God's Need for Creation

“I think it must be lonely to be God,” begins a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks.[1] The poem’s narrator describes the elements of jovial companionship we relish as humans—the walks together, the slaps on the shoulder, the sharing of a Coke or a beer—and ponders how God can enjoy these relational interactions while striding “through the hall of His importance” to the accompaniment of creaturely praise. The poem’s narrator muses that “Perhaps sometimes He tires of being great / In solitude. Without a hand to hold.”

Of course, the doctrine of the Trinity challenges this idea. God isn’t actually alone in majesty; God is three persons, yet one being, subsisting in utter harmony and love. The traditional account is of One who is eternally a Father who begot a Son, who together with the Father (at least according to Western churches) breathed forth the Holy Spirit. And this act of generation and procession is eternal, constituting the being of God as three persons in perichoretic outpouring of life and love, with each person distinguished by this relation to origin, begottenness, or procession.

And yet Brooks and her preacher narrator get at something familiar. The poem rings true when we think of how most traditional theology depicts God as unfettered by external relationships and need, self-sufficient, and independent. And Brooks’s poem speaks to the concern that some liberation theologians have had over this traditional depiction of God: a divinization of the independent individual despite the tradition’s insistence on triunity. Indeed, as I will show, God never existed in isolation, and from God’s eternal initial act of self-constitution, God has existed in solidarity with the creation.


Buried in the depths of the esoteric quagmire of Karl Barth studies is a bitter feud over how the Reformed systematic theologian viewed the origins of God’s eternal triunity, and within that feud lies a proposal for understanding God’s being that counters this insistence on God’s absolute self-sufficiency. The proposal, articulated most thoroughly by theologian Bruce L. McCormack (and with resonance in the theological construction of the late Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson), grounds the gratuitous nature of God’s act of creation and incarnation in the primordial decision that originally constitutes God’s own being as triune.[2] That is, God is three because God chose to be a God of creation, covenant, and incarnation; God’s decision to exist in covenant relationship with creation logically precedes and grounds God’s self-determination to be triune.[3]

This debate in Barth studies begins over the question of whether God self-constitutes Godself as triune—throughout eternity, does God decide to be Father, Son, and Spirit or is God’s very nature triune rather than the result of a divine decision? The latter position suggests that in some sense God is necessarily triune, which means that God simply is eternally triune, and we can say nothing about a primordial decision of God to self-constitute in this way. One might argue, then, that God’s triune identity as Father, Son, and Spirit in loving union is essential to God, original, and prior to God’s electing decision to enter into covenant relationship outside Godself.[4] That is to say that God exists in interpenetrating, abundant love before God determines Godself to be a God of covenant. God’s triune nature grounds God’s decision to create and be a God of relationship with something other than Godself.

This traditional position, which was developed by Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and others, stresses that God would still be the same God without creation. God’s relationship with creation simply reveals who God was already eternally within God’s own inner life. Put differently, God’s action with the world shows us who God is eternally without the world. Furthermore, God’s being is in no way changed by or dependent on that which God creates. Theologians argue that God would have been the same identical God whether or not God chose to create, covenant, become incarnate, and save. God needs nothing and no one. Given that God is eternally self-sufficient, talk of the priority of election, or of God’s decision to covenant with an other as the founding decision of God’s triunity, is unacceptable because it postulates an eternal God as needing that which is not God, an eternal God who is originally not self-sufficient.

In contrast to this more traditional understanding is the position developed by McCormack, and adopted and adapted by others, which says not only that does God self-determine Godself as triune but that God does so for the sake of covenant with creation. Here, in one act, in one eternal decision, God self-constitutes as three for the sake of the covenant of grace.[5] Thus election—or covenant—logically precedes the decision for triunity.

Obviously, the language here is tricky; there is no real before with respect to God’s triunity. Yet we can still speak of an origin or that which is logically prior, that which founded what follows. This logical priority is similar to how Christians typically consider the Father as “prior” within the triune life, as the origin of Son and Spirit, and yet all three simultaneously exist as the eternal God. As McCormack explains, “God is triune for the sake of his revelation,” and God’s eternal being is “knowable because it is constituted by the act of turning toward us.”[6] Thus, God’s decision to exist in triune relationship is for the sake of, and as a consequence of, God’s decision to be in a concrete and particular relationship through creation, covenant, and incarnation. As Barth says in a quote much debated by his interpreters, “God Himself does not will to be God, and is not God, except as the one who elects.”[7]

This understanding of the triune life of God has significant implications for Christology. If McCormack is right that God self-determines as triune for the purpose of relationship with that which is not God, then God determines to be one who calls for relationship (Father), one who becomes fully human (Son), and one who empowers and directs the God-human toward the fulfillment of the call (Spirit). This position understands the Son’s identity as always directed toward the humanity to be assumed in the womb of (and by the fiat of) Mary.[8] The radical move in the Christology proposed here finds ontological need in the being of God, as the Son’s identity cannot be fulfilled or complete without the incarnation; the real human existence of Jesus, which necessarily includes his material body, is integral to the Son’s personhood. This was eternally the identity of the second person in the Trinity. There is no abstract Son or Logos behind that identity, no logos asarkos or Word without flesh. There only ever was the logos incarnandus, that is, the Word directed toward incarnation or going to be enfleshed. The Son is not an abstract divine person behind the decision to become incarnate; rather, the Son strictly is the God-creature unity that is Jesus Christ. This is specifically who the Logos is, the original free decision of God’s self-determination and constitution: to be a human on the margins, a human fully identified with those whose bodies are broken, stigmatized, and persecuted. No Logos stands behind this history, immune, protected, or different from this Jesus Christ.

This idea stems in part from Barth’s statement that Jesus is the subject of election. “Jesus Christ is the electing God. . . . In no depth of the Godhead shall we encounter any but Him.”[9] How could this be if Jesus is the God-human unity, whose humanity is formed from the genetic material of the first-century Jewish woman Mary of Nazareth? Yet from God’s eternal purview, the Son was always Jesus so that the electing decision of God always included Jesus by way of anticipation. Jesus is proleptically present in that eternal electing act.

Because the intention for creation is the precondition of God’s self-determination, it would seem to make creation necessary not only for God’s self-revelation but also for the fulfillment of God’s very being. God is never “unfettered.” Deep within God’s eternal being, God needs—God needs the recipient of covenant relationship, and the Son needs the humanity of Jesus (and thus material embodiment) to fulfill and complete the Son’s identity as the God-creature. McCormack does not shirk from acknowledging the necessity this perspective places on creation for the being of God: “Given the divine will to redeem, creation was made ‘necessary’; God had to become the Creator. There exists an ‘ontic connection’ between Jesus Christ and creation.”[10] The cosmos, then, is not an add-on to a self-sufficient God who existed in primordial loving relation within God’s own life. Rather, God’s very immanent life is determined to be for this cosmos to such a degree that God determines to be triune for the sake of this relationship. Not vice versa. God is not triune and then makes use of that triunity to enable revelation and the economy of salvation. God self-constitutes as triune in order to be in covenant and to embrace that creation within God’s very being. Barth even declares that in this electing decision, God determines not to be “entirely self-sufficient.”[11]

A covenant ontology goes beyond the mere claim, which might be more tolerable for its critics, that God is not self-sufficient because Jesus needed Mary to care for him. A covenant ontology goes so far as to claim that God is not self-sufficient within Godself from all eternity. Because God self-constituted to be no other God but a God of covenant relationship, a God for whom creaturely life is truly a part of God’s identity and experience in God’s second way of being, God needs the cosmos to fulfill the very being God determined to be. This means God is not “simple” as tradition has typically affirmed. Divine simplicity is set aside in favor of the affirmation that God as Son is composite, in essence, eternally as the God-human.

Yet, this position does not abandon divine immutability as many progressive theologies have done. In the eternal decision to self-constitute in this way, for this purpose, God does not change in receiving human, material life as God’s own. God self-constitutes for this composite personhood as Son from eternity. No change occurs even as the Son truly experiences the range of real human life as the Son’s own humanity. McCormack summarizes: “That Jesus has his being in the Logos eternally can mean only that the Logos is never without Jesus and that therefore God is a human God.”[12]

This also has significant implications for our understanding of human being. If Jesus truly is identified as the second person of the Trinity, then humanity is not foreign to the being of God; humanity can even be said to be jointly constitutive of the life of God in God’s second mode. Embodiment and humanity become essential to the being of God. Here, created materiality does not just exist in communion with the Logos at a point in time via incarnation; embodiment, rather, is essential to God’s being from all eternity because of the original act of God’s self-determination to be triune for covenant. Darren Sumner writes, “What seems to us a contradiction—that a created essence is made essential to the Creator—is maintained by the freedom of God.”[13]

On one hand, this understanding of covenant ontology I’m drawing on and extending is not terribly radical when compared to process theology or some liberation theologies that deny God’s omnipotence. Against those trends, covenant ontology insists that God still initially exhibits the freedom, aseity, and power to utterly self-determine, but that freedom and power is instantly limited by the eternal constituting decision to be a God of need, because God chose to be interdependent not only within God’s inner life but also in relation to creation. God still has a primordial power to utterly self-determine, yet God’s most initial eternal decision is for self-limitation. God chooses to be eternally constituted for relationship, bound by this self-constituting act; God chooses to be a three-personed God for the sake of covenant relationship with creation, directed toward an outpouring of Godself in incarnation and Pentecost. The form of God’s eternal life is determined by God’s decisive act for the other; the intention of the triunity of God is eternally founded in God’s decision for communion with creaturely life.


This proposal of course draws cries of protest from various corners. Defenders of the traditional account of the Trinity believe prioritizing election to triunity undermines the freedom of God. As indicated above, however, those working with McCormack’s proposal identify God’s freedom as expressed in God’s decision to be specifically this God, the God of covenant, the God of Jesus. God’s free decision was to limit Godself.

The stress placed on God’s transcendence and the idea that God would be utterly the same in nature, being, and character had God never created suggests for many an image of God in isolation. This sheer independence is a unique quality of God and is a sign of God’s power, sovereignty, and majesty. The assumption here is that independence is essential to God and that it protects a range of attributes or traits important to a Christian understanding of God’s nature and being. The insistence on God’s independence and lack of need is rooted in some theological commitments that claim the following: (1) if God needs, God is not sovereign; (2) a divine need would deny God’s omnipotence, which is traditionally claimed as a divine attribute essential to God as God; and (3) a divine need would mean God is not complete within God’s own self, and thus, this would mean God is not perfect.

These critics elevate God’s apparent lack of need to the level of God’s perfection; that is, if God needs, even if this need is self-imposed for the sake of solidarity with creation, then God is not truly sovereign. Surely such a model of perfection derives from the assumption that the highest form of being is to be unencumbered and without the entanglements of need. And that autonomous individual is also representative of Enlightenment visions of masculinity, all of which are bound up with wealth, whiteness, and ableism.[14]

But do God’s power, perfection, and sovereignty necessarily forestall a possibility of need? Is need only a sign of weakness, or might it point to something fundamentally good? Could interdependence not be a higher form of being than unfettered independence? Might interdependence be a value attributable to God’s glory, beauty, and love? I reject the assumption that need denies perfection, sovereignty, or even power. Why should we assume that a need denies God’s perfection if it is God’s choice to need? What if God’s need, God’s determination to be shaped by the gift of the other in covenant and incarnation, is a sign of God’s perfection? Why should we assume that insular existence is a preferred state of being or, more importantly, that it is a trait of the God revealed in Christ?

Another mode of critique complains that this proposal does away with the utter gratuitous nature of creation. If God self-constitutes to need creation to be complete in the Son’s eternal identity, then creation and incarnation are self-serving and not a sheer gift. However, in my view, if God has self-determined to exist as One in true solidarity with another, then constituting Godself as one who needs in some sense is what establishes that solidarity. And what is grace other than God’s presence with us, God’s gift of God’s own self in relationship to us. God is so gracious that God has determined to truly experience need, along with all of God’s creation. God chose such depth of solidarity that God experiences the vulnerability of need of another. Is this not an even deeper grace than the God of detached charitable giving? Why can grace be only such when there isn’t any need?

Here, grace is demonstrated in the very willingness to self-determine, to be intertwined in the web of gift and reception. God’s self-determination is the most original gratuitous act, not only a founding decision that constitutes God’s being as a being of love toward and within Godself but also a decision that establishes God’s triunity as for the other, as constituted to reach out to that which is not God. God’s being is constituted originally by and for grace, constituted for love, not only for God’s own self.

Barth warns that we ought not try to “limit in any way the solidarity with the cosmos which God accepted in Jesus Christ.”[15] God hazards God’s being on this venture, to establish God’s self as so bound to the cosmos, that God’s identity is shaped by and for this relationship. God takes creatureliness as God’s own, not foreign to the life and being of God but true to the eternal existence and identity of God in God’s second mode.[16] Solidarity cannot be offered or experienced from a distance. As Gustavo Gutiérrez has stressed, there is no solidarity without proximity and friendship.[17]

And friendship requires the sharing of life with another. Solidarity can’t exist in a missions model in which good works of charity are bestowed upon a person or community with emotional or physical distance. Solidarity requires an exchange of vulnerability in our life together, a sharing of need, an experience of interdependence, an awareness of gifts given and received by both parties, and a recognition of the full range of humanity and human experience of each together in relationship. Solidarity means sharing laughter and heartbreak. It is a friendship in which someone may teasingly “poo-poo your politics,” “slap you on the back,” or  “call you a fool,” as Brooks’s preacher suggests. And here in this divine ontology, God is not in solidarity through an incarnation that keeps real human experience cordoned off from God, as is so typical of two-natures Christologies that allow a communication of the divine life to the human in Christ while refusing that the human is experienced by the divine. God’s solidarity is not just a gift from above, so to speak, from a place where God is untouched and unaffected, but instead God chooses to never have that distance, to exist as one in solidarity from the eternal inner life of God’s being. Unlike the God about whom Brooks’s preacher ruminates, this God eternally establishes God’s being against loneliness, against the isolation of a God utterly alone “in the hall of His importance.” I don’t think “it would be lonely to be God” because God does not exist “in solitude, without a hand to hold”; God is in relationship with creation through the God-creature, Jesus, from all eternity.

[1] Brooks, “The Preacher: Ruminates behind the Sermon,” in Blacks (Chicago, IL: Third World, 1994), 31; originally published in A Street in Bronzeville (1945).

[2] The publications from McCormack on this topic are too numerous to cite here, but perhaps most importantly, see the initial groundbreaking essay “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92–110. Also see the first volume of an anticipated trilogy where he works out these ideas beyond Barth and in his own theological project: The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021). For a collection of essays from a variety of theologians and positions on the topic, see Michael T. Dempsey, ed., Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011); Dempsey’s introduction to the volume also provides a good summary of the development of the debate. And for Jenson’s work, see especially God After God: The God of the Past and the God of the Future, as Seen in the Work of Karl Barth (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1969).

[3] I explore this debate as it relates to disability theology with some overlapping material in “Disability and Covenant Ontology,” in Karl Barth and Liberation Theology, eds. Kaitlyn Dugan and Paul Dafydd Jones (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2022), 69–84.

[4] Those in the debate who oppose the priority of election will say triunity is “necessary” to God as a way to establish with clarity that triunity is in no way conditioned by God’s decision. God does not self-determine as triune; there is no logical way to speak of a before this. This is also a way to contrast the necessity attributed to creation in those theological projects that prioritize election; see for example Paul Molnar, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology, 2nd ed. (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2017), 153.

[5] Although in early publications McCormack seemed to give ontological priority to election, he has since indicated that he is speaking only of a logical priority—this is, one act with two terms.

[6] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 101 and 99; italics in the original.

[7] Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2.2, The Doctrine of God, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2004), 77.

[8] The fiat of Mary and the role of Mary and her humanity doesn’t figure much into these discussions, beyond a strong affirmation of Mary as Theotokos. Mary’s unique role in this understanding of the Son’s identity is something I am exploring in subsequent scholarship. For some hints at this direction, see Lisa D. Powell, The Disabled God Revisited: Trinity, Christology, and Liberation (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2023).

[9] Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2.2, 115.

[10] McCormack, “The Identity of the Son: Karl Barth’s Exegesis of Hebrews 1:1–4 (and Similar Passages),” in Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, eds. Jon C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2012), 170, quoting Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3.1, The Doctrine of Creation, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2004), 49, 58, and 51.

[11] Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2.2, 10.

[12] McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008),246. Italics in the original.

[13] Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2016), 204.

[14] Critiques of this Enlightenment ideal abound, and most readers are likely aware of how this vision has been enforced to devasting effect in various systems through history. Yet this certainly has no place in the reality of human life, where we go from utter dependence to need for assistance if we live a long enough life, despite how much Western ideals may seem to elevate this image.

[15] Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 4.1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2004), 215.

[16] See Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2.2, 161. Jones puts it this way: “God gives up thoroughgoing control over God’s own being” (Jones, The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics [New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2011], 98).

[17] See Gutiérrez, “Renewing the Option for the Poor,” trans. Pedro Lange-Churión, in Liberation Theologies, Postmodernity, and the Americas, eds. David Batsone, Eduardo Mendieta, Lois Ann Lorentzen, and Dwight N. Hopkins(New York, NY: Routledge, 1997), 69–82.