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Yes, we should play God

by
11 December 2020

But not the powerful bully of our own making, says Tom Wright

Alamy

William Blake: The Ancient of Days (1794), depicting Blake’s character Urizen in a pose similar to that used for his image of Newton produced the following year

William Blake: The Ancient of Days (1794), depicting Blake’s character Urizen in a pose similar to that used for his image of Newton produced the foll...

HUMAN beings are given power on the very first page of the Bible. In Genesis 1, various features of the newly made world (vegetation, birds, and animals) are given instructions to multiply, to flourish, and to get on with being themselves and with propagating their own species. When humans are made, however, there is an extra dimension.

Humans, too, are commanded to be fruitful and multiply (1.28), but they are given an extra awesome and responsible vocation: to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (1.26, 28).

Power, in other words, comes from God and is given to human beings. Howls of protest have greeted this kind of statement. We are only too well aware of the destructive results when people hear the word “dominion” and assume that it means “exploitation.”

Some have seen this as the root cause of our present environmental crisis. Some have urged that we regard this vocation as cancelled by the “fall” in Genesis 3, but we find it again in Psalm 8, which the early Christians regularly cited in connection with Jesus.

In a poem celebrating the greatness and majesty of God, the Psalmist declares that, although humans are apparently small and insignificant compared with the sun, moon, and stars, God has “crowned them with glory and honor”, giving them “dominion” (that word again) over the rest of the earth.

I do not think the Psalmist was naïve. The dangerous folly of the human race was all too apparent then as now. But the vocation is reaffirmed — setting up the biblical version of the puzzle we have already sketched. How does the Bible resolve it?

One of the principal ways in which the issue is resolved in the Bible Jesus knew is through the theme of wisdom. Human beings are called to be “wise”, to find that, through humble reverence before the living creator God, they themselves will gain insight and understanding into how to manage not only their own lives, but all the other aspects of the world in which they find themselves.

The classic text here is the book of Proverbs and the various other Jewish texts that expound on and apply it. In particular, the vocation to be the chief ruler of God’s people was seen to require “wisdom” of a type that could only be the gift of God. Solomon, aware of his awesome responsibilities, prays for wisdom, so that he can rule as king with proper discernment between good and evil (1 Kings 3.6-9).

 

THIS theme is developed in two famous portraits of biblical heroes who, without becoming kings as such, are acknowledged by the actual rulers to possess superior wisdom, and are therefore put in authority under the king and over the kingdom, in much the way humans are under God and over the world. The two are Joseph in the court of Pharaoh, and Daniel in the court at Babylon.

Their stories display the nuanced ways in which their power was rooted in faithfulness to God, expressed in remarkable insight, recognised by their respective monarchs, and exercised in practice.

When it comes to kings, another psalm holds out a majestic vision of the ways in which “dominion” is supposed to be exercised:

 

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice. . .
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. . .
For he delivers the needy when the call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

Psalm 72.1-2, 8, 12-14

 

That’s what “dominion” is there for. It can easily be exploited for one’s own advantage, as we all know. The stories of monarchies, including the ancient Hebrew monarchies, are full of such abuses, but there is a true use to which rulers can and must be recalled.

God wants his world to be ruled wisely, by humble and obedient humans in every sphere, by people who will rely on God’s own judgement and wisdom, and who will implement it in their communities to bring healing and hope to those most in need of it.

The psalm ends with the ultimate promise: under the rule of such a king, God’s glory will fill the whole earth (72.19). This vision of God’s chosen king as the wise, healing ruler is then held up for the rulers of the other nations to see and be humbled. “Now therefore, O kings, be wise,” writes the Psalmist; “be warned, O rulers of the earth” (2.10).

This theme echoes down through the centuries and is picked up in the much later book known as the Wisdom of Solomon (6.1). The instinct for suspecting all rulers of corruption and self-seeking was, of course, fully recognised in the ancient Israelite and then Jewish communities.

The checks and balances that power requires were supplied through the strange and often dangerous vocation of the prophets. They, too, needed wisdom; they, too, were susceptible to corruption and deceit. When a bad king seeks advice from a false prophet, the people should tremble (as we see, for instance, in 1 Kings 22).

But, as a general rule, it was recognised that kings and priests (priests exercised their own kind of authority) needed to be held to account, and that prophets were the people to do it.

That was why the Second Temple period of Jewish life must have been so confusing to those who were prayerfully struggling to cling on to faith and hope. The ancient royal house had failed. No prophets arose to tell people what was going on.

And this was why, when there appeared a man who answered to the description of “prophet”, denouncing the present “King of the Jews” and declaring that any minute now the true king would be revealed, there was enormous excitement. Now, at last, people believed, God would “take charge”, would “become king”, in the way some had always wanted.

And when this prophet’s cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, began to perform powerful deeds and declare that God’s Kingdom was indeed being launched, the excitement overflowed. People in power took note. They watched with care and, we may assume, a measure of alarm.
Like our other main signposts, then, the theme of power can bring us back quite quickly to Jesus himself. In this case, in fact, to Jesus precisely as a true human being.

 

WHEN people exclaim that Jesus was acting with great power and authority, we shouldn’t short-circuit the process and assume that this means he was simply “being God”, but, rather, that he was being the ultimately obedient human being, the true king, the one put in authority over the world.

Jesus’s power was used precisely as Psalm 72 said it should be. It forms the model for all genuine human power. The long and often puzzling story of Israel thus reaches its climax (this is what all four Gospels are trying to tell us) in the life of this one man.

But not just in his life. Jesus explicitly redefined power in a famous passage, and he did so around his own vocation-within-a-vocation.

AlamyWilliam Blake: The Christ Child Riding a Lamb (1800). The lamb is drawn on by a young John the Baptist, with the Virgin Mary in attendance

He would bring the Genesis-based human vocation (to “dominion”) and the royal vocation (to “healing power”) to their climax through his own death.

James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came up to him.

“Teacher,” they said, “we want you to grant us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” asked Jesus.

“Grant us,” they said, “that when you’re there in all your glory, one of us will sit at your right, and the other at your left.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking for!” Jesus replied. “Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink? Can you receive the baptism I’m going to receive?”

“Yes,” they said, “we can.”

“Well,” said Jesus, “you will drink the cup I drink; you will receive the baptism I receive. But sitting at my right hand or my left — that’s not up to me. It’s been assigned already.”

When the other ten disciples heard, they were angry with James and John. Jesus called them to him.

“You know how it is in the pagan nations,” he said. “Think how their so-called rulers act. They lord it over their subjects. The high and mighty ones boss the rest around.

“But that’s not how it’s going to be with you. Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant. Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave.

“Don’t you see? The son of man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life ‘as a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10.35-45)

 

This is one of several major passages in the New Testament which offer this kind of redefinition of power.

The fact that many have preached on this text without noticing that this is what it’s all about — instead focusing solely on the very last sentence and treating it as a detached statement of “atonement theology” — is a symptom of the deep malaise that has gripped so much Western Christianity, a “spiritualisation” of the faith which makes it only about “me and my salvation” and not at all about the real world.

This, in turn, explains why many have supposed that the Bible has nothing much to say about the great issues of our day, of which power is undoubtedly one.

But the passage as a whole is very clear. Jesus is simultaneously affirming the God-given nature of power, challenging the regular corruption of it, particularly among kings and emperors, and redefining it around his own scripture-based vocation.

 

THE sovereign rule of God which he was inaugurating in his public career would be firmly established not through the kind of revolution that James and John had in mind, but through his own scripture-fulfilling death. That is one of the key biblical passages about power; another is Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that one of the underlying themes in that complicated and challenging letter is Paul’s confrontation with those in Corinth who wanted, as it were, to “make apostleship great again”. He disagrees, and sets them straight.

Although being an apostle of Jesus the crucified Messiah does indeed carry power — and power is necessary if the Church is not to collapse back into anarchic paganism — the power in question is that shown by the Messiah through his death and resurrection.

“When I’m weak,” he insists, “then I am strong” (12.10). The whole letter forms an extended meditation on that theme, applied with great subtlety and pathos.

I suspect that many in our churches, including many who think of themselves as “Pauline” Christians, are comparatively unfamiliar with 2 Corinthians, perhaps again because the Western Church does not expect to learn about power from studying the Bible. But it’s time we did.

The initial biblical answer to the question about power, then, is that power undoubtedly has an important place within the Creator’s purpose for the world, but that (like justice, freedom, and all the rest) it can be, and regularly is, corrupted in ways that seem to undermine any chance of its being a signpost to ultimate truth about God and the world.

But, in fact, power really is a signpost of that kind, since it points to the fact that the Creator intended, and still intends, that his world should be ordered, not chaotic; fruitful, not wasteful; glorifying to him, rather than shameful. And the central design the creator God has put in place to accomplish this is his delegation of his power to his image-bearing human creatures.

God is quite capable, of course, of acting directly in the world, though even then the Bible often reckons with humans’ being taken up into this work as well, if only by their lament and intercession.

But there are several hints in scripture that the design of creation — a world made by God to blossom and flourish under human stewardship — was a reflection of the secret, hidden truth about the Creator.

God, it seems, made a world designed to work through human agency, against the day when he would come as a genuine human to take charge of his world himself. Much theology of the past 300 years has struggled to emphasise the divinity of Jesus, and hasn’t been sure what to do with his humanity or with the question of how they might actually work together.

This is the answer, at least in principle — and, with this, the answer as well to our question about power:

 

He is the image of God, the invisible one,
The firstborn of all creation.
For in him all things were created,
In the heavens and here on the earth.
Things we can see and things we cannot —
Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers —
All things were created both through him and for him.
(Colossians. 1.15-16)

 

“He is the image”: that is, he is the genuine human being, and also, a few verses later, the one in whom all God’s fullness was glad to dwell (1.19). As Paul explains in the next chapter, “In him all the full measure of divinity has taken up bodily residence” (2.9). All power, then, belongs to God and is delegated to the Son — who then delegates it further, to the “thrones, lordships, rulers, and powers” of this world.

This is a challenging statement in our present political climate, in which suspicion and anti-authoritarian rhetoric have become the unthinking order of the day. But Paul (writing this letter from prison!) is neither naïve nor idealistic

Indeed, he says that God had “stripped the rulers and authorities of their armour, and displayed them contemptuously to public view, celebrating his triumph over them in him [that is, in Jesus]” (2.15).

If the “powers” were made in, through, and for the Son, they seem to have rebelled. They needed to be defeated and brought back into line. But when that happens, they are not abolished; they are “reconciled” (1.20).

 

I THINK we can go a step farther. It isn’t just that God has created a world in which humans are called to exercise delegated authority. It isn’t just that this seems to be because God always intended to come and exercise this power himself, in and as a human being.

It is also the case that this power-sharing, this delegation to a creature that by itself is weak, vulnerable, prey to sickness and attack by wild beasts, and limited in knowledge and physical power, speaks volumes about the Creator’s generous, overflowing love.

How easy it has been for people who have glimpsed the human vocation of exercising this God-given power in the world to “play God” — while forgetting that the God they ought to be imitating is not the God of naked, bullying power, but the God of generous, outgoing love, the power-sharing God, the God who works through vulnerable humans, the God who came and exercised his saving power as an utterly vulnerable human, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”, as the King James Version translates Isaiah 53.3.

One might even say that the abuse of power, which has caused so many in our day to regard power itself not as a signpost to the truth about God and the world but as an unpleasant and regrettable feature of the way the world really is (and perhaps even as an argument against the existence of God!), goes hand in hand with a failure in the Western Church and world to understand the doctrine of the Trinity.
It is through the mysterious truth that God the Creator always intended to come into his creation in and as a human being that we can ultimately understand what power is all about.

When, with the world in ruins, that entry of God-as-human into the world necessitated the most dramatic inversion imaginable of the normal concepts of power — Jesus coming into his kingdom through the shameful torture of the cross — we begin to glimpse that part of our problem with theology is that we have projected back on to God the various images of power we have gleaned from its abuse rather than allowing the vision of God displayed in the Gospels to reorient and realign all that we might want to say about God in the first place.

The whole New Testament insists that we only know who God really is — and, with that, that we only know what power really is — by looking at Jesus himself.

When Paul spoke of his own power as an apostle, the power of the Spirit at work in and through him, he insisted that this power, too, was displayed in and through his apparently shameful weakness.

If it is true, as we are told in various places, that God’s ultimate plan is to make redeemed humans his “royal priesthood” in the eventual new creation (Revelation 1.6; 5.10; and elsewhere), this delegated stewardship will itself be a matter of redefined power, the power of sovereign, self-giving love.

The more we anticipate this kind of power in the present, the better — not least because the broken signpost of power as we presently know it might find itself being mended at last.

 

This is an edited extract from Broken Signposts: How Christianity makes sense of the world by Tom Wright, published by SPCK at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop special price £14.99).

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