The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestick robes of glorie
Resolv’d to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.
– George Herbert
Intellectual historians know that the doctrine of divine omnipotence (“The God of power, as he did ride / In his majestick robes of glorie”) played a critical role in the development of science (see, for example, Osler’s quote in this post, or readings #1, 2 and 5 in this class assignment, or here or here).
Yet for some time, on both theological and experiential grounds, I’ve grown to become more and more convinced that it’s a serious mistake to separate the divine attributes and to consider them in abstraction from one another. Rather, we get started on the wrong foot in our thinking about God if we first consider divine omnipotence in an abstract manner apart from divine love. In the same way, we go astray if we talk about the glory of God or the holiness of God apart from, or in opposition to, the love of God revealed in Christ.
In contrast, for Nicene Christian theology our knowledge of God comes through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. This Christocentric and Trinitarian starting point produces a quite different framework of thinking that does not separate the divine attributes of omnipotence and love. Moreover, it takes the further step of grounding our understanding of divine love and omnipotence not in speculative reason, which projects human experience onto God, but in the self-revelation of God in Christ. That is, I am being true to Nicene theology when I refuse to think about divine omnipotence (or glory or holiness) except in relation to the astonishing fact that God demonstrated divine freedom by loving the world so much that he sent his Son for us and our salvation (“so one day / He did descend, undressing all the way”). Immanuel, God become man — that is the heart of a distinctively Christian doctrine of divine glory, holiness and omnipotence!
That this was the intention of the Nicene theologians is evident in the writings of Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 300-368), sometimes known as “the Athanasius of the West” (Athanasius was perhaps the leading theologian at the Council of Nicea). Confronting the Hellenistic philosophy of his day, Hilary shifted the terms of the debate from speculation about an omnipotent yet ineffable deity to the attributes of God as the Father revealed through Christ the Son. This shift occurs, for example, at the end of this paragraph from De Trinitate, Book 2, chapter 6:
“It is the Father to whom all existence owes its origin. In Christ and through Christ he is the Source of all. In contrast to all else he is self-existent. He does not draw his being from without, but possesses it from himself and in himself. He is infinite, for nothing contains him and he contains all things; he is eternally unconditioned by space, for he is illimitable; eternally anterior to time, for time is his creation. Let imagination range to what you may suppose is God’s utmost limit, and you will find him present there; strain as you will there is always a further horizon towards which to strain. Infinity is his property, just as the power of making such effort is yours. Words will fail you, but his being will not be circumscribed. Or again, turn back the pages of history, and you will find him ever present; should numbers fail to express the antiquity to which you have penetrated, yet God’s eternity is not diminished. Gird up your intellect to comprehend him as a whole; he eludes you. God, as a whole, has left something within your grasp, but this something is inextricably involved in his entirety. Thus you have missed the whole, since it is only a part that remains in your hands; nay, not even a part, for you are dealing with a whole which you have failed to divide. For a part implies division, a whole is undivided, and God is everywhere and wholly present wherever he is. Reason, therefore, cannot cope with him, since no point of contemplation can be found outside himself and since eternity is eternally his. This is a true statement of the mystery of the unfathomable nature which is expressed by the name Father: God invisible, ineffable, infinite. Let us confess by our silence that words cannot describe him; let sense admit that it is foiled in the attempt to apprehend and reason in the effort to define. Yet he has, as we said, in Father a name to indicate his nature: he is a Father unconditioned. He does not, as men do, receive the power of paternity from an external source. He is unbegotten, everlasting, inherently eternal. To the Son only is he known, for ‘no one knows the Father save the Son and he to whom the Son wills to reveal him,’ nor yet the Son save the Father. Each has perfect and complete knowledge of the other. Therefore, since ‘no one knows the Father save the Son,’ let our thoughts of the Father be at one with the thoughts of the Son, the only faithful witness who reveals him to us.”
Speaking of this passage, Thomas Torrance (one of the 20th century’s most influential Trinitarian theologians) comments:
“What overwhelmed Hilary, perhaps above all else in this respect, was the utterly astonishing power of God manifested in his condescension to become incarnate within the frame of poor creaturely humanity, and in his self-abasing life on earth in the lowliness of the flesh from the wailing infant in the cradle to the weakness of the man on the cross. That God Almighty should become so little, poor and helpless, all for our sake, while remaining who he eternally is as God, was an act of indescribable majesty and power beyond anything that unaided reason could grasp.” (Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, p. 82.)
Thus the incarnation of Christ fully reveals the paradox glimpsed by Isaiah:
“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” (Isaiah 57:15)
For background context and an in-depth discussion, read The Trinitarian Faith, a magisterial work which Torrance, writer of more than 50 books, regarded as one of his three most important publications. In the cumulative and multi-faceted argument of this work, Torrance carefully elucidates how the Nicene fathers moved from the incarnate appearance of God in Christ to knowledge of the Father in the Holy Spirit. To mention just one example pertinent to the history of science, he shows how only in light of the incarnation did they articulate a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, repudiating attempts to reach knowledge of divine omnipotence from the creation via a bridge of speculative philosophy.
In other words, divine omnipotence and glory are clothed with the gospel of Christ.
So in the spirit of Nicene theology, whenever I find myself talking with someone about “divine omnipotence” or “glory” or “holiness” in the abstract, don’t be surprised if I shift the terms of the discussion and say instead, “the almighty love of God in Christ…” (or “the glory of the love of God revealed in the humanity of Christ…” or “the holy love of God revealed in Christ…”).
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Where do we find a holy God of almighty glory? Only in the condescending love of Christ, who for us and our salvation “did descend, undressing all the way.” From “the wailing infant in the cradle to the weakness of the man on the cross” – that is what omnipotence, holiness and glory look like. The gospel is in the manger.