God of Empowering Love: A History and Reconception of the Theodicy Conundrum
by David P. Polk
Chapter 6: Rearrangings of a Titanic God
Titanic: adj., “pertaining to . . . enormous size, strength, power.”1 That the God of Christian theism we have been encountering could be characterized as “titanic” would seem obvious. That this is also the name bestowed on a doomed ocean liner is a provocative coincidence. For me to suggest that much of what followed right into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is not intended to be dismissive of intellectual giants whose efforts far outstrip my own. It is rather to contend that their attempts to shore up the sinking ship of traditional theism were finally to no avail. The ship of Augustinian theism, alas, still sank.
Let us examine a selection of the more important voices.
A CONSCIOUSNESS OF ABSOLUTE DEPENDENCY: FRIEDRICH SCHLEIERMACHER
In the sixteenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus initiated the novel idea in astronomy that the planets and the sun and the stars do not revolve around the Earth but that the planets, including our own, revolve around the sun. Fearing personal consequences once word got out about  his revolutionary theory, he delayed publication of his work, reportedly seeing it first in print only on his deathbed in 1543. Two and a half centuries later the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in the “Preface to the Second Edition” of his Critique of Pure Reason (1787), appropriated this “Copernican Revolution” in thought for his own shift from the presumed objectivity of what we know to the act of conscious knowing itself.2 It remains a contestable assessment because the movement is precisely in the opposite direction: After Copernicus, we humans are no longer understood to be in the center of the universe, whereas Kant concentrated precisely on the subjectivity of individual knowing. Even so, Friedrich Schleiermacher mirrored Kant in the axial shift in his way of approaching theological issues.
Kant had found no access to God through the utilization of pure reason, shifting instead to a moral route through the utilization of “practical reason.” In his The Christian Faith (2nd ed. 1830), Schleiermacher made a similar but quite different move, concentrating on the human self-consciousness, which he determined to be characterized by “the consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the same thing, of being in relation to God.”3 This point of departure required, furthermore, that “any proclamation of God which is to be operative upon and within us can only express God in His relation to us,” not God as God is in and of Godself.4
Even so, Schleiermacher surrendered very little, and his own consciousness’s appropriation of God’s being, “in relation to us” of course, included and emphasized the traditional attributes of omnipotence, eternity, omnipresence, and omniscience.5 And for him, “immutability” is already contained within the notion of God’s eternity.6 Causality within the entire system of nature can be exhaustively accounted for by God’s causal activity.7 Following the lead of Aquinas, Schleiermacher declared that there is no distinction between potential and actual in God.8
What is decidedly disappointing here is the entire lack of any really fresh probing into the categories of thinking about God that Schleiermacher inherited. The shift to the human consciousness, or “feelings,” resulted in no concomitant shift in thinking about the object of those feelings. Might one just as readily experience a “consciousness of  absolute belovedness” as an initial point of departure for probing God’s relation with us? Schleiermacher was unable to move there. Not even a brief appendix on other divine attributes includes the consciousness of God as love.9 Only at the very end of the enterprise is the notion of the divine love introduced, under the category of “the divine attributes which relate to redemption.”10
The most curious and distressingly undeveloped notation offered here at the last is an acknowledgment, in commenting on 1 John 4:16, that, indeed, love alone can be understood to be that attribute of God that is in fact an expression “of the very essence of God.”11 This is a wholly unexpected concession. Had Schleiermacher begun here and unpacked this instead of tossing it off as a tantalizing bon mot, his work would have been truly revolutionary.
GOD WHO LOVES IN FREEDOM: KARL BARTH
Karl Barth (1886–1968) and Paul Tillich (1886–1965) were exact contemporaries, having been born in the same year, dying only three years apart.12 Although their approaches to theology and the conclusions at which they arrived were vastly different from one another, I will treat both of them under this rubric of a failure to right the theistic ship.
Barth’s theological output concerning the reality of God, especially in his vast, multi-volume Church Dogmatics (1936-1962 ), is rich, verbose, complex, and complicated. But at its core is a simple, straightforward declaration: that God is most basically to be defined as “the One who loves in freedom.”13 This freedom is not conditioned in any way by anything other than Godself: “God loves because he loves; because this act is His being, His essence and His nature . . . God’s loving is necessary, for it is the being, the essence and the nature of God,” but this is a necessity grounded in God’s freedom and nowhere else.14
“God’s act is His loving . . . ‘God is’ means ‘God loves’.”14 That is a refreshing assertion, given the lack of central attention love as a key aspect of God’s identity has typically been afforded in the tradition. Even so, this stops short of 1 John 4:8, 16, where God is not merely One who loves, but is love.16
It is also possible to speak of the “multiplicity, individuality and diversity of the perfections of God”17 as aspects of the one true undivided God. In traditional theology these “perfections” are known as divine “attributes.” Barth paired these perfections according to a distinction between God as He is in Himself and God as He is for us,18 such as righteousness and mercy, or unity and omnipresence. One such pairing is understood to be constancy and omnipotence.19 But Barth also distinguished between the perfections of the divine loving and those of the divine freedom, and treated power under the latter as, for example, in Dogmatics in Outline: “Thus God’s power might also be described as God’s freedom.”20
Anna Case-Winters offers a telling critique of Barth’s discussion of the interlocking relationship between God’s freedom, power, and love:
At times freedom and power seem almost to be interchangeable terms for Barth. Much of what Barth says concerning power is repeated in his position on freedom. At some points he even seems to reverse things and make freedom a subset of power.21
She goes on to assert:
Barth’s location of the discussion of omnipotence under the perfections of freedom rather than the perfections of love proves significant in yet another way. His unfolding development of the doctrine seems more concerned with illustrating divine freedom than with illustrating divine love. The all-determining notion of power which Barth in fact develops demonstrates divine freedom well enough but sometimes makes divine love and even the possibility of genuine divine relationship with a real “other” more difficult to conceive. He does not seem to allow “love” to shape, define, and constitute what power means in the same way that “freedom” shapes, defines, and constitutes the meaning. When it comes to omnipotence, Barth’s use of the phrase “the One who loves in freedom” stresses “freedom” more than “love.”22
This is a real sticking point. Omnipotence has not been allowed to be redefined by Love. God remains “all-powerful, with power over everything that He actually wills or could will,”23 and Case-Winters  notes that, for Barth, power “is still being conceived as the ability to dominate and control.”24 In a somewhat confusing combination of proposals, Barth maintained simultaneously that “God and God alone has real power, all the real power,”25 but also God “allows what is outside Himself to have power.” God’s power is “free power over all, the power over all powers.”26 The only way to hold these two statements together would be to acknowledge that all powers other than God’s are not, in the final analysis, real.
Barth has opened a door, regarding the centrality of love in his defining of the being of God, but it is a door through which he did not fully walk, alas. He insisted that “to define the subject [God] by the predicate [power] instead of the predicate by the subject would lead to disastrous consequences,”27 and that is, of course, correct. Redefining power as God’s power, rather than allowing traditional notions of power to control how we understand God, is precisely the step that Barth was not able to take; God’s being as love (the subject) has not been allowed to redefine what is meant by the power (the predicate) of God.28
With regard to related matters, Barth preferred the term “constancy” to the traditional “immutability” because of his key emphasis on God’s essential freedom but that finally amounts to a distinction without a real difference. God, the living, “constant” God, “is not Himself subject to or capable of any alteration.”29 Concomitantly, God’s omniscience is not subject to alteration by what occurs in time: “God’s knowledge, as omnipotent knowledge, is complete in its range, the one unique and all-embracing knowledge.”30 God’s “knowledge of all things is what it is in eternal superiority to all things and eternal independence of all things.”31
Barth’s efforts came so close to resolving the power/love relationship in God, particularly in his focus on the implications of Jesus’ crucifixion. Commenting on 1 Cor. 1:24 he wrote: “it is Jesus Christ the Crucified who is Himself the power of God,”32 and later he reflected on the Corinthian theme of God’s power in weakness (1 Cor. 1:18).33 But he failed to allow these concessions to impact his fundamental stance on divine power. Sheila Greene Davaney expresses the problem cogently:
Although divine power is revealed through powerlessness and passion, this is not the same as identifying God’s power with  this impotence and passivity . . . God’s power is so unique and so great and superior that it transcends and encompasses what for humanity are so often the oppositions of activity and passivity, power and powerlessness . . . divine power is active in powerlessness but is not to be merely equated with weakness and impotence.34
We are left with a sense of deep appreciation for the depths Barth plumbed in his endeavors to place the correlation of divine power and divine love on a new footing, but unfortunately he simply did go far enough to allow the implications of his very own searching to lead him to empowering breakthroughs beyond theism’s impasses. The traditional synthesis was still breaking apart in the turbulent sea.
GOD AS BEING-ITSELF: PAUL TILLICH
For Paul Tillich, God does not exist. Even so, Tillich wrote and spoke about God throughout his adult life. This is not the contradiction it would seem to be. To “ex-ist” is to stand out from, to have reality apart from and alongside other similarly “ex-isting” entities. God, rather, is no Supreme Being among beings but that which underlies and holds together all that is separated. In short, God is to be comprehended as the “ground of being” or, equally, “being-itself.”35
That is the famous revolution in theology that flourished in Tillich’s work. With this critical distinction between finite beings and the infinite God as being-itself, Tillich tried to refloat the whole conceptual enterprise on a new hull. How well did he carry it off? Let us investigate that noble prospect.
The crucial ontological statements Tillich made about God were intended to be non-symbolic,36 in contrast to everything else we try to convey with human words. God as being-itself includes “the power of resisting nonbeing.” God is “the power of being in everything and above everything, the infinite power of being,”37 When we speak of God as “living,” however, or “personal,” we have vacated the non-symbolic premises. God now becomes “the ground of everything personal,” the ground of all life.38 Similarly, for God to be understood to be “in  relation”—“external relations between God and the creature”—characterizes a symbolic statement only.39
Omnipotence as the power of a “highest being,” once again, is rejected. Omnipotence is rather “the power of being which resists nonbeing in all its expressions and which is manifest in the creative process in all its forms.”40 But once again, omnipotence is another symbolic term, though it is retained as an expression of our ultimate courage to have faith in “a victory over the threat of nonbeing.”41 Tillich’s non-symbolic statement is simply God as “the power of being.”42
Following this thread, God as eternal relates to temporality not within it or above it but as the ground of time. “Eternity is the transcendent unity of the dissected moments of existential time.”43 Unaffected by time’s passage but underlying it, it would appear to be clear that changelessness is a reliable characteristic of being-itself vis-a-vis changeable, existing beings.
What is to be said of the ground of being as love, or as loving? Tillich actually had a great deal to say about this matter. “Love is an ontological concept . . . And, since God is being-itself, one must say that being-itself is love . . . The process of the divine life has the character of love.”44 But this acknowledgment then has to be qualified: “As is the case of life and spirit, one speaks symbolically of God as love. He is love; this means that the divine life has the character of love but beyond the distinction between potentiality and actuality. This means therefore that it is mystery for finite understanding.”45
How are divine power and divine love interrelated, especially in regard to the demands of justice and the “conflict between the divine love and the divine wrath against those who violate justice”?
It is not the divine power as such which is thought to be in conflict with the divine love. The divine power is the power of being-itself, and being-itself is actual in the divine life whose nature is love.” When justice and therefore love are violated, “judgment and condemnation follow. But they do not follow by a special act of divine wrath or retribution; they follow by the reaction of God’s loving power against that which violates love. Condemnation is not the negation of love but the negation of the negation of love. It is an act of love without which nonbeing would triumph over being.46
Tillich pursued this relationship further three years after the first volume of his Systematic Theology, in a slim volume entitled Love, Power, and Justice (1954). The distinction of power and force is meaningful only for human beings: “there is indeed a compulsory element in the actuality of power. But this is only one element, and if power is reduced to it and loses the form of justice and the substance of love, it destroys itself.”47
Love and power are often contrasted in such a way that love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. Powerless love and loveless power are contrasted. This, of course, is unavoidable if love is understood from its emotional side and power from its compulsory side. But such an understanding is error and confusion.48
Further along, Tillich offered a telling insight with the observation that “Love is the foundation, not the negation, of power.”49
But all of this comes with a serious caveat. How can being-itself be said to act? Agents act. God is no existing Prime Agent. Symbolically we may speak of God’s loving activity but how is this more than an aspect of human yearning for the assurance of the reliability of the ground of being against the encroaching threat of non-being? An apparent shift from Aristotle’s unmoved Mover and the One I have identified in Aquinas as an unchanged Changer now becomes the essential Ground of existence that underlies the human “courage to be” by simply being. And if God as essentially Love does not actually do anything, how can God meaningfully be endowed with the term “love,” even if only symbolically?
Nels F. S. Ferré summed up his critique of Tillich on this point in this way:
Tillich had only a word for a solution without proper correspondence in truth. Power works because in some sense it is. If it is not limited static being, then it must be being in some form of dynamic reality . . . If the power is and works on and in the world, it must be related, but then according to Tillich it cannot be called unconditional and therefore not transcendent or unconditional. Thus Tillich in fact had no solution. His solution was pseudotheological. Within his own presuppositions he failed to offer a theological ultimate that could stand the light of full analysis.50
GOD AS THE POWER OF THE FUTURE: WOLFHART PANNENBERG
The German Lutheran Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928–2014) was a remarkably young man when he first burst on the scene in the mid-1960s. He spent time in his formative teaching years in the company of Jürgen Moltmann at Wuppertal, where both shared an intense interest in the impact of the future on the present, although they subsequently went their separate ways in determining what that impact means. His work initially became a major stimulus on the tasks of theological construction, though the sense of its importance has more recently been on the wane.
Pannenberg tantalized American readers in 1969 when he announced in Theology and the Kingdom of God, in the midst of the debate over the presumed death of God, that, strictly speaking, “God does not yet exist.”
Jesus proclaimed the rule of God as a reality belonging to the future. This is the coming Kingdom. The idea was not new, being a conventional aspect of Jewish expectation. What was new was Jesus’ understanding that God’s claim on the world is to be viewed exclusively in terms of his coming rule. Thus it is necessary to say that, in a restricted but important sense, God does not yet exist. Since his rule and his being are inseparable, God’s being is still in process of coming to be.51
This was a tantalizing proposal, at the time. It suggested a certain open-endedness that seemed to undergird human freedom of response to the divine initiative by pushing the fullness of God’s being ahead to our ultimate future, in the definitive arrival of the eschatological basileia tou theou.
The primacy of the future of God is explicitly a corollary of the primacy of the power of the future, which is none other than God in the manifestation of God’s Reign. God does not appear as one being among others. God has being explicitly as “the power of the future.”52
Pannenberg went on, however, to clarify his intentions in a direction that showed this way of resolving the power and freedom dilemma to be only a chimera. From our perspective within history, it appears God  is out there ahead of us. But from God’s own perspective, the end of history is simply the point at which we encounter the reality that was true all along—that God is indeed eternally and self-consistently God but manifests Godself to history only as its forward flow is terminated. What Pannenberg has done, in fact, is stand Augustine on his side: God timelessly embraces our past, present, and future but now is seen to do so ahead of us rather than above us.53
The key in Pannenberg’s formulation is his notion of God as the all-determining power. If he were to mean by this that God finally wraps up all the determinations of meaning that we have brought into existence by our human activity, that would be a proposal worth pursuing. But that falls short of Pannenberg’s true position. He has insisted that, in light of the ultimate future ahead of us, it is the case not only that God is the all-determining power but is, in fact, the only true power. Omnipotence means not the highest power over other expressions of power but sole power.54
Pannenberg has never been reluctant to acknowledge explicitly that the power of God disclosed in the life and message of Jesus is essentially characterized by love. “However, if this love were powerless, then it would not be God, and if it were only one power among others, then it would not be the one God from whom and to whom are all things and who alone can in all seriousness be called God.”55 But even this awareness is qualified by the insistence that the power of God can be understood as one that “dominates all” and is “master over all,”56 leading to the realization of “the complete dependence of everything real upon God.”57 The consequence of this understanding is the adopting of a position that I have termed “hard determinism,” controlling every element in creation, in contrast to “soft determinism,” in which God’s final victory gives definitive shape to all that we have provisionally worked out by our own exercise of freedom along the way.58 It is what finally renders Pannenberg’s attempt to defend Augustine by shifting God from Eternal Present to Ultimate Future an unsuccessful effort to resolve the issue of theodicy.
I conclude, once again, that herculean efforts at reconceptualizing theology’s quandary over the interrelatedness of God’s power and  love simply have not brought sufficiently fresh insight to the task. The conundrum concerning how Ultimate Being can manifest both love and power in a fully interconnected and fully realized way persists. The biblical witness to a living God whose power is shown forth precisely as a facet of essential love and not vice versa still remains alien to these and numerous other reworkings of the historic theistic synthesis, the detailing of which would finally prove redundant. One further issue will be addressed in the next chapter, before shifting our attention to the output of those who successfully attacked the inherited tradition and laid the groundwork for a recasting of the pivotal issue at hand.
- The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Random House, 1969).
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), 22, 25 ft.
- Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 2nd ed., tr. and. ed. By H. R. MacIntosh and J. S. Stewart (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 1:12.
- Ibid., 1:52.
- Ibid., 1:201f., spelled out in detail in 203–28.
- Ibid., 1:206.
- Ibid., 1:211f.
- Ibid., 1:214.
- Ibid., 1:228–32.
- Ibid., 2:727–32.
- Ibid., 2:731f.
- Barth and Tillich were the theological giants who dominated the scene in my years of initial theological formation, in the 1960s.That has changed. No giants bestride the current landscape of multicultural particularity and fragmentation of focus. Nor did either generate a school called Barthianism or Tllichianism, although Tillich’s influence could be seen in departments of Christian education and church school curricula  in mainline U.S. Protestant congregations for decades. A sense of the long-term importance of both has greatly receded in more recent times, and not so much for formulating the wrong answers as for failing to raise the right questions.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, tr. and ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936–1962), Vol. 2, Part 1, 257, 322, et al. (Henceforth: CD.)
- Ibid., 2:1, 279f.
- Ibid., 2:1, 283.
- In a later volume of his Church Dogmatics, Barth, in discussing the humanity of God in Jesus, did go on to affirm that “the statements ‘God is’ and ‘God loves’ are synonymous,” and that John’s assertion that God is love is “a genuine equation.” (4:2, 755f.) Had he dared to develop the implications of this acknowledgment for his doctrine of God, he could not have been included in this chapter on the sinking of the theistic synthesis.
- Ibid., 2:1, 332.
- Ibid., 2:1, 346.
- Ibid., 2:1, 490–607.
- Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, tr. G. T. Thompson (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 47.
- Anna Case-Winters, God’s Power: Traditional Understandings and Contemporary Challenges (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 100. See Barth, CD 1:2, 674: “Freedom means ability, possibility, power–power in its illimitability or its equality over against other powers.”
- Case-Winters, 100f.
- Barth, CD 2:1, 522.
- Case-Winters, 97. 25.
- Barth, CD 2:1, 531.
- Ibid., 2:1, 543.
- Ibid., 2:1, 524.
- Sheila Greene Davaney also calls attention to this critical point, to wit, that Barth made the correct claim, “that we cannot begin with any  general or universal idea of power and then apply it to God in some superor preeminent manner,” but then failed to execute it. Davaney, Divine Power: A Study of Karl Barth and Charles Hartshorne (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 31.
- Ibid., 2:1, 491.
- Ibid., 2:1, 552.
- Ibid., 2:1, 559, emphasis mine.
- Ibid., 2:1, 607.
- Ibid., 4:1, 186f., 191f.
- Davaney, op. cit., 56.
- Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951–63), 1:235.
- Ibid., 1:238.
- Ibid., 1:236, for both quotes.
- Ibid., 1:245.
- Ibid., 1:271.
- Ibid., 1:273.
- E.g. Tillich, Systematic 1:272.
- Ibid., 1:274.
- Ibid., 1:279.
- Ibid., 1:280, emphasis original.
- Ibid., 1:283 (both quotes).
- Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), 8.
- Ibid., 11.
- Ibid., 49.
- Nels F. S. Ferré, “Tillich and the Nature of Transcendence,” in Paul Tillich: Retrospect and Future (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966), 15, emphases original.
- Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia:  The Westminster Press, 1969), 56.
- Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology, Vol. II, tr. George H. Kehm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 242.
- See my extended analysis of this position in my On the Way to God: An Exploration into the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1989), 249–70.
- Ibid., 270–80. See also my “The All-Determining God and the Peril of Determinism,” in Carl E. Braaten and Philip Clayton, eds., The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), 152–68.
- Pannenberg, “Response to the Discussion,” in James M. Robinson and John B. Cobb, Jr., eds., Theology as History (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 232, ft. 10.
- Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God, 55.
- Pannenberg and Lewis Ford, “A Dialog about Process Philosophy,” Encounter 38, 1977, 320.
- See my “The All-Determining God and the Peril of Determinism,” 160–62.