Knowledge and Power

“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

“Why are you wasting your time speculating on a useless question?”–John Calvin

O.k., so that was more paraphrase than direct quotation. But it’s close enough. For all that Calvinism is accused of undue speculation into the secret things of God, the best of Calvin’s own writing was marked by an unwillingness to engage in useless speculations into things sub-divine.

“If God can do anything, can God make a mountain so big that God can’t move it?”

“You wouldn’t ask that question if you realized that you’re talking about the power of God rather than power (full stop).”–Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics ยง31.2

Ok, I’m paraphrasing again. But in his talk about God, Barth consistently returns to this: we are talking about the God who has revealed himself in Christ, and it is this God who exercises power, this God who knows, that himself determines the definitions of knowledge and of power.

There is no abstract “all-powerfulness” by which God is measured.

We confess the God who has revealed himself as all-powerful, and thus the definition of “omnipotent” is what God can and will do.

God’s power is the real power that God exercises over all things. This includes the bestowal of freedom on people to act in accordance with God’s power and knowledge and love or in attempted rejection of them.

In so connecting God’s power and knowledge with the actuality of God’s acting, Barth is able to hold together certain foreknowledge and predestination with human freedom; he is able to affirm God’s power without entailing God in willing evil.

In other words, Barth operates firmly within the Reformed tradition without so clinging to God’s “absolute” sovereignty as to make God (as God so often appears in more popular and less well-nuanced versions) one who wills evil or fatalistically determines human destinies.

“If a person sins, this is not because God knew, as He certainly did from eternity, that the person would sin. For the object of the divine foreknowledge was not a fatum or fortuna, but the person who sinned of the person’s own will.”

There are times when I read this doctrine of God material and worry that we are still in the land of speculation. However, Barth continues to resonate with me because he is relentlessly building his theology from below: the God who has revealed Godself, and the humanity that knows itself in light of God’s self-revelation, are the determining factors about who God is and how God is at work in the world.

For Barth, the story is the thing. The reality we experience as free agents is part of that story, as is God’s declaration that God is powerful over all things, as is the actual world over which God has (and, seemingly at times, hasn’t fully) displayed God’s power.

These realities, rather than our ideals, are the means by which God is known, even in the midst of an imperfect world.

7 thoughts on “Knowledge and Power”

  1. God, I find Godself so annoying. So would Barth.

    God reveals himself as Father. He has a Son. God speaks in gendered terms. This is part of God’s revelation. It wouldn’t offend a feminist bone in my body if you dropped the stilted rhetoric for the sake of a Barthian consistency. As you say he builds his theology from below.

    1. God is not limited to gender or gender specific words. Omnipotent would mean that the symbols we use to speak about God do not control or define God. Have you never experienced a revelation of God in feminine form? I mean, really?!?!

  2. Well-put, by all three of you. :) We too often forget that negative theology doesn’t stop at negations — the “omni”s and abstract absolutes applied to the being of God are just as apophatic. They have everything to do with evading perceived creaturely negatives in defining the godhead and devising a conceptual framework by which God can be what we feel God ought to be to do what God does.

  3. Barth does theology from below? That’s like saying someone is flying on the ground, when they’re actually driving. Theology is anthropology from above. Viva la Bultmann! ;) (Hi, Matt!)

  4. “…he is relentlessly building his theology from below: the God who has revealed Godself…”, a trick he learned from Luther. God can only be rightly known *pro me*–as the God who has revealed himself to be *for me* in Chirst. Trying to know God *en se* (or abstractly or from above) will only result in the formation of an idol of our own imagining, an idol of power, and one that can only ever be to us wrath and never self-giving love.

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