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.