Love Before Power

March 13th, 2023 / No Comments

In my forthcoming book, The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence, I argue that God’s power is the power of love. And love comes first in God.

In previous blogs, I’ve identified reasons we should stop saying God is omnipotent. And I wrote an essay on why “amipotence” is a good alternative.

I’m not the first to say God’s love is powerful. Some theologians propose labels like “omnipotent love,” “love almighty,” “sovereign love,” or “all-powerful love.”[1] Most who coin such labels, however, retain one of the three primary meanings of omnipotence. They add “love” to assure believers that divine sovereignty, as they conceive it, is not brute force, sheer control, or arbitrary rule. They wrongly think God can be simultaneously all-loving and all-powerful.

Francis Chan

In his best-selling book, Crazy Love, Francis Chan advocates what he calls “all-powerful love.” Because he thinks the omnipotent One is self-oriented, however, Chan insists God most wants to be worshipped and feared.

Chan says the answer to questions like “Why are so many people dying of starvation?” and “Why is my family messed up?” is “simply this: because He’s God.” In fact, God regards “all the peoples of the earth…as nothing.”[2]

I don’t call those good answers or expressions of divine love!

Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Or take Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Credo: Meditations on the Apostles Creed. When he explores the creed’s use of “Almighty,” Von Balthasar appeals to “love-almightiness.” He claims the Father is “equally loving and equally powerful.” We see the “unimaginable power of the Father in the force of his self-surrender,” Von Balthasar says, “not in his being able to do this or that as he chooses.”

The Father bestows freedom on the Son and the Spirit. What’s the aim in this surrender of power? It’s not the good of the world, according to Von Balthasar, at least not primarily. It’s God’s own self-love and glory. Divine love in Trinity is “complete in itself,” says Von Balthasar, God “is love, responding beloved, and union of the fruit of both.” Consequently, God “has need of no extradivine world in order to have something to love.”

If God chooses to create, the Father creates to “glorify the beloved Son.” In fact, “the work of the Son and the Spirit in the world is aimed at bringing all things home to this ultimate Origin.”[3] Love for creation is God’s afterthought, according to Von Balthasar. God necessarily self-loves; God may or may not love creatures.[4]

So much for love being oriented toward the good of others!

Every Theology Privileges a Divine Attribute

Chan, Von Balthasar, and most who coin phrases like “omnipotent love” fail to put love first. In fact, many theologians say no divine attribute should be given priority, wanting to maintain equity among them. As Von Balthasar puts it, God is “equally loving and equally powerful.”

This seems laudable. But in reality, every coherent theology privileges one or more divine attribute above others. Although many theologians try to give equal weight to each attribute, the discerning reader detects one as primary. One attribute functions in ways that require the others to be understood in light of it. And, usually, that attribute is omnipotence.

Sovereign Freedom Comes First

Let me illustrate. Many theologians talk about God’s omnipotent freedom to do whatever God decides. They say God can love creation, for instance, or not love it. God could have chosen not to create and remain everlastingly in solitude, and a sovereign God can freely withdraw. These claims privilege God’s omnipotent freedom from creation above God’s love for it.[5] In them, power comes before love.

Eberhard Jüngel identifies the problem. When God is understood as “the almighty Lord,” says Jüngel, “love and mercy appear to be fundamentally secondary and subsidiary to his claim to lordship. This is the earthly way of thinking of a lord: first he has all power and then perhaps he can be merciful—but then again, perhaps not. God’s lordliness and lordship are thought of in the same general way. He is mighty, able, and free to love or not to love . . . the love of God becomes a secondary attribute.”[6]


In amipotence, by contrast, divine love comes logically prior to sovereign choice. Consequently, God has to love creatures and creation; it’s God’s eternal nature to do so. When love comes first, God cannot choose not to love. And when love for creation is an eternal and essential attribute, God everlastingly loves creatures. It’s a metaphysical impossibility that God would love in absolute isolation; the Maker always makes love recipients. To use a sex analogy, God always makes love with creatures, and something new is conceived in these encounters.

Saying God has to love does not mean God is altogether without freedom. Open and relational theologians like me believe God loves moment by moment, facing an open, yet to be determined future. Consequently, God freely chooses how to love in each moment, given the possibilities and circumstances. Because God cannot be certain how free creatures will respond, God freely selects among the best options and calls creatures to choose.[7]

By nature, God must love; but in experience, God freely chooses how to love. These are features of God’s essence-experience binate.[8]

Starting with Love

Theologies that start with God’s self-sufficient omnipotence ask whether God will create. According to them, God could remain eternally alone, engaged in self-love but never creating or loving creaturely others.[9] Amipotence theologies, by contrast, start with God’s love for creatures and creation. In them, God necessarily and everlastingly creates others to love.

Theologies in which omnipotence comes first ask whether God will give power, agency, and freedom to creatures. An all-powerful God could exert all power. By contrast, amipotence assumes divine love always and necessarily provides power to creatures. Because love comes first, amipotence gives and respects the “otherness” of creaturely others.

Theologies in which omnipotence predominates ponder whether God will choose to control creatures from time to time, occasionally overriding or not providing power. According to them, God is voluntarily self-limited. The love of amipotence, by contrast, is inherently uncontrolling. An amipotent God cannot singlehandedly determine outcomes. Amipotence can’t control.

Reconfiguring God’s Attributes

When conceptual tensions arise among divine attributes, amipotence reconfigures the others to suit what love requires. It does not claim love is God’s only attribute. Amipotence doesn’t dismiss omnipresence, omniscience, everlastingness, wisdom, covenantal faithfulness, divine power, and so on. But it looks at each through the lens of love. The result means God’s attributes are configured differently than how most theologies configure them. Love prevails.[10]

The amipotent God is passible, for instance, being affected by creatures and experiencing emotions. God feels. The omniscience of amipotence involves God receiving new information moment by moment, not foreknowing from all eternity. God timefully perceives. An amipotent God creates alongside creatures and creation rather than overpowering or conjuring something from nothing. God co-creates. The steadfast love of an amipotent God is relentless; divine love for creation literally endures forever. An amipotent Lover forgives and never sends anyone to hell. God redeems. An amipotent God enjoys covenantal relations – hesed – with all creation. God relates. Divine wisdom rests primarily upon compassion for all rather than self-referential glory. God cares.

The logical priority of love makes a difference in how we think about God.

[1] Those who refer to God’s power as “omnipotent love” or something similar include Gustaf Aulen, The Faith of the Christian Church (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock, 2003 [1960]); Leonardo Boff, Church: Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church, tr. John W. Diercksmeier (New York: Crossroad, 1986); Vincent Brümmer, The Model of Love: A Study in Philosophical Theology (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993); IAustin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961); Nels F. S. Ferré, The Christian Understanding of God (New York: Harper, 1951); Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, Vol. 2, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, ed. and trans. (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1967–1978); Bradford McCall, The God of Chance & Purpose; Daniel Migliore, The Power of God and the Gods of Power (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 2008); George M. Newlands, God in Christian Perspective (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994); LeRon Shults, Reforming the Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005); Kathryn Tanner, “The Power of Love,” in Renegotiating Power, Theology, and Politics , J. Daniel and R. Elgendy, eds. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). David Polk offers an extensive and outstanding discussion of this issue in God of Empowering Love.

[2] Francis Chan, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God, rev. ed. (Colorado Springs, Colo.: David C. Cook, 2013), 30, 35-36.

[3] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Credo: Meditations on the Apostle’s Creed, David Kipp, trans. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 31-32.

[4] Amipotence is not opposed to intra-trinitarian love. There’s no reason God can’t everlastingly love in Trinity and everlastingly love creatures. But amipotence doesn’t require belief in the Trinity. Muslims, Jews, and Unitarians, for instance, can affirm amipotence.

[5] Migliore titles one of his chapters, “The Power of God Who Freely Loves.” See The Power of God and the gods of Power.

[6] Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World, tr. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 21. Brian Zahnd aims to rethink God in light of love. See Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (London: Waterbrook, 2017).

[7] This idea overcomes William L. Rowe’s worry that a perfectly loving God cannot be free. The open and relational God cannot foreknow with certainty what creatures will freely choose, so this God freely chooses among best options in each moment. See Rowe’s argument in Can God Be Free? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[8] I have explained the essence-experience binate in previous books the claim that God loves by nature but freely chooses how to love. For instance, see The Uncontrolling Love of God, ch. 7 and Pluriform Love, ch. 4.

[9] Amipotence theologies are neutral on the question of intratrinitarian love. Social trinitarians who find the intratrinitarian love proposal can accept amipotence, because there’s no contradiction between God everlastingly loving within Trinity and everlastingly loving creatures. But those who reject the Trinity should also find amipotence amenable.

[10] Amipotence agrees with Martin Luther King, Jr. when he says, “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” It agrees with King that “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” Amipotence adds that in God, love enjoys conceptual primacy. Although powerful, God cannot overpower when implementing justice.

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