Divine Power and Human Freedom (Reading Keller and Tupper)

When I read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation a few weeks ago, I was surprised that, at least in my English translation of the text, omnipotence was never explicitly mentioned.  Nevertheless, classical theism (“theism” refers to belief in God) has assumed throughout the centuries that God is omnipresent (present everywhere), omniscience (all-knowing), and omnipotent (all-powerful).

So far in Timothy Keller’s book The Reason for God (I’m on page 147 of 254), Keller hasn’t used the language of omnipotence.  Yet Keller believes that God “allows” all of our pain in order to thereby bless us (I have written about this before), which gives me the impression that Keller does think that God is in control of everything.

A different perspective on the power of God is taken up by Frank Tupper in his book A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story and the Compassion of God.  (I read that book this summer and before I began this God project.)  In A Scandalous Providence, Tupper contrasts a traditional “monarchal” conception of God with a more Jesus-influenced “parental” analogy for God.

For Centuries, Christians have mostly fallen into the “monarchal” category, thinking of God as an all-powerful King who has the power and authority to “rule and overrule” history, human decisions, and the laws of nature.  By contrast, Tupper suggests that we think of God as a divine parent who limits God’s power in order to allow humans (children of God) to exercise uninterrupted autonomy and freedom.  On the basis of the Incarnation, in which God is revealed through a limited, finite person, Tupper argues that God’s providential power is genuinely limited, not omnipotent.

According to Tupper, an all-powerful, monarchal God would eliminate all room for genuine human freedom.  By limiting the scope of their power, good parents (unlike Absolute Kings) give their kids the chance to make decisions on their own.

I doubt that Timothy Keller would agree with much of Tupper’s reflection on God’s power and action in the world.  The analogy of Monarchy is important to Keller’s understanding of God.  Even so, Keller sounds a strikingly Tupper-sounding note in his chapter entitled “Is Christianity a Straitjacket?”:

One of the principles of love – either love of a friend or romantic love – is that you lose independence to attain greater intimacy.  If you want the “freedom” of love – the fulfillment, security, sense of worth that it brings – you must limit your freedom in many ways.  You cannot enter a deep relationship and still make unilateral decisions or allow your friend or lover no say in how you live your life.

-Timothy Keller, The Reason for God [1]

Keller may perhaps think that God only became “limited” during the Incarnation and death of Jesus.  Yet what if God is more broadly limited, as Tupper argues?  Maybe God can do anything in theory (see Matthew 19:26), but in practice God possesses a limited range of options in each situation.  Maybe, as Tupper writes, God “does all God can do” in each particular situation, often failing to avert our crises because God lacks the necessary resources.  Perhaps the self-limitation of God allows us to make legitimate decisions that God cannot and will not overrule.  After all, as Keller points out, how else could love work?



[1] Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. 48. Print.

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