Everything acts according to its nature – bar God?

I want to return to what I call the “hyperkenotic” view of God, that came into the explanatory model of much of theistic evolution via Howard van Till and, before that, Process Theology. The idea is that God emptied himself of his omnipotence, and even of his omniscience, with a view to acting responsively to his creation. In theistic evolution, this means allowing material substances “freedom” to evolve without the “interference” or “coercion” of an autocratic God.


As I’ve said elsewhere, the Scriptural basis for this is, largely, a massive over-projection of that wonderful passage in Philippians 2, which is a call to humble living on the basis of Christ’s supreme act of “emptying” in the Incarnation. This passage – and indeed all the Scriptures that point to the humility of Jesus – have to do with that specific instance of the Incarnation. To conclude from there that kenosis (emptying) is the main truth about to the relationship of God to creation, and even about his Being, is completely unwarranted.

I guess the reasoning behind such a deduction is something like this: in Christ we see God in human form. If we want to see God, we simply look at Christ, the revealer of God. Ergo, if Jesus displays self-emptying humility, then that too is what the Father is like. There’s some truth in that. Jesus is truly the revealer of the Father, and the self-giving of Jesus teaches us something new about God, beyond his sheer power and glory. Trinitarian theology explores this pretty thoroughly. Within the Godhead, there is clearly no jealously or defending of positions. The Son obeyed the will of the Father not only on earth as man, but in his willingness to come to earth at all. In that sense there is an assymetry between Father and Son that seems to be intrinsic to divine nature: the Father initiates, the Son complies willingly. Yet we also see the Father’s willingness to glorify the Son (as it were at his own expense), and Jesus’s constant assertions of his Father’s love for him. No divine child abuse here, despite Steve Chalke and the Open Theists. Of course, similar relationships are seen between the Spirit and the other two members of the Trinity: the Spirit self-effacingly furthers the work of Father and Son, yet is to be honoured together with them, and sin against him is the most heinous of all. There is much to learn from this.

None of it, though, simply equates to God’s putting the creation before himself as a matter of course. Even Philippians 2 itself does not say that. If we conclude that it is God’s very nature to empty himself, the Philippians passage has to be twisted out of shape. For a start, v6 says that “Christ, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (NIV). “Nature” is Greek “morphe” (or “form”), but we don’t have to be too picky with words here. A literal translation could be “subsisting in the form of God”, but the sense is clearly that Jesus, prior to his Incarnation, was existing in essentially the same way as the Father. And yet (rather than therefore) he empties himself. If it were God’s nature to empty itself in any case, what point would Paul be making? That the Incarnation was nothing special because kenosis was God’s thing anyway? No – he is contrasting Christ’s rightful (and actual) glory with his willingness to put it aside for us – or, as the text seems better to suggest, for God.

But then look at vv9-11. The Father is so pleased with his Son’s work that he … humbles him still further, so as to be even more like God? No, of course not. He returns him not only to his former glory, but to an all-surpassing glory involving the submission of everything in the whole creation to him. There is one sense (a glorious sense) in which the self-emptying of the Lord continues forever: having taken on mere human nature, he never again abandons it. The risen and glorified Son is also a risen and glorified man – there is a man in heaven. Jesus is unashamed to be called our brother throughout eternity.

Yet the kenosis of the Incarnation was neverthless only an episode between two pictures of Jesus dwelling in divine glory in eternity. The morphe of God becomes the morphe of a servant for a time, but then becomes exalted to the highest place, with every knee bent.

Aristotle said that everything acts according to its nature. And that truth seems very little in doubt. But if the nature of God (his eternal power and divine nature, as Paul describes it in Romans 1) has to do with glory and Lordship, as Philippians 2.6 appears quite clearly to imply, then to make self-emptying simply characteristic of God, is to say that God doesn’t act according to his nature.

Or worse, that it is the nature of God to act against his nature.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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6 Responses to Everything acts according to its nature – bar God?

  1. Gregory says:

    Hi Jon,

    Glad to see your continued challenge to the TE/EC view of divine kenosis or ‘hyper-kenotic view of God’ as you call it. One might draw a loose parallel with the Nietzschean/Randian view toward the weakness of Christ, rather than of God’s divine power and glory.

    Or as one of those talented Irish bands wrote: “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.”

    That said, I followed-up on your caution that “we donÂ’t have to be too picky with words here.” Actually, there may be a good reason to be careful about speaking of Divine ‘Nature’ in the sense of encrouchment of naturalism on ontology.

    I checked several translations of Philippians 2: 6 and the *only* one that uses ‘nature’ is the NIV. Likewise, out of curiosity I checked a few other uses of ‘nature’ in the NIV with other translations and it seems the NIV is most likely to use ‘nature,’ with the others using ‘form’ or even just speaking of Divinity (without involving nature). E.g. Romans 1: 20 = “his eternal power and Godhead.” If we are speaking of something ‘supernatural,’ why ‘reduce’ it is ‘natural’ language?

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10713a.htm

    Of course, I’m not an expert in linguistic analyses of Scripture, but it seems an interesting challenge, once one imagines that ‘naturalistic’ language sometimes intrudes where it doesn’t belong. Increasingly, this seems to be occurring nowadays. One might even suggest that kenoticism is flanked by (theologically-veiled) naturalism in the TE/EC position.

    Anyway, the linguistic curiosity led me here, since you pointed to Aristotle’s focus on nature and/or naturalistic logic: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/Physics2.htm

    Perhaps you missed this thread or were being provocative? 😉 http://humanextension.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/the_empty_nature_o/

    Your last sentence in the OP could then be re-worded, without the naturalistic linguistic bias, as: “God doesn’t act against Godself” or “God does not act in Self-contradiction.”

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory. I know your sensitivity for applying the word “nature” to what is not “natural”. But that wasn’t the issue here. For theological reasons the actual meaning of the words is important, because a lot of Christology hinges on it: in what sense was Jesus like God, or like man?

    But I was writing for those with an orthodox Trinitarian Christology, so used the NIV only because it’s common and what was to hand. My point was what (in terms of glory, etc) the Son was “like” before the Incarnation, rather than the manner of that likeness.

    FWIW “morphe” has quite a long association with “nature”: Lord Gifford (b.1820) says, “morphe is therefore properly the nature or essence, not in the abstract, but as actually subsisting in the individual… in the passage before us morphe Theou is the Divine nature actually and inseparably subsisting in the Person of Christ…”

    Etymologically thatÂ’s fine – the root is Latin “natura”, derived from “birth” and by extension the constitution of something, even God – naturalism has now loaded the word with more restricted content, of course.

  3. Gregory says:

    Thanks for elaborating on what you meant. It is interesting to see a post involving what Ted Davis refers to as ‘divine kenosis’ over on UD (http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/but-they-dont-feel-anything-professor-coyne/#comment-421164).

    Curious about what you wrote: “For theological reasons the actual meaning of the words is important, because a lot of Christology hinges on it: in what sense was Jesus like God, or like man?”

    Are you suggesting something like Jesus’ nature and Jesus’ character – the two combining to form/make the God-man (as in the eastern Orthodox notion of God-manhood)?

    I’ve been speaking with a theologian about this recently, the notion of tying one’s ‘ontology’ together with the ideology of ‘naturalism.’ Yes, there are parts of Scripture where we can speak of ‘the nature of’ humanity, e.g. ‘by our nature’; but there also seems to be intended a ‘non-natural’ or ‘personal’ aspect of humanity that is not captured in our ‘nature’ alone. The same is of course true with the Divine Creator.

    The TE/ECs that have embraced naturalistic evolutionism as ‘God’s way of creating’ are heavily biased towards natural-physical sciences and away from any notion of ‘intentionality,’ which Timaeus suggests is a major problem at BioLogos. He writes at UD, “There is no place for intentionality in its [BioLogos’] understanding of origins.” Let me suggest that this is because the fields that actually study ‘intentionality’ have been ideologically removed from the conversation.

    For example, Robert J. Russell, who Ted Davis references, founded the Centre for Theology and *Natural* Sciences. Thus, there is no inclusion of anthropology, sociology, politology, culturology, economics, linguistics or even religious studies in such an approach. The ‘intentionality’ of God’s creative action, reflected in human creative action, is difficult if not impossible to study within the natural-physical sciences.

    The big question then is: how can a natural scientist *not* be a committed ‘naturalist’ nowadays? I’ve yet to hear a convincing rebuke of naturalistic ideology by a (practicing) natural-physical scientist, that at the same time does justice to intentionality, creativity and choice.

    It seems to me that curing the ideological naturalism of natural scientists (beyond the over-simplistic MN vs. MN dichotomy that USAmericans love) will help those engaged in science vs. religion discourse, which really means natural-physical science vs. religion discourse, to overcome this Process-related (cf. Open Theism) ideology of kenoticism in its current form.

    Am I on the pitch with where you’re headed with this, Jon?

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Couldn’t have put it better myself, Gregory, so I won’t. You neatly show both the academic issue (NS v HPS) and the personal – that natural scientists find it hard to get past the prevalent naturalism of their field when they’re doing faith. I was seriously helped in that by the year of social psychology I did during a natural science degree – maybe it should be compulsory.

    The point on the meaning of words in Philippians is simply that if you take “image” as “appearance”, as the Christadelphians do, apparently hogging Google, you end up with a Christ superficially resembling God, and presumably superficially resembling a servant too. Whereas if “Morphe” is stronger (as I believe it is) Christ is truly God and truly man. The verbal association with “huparcho”, “subsist”, adds weight to that.

    I take your point about personhood too, which clearly resonates with the Patristic Trinitarian discussions of “essence” and “person”. “Morphe”, though, is clearly related more to the former more than the latter, since the Son’s personhood is distinct from the Father’s.

    But since I’m very rusty on the Patristic stuff I won’t commit myself to detailed discussion of the words, since even the Greeks and Latins found they meant different things by the same terms, and haven’t sorted it out 1600 years later.

  5. James says:

    It seems that fugitives from Biologos may find sanctuary here. May I join in the conversation?

    I can provide a bit more information regarding “nature”. The Greek word that is usually rendered “nature” (phusis or physis), is not found in the Septuagint (our surviving Greek Old Testament), and is quite rare in the New Testament. It’s never found in the Gospels, and in fact is found in only a few of the Letters. Where it is used in the New Testament — mostly by Paul — its usage is not always clear, in relation to its usage in Classical philosophy.

    It appears that the Hebraic mind could get along without a conception of “nature”. I don’t want to trot out the old “Hebrew vs. Greek” business which has been greatly exaggerated by certain evangelical writers, but it is true that “nature” — understood as a set of properties that things in the world just “have” — is not really a Hebraic idea. The Hebrew mind calls the collectivity of things “heaven and earth” rather than “nature”, and when speaking of the behavior of individual things, even what we now call inanimate things, speaks never of their “nature” but often of their behavior in relation to God — as if various things in the world obey, heed, defy, resist, etc. the desires of God. The best source for understanding this is an old one — Henry Wheeler Robinson’s *Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament*. Wheeler Robinson’s work is probably still the best available for understanding many aspects of the Hebraic view of (what we call) nature.

    In English, the word “nature” (which comes from Latin “natura”, itself the most common rendering of “physis”) has acquired a large number of senses, and, language being what it is, some of these senses are now so well established that it is impossible to reverse time and get rid of them. For example, we can speak of “the nature of political organizations” or “the nature of the modern university”. I think that Gregory might like to see everyone avoid uses such as this, and reserve “nature” for scientific discussions or wilderness trips, but I don’t think that is in the cards. And in any case, they are not completely out of line with the original Greek meaning. For the Greeks, the nature of a thing was something inherent in it, which directed it toward its proper end. Modern thought has often eliminated the notion of proper ends, but still preserves the sense of the internal or essential properties of a thing, which makes that thing what it is. So if we speak of the nature of political organizations, we are speaking of what it is that makes political organizations political, the inner essence of the political. We can similarly speak of the nature of economic activity, the nature of military alliances, etc. These things have certain inbuilt characteristics which makes the word “nature” justifiable.

    On the theological question at hand, I think Jon is doing an excellent job of criticizing some recent theological notions regarding kenosis. Yes, there is a self-emptying of Christ, but is all divine activity to be characterized by self-emptying? Is there never divine self-assertion? Traditionally, Christians have understood creation in terms of divine self-assertion, not divine self-emptying. To be sure, there is a mystical tradition within Christianity and Judaism which would see creation as the self-emptying of God, but it does not represent the main stream of Christian thinking. (That doesn’t make it wrong, but it means that any such claim must justify itself if it hopes to win wider acceptance.) When I read Genesis 1, its natural, unforced sense is to me one of divine self-assertion.

    There isn’t a lot of talk on Biologos about kenosis, as far as I can see. George Murphy, who rarely posts there, is the TE who has done the most with the notion. But I can see where Biologos might be able to use the notion, as it seems to imply that God’s creation consists in abdicating control over nature, giving it its “freedom” to develop as it will. That sets up life for unguided Darwinian change. It’s hard to imagine that the writers of the New Testament meant anything like this when they spoke of Jesus’s self-sacrifice or self-emptying. Jesus is portrayed as a faithful Jew, learned in Scriptures, and there is no evidence that he himself understood the creation stories in the Old Testament “kenotically”. Why, then, would we use Jesus’s self-sacrifice as an excuse for reading the Jewish Scriptures in a way that he himself never read them?

    Best wishes to all Biologos exiles and visitors here. This site seems to be the place where the serious issues raised on Biologos get discussed, in a way that is forbidden on Biologos. My hat is off to Jon Garvey for initiating this forum.

  6. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for the compliment and the stuff on “nature” James – most illuminating. The discussion at BioLogos has made it to a UD thread on which Ted Davis from BL has posted something.

    He, too, seems to promote this kenotic viewpoint, largely on the basis of theodicy. Because old earth and evolution greatly extends the problem of evil, the suffering Christ becomes paradigmatic for understanding it. Hence, other strands of theodicy like that in Job (and presumably those in the NT writers you mention: I’d include Paul in Romans 9-11) are essentially Band-Aid theology pending the Incarnation. Thus he says:

    That might have been the best God could do for Job, prior to showing Godself more fully in the Incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Those events certainly have implications for our understanding of nature–creatio ex nihilo is inseparably tied (IMO) to the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But, they were not available for Job to consider. Thus, the final scene of that great biblical drama is not very convincing [my italics]. IMO.

    Incidentally, in case posters missed earlier stuff on this subject, I think I failed to link to it. It begins here.

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