Divine Power -- Unilateral or Relational? (Bruce Epperly)

Bruce Epperly follows up on his discussion of the Resurrection with a discussion of divine power.  Is it unilateral (direct and irresistible) or relational (engaged but resistable)?  Bruce prefers a relational understanding of power, one that fits with his progressive theology.  I invite you to read and respond.


Divine Power – Unilateral or Relational?

Bruce Epperly

Over thirty years ago, my graduate school theology professor Bernard Loomer asserted that there were two primary kinds of power – unilateral power and relational power. Unilateral power is by nature coercive. It gives, but does not receive; acts but does not listen; demands but does not compromise. It sees the other in terms of its wishes, rather than the other’s deepest desires. Creativity and freedom are frowned upon, if not outright abolished. Anything that deviates from the ruler’s edit is, by definition, wrong and subject to severe punishment. In business or parenting, unilateral power proclaims, “my way or the highway” as it paternalistically seeks to act “for our own good.”

In contrast, relational power takes into consideration the value and perspective of others. It gives, but also receives; acts but also responds; has a vision but is open to change and transformation. Relational power is at the heart of good parenting as well as democratic decision-making. Relational power encourages freedom, creativity, and coloring outside the lines, within the context of overall environmental safety and order. Relational power recognizes that well-being in personal and institutional life is best achieved by welcoming diverse perspectives and balancing order and novelty for the common good.

Christian theology has struggled with these two approaches to power in its understanding of the relationship of God and the world. While Jesus is proclaimed as the primary revelation of the divine nature, Christian theologians have often, in the words of the philosopher Whitehead, preferred Caesar to Christ in their understanding of divine power. Sovereignty, defined as unilateral and all-determining (omnipotent) power, has been judged superior to love in describing God’s character and relationship to creation. Defined in terms of unilateral power, God can do whatever God wants – destroy cities, send plagues, kill innocent people, pulverize the planet –simply because God wills to. There is no court of appeal, because unilateral power is supreme and unquestioned regardless of its cost to creation. The elect can feel comfortable knowing that God will protect them while unilaterally condemning the unfaithful, or persons who ask questions or have different perspectives, to an eternity of suffering.

As I noted, Christianity has struggled with the nature of divine power even though Jesus’ embodiment of power was far different from that of Caesar. Borg, Crossan, and Wright have correctly noted that the gospels proclaim an alternative social order and an alternative understanding of the divine to that of unilateral, power-oriented, and domineering rulers and gods. Jesus’ ministry, described in the gospels and in Paul’s Christological hymn, from Philippians 2:1-11, was defined by relationship, empowerment, acceptance, mutuality, and love. If Jesus is the window into God’s nature, then divine power, while variable in expression and intensity, is, by definition, loving and relational.

Divine relational power – and remember, Jesus opened the door to seeing God in relational terms by calling God “abba” (or father) - shapes the world though loving and respectful relationship. On the one hand, this means that God has a vision, appropriate to each moment of experience and, in the broadest sense, for the vast expanses of planetary and cosmic history. God presents the world with possibilities and the energy to achieve them. God does coerce the world but inspires the world with dreams, visions, and possibilities. On the other hand, this means that God really experiences our lives. God touches us with vision and beauty, but we also touch God by our dreams and actions. The “One to whom all hearts are open and all desires known” truly experiences our joy and suffering, and allows these experiences to shape God’s response to the world. The world lives by the dynamic divine-creaturely “call and response” in which God presents visions and the world responds, thus enabling present new visions appropriate to our personal or global situation.

As in the case of all healthy and dialogical relationships, God “listens” often before God “speaks.” God seeks what is best for the real world and not some ideal person or universe. In some ways, this could be said to place limits on God, that is, God works within the world as it is, presenting possibilities that enable us to move forward. We can refuse these possibilities and often do; but our refusals cannot defeat God, who responds with new possibilities in light of what we’ve just chosen. For example, in a violent situation, God cannot personally restrain the threatening fist; but, God can move within the perpetrator, opening him or her to new possibilities, which at that moment might be restraining the fist, while still boiling with rage.

Many persons affirm the theological necessity of divine unilateral power. After all, such power insures God’s victory and asserts that God can always get what God wants. While I concede this point, I believe divine unilateral power raises some serious theological issues. First, it makes God equally responsible for salvation and damnation, cancer and recovery, catastrophe and escape, and evil and good. Second, the image of divine unilateral power goes against the dialogical vision of the Hebraic scriptures in which God often has to adjust God’s vision and action in relationship to the behavior of God’s people. Third, Jesus’ healing miracles, while revealing extraordinary manifestations of divine power, reflect the interplay of personal faith and divine action, or divine call and human response. Forth, divine unilateral power makes God beyond good and evil, thus, exalting amoral power over love as essential to God’s character.

A relational God, in contrast, seeks abundant life for all things, but must work through the freedom and creativity of the world, slowly, patiently, and constantly luring the world toward greater and greater love and beauty. A relational God is not without power, but it is the power of love and relatedness, not coercion or violence. It is the power of shared vision rather than unilateral demand.

God’s power is present shaping each moment of experience, and some moments reflect God’s power in unique and transformative ways. God’s vision, like our own, can be embodied in more vital, lively, and transformative ways, as a result of the divine decision to be more present in some places than others and in some persons rather than others and in the corresponding creaturely or community response to God’s initiative and vision. Such revelatory moments truly embody the divine aim toward beauty and wholeness, whether in a Celtic “thin place,” a liturgical healing service, a Damascus road experience, or in the radical openness of Mary and the moment by moment transparency and revelation of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call the Christ.

The power of love, divine power incarnate, trusts us enough to inspire and encourage our own use of power and creativity. In inviting to “greater things” (John 14:12), God expands God’s own creativity and power in the dynamic, transformative, and evolving divine call and human response. Like a good parent, God says “surprise me,” to creation, knowing that in the dance of call and response God has the visionary resources to respond creatively and lovingly to every creaturely act.

Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary; pastor at Disciples United Community Church, Lancaster, PA; theologian and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. (http://www.bruceepperly.com/)


Doug Sloan said…
(Thank you, Bruce. This is going in my personal theology paper)

God’s power is relational.

God’s power is subservient to the healthy and dialogical relationship God has with creation.

God’s power works through a shared vision.

God’s power is not unilateral or demanding.

God’s power is not definitive of God’s character (Epperly 2010).


God has limits.

God without limits is too small.

God is not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent.


God is not omnipotent.

God cannot destroy, control, hate, lie, impose, manipulate, exclude, punish, retaliate, judge, condemn, act vindictively or capriciously.


God is neither omniscient nor omnipresent.

God is always here with us.

God cannot intrude in or impose on life.

God does not predestine the course or end of life.

God imbues our being – our thoughts, emotions, choices, and actions – only through our invitation and practice.

God is an influential presence only to the extent
that we make ourselves aware of it and learn to be sensitive to it.

God is in relationship with us while being deliberately unaware of our future and forgivingly dismissive of our past.


God requires nothing of us.

God has never required, recognized, or accepted any sacrifice by anyone for anything.

God accepts whatever we bring to the God/person relationship – love, hate, anger, peace, hurt, health, agitation, serenity, fractures, wholeness, etc. – as a gift.
Brian said…
(As posted in reply on The Intersection)

Scripture portrays God as weilding both kinds of power. Basically, the question is, "What God do you need?".

Oppressed people seem to need a God who has sovereign power and will triumph over evil. Middle class white folks seem to need a God who will work with us as a good boss and colleague. What do you need? That is what you will say God is.

If there is an "afterlife", I hope God is unilateral in saving me whether I make good choices or not. Universal salvation relies on this point of view (mostly).

LIkewise, powerless people cry out for a unilateral God. One who will bring justice regardless of their oppressors' willingness to co-create with God.

On the other hand, I have white priviledge (and male priviledge). I want God to be cool with me and work with me in a collaborative effort.

Frankly, I lean toward Epperly's approach. But this should come as no surprise. My social location reveals my bias.
bepperly said…
I appreciate both of your responses, Doug and Brian....social location makes a difference, and I agree with you on this point, Brian...however, those who live by unilateral also die by it...to say that God wields unilateral power also justifies the sovereignty of oppressors, encouraging the belief that God has chosen them and will sustain them in relationship to those who are not chosen. On the other hand, revolutionary unilateral power may lead to a situation in which the formerly oppressed become the new oppressors, using the same techniques as those they opposed in the past.
Brian said…
Good points Dr. Epperly. There is plenty of historical support for your position.

The divine rights of kings certainly illustrates unilateral power. Likewise, overthrowing oppression only to replace it with unilateral power will result in further oppression.

A relational approach makes most sense for me, both in living my own life as well in the observation of human relations.

I'll confess that I'm currently in at a place in my thinking where any confident statments about God sound like foolishness to me. However, I acknowledge that this says more about me (at the moment) than it does about the people making such statements. It certainly says more about me than it does God.

That said, we cannot "do" theology without making some kind of statements about God, even if hedged with all kinds of footnotes.

I believe a serious reflection on the process perspective cannot be avoided for those of us who consider outselves to be liberal Christians. That said, I do see conflict between process and liberation approaches. These conflicts do not need to be destructive or divisive. Hopefully they can provide opportunities for interesting discussion.

Thanks for your work. You respresent the Disciples well.

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