality of God more accurately. Wolfhart Pannenberg made this claim very explicitly: “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.”1 And further, “If God is revealed through Jesus Christ, then who or what God is becomes defined only through the Christ event.”2 Even the philosopher of religion Charles  Hartshorne could maintain that we should not simply “add” Jesus to an unreconstructed idea of a non-loving God; rather, we should take Jesus as “proof that God really is love.”3
So I find it fair that the portrayal of the divine that is reflected through the lens of Jesus’ life, teachings, and eventual demise should be accepted as a key element in any inquiry into the nature of God. The tragedy, of course, is that it becomes very easy to give lip service to this notion without a genuine openness to where the testimony might lead us. That seems particularly true in the case of Pannenberg, as we have seen.4
I am persuaded that the God disclosed by Jesus in the Gospel record and the church’s canonical witness to him can be identified as a God who is Empowering Love. My position is that genuine openness to this perception enables us to peel back the layers of misinterpretation that resulted from the church’s turning away from this central thesis and to recapture the vital message of a living, interactive, supremely relational deity to whom Jesus consistently pointed, a God who wills to be intimately interconnected with God’s people and God’s world, i.e., the entire cosmos. To that end, I wish to examine anew the New Testament’s championing of a God who is love, with an eye to discerning the theological implications of the themes we have previously encountered in Part One.
GOD IS LOVE: REAFFIRMING I JOHN
God is love. I join the ranks of those who perceive this to be not merely one assessment among others concerning the very being of God but regard it as central and all encompassing. Love, here, is not an adjective, characterizing a particular quality of the divine. It is a far more embracing assertion that its corollaries, “God is loving,” or “God loves,” although these are also true. Mary Daly proposed that we consider God a “verb.”5 Partly I agree. God acts, lovingly. But that does not tell the whole story by itself. God as love is more than just a divine action. God is more than just a verb. If we start with the realization that love defines the very essence of deity, consequences fall into place like a row of tumbling dominoes.
Clearly we “know” love only from our human perspective. We know love as agape, self-sacrificing, utterly unselfish. We also know love as eros, desiring, self-oriented. On a somewhat lesser level of importance, we know love as philia, friendship, camaraderie.6 It is not wrong to attribute all these aspects of love to God. Indeed, it often seems our ability to comprehend the meaning of love depends on the language we use, since a single word in English embraces all three. 1 John proposes that we only know or experience love derivatively. We are not its originators but its recipients, realizing what love means only because of God’s reaching out to us: “We love because [God] first loved us” (4:19). This is a bold assertion but one I think we need to take as seriously as his proclamation that the very reality of God is love. We discern something happening to us and in us from beyond us, and name that something “love.”
When we reach across the abyss from finite to infinite reality, all our concepts, of course, finally fall short. They point more successfully than they define. Even so, some ways of pointing are more helpful than others. The imaging of a God who is “love” only in God’s own internal (trinitarian) relations and has no need of us and is not affected in any way by us—as we have seen in Augustine’s synthesis—does not do justice to the richness of the concept as we typically experience it and reflect upon it. So I find Tom Oord’s previously presented definition as helpful a “pointer” as any: “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.”7 To apply this definition to God’s initiative and extend it, I think it would read like this: For God to love is for God to act intentionally toward each becoming occasion of experience to promote its maximal well-being, including a sympathetic/empathetic response to its self-actualization.
The strength of this way of thinking is that it describes more than a mere disposition; it expresses an action. For God to love us is more than taking kindly to us in spite of, or even because of, our infirmities. For God to love us is to act toward us in a manner that promotes maximal shalom. For God to be love is to acknowledge that all of God’s actions are marked by this constitutive character.
GOD’S EMPOWERING REIGN OF LOVE: REACCESSING JESUS
In the Synoptic Gospels, the primary focus of Jesus’ message is on the impending arrival of the eschatological Reign of God—basileia tou theou, as we saw in Chapter Two. In light of what we have just considered, it is now possible to express this more pointedly: Jesus proclaims no less than the elusive presence of the empowering love of God in the midst of his hearers.8 Jesus conveys by word and deed the conviction that the sovereignty of love is making itself felt there and then, as the foretaste of a fullness of love’s sovereignty still to come.9
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Mt 11:2–5)
The witness of the Gospels consistently portrays Jesus as one who embodies, here and now, the power of a compassionate God who provides a foretaste of the coming fullness of the inbreaking reign of God. The apocalyptic expectation of all-powerful deity establishing emphatically God’s rule on Earth is transformed by Jesus’ appropriation of it into something entirely other: God is active already in furthering God’s intentions for a creation in travail, but not in the ultimate, decisive way envisioned by champions of divine triumphalism. Rather, this God works mysteriously, in and with the conditions of the times. Where there are positive responses to what Jesus, on God’s behalf, lifts up as desirable, surprising results happen. I need not take the healings literally. That is not the point. The church’s kerygma is witnessing to its conviction that for those who accept Jesus’ promise of the inbreaking reign of empowering love, the impact of that promise can be experienced already, proleptically.
The witness wavers between this sense of a partial realization of God’s reign of love and the expectation that it will yet arrive “with power” at some time in the not very distant future (Mk 9:1). This  tension reflects the unreconstructed hope in the apocalyptic tradition that all adversity now being experienced will eventually be overcome by the restoration of God’s overwhelming might. It is hardly coincidental that this passage was not accepted into the other two Synoptic Gospels dependent on Mark.
Elusively, love’s power is already having an impact. Where there is response to Jesus’ invitation and challenge, lives are fundamentally changed. Peter and John leave their fishing nets to accept his call to be disciples. The despised tax-collector Zacchaeus is so awestruck at being affirmed by this strange Galilean that he throws open his doors, puts on a feast, and becomes a philanthropist. The “woman taken in adultery” finds herself befriended and defended, to the shame of her male accusers. In every instance and so many more, an invitation is made, an offer is extended. The response is not pre-ordained. It is made out of a degree of freedom—not total freedom, for we are always burdened and limited by the impact of our past decisions—and responding to the empowering offer becomes itself a moment in a sequence of ever more empowering offers. They constitute offers to live here and now as if the reign of God’s love were really present—which, mysteriously, it is, in the occasions of positive response to it.
The supplanting of traditional power by empowerment has already been announced by Mary in her Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1:52). Her son directs his followers’ attention to the mystery that is divine intimacy with the hurting and the oppressed, assuring a constant presence that is insurmountable. Reversal of fortune does not come by magic. Where the empowering offer to experience a life lived harmoniously with others is rejected, God does not unilaterally intervene.
Let us not misinterpret what is being claimed here. It is not as though the mysterious availability of God’s empowering love began with Jesus. That would represent a dangerously false reading. The power of love taught by Jesus is totally continuous with what we have previously examined in the Old Testament’s witness to God’s unquenchable hesed. As we saw, the conjoining of God’s power and God’s love is fully recognizable in the Old Testament. So what is new?
One answer to this is that Jesus does not limit the beneficiaries of this gift of empowering love to the people of the covenant. Jesus’ proclamation reaches beyond the descendents of Abraham and Sarah to anyone who would pay attention. The other answer is that Jesus boldly declares an intimate and unmediated access to the gift of divinely derived empowerment, in the very midst of suffering and oppression. It represents an invitation to live fully out of the assurance of the promise, with a concomitant sense that so to do results in an effective anticipation of love’s triumph: Outcasts are received back into the community now, the feast of inclusivity is shared now, wholeness that includes bodily healing occurs now, as a “living into” the eschatological banquet of God’s reign. Contrary to the apocalyptic tradition Jesus inherited, waiting for God’s return is a chimera. Live now the eschatological hope, because living as if God were powerfully present precisely enhances the effective power of a very present God. “The more, the more”: Responding to God’s love expands the capacity of that love to empower others—the domino theory in reverse.
POWER IN WEAKNESS: RE-VIEWING THE FIRST EASTER
Friday came, and then Sunday.
Friday and Sunday must be treated in tandem. Sunday without Friday would hardly have been necessary, but Friday without Sunday is catastrophic.
Clearly there came a time in the church’s wrestling with the ignominy of its leader having died the death of a common criminal, a rebel against the rule of Rome, that transformed its negativity into something so positive it could be named “Good Friday.” But the church did not begin there. Indeed, a very early remnant of the witnessing tradition posited a striking contrast, as we have had occasion to notice before in Chapter Two: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (Acts 5:30, emphasis mine). The thrust of this piece of a sermon, ostensibly by Simon Peter, is unmistakable: Sunday cancelled out Friday. Sunday overtrumped Friday. What happened on Sunday was God’s way of dealing with what had occurred on Friday.
Pursuing this distinction brings us face to face with the non-interventional character of empowering love: It is the way of such love not to cancel out the bad, but to absorb it within God’s very own being, and never be prevented from bringing forth the possibility of new creation over and over again.
Why is that still so fundamentally important, in spite of our uncertainty about what to do with the singular claims about something called a “resurrection”? It is because, for Friday to have the last word, the claim in Jesus’ teaching that God’s power is love and God’s love is powerful is totally denied. Pannenberg is one who perceived this very clearly: “After the crucifixion of Jesus the question of the legitimacy of his mission was no longer open; on the contrary, until something else happened, it was negatively decided.”10
The message pervading the New Testament is that God acted not to prevent Jesus’ crucifixion, but to prevent Jesus’ crucifixion from having the last word. Revisiting the claim at the beginning of John’s Gospel that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5, emphasis mine) leads me to assert that the event of Easter Sunday was God’s response to the intent of the world to extinguish the light that was Jesus. Easter is the promise that the light of life-giving love still shines.
I do not pretend to comprehend the complexity of what transpired between the individual that was Jesus and the love that is God on that first Easter. But it is not an easy problem to wish away. Much about the church’s initial claims about the event cannot easily be explained away, particularly the insistence that it was none other than a woman, or women, who were the initial witnesses to this singular happening when, in the judicial principles of that day, women could not under any circumstances be called as witnesses to anything. Certainly the growing reception of the reality underlying the first Easter empowered defeated followers to become stalwart devotees, often to the point of martyrdom.
I am avoiding naming that event “resurrection” because this was simply the only category at hand among Jesus’ followers for dealing with the radically new character of this singular overcoming of death’s finality. “Resurrection” is a term taken from the apocalyptic tradition, a  tradition that Jesus had more than passing familiarity with but which he persistently transformed, as we have observed—emphasizing God’s present immediacy and intimacy. Whatever it is that transpired between the burial of Jesus’ body in the tomb and the growing conviction among his followers that somehow the power of his presence still permeated their very lives, it can only be comprehended as something utterly novel. The empowering love that is God found a way to offer yet new opportunities for becoming that was not restricted to the electromagnetic continuum. That, indeed, is the meaning of the “Easter event.”
It is in regard to this set of considerations that I make sense of Paul’s disorienting reversal of power and weakness in 1 Corinthians 1:17–25.11 There, the cross is neither God’s counterintuitive triumph nor God’s ignominious defeat. Viewed in light of its aftermath, the Easter event, the cross stands as a signpost on the path to understanding God’s true power not in crushing evil but in surmounting its finality in what appears to human wisdom as foolishness and weakness. Power in weakness is not overpowering the strong but empowering all, the weak and the strong, to fulfill their best possible destinies.2 For love, as Paul maintains later, “never ends” (1 Cor 13:8). Nor does its power.
- Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus—God and Man, tr. Lewis L. Wilkens and Duane Priebe (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968), 19.
- Ibid., 140.
- Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God, 165.
- See Chapter Six, above.
- Daly, Beyond God the Father, 33ff.
- See, e.g., Oord, The Nature of Love, chapter two, especially 49–51.
- Ibid., 9.
- I do not presume here to establish this focus of Jesus’ proclamation as the teaching of the “historical Jesus” behind the post-Easter Gospels, although I have, in fact, previously argued this to be the case. See David P. Polk, On the Way to God: An Exploration into the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1989), 183–96.
- This paragraph and much of what follows in this section is a rephrasing of the position presented in my essay on “Empowering Love,” Lexington Theological Quarterly, 1973. My original title of the essay was “The Gospel of Empowering Love,” the beginning of my long journey to this present text.
- Quoted from personal communication with Pannenberg by Frank Tupper in his The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1973), 146. See also Pannenberg, Jesus—God and Man, tr. Lewis L. Wilkens and Duane Priebe (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968), 112.
- Ron Farmer even finds support for this reversal in the countertestimony of Revelation 5:6–14, at odds with conventional apocalyptic notions of divine power. See his insightful commentary on this passage in his Revelation (Chalice Commentaries for Today; St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 63–69.
- I have previously identified Eberhard Jüngel’s important recognition of this dynamic in his God as the Mystery of the World. See the quote in Chapter 14 above, n. 82.