Above All gods

Divine Transcendence, Philosophy, and Empire according to Clement of Alexandria, Karl Barth, and James Hal Cone

Recently, I have been going through a theological transformation.  It has not been because of anything that I have read, well accept for the Bible alone, of course.  No really, but I have a renewed affinity and appreciation for philosophy, and more specifically, for Middle Platonism.

It all started when from something that I have been teaching the children at church.  At issue, my question every time I do a Bible study with them or give a children’s sermon, I ask, “Who is God, fundamentally?” Who is God according to the biblical authors, who were Jewish. I always like to go back to Jesus, when he said that God is Spirit in John 4:24 and the apostle Paul affirms this when he says to the Corinthians that The Lord is Spirit. But what exactly does this mean?

God is invisible; we cannot see God and no one has ever seen God except for the One close to the Father’s chest (John 1:18).  We cannot understand the Gospel of John according to the imperial polytheistic context of the Roman Empire.  The gods were like genies, just available to meet whatever the worshipers wanted whenever they desired, and they could see god every because of the number of temples and idols and household figurines.

Recently I have been reading Clement of Alexandria’s writings.  And up until now, I had always rejected any form of Platonism, in the name of it being “unbiblical” and “inconsistent with the Hebrew Bible.”  These are the types of arguments that you see from modern liberal and evangelical scholars alike.  However, within a polytheistic context, the Middle Platonism was quite subversive.  God in Platonisms is always considered to be Transcendent, above all categories first and foremost.  God does not have an identity, therefore any claim that God identifies, oh perhaps with empires, is FALSE!

Take for example, Clement of Alexandria, in 2nd century Roman Egypt.  While modern Christian scholars such as Michael Joseph Brown and Stanley Grenz see the Platonist tradition as having an antagonistic relationship with the truths of the Hebrew Bible, Clement of Alexandria understood Moses’s philosophy to be the foundation of Plato’s thought.  Clement argues in book two of his Stromata, “All the doctrines I have been discussing seem to have been handed down to the Greeks by the towering figure of Moses.”[1] Truth is not to be understood as a marketplace of ideas where ideologues best each other in a competition to win over their audiences; rather, while “ there is only one way of truth, but different paths from different places join it, just like tributaries  flowing into a perennial river.”[2] According to Clement, Moses and Plato both affirmed the spacelessness and timelessness of God.  Clement’s God “is beyond space and time and anything belonging to created beings. He is contained by nothing.  He is not subject to limit or division. […] He has nothing to do with space.”[3]

Certainly there are some issues when it comes to discussing the spacelessness of God and the Incarnation; but you see, the incarnation cannot just be a revelation of who God is.  There must be  saving purpose for the Incarnation, the notion that the Word became a fetus so that we can become children of God.  Clement knew that Greek philosophy had its limitations, but he used it in his criticism of Greco-Roman Egyptian polytheisms.  These polytheisms where what served as the back bone of Roman dominance over other nations.

Flash-forward to the 20th century, and in Germany where liberal Protestant theology held the theological landscape hostage.  This theology would serve as the religious preference of the German National Socialist movement; for example, the Third Reich soldiers wore “God is With us” on their uniforms.  Against the idolatry rampant in liberal German Protestant theology with its emphasis on the imminence of God’s presence in history, Karl Barth had to give an emphatic  NO! in his Epistle to the Romans.  There is no God but the God of the Resurrection; all other Gods, the gods of civil religion, are No-gods at all.  Barth says,

“Wherever the qualitative distinction between men and the final Omega is overlooked or misunderstood, that fetishism is bound to appear in which God is experienced in birds and four-footed things, and finally, or rather primarily, in the likeness of corruptible man–Personality, the Child, the Woman–and in the half-spiritual, half-material creations, exhibitions, and representations of His creative ability–Family, Nation, State, Church, Fatherland.” (page 50).

Like Clement of Alexandria, Barth was arguing for the transcendence of God to undermine the civil religion of the status quo. Clement was disgusted with the Roman empire and its false Fatherland, and its detestable family values such as endogamy (siblings marrying each other) and no-fault divorce). These were all idols that Clement protested, as well as Barth.

James Hal Cone, in his, Black Theology & Black Power quotes Barth and other German philosophers at length.  Cone did his disseration on Barth, to the chagrin of several contemporary Black theologians.  Yet, the early Cone is a Barthian through and through, and in that tradition, James Cone has questions for the US American empire concerning race relations, by arguing in favor of God’s transcendence.  He asks,

“Americans have generally agreed that Barth’s rejection of natural theology was a mistake.  Is that because American theologians still see a close relationship between the structures of this society and Christianity?  As long as there is not absolute difference between God and man, it is possible to view America as the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave,’ despite the oppression of blacks.” (page 87)

We see in all three instances of Clement of Alexandria, Karl Barth, and James Cone that the preaching of the transcendence of God, God’s holiness and Wholly Otherness, is necessary when the gods of this world claim to be sovereign and reveal themselves in the idols of empire, race, gender, and class. All of this from just trying to teach kids the basics of the Christian faith. Just goes to show you that the teacher is at the same time the student.

Truth and Peace,

[1] Stromata, Book 2, page 170.

[2] Stromata, Book 1, page 42.

[3] Stromata Book II, page 161.

6 thoughts on “Above All gods

  1. Brian LePort

    This is one of those areas of theology where there is a time to place special emphasis on some aspect of God in order to confront its neglect by the mainstream. While I am unfamiliar with Cone for the most part (not that familiar with Clement of Alexandria, and only partially familiar with Barth) I tend to agree with you here that these three spoke the transcendence of God into a context where familiarity had become an idol.

    Sometimes we need to remember that God is God and we are all under Him, first and foremost. Our doctrines and ideas are secondary.

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